Europeans have long kept memories of an enormous green tarped lorry bearing the painted logo JONAH passing through their cities and towns. In Bible stories, Jonah is a man thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a great fish. In some translations that fish is a whale. This was the very cargo of that lorry.
Carrying a seventy ton blue whale, it was not an aquarium on wheels that drove Jonah from the waters of his capture near Trondheim, Norway in 1952 but a moving coffin. Pumped full of 2,200 gallons of formalin to preserve his flesh, the whale's internal organs were removed before they expanded with gases and pressure enough to explode. Quite a sight, although I don't recommend searching that on YouTube until you've had your tea.
In this bizarre take on the travelling menagerie, the 23 metre whale was driven around Europe as a fairground showpiece, a corpse followed by a trail of petrol and formalin fumes. Stopping across the UK, fifties beauties climbed in his mouth, toddlers held his fin and couples circumnavigated his reeking frame. Held up by his skeleton and glossed up to appear wet, Jonah was presented to crowds like the body of an incorruptible saint.
The fumes have stayed in the memories of many Newcastle-Gateshead residents and now, over sixty years later, Fiona Tan has brought reputedly the world's largest lorry back to the Tyne. As part of my Write Around the Toon residency at Baltic and my PhD research with Newcastle University, I wanted to respond to the installation with a new poem.
When I heard the backstory, I was excited to visit Tan's Depot, a recreation of this most unusual lorry and cargo. Inside it played Leviathan a projection archive whaling footage. Stuttering. Flaying. Moving image in every sense. After a helpful conversation with David Reynolds, one of the loveliest members of the Baltic Crew, I have started writing.