An All Hallow’s Read

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Allhallowtide, Night of the Dead, whatever you call it and however you think it came into being one thing’s for sure, it’s become a majorly lucrative chocolate-selling and movie-renting business. This year why not save your consumerist fervour for Christmas and instead stay home for a quiet evening read, with a flickering candle and a glass of brandy or something. What to read, you ask? We have just the thing.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thus, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act i, Scene 2.

The_King_in_Yellow

Thus begins one of the oldest, strangest and oft-referenced works of speculative fiction to grace our shelves, as mysterious today as it was when first published in 1895. The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, and if you’re nodding your head now it’s because you recognise the title from the first season of True Detective, where the themes and symbolism were referenced as a kind of otherworldly red herring to the mystery pursued by Rust and Marty.

The intertextuality doesn’t end there. Chambers’ collection itself is hung on the influence of a play about the titular King, which is continually referenced throughout the stories but never fully presented. The play is said to bring insanity or a grim fate upon those who read it. Besides Chambers’ stories themselves being a great read, this elusive structural gimmick is pure squirmy genius.

And its heritage is vast. Chambers’ Yellow King was influenced by the classic works of Ambrose Bierce, Théophile Gautier and even Poe, and went on to be a foundational inspiration for most of the significant genre players of the  twentieth century, including H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein and even Stephen King.

All this over a creepy fictional play that never actually existed.

The best news is that it’s now public domain so you can read the entire text online. Enjoy.

Canopy Shyness

One pm and One am are two very different times of day.

One pm in grade five was a sunny but humid afternoon in science class. The Camphor Laurel trees were swaying in the hot wind, their branches tapping the rusted louvers of our dusty classroom. In science class, I remember we were taught these trees were weeds, introduced over a hundred years ago to the area. Now their old roots spread under the whole school, connecting each classroom to the forest and to the river.

 

One am in grade five was waking up in a sweat from a bad dream. While it scared me for a few seconds, I knew I could always feel safe in my own bed. I didn’t feel any eyes on me here; I felt less fear than what I experienced in school. Outside I could always feel them on my back. The piercing eyes, distant laughter. Everything I did, I did in fear of being shamed of being yelled at. Even alone, I could never shake the feeling I was being watched.

 

At one pm, I loved Science Class. If we weren’t playing with coloured solutions or Lego robots, we were outside in the heat. Some classes were in the pine forest, some behind the school where our teacher taught on the ground while the class sat above in the old Camphor Laurel branches. On special occasions, we visited the forest beside the school where the trees expanded in all its natural beauty.

One particular hot day, we ventured even deeper into the forest, following the river downstream. Here, the native trees outnumbered the weeds and the path disappeared under forest litter.

“Look up.” our teacher had said.

maxresdefault

At one am I used to stare up at the ceiling. I didn’t want to sleep, because I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to wake up and go to school. The oral presentation had crept up on me so quickly – I had just wanted to forget about it. But before school finished our teacher reminded us to be prepared. My stomach churned at the thought of it. To choose who was to be first, the teacher picked a name from a hat. I used to blush constantly, especially when my name was spoken out loud.

 

“What do you see up there?” The teacher questioned, pointing to the canopy.

“Trees and leaves?” someone beside me answered. But I remember seeing more than that. I saw rivers between the tree canopy, and the varying colours of the different species. I saw a cockatoo pick at the bark and a lorikeet nibble some berries.

“Yes, definitely leaves,” the teacher said, “Anyone else see something a little strange?” I continued to stare straight up, keeping silent. I could see something strange, but I didn’t have the words to say it out loud.

“Ok then, does everyone notice the lines between the canopy of the trees? See how the tops of the tree’s branches don’t touch each other?”

Everyone hummed a “ahh’ of realisation. That was weird, everyone agreed.

“This is called ‘Canopy Shyness’ or ‘Crown Shyness’ and no scientist has agreed to a theory on why some forest trees do this.”

“It looks like how the ground cracks in a desert.” I murmured. A few people turned back to look at me, and I blushed and looked back up at the canopy.

 

I don’t remember going back to sleep after one am.

“Did you get any sleep?” mum asked me in the morning.

“No, I didn’t. And I feel really sick.”

“Well you don’t look sick.”

“Mum, I really don’t want do to this.”

