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My life as an amateur taxidermist, Or, How I ended up in my pyjamas at 3pm awaiting the delivery of two frozen squirrels

Don't try this at home kids. Seriously.

“I don’t want to cause a weird fight or anything,” I said, “But someone’s shoved a frozen pizza on top of my rook. Obviously I can’t bring this up without alerting the house to the presence of dead rook in the freezer.”

“Sweetums. Treacle,” came the reply. “You cannot put a dead rook in the freezer and then not tell people it’s there.”

Prior to this conversation, I had rearranged the frozen pizzas, the ancient half-price steaks and the ice cubes with the breadcrumb dusting, and I had placed in the freezer the following items: two pigeons and one rook (dead). They nestled there wrapped in foil and orange Sainsbury’s bags next to the peas, and would stay there until the day when I would have time to stuff them with woodwool and cotton balls and replace their dead eyes with beads, because shitty amateur taxidermists like me do not actually purchase proper glass eyes. We cut corners. We get tired and rush the bit at the end. We make tiny monsters that we keep in our bedrooms that ensure we will never get laid again.

You will be forgiven for asking me a question I have been asked many times over my life: how did you get this way? What went wrong? I was a kid obsessed with skeletons. The progression to taxidermy was natural. I’ve liked it ever since I veered off the dinosaur path at the museum into the wing of glass-cased birds. All I wanted to know what what was inside them and where did the guts go. And who did this stuff? Or, more crucially: could I do this stuff too?

I grew up and I took a course in bird taxidermy. I stuffed a duck: a proper handsome dude with a green head and white eyeliner and a long elegant neck that I accidentally tore in half at some point in the class. It currently hangs from a bent coat-hanger protruding from a high cupboard, forever about to land but unsure what to do with its wings. It looks like it’s screaming. Technically it turned out okay, in that I mean yes, okay, the wings wrenched high above his head don’t actually mirror the way duck wings move in real life, but despite it being my first go, it looked exactly like a duck. It was identifiable as a thing that used to say “quack”. Like an animal whose unfeasibly long penis you have Google image-searched long after your bedtime. You could tell this just by looking at him. You didn’t even have to get very close (which you wouldn’t want to do anyway on account of him smelling funky) (initially) (this goes away). There was no need to ask what it was, or what it used to be, or what happened to its face. My second attempt was different.

Carl Akeley, a taxidermist who was better than me, once wrestled a leopard to death

Buoyed by the success of my very first venture I went – in hindsight prematurely – solo. With a box full of stuff I bought off eBay (dental implements, tanning liquid, woodwool etc), I laid out a former pigeon on the table in my houseshare’s front room, having patiently waited for everyone to go out. In order to fully explain what went wrong, in stages, would take too long. Let’s just say: I did some crimes. Big, inexpert, terrible things happened to that bird while the taxidermy L-plates hung askew on my buttocks. Before I had even started I did a crime. Instead of persevering with the scalpel blade I was unable to slide onto a freshly purchased Swann-Morton handle, I panicked. I left the house and returned with a fantastically blunt “craft knife” which was just looking out from that plastic window waiting to ruin my day.

Armed thus defectively, I made the first incision (frantic tear with an inappropriate non-medical tool) down the bird’s ribcage. I separated the skin from the meat as taught, and stubbornly carried on with the useless metal thing (I’m pretty sure I saw Neil Buchanan with one on Art Attack at some point) until a moment of wild frustration/stabbing resulted in the contents of the bird’s stomach showering all over me/my housemate’s DVDs. I won’t go into any specific dietary details, but I will say that I have not eaten sweetcorn since that day. I will say that.

(A digressional note on the subject of giblets: A friend of mine once worked in a chicken factory in Wales where they produced the kind of clingfilmed chickens you find heaped in a chest freezer in Sainsbury’s. His job on the factory line was to take a bag of giblets — the heart and other viscera, separated from the animal during butchering — and insert it into the headless, plucked bird, before it went off along the conveyor belt to be wrapped. New chicken, new bag, repeat. Once the chicken has been bought at the shop and brought home you can do what you like with the bag of edibile offal, but did you ever stop and consider that statistically and practically, no store-bought chicken will house its own giblets? I think about this at least three times a week. Probably more.)

A brief explanation of how it’s all done (and considering there are whole books written on the subject, only an idiot would attempt it in two paragraphs) (hi). With the body and meat removed, what you’re left with is the skin, some leg bones picked clean and a skull. You force the surprisingly yoghurty brain out of its cavity by tweezing cotton wool into the base of the skull so that the pressure becomes too great and the brain has nowhere to go except to out through the eye sockets. This step is by far the goriest and stomach-testing of the whole operation on account of brains smell terrible (who knew?) — it’s also the most satisfying and perhaps my favourite of all, matched only by the bit where you pry the whole tongue out of the mouth backwards and lay it out on the newspaper beside you, strategically placed on the face of Alan Davies.

After hours of picking and cleaning and regretting you end up with what is essentially a cardigan, and you have to make a body out of woodwool and twine with which to fill it. You model it on the body you’ve not yet thrown out or fed to your culinarily adventurous housemate from Devon, and theoretically the whole thing should fit together properly and look vaguely like what it was before it died on that farm up in Dronfield. And then you wire the limbs, prop the thing up to set, and spend the next two days fretting about the positioning. You have roughly two days to make changes. After that, things start to crack.

