Book review: The Two-Headed Whale, by Sandy Winterbottom

Focusing on the post-war whaling industry, this book is rare in extending as much empathy to human workers as to cetacean mysteries, writes Stuart Kelly

There is a story – quite possibly apocryphal – about WG Sebald having to choose the descriptors for The Rings Of Saturn. Descriptors have fallen into desuetude, but they used to be a useful crib for booksellers on the back of a book: this is “history memoir” or “science travel”. It was customary to have up to three, and Sebald looking over the list of possibilities purportedly said “Can’t I have them all?” There was a point where the idea of hybrid non-fiction was eccentrically thrilling. Nowadays, it is practically mandatory. So this book – sans descriptors – has an endorsement lauding its combination of “memoir, natural history, travelogue and imagined recreation”. To which might be added polemic, industrial history, nautical writing, elegy and ecology. It is subtitled “Life and Loss in the Deepest Oceans”, and ricochets between awe and anger in equal measure. In many ways this is no bad thing; parts of the book I found enthralling and parts infuriating.

The rough outline is that the author decides, for personal reasons, to go to the Antarctic – her husband suffers from anxiety, and she maintains that “sometimes it was just too damn sad, and I was in danger of being dragged under too”. In one cadenza, speaking to a crew-mate on the Europa, she explodes in exasperation about 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, rebirthing, reflexology, yoga, turmeric, turkey, SAM-e, Omega-3, raw-food diets, gratitude diaries – or have you thought about therapy?” This is the kind of writing that is perhaps better suited to an essay; in the context here it seems a little solipsistic.

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While 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 the factory ships were negotiating whether there was still a market for products flensed and boiled from whales. The whale has a certain cachet – I am sure most readers will remember “Save The Whale” – yet one of the virtues of his book is that as much empathy is extended to the human workers as to the cetacean mysteries. There is an obligatory nod to Moby-Dick, but Melville’s novel is far more intricate about the sheer mechanisation of the whaling ships, and, indeed, about the whales themselves. (Other whale books are available, such as Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation, which I remember being something of a sensation in the late 1980s).

Sandy Winterbottom
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The most problematic part of the book is the reconstruction of deck-galley boy Tony Ford’s life. Some stylistic choices affect this. Winterbottom has decided to write these in the second person and the present tense; for example, “You follow the path south from Leith Harbour, out past the football pitch where the king penguins hang around when moulting. You climb the steep hill up to Hansen Point and stop on a sandbagged platform overlooking Stromness Bay…” The use of “you” is more distancing than intimate, and the present tense is fashionable. But the key point is that it somehow makes it all taste of fiction. It might have been a better idea to disentangle the two books. One might have been a travelogue and environmental study; the other might have been a fiction set on the whaling ships. Moreover, the fact that Ford was a real person – and indeed Winterbottom meets relatives – makes the imposition of fiction morally problematic as far as I am concerned. The author doesn’t know these things actually happened, and a work of pure invention need not trouble itself with such qualms. The book includes its own self-justification: “We’ll never know the whole truth. We can only imagine”. That strikes me as a little pat for a tragedy.

I cannot give away the circumstances of Ford’s death, but it is striking that homesickness is such a feature of the book. By that I do not mean the Portuguese saudade. We now think of “nostalgia” as being the thwack of willow on leather and floral prints, but it was originally a recognised psychiatric disorder. It was prevalent amongst soldiers in particular, and though the whalers were not in the military, they saw their fair share of blood and suffering and death.

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The polemic is strident and contradictory. At one point Winterbottom writes “Why must we strive always? Where the f**k does striving 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 crossed the globe. I would argue that if we are to change we have to strive, because the opposite is apathy and surrender.

There is much to admire in this strange jumble of a book, and equally there is a lot that could have used a blue pencil. Some of the “nature writing” is clogged with description – “a giant cinder cone the colour of paprika with splashes of sulphurous turmeric” appears on the same page as “budgerigar-blue”, “jet-black basalt” and “ochre-red guano”. As for the title – it turns out to be true. But there’s a bicephalous lamb pickled in Hawick’s Wilton Museum as well.

The Two-Headed Whale, by Sandy Winterbottom

The Two-Headed Whale, by Sandy Winterbottom, Birlinn, £14.99