“You’ll be fine, it’s only five minutes. Just take deep breaths.”

But it felt like my insides had rusted and that I would fail at everything. I always felt like this when my only friend wasn’t at school, or if I accidentally made eye contact with a stranger. I could never buy anything by myself, I was too terrified to say the wrong thing, or have the wrong change. I didn’t like to ask difficult questions. I didn’t want to be yelled at. I didn’t like loud things. I didn’t like hugs.

 

“One theory,” Our teacher explained, his hands still pointing to the sky, “Is that the tall trees may suffer physical damage as they collide with each other during windy days or storms. To stop injury, they respond with Canopy Shyness.”

 

The clock ticked over to 1pm. The notes in my hands were damp from my sweaty hands.

“Ashlee!” the teacher announced, and his words vibrated in my ears. “Ready for your presentation?”

I nodded while my insides scrambled, and my face warmed. I was frightened of the eyes on me, the thoughts that could be going through my classmate’s heads. I wanted to run out of the classroom and hide, but I knew that would make me even more anxious than I was. I was frightened of failing, of disappointing.

I set up my PowerPoint.

“The Umbrella Tree” my presentation was called. To my surprise, the class was in awe of my PowerPoint. I had created colourful yet clear slides with forest sounds and non-blurry pictures. My insides unscrambled a little.

“Ready when you are, Ashlee.” the teacher said.

“The Umbrella Tree,” I stuttered, “is not considered a dangerous weed in Queensland. And in this presentation I’m going to explain why it should be.”

I read straight off my notes, not even looking up once.

But no one booed or yelled, and I think they all actually listened. Because when I mentioned that Lorikeets ate the trees’ fermenting berries and became a little drunk, everyone laughed. When I finished everyone clapped, I blushed and smiled.

I walked back to my desk still a little shaky, but feeling taller. Feeling like I had grown a little.

 

Sitting in my bed at One am, I feel grown. It took me ten years, but I don’t live in constant fear anymore. I have a canopy that tangles with the forest for miles, and while there’s still a little space between some leaves, I know it’ll grow as I do. Tangling with the forest where I feel I now belong.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

 

Last Quarter

The fish swims with its wooden fins nailed to the wall, a static body, brushed with white paint. A woman sits on a balcony. She watches the chai latte moon spill milk out onto the ocean.

‘God damn it,’ she whispers.

The woman pivots a wine glass in her fingers, squinting as her hand ceases up. Her wet hair feels cold on her neck. She swirls the wine again, all too aggressively, and it spills from the top of the glass. Cars glide down the road, in the distance, twinkling like slow-moving comets.

‘Fourth of September?’ she whispers. ‘Mm, fourth of September.’

She nods her head slightly, sighing. Of course she missed the deadline. She always does. She peers through her wine glass at the seaside town. It’s skewed and foggy. To the right of the headland, a ship crawls along the ocean.

‘A caterpillar with one hundred golden boots,’ she says, smiling at herself.

Maybe she’ll write that one down. The doorbell shrieks.

17641990

***

When the man steps into the apartment she directs him to the dining room. The man studies the two chairs and settles for the Cherry Wood. He plays with a tassel on the table-throw.

‘Would you like a glass of wine, sir,’ she asks, winking.

‘No, a tea would be better.’

She gives a slight nod and a small smile.

‘Ok,’ she says.

In the kitchen, steam drifts from an orange teacup. The woman snaps five squares of chocolate from a Dairy Milk bar.

‘Ouch,’ she says, scraping cold chocolate from under her fingernails.

Glancing at the orange cup, she notices the tea’s dark shade. She wonders if it is bitter. She quickly lifts the teabag from the cup and drops it into the sink. Liquid escapes from the white mesh like a punctured soup dumpling. There are eight cold teabags sitting, slumped, by the drain.

The man is rubbing at his forehead when she walks in. His scalp is smooth and glossy.

‘I must be home by seven-thirty,’ he says.

‘But, you only just got here,’ the woman says, placing the tea down with quivering hands.

‘I would like to spend more time with you, but, I’m a Manager. I have work to do tonight. People depend on me. ’

The woman sighs, placing her hands on her hips.

‘I have to do work tonight as well,’ she says.

‘Yeah?’ the man says.

