Experiences For Sale

Christopher Fowler
I remember early trips to the London Dungeon, especially when they had the terrifying Jabberwocky (a gigantic puppet used in the Terry Gilliam film) snarling inside a cave. It was a peculiar, vaguely disreputable experience that always felt a little unpredictable and dangerous - sadly now replaced with a tamer tourist attraction. I thought that the word 'experience' had taken on a new meaning in our modern marketing-obsessed world, but a quick study of London attractions traces it back a couple of hundred years to the panoramas, automatas and sensation exhibitions of the West End. I just discovered that the 'Body Worlds' exhibition of Gunther Von Hagens, in which he uses plastination techniques to strip the layers of skin and muscle from human beings and animals, is currently still running in the West End. I suppose we should blame Secret Cinema for kicking off the latest incarnation. Having actors dress as film characters and act out scenes in front of you became quite a thing for a while. I remember the police closing St Martin's Lane to restage the motorcycle chase sequence from 'Diva' some years back, and the retrofitting of the Odeon Haymarket to resemble the wartime launch of 'Brief Encounter'. Punchdrunk is in danger of losing its core audience after staging a series of incomprehensible, overpriced mime and dance shows in events spaces. Confused friends and critics have not been kind about their most recent venture, 'Troy', now retitled 'The Burnt City', which has all their hallmarks; sensational set-pieces linked by endless murky rooms. But there are plenty of other 'experiences' to be had, including a Van Gogh experience - gaudy projections and piped music, essentially - and a Frida Kahlo experience, colours and costumes. These events are not publicly funded arts but for-profit companies reductively commodifying artists into brands. The latest of these is 'The Gunpowder Plot' beside the Tower of London, featuring earnest young actors playing Guido and his pals as the Catholics plot to assassinate King James. It's basically 'The Crystal Maze', which involves a cheesy script, a lot of plodding down vault corridors and solving cyphers to get secret passwords. At one point I was shut inside a cupboard and wondered, 'I'm paying for this?' But it does have one good trick up its sleeve. There are four virtual reality headset adventures in the show, one of which takes you high above London into the night sky for a ravens' eye view of the city, while another places you in a (rocking) boat on the Thames at night, sailing perilously close to the arches of London Bridge. As someone who spent quite a long time researching London Bridge and its environs, I can testify to the accuracy of this vast 360 degree image, which genuinely takes the breathe away. It's the first time I've had any sense of scale on the bridge. Possibly the height and scale are exaggerated, but the sensation of being in its presence is enthralling. Just try to overlook the am-dram antics that surround it.  


Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 02/07/2022 - 19:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Body Worlds exhibit came to Vancouver a number of years ago to much intense debate. Many people objected to the use of human beings to form a public show while the owners of the exhibit countered with documents verifying that the individuals concerned had volunteered their bodies for the display. I didn't see it chiefly because I couldn't see what it proved and felt a certain amount of distaste at the whole thing.

Joan (not verified) Sat, 02/07/2022 - 21:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree with you Helen, I didn’t view it in Toronto for the same reason. I thought it was a bit like people viewing the unclaimed dead in the Paris Morgue for entertainment!

snowy (not verified) Sat, 02/07/2022 - 22:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We interrupt your scheduled programme, to remind viewers in the London area that it is time to start watching out for updates from Open-City. [To get a sniff of the good stuff, sign-up for e-mail updates and watch your In-box like a hawk, because the free tickets go in a flash.]


Places that are not in that London, have their events organised under the banner of 'Heritage Open Days', this years theme is 'Astounding Inventions'

Announced so far are:

The British Lawnmower Museum, Southport, Lancashire
At the cutting edge - the astounding invention of the lawnmower. Come along to the museum for special tours and talks focusing on this most British of obsessions.

The History of Gas - Beverley, North Yorkshire
Join internationally acclaimed historian of gas, Professor Russell Thomas, for a talk on the origins and development of the industry and how Beverley came to be lit by the elegant gas lamps that still stand today.

