Waking up to a sharp frost and a sprinkling, if you can call it that, of snow these past few mornings, took me back to my summertime trip to Greenland, where the ice was a little more spectacular. It was an incredible place and I will write about it properly at some point, but for now here’s a little selection of long-overdue photographs of the town of Qeqertarsuaq on the wonderfully named Disko Island, one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited, complete with what must surely be the most spectacular football pitch in the world!
This article originally appeared in the final issue of Earthlines magazine, which was published in March 2017. I’m including it here with some further photos I took last Autumn, and a postscript about my recent fin whale observations in Greeland during July.
From way back in the dunes I can make out the pale mound of its outline behind a huddled melee of figures. At this distance it seems much less massive than the leviathan I was expecting: a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the second-largest species known to have ever lived on the planet, smaller only than the blue whale.
It’s an hour since the retreat of the tide. Bare canes form a borderless circle around the body of the whale – I suppose the rising waters washed away previous attempts to cordon people off – conferring an esoteric Seahenge element of ritual upon this usually lonely Norfolk beach. I approach with trepidation, surprised when no one prevents me from walking right up to where she lies.
She. I learn later that the whale is female. An immature animal 13 metres in length. She had come to rest here on the fringe of the North Sea the day before, lying parallel to the waves that are breaking 50-metres distant, her starboard to the sky. Her mouth is half agape, her right eye half closed. The point of her jaw is obscured, pressed into a claret-filled hollow in the sand. It is all quite visceral and overwhelming.
Excluding skeletons in museums, I have never seen a dead whale before. Earlier in the year several sperm whales were beached a little further west of here, around the coastline of The Wash. I contemplated going to look at them, to appreciate fully the size and grandeur of these animals I had previously observed tail-fluking and spouting off New Zealand, but decided I did not want to risk having those memories replaced with something tawdry. Today though I have given in to my morbid curiosity and am now close enough to touch a species I have witnessed with awe in the Bay of Biscay and, most memorably, beneath a sunlit midnight sky off the coast of arctic Spitsbergen.
When you watch a fin whale at sea so little of it breaks the ocean’s skin: just the top of the head and the shock of the blow – a vertical, pressure-blasted column rising up to eight metres – then a smooth arcing movement that reveals the uppermost part of the spine and the short, rear-pointing dorsal fin before it rolls under the waves; rarely any sign of the tail, and certainly no breaching of the water like you get with extravagant, show-off humpbacks. I think that the fleetingness of the encounter adds to how lucky, how mesmerising, the experience feels. Because it is luck, largely, if you happen to be focusing your binoculars on the exact section of the sea’s vastness just at the moment when a previously concealed sliver of whale happens to pop the surface.
Here though it is very different, and those underwater mysteries may be about to find resolution in the flesh. Above, her skin is pencil-grey with a hint of storm-cloud blue. Her belly is pale and etched with dark longitudinal lines. This is her ventral groove blubber, highly elastic tissue that can be expanded accordion-like during a fin whale’s gape-jawed lunge feeding, which draws in up to 70,000 litres of fish- and plankton-filled water in a single mouthful that is then filtered away through the tightly shut baleen plates, leaving behind perhaps as much as 10 kilograms of krill to digest. Up close these pleated throat grooves are beautiful, curving and sweeping along her underbelly like the caressing waves themselves.
The baleen is attached only to the upper jaw. Its ends are feathery and brush-like – it’s hard to imagine that it is made from keratin, the same material that forms human hair and nails, or that it once was prized as ‘whalebone’ to make corsets and the ribs of parasols. The rear two-thirds of this baleen are black, with the front portion coloured cream. Fin whales are unusual among whales (and vertebrates generally) in having consistent asymmetrical colouration: the right side of the immense head before me has an off-white jaw and lower lip, while the hidden left side will match the dark shading of the rest of her back; the baleen shares this odd, two-tone pattern. Scientists are not sure why this lopsided colour scheme exists. Earlier speculation that is was some sort of adaptation to the species’ lunge-feeding technique appears not to be supported by more-recent scientific research, though interestingly, like humans, the large rorqual whales are mainly ‘right-handed’, preferring to lunge with the right sides of their bodies facing downwards. Perhaps then, the fin whale’s asymmetric patterning just is.
The icy wind blows briskly, gaining in strength by the minute. Just offshore a pair of dark-bellied brent geese, winter visitors from Siberia, are labouring westwards. Peering into the whale’s mouth the tremendous tongue is quivering, making me wonder for a moment whether she is still alive, if I should step backwards in case internal vapours are building inside her already decaying body (there have been isolated cases of whale carcasses ‘exploding’ due to an excess of intestinal gases as the process of decomposition progresses). I realise, however, that it’s just the reverberative effect of the gathering breeze. I peer into her half-closed eye: murky, about the width of my fist, it seems to gaze straight into my thoughts.
