The most expensive method of preparing a corpse

‘Each day, the scarab beetle emerges from its hole in the ground to gather dung, form it into a ball, and roll it across the earth, before disappearing with it back down into the hole.’
Nicholson Museum - dung beetles.jpg
When I read that at the Nicholson Museum, I thought, yeah, that sums up a lot of my days. Wake up, scrape some dung together, roll it around, call it a day.

The ancient Egyptians didn’t see the beetle’s work in the same uninspired way I did. They equated the beetle with the sun god, Ra, who gets up in the morning and the rolls across the sky, vanishing at night. The insects mirrored the sun god’s work, and because they laid their eggs in their dung balls, both the sun and the balls brought new life.

This is why the Egyptians buried scarab beetles in jars with the deceased up until 2300 BCE, when they realised they could bury scarab amulets instead.
Nicholson Museum Sydney.jpg
I love museums because you never know what random historical craziness you’ll discover. Like a jar of regular snakes positioned in front of an ancient image of snakes with hands and feet that are holding scorpions to ward off evil. (Look in the background, you’ll see it.)
Snakes in a jar, Nicholson Museum, Sydney.jpg
Or this ‘mummified head of an unknown man’, paired with a preserved brain.
Mummified head, preserved brain, Nicholson Museum, Sydney.jpg
‘Embalming’, according to Herodotus, writing about ancient Egypt, ‘was performed by specialists. Their first step is to insert an iron hook through the nostrils and pull out the brain. Next … the embalmers cut a slit along the soft part of the body, and remove all the intestines. After this they stuff the cavity with sweet-smelling spices. Once the stomach has been filled, they sew it back up and pickle the body by packing it in [salt]. … This is the most expensive method of preparing a corpse.’

I wouldn’t equate dung beetles with the daily journey of the sun sun, or imagine that scorpions could ward off evil. I don’t imagine any sort of afterlife, particularly not the ancient Egyptian variety that required all your organs to be buried with you in their own jars.

But I like to step into a museum and imagine these things. I like to imagine what it would be like if, 2000 years from now, my mummified head ended up on public display. I’d feel pretty chuffed about that, I think. It’s almost like time travel.

Maybe, in the future, my cavity will be stuffed with sweet-smelling spices, and my debrained head pickled in salt. Maybe in a few thousand years, my head will end up in museum on another planet for people to squint at. Even if it’s not the most expensive method of preparing a corpse, I’d be happy with that. It’s the closest to time travel I’m likely to come.

 

A bold remedy for apparently hopeless cases

There was one more discovery at Melbourne’s Medical History Museum that delighted me even more than Champagne Jimmy, though I know that’s hard to believe.

Allow me to introduce you to the ‘colonial snakebite kit’.
Colonial snakebite kit at Melbourne Medical History MuseumActually that’s a few different kits. There were many treatments for snakebite in 19th-century Australia, the museum signage explains, including ‘incision, amputation, and a variety of “antidotes” (including mercury and medicinal brandy)’ as well as one man’s ‘use of intravenous ammonia’. (He thought snakebite poisoning was a result of germs, so I suppose his theory was that pumping ammonia into your blood would … kill the germs?)

The kit on the right, with the rather luxurious royal purple lining, is a ‘chloride of lime antidote for snakebite,’ circa 1895.

My favourite thing about this display, and the entire Medical History Museum, is the kit in the top left corner, dated from 1872. Its instructions start off shouting and just keep getting better:

AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE AFTER BEING BITTEN
1. Tie something very tightly above the bite.
2. Cut out the part bitten and wash the wound.
3. Watch for signs of Snake Poison.
Inability to walk. — Sleepiness. — Pale and Cold Skin. — Enlarged Pupils.
4. Keep the person warm, quiet, and hopeful.
5. DO NOT get flurried; do everything calmly.
6. DO NOT give any Stimulants; they do harm.
7. DO NOT force the person to walk about.
8. Remember that many Snakes are not Poisonous.
9. Remember that Fear alone may cause alarming signs and even cause Death.
10. Try in every way to allay fear and inspire courage and hope.
11. Directly signs of Snake Poison appear—
– Inject a dose of Strychnia.
– In a Child under 10, One Tablet, or one-fiftieth of a grain.
– In a Person over 10, Two Tablets, or one-twenty-fifth of a grain.
– In a Severe Case, Five Tablets, or one-tenth of a grain.
12. Repeat dose in quantity and frequency required.
USE THE REMEDY BOLDLY IN APPARENTLY HOPELESS CASES.