British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum - London
From rare pre-war radios to television sets you might remember seeing at your grandparents’ house, learn about advances in technology during a century of broadcasting, [Valves will probably be mentioned].

Museum of Cider - Hereford, Herefordshire
Find out about the fascinating characters involved with the science of pomology, from John Evelyn in the 17th century to the modern day.

Abraham Sharp: Bradford’s Astounding Astronomer - Bradford, West Yorkshire
Discover more about space, astronomy and Bradford's 'Astounding Astronomer' Abraham Sharp in an event that will be out of this world! You can find out more about Sharp by visiting his memorial plaque in the Cathedral to hear more about his work and his discoveries and see his calculation of Pi laid out on the Cathedral floor.

Nothe Fort - Weymouth, Dorset
Explore the astounding invention of torpedoes at Nothe Fort, Weymouth Museum and Portland Museum and see where they were tested in Weymouth Bay. Find out about Robert Whitehead and the factory he built in the 1890s, and hear how divers brought early torpedoes up from the deep to rescue our military heritage. And discover the surprising link between the Whitehead Torpedo and the Sound of Music!

[Not all have been announced yet, so keep an eye out for updates].


For the normal people, [there must be some!], how about a very agreeable 45 minutes listening to Dr. Matthew Sweet discussing the Vampire phenomenon that seized Britain 50 years before a certain count started his ill-fated Transylvanian AirB&amp;B cum soil export business.

"Varney the Vampire was a blood soaked gothic horror story serialised in cheap print over the course of a couple of years in the nineteenth century. The resulting "penny dreadful" tale spilled out a large volume when it was finally published in book form. In spite of his comfort with crosses, daylight and garlic, Varney's capacity to reflect on his actions made him an early model for Dracula. Matthew Sweet explores why a work, so often overlooked, was so important to the development of the vampire genre."

Stream or download <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0cj3q1c&quot; title="Link to BBC website" rel="nofollow">here.</a>


[Sadly, it contains absolutely 0% Kim Newman, who was probably busy limbering up for another gig].

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 04:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've seen the Body Worlds, both human and animal, a couple of times. And while the theatricality of many of the poses may be off-putting, I found the overall effect certainly thought-provoking --- nothing I wasn't aware of, but fascinating as t presented nevertheless: the anatomical wonder of the human body and its marvelous systems and yet its frailty.

As far as reenactments I would pay to see, one would be 'Whipping Tom.' Hailing from Holborn in 1681, Whipping Tom stalked London streets alone, and when he saw a similarly unaccompanied woman, would lift their dress, and slap their buttocks yelling “Spanko!” He apparently attacked with such speed that people thought he had supernatural powers, and male vigilantes began to prowl the streets dressed in women’s clothing. After he was caught, the attacks stopped until 30 years later when a copycat sprung up in Hackney.

And speaking of historical events, I am shocked, shocked I tell you, that I had to learn of Eau d'Underground myself. You would have thought our two 'Tubies' -- Jan and snowy -- would have enlightened us by now. It seems in 2001 scientists at TfL decided to try and make the 'distinctive' aroma of the Tube less noticeable by releasing a perfumed 'air enhancer' called 'Madeleine' at three busy stations, St. James Park, Euston, and Piccadilly, in a month long trial. The TfL described the fragrance as '"rich, rosy, jasmine bouquet with a touch of herbs.' Unfortunately, more passengers detected an overtone of insect repellant than jasmine, as one put it, and apparently the experiment wafted
away into the history of aromatherapy.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 06:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Stu, it is astounding the lengths to which authorities will go for the betterment of humankind. Imagine perfuming the Underground rather than mandating morning showers (proof of which to be presented for scanning at the barrier) and fresh clothes. Imagine all those people allergic to the chemicals of perfumes being exposed willy-nilly and never an apology for the results.

Jan (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 09:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Coo I have never even heard of L'Eau du Underground!

How did St James Park make it into the category of busy underground station I wonder? Cos it isn't comparable with the other two.

