Wednesday, 23 September 2020

A day of missed flights,
exploring East End streets,
and indulging in wanderlust

A missed opportunity to explore a little of the East End today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I ought to have been in London today at a meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

I spent much of the day at that meeting, but it was a virtual meeting hosted on Zoom rather than a ‘corporeal’ meeting, because of Covid-19 restrictions on travel for all of us.

I have not been on a flight or in London since a meeting of USPG trustees on 4 March, and today I missed not only the train journey from and to Stansted Airport through the countryside of East Anglia, but also the opportunities I take before and after these meetings, as I make my way from Liverpool Street Station to the USPG offices in Trinity Street in London, to explore Wren churches or the streets of the East End.

Of course, most of all, replacing these face-to-face meetings of trustees with ‘virtual meetings’ means the opportunities are lost for building trust and relationships with other trustees and with staff members.

Zoom meetings are very efficient, but no matter what organisation is hosting them – and there have been many over the past six months – they can never replace the spontaneous, one-to-one contacts that are made, the friendships that are nurtured, and the ideas that are given time to grow and develop on the sidelines and the margins.

Instead of wandering the streets of Southwark or the East End before or after the meeting, I enjoyed the autumn sunshine in the rectory gardens throughout today’s meeting.

As the meeting began, we were invited to reflect on a New Testament passage that recalls Saint Paul’s first missionary journey to the continental Europe, when he heard the call of a man in Macedonia, and travelled with Silas and Timothy to Samothrace, Neapolis and then Philippi, and then met Lydia of Thyatira, an interesting woman’s voice in the mission of the Apostolic Church (see Acts 16: 6-16).

Of course, the passage also reminded me that I had planned to be north-east Greece at the end of last month and the beginning of this month (24 August to 4 September), and later in the day, as we heard reports from USPG’s engagement with the wider church, I thought of a planned but cancelled visit to the Anglican Church in Myanmar earlier this year (23 March to 1 April), a cancelled retreat in Lichfield, and the cancelled USPG conference in Swanwick in Derbyshire (20 to 22 July).

The conference in Swanwick gave way to another Zoom meeting of USPG trustees on 23 July, but yet another opportunity for a return visit to Lichfield was lost to what John Crace refers to in the Guardian today as ‘Boristime’ and ‘Coronatime’: ‘In Boristime, years become months, months become weeks. Meanwhile Coronatime has the last laugh of turning each of his strategies from months into weeks, and weeks into days.’

There were reminders too today of great SPG and USPG missionaries in the past, including Arthur Shearly Cripps (1869-1952) in Zimbabwe and Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940) in India, and of the priest-poet Geoffrey ‘Woodbine Willie’ Studdert-Kennedy (1883-1929). In our closing prayers, we remembered members and friends of the USPG family, including the Revd Edward Thompson, and the Very Revd Ken Robinson, a former Dean of Gibraltar.

All this reminiscing and wanderlust reminded me that no matter where we live, as Christians we are sojourners. We heard from the second century Epistle to Diognetus [Πρὸς Διόγνητον Ἐπιστολή], probably the earliest example of Christian apologetics, defending Christianity from its accusers. The unknown writer says:

‘For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of [humanity] either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life … But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and other arrangement of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign … Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives.’

The Very Revd Ken Robinson was the Dean of Gibraltar in 2000-2003 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The tale of the Wexford
Whale and its new role in
science and conservation

I heard the tale of the ‘Wexford Whale’ on Wexford’s quays earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this month, walking along the Quays in Wexford during my summer ‘Road Trip,’ I heard the story of the Wexford Whale, and its role in helping to conserve the world’s whale population – a tale I never heard while living in Wexford.

On a chilly morning on 26 March 1891, Edward Wickham and two companions, Blake and Saunders, came across an enormous whale that had been beached the day before on the Swanton’s Bank, a sandbank at the mouth of Wexford Harbour, near the Hantoon Channel, after being harpooned by a local fisherman.