I love everything about these instructions. I love the random use of Capital Letters. I love that, after instructing you to remain calm in point 5, point 9 then informs you that fear alone can cause death, which is a fear-inducing statement if I’ve ever heard one. (Fear can also cause ‘alarming signs’, whatever those are.) I love that the instructions wait until point 5 to tell you to remain calm, and that instead of using those two simple words, they use seven, one of which is ‘flurried’.

And I especially love the concluding instruction to use your colonial snakebite remedy ‘boldly’, even if the bite victim seems to have already died of either Snake Poison or Fear Alone.

This colonial snakebite kit is my favourite piece of Australiana yet, and that’s including these handsome concrete driveway kangaroos:
Concrete guard kangaroos in Australia
Take care, and try not to get flurried,
Ashley
xo

 

Melbourne’s most terrifying attraction

Melbourne Medical History Museum
When I visited the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne, the last thing I expected to find was Champagne Jimmy.

I expected to find Dr Tracy’s ovariotomy instruments. Well, not his specifically, but something very much like them.
Ovariotomy instruments, medial history
Dr Richard Tracy performed the first such surgery in Victoria in 1864, using this horrifying set of ovariotomy instruments. He became ‘locally and internationally renowned’ for his success with the procedure. The set contains a scalpel, scissors, ‘a vulsellum forceps (with hooked tips),’ a ‘double sharp hook for raising the peritoneum’, pedicle clamps with detachable handles, and on the left, a mess of thick greyish thread that looks like it’s been removed from a ratty blanket.

I also expected the original shock therapy machine from 1885, described as an example the annals of ‘quackery’. It uses a hand crank to generate a charge.
IMG_2077
I even expected to learn about bizarre apothecary treatments, such as the use of fox lungs for respiratory conditions. The Saxons believed that ‘for oppressive hard drawn breathing, a fox lung sodden and put into a sweetened wine, and administered is wonderfully healthy.’ (Fox lung in beer, however, results in blindness). 

Amid all that, Champagne Jimmy caught me off guard. First of all, check him out.
Champagne Jimmy or Diamond Jim, historic Melbourne medical doctor
The slicked-back horns, the bushy horseshoe moustache, his apparent love of the Hawaiian hang ten sign. Not to mention the uncorked champagne bottle at his feet, which is definitely what I look for when choosing a surgeon. ‘Does this guy know how to party?’ is the first question you should ask when considering a new doctor.

The museum describes Dr James Beany as a flamboyant and controversial senior surgeon and a ‘Melbourne personaility’. He was so flamboyant he earned himself two nicknames. He was called Diamond Jim for the rings he wore, ‘even during operations’, and Champagne Jimmy, ‘because of the champagne he dispensed freely.’

Champagne Jimmy sounds like an absolute delight. That is, until you picture him wielding the surgical tools of his era.
Historic medical surgery tools
Imagine it: you’re on the surgical table, wearing an old-timey paper gown, and in stumbles Diamond Jim, champagne bottle in one bejewelled hand, giant amputation saw in the other, and little flakes of sausage roll pastry stuck in his moustache. Right before you pass out (from terror; anesthetic doesn’t exist yet), Jim drops the empty bottle at his feet and flashes you the hang ten sign.

How this museum didn’t make Melbourne’s top ten attractions, I’ll never understand.

Looking to buy mermaids in Melbourne?

