The BBC says a Walrus has turned up in Pembrokeshire – a UK first.
Oh no, it isn’t: In about 1980 when I was at the Daily Mail, a Walrus washed up on the beach at Skegness. It was mid-summer – the silly season and as self-appointed silly correspondent, I claimed Wally the Walrus.
First up: What do you do with a lost Walrus? Well, you send him back to Greenland, of course.
How do you do that?
Ah, this is where the fun begins – and it lasted for the best part of a week: First, the local council has to knock up a crate for him. Who does this? The council’s works department… no, no, no, you’re losing the thread: The council carpenter is who does it – as in The Walrus and the Carpenter. We had a sub-editor with poetic tendencies who bowdlerised Lewis Carroll for the occasion.
Next, you persuade Iceland Air to air freight Wally for nothing more than the publicity it will generate (or rather, with the threat of the bad publicity if they refuse).
The World Wildlife Fund and the RSPCA sent their experts (including a very young Mark Carwardine) to see to Wally’s welfare and, of course, the Mail’s wildlife photographer Mike Hollist – a man with enough patience for all of us. We even had a fishing boat organised at the other end to take Wally across the Denmark Strait. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, I hoped something… There is nothing so dull as a newspaper stunt that goes according to plan. This had the makings of a story I would tell my grandchildren, not to mention the readers (at the time nobody had invented blogs).
It started looking promising as soon as we arrived at Keflavik International Airport, and the man who owned the fishing boat backed up his lorry to load Wally’s crate. It turned out that not only did he own the fishing boat but also Reykjavik Zoo – where, he announced, Wally would be spending the night… and many other days and nights until enough visitors had been tempted to pay to go and look at him.
Mention of the word “Zoo” did not go down well with the RSPCA and the WWF. A quick inspection of a muddy park and a few bedraggled animals confirmed that Wally might have been better off staying in Skegness. As it was, he was stuck on the tarmac at the airport with the wind whistling straight off the icepack. The RSPCA’s young woman vet, who had spent much of the flight with her nose pressed up against the bars of the crate communing with Wally, announced that the present situation could well be classified as cruelty… and blamed me.
Right next to Wally’s crate was an enormous hanger, wide open and inviting.
“Would he be alright in there?”
“He’d be out of the wind.”
We pushed him in.
“Shouldn’t we ask someone?”
“Take too long…”
This was absolutely true. One thing I had learned about big organisations was that nobody ever wanted to take responsibility for anything – and this was a very big organisation. This was the United States Air Force. Pretty soon I found myself being wheeled in to see the commanding officer – a man with very short hair and more medal ribbons than you could easily count. He sat behind an enormous desk, under an enormous flag and was called something like Hiram B. Sidewinder III.
He was also bored to tears. Everyone at USAF Keflavik was bored to tears. The only reason they were there was to provide a Search and Rescue facility if a B52 came down in the North Atlantic. No B52 had ever come down in the North Atlantic. Colonel Sidewinder was “Go” for excitement.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said with the certainty of JFK announcing the Moon Landing Program. “We’re gonna take the refuel tank out of a C130 – should give enough room for your Wally’s crate. Now you guys get some shuteye and we’ll have Go for 0600.”
So we closed the big roller doors on Wally and booked into the surprisingly luxurious hotel where we didn’t so much get some shuteye as have a celebration dinner and go for a dip in one of the natural volcanic hot spas that litter Iceland like puddles in Manchester.
The following morning we were back at the airport, all ready for “Go” at 0600. However, now the Colonel had morphed from JFK to Jim Lovell with “Houston, we have a problem.”
We did too. Someone had told the Pentagon.
It was like this: If the C130 was going to be out of commission, another one would have to be flown up from mainland USA to cover for it – after all, the C130 was there to refuel the Air Sea Rescue helicopter that would go to the aid of the crew of the downed B52 – if one should happen to come down for the first time ever during the precise 12 hours it would take to fly Wally to Greenland, fly back and replace the refuel tank.
Of course, the Pentagon could suspend B-52 flights for the duration but wouldn’t you just know it if the Ruskies chose that particular window to start World War III.
So what we had was a “No-Go”.
I began to shake my head. This was not good. So far, Skegness Council had helped save Wally by building him a crate, a North of England haulage company had helped save him by driving him to Heathrow and Iceland Air had helped save him by flying him free and gratis to Keflavik and now… and now…
I placed my cup of disgusting weak American coffee with obligatory cream on the edge of the desk and began to excuse myself: My deadline was approaching. The Daily Mail and its six million readers would be waiting for news of Wally…however disappointing and, possibly, however tragic that news might prove to be.
With a heavy heart and heavy tread, I rose to leave and impart to a waiting world… etc…etc…
“Wait!” The Colonel held up his hand – not an easy thing to do, given the weight of gold braid on his sleeve.
What happened over the next few hours, I can only surmise. I never saw the colonel again – but I did see a lot of the harassed young Captain who had been tasked with rescuing the international reputation of USAF Keflavik, the United States Air Force in general and God’s Own Country as an animal-loving nation.
One day that young Captain was going to be a Colonel – even a General. Here’s what he did from his little office in Iceland: He got the Pentagon to call the State Department – and the State Department to call the US embassy in Reykjavik… and the ambassador to call the Icelandic Foreign Minister – who called the Fisheries Minister – who handed the mission to the commander of their Fishery Protection Fleet.
For 72 hours the Icelandic Fishing fleet in the Denmark Strait would be left unprotected while a little grey Fisheries Protection Vessel – a sort of cross between a destroyer and a lifeboat – would take Wally home. The vet rushed off to tell him the good news.
Sure enough, the whole circus moved to the harbour where Wally was winched aboard and lashed to the deck (the vet giving him a running commentary through the bars).
The captain, a bemused man with a bushy beard and piercing blue eyes, revelled in a name that sounded something like Guðmundur Snorradóttir. The weather forecast was excellent, he said. We should have a smooth crossing (which might well have had something to do with deserting all those fishermen).
And so we ate our way to Greenland. Ask Mark Carwardine, if you don’t believe me – he spends a lot his time living on freeze-dried rations in desolate parts of the world while he makes his documentaries. But on this trip, we had six meals a day.
We started with breakfast – very Scandinavian, lots of raw and smoked fish, hearty breads to exercise the beard muscles. Then, for a mid-morning snack, we were offered a selection of cakes and flatbreads with more smoked fish and coffee. On to lunch which was a full meal of four courses with a choice of two or three dishes for each one. Tea followed at four O’clock with more cakes and then dinner at 6.30: The sort of meal that would not have disgraced a Mayfair restaurant. It took a couple of hours – but then we didn’t have much else to do… at least not until the table was filled once more with cakes and breads at 11.00n p.m. to fend off night starvation.
It was all very relaxing – except for the vet who kept up her vigil, nose to nose with Wally’s bristling moustache.
Then, finally, in brilliant sunshine, we arrived off the sparkling shores of Greenland – about a couple of miles off them.
“This is as close as we can go,” said the captain.
“As close as we can go!” I think I may have exploded slightly.
We had come all this way, from Skegness beach (with the carpenter) down to London thanks to the friendly haulier – Iceland Air’s free freight – Colonel Sidewinder and Captain PR… not to mention the Pentagon, the State Department, the Icelandic Foreign Minister and his Fisheries counterpart…. and after all that, the unpronounceable captain proposed to stop a couple of miles short of the destination…
“Some things you cannot do,” he said in the sort measured tones you would expect from ancient Norse heritage.
Actually, he had a point. The final mile was blocked with solid pack ice.
“Wally will be fine,” said the Captain. “We move the crate to the edge of the deck, we open the door, he can dive in.”
Mike Hollist, the Mail’s patient wildlife photographer, had been listening patiently to all this and spotted a fatal flaw. It would take Wally about a second to dive from crate to water. The motor drive on Mike’s Nikon F4 might be able to crank out five frames in a second. In other words, the best part of a week of everybody’s time and thousands of pounds of other people’s money was all going to be zeroed into five frames – all of them pretty much identical.
We went back to the drawing board. We considered dragging the crate across the ice. We considered calling in a helicopter (the Americans could refuel it on the way)…
“We could put him on the ice,” said Mike – which showed why he kept winning awards for his animal pictures. “Put him on the ice. He crawls around for a bit. Then he dives in. How’s that?”
Mike looked at me. I looked at the Captain. The Captain looked at the ice.
“Maybe,” he said. “Not the pack ice. But maybe we get close to a big floe. Put the crate on the floe…”
“Open the crate,” said Mike.
“With you on the floe…” I suggested (this was looking promising).
But the Captain had seen that go wrong before: “Loose ice like this – very unstable. Can break up – crack – no warning. So, no people on the ice floe. Only Wally. He swims good.”
And so it was arranged: Two little rubber boats were launched to go and fetch an ice flow and drive it towards the ship. Mike stayed aboard because, as he rightly pointed out, if he was in one of the boats, he would have the ship in the background, not Greenland. If we didn’t have Greenland in the background, who was to say we weren’t dropping him in the Serpentine?
The ship’s derrick hoisted Wally in his crate high into the air and over the rail. The two rubber boats revved up and pressed the ice floe more firmly against the side of the ship.
