Monday, July 13, 2009

Philip Hoare: Could a sperm whale have swallowed him?

Philip Hoare writes of his "whalehead" experiences in G2 today as winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for his whale-spotting tome Leviathan. On a dive in the Azores (for BBC2's The Hunt for Moby-Dick) he encounters a sperm whale. He writes: "Silhouetted against the blue, the whale turned and looked at me, eye to eye. It was the most disconcerting moment of my life." What the whale thought as it ogled Hoare is unrecorded. He adds: "Sperm whales are the only cetaceans which could swallow human beings, and have done so."

The implication is clear: Philip Hoare could have been swallowed by the sperm whale! Even a hardened, unfairly maligned cynic such as myself, shuddered at such a prospect. It's no way to end a prize-winning literary career. As reverse sushi.

But is there really a documented and confirmed instance of a sperm whale swallowing a human being? There's the old James Bartley tale: back in 1891, off the Falklands, the whaler was reportedly cut out of a sperm whale's tum after a night in (the tum). Aside from Michael Jackson-style skin bleaching from the beast's gastric juices, he was OK, if a little nonplussed. The story is now dismissed as a sea yarn. Other tales are the stuff of maritime myth, though it's not like little Pip to get his facts wrong.

I suppose had Philip been inadvertently swallowed by the sperm whale, BBC licence fee payers would have happily funded a whaling ship to hunt down the miscreant and retrieve the author, hopefully corpus intacta and alive, from its belly. Alas, the whale would not have survived the experience. The risks an intrepid experience-chaser takes for a good book!


Anonymous said...

Reverse sushi. Love it.

Ross Eldridge said...

Hello, Madame,

I dare say there are a fair number of Evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt of the USA who will swear that one Jonah was swalled by a Whale. God only knows if sperm was involved. I'm suddenly remembering a Health Class ... "Moby Dick, boys, is NOT a social disease."

For further information on Jonah and on what it's like to be swallowed whole by a whale, I recommend Stanley Holloway's "Jonah and the Grampus".

"Said Joe: 'I've eaten a few kippers, but never thought one would eat me!'"

Madame Arcati said...

Jonah was swallowed by a fish not a whale unless of course they knew no better in them days.

Anonymous said...

Tiresome sounding book to be sure. Custom made for the office bound.

Ross Eldridge said...

Hello again, Madame,

An Evangelical Christian would probably be most familiar with Matthew 12:40, which reads "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's body; ..." in the KJV. It's in red ink which, of course, we know JC always used.

It's "fish" in the Book of Jonah.

God was covering His bases.

The Jonah story is curious enough that one must wonder if it was based on another earlier legend, or fact.

Perhaps you or your readers know of another mythic great fish or whale that gobbled down a swimmer.

Anonymous said...

Blow it out yer arse. More acid please.

Anonymous said...

Sperm... Moby Dick... social disease. Oh, I get it. Cute.

The Old Man From The Sea said...

what fish could possibly be big enough to swallow Jonah ?. Unless he was very small man. If Philip Hoare had been swallowed by that whale it's possible he could have ended up on a Japanese whaler on one of their "experimental" hunts. Great material for another book.

Madame Arcati said...

The King James Version says whale. The New International Version (and English Standard Version) - "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

The late Fenella Fielding said...

Hoare's book is a thundering good read, the sort of real life adventure stuff Reader's Digest used to run extracts from, before that silly Sarah Sands imported Telegraph emigres and Nigella and ruined the mag. I don't think Leviathan was ever intended for the Madame Arcatis of this world. Stick to fusty old theatres, dear.

Scott of the Antarctic said...

Personally I prefer Dickens.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps your initial reasoning is the closest to why they wrote fish, MA darling. They probably considered fish anything that came from the sea (birds, mammals, mythological beings - you know, mermen and stuff).

Then again, with some of the giant things they have been fishing out of the ocean recently (like this huge squid) and all the talk of how a lot of the ocean fauna has extinguished in the last 2 to 3 centuries, it is very likely fish as big as whales existed only 3,000 years ago. After all it wasn't too long ago that turtles almost as big as Volkswagens were around ;-)