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 12.00.05 pm.png
Walking through the Melbourne CBD, I passed a shopfront that had a plastic (I assume) skeleton posed inside one of the glass doors. The skeleton peered out, with its hand on the handle, like it was about to stroll onto the street.

The shop billed itself as a purveyor of “scientific curiosities”. I went in and turned to the first glass display case, a tall one beside the door. The guy working there appeared from another room and asked how I was going. I was saying the word “fine” as I looked at the glass case.

“Fine” isn’t a long word, but my voice caught in the middle of it, and it came out with a strangled upward inflection. Right as I was speaking, I caught sight of a spherical glass container, the size of a softball, that contained a preserved puppy corpse.

The puppy looked like a bulldog, or maybe a bull terrier, white fur with black patches. Its eyes were closed, and it was curled foetally, to fit the sphere. The liquid it floated in was clear, not cloudy the way formaldehyde normally is. (Maybe the formaldehyde – and the puppy – were fresh.)

The dude asked me if there was anything he could help me with.

“I’m just looking. Unless you have anything particularly interesting?” I was giving the guy an open invitation to show me his favourite oddities.

“No, things are just how they look.”

“Right, yeah, I just caught sight of the puppy. Is it … just for aesthetics?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Like, there’s no scientific purpose?”

“Nope, it’s just a puppy corpse.” He paused before adding, “Stillborn.”

The puppy ball cost $495.

The shop is Wunderkammer, and their tagline is “chamber of wonders.” They offer an explanatory pamphlet that notes, “The word ‘wunderkammer’ translates as ‘wonder-chamber’. The term is German, although collections of curiosities have existed in Italy since as early as the 16th century. These were the first museums and housed both the familiar museum fare such as natural specimens, coins and minerals, as well as more aberrant and miraculous objects, such as religious reliquaries, double apples, ‘mermaids’ and the like.”

I regret not asking if they had any mermaids in stock.

Some things Wunderkammer did have in stock during my visit:
– a mummified fox and rabbit in a shadow box
– preserved crocodile feet
– a Singapore ball (a type of mace in which the spikes retract)
– a taxidermied porcupine
– a dissected frog, its organs neatly labelled, under glass
– a ‘Breast Believer’ pump in its original cardboard box (I couldn’t figure out what this was, even after several minutes of googling)
– a Hamilton bone drill
– a taxidermied bat impaled on a metal pole, wings spread wide, mouth open as if screaming (probably because of the pole shoved up its butt)

The last time I was in Melbourne, I stumbled upon the secret headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League, and discovered the perfect epitaph. I didn’t think a second Melbourne visit could beat that. But Wunderkammer decidedly did.

Then I discovered that Melbourne’s fire truck sirens sound like they’re shooting lasers. Pew pew pew! 

We also visited the Melbourne Zoo, and in talking about it with friends later, learned of two separate incidences of people (men) breaking into the zoo’s lion enclosure.

In 1989, an adult karate student broke into the den in the middle of the night in an attempt to test his martial arts skills by fighting the lions. Zoo officials found what was left of him the next morning.

Then in 2004, a man broke into the lion enclosure during the zoo’s opening hours. The crowd watched him pull a Bible from his bag, hold it over his head, and invite them to join him and pat the lions.

When an Age reporter later enquired about how much danger the man had been in, a zoo spokesperson gave the best official response: “They are large male lions and there are four of them, so I’m sure you can work that out for yourself.”

And finally, my absolute favourite thing on this trip: a barista with the image of an evergreen air freshener tattooed on her forearm.

 

If a snake wants you, he’ll get you

One of my absolute favourite books this year has been John Cann’s The Last Snake Man. I wrote about it for the Newtown Review of Books, describing how it charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century, through the life of Cann and his father, George.