And it was here that the Laws of Physics came into play. Oh, how I hate the Laws of Physics. If the number of times the Laws of Physics were divided into the sum of human endeavour you would get a very frustrating number indeed. On this occasion, the Force applied by the two outboard motors was transferred to the Object (The ice floe) but then it was transferred onward in the form of kinetic energy to the ship (against which it was pushed by the revving outboards) This meant we had Leverage – and with Leverage, you get a Fulcrum (In this case the centre-point of the ship) causing the whole vessel to rotate (the ice floe, Wally and the two little rubber boats with their revving engines, turning with it.)
“Wait, wait, stop!” I cried (I was on the bridge with the mistaken idea that I was directing operations).
The Captain raised a bushy eyebrow. Evidently, he was not used to people countermanding his orders.
“I’m losing Greenland!” came the faint voice of Mike from his vantage point on the rail.
“We’re losing Greenland!” I relayed to the captain in the manner of John Mills addressing Noel Coward.
“…and the sun,” Mike added for good measure.
But the Captain had had enough: “Mister,” he said. “This is a ship. It is floating in water. You cannot park it like a car!”
The pictures weren’t great when I saw them in the paper several days later. Wally emerged as a shapely black blob – backlit against the ice.
But Greenland was there – as large as life – in all its desolate glory with ice in all directions.
“Hammersmith,” Mike explained when I questioned him privately.
Hammersmith means taking two photographs, cutting them up, pushing them together and photographing them again. It got its name from the fiasco surrounding the newly-constructed Hammersmith Flyover in the early ’60s. It was so huge that even the widest wide-angle lens could not encompass all the diverging and converging lanes and bridges. So the photographer who was sent to cover the opening took several photographs, intending that they should be fitted together later.
They were – just in the wrong order: There were roads disappearing into the sides of buildings, bridges which ended in mid-air… of course, now they would mess it up with Photoshop.
I got two bottles of the Editor’s Piper Heidsieck for that.
You don’t suppose the Pembrokeshire Walrus is Wally’s great-great-grandchild looking for fifteen minutes of fame…
Postscript: (this goes on and on). My former colleague, Paul Fievez, takes issue with me and insists that the term “Hammersmith” refers not to the flyover – although that was certainly a later example – but to Hammersmith Hospital. It was there that another legendary colleague (now dead and therefore to be known only as “George”) was sent to photograph one of Britain’s first sets of surviving quadruplets.
Unfortunately, when George arrived, one of the little mites had been removed to intensive care and could not attend its photo-opportunity. Undeterred, George lined up the three remaining incubators, photographed them and then, taking a babe from one end of the line-up, whizzed it round to the other – and photographed them all again.
Everybody knows that all babies are identical and look like Winston Churchill, so once the two prints had been chopped up and pasted back together, nobody was any the wiser.
And until today, I suppose they weren’t.
Fievez only knows about this because, as a young snapper at the Mail, he once received a legendary Daily Mail bollocking from “George” who by that time was his boss. Apparently, Paul had failed to secure an important photograph, and George demanded to know why he hadn’t simply “Hammersmithed” it.
Paul, still wet behind the ears, had no idea what he was talking about – and so, was treated to the whole story.
* Paul has not retired completely from photography (they never do) but, very sensibly, has taken up the pen. At least with words, you can make them up. He assures me his novel Emperor Diamond is entirely made up.
** Those in the know will have worked out who “George” was – so Paul is now trembling at the prospect of another bollocking … this time from beyond the veil.
17 Responses to Wally
Wonderful John. There must be another book just waiting to be written, unless you already have ..
Great to hear you relating the tale to Jeremy Vine on the radio the other day John.
One of Wally’s ancestors turned up in Denmark last week. Not heard of any plans to repatria
Great story. Why not ring Jeremy Vine show and get on today? BBC are running crazy story about “nothing can be done for the poor walrus”….
Excellent, as always!
John a really excellent story. I hope you are ready for another adventure.
Thank you John. Haven’t laughed so much since I finished Old Man Sailing!
Thankyou John, a great story
Brilliant and whimsical as ever. Thanks John
Excellent tale, many thanks.
I enjoyed rhat one John
Hi John, thank you for this wonderful anecdote. Read all your posts. This has brightened my Sunday afternoon . Where are you at present? Best wishes. Joanne
Thank you Joanne, Walton backwaters where I have been sinking – more anon.
Great story John. That would be worthy of a single talk in itself. Steve
John, maybe you should write a book about your hilarious stories prior to your ‘Escape from Covid’ .
I hope you are well, warm, happy and have enough liquid sustenance. Well food as well of course.
Good wishes from Kernow.
What a delightful tale!