#31 ‘Whaling Station During the Lunch-hour’ by Tom Overton

Whaling Station during the Lunch-hour


In 1936, the poets W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice got an advance to write a travel book about Iceland. Reading Don Juan on the boat over from Hull that June, Auden decided that it should be structured around a letter in verse to Lord Byron:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,

           And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,

Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,

    Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;

           I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.

I’m going to be very up to date indeed.

It is a collage that you’re going to read.

The trip had been planned as a holiday; an attempt to get a perspective on Europe. Auden and MacNeice clearly enjoyed themselves, but signs of the impending Second World War provided what Auden called ‘the orchestral background’ to the book: a gently mounting horror-film drone behind their inept adventuring (MacNeice didn’t bring any camping equipment, and the tent Auden brought collapsed on them on the first night. MacNeice tells us that Auden, wearing pyjamas, flannel trousers, riding breeches, two shirts, a golf jacket, a coat and an oilskin, looked like ‘something out of Brueghel’ while he was trying to inflate the airbed, and moved ‘like something that would be more at home on water’.) News of Franco’s uprising against the government of Spain reached them in July, and at one point, Auden exchanged ‘politenesses’ with Goering’s brother at breakfast.

The island was awash with Nazis searching out the genetic cradle of the Aryan race, and read now, Letters from Iceland is a book that seems to display the horrors of fascism at a kind of embryonic stage. But it goes further than that, finding its DNA in Romanticism, and wondering if Byron, were he alive today, would have fallen in with Oswald Mosley. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote, ‘with Picasso in painting, Stravinsky in music’, Auden was ‘a master of the uses of the past, projected into the present and prophesying a future’.

In a letter that ended up roughly halfway through the book, Auden describes meeting a ‘selfish little Englishman’ who viewed the struggle in Spain as nothing more than an inconvenience for tourists. The addressee, Erika Mann Auden, was Thomas Mann’s daughter. Auden – who was generally, but not exclusively interested in men – had agreed to marry her so she’d have an English replacement for the passport the Nazis were about to take away.

Auden’s letter mentions that he’d visited the whaling station of Talknafjördur. But before explaining, he interrupts himself by recalling a nightmare: in hospital for an appendix operation, he was befriended by an intense, violent man who follows him when he tries to escape; later on his father arrives. Then, suddenly, the letter switches back, and it is no longer the dreaming Auden being carved up:

I wish I could describe things well, for a whale is the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. It combines the fascination of something alive, enormous, and gentle, with the functional beauties of modern machinery.

In the summer sun, with the radio, the chirping of a canary and the whistling of a workman in the background, the waking Auden watched as a seventy-ton whale was ‘torn to pieces with steam winches and cranes’, and a fifty-yard pool of blood flowed out into the bay past five other half-submerged corpses. In a verse-letter to the artist William Coldstream later in the book, he remembers the station as ‘slippery with filth – with guts and decaying flesh –  like an artist’s palette’. In the letter to Erika,

A bell suddenly clanged and everyone stuck their spades in the carcass and went out for lunch. The body remained alone in the sun, the flesh still steaming a little. It gave one an extraordinary vision of the cold controlled ferocity of the human species.

In this book, at least, Auden had photography to help him describe. Perhaps he felt more inclined to experiment because of his recent work at the General Post Office film department, where he’d been allowed – with no prior expertise – not just to write verse, most famously for the film Night Mail, but to direct the shooting of scenes. It was a golden age of state-sponsored documentary, but Auden was going off its certainties. In February 1936, he published a review of Paul Rotha’s book Documentary Film, sceptical of ‘whether an artist can ever deal more than superficially […] with characters outside his own class’ (most British documentary directors, he pointed out, are ‘upper-middle’; he was no different). He was also sceptical of the disinterestedness of the large government departments or companies needed to fund these films.

The problems a pen and a camera posed were apparently fewer, or at least different. In July 1936, Auden believed that

any ordinary person could learn all the techniques of photography in a week. It is the democratic art, i.e. technical skill is practically eliminated – the more fool-proof cameras become with focusing and exposing gadgets the better – and artistic quality depends only on choice of subject.

According to the scholar Marsha Bryant, Auden scribbled the captions on the backs of the photographs so hard that his publishers worried they’d show through to the other side. The one on the photograph at the bottom right reads ‘Whaling Station during the Lunch-hour’, though it doesn’t show the whale itself. There are two overleaf – captioned ‘Flensing by Steam-winch’ and ‘The Corpse’ – which show it as abstract shapes, done violence by the workmen, and by the cropping of Auden’s camera.