George didn’t start the La Perouse Snake Show, but he did make it a Sydney institution. His sons eventually took over the weekly show, and even since they’ve retired, the snake show still runs every Sunday at 1:30pm in the city’s south east.   La Perouse Snake Show Sydney Australia
There’s nothing brilliant in the writing of The Last Snake Man. It reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. At times, it can be a bit self-indulgent, and occasionally reveals slightly outdated prejudices (though Cann was more progressive than many of his generation). Put all that aside though, and this is an fantastically entertaining piece of Australiana.

Take this anecdote from George’s days as a snakey: ‘It wasn’t enough to be able to work with snakes, he also had to work the crowd, especially when snake shows attracted more than their fair share of drunks.

‘On one occasion a foul-mouthed blowhard was loudly pouring scorn on the dangers from snakebites, so Pop waited till he was distracted and clamped a harmless blue-tongue lizard on his hand. The drunk started screaming and flailing around, much to the entertainment of the assembled crowd. ‘

Another great anecdote I couldn’t pack into my review: ‘In the old days, some snakeys had tiger and black snakes that had calmed down so much they could put them around their necks or put their heads in their mouths, albeit with great care. Those tricks, which would never be done now, were performed by at least three of the early showmen I knew of – and one of them was my pop … until a black snake bit him on the tongue. His mouth swelled badly and Mum had to feed him soup or water through a straw for days.’

As you’d expect, Cann is full of quippy snake advice, such as this gem: ‘Some snake handlers think they’re too smart for snakes – they’re the ones who usually find out the hard way that if a snake wants you, he’ll get you.’

But perhaps my very favouritest quote is from Cann’s introduction: ‘I hope you enjoy this trip through a rich and varied life. Maybe once you start to read it, it’ll be you who says “he got me!”‘

The La Perouse Snake Show, ‘the longest continuous running snake show in the world’, is now run by volunteers from the herpetological society. When I attended the show, a child sat on the fence, dangling her legs into the space where a live eastern brown snake (the species that kills more people than any other in Australia) slithered freely. The juxtaposition of a deadly snake and a family at ease remains one of the most Australian sights I’ve had the pleasure to witness.

I highly recommend both the book and the show.

 

I am curious about your tattoos

Noosa beach, Australia

August 9 [journal excerpts]
Noosa, QLD

Shopkeeper referring to a whale-watching cruise: “The water out that way becomes chuck city.”
The same shopkeeper: “The best way to leave Noosa with a million dollars is to come with ten.”

August 10
The most Aussie sight: two teenage boys on the pavement, three surfboards between them. One rode a bike, a surfboard under his arm; the other pushed along on a skateboard, struggling with two surfboards at once.

August 11
On Noosa’s main beach: an older woman, maybe 60, with a single dreadlock starting at the base of her skull and hanging down past her knees. It swung as she walked, like a tail.

August 12
Tattoos spotted today:
1. a tiger face, full colour, the size of my entire hand, with a knife sunk between the eyes, the handle sticking out, on a man’s shin (he may has well have tattooed the words ‘creepy as’)
2. three slash marks with dripping blood, almost like the Zorro symbol, on a man’s chest
3. the word ‘serious’ in a cutesy font, not quite cursive, surrounded by little hearts, on a young man’s inner arm. Was he in love with someone named serious? The word wasn’t capitalised. Did he love being serious? Or did he take love seriously? Our burger order arrived, so I didn’t have to talk myself into asking him.

August 14
Waiting for burgers again, a skinny pale guy with shoulder-length hair came in. He had a tattoo that started at his wrist, and in huge cursive letters, ran toward his elbow, reading “Death before dis—”. I couldn’t read the rest, but he was running out of space, unless the third word wrapped right over his elbow. It might have been “Death before dishonour”, but he really didn’t have enough space, so I assume it read “Death before dishes”.

He also has a bunch of roses on his shin, and a cartoon cat face with a knife through the crown of its head, the blade coming out its mouth. What is it with dudes and tattoos of stabbed cat heads? Is it a secret code signalling membership in some sort of club? Obviously not one that actually stabs cats, that would be too obvious. So perhaps it’s men who refuse to do the dishes, and have sought solidarity in this via symbolic tattoos. When they spot each other on the street, they raise their eyebrows and exchange a slight nod of encouragement, maybe even tap two fingers against the centre of their chest if they do so slyly.

