whale shit and other important matters


When Prince Charles eventually becomes king, during ‘the most sacred part of the ceremony’ he will be anointed on his head, heart, shoulders, hands and elbows with ‘ambraegrisiae 3iiij’, a fragrant amber-coloured oil. Charles, a keen ecologist, will know this as ambergris, which comes from whales. That might worry him a bit. What may cause him more concern is that this nearly priceless substance (used by French parfumiers like Chanel, Dior and Givenchy), is actually extracted from, to use Philip Hoare’s exact words, ‘whale shit’. Amazing? This tremendous book – not long enough in my voracious view – tells us many astonishing things about man’s most tremendous prey, the whale. John F Kennedy’s widow, for example, placed a whale tooth carved with the presidential seal in her assassinated husband’s coffin. Right now, as you read this, whale oil lubricates the Hubble Space Telescope, ‘while the Voyager probe spins into infinity playing the song of the humpback to greet any friendly aliens – who may wonder at our treatment of the species with which we share our planet’.

more from Literary Review here.