In Flensing by Steam-winch, a thick rasher of whale is being torn along its length. Though the heads of six men are visible above the strip, and their chests through the loop it makes as it folds back over the body, they must only be helping – avoiding a wastefully messy tear by making guide-incisions, perhaps. The force is clearly coming from out of shot to our left, as if backwards over the other page, if you read the images in sequence. That’s where the central, diagonal form of Whaling Station comes in – surely this, with its shiny exposed pistons, and the toothy gears which hoist it up and down, is the steam-winch which is doing the flensing.

Auden’s framing makes it look like a howitzer abandoned among the deserted rubble of the station; a reminder of the landscape of the Great War, like the poetic description of 1936 as ‘the eighteenth year of the Western Peace’ that comes later in the book. Auden’s biographer Richard Davenport-Hines would probably agree. In his reading, the memory of the whaling station returned to Auden in 1938, when he was in Brussels, looking at Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting was then thought to be an original Pieter Brueghel, and perhaps the dim memory of how MacNeice had described him inflating the camp-bed made him loiter for a while. Either way, he turned it into one of his most famous poems, Musée des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

It reminds us, Davenport-Hines thought, ‘how easily we put aside other people’s catastrophes to pursue our petty quotidian comforts. Most of us stick our spades into the carcass while it is still steaming and go off for lunch.’ Though its specifics are a little different, Whaling Station was Auden’s version of this image, captured at a moment when he could talk of seeing

[…] as clearly as at the moment

The wraps of cellophane torn off

From cigarettes flit through the glass

Like glittering butterflies […]

Auden’s 1949 poem Memorial for the City is similar in that it describes blossom falling, entirely unaware any impropriety, on the dead. But the attitude towards photography that went along with it had changed. Auden had been disillusioned by his experience of the republican cause in Spain in 1937, and discombobulated by writing another collaborative travel book, this time in China with Christopher Isherwood in 1938. He had moved to America, met Chester Kallmann, the love of his life, and written ‘September 1, 1939’, on the outbreak of the Second World War and the end of a ‘low dishonest decade’. Gradually, he had rediscovered the unifying pattern of Christian faith. All of this shaped the lens through which he saw the images released from Auschwitz, and, during his work for the US Strategic Bombing Survey, the wholesale devastation of Germany. In Memorial for the City,

The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye

See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.

I Am Not a Camera – published in 1962, but assembled from observations in a 1947–64 notebook – ends

The camera may

do justice to laughter, but must

degrade sorrow.

Where the Auden of 1936 had used photography in an effort to fill in for the documentary shortcomings of writing, here he used writing to express the documentary shortcomings of photography. He criticised it for being what the Auden scholar John Fuller called ‘the necessarily choiceless disposition of fact’: for being too much like the whalers blithely lunching on the periphery of vast suffering.

Letters from Iceland is island-like and separate in Auden’s attitudes to the camera, but worth a visit every now and again. It ends with an epilogue to Auden from MacNeice, now alone in London, looking back on the overshadowed fun of their trip, and forward to the mood of Autumn Journal (1939): 

Our prerogatives as men

Will be cancelled who knows when;

Still I drink your health before

The gun-butt raps upon the door.

The newsletter of the W. H. Auden Society thought Davenport-Hines was getting carried away in his version of the whale story, overzealously scribbling his caption on the back of these images. But read now with a knowledge of the history that followed, the whole book seems to be about what it is to be just out of shot from coolly systematic violence.

Like Musée des Beaux Arts, it’s a case-study in the practicalities of witness; a contradiction to that famous line from another artistic visitor Spain in the 1930s, Robert Capa: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ It suggests the better, more eloquent picture might be off to one side somewhere.


Tom Overton’s writing has been published by the New Statesman, Apollo, Tate, the British Council, the British Library, openDemocracy, The White Review and others. The first volume of his edition of John Berger’s writing on art – prepared as a Fellow of the Henry Moore Institute, and the Centre for Life-writing Research at KCL – will be published by Verso in October. He’s working on a book of his own, and tweeting as @tw_overton.

#28 ‘Committed to Memory’ by Niall Griffiths



This photograph is a work of fiction. The young man in the white jacket is not a strangler; the older man in the darker coat and glasses is not his victim. The truth, in fact, is the opposite of the depiction; the younger man was the victim. He is the one in pain. The empty expression on his face does not indicate the affectless, anhedonic emotional vacuum of the psychopath, but the broken, stupefied, resigned condition of the tortured. His name is – or was – Kristjan Vidarsson, although, at the moment of the photograph, he probably couldn’t recall, with any conviction, even that.