‘I’m a writer,’ she says, proudly. ‘I enter competitions to win money.’

‘How interesting,’ he says.

The woman smiles weakly, pulling a strand of hair behind her ear.

‘Stay the whole hour, at least?’ she says, fluttering her eyelashes.

The man ignores her, cradling his teacup in large, weathered hands. He lifts the cup to his nose and breathes in the steam. He brings it to his lips. She feels her stomach sink.

‘No!’ she says.

The man looks at her with wide, husky-blue eyes, the teacup frozen at his lips.

‘What? Did you poison this?’ he asks.

‘Yes.’

She rubs her fingers down her chin and laughs.

‘No, it’s just too hot to drink.’

He nods sternly, inspecting his Rolex, before standing abruptly.

‘Where are you going?’ the woman asks, panicked. ‘Please don’t leave. I need you.’

The man unclips his name badge and places it gently on the table. He grabs at a lace on his medallion captoe Balmoral and loosens his tie.

‘It’s 6:30pm,’ he says. ‘We must make the most of our time together.’


She hates the feeling of lying in bed in only a chemise. The doona is rough against her skin.

‘Why do you see men?’ the man asks, rubbing at his bare chest with glazed eyes. ‘At your age?’

‘I just do.’

The man nods before stepping out of bed. He stands by the mirror, twisting his shirt into position.

‘Don’t you have a family? A son? A husband?’ he asks, smoothing out his tie. ‘Why do you live at the beach? Property is expensive here.’

‘I like it here.’

The man runs his fingers against the top of his head as he smirks.

‘You’re running from something aren’t you?’ he says, staring at the woman’s mirrored reflection.

The man turns to the door and raises his voice as he walks from the room. She follows.

‘You know how the moon on the horizon is an optical illusion…?’ he says. ‘It seems bigger and better because you think it’s far away?’

When the man reaches the dining room, he turns to face her, pinning his name badge onto his dress shirt. David Kerning.

‘It’s the same old moon,’ he says, staring at the woman intensely. ‘It’s no bigger and no better. It’s not actually far away.’

The woman shrugs.

‘My money?’ she asks.

He pulls an envelope from his pocket and passes it to her.

‘There’s 75 dollars. As agreed.’

She opens the envelope, thumbing through the notes. She nods.

‘Let yourself out when you’re ready. If you’d like to see me again, you know where to book me.’

The woman turns and walks down the hall. She swings her hips, smiling when the headland comes into view. She hears the door close. A tiny click. She sits on the balcony pivoting a wine glass in her hand. In the other hand, she holds a lead pencil and scribbles in her notebook. When the woman’s hand begins to cramp she raises the wine bottle to her lips. She sucks in the fruity liquid and watches the cars glide down the road in the distance. At 10pm, she walks back down the hall and stuffs the empty teacup in a cupboard. In the shower, she rubs Argan oil into her hair and listens carefully for the 10.30 doorbell.

 

Carmel Purcell

 

Because of Marty McFly

If you were born in or around the 80s chances are Marty McFly featured large in your childhood. Something about the combination of his wide-eyed wonder and teenage recklessness made Marty the kind of guy you’d want to hang around. The many harrowing experiences he endured simply endeared him to us further, as he saved himself from oblivion several times and repeatedly outwit the many iterations of Biff Tannen via the assistance of a handy hoverboard or some mad guitar skills, or the inevitable pile of manure.

In fact many of you would still count the Back to the Future trilogy among the best movies ever made. I know I do, not simply for the sheer entertainment value, which is significant even thirty years on, but because the films spoke intimately and intelligently to the sense of adventure and personal triumph that we all crave, making them truly timeless in their appeal and also their relevance.

Back-to-the-Future-2

The movies had a vast impact on popular culture, with the crazy inventiveness of the narrative spawning references wide and varied from hiphop tunes, to presidential addresses, to the emergence of 80s skateboard culture. And the mild DeLorean was never the same again.

In honour of this very great of days, 21 October 2015, I’d like to acknowledge the linguistic contribution of Back to the Future to our modern vernacular. Here are fifteen things you now say because of Dr. Emmett Brown and his silver DeLorean.

Great Scott!

Manure! I hate manure!

Nobody calls me chicken.

Whoa. This is heavy.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 mph…you’re gonna see some serious shit.

Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?