I can’t see any other potential explanation.

 

Spider Anecdote of the Year 2019

When I lived in Mexico, a game people sometimes played, generally over drinks, was to share their stories of getting mugged. Everyone had one, eventually even me. My experience was banal, but a Swedish colleague had a fantastic story that has stayed with me over a decade. She lived in one part of Mexico City and worked in another, across town. She took public transit to work every day. One morning she got off the bus near her work, and a man stopped her, flashing a knife. As she handed over her wallet, she exclaimed that she lived all the way across the city, and if he took all her money, she wouldn’t be able to get home that evening.

The knife-wielding man reached into his pocket and gave her enough change to catch the bus home. Turns out he was a mugger with a heart of – well, not gold. Bronze, maybe.

Asking about mugging stories in Mexico always resulted in a lively conversation. I don’t know what the Canadian equivalent to this would be. Probably something to do with getting your vehicle stuck in the snow.

In Australia, if you want to hear dramatic, horrific and sometimes hilarious anecdotes, you ask about spiders. Everyone has at least one good spider story. I’ve written about Australian spider stories before, sharing some of the best anecdotes I’ve heard, as well as my own.

Recently I had dinner with a group of Australians. We’d all just met each other, so I asked about their spider stories. There were a few standards. Someone told a story about a huntsman in a pillowcase (yes, they do bite!). Another recalled the time a huntsman laid its eggs in the sideview mirror of her car. She discovered this as she was driving down the highway, when the huntsman decided to run across the windshield. She tried to fend it off with the wipers. ‘Then I heard it run across the top of the car. I had to go to a service station to get help.’

I thought that maybe, after nearly a decade in Australia, I’d heard the gamut of spider stories.

And then someone started talking about the spider wasp.

It came in through a living room window, a huge orange and black wasp flying erratically. Its head was tremendous, its mouth fur-covered, with a wildly waving set of pinchers.

Except it wasn’t a set of pinchers at all. The wasp had bitten into a huntsman (which are gigantic and furry, like tarantulas) and was flying around with the still-live spider in its mouth.

The wasp flew into the window pane, dropped the twitching huntsman on the sill, and took off out the open window.

When she recovered from the shock enough to look it up online, the startled victim of the spider delivery learned that the Australian spider wasp’s tactic: it paralyses its prey, then flies off with the spider (which is much larger than the wasp), and lays its eggs inside the spider, for the hatching baby wasps to consume from the inside out.

In case you’re feeling queasy, here’s a koala.A koala in a gum tree in Australia that does not plan to kill you
It’s still early, but the spider-wasp story is a strong contender for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2019.

In other news, I’m at Better Read than Dead in Newtown this week to talk about my book on Thursday, July 4, 6:30pm. You can find out about more upcoming events, and possibly read more spider anecdotes, in my monthly author newsletter.

xo
Ashley

 

Secret highlights of an unknown rural gem

Recently I spent a week on writing retreat in rural NSW, near a place called Clarence Town.  I’d never heard of Clarence Town before. It’s a few hours north of Sydney, and has a population of less than 1000 people. It’s inland, and you have to turn down several side roads to get to it. It’s not a place you’d visit unless you had a reason to, which you probably don’t. But you’re missing out! Here are five excellent reasons to visit Clarence Town.

1. Experience the Williams River Cafe
The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
The Williams River Cafe wants to wish you a happy new year. Even in May, when I was in town. I wasn’t sure if they were still wishing me a happy 2019, or if they were getting in early to wish me a happy 2020. It must have been the latter, otherwise it would have read “Happy Same Old Year It’s Been for Five Months Already.”