Except for the HQ of London Underground or TFL or whatever they are calling it this week are above St James Park Tube station perhaps some wag had decided their own employees needed to have a blast of a "rich rosy jasmine boquet with a touch of herbs" to start off the day

Jan (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 09:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oops I can't spell bouquet!

Jan (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 10:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I can't honestly see why people want to go to stuff like "Bodyworlds" it's just beyond me. Staying on your feet during during an autopsy is one thing but paying out good dosh out to watch subcutaneous fat layers and muscle tissue peeled off a corpse is completely barmy.

What's that all about really? Is it like on a tape that you could stick on rewind and put some bod. back together?

because you certainly ain't going to see that for real.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 13:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Jan Jan --- There is certainly a good deal of morbid fascination behind the attraction of Body Worlds (some 50 million or so visitors in 150 cities worldwide) which, I'm sure the two German anatomists who developed the exhibition probably knew would give it a measure of irresistibility. Apart from that, and perhaps an initial satisfying frisson of horror from the general public exhibit-goers --- which the developers are primarily trying to reach with a message about health and the fragility of life --- I think it probably has more appeal for those with an interest in medicine or possibly even art. And btw -- 'Eau d'Underground' is a is a made-up term, not an official one, which is why you didn't hear about it (at least not described that way).

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 14:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Helen + Martin Helen --- According to authorities, the ingredients in the 'Eau d'Underground' were safety tested (apparently, no Tube rats went to the great beyond or wherever Tube rats go) and it was supposedly used successfully for two years in the Paris Métro. But then again the French eat snails, frogs legs and, at one time, ate whole finch-like birds.

Joan (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 14:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

People used to love public hangings as well. Ugh!

Jan (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 20:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I had sort of tumbled that one Stu.

In the meantime I have been giving some thought to a few
alternatives to L'Eau du Underground which I couldn't improve on earlier:-

1. Tunnel number 5
2. Diortubeissimo
3 Thierry Mugler's Angel (Islington)
4. Davidoff's Cool Water(loo)

Now soon as I send this I'll think of some proper good ones.....

Jan (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 20:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Morbid fascination about sums The Bodywork fans feelings up. I don't suppose they can all find serious R.T.A.s to rubberneck on their way to and from work.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2022 - 23:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Jan Speaking of 'morbid fascination' (in lieu of serious R.T.A.s) there is the government.

Peter T (not verified) Mon, 04/07/2022 - 08:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The fragility of human life is better illustrated by a walk around a hospital.

Paul c (not verified) Mon, 04/07/2022 - 09:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There's a wonderful illustrated volume on this sort of bizarre attraction called The Shows of London by Richard D Altick. From a review :

A berserk elephant gunned down in the heart of London, a machine for composing Latin hexameters and the original rock band (1841)--these are but three of the sights that London curiosity-seekers paid to see from the Elizabethan era to the mid-Victorian period. Examining hundreds of the wonderfully varied exhibitions that culminated in the Crystal Palace of 1851, this generously illustrated book sheds light on a vast expanse of English social history

The range--from freaks to popular science, from the funeral effigies at Westminster Abbey to Madame Tussaud's waxworks--impressive. Like the exhibitions that best served the Victorian ideal of mass culture, The Shows of London is both entertaining and informative. Affordable copies are available on Abe.

A taste for the strange and outre is nothing new but I find the von Hagens concept revolting.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 04/07/2022 - 11:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paul C - I'm searching out this book right now. See also the history of the London Hippodrome, published by what appeared to be a vanity imprint but beautifully done.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 04/07/2022 - 12:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ah...the current price is about 250 nicker so I'm afraid that's out.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 04/07/2022 - 13:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Betterworldbooks.com in Scotland currently has a copy of The Shows of London by Richard D Altick for £35.03 (free postage). Not sure why they want an extra 3p though.......mad.