From that it the process spiraled into further depths of horrendous stench and despair. The end result was a clump of damp feathers, split skin, and a face not even a truly demented mother would grow accustomed to. I even accidentally cooked him with a hairdryer. Had I persevered enough to put some eyes in I wouldn’t know where they were supposed to go. I busted both my thumbs doing it and bled all over the carpet.

Here is a picture of the monster I made that day:

Strive to put your mounted animals in easy natural poses
unless you are making a grotesque,
in which case go the length
.”
- Albert B. Farnham, Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit (1916).

No, really.

Anyone who has not made these clumsy forays into DIY taxidermy has probably never wondered where the dead things come from. As self-appointed (in)expert, I will lift the veil. You’re welcome.

This is how a person who lives in the city and has no plans to kill any one-legged manky London pigeons end up with a more or less permanent avian coffin and a set of perturbed housemates who probably won't use those ice cubes after all:

The Internet. You discover that can buy a mole for a tenner on eBay. Three crows might cost you twenty. A badly photographed job lot of grim spoils from a game hunt spilled out onto a wet bathroom floor go for thirty. Merely searching for these things changes eBay’s profile on you and they start suggesting sheep thigh bones, dental picks and disembodied hawk feet. You stare at birds in the park like an unknown bearded man watches children through a primary school fence. You watch how their legs fit together, how their wings don’t go like how you made them go like when you got all excited while stuffing that duck. One day you might notice one of them dead on the grass. In real life. And the fact that you don’t have to put a bid on this thing or pay for postage makes your brain start thinking strange new thoughts. These are some of them that you have while standing completely still on Clapham High Street next to a dead crow while everybody else is not standing next to dead crows:

(We could pretend this is hypothetical but obviously that would be lying.)

I could go to Iceland over the road and buy some stuff and they would give me some plastic bags! I could take him home in said bags! All I’d have to do is ditch the choc ices! But what if somebody steals him...

And then your old sane self will pipe up on the other shoulder:

What about those people at the bus stop watching me interfering with a dead bird in the dark? What if it’s crowded on the Tube and what if the bus is crowded too, with me standing there with what was clearly a dead crow encased in one single sheath of low-grade plastic bag? And then what if I get home and my housemates are in the kitchen, and they ask me as I open the freezer drawer and shift their bags of bread and peas out of the way: “What’s in the bag?”

I left it in the park. Which is good, because I had just had some major dental work and my slackened face was drooling out one side and I was on the verge becoming some Val Lewton horror sidekick even without the dead crow under my arm.

I took another taxidermy course: a rabbit. Over the course of the next three months as that rabbit sat atop my bookshelf it rotted away to nothing (I live in a mothy house and those moths are seemingly immune to the preservatives with which we drenched this thing plus also and obviously my skills are totally lacking). I didn’t notice it happening and looked up one day to find that its little furry face had disappeared, its ears had shrunk and puckered, and all that remained above the threadbare torso was a dusty skull with some beads shoved in it, a jaw full of cotton balls and a bleak aura of (what would prove to be largely permanent) hairy death shadow creeping outwards from the rabbit and up my walls (hi, My Estate Agent, keeper of the deposit). It ended up in the bin. Here is where it once stood:

But in those initial heady days of rabbit success, before I undoubtedly inhaled unthinkable microscopic rabbit things, I was, again, pretty confident of my own genius. I thought that I would like to try a squirrel next. Another small furry mammal. “I can do small furry mammals,” I said to myself, similarly chuffed as I was, post-duck. I ordered some off an old man in the North who I also found on the Internet. Pete Staines. P Staines, he writes on the back of the parcel. A pest control man with a big freezer whose wife has just left him after 38 years. He had, at the time I phoned him, 300 crows, 50 rooks, a dozen jackdaws, three squirrels in his neighbour’s freezer and one big broken heart. He asked me if I wanted any of the above.

And this is why I found myself locked in a house, in parcel purgatory. I was unable to shower, to go out and buy food, unable to do any of the things I planned to do until a man in a uniform rang my doorbell and handed me two frozen squirrels. I sat in my candy-striped pajamas (size XXL and a gift from my mum, the size alone caused all manner of trauma and self-doubt) staring at a door that was never knocked, losing tiny pieces of my mind the longer he remained AWOL.

Walter Potter, another taxidermist who was better than me whilst simultaneously not being all that great either. Disappointingly, his biography is not subtitled A Life Spent Waiting For The UPS Truck

The Royal Mail tracking system said WE HAVE YOUR ITEM and nothing more. I phoned them. The robot lady was no help. “If your item is listed as PROGRESSING THROUGH OUR NETWORK FOR DELIVERY we do not know exactly where it is,” she said, the pre-programmed polite version of ‘FUCK KNOWS.’ A non-robot lady said that if my question that I was about to ask was about STAMPS then she would not be able to answer, plus also not to bother her until my parcel had been missing for a full 15 days.

15 days.

I wanted to explain but I was too embarrassed. I used words like “time sensitive delivery” and “awkward” and “no really”. I envisioned a pair of mouldering squirrels in a bloated parcel in the Post Office depot with my name on them. Literally with my name on them. I further envisioned myself marching back to the Post Office with the unopened package and returning to sender. “DEAR P STAINES,” began the letter in my head. “UMM.”

They turned up the next day and they were still chilly and I put them in the freezer and everything was totally fine and thus concludes this anti-climactic story. But taxidermy is anti-climactic, because all you get – even if you’re very good – is a slightly worse version of the thing that existed before you fucked with it.

Illustrations by Eddie Campbell

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain