“Just keep working your finger round inside until you’ve separated its skin from its backbone.” Meesh demonstrates. She deftly screws her finger in between the mouse’s ‘body-sack’ and its skin until the blue of her gloved finger pokes out again, she sports the little mouse cadaver skewered on her finger like the ring at a Goth wedding.
I look at the corpse of my own poor little mouse and wonder if I should have chosen the ‘Ukulele Ensemble Playing’ course instead.
Taxidermy is just one of the numerous and, ever so slightly, eccentric courses, offered by The Idler: a bookshop, magazine, coffee house, ‘Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment’, Notting Hill institution, way of life and the brainchild of writer Tom Hodgkinson.
Hodgkinson’s Idler magazine rails against the “Protestant work ethic.” A lament on the increasing speed, time-short parenting, and commensurate stresses of our always-connected 21st century life. He offers a manifesto for those who might want to downsize and step off the machine. “The Western world,” he writes, “has allowed freedom, merriment and responsibility to be taken from it, from ourselves, and substituted with greed, competition, lonely striving, greyness, debts, McDonalds and GlaxoSmithKline.”
In essence he asks: do we really have to keep waking up and smelling the coffee? Or could lying back and smelling the flowers be a more credible, if less well paid, way of life? Or, as the poet W.H. Davies wrote, “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.” A vision which chimes with an increasing number in the burning-out, high-flying, constant-on, executive classes.
Ironically, Hodgkinson himself has proved to be no slacker, writing numerous books and, five years ago, along with Victoria Hull, starting The Idler Academy, “with the aim of providing lifelong education in useful, enjoyable but neglected subjects.”
So I’m in the basement of the Idler’s Victorian terraced bookshop on Westbourne Park Road learning a somewhat neglected subject which, if only I ever found the leisure time, I might turn my hand to. Having grown up around the corner from the Natural History Museum, a refuge for rainy days in a childhood plagued by stormy weather, to me the animal kingdom was something behind glass and completely stuffed.
Now I’m attending expert Taxidermist Meesh Bryant’s course to finally get beneath the skin of my static childhood friends, literally. Nine other eager students, including a teacher, a poet and a retro furniture salesman, who was bought the course as a fortieth birthday present, sit ready round the table with scalpels gleaming and thawed out “ethically sourced” mouse cadavers before them.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not for the faint hearted. You work in tiny detail from the first cut, which is by no means the deepest, to severing the forearms and legs so they remain a part of the pelt. Particularly gruesome is removing the eyeballs after pulling the entire skin away to the nose. Feeling like an ISIL executioner, I resent the disconnect I have to make to just get through this.
“Many taxidermists are vegetarians,” says Meesh, “you learn to have real respect for animals and how they are made.”
Having removed all the insides, we wash our mice, bathe them in alcohol, coat the insides with a tanning solution and then borax, to preserve them. We each wrap cotton wool around a wire to simulate a spine and add four more wires for the hind and forelegs. Gently, we insert this armature into the coats and push the wires into the four limbs before starting to sew up, carefully stuffing more cotton wool into the thighs, arms and stomach.
At last there stands, well, a mouse again. Although in form only. Little black beads are popped in the eye holes. In part to make the rodent look a little more jolly, I give her an anthropomorphic magician’s hat and four playing cards, celebrating the magic of change as, though she’ll never quite be a mouse again, I’ll never quite be the same again either.
Meesh Bryant’s next Taxidermy Class at The Idler is on Sunday 27th September 12 – 4pm
Find out about the eclectic courses at The Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne park road London W2 5QH, 0207 221 5908, idler.co.uk