Date: 30 August 2001
The Place: Home Truths Talk message boards -
where Steve Deput's slight plaintive message set the whale memories rolling...
"Does anyone remember this?" began Steve harmlessly, "It was a 70ft blue whale named Jonah. He toured Europe and then the UK on a 100ft lorry in the 50s/60s, before being abandoned in Barnsley, where he met a fiery end in an NCB furnace. This is not a joke -I saw it - though most people think I'm mad."
Steve's interview on last week's Home Truths brought a deluge of phone calls, emails, letters, and more messages on the boards. Your memories of the blue whale named Jonah, and another, Eric, which toured Britain from the early fifties to the mid-seventies set a fuse fizzing in the collective memory of Home Truths listeners.
It's one of those strange moments in one's life when you find yourself tracking the path of a giant whale as it moved around the country, but this is what dedicated Home Truths producer, Alison Hughes did, coming up with a list of towns in which the whale, or whales, were spotted most frequently. The role call of honour reads thus: Dumbarton, Darlington, York, Bradford, Hull, Rochdale, Nottingham, Coventry, Ipswich, Chatham, Chichester, Bristol, Cheltenham, Plymouth, Hastings, with Wolverhapton as the clear winner.
Thanks too, to Daniel Clarkson, who e-mailed with an article from The Times, 31 March, 1954 which reads:
"South Bank Whale
Jonah, the Giant Whale" which is to be exhibited under Waterloo Bridge on the south bank from April 2, arrived from Dunkirk yesterday in a Dutch coaster. The vessel docked at Dagenham and the 65ft. rorqual was unloaded on to a 10-wheeled lorry which transports it on land. The whale had been touring Holland, Belgium, Germany and France since last September and has been kept in good condition by an internal refrigeration plant and daily injections of formalin. It was killed off Trondheim, Norway in September 1952."
The Times gives a primly factual view of the whale phenomenon, but your responses put flesh on the beast, as it were. Gerald Parkinson remembers the whale on show beside the Pleasure Beach in Great Yarmouth, and how "the inside of the creature was hung with electric light bulbs" and "a doorway cut behind the head, which left through goodness knows what orifice."
John Baines, as a wee lad, was disappointed in the whale's colour, "it was a morose grey and not at all blue." David Growden remembers, "It looked moth-eaten, and its eyes were small and sad." A more gruesome recollection comes from Pat in Doncaster who remembers "the eye was in a jar...the smell was unbelievable" In fact, smell was one of the most enduring memories; "stank" you say, and "rotting".
Bringing the whale sightings out into the open seems to have allayed fears in many of you, Barbara Lindley is but one, that you weren't suffering from a peculiar madness in which the most prominent symptom was a hazy childhood memory of a big smelly fish-like creature on the back of a lorry. Anne Allan can rest easy too now, telling us "I'd begun to think of it as one of those recurrent dreams - I'm so relieved I'm not so daft after all."
Far from being haunted by the whale, Ashley Robertson, who saw Jonah in Southampton in the mid-sixties, admits "it introduced me to the word 'balleen' which for some unnacountable reason had made me giggle ever since."
But the last word has to go to Richard Callaghan, who as a child in Rochdale in the late seveties begged his mother to take him to see the whale. It wasn't to be. He says, poignantly, "She told me it was bound to be rotten, fly-infested and diseased. I never did get to see Jonah."