On the night of 26 January 1974, the wild Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland was battered by storms. Gudmundur Einarsson, an 18-year-old labourer, had been partying in a harbour town south of Reykjavik, six miles from the home to which he never returned. The search for his body was called off after a few weeks; disappearances are not that uncommon in the more untameable parts of Iceland. 10 months later, in November, Geirfinnur Einarsson (no relation to Gudmundur), received a phone call summoning him to a harbour cafe. He never returned home either, and an extensive search of the harbour uncovered no body.

And no evidence, nor no witnesses. The two men seemed slurped into a black hole. Rumours, as they often do, abounded, concerning a small-time crook who had been arrested for smuggling cannabis from Denmark called Saevar Ciesielski. In December 1975, he and his girlfriend, Erla Bolladottir, were arrested for an unrelated minor crime and the police, for reasons unclear, asked Erla questions about the disappearance of Gudmundur and Geirfinnur. She recalled the night that the former had vanished; she remembered the fierce storm and the peculiar nightmare she’d had in which Saevar and his friends were whispering in low, conspiratorial voices outside her bedroom window. The head of the investigation, on hearing this, told her: ‘we are going to help you recall everything and you will not be able to leave here until you tell us what happened to Gudmundur.’

Consider, now, this scene, of which no photographic record exists: Erla alone in her cell, sleepless. Erla fretting over her 11-week-old daughter. Erla in an interview lasting 10 hours during which dreams and memories and cravings to return to her normal life intermingled. Maybe she could recall a body wrapped in a sheet. Saevar in solitary. Saevar, under interrogation, mentioning three friends: Kristjan and Tryggvi: both arrested and isolated and endlessly questioned. And Albert, a gentler figure than the other two and whom the isolation and the interogations quickly broke. He admitted to hiding Gudmundur’s body in the lava fields. Could Geirfunnur be there too?

Enter phantasms, fanciful imaginative flights, chimeras from hysteria: perhaps Iceland had its own Mansonesque death-cult. Its own underground psychopathic separatists, with Saevar as their Charlie. Erla, again under interrogation. Geirfinnur fell off a boat and drowned; no, he didn’t, he was murdered on the boat then thrown overboard. No, no, he was killed on the dockside after he failed to deliver promised booze. His body was burned in the lava fields, that mad dreamscape where sprites and goblins made the laws. The suspects, whose foggy and piecemeal recollections gave the police such stories had, by this time, been in solitary confinement for six months.

But evidence – the police required evidence. They brought Karl Schutz over from Germany, who had recently cracked the Baader-Meinhof gang. He set to ferreting out the ‘foreigner’ that Saevar and Kristjan, in their ramblings, had mentioned, and found Gudjon Skarphedinsson, Saevar’s accomplice in cannabis smuggling; an Icelander, yes, but of swarthy complexion: in such ways does the carcerally bureaucratic mind, in a fervid search for corroboration, find its own facts. In solitary confinement, Gudjon was given relaxants and sleeping pills. He was the second to break, after Erla. Over a period of two years, the suspects were taken out to the lava fields 60 times. 60. Even without evidential proof, Schutz branded them as ruthless, merciless, rapacious people. Capable of killing. He had – because he needed to have – his perps. Later, they withdrew their confessions, but the verdicts were found and the sentences delivered: life imprisonment for Saevar, three years for Erla, 12 for the others. Redress for crimes to which they confessed but which they could not remember committing. The mind finds its own facts.


Gisli Gudjonsson, an ex-detective, is now a forensic psychologist and a leading authority on False Memory – or, as he preferrs to call it, Memory Distrust Syndrome. He points out its main triggers: isolation, persuasive interrogation, false evidence, high emotional intensity and the external insistence on the futility of continued denial. Concerning the false evidence, there’d been rumours of a set of photographs, kept in Iceland’s national archives, one of which showed Kristjan strangling a policeman playing the part of Geirfinnur. Another showed Kristjan standing next to a dummy playing the part of a corpse. Gisli: ‘once you have enacted something, it then becomes more of a reality.’

See Erla in isolation for 105 days, away from her infant daughter. See her being interviewed over 100 times, only on three occasions with a lawyer present; often these interviews went on for over 12 hours. There are no photographs of this. Now see Saevar with his head held in a bucket; effectively being water-boarded. See him and the other suspects deprived of sleep, company, air. There are no photographs of this. See Tryggvi in solitary confinement for 655 days. Doped with Diazepam and Mogadon. See him, along with all the other accused, cleared, in 2011, after an 18-month inquiry. Says Erla: ‘the case is a body that keeps rising out of the grave.’ Gudjun, now a retired Lutheran minister, expresses bafflement that he confessed to a killing he had no memory of carrying out. And he also, still, in his broken English and in his broken voice, expresses doubts: ‘if you have been telling someone where he has been, what he has done, telling him that other people were involved, in the end you can say him to be in the same position as you want to have him. He does not have any more his memory or the power to say no.’ And Tryggvi and Saevar? They’re saying nothing. Tryggvi died in 2009, at 58. Saevar died in Copenhagen, homeless, two years later. He was 56.


