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Celebration of a Leviathan

08 May 2015

Greed doesn't have the last word, says Anthony Phillips


Not Forgetting the Whale
John Ironmonger
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

FOR nearly 50 years, the small Cornish fishing village of St Piran has celebrated at Christmas the Festival of the Whale. Central to the celebration is the memory of their hero, Joe Haak. It was his naked body that was washed ashore one autumn day, nudged there by a great fin whale. When, two days later, that same whale became beached, it was the resuscitated stranger who galvanised the community into hauling the whale back into the sea.

What the village did not know was that Joe had fled his city investment bank when Cassie, the computer programme he had invented, had apparently lost his firm millions. Abandoning his car, he had plunged naked into the sea. Now lodging with the retired doctor, Joe is drawn back to his supposedly invincible Cassie to find her forecasting total financial collapse.

In the face of impending disaster, Joe determines to spend all his considerable savings on stocking up food and essentials from the local supermarket to enable the village to survive. Some of the funniest passages in the book are the manager's response. Eventually, all the villagers take part in filling the four floors of the church tower. As the chairman of Joe's Bank had warned him, "Society is only three square meals away from anarchy." Then the apocalypse begins in the form of a flu pandemic and cessation of all oil supplies. So Joe persuades the villagers to block themselves in from the outside world.

Alongside Joe, central to the novel are the austere Vicar, Alvin Hocking, and his much younger flirtatious wife, Polly. As a result of what occurs, all three find a depth of humanity which has eluded them.

But the anarchy that Cassie had predicted, based on the assumption that self-interest and greed motivated human beings, was not in the end irreversible. Neither has the last word, and Joe is able to fulfil his dying mother's final wish.

So, thanks to Joe - and not forgetting the whale - the village celebrates Christmas luxuriously, and the lights go on again.

Canon Phillips is a former headmaster of The King's School, Canterbury.

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