The human brain is incredible.
I see an image of a sperm whale on the National Geographic Traveler Magazine app. And, my goodness, how striking that particular image is. The almost incomprehensible size of his head; the scratches carved into his large nose (like unsophisticated teen graffiti on a grey school wall); and the marine blue background.
Anyway, I digress. Because BOOM! The photons associated with the image hit my retina; and immediately their energy triggers an electrical signal in the light-detecting cells of my brain. Screeching around corners, the electrical signal then propagates like a wave along the axons between the neurons….
BOOM. A target neuron responds with its own electrical signal, which in turn spreads to other neurons in my head. Within a few hundred milliseconds, the signal has spread to billions of neurons in several dozen interconnected corners of my skull.
And that is when I remember the holiday snaps. They were taken a few years back in the Seychelles when we were taking a late afternoon walk together. I hadn’t thought about that particular day for a long time. But, thinking back, I remember how excited we were to discover Mr Rock Whale at the end of the bay. The waves were pretty ferocious at that particular corner of the beach and so capturing his engaging face at “just the right angle” wasn’t particularly easy . The white salty foam came crashing down on us with a regular beat. But each time the receding flow of the ocean drew back to the horizon we just knew that we had to try to get his beautiful smiling face on camera.
Looking back at the photographs again today, I particularly adore the way his mouth has formed over time and the fact that he looks so happy to be lolling in the shallows. I genuinely can’t help smiling when I look at his features.
How long did that face take to form in the elements, and how many more salty-wave beatings until his whale-like form disappears?
And that is when I remember Simon Armitage’s brilliant poem, The Christening. I love it because it is just so weird and wonderful.
As Paul Batchelor aptly wrote in The Guardian, “What follows is a phantasmagoria of Wikipedia trivia, bizarre digestion, and a satire on the difficulty of self-representation in language….Part of the attraction of Armitage’s writing is the way we can never be entirely certain how deep the layers of irony go; but here the sideswipe at sentimental or overly reverential kinds of writing (especially nature writing) feels real enough.”
If you don’t feel like reading it (or you just want to hear it in the author’s dullset Yorkshire tones) then skip straight to the video below. In fact, I am definitely in favour of going straight to the video because lots of the humour gets lost if you just read the words on the page. I find it really amusing to listen to. Simon’s northern accent and droll delivery sit perfectly with the words.
But if you did want to read the words too, here it is in all its bizarre glory!:
“I am a sperm whale. I carry up to 2.5 tonnes of an oil-like
balm in my huge, coffin-shaped head. I have a brain the
size of a basketball, and on that basis alone am entitled to
my opinions. I am a sperm whale. When I breathe in, the
fluid in my head cools to a dense wax and I nosedive into
the depths. My song, available on audiocassette and
compact disc is a comfort to divorcees, astrologists and
those who have ‘pitched the quavering canvas tent of their
thoughts on the rim of the dark crater’. The oil in my head
is of huge commercial value and has been used by NASA,
for even in the galactic emptiness of deep space it does not
freeze. I am attracted to the policies of the Green Party on
paper but once inside the voting booth my hand is guided
by an unseen force. Sometimes I vomit large chunks of
ambergris. My brother, Jeff, owns a camping and outdoor
clothing shop in the Lake District and is a recreational user
of cannabis. Customers who bought books about me also
bought Do Whales Have Belly Buttons? by Melvin Berger
and street maps of Cardiff. In many ways I have seen it all.
I keep no pets. Lying motionless on the surface I am said
to be ‘logging’, and ‘lobtailing’ when I turn and offer my
great slow fluke to the horizon. Don’t be taken in by the
dolphins and their winning smiles, they are the pickpockets
of the ocean, the gypsy children of the open waters and
they are laughing all the way to Atlantis. On the basis of
‘finders keepers’ I believe the Elgin Marbles should
remain the property of the British Crown. I am my own
God – why shouldn’t I be? The first people to open me up
thought my head was full of sperm, but they were men, and
had lived without women for many weeks, and were far
from home. Stuff comes blurting out.”