Thursday marks the 200th birthday of Herman Melville – the author of the greatest unread novel in the English language. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen eyes glaze over when I ask people if they have conquered Moby-Dick. It is the Mount Everest of literature: huge and apparently insurmountable, its snowy peak as elusive as the tail of the great white whale himself.
Having grown up loving whales as a boy – in the era of the Save the Whale campaigns of the 1970s – I was underwhelmed when I watched John Huston’s grandiose 1956 film, Moby Dick. Perhaps it was because I saw it on a tiny black-and-white TV, but the whole story seemed impenetrable to me. And there weren’t enough whales. I would have been even less keen had I known that the whale footage Huston did include had been specially shot off Madeira, where they were still being hunted. For the Hemingwayesque director, there was none of that final-credit nonsense: “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.” Because they very much were.
Years - Whales - Provincetown - Whaling - Port
Forty years later, I saw my first whales in the wild, off Provincetown, a former whaling port on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was there, in New England, that I finally finished the book. What had seemed to be a heroic tale of the high seas proved to be something much darker and more sublime. I realised its secret. Not only is it very funny and very subversive, but it maps out the modern world as if Melville had lived his life in the future and was only waiting for us to catch up. I fell in love with Melville as much as I had fallen in love with the whales. My own five-year-long voyage searching for these magnificent creatures produced...
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Aim and timing is evereything.