“And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”
In writing this, I Got To Thinking about certain other white whales I’ve pursued over the years.
Urban Dictionary defines a white whale as “something you obsess over to the point that it nearly or completely destroys you.”
Now, I wasn’t exactly obsesses with any of these things. They’re just things I was “on the lookout for” for much longer than was perhaps reasonable. I caught some of these white whales. But some are still out there, waiting to be found.
A Wooden Whale
We finally went to Iceland last year. The trip itself was something of a white whale, as Iceland had been at the top of my list of places I need to visit for nearly 20 years. I can’t remember why, but in the months leading up to the trip I decided that the perfect souvenir from Iceland would be a wooden whale.
In Iceland, we travelled north to a town called Husavik, “the whale capital of Iceland”. We saw puffins and watched humpback whales. They’re peaceful and curious giants, and since that day, whenever the world feels particularly awful, I just think about watching whales.
So we looked everywhere for a wooden whale, but every one we found was about the same price as three meals in Iceland. And in Iceland, meals cost a lot. We’d eat out and choose the cheapest thing on the menu, usually soup, for which we’d pay more than we’d pay for steak in the UK. I returned home wooden whaleless.
This sleek black wooden whale was a Christmas present – or maybe a birthday present? I believe he’s supposed to be a sperm whale, and his back is hollowed out. You could store pencils in him, but I’m not using him for storage. He’s a symbol of something quite important, so he’s far too good for pencils.
Sleeper – The It Girl
The It Girl is the second album by the pop group Sleeper. Nice Guy Eddie is one of the best songs by any band, so of course I was interested in hearing the album it came from. But the world wouldn’t let me.
Today I’d just seek the album out on Spotify or YouTube. But 10 years ago (!!!) I sought it out in charity shops, car boot sales and second hand record shops everywhere I went. I didn’t want to buy it new, you see. That just didn’t seem right.
I bought it twice, and both times I was frustrated. The first time the copy I’d bought just vanished. Gone! Without a trace! The second time I took the album home only to find the wrong disc in the case. It was a Motown collection, or something.
I’ve got the album now, and it’s great. But at the time it felt like nefarious forces were at work to prevent me from ever hearing The It Girl. I wrote about the whole thing here.
A mellotron is an elaborate synth originally built in Birmingham between 1963 and 1970. Pressing keys triggers tape mechanisms inside, so you can get all kinds of crazy sounds out of it, all of which sound haunting, ethereal, and important.
The mellotron string sound is one of my favourite sounds in all of music. It’s the sound of prog rock, and you can hear it in the foreboding intro to Geneis’s Watcher of the Skies, above. Also wonderful is the flute sound, most famously used in the choir of Clangers intro to Strawberry Fields Forever:
I got to play a mellotron once! It was in the basement of the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. That one had been wired up to play sound effects for TV shows. You pressed one key to get a ringing phone, another to get a steam train, and so on. I had to wear white gloves to use it, and I was only allowed to press one key at a time. Who knows what sort of ghostly cacophony would have resulted from trying to play a chord.
This white whales still out there. I don’t own a mellotron yet. Yet!
There will always be more books to read, and I’ll always have a few in mind when I enter a book shop. Certain books, though, are proving maddeningly elusive.
One is a graphic novel by James Herbert called The City. It was probably the first graphic novel I ever read – we saw it in a charity shop when I was nine or so, and one of my friends in school eventually brought his copy to the playground. From what I remember of the story it was absurdly grim, full of giant rats and desecrated people. But Ian Miller’s illustrations were stunning. You could spend hours poring over each individual page.
I could order The City today for about £30. But just like buying that Sleeper album brand new would defeat the point, ordering The City from Amazon would… defeat the point? I don’t know. I can’t explain these things. White whales make people weird.
The other white whale book is especially frustrating, as we have no idea who wrote it. It was a gorgeous picture book about a hot air balloon race. On the first page was a fantastic drawing of dozens of hot air balloons in every conceivable shape, size and colour. The idea was that you’d pick your favourite, then that was your balloon. You’d follow the progress of your balloon through the story. Not all of them made it through – some crashed, some were shot down by pirates, some sort of drifted away, and only one balloon was ever going to win. But you could still pick a different balloon each time, which made the book endlessly enthralling.
We got this from the library maybe 25 years ago, and I’m not sure we’ll ever see it again.
A Certain Song
I’ve had a song stuck in my head for decades and I’ve no idea who it’s by.
It’s a bright and bouncy britpop song, and I originally thought it was by Dodgy (hence that video above). But after listening to Dodgy’s entire discography, it turns out the song’s not by Dodgy. Have I any regrets after having listened to every song Dodgy ever recorded? A few.
The only bit I remember is the chorus. And annoyingly, the only word sung during the chorus is “doo”. That effectively makes the song impossible to find. But if you’re reading this, and you know of a song that goes “doo, doo doo doo, doo doo doo, doooo doo doo”, please get in touch.
I doubt I’ll ever hear this song again. But in the search for the song we’ve discovered a few gems! For example, my brother suggested this Climax Blues Band song, the chorus of which has a similar tune to the “doo” chorus I remembered:
And the search for a bouncy britpop song with a “doo” gave us this underrated epic from post-britpop supergroup The Shining:
Thanks for reading about my white whales.