More people are here now, including two film crews and a photographer from the local media. Staff from the Holkham Estate, which owns the beach, are beginning to unwind a coil of orange binding twine around the bare posts.
A late middle-aged man saunters past, while an acquaintance hollers at him: “Big bones here for your dog!”
The dog-man grins. “It stinks!” he says.
“No, that’s me,” his friend replies.
The sands are dancing, twisting in the wind and I want to shout across to the men, to try and make them appreciate the magnificence of the creature in their midst, to move them beyond the banal. But am I any different? After all, I’m here too for the ghoulish spectacle. I try to shut out the presence of others and study the whale, a final attempt to give my visit meaning because I can see that in a few minutes we will all be asked to move. A Land Rover is now pulling up, containing scientists from London Zoo and CSIP, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigations Programme.
I examine the animal’s topside in detail. Etched onto the skin, which this close is glossy and near-black like the sea in a squall, are markings that resemble spidery runes. The uppermost layer of paper-thin flesh has, in places, peeled away to reveal narrow rows of parallel horizontal lines below.
Occasional scattered gouges expose the harsh white of deeper blubber. The blowhole is not a single opening but two thin slits that form an incomplete triangle, sited just behind a ridge that runs forwards down the centre of the head. Most strikingly, about halfway along the back there is a distinct bend, an ugly unnatural angle from which point the whale’s stern, her tail stock, is noticeably wasted. The dorsal fin, often the most-telling tool when trying to identify whales at sea, is just visible through a puddle of seawater, its tip buried beneath the beach. I estimate its height to be only around a foot or so; it seems remarkably small compared to how I remember those of living, swimming animals.
Days later, after CSIP have conducted their autopsy, they post details of their findings online. The kink in the spine – the ‘abnormality’ as they refer to it – now appears to have likely been the result of a past traumatic event such as a collision with a ship. The subsequent damage to the whale’s vertebrae and surrounding tissues would have limited the range of movement in her tail, causing progressive muscle wastage in the area. This would have lessened her ability to dive and feed, leading ultimately to starvation, stranding and death.
I do not know this though as I look down upon her, and as the orange-stringed cordon is reinstated and I am asked to retreat. All I know is that here before me is something beautiful, something poignant. An animal I want to mourn for properly but am not sure how best to. I walk away as the scientists, now wearing disposable plastic overalls, begin to stride with purpose towards her.
At the strandline along the base of the dunes I spot a starling-sized black-and-white bundle of feathers at my feet: it is a little auk (Alle alle), a rare storm-blown seabird from the High Arctic, another species I watched, years ago, in a northern, Spitsbergen reverie. And I am in that moment once more, with the inverted sun glinting off the blue as the midnight whale’s swept-back dorsal fin slices the water ahead of our ship. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville describes the Fin-Back as “gifted with such wondrous power and velocity in swimming, as to defy all present pursuit from man”. Here, scuttled on the wind-whipped sands, she has not been so fortunate. I will prefer not to think of her this way, but streamlined and magnificent as she cuts and lunges through the food-laden waters of the Greenland Sea, vast flocks of auks whirring above her wake.
During a three-week trip around Greenland in July of 2017 I spent a lot of time thinking back to the previous October and the Holkham fin whale. Fin whales were the most numerous large whale that I encountered, with numbers in double figures on a couple of days. Memorably, on Disko Island, halfway up Greenland’s west coast, we were treated to a prolonged encounter with what was presumably a family group of fin whales, which fed around the ship and in front of the nearby numerous icebergs; at one point on the other side of the ship a group of humpbacks put on a similar show.
This mysterious communion, as they presented a sleek sliver of themselves to the sky, was altogether a better way to enjoy the beauty of these mesmeric leviathans than that storm-churned Norfolk beach.
(All photos © Edward Parnell)
I recently went on an organised trip to enter the Stanta Army training area in the wilds of Breckland, organised by the Norfolk Churches Trust, to see the four extant, normally inaccessible churches left in this forbidden zone. Here are a few initial images that struck me, most of which were taken in the faded, exquisite St Mary’s Church at West Tofts, remodelled by Augustus Charles Pugin in the first half of the nineteenth century.
I spent the afternoon yesterday looking around the Wellcome Collection in London. As well as all the medical curiosities and the excellent exhibition ‘Making Nature: How we see animals’, I was particularly intrigued by the various antiquarian reminders of human transience, and of the frailties of the flesh and spirit.
Here are a few rather macabre examples.