The time-travelling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women.

You’re the doc, Doc.

What happens to us in the future? Do we become assholes or something?

I foresee two possibilities. One, coming face to face with herself 30 years older would put her into shock and she’d simply pass out. Or two, the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe!

I’m your density.

Well, that is your name, isn’t it? Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.

It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Happy Back to the Future Day, everyone.

Elise Janes

Marlon James Wins the Booker Prize

Snaps for Marlon James, the first Caribbean to win the Booker Prize since V. S. Naipaul won in 1971 with In a Free State, and the third in a row of winners who have not been Irish, English or Indian.

James’ win should put a smile on many a rebellious face, much like the subject matter of his book A History of Seven Killings, which covers the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in the 1970s and traces the cultural fallout through the following decades, employing a surprisingly diverse array of narrative voices.

Jamaica’s history is rich in music and poetry, and James’ novel was inspired by this legacy, however he is notable for being one of the first truly successful Jamaican novelists.

Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian author who taught creative writing in Jamaica, wondered why all good Caribbean poetry came out of Jamaica, but all the good novels were from Trinidad. He observed this interesting difference between the two cultures:

If you put up a statue in Jamaica, the next day everyone pass that statue in silence. With a kinda solemnity about it. Because, you know, it’s a serious thing. That’s how I find you Jamaicans. You take things so goddamn serious. But if you put that same statue up in Trinidad, the next morning people deface it. Or they throw garbage at it. That’s how we are. You can’t put anything up on a pedestal in Trinidad.

from The Guardian

Now doesn’t that sound culturally familiar, fellow Australians? Apparently our natural bent toward toppling pedestals makes us prime novel-writing pasture.

Another encouraging fact that may appeal to those emerging authors out there: James’ first book was rejected by 78 publishers and agents. Hooray for number 79.

man-booker-prize-2015-short-listed-books

2015 Booker Shortlist:

  • Marlon James (Jamaica), A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Tom McCarthy (UK), Satin Island
  • Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), The Fishermen
  • Sunjeev Sahota (UK), The Year of the Runaways
  • Anne Tyler (US), A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Hanya Yanagihara (US), A Little Life

Previous Winners:

  • 2010: Howard Jacobson (UK), The Finkler Question
  • 2011: Julian Barnes (UK), The Sense of an Ending
  • 2012: Hilary Mantel (UK), Bring Up the Bodies
  • 2013: Eleanor Catton (NZ), The Luminaries
  • 2014: Richard Flanagan (AUS), The Narrow Road to the Deep North

 

 

A List of Ones

 

There’s something bizarrely satisfying about assembling a list of titles around a suitably flimsy concept, in this case the number ‘one’ in honour of our anniversary month. Here follows a chronological tenner of novels with the word or number ‘one’ in the title. Surprisingly, the resultant assemblage features a variety of genre and style spanning half a century of literature, featuring many authors and novels frequently listed in reputable ‘best of’ collections. Who’d have thunk it? Enjoy.

 

One Lonely Night (1951)
Mickey Spillane
Genre: Noir
Distinguishing Features: Communists, misty pavements, and a trash-talking private eye.

Some place over there I had left my car and started walking, burying my head in the collar of my raincoat, with the night pulled in around me like a blanket. I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink. If there was life behind the windows of the buildings on either side of me, I didn’t notice it. The street was mine, all mine. They gave it to me gladly and wondered why I wanted it so nice and all alone.

 

Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Ray Bradbury
Genre: Dystopian
Distinguishing Features: Book burning, nostalgic imagery, and thought-inducing prose.

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

fahrenheit-451-large

 

The Once & Future King (1958)
T H White
Genre: Arthurian legend/fantasy
Distinguishing Features: Chivalry, swords, and the triumph of human nature over systemic power.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn.”

 

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960)
Dr Seuss
Genre: Children’s Literature
Distinguishing Features: Brilliant rhymes, delightful turns of phrase, the desire to be a kid again.

From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!

 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
Ken Kesey
Psychological drama
Distinguishing Features: Nurse Ratched, consistent banning from highschool reading lists, an Academy Award-winning movie.

If you don’t watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.

 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Genre: War fiction
Distinguishing Features: Soviet brutality, prison camp oppression, and a lesson in mental survival.

When you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who’s warm.

