I WAS in the charming cathedral city of Wells the other week when I had an interesting avian encounter. It was not the one I expected: with the swans who famously ring a bell on the moated wall of the Bishop’s Palace to summon the staff when they want to be fed (News, 4 April 2014). I expect the Bishop of Bath & Wells is, like the Pope, a servant of the servants of God — but he is also a servant of these aristocratic swans. I was in Wells, however, to speak about Coleridge, and my encounter was with an albatross.
It turns out that the Wells and Mendip Museum has a fine display dedicated to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and to Coleridge as a local West Country writer. The display includes extracts from the accounts of Cook’s voyages which influenced the poet’s account of the albatross, some wonderful illustrations by Doré and others, and, surprisingly, an actual albatross, stuffed by a Victorian collector and gazing out at you from its tall glass case.
I was speaking at the Wells Festival of Literature, which takes place in a great white marquee on the other side of the moat, in the Bishop’s Palace gardens, and the organisers told me that they had obtained permission to bring the albatross over from the museum so that it might sit opposite me on stage as I retold the mariner’s tale. It was not to be.
For now the storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong.
The last gales of Storm Brian had been flinging themselves on the little city. Just like the storm in the Mariner, Brian “struck with his o’ertaking wings”, and wuthered around us till the whole tent flapped and crackled and lunged in the gusts. The tent stayed grounded, however, and I was able to give my talk with added sound-effects; but, at the last minute, I was told that the museum had some concerns about health and safety, and had determined that moving the albatross in its fragile case across the green in these high winds might cause the glass to shatter and imperil not only the great bird itself, but also the good people of Wells.
It turns out that these specimens of the Victorian taxidermists’ art cannot be exposed to the air because they contain the spores and germs of various diseases, which we, in a different century, might not be able to resist. So, holding the audience with my glittering eye as best I could, I carried on albatrossless.
Afterwards, the museum’s honorary librarian kindly invited me to come and see what I had missed. As I gazed at this extraordinary bird, vaster than I could have imagined, and it gazed back with a sardonic, indeed ironic, expression, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if the Mariner’s vessel had been subject to a health-and-safety inspection before the voyage. With his cross-bow safely locked away below decks in a secure cabinet, there might have been no tale to tell, and one more albatross skimming the seas in freedom.