A version of this article was first published on the #FolkloreThursday website in August 2016.
A couple of month’s ago I was lucky enough to find a slightly worn-looking antiquarian book in one of my local charity shops. As I have an interest in folklore, the faded gold-gilt title on the book’s burgundy spine was instantly appealing: A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, Part I: Traditional Games, Vol. I by Alice B. Gomme. I happily paid the few pounds asking price, went home and began to delve into this fascinating late-Victorian title.
Born Alice Bertha Merck in London in 1853, the daughter of a master tailor, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography we know little of Alice’s life until, aged 22, she married on 31 March 1875. Her husband, (George) Laurence Gomme, was a keen folklorist and prolific author on the subject, and later President of the Folk-Lore Society – he was knighted in 1911 for his services to London County Council, whereupon Alice became Lady Gomme.
Alice Gomme’s reputation as a folklorist has not, until recently, been fully recognised. In their preface to the seminal The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Opie and Opie: 1959), the authors note that Alice Gomme’s classic two-volume text has a rural bias, and that the book was already out of date when it was published, largely relying on distant recollections from Gomme’s correspondents. This seems to me though to be a little uncharitable, given the obvious depth of research that jumps off the pages when browsing through the first volume (covering Accroshay–Nuts in May) that I’m currently holding.
In any case, to me, as an interested dabbler in the field, the single volume I own has opened up a fascinating path into the subject of childlore. And in this short essay I’d like to share a few of the ‘tunes, singing-rhymes, and methods of playing’ that this remarkable woman – mother, folklorist, active suffragette, lecturer and writer, and expert in Elizabethan stage methods – collected towards the end of the Victorian period.
Oldies but goodies
Flicking through the comfortingly thick and musty-smelling pages, it’s interesting that many of the games are ones – or at least variants of – I remember from my own childhood. As well as universal favourites like ‘Cat’s Cradle’ [Image 4](a game, Gomme notes, ‘known to savage peoples’) and ‘Blind Man’s Buff’, Gomme dedicates several pages to ‘Hide and Seek’, surely one of the classic, perennial childhood amusements. What, though, I had no idea about was the large numbers of associated localised rhymes and rules surrounding how it was formerly played. In Scotland for instance, Gomme states, the game was called ‘Hopsy’ and played only by boys, while in Leicestershire it was called ‘Hide and Wink’, and in Dorset ‘Hidy Buck’.
Reading Gomme’s book alongside Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, it strike me just how mysterious childlore is. The Opies, in particular, stress how certain games and rhymes have been around for centuries, evolving and travelling between different areas of Britain (and beyond). And yet, the means by which these childhood customs arose and were later propagated seems elusive. Many of the traditions that Gomme describes seem equally hard to pin down from her brief descriptions. I’m drawn to the game of ‘Bandy-hoshoe’, probably because she states it is a common game in my home county of Norfolk. And yet, her brief description leaves me little the wiser about what actually took place during the play, though it appears to be a variant on hockey or golf – something, at least, that involves hitting a ball or similar object with a crooked stick.
Alongside this unknown prototype sport, are listed many more localised games involving rhymes, dancing, rituals, or just plain nonsense. Many are equally hard to get a handle on: ‘Dropping the Letter’ is an undescribed Suffolk boy’s game; ‘Jackysteauns’ is a game played by Cumbrian schoolgirls with pebbles; ‘Jolly Miller’ appears to be a verse game played in a circle, although the contributor, a Miss Keary, says: ‘How it ends I have never been able to make out; no one about here seems to know either’; ‘Minister’s Cat’ is a word game recorded from Gloucestershire and North Lincolnshire; while the Sheffield game of ‘Nip-srat-and-bite’ is delightfully described as ‘a children’s game, in which nuts, pence, gingerbread, &c., are squandered.’
Childhood games in the 21st century
There seems to be a widespread fear among older people – understandable to a certain extent, I suppose, given the way social media and new technologies change the way our children play and interact – that traditional games are disappearing. In April 2006, for instance, the Daily Express carried the headline ‘Skipping? Hopscotch? Games are a mystery to the iPod Generation’. However, fascinating recent research on the subject by the Universities of London, Sheffield and East London and the British Library seems to conclude that traditional children’s games are still very much alive and well (see: http://projects.beyondtext.ac.uk/playgroundgames/index.php)
Interestingly, while reading Alice Gomme’s book, my neighbour’s five-year-old daughter introduced me to a modern-day piece of childlore as I was gardening one afternoon. Called ‘Chicken or Hen’, the game, which she tells me she plays with her friends at school, involves picking a flower (or seed head) and then presenting it to the recipient, who has to decide whether the bloom best resembles a chicken or hen.
