Philip Hoare - whale writer

By Stephen Jewell

Philip Hoare. Photo / Supplied
Philip Hoare. Photo / Supplied

Since writing Leviathan, an enthralling history of the whale, Philip Hoare has found a new calling.

Previously known for his biographies of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, the 52-year-old struck a chord with his sixth book, which cleverly combines sociology and literary theory with zoology and environmentalism.

It has since become a bestseller in Britain and last year won the BBC's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Dressed in a self-designed T-shirt emblazoned with a striking image of the great underwater beast and a hoodie from a Cape Cod whale watching company, he certainly looks the part when I meet him at a central London hotel.

"My approach to the subject is a very personal one," he says.

"I'm trying in a very wide-ranging way to look how the whale affects our lives and the way we affect its life. That expands into political and cultural terms as well as the natural history of the animal itself."

Although he only learned to swim as an adult, Hoare first developed his interest in creatures of the deep while growing up in Southampton on England's south coast.

Along with his two sisters, he persuaded his parents to take the family to view the resident killer whale at nearby Windsor Safari Park, only to be severely disappointed.

"I realised that you can't keep an animal like that in a swimming pool," recalls Hoare.

"That was the start of me realising that the history between man and whales has never been a happy one and continues not to be so."

Hoare adopts Herman Melville's 1851 classic Moby-Dick; The Whale as a touchstone, even taking the book's subtitle, The Whale, from the novel.

He compares the last doomed voyage of the whaling ship Pequod and the fate of its tyrannical peg-legged Captain Ahab to real-life whaling experiences from the past two centuries.

"It's 135 chapters of very digressive 19th century prose all about everything you want to know about whales and some things that you didn't" he says.

"I often wonder what Moby-Dick would have been like if Melville was writing today and had been forced to use Google. Because that is what he was doing, putting everything he knew about whales into the book.

Like most people, I found it hugely difficult and intimidating when I first read it, but having visited New England and got into the history of the novel, I was really sucked in. I realised Melville is actually very funny, ironical and subversive."

Dubbed the Great American Novel, it has had a similar seminal influence on 20th century fiction as Joseph Conrad's post-colonial masterpiece Heart of Darkness.

"It's almost a cliche but Moby-Dick has become shorthand for whales," says Hoare. "Ahab is obsessed with this animal that bit off his leg, so he sets out to seek revenge. What Melville is saying is that it is impossible to invest an animal with such human traits. It's interesting that in the New York Times three days after 9/11 happened, Edward Said compared the War on Terror and Bush's pursuit of Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to Ahab's pursuit of the White Whale.

The analogies of Moby-Dick are very deeply entrenched in our culture to the extent that any time a child draws a picture of a whale, they're drawing Moby-Dick. He's become a graphic icon."

Hoare emphasises the mythic aspect of the beast, describing it as "geographic" in scope.

"They have the most enormous physical presence," he says. "But when you go whale watching, you sometimes see a fin, a fluke or a head but often the first thing you see is this massive cloud of air, which is symptomatic of the elusiveness of this animal. It's the biggest animal that has ever lived and yet how many of us have actually seen it? Even when we do see it, it's like a kind of jigsaw piece of an animal, which we have to fit together. We see only that so we have to imagine the rest of it in our heads."

Hoare was in Hobart harbour in January when the New Zealand registered protest vessel Ady Gill departed on its fateful last journey to Antarctica, where it sank after a collision with the Japanese whaling ship Shonan Maru No. 2. He notes that the crew "looked more like they were going to a rock festival" and compares the former racing trimaran skipper Paul Watson to the notorious Pequod captain.

"He's like a modern-day Ahab," he laughs. "He's Ahab in reverse really."

He is also critical of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's confrontational tactics. "What they do is reckless," he says. "It's great that someone is highlighting the whole problem of what the Japanese are doing in the South Pacific. The only trouble is, what they're doing is creating scenes of violence and you can't bring violence to violence. I know that the Australian and New Zealand governments find it a pain in the proverbial because it affects the diplomacy, which they are very much negotiating.

" New Zealand and Australia are at the forefront of what's going on out there and it's really down to them more than anyone else to broker some kind of deal. The only way we're going to get around it is diplomacy, because the Japanese are intransigent about it."

According to Hoare, the Japanese have very good reasons for their stubborn attitudes.

"You have to look at it in a political context," he says. "The Allied Powers dropped two atom bombs on Japan during World War II and then we occupied the place. We turned their decommissioned navy into a whaling fleet to feed these people who had been reduced to starvation. Even in that context, you can see why, to put it mildly, the Japanese are annoyed at being told what to do."

He claims the Japanese slaughter of whales for so-called scientific research is a hollow sham.

"It's complete nonsense because the whale meat is entering the food chain as whale burgers and whale sushi," he says. "They're making a political gesture. They signed up to the International Whaling Commission's international moratorium in 1986 and did a deal with the Americans that enabled them to fish in US coastal waters. The US reneged on that so they're doing what they're doing as a protest. They don't need to hunt whales, no one needs to hunt whales now."

In Leviathan, Hoare adopts a pragmatic approach to the morality of whaling.

"I try to look at it from all angles," he says. "From the point of view of the whalers, who have families to feed and children to send to school; and then I look at it very much from the point of view of the whales, who are harassed and killed by these strange creatures who arrive on their horizon, literally over their heads, and throw spears at them."

He maintains that Western nations like Australia and New Zealand indirectly kill more whales through pollution and climate change than nations like Japan, Norway and Iceland, who hunt them for their flesh.

"Just the amount of noise we generate in the ocean and the amount of traffic we send through it," says Hoare.

"In the past two years, eight northern white whales have been killed by ship strikes in the north Atlantic and out of those, at least three were breeding females. There's only 350 left and that could mean disaster for the species."

Whaling was once very important to Australia and New Zealand. "It opened up the Pacific to Western influence because the American and British fleets were passing through it," says Hoare.

"Australia wouldn't exist without the whale, not only because that was its first industry but because the whaling ships were supplying the colonies with food. New Zealand also relied very much on the whale; it was an important part of the culture. It still is - the whale watching operations in Kaikoura are Maori-operated."

Hoare intends to take in some whale watching himself when he arrives here in two weeks for the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

"I've seen female sperm whales and juvenile sperm whales in the Azores but I've never seen any male sperm whales," he says.

"Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to go to see these animals so I'm very excited about that."

He will also be researching his next project, a sequel to his BBC documentary Hunt for Moby-Dick. "We're relocating it to the Pacific," he says.

"That's part of the reason why I want to go to New Zealand, to pursue the notion of the influence and history of the whales and whaling in the Pacific, especially on Maori and the Aborigines from an anthropological and economic perspective. "

- NZ Herald

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