The most notable fact about specimen number R5964 is that, unlike every other creature in the Booth Museum, it lives and breathes.
This European Yellow-tailed scorpion (since christened ‘Sidney’ by staff) was spotted scuttling across the living room carpet of a house in Reigate Road, not far from the Booth. Curators at other natural history museums might have been a little more clinical, snuffed Sid out and added him straight to their entomological collection, but John Cooper and Lee Ismail gave Sidney a rock on which to potter (enclosed in a Perspex box, I should add) and have been providing him with beetles and centipedes since October ‘13, on the strict understanding that when he finally expires he will join the other scorpions upstairs in the scorpion drawer.
To be honest, I wasn’t aware the Booth had a scorpion drawer, and it seems a little strange that when he dies Sidney will lie beside specimens collected by Lord Curzon in the late 19th Century – although perhaps no odder than a man or woman being laid to rest in a cemetery next to gravestones whose words were carved in the 16th Century.
What’s oddest of all, of course, is that a scorpion more commonly found in southern Europe should choose to make its home in north Brighton. Lee’s theory is that Sid arrived in the UK at Shoreham harbour among masonry or timber. Scorpion colonies are well-established at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Sheerness. But even if Sid did find his way here via a cruise, it’s still highly unusual for a scorpion to abandon the concrete walls of a harbour and head inland.
Personally, I like to imagine Sidney had some fiery affair back home in southern Italy, which led to contretemps with family members and Sid having to leave town at dead of night in fear of his life. Or that he landed here as part of a Scorpion Witness Protection Programme. Reigate Road is about as anonymous a suburban street as you’re likely to find.
Whatever motivated his trip to England it now looks like Sidney’s here to stay. He’s not particularly long (roughly 4 cm) but still pretty impressive. He has that armour-plated finish. His tail seems perpetually sprung. General opinion is that, judging by the size of his claws, he’s a crusher rather than a stinger, but I’m not so sure I’d want to tangle with either end of him. Sitting at my desk, I’ll sometimes find my attention drifting over to Sid’s box, just to check the lid is firmly shut.
A friend used to work at BBC News and he once told me how, when the Queen Mother was well into her nineties, her every cough and cold would get the press in a flurry of activity with the obituaries and rolling tv coverage all be ready to run. It couldn’t have been particularly pleasant for her and I sometimes wonder if Sidney has a similar feeling, staring out from his rock in the office at the back of the Booth. When a member of staff drops by to offer him a centipede or beetle it sometimes takes a little while for Sid to stir. For a moment it seems like it might be time to take the lid off the scorpion drawer. But once he wakes there really is no stopping him. I have a hunch the Booth Museum’s own personal mascot will be with us for a little while yet.