Book Review

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

[sing "I am whaling" to the tune of Rod Stewart's 'Sailing']

As I have probably mentioned before, I find whaling fascinating. Not whales, not the contemporary, mechanised cruelty of the modern industrialised whaling industry, but the proper Moby Dick kinda stuff. I like the danger of it, the risk of it, the fact that, before people had access to modern, post-World War armaments and steel boats, it was kinda a fair fight. Like bullfighting never manages to be, whaling was actually the human against the animal, with the victory of the little primates far from guaranteed.

We are a dirty species, violent, cruel, but we are also resourceful. When we used to kill whales, we would get proper nose to tail usage. The bones would go into clothes, the oil would go into lamps, that weird stuff that was like whale precum or something would go into perfume. And some of it would go into margarine. Bits of it would be used as industrial oil, and the whole thing got consumed. Whaling was high risk in the times when whaling interests me, and it is with some satisfaction that I read about whales that escape and whalers that die, when I stick my head into these seafaring narratives. I am not on the side of the whalers, but nor am I on the side of the whales. I am on the side of life, or death, or maybe the sea. I want the sea to get its blood, and I want that blood, ideally, to be human.

The death of a whale is a tremendous thing, calamitous, too, especially now. When a dead whale washes up on a beach it is an event, it is national news. The last time it happened in the UK, I planned a day trip to Skegness to see the carcass before it was destroyed, though ended up having a massive party and sleeping in until mid afternoon so had to hightail it northwards and didn’t get to the whale until it was dark. Still, I was able to witness its bulk on the grim beach, I was able to see its tiny eyes, and I was able to feel the colossal reek of the rot oozing out of it, downwind. Lots of people visiting had dogs with them, and all the dogs were nervous. Not nervous, freaking out. Like they could see this massive fucking animal, they could smell and sense its death, but also its marine stench. The smell wasn’t something they’d encountered before, the smell wasn’t something familiar or safe. The smell was from the deep, from the depths of the sea and it offered a smell and a certainty of an unknowable way of living, of a different, alternate, plane.

Cetaceans are clever. They are wise animals that – when not victims of humanity – live long lives. They have long memories and long dicks and they have great strength. Beached whales die not because they need water to breathe, but because they are so fucking heavy that without water holding them up, their own bulk squashes their internal organs. It’s a horrible way to die, but it’s such an alien way to live. Forever floating, like in the womb, forever moving and singing and playing. Whales travel, whales see the world. Whales communicate in what is probably language: every whale has an individuality to it, a personality, a soul.

Rush Oh! Is a 2015 novel by Shirley Barrett, an Australian filmmaker. It is the fictional memoir of Mary Davidson, the daughter of a locally-renowned whaler working out of Eden, somewhere in Australia. Written in her late forties as she lives, unmarried, with her younger sister and her family in larger town in the 1930s, the narrative is mainly focused on the whaling season of 1908, though there are lots of leaps and references to all the events that happened in between, especially the fates of those who are dead by the present of Mary’s writing.

1908 is an unsuccessful whale season. They kill a few whales, but not many. Some other plot points:

  • Mary’s local belle sister gets pregnant by a dashing, aboriginal boy (#scandal);
  • Mary falls in love with a man who may or may not be a conman;
  • Mary’s ageing uncle sits inside a whale carcass for days in the hope it will improve his physical condition;
  • The family buys food on credit as they pray for a cash-giving whale;
  • The daughters see their first whale chase and are horrified and disgusted by its violence.

Yeah. Rush Oh! is an engaging novel about a very dead and very gone lifestyle, and though it is evocative, there is an authorial ambiguity towards the ethics of whaling that feels a bit self-effacing. Barrett has written a sympathetic narrative about a family of whalers, there isn’t very much judgement though perhaps Barrett feels there should be. Obviously, the writer has a much more intense engagement with whaling than I do (she’s written a book about it!), the author’s note at the end implies a greater moral ambiguity than there needs to be.

Whaling – like fox hunting, like fur, but UNLIKE leather and the industrialised farming practices used to make burgers and sausages – is one of those things that hypocrites get angry about. You cannot object to whaling if you eat mass-produced sausage. You cannot criticise fur while wearing leather shoes. People get fucking stupid about whales, the same kinda people who eat pigs. Now, I’m not saying that everyone should go vegan or vegetarian, but I am saying that a hierarchy of animals that is based NOT ON EVIDENTIAL INTELLIGENCE but is instead based on CULTURAL NORMS OF WHAT IS EATEN is the behaviour of a dickhead. Pigs are more alive, psychologically, than rabbits. If you care about the violent deaths of intelligent animals, don’t eat pork. If you don’t care about the violent death of intelligent beings which – let’s face it, you probably don’t – don’t object to whaling or fur, in the same way you don’t object to the bloodshed involved in, for example, the cocaine trade.

Barrett has written a fun, gently moving, novel about a dead industry, but appends it with a somewhat sad sense of shame at having done so. There’s nothing to be ashamed about, imo. Do some research into rare earths, readers, if you’re reading this on a smartphone and hate whaling. There is nothing we do in this awful mechanised world that is free from bloody consequence.

Nice.


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