' So how far is a blue whale do you think?'
I had asked Bookhound this simple question.
We were on our way to Bristol to see the Eric Ravilious exhibition. It's a two hour journey so we chat for a while as we get on the road and then settle into that companionable silence. One of us might flick the car radio on, the other will flick it off after a few minutes saying 'No the quiet is better' and we motor on.
At some point Bookhound usually says..
'He'll get done for that...'
as someone unwittingly steams past us on the A30 towards Tedburn St Mary, where of course us as lives y'ere know there is a speed camera around the next bend, but not everyone does.
In answer to my whale question Bookhound was bemused until I clarified,
'How many paces...'
'Oh that's easy, about a hundred and ten.'
Kathleen Jamie's writing, though offering the occasional greyscale photograph, is all about the mind's eye and imagining. Conjuring up the scene that is being set through quietly vivid description, and to which there is little sentimentality attached. It is writing that gently insists that a reader bring all their senses into play, sight, smell, touch, taste ...listen carefully and then make connections.
So Bookhound, admittedly at a bit of a disadvantage because he hasn't read the book... and he is concentrating on the road as one would wish him to, suggests in answer to my question that a blue whale is 'about a hundred and ten.'
Don't you just hate it when someone does that??
Because thanks to Sightlines, and Kathleen Jamie writing about her visit to the Hvalsalen (the Whale Hall) in the Natural History Museum in the Norwegian city of Bergen, and taking the trouble to pace out the length of a blue whale, I had this amazing figure in my head, which seemed massive and impossible and unthinkable, of fifty-seven.
'Don't be daft I said...that would be about a hundred metres...think about it, and that would mean Usain Bolt could run a blue whale in 9.58 seconds....'
Suddenly my really huge and exciting piece of Did-You-Know has shrunk to about 4.79 seconds of Usain Bolt's running time and I feel a bit deflated.
We motor on doing our usual ridiculous salute to the Willowman as we go past near Bridgewater, and I tell myself to remember to walk a blue whale along the lane when I get home.
I am definitely last across the finishing line with Kathleen Jamie's writing and have only myself to blame. Countless people were recommending Findings, the first book of essays, to me years ago and before I had even started writing dovegreyreader. And I kept meaning to but had never quite managed it, so when Sightlines, the latest collection, arrived I decided I would be on the case.
In fact I immediately realised I was reading something special so I went into rationing mode and in some cases have read a piece very slowly, and taken several days to allow for thinking time... as in The Hvalsalen.
The Hvalsalen houses twenty-four whale skeletons, each held aloft on chains, and, during Kathleen Jamie's visits, all in the midst of a two year programme of cleaning and refurbishment. When it becomes apparent that the treacle-brown residue on the bones is the oil still seeping out, and that the bones have been there since the 1860s, I felt something akin to a sadness of my own in the way that Kathleen Jamie expressed the single word..
It might be at this moment that every reader would bring something different to Sightlines, make different connections. I had read, who knows where, but I had definitely read something somewhere recently, about research that demonstrated whales were capable of forgiveness. It was a startling and humbling insight that had almost reduced me to tears.
And on top of that came the memory of the Kayaker's wonderful whale-watching job in New Zealand a few years ago and where, some of you may recall, he snapped this picture...
And I think this may be one of the purposes of a book like Sightlines.
Kathleen Jamie refers to 'connective leaps' and I felt so many throughout the book. There is a delicacy and a lightness of touch in the writing that belies the deep and lasting footprints that it has left in my mind, and each time a whale surfaces occasionally again in the book, as they do at sea, and I got another excited glimpse, or I cast my mind back to the first picture in the book of the eardrum of a whale in the museum at Stromness, I felt a real sense of anticipation and privilege, as if this was happening for real.
The eardrum seems no coincidence to me now. No chance picture that would make me think 'Huh, what's all this about'.. maybe instead it was telling me to listen carefully.
Themes brush against each other gently and unobtrusively and again I suspect every reader will spot different ones. The collection has been put together with great sensitivity and I will write more about it because I am still listening, and every so often another glimmer of light seeps through in my mind. It is a book that illuminates around the edges, the aurora, moonlight, the day in February when the light seems to 'come back'...
'...the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky...an invasion of light and air out of a sky of swiftly moving clouds.'
I know this day and I must look out for it next year.