Of Whales and Men.

A delightful account of a ship’s doctor on an 8-month cruise of a whaling factory ship, with something of a psychological emphasis on the men he was with.

p. 20-21, conversation with wireless-operator from industrial Ireland, following Robertson’s question of how the young man got involved in whaling:

Damn it all, man, my grandfather was chief harpooner of the Arctic, the first whaleship that went through the Davis Strait. When he got back, he put the oar on his shoulder, Odysseus fashion, and marched inland. I reckoned it was time the oar was wetted again.

“You’ve read your Homer, then?” I asked him veiling as best I could the astonishment these whalemen were beginning to produce in me.

“Of course!” He was astonished as I was. “Haven’t you?”

p. 62-63, Robertson at Stromness on South Georgia: wanted to know what there was to amuse and occupy the whalemen, and attend to their health and cultural welfare, when the gratuitious entertainment and recreation provided by nature was denied them.

My two guides looked abashed: there was practically nothing to show. The ‘library’ consisted of two or three shelves of books provided by that gallant but poverty-stricken organization, the Seaman’s Education Service, and by such funds as the whalemen contributed themselves. …

p. 72-73: I demanded more information. I wanted to know about ‘pin-ups,’ masturbation, homosexuality, and all the other sexual outlets and aberrations that I had encountered among bodies of healthy young men isolated in camps and prisons and the like.

My three informants continued their report: ‘Pin-ups’ among the whalemen were few, and, if put up at all, showed fair artistic taste and were seldom simply sexually stimulating and never lewd. On the other hand, there was an insatiable demand among the isolated men for pornographic literature, even to the extend…that some Scottish whalemen would study and learned the Norwegian language simply that they might read with some understanding the Norwegian sex books, which, it was generally agreed, were of a higher or at least more stimulating standard than their own, Masturbation, my informants all agreed, was rampant.

[Goes on to talk of homosexuality (not very visible) and why they collected huge penises of the blue whale: “they make the finest golf bags in the world.”]

p. 83-8, on poetry and prose in whaling literature; says there is little poetry but Eliot’s “third person” in the Waste Land is evoked as a comparison to Shackleton.

p. 175-76: Nevertheless, there were small touches of romance even amid the separating-machinery and the grimy men who worked it. Some of their books showed flashes of it. Mostly they were reading what Gyle called “whodunits” and ‘duzzieshaggers,” two classes of literature which made up the bulk of our ship’s library, but occasionally in a corner of the machinery we would come across a man on a stool reading Shakespeare, or studying paleontology, or learning an obscure foreign language. And I knew at least one whose reading was confined to the Greek classics, and another for whom even ten seasons in the bowels of a factory ship had not destroyed the romance of medieval poetry. He was immersed in Beowulf on this occasion when we found him, but cheerfully left that hero awhile to talk to us on whale oil….

p. 186, Christmas conversations: Macdonald and the chief electrician argued the merits of Rudyard Kipling as a poet; and the second radio-operator hauled a copy of the Golden Treasury out of his pocket to help them decide on the points at issue. …

p. 227, Robertson’s advice to future ship’s surgeons: I would advise him to take his own library. He will find many books worth reading in the ship’s small library at his first visit, but he will never see them again, except in quaint and unexpected places, for he must realize that there are many intelligent and educated men even among the Whaler Group VIII’s. I have seen, for example, the ship’s only copy of Ibsen’s plays lying for weeks, and well read, beside the bed of a fireman/greaser when I visited him to treat his burns.

p. 243, argument over whale vision settled in library:

p. 298-99—likens whalemen to the whales themselves as the motivating force that keeps them going back to whaling.