There is a story – most likely apocryphal – about WG Sebald having to choose the descriptors for the Rings of Saturn. Descriptors have fallen into disuse, but they were once a useful cradle for booksellers on the back of a book: it’s “historical memory” or “scientific journey”. It was customary to have up to three, and Sebald looking at the list of possibilities allegedly said “Can’t I have them all?” There was a time when the idea of hybrid nonfiction was eccentrically exciting. These days, it’s practically mandatory. Thus, this book – without descriptors – has an approval praising its combination of “memoir, natural history, travelogue and imaginary leisure”. To which are added polemics, industrial history, nautical writing, elegy and ecology. It’s captioned “Life and Loss in the Deepest Oceans”, and ricochets between fear and anger in equal measure. In many ways, that’s not a bad thing; parts of the book that I found exciting and parts maddening.
The rough pattern is that the author decides, for personal reasons, to go to Antarctica – her husband suffers from anxiety, and she maintains that “sometimes it was just too damn sad, and I risked being dragged in too “. In a cadence, speaking to a teammate on the Europa, she explodes in exasperation over all the supposedly helpful advice on “SAD lamps, CBT, cannabis oil, gut bacteria, exercise , St. John’s wort, acupuncture, magnesium, mindfulness, fluoxetine, sertraline, mescaline, fire walking, revival, reflexology, yoga, turmeric, turkey, SAM-e, omega-3, raw diets, journals out of gratitude – or have you thought about therapy?” That’s the kind of writing perhaps best suited for an essay; in the context here, it seems a little solipsistic.
In the southern hemisphere, she encounters the grave of a young Scotsman, who died and was buried in South Georgia. The man – Anthony Comminsky Ford – was a whaler in the post-war period, when factory ships negotiated whether there was still a market for skinned and boiled products from whales. The Whale has a certain cachet – I’m sure most readers will remember ‘Save The Whale’ – yet one of the virtues of his book is that it empathizes as much with the human workers as with the mysteries of the cetaceans. There’s an obligatory nod to Moby-Dick, but Melville’s novel is far more complex about the sheer mechanization of whalers and, indeed, the whales themselves. (Other whale books are available, such as Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation, which I remember causing a stir in the late 1980s).
The most problematic part of the book is the reconstruction of the life of Tony Ford, the galley-bridge boy. Certain stylistic choices influence this. Winterbottom decided to write them in the second person and present tense; for example, “You follow the path south from Leith Harbour, past the football pitch where the king penguins hang out when they molt. You climb the steep hill to Hansen Point and stop on a platform of sandbags overlooking Stromness Bay…” The use of “you” is more distant than intimate, and the present is at the fashion. But the key point is that it sort of tastes like fiction. It might have been wiser to untangle the two books. One could have been a travelogue and an environmental study; the other could have been a fiction set about whalers. Also, the fact that Ford was a real person – and indeed Winterbottom meets relatives – makes the imposition of fiction morally problematic as far as I’m concerned. The author does not know that these things really happened, and a work of pure invention need not bother with such scruples. The book includes its own justification: “We will never know the whole truth. We can only imagine”. Sounds like a small pat for a tragedy to me.
I can’t divulge the circumstances of Ford’s death, but it’s striking that homesickness is such a feature of the book. I don’t mean the Portuguese saudade. We now think of “nostalgia” as the sound of willows on leather and floral prints, but it was originally a recognized psychiatric disorder. It was especially prevalent among the soldiers, and even though the whalers weren’t in the military, they saw their fair share of blood, suffering, and death.
The controversy is strident and contradictory. At one point, Winterbottom writes, “Why do we always have to strive? Where the hell does stress ever get us? What drives our need to explore when perhaps the most important things are on our doorstep? – rather ironic for someone who has just traversed the globe. I would say that if we want to change, we have to strive, because the opposite is apathy and abandonment.
There’s a lot to admire in this strange jumble of a book, and there’s also a lot that could have used a blue pencil. Part of “nature’s writing” is obstructed by description – “a giant paprika-colored cinder cone with splashes of sulphurous turmeric” appears on the same page as “blue parakeet”, “black basalt of jet” and “ochre-red guano”. As for the title, it turns out to be true. But there is also a pickled two-headed lamb at the Wilton Museum in Hawick.
The Two-Headed Whale, by Sandy Winterbottom, Birlinn, £14.99