Recent renovations at The Story Museum, Oxford, have unearthed an infernal writing machine that predates the invention of the word processor by 150 years. Lord Barnabas Rochester’s Extraordinary Storyloom was revealed to visitors this summer in a series of guided tours by Ted Dewan, the Museum’s Accordioneer in Residence.
Rochester was a brilliant engineer but failed writer who devised the Storyloom to generate books on an epic scale. Children from local orphanages were abducted, strapped into the loom, and had their imaginations sucked out via a steam powered lobotomizer placed over their heads.
Rochester’s mission was to turn their plots and characters into a tsunami of bestsellers that would put all other writers out of business. The Oxford Storyloom is the only known surviving example because Lewis Carroll (who had just published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) bribed gangs of Luddite guttersnipes called The Blighters to roam the shires destroying all the others.
Rochester House is an appropriate home for The Story Museum because this jumble of buildings harbours a rich history of storytelling. Back in the 1800s it was a magnet for roving Tale Tellers, Yarn Spinners and Gossip Mongers who arrived from far and wide to feed off the Oxford Gyre; the storytelling energy that has made the city of dreaming spires such a Mecca for writers.
Road works during the 1990s to lay fibre-optic cables led to the discovery of Narrative Ley Lines connecting the dwellings of novelists, librettists, biographers, hagiographers and lyricists. During WW2, Rochester House was commandeered by the GPO and converted into the Oxford Telephone Exchange, and it was here that millions of intimate family narratives were monitored by the Ministry of Information to gauge the state of the nation under threat of invasion.
Lewis Carroll went on to become a national treasure, but Barnabas Rochester slid into obscurity, protesting to his grave that Carroll stole his best ideas (which he had pinched from the orphans). Debate still rages as to whom influenced whom. While researching early drafts of Through the Looking-Glass, literary sleuths on secondment from Beechcroft College, Oxford, to The Story Museum discovered that literary landmarks attributed to Carroll (the Story Spinning Spider, the White Knight and Tale-Weaving Console, the Story Dispensary where Alice procured the drugs, the Revolving Fog Horn and the Jabberwocky’s Imagination Charger) can be traced directly back to Rochester’s ill-fated contraption. Moreover, look closer at Tenniel’s preparatory sketches for the Alice books in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and you will see elements of Storylooms incorporated into the compositions.
Quite what happened to the Pandora’s Box of children who were subjected to Rochester’s Storyloom is not recorded in any Hall of Shame. A child’s imagination is their raison d’être and to take that away is to deprive one of childhood. Some have attributed the success of the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 19th century to the glut of Storyloom victims queuing up to perform mindless, repetitive tasks in the grim Satanic mills.
However, scholars at the Bodleian Libraries have traced a certain Alfred E. Neuman, who was Storyloomed and then transported from Oxford to Lexington, Massachusetts at the turn of the century. Against all the odds, this witless kid managed to turn his hard luck story into a humorous sociopathic nihilism and made his fortune exploiting the empty-headed gullibility of 1950s teenagers.
To read about more short stories, tall tales, fantasies, fictions and nonsense narratives, visit The Story Museum.