 

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Genre: Magic realism
Distinguishing Features: Heartbreaking beauty, a fanciful history of Colombia, a certain rebellious twisting of the laws of reality.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

one hundred years of solitude

 

The Power of One (1989)
Bryce Courtney
Genre: Bildungsroman/historical fiction
Distinguishing Features: Boarding school woes, South African racial tensions, overcoming tyranny with your mind and some hard-acquired boxing skills.

In each of us there is a flame that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it burns within us, we cannot be destroyed.

 

Once Were Warriors (1990)
Alan Duff
Genre: Quasi-autobiography
Distinguishing Features: State housing, domestic abuse, and Maori dispossession.

Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything.

 

Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)
David Sedaris
Genre: Essays/autobiography
Distinguishing Features: Ironic humour, melancholy reflection, larger than life characters.

After a few months in my parents’ basement, I took an apartment near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of these things are dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations.

 

Elise Janes

 

Museums far from the madding crowd

Few cities in the world do museums in quite the way London does. Its most famous examples – The British Museum, the Natural History Museum and so on – are among the city’s major tourist attractions. But it is possible to enjoy a different flavour of London by visiting its legion minor museums, which seem to exist solely as a means of expressing how peculiar Britons and their interests can be.

Many of these museums require, shall we say, a very keen interest in the subject matter; while others are, as Samuel Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, ‘worth seeing … but not worth going to see’.

However, the following five are among the few that are worth a visit.

Foundling Museum                                                      

Located in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, the Foundling Museum (foundlingmuseum.org.uk) is built on the site of the Foundling Hospital – the world’s first children’s charity and its first public art gallery.

The Hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. It had taken him 17 years to raise the funds.

The artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel helped Coram by making the Hospital one of London’s most fashionable venues. Handel held annual benefit concerts there while Hogarth encouraged the leading artists of the day to donate work. These paintings are still on display in the Museum’s charming 18th-century interiors reconstructed from the original building.

Poverty, widowhood, desertion by the child’s father and the shame of illegitimacy were common reasons why women faced the Sophie’s choice of keeping their babies and subjecting them to a life of poverty, or leaving them with the Hospital, which offered the child a better life. On opening, the Hospital was overwhelmed by demand and, to cope with the numbers, was forced to use a simple lottery system.

On admission, names were changed to protect mother and child, but it was possible for a mother to reclaim her child using a token that matched the one she’d already provided. Some of these are on heart-breaking display in the Museum’s small but fascinating permanent exhibition. They include personalised fabric, coins, playing cards, jewellery and medals.

By the time the Foundling Hospital closed in 1954, about 25,000 babies and children had passed through its doors.

Dickens Museum

Dickens writing Desk

A short walk from the Foundling Hospital, is the Dickens Museum (dickensmuseum.com), located in a Georgian townhouse at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. Then in his mid-twenties, Dickens moved there with his wife Catherine, Charles Jr (the first of their ten children) and Catherine’s sister Mary Hogarth who died in the house a few weeks later. Her death affected Dickens deeply and had a morbid influence on his subsequent writing.

Dickens rented the house from 1837 to 1839, just as his fame was peaking. It was at 48 Doughty Street that he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The museum is exquisitely curated and very evocative. Many of the objects were owned by Dickens himself (such as his desk and chair, and shaving gear).

Whether you’re interested in Dickens or not you would have to be among the living dead not to find the museum captivating, and it is within striking distance of the British Museum and the rest of what has been dubbed Museum Mile (museum-mile.org.uk).

Guards Museum

Much smaller than the Army Museum in Chelsea and certainly the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, the Guards Museum (theguardsmuseum.com) is ideal for someone whose interest in military matters is low to moderate and who happens to be in the area – that is, Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace. There is no faulting its location.

The museum is devoted solely to the British Army’s five Guards regiments – the Coldstream, Grenadier, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards – who form most of the Queen’s Household Division. When you watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, it is these guys who are doing the changing.

This compact museum is well laid out and consistently interesting, covering as it does all 360 years of the Guards’ existence. As such it provides a pocket history of the British Army. Objects that captured my attention included a packet of now crumbling chocolate distributed by Queen Victoria to all British soldiers during the Boer War, and an assault rifle smashed to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Old Operating Theatre

There are dozens of medicine-related museums in London (see www.medicalmuseums.org) but probably the best example is the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, which more than any other museum I’ve been to, benefits from its unique setting.