Abe has 2 copies in the USA for about £30 - £35 incl postage to the UK if anyone else is interested.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 04/07/2022 - 13:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin Several used copies of 'The Shows of London' available well below 250 quid, including one from Better World Books (formerly World of Books) UK. Also there's a new copy from Bennett Books Ltd. Los Angeles at £155.45 including postage.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 04/07/2022 - 16:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Jan Strikes me TFL would have been better advised to issue ear protection to passengers, rather than attempt to make their rides smell better. Something like 40% of a Tube noise map reach dB levels, requiring recommended hearing protection by those in the know. (partial map: https://offloadmedia.feverup.com/secretldn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/…) Apparently the most ear splitting stretch is the Canary Wharf to North Greenwich route slamming in at 96 dB – roughly the same as standing next to a motorcycle at top volume.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 04/07/2022 - 17:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Some people are obsessed by strange displays while others react similarly to books about the same.
I'm grinding my teeth about the open city options. How can you have a history of gas? Well, our "discovery" of same, I suppose. The torpedo thing would be great, and I'd like to know about the astounding astronomer and his calculation of pi. Why don't we have events like this? I'm sure we have interesting corners in our cities, too.

Hazel Jackson (not verified) Mon, 04/07/2022 - 23:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Don't forget Viktor Wynd's Museum of Curiosities in Mare St London E8. It is in the cellars of what I think was once a grocery shop and contains such items as a two headed kitten, various lewd and occult artworks and a, collection of bizarre curiosities. On the ground floor is an Absinthe Lounge and a cocktail bar. Esoteric exhibitions are staged and lectures given. If you are fortunate you may encounter the lugubrious owner, the young Mister Wynd himself in residence.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 05/07/2022 - 01:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And eau is an odd word to use in connection with perfume since it means water and the thought of water from the Underground does exactly have echoes of mountain streams.

Why have we never heard of the lugubrious Mr. Wynd before this?

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 05/07/2022 - 01:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Pardon me, "does not exactly have echoes..."

Christopher Fowler Tue, 05/07/2022 - 08:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities features in the upcoming 'Bryant & May's Peculiar London'.

Jan (not verified) Tue, 05/07/2022 - 09:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's funny train noise on the Tube was never that a big an issue for me. The Met line made some terrible chalk on blackboard mega loud screeches braking up through Wembley Park at times but nowt you couldn't live through.

When a train was stuck between stations there's an odd and quite worrying ebb + flow in conversation volumes. Fluctuating between unhappy customers grumbling and people starting to panic. All part of the joys of London commutes I suppose. Folk never talked on the Tube till something chaotic was happening.

Gabi Coatsworth (not verified) Tue, 05/07/2022 - 18:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

One thing about Body World - the people selling their bodies for this purpose were all from China, where I dare say much would be agreed to so that one’s family might eat. Just a thought.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 05/07/2022 - 20:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Gabi, I don't believe that is so. You might want to check. I can remember quotes from European people and are you sure they (or their heirs, presumably) are paid?

John Griffin (not verified) Wed, 06/07/2022 - 12:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Back in 1974-5 working in Ladbroke Grove, I spent some time living near Waterloo Station. The Tube used to stop under the river, several times for half an hour. Probably one of the more odiferous experiences of my life as well as a frottage episode executed on my person by a 'glowing' older woman in the middle of a typical Tube crush.

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Sat, 16/07/2022 - 12:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Viktor Wynd organises zoom lectures, available through Eventbrite and not expensive, covering a startling range of subjects. Sorting them out can be tricky. Talks by Ronald Hutton are totally reliable. Talks on Voodoo graveyards in New Orleans,or the appropriate ceremony to greet the seasons as they change, you may find less so. They are on Patreon (Trust Viktor to spot the chance of paying patrons, and yes, I am one), as Last Tuesday Society. Facebook too. I get regular emails with the planned dates and details for talks. If I ever venture again to London, I could get a discount on the museum entry too. Alas, that's unlikely. But recently his patrons got a nice little book of museum of witchcraft pictures. Took me several days to work out Viktor had signed it, as he distributed the letters of his name, in varying sizes, across the opening two pages.