‘I don’t understand how it works!’ I protest, trying to read too much into the game’s simple rules, which only seem to require the briefest of identifications of said chicken or hen – albeit not an entirely obvious binary decision to make!
Gomme’s book now held in front of me, I turn to the letter C, but sadly the game isn’t listed there (nor in Opie and Opie); I try Google too but find no mention, which leads me to suppose it’s a local game yet to lay down deeper roots. And yet, given the vagaries of how these games appear to spontaneously arise and mutate, it seems entirely possible that in years to come ‘Chicken or Hen’ will, by some strange agency, take a foothold in the infant schools of Norfolk and beyond…
I look at the seed head I’ve been presented with. ‘Chicken,’ I say.
My neighbour’s little girl laughs at me like I’ve just said the most ridiculous thing.
‘It’s a hen!’ she replies.
Beyond Text (2009–2011). Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age. Collaborative research project.
Boyes, Georgina (2001). A Proper Limitation: Stereotypes of Alice Gomme. Musical Traditions Internet Magazine.
See: www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/gomme.htm [accessed 29 May 2016].
Gomme, Alice (1894). A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, Part I: Traditional Games. Volume I: Accroshay–Nuts in May. London, David Nutt.
Gomme, Robert (online edn, May 2006). ‘Gomme, Alice Bertha, Lady Gomme (1853–1938)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
See: www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/38616 [accessed 29 May 2016].
Gomme, Robert (2004). ‘Gomme, Sir (George) Laurence (1853–1916)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press. See:
www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/38616 [accessed 29 May 2016].
Opie, Iona, and Opie, Peter (1959). The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
University of Sheffield (2012–2017). Childhoods and Play. British Academy Research Project. See: http://www.opieproject.group.shef.ac.uk/
Last week I visited Great Livermere, just over the Suffolk border, the childhood home of M. R. James, whose father was the rector of St Peter’s Church in the village. James himself was deeply attached to Livermere, according to Michael Cox’s excellent 1986 biography, and it wasn’t hard on a rain-soaked, ghost-grey November day to see how the atmosphere of the place might have had an effect on the young Monty.
A friendly and very vocal familiar – the local black-and-white cat – came over to investigate what I was up to, before slinking back through the wet grass.
Various headstones bore suitably gothic reminders of mortality: skulls, bones and the like. Rich pickings, perhaps, for the young Monty to store away for later use? I myself felt a little like the character Viscount Saul from ‘The Residence at Whitminster’, so memorably described as “whimsical” and “given to moping about in our raths and graveyards”. Hopefully though I’ll manage to avoid the boy’s fate!
Visiting Salthouse on the North Norfolk coast last weekend, I was taken by the eerie flat light and these rusted remnants of a fence whose posts were desperately trying to cling to the shingle. I took some photos, realising when I got home that a couple had wandered into the right-hand edge of the shot, bringing to mind the end of M. R. James’s wonderful ghost story ‘A Warning to the Curious’.
Last Friday (21 October) I went to look at the immature female Fin Whale that had washed up dead on the beach at Holkham on the North Norfolk coast the previous day.
It was a very moving sight, something I’m going to write about in more detail in future. For now though here are some photographs I took, which I think capture something of the sculptural beauty and grace of this magnificent 40-foot animal, a species I’ve been lucky enough to have witnessed on several occasions at sea where essentially all the whale reveals of itself is its distinct tall dorsal fin and spectacular blow, wonderfully described by Melville as a “straight and single lofty jet rising like a tall misanthropic spear upon a barren plain”.
I’ve written a new article for the FolkloreThursday website focusing on A Dictionary of British Folk-Lore, Part I: Traditional Games by Alice B. Gomme , which is now live on their site. Check it out! #FolkloreThursday
(There’s quite a lot of folklore in The Listeners too, from retellings of the Babes in the Wood and Mistletoe Bride legends, to various local Norfolk superstitions including lantern men and the Devil’s Pit, as well as all sorts of odd stuff that William believes in. I’m not sure how much childlore there is – William is too busy roaming the woods on his own to engage with any!)
Gunnar Jaeck has just posted an excellent, and very interesting, review of ‘The Listeners’ on his website, Metal Reality. Click here to read it. And also have a look around the rest of the site while you’re there. It’s definitely metal, as well as also pretty mental (and I mean that in the positive adjectival sense that was widely in use when I was in school!).
Less metal, but more classic condiment: I was interviewed on Norwich’s local TV station, Mustard TV, a couple of weeks ago, where I talked about this year’s Wymondham Words with my Festival co-director, Moniza Alvi, and also read from ‘The Listeners’ (complete with funky sepia video effects!). Here’s a link to the item, though I don’t know how long it will stay live.