Korsakoff’s syndrome is a type of dementia associated with excessive alcohol consumption and which generally causes deficits in declarative memory. Sufferers find problematic, if not impossible, the processing of contextual information, which is an essential component of accurate recollection, resulting in gaps of memory which are plugged with confabulation. I’ve seen this at work; alcoholics asking me if I remember the long weekend we spent at a zoo, or in Toronto, or whatever – invented memories, fictions, necessitated, in part, by the need to arrest the dissolution of identity, crucial to which is the recall of individual experience. Deeply saddening to witness.

As this is an era of manufactured need, so too is it an era of manufactured illness. Are we suffering from Korsakoff’s too? Is our collective memory full of holes? For instance; did we really see that photograph of the Bullingdon Club, the epitome of unearned privilege? David Cameron and Boris Johnson have forbidden its reproduction, this we know, but in their airbrushing of their own histories is the undermining of our own. How well do we recollect that image? Did we even see it at all? And what The Sun blatantly and imperiously demands us to accept as ‘THE TRUTH’, well, it has taken a quarter of a century for the Hillsborough Commission to prove that the headline would better have read ‘THE LIES’. That image of the crouching fan with his hand in the pocket of the prone and unconscious figure, he was not seeking valuables, as we are told; he was looking for a way to identify the dead, to contact the next of kin. And those sodden corpses; yes, they were drenched in urine, not because the living wished to vilely desecrate the dead, but because human beings, whilst being crushed to death, have a tendency to piss themselves in agony and terror.

This is Korsakoff’s syndrome foisted on the non-alcoholic and the sane. This is dementia imposed from without. It is a lover scissoring the ex out of the photograph of happier times in a fit of jealous rage and insisting she was never there in the first place. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, wrote that ‘one of the characteristics of modernity is that people like to feel they can anticipate their own experience.’ How possible is that if we cannot remember our own experiences with any conviction or confidence?

The contemporary human is unanchored, unmoored, adrift on a sea of ostensible experiential corroboration, none of which can be trusted. Spectacularisation – or one aspect of it, namely the external concretisation of shared experience and data – to Debord, was illusion, and to Baudrillard, it was all hoax. Sontag has a more positive spin: ‘There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority. The argument is in fact a defence of reality and the imperiled standards of responding more fully to it.’ Yet even such a concept as ‘reality’, in this context of tangible proof, of irrefragability, becomes unreliable, or, rather has been made so. This is not Photoshopping, or CGI on Youtube; this is the powerful making insubstantial and untrustworthy of the living bedrock. This is, in effect, allowing reality to be constructed by self-serving arbiters. The world is what we are told it is, not what we perceive it to be, and the ontological reinforcements of physical record and artefact are themselves fictitious. So Gudjun still feels, three decades on, that he ‘does not have any more his memory or the power to say no.’ Look, here’s Kristjan frozen forever in the act of murder. Memory is elusive and slippery; hard images are not. What will you trust?

And how we wish we could dismiss as false certain images that we know to be more or less objective truths. As a child, searching through bundles of damp-swollen and half-rotten books and periodicals in a relative’s garage, I came across a copy of Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War!. How I wished then, still wish now, and will forever, that the mounds of mutilated corpses displayed on its pages were just mannequins, or that those appallingly shattered faces were due to make-up and prosthetics. That they were just particularly gruesome Hallowe’en masks. And I am reminded of the recent campaign in Liverpool to re-christen those streets to which slavers gave their names; an understandable impulse, yes, but we have the history we have, not the one we would like to have. Unless, of course, the power is available to edit one’s own history, to transmogrify truth into lies and lies into truth, eroding the quiddity of such concepts in the action.

I wonder about Kristjan, and whether he was sure – as much as anyone can be – of who he was as he lived rough in Copenhagen; whether he really knew that he was not a killer of other human beings. Whether his innocence in that matter was felt as a fact in his heart, and in that part of his brain where certain self-knowledge resides. Whether, at the moment just before hypothermia wiped everything white, he yearned for forgiveness or craved redress; or whether his sense of self had been so steadily and systematically dismantled that even the wellspring from which such longings should sprout had been filled in, occluded. Choked. I hope he knew, at the last, that the only truism attached to his story – and the wider world which it metonymises – is this: do not trust what you are ordered to trust. Whatever you are told is true might be a lie.


Niall Griffiths is an English author of novels and short stories, set predominantly in Wales.