Heathcote Williams: Whale Nation


Poet Maureen Duffy celebrates the incredible impact of Whale Nation, which inspired an international campaign to ban hunting these mighty sea mammals.

I met Heathcote Williams in the early sixties when we were both young writers involved with a group who met on Monday evenings under the aegis of our editor, Graham Nicoll, who was responsible for a new list at Hutchinson’s called New Authors, which also included, at various times, Beryl Bainbridge and J.G. Farrell. I think neither of us knew then that we would become ‘animal nuts’.

By the seventies I had lost contact with Heathcote but become a supporter of the animal rights campaign, which was already trying to save the whale. I remember being part of a delegation to the Japanese Embassy where, as we stood on the steps with our placards demanding to be heard, the spokesperson sent out to deal with us said in answer to our pleas: “But you eat cows. Where is the difference?” Only the vegetarians among us could reply: “No, we don’t.”

Clearly at that time we weren’t successful at getting this particular message across, though we did do better with the anti-fur campaign! It was left to Heathcote’s Whale Nation to make the definitive case ten years later.

It takes time to produce and publish a heavily illustrated book like this, so Heathcote must have been at work on it while the great whaling debate was going on and before the worldwide ban came into force. What Whale Nation does is to make the moral leap acceptable to the public without anthropomorphising its subject. The whales sing, play, make love, while remaining essentially themselves. Their mammalian likeness to us is made clear without any Disney overtones. There is for me only one slightly dodgy moment when Heathcote speaks of the whale’s ‘smile’. In this unsentimentalised portrait of a whole biological order, in stunning photographs as well as verse, he casts doubt on the whole business of meat production and the carnivorous society.

Part of the appeal of the animals he depicts lies in their sheer beauty and freedom in their habitat. In his account we see what we are destroying. With domesticated animals, made docile by centuries of industrialisation, it’s easy to be unaware of their individuality or that we are animals like them. Heathcote’s whales fulfil Darwin’s point about “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful”.

Even before we understood their close relation to us, we humans had been fascinated by these great creatures: Jonah and the whale, the Old English riddles, the poem Whale, whaling songs and shanties, and above all Moby Dick, where the hero is not the hunting-obsessed human but his magnificent prey, the great white whale made all the more iconic by the very fact of his whiteness.

Heathcote deals very cleverly with the hunting aspect of his subject. Where Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick is a mad but personal crusade, a desire to exercise power over and exorcise a mighty, superhuman energy, and where whalers among Indigenous people, or 19th-century sailors under sail in vulnerable wooden hulls and small boats, could be smashed to smithereens with one great flick of a whale’s muscular tail, and where the humans are vulnerable flesh and blood like their prey, Heathcote’s factory ships are chillingly distant, almost invisible. There is no contest. The whale is as helpless as a lamb in the abattoir, prey to the captive bolt, the pithing rod. Exploding harpoons, mechanical grapples, metal drums of rotating knives – at least nothing is wasted except a life. It is the very enormity of the whale’s death that Whale Nation describes that churns the stomach, after the sounds of its singing, its play among the waves. Not struggle but slaughter.

We had hunted it almost to extinction. During World War II it appeared in British butchers’ shops as an off-ration alternative along with offal, sheep’s heads, brains and tongues. A survivor questioned on radio recently remembered it as “grey and gooey”. He was, I’m sure, thinking of snoek, meant to be the austerity alternative to cod. I remember whale meat as a bit tough and stringy with a slight fishy flavour but perfectly edible. Heathcote’s brilliant book succeeded in making the ban on hunting these mighty sea mammals palatable, so that today the whale nation is thriving – but only at the price of eternal vigilance.

Video: Whale Nation

Read by Roy Hutchins, who has since become a longtime producer and presenter of Williams’ work, right up to his last performed major work, Song, performed in at the Brighton Festival in Spring 2017, just months before Williams’ death.

Extracts from the Poem

Extracts from the book-length poem Whale Nation by Heathcote Williams – a poem that honours the beauty, intelligence and majesty of the largest mammal on Earth.

From space, the planet is blue.
From space, the planet is the territory
Not of humans, but of the whale.
Blue seas cover seven-tenths of the of the earth’s surface,
And are the domain of the largest brain ever created,
With a fifty-million-year-old smile.
Ancient, unknown mammals left the land
In search of food or sanctuary,
And walked into the water.
Their arms and hands changed into water-wings;
Their tails turned into boomerang-shaped tail-flukes,
Enabling them to fly, almost weightless, through the oceans;
Their hind-legs disappeared, buried deep within their flanks.
Free from land-based pressures:
Free from droughts, earthquakes, ice-ages, volcanoes, famine,
Larger brains evolved, ten times as old as man’s…
Other creatures, with a larger cerebral cortex…

Whale families, whale tribes,
All have different songs:
An acoustic picture-language,
Spirited pulses relayed through water
At five times the speed sounds travels through air,
Varied enough to express complex emotions,
Cultural details,
A sense of the unknown.
A lone Humpback may put on a solo concert lasting for days.
Within a Humpback’s half-hour song
There are a hundred million bytes.
A million changes of frequency,
And a million tonal twists…
An Odyssey, as information-packed as Homer’s,
Can be told in thirty minutes;
Fifty-million-year-old sagas of continuous whale mind:
Accounts of the forces of nature;
The minutiae of a shared consciousness;
Whale dreams;
The accumulated knowledge of the past;
Rumours of ancestors, the Archaeoceti,
With life-spans of two and three hundred years;
Memories of loss;
Memories of ideal love;
Memories of meetings…


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