‘Strandings’ by Peter Riley – Palatinate

By Hannah Voss

Strandings: CONFESSIONS OF A WHALE SHIPPER by Peter Riley. Profile Books, 236 pages, £14.99, Feb 2022.

“Are there any live whales in this book? asks Dr. Peter Riley aloud, processing his response to a question posed at his book launch. “No, all dead. All dead.’

He goes on to explain that whales still swimming are a false comfort; as long as the whales are swimming, things can’t be so bad. That’s why everyone watches David Attenborough’s ocean documentaries until the ten minutes at the end about climate change, when, according to Riley, “we all change the channel”.

There is no channel change in Strandings: Confessions of a Scavenger, Peter Riley’s excellent new memoir that weaves together the threads of personal, natural and cultural history with a deft hand. The book follows Riley’s experiences in the whale-scavenging community, beginning with a key encounter in his teenage years that leads him to search for others like him: people whose lives seem punctuated – sometimes even haunted – by dead whales. Along the way, the book asks its readers to look at death without flinching; to feel the decaying corpse of how human beings have decided to inhabit and exploit the natural world.

As well as an intertextual inquiry into the cultural resonances of beached whales and the history of their appearances in Britain – often inauspicious or somehow symbolic; other times bizarre, most tragic – Strandings paints a portrait of the individuals who have assumed this death, who rub shoulders with it, who make sense of it, or profit from it. On the old side you have Ron and Mick, Brexiters who see these beached leviathans as a symbol of Britain’s inevitable decline if the country remains in the EU. You have Mrs. Bones, a witch who uses cetacean bones to cast spells.

Among the latter, we find Big Blue, a renowned trader in recovered whale parts, specializing in unique creations for an informed clientele, or simply bizarre (whale bone anal plugs: need we say more?). Whale death profiteers circle the whalers of yore, the origins of Unilever and the modern figures of JP Morgan Chase (among other agents of capitalism), ultimately indicting all weas Riley writes:

‘… nature is not so far from our doorstep. In vaporized form, it flows through all of us. Beautiful, socially complex creations turned into tradable commodities migrating through the air – as capital. (p.133)

The portrait in the center of the book is that of Riley. Despite the book’s subtitle, “Confessions of a Whale Scavenger”, Riley himself never quite enters the scavenger community. It was during his first encounter with a stranding that he came closest to collecting whale parts, when at thirteen he helped an almost mythical woman load the jawbone of a sperm whale into the chest of his car. Rather, the book itself can be read as a kind of salvage: a compilation of the ways in which a knowledge and fascination with beached whales creeps into a man’s daily life; the fleeting realization that more whales than you could ever imagine are landing on British beaches – and with alarming regularity.

The Overwhelming Presence of Death Doesn’t Mean the Book Is Humorless

This overwhelming presence of death does not mean the book is humorless; the opposite, in fact; neither is it devoid of life. A moving still from the final chapter shows Riley walking out of the hospital, holding her newborn daughter wrapped in a whale-patterned blanket. It’s a pulsating undercurrent of the text, as Riley recounts his own upbringing on how to live amid continuous strandings: a metaphor, in many ways, for the near-apocalyptic conditions of an advanced capitalist society that has bled the natural world dry. .

Life persists in the face of death – it has to – but Riley doesn’t pull his punches and turn that life into a beacon of hope. He doesn’t return to whales that are still swimming, concluding the book by recounting the kind of false optimism of Star Trek IV, where a planet threatened as a direct result of its extinct whale population can simply leap back in time to transport two whales blue ones (including a pregnant one!) to the San Francisco Bay of the 23rd century and ensure the future of humanity. No; the final mark of Strandings is that of a steel news: we cannot go back. The worst has already happened, look around you!

At the launch of her book, Riley noted the coincidence of her date with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet another event in our contemporary canon that has led to a sense of the future as an unknowable place that one cannot prepare for, but simply exists within as it comes. Forcing a false sense of hope does not end a crisis; it only makes it look smaller on our screens. Successfully resisting the current paradigm of environmental solutionism, Strandings knows that it is only a book, which cannot solve but can only indicate. At the end, Riley simply asks the reader to stand beside him, watching over the dead whale.

Image: Todd Cravens via Unsplash

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