Ned Wickham was the coxswain of the Wexford Lifeboat based at the Fort, Rosslare Point, and had set out to investigate the stranded creature. Without the buoyancy of water to support her massive body, the stranded animal was suffocating under her own great weight as the tide ebbed.

The group of men beat the whale with metal bars in a crude attempt to slay her and Ned Wickham – in an act of mercy or in an act of enterprise – eventually killed the animal when he plunged an improvised harpoon under one of the flippers, and put the dying animal out of her agony.

Newspaper reports from the time describe how he bravely approached the animal, using an improvised harpoon to ‘dispatch the big fish.’

And so, the life of this Leviathan of the deep came to an end – a female Blue Whale measuring 25.2 metres (82 ft). The dead whale became a local celebrity, with boat trips organised to bring sightseers out to the body of this monster from the deep. Newspapers reports described the whale’s arrival as a ‘strange visitant from strange seas.’

The Ballast Office on the Crescent Quay, Wexford, was built in 1835-1840 as the offices of the Wexford Harbour Commissioners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

As ‘a Fish Royal,’ the remains were claimed for the Crown and were auctioned. The carcase was bought at auction by William Armstrong, chairman of Wexford Harbour Board at the time, for £111 for its oil and meat – today’s equivalent of €11,958.

Armstrong had a business on Wexford’s Main Street and, with whale oil was such a valuable commodity, he saw an opportunity to profit.

Some 20 men were employed cutting up the meat for dog food and extracting 630 gallons of whale oil for fuel, or 14 45-gallon drums that were sold for 1s 6d per gallon, making about €5,380 in today’s terms from whale oil alone. The remaining meat was sold off as pet food.

This episode took place just before a global boom in commercial whaling, and the Wexford Whale represents an important moment in the history of this species.

Initially, the whale was wrongly identified as a Sperm Whale. But the correct identification of the Wexford Whale was made by a newspaper journalist. He saw the black baleen plates in the animal’s mouth, and knowing that Sperm Whales have teeth, he realised that a mistake had been made and that the creature had to be a Blue Whale.

Interestingly, although Armstrong may have increased his profits by selling the baleen for use in women’s corsets, enough of the material survived, and this is now held in the Natural History Museum, Dublin – known to generation of children in Dublin as the ‘Dead Zoo.’

However, the enterprising William Armstrong sold the skeleton to the Natural History Museum of London for £250, or €26,930 in today’s terms.

There, the bones were put in storage, where they remained for 42 years. Eventually, the Mammal Hall was built and opened in 1938 to accommodate Wexford’s Blue Whale. There it was displayed, suspended above a 28.6 metre (93 ft) life-size model.

The skeleton of this magnificent specimen measures over 25 metres in length and weighs 3 tonnes.

In recent years, staff at the museum in London spent months preparing the old bones for their new home, cleaning it, repairing it and strengthening it over many months for display. The process was filmed by the BBC and when the Natural History Museum reopened in July 2017, the Wexford Whale took centre stage at the museum entrance. The display was officially opened by the Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough.

Blue Whales are the largest known animal on Earth. The Blue Whale is a carnivore whose average life span in the wild is about 80 or 90 years. They can weigh up to 200,000 kg and grow to a size of around 32 metres. A blue whale’s tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant, its heart as much as a car.

Commercial whaling drove the Blue Whale was driven to the brink of extinction in the 19th and early 20th century. It is one of the rarest whale species and estimates say there are only between 10,000 and 25,000 whales left on the planet. Commercial whaling saw the creatures on the verge of extinction before they became protected under international law in 1966.

The specimen in London has been given the name ‘Hope’ as a symbol of humanity’s power to shape a sustainable future. This dramatic change to the entrance hall refreshes the museum’s image, with its new focus on living science.

The museum hopes the Wexford Whale will capture the imagination of visitors and challenge the way we think about the natural world.

Ned Wickham … used an improvised harpoon to ‘dispatch the big fish’