Call Me Ishmael

Twenty odd years before Herman Melville penned ‘Clarel’ an epic poem on pilgrimage, he wrote  ‘Moby-Dick’, that wondrous mixture of fiction, natural history and social anthropology. Published in 1851, the book was a commercial failure. At the time the Nantucket whaling industry was already in decline and American readers no more wanted novels about whalers than the average 21st century European wants to read about the romance of petroleum engineers.

It was not until the early 20th century that Melville’s book started to gain a reputation amongst the literati as an exceptional work. It is a strange concoction with its narrator ‘Ishmael’ describing life aboard the Pequod with its crew drawn from across the seven seas, and interspersed within this narrative, whole chapters describing whale species and their habits. Later that same century, as the environmental movement rose and whaling was fingered as one of the great crimes against the natural world, Melville’s star once again fell and Moby Dick became a much un-read classic; a book that no longer matched our tastes and values. This cycle from obscurity to glory and back again lasted around 150 years, with only the name ‘Starbuck’, the cook aboard the Pequod sticking like a barnacle to our cultural hull.

And then, like a great white whale breaching against our bows, arose Nathan Evans a singing postman from Airdrie, tapping along to a whaling song on social media. Suddenly the whole world was watching, and joining in with lyrics which describe how, no sooner had the boat “hit the water, than the whale’s tail came up and caught her”. Not environmentally PC, and somewhat McGonagall-esque, but a catchy song nevertheless and in the space of a few days Nathan became an internet sensation, giving up his job as a postie and signing record deals hither and thither. Within two weeks, a small child of my acquaintance was downloading sheet music sent by their virtual piano teacher and learning the basic shanty in between on-line schooling lessons on the i-pad. 

Somehow, at the speed of sound, romanticising whaling was back in vogue and thanks to the internet, we were all singing along, imagining ourselves out of our COVID constrained cells, living as salty sailors on the high seas. Moby-Dick took half a century to become an overnight sensation, the singing postman, half a month.  The clock speed is now so fast that Moore’s law is looking very outdated. Anyone got any ideas for a replacement? Perhaps something along the lines of ‘Like a circle in a spiral, Like a wheel within a wheel. Never ending or beginning, On an ever-spinning reel’ … Hang on, wait, I feel another YouTube sensation coming on..

Nantucket – Image V.Preston

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