whitby-abbey

Approaching Whitby along the coastal path there is drama in the air. The ruined Abbey appears like a piece of charred lace against a grey February sky. There is talk of vampires here, and jet — the black fossilised wood found in the nearby cliffs — is carved into expensive jewellery for those who wish to take a little of the gothic home.

As far as the gothic goes, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, has a lot to answer for. Setting part of his masterwork in this North Yorkshire port, he forever branded the town as a heaven (or a hell) for goths and others of darker predilections. It’s all good for the tourist trade though and adds another layer, albeit imagined, on to this town, already busy with history. There are Georgian houses and Victorian lighthouses; tales of Viking raiders and smugglers; the legacies of whaling and fossil hunting; and of course civic pride in the young apprentice sailor James Cook who learned his naval ropes here long before he would land on Botany Bay.

Perhaps Whitby is a popular destination because it can cater to your tastes, whatever they may be. Adaptable, it becomes the town you wish of it. Like a skilled courtesan, it pleases without seeming to try too hard, leaving each visitor feeling satisfied and vowing to return to re-experience the best or to try whatever was left undone through lack of time.

So what was I doing looking out across the harbour from my room in the Pier Inn at dawn one winter morning? Unable to sleep, or perhaps awoken by the bells from the church on the cliff, I pulled back the curtains to see a fishing port coming gently to life. In truth, there are few fishing boats now in what was once one of the busiest and most important ports in England, but there are dog walkers, beachcombers and hooded figures scuffling through the cold morning air to their jobs in hotels and guest houses. And there are delivery vans navigating narrow streets wholly unsuitable for the internal combustion engine. Fresh bread, seafood and newspapers are delivered as well as another commodity that caught my eye — Exotic Fruit for the Catering Trade. For some reason this seemed a little incongruous. The seafood yes, the bread naturally and the papers of course — but exotic fruit?

Whitby, with all its delights is not really an exotic fruit sort of place. Solid Yorkshire sandstone has been used to build the town and its inhabitants. Lobster pots and tales of angling success are both piled improbably high on the dock sides. There are medieval streets and alleyways, listed buildings that even list and a sense of its own longevity almost as old as the fossils in its rocks.   But there is little, if any, need to gild this particular lily with the exotic— it is already special and already golden.

We should take pleasure in the unique and even in the merely unusual, without attempting to smooth its corners and make it fit our ideas. The out of the ordinary may be disconcerting, but it is always interesting, and nowhere more so than in science. ‘Treasure your exceptions,’ counselled the early 20th century Cambridge biologist William Bateson, for he recognised just what could be learned from the unusual. We ignore outliers at our peril for it is in the apparently aberrant that the true story of our data may lie, or at least one complicated aspect of it.

But, worse than discarding the unusual are our often botched attempts at improving upon it. To do so is not only a fruitless task but also a foolhardy one. By taking what is unique and therefore already special and attempting to make it better — to improve upon it — all we end up doing is making it like everything else. In short, making it ordinary. The unique is as special as it gets and that’s the important point.

Whitby this winter’s dawn is special and has no need of exotic fruit — by being unique, it is already quite exotic enough.

© Allan Gaw 2017

Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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