Inside the cafe is as knick-knacky as your wildest dreams, with corrugated metal as a decorative flourish.
Inside The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
And of course there are the owl cookie jars.
Owl cookie jars in small town Australian cafe
When I popped into the Williams River Cafe, the only customers were one white-haired couple. They looked to be approximately 145 years old. They had driving maps of Australia open on the table between them, but I imagine them as permanent fixtures in the Williams River Cafe.

2. Visit Lovey’s Grocers – Two Local Blokes
I didn’t get to meet either of the local blokes, which is a shame. I would have congratulated them on having the world’s best IGA name, and also asked which one was Lovey. IMG_1499.JPG

3. Clarence Town is the seventh oldest colonial settlement in Australia.
If you win a pub trivia night with that fact, I expect a cut of the profits. Another Clarence Town fact: the local Aboriginal name, Erringhi, means ‘the place of the little black duck’.

4. This historic passive-aggressive photo collage
The Clarence Town School of Arts was built in 1915 ‘to last and withstand the ravages of white ants’. So far it has. A glass-fronted bulletin board hangs near its front door. The bulletin board was my absolute highlight of Clarence Town, because it featured this photo collage, which reads:
Deb Ball 1993
On the 1st of May 1993 I put a Deb Ball on. I did it under the banner of the Fire Brigade, I did every bit of organising myself and the boys turned up on the day to help put up a few of the decorations – it nearly killed me. … I hired the “ALAN WARD BIG BAND” It cost $1,000 which was a lot of money then but they were worth it.IMG_1490.JPG
The ‘I’ in this collage goes unnamed. I assume the writer expects that her reputation as the woman who put on the 1993 Deb Ball precedes her. I love that she turned her photo collage into an opportunity to publicly shame ‘the boys’ of the fire brigade (perhaps my scare quotes aren’t needed there; in 1993 the Clarence Town fire brigade was possibly staffed by children). I love that she concludes by big noting how much money she spent, but also that she seems to think $1000 isn’t much money today?

Finally, I love that there is no indication how long this faded, curling photo collage has been on the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board. It’s possibly been there since 1993, and I’m sure it will stay there as long as its author is alive.

5. Clarence Town’s reliable annual events
The photo collage wasn’t the only bulletin board highlight. I was also impressed by this poster. There’s an obvious narrative here: the flyer was posted in 2018, and this year, an efficient and eco-friendly organiser thought ‘Why print new flyers? The event is literally the exact same.’ And instead they simply visited the flyer where it has stayed all year (there’s not a lot of changeover in the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board),  whited out the date and final numeral of the year, and wrote over them.  IMG_1493.JPG

And that’s it. Actually, you have less reason to visit Clarence Town now that you’ve seen all the highlights. This is literally it. I wouldn’t recommend going there.

Unless you’re on writing retreat, and you want to lock yourself away with your laptop where there are as few distractions as possible. Then Clarence Town might be the perfect place.

 

It’s scary but nobody cares

I’ve never understood why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.

There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.

This is the opening to ‘It’s Scary but Nobody Cares’, an article about coming to terms with Australia’s reputation for deadliness, published by Griffith Review. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, How to Be Australian. The full piece is free to read now!

Here’s a little bonus I couldn’t squeeze in:
A Snakey handling a snake at the La Perouse Snake Show in Australia
Australians have a delightfully weird relationship with their deadly wildlife. The La Perouse Snake Show is a perfect example of this.

Running once a month for the past century, the snake show takes place inside this rather low fence. Visitors gather around and dangle their children’s legs tantalisingly into the arena, where a ‘snakey’ (the genuine professional term) hauls a variety of live snakes out of brown sacks and gives a little spiel about each of them.

Steve and I happened upon this by accident while visiting this historic part of Sydney, and we were captivated. Particularly when the man said, speaking directly to a potentially lethal snake in the cutesy voice used for puppies and toddlers, ‘You’ve got tiny little fangs, don’t you?’

This country will never cease to enthrall me. Also, I move that all writers be called wordies; it’s got a real ring to it.

Ashley
xo

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