The museum is housed at the top of a spiral stone staircase in the garret of a deconsecrated church near London Bridge. The church was built in 1703, its garret specifically intended to store herbs for the apothecary of St Thomas’s Hospital.

In 1822, an operating theatre was installed in one half of the garret. The theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe, and was built in the attic because it adjoined the hospital’s women’s ward, and because it was possible to create a large overhead skylight to aid the surgeons in their work.

For the 40 years it was in use, none of the operations performed there involved anaesthetic beyond alcohol or maybe opium, which is why it was separated from the ward by a soundproof wall. Tragically, antiseptic was not used either – Sir Joseph Lister introduced such procedures to the medical world in 1865, three years after the operating theatre closed. The mortality rate was horrendous.

The operating table, which remains in situ, is made of wood. The majority of cases were amputations, and in the absence of anaesthetics surgeons focused on speed. A skilled surgeon could remove a limb in less than a minute.

The other half of the garret contains a fascinating if macabre display including surgical instruments such as amputation saws, as well as leech jars and scarification equipment. The place smells pleasantly of carbolic, which is on display but was never used at the time. The illustrations of people being held down while their limbs are sawn off adds to the atmosphere and the immense gratitude you feel for having been born 150 years after the theatre was closed.

Staff talks bring the innocuous wood-panelled space of the operating theatre to gruesome life so it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one – check the website (thegarret.org.uk) for details.

Anaesthesia Museum

In a similar vein, so to speak, is the Anaesthesia Museum, which is housed in the basement of the Association of Anaesthetists (www.aagbi.org) in Marylebone. Though the size of a modest kitchen, it has more than 4000 objects, some of them dating from 1774, and many of them available for inspection in drawers with labels such as ‘Endotracheal tubes’, ‘Laryngeal masks’, ‘mouthgags’, and ‘tongue forceps’.

It is a well-curated museum permeated with what might be the faint smell of anaesthetic. That said, it is more the story of anaesthesia than the museum itself that captured my imagination. For instance, the first anaesthetics were ether (1846), chloroform (1847) and nitrous oxide (1868). None of them were ideal. Ether is highly flammable, chloroform’s possible side effects include death, and nitrous oxide wears off too quickly.

Other obscure London museums …

The following museums might also tempt you, though bear in mind their opening hours can be as eccentric as their contents – check their websites for details.

  • The Optical Museum near Trafalgar Square has a collection of 18,000 spectacles and vision aids including 18th- and 19th-century spy glasses and telescopes, eye baths, and models of diseased eyes.
  • The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill offers 12,000 items, mostly comprising food packets from the last century or so.
  • The Twinings Museum, opposite the Old Bailey on the Strand, is more a small shop than a museum, though it was on these premises in 1706 that the tea company was founded.
  • The Dental Museum in Marylebone is about the size of a dental surgery, and provides a disturbing insight into life before dentists were properly trained and equipped.
  • Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich is necessarily large given the sometimes enormous exhibits on display. An interest in artillery is a prerequisite.
  • If you enjoyed the Dickens Museum, you might also want to visit Dr Johnson’s House near Fleet Street, or Benjamin Franklin’s House near Charing Cross, or Keats’s House in Hampstead.
  • The Garden Museum in Lambeth has a small collection of old gardening tools, including eccentricities such as a glass cucumber-straightener and a walking stick with inbuilt pruning saw for gentlemen gardeners.
  • The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell offers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
  • The Musical Museum in Brentford is devoted purely to self-playing instruments. An excellent place to learn the difference between the orchestrion and the orchestrelle.
  • The Chartered Insurance Institute Museum in the City of London is concerned mainly with fire insurance and firefighting.
  • The Wimbledon Windmill Museum details the history of the Wimbledon Windmill (in which it is located) and windmills generally. Ideal for windmill enthusiasts.
  • The London Sewing Machine Museum in Balham covers the history of both domestic and industrial sewing machines.
  • Greenwich’s Fan Museum claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to handheld fans, which comes as absolutely no surprise. If you find yourself there trying to admire its 3500 antique fans, it is possible that you’ve become bored with London, and therefore with life.

 

Conan Elphicke