Haydn’s Nasal Polyp

I’ve been toying with a short story of this title for years, ever since hearing — or thinking I heard — a Radio 3 announcer say, with predictably risible stuffiness: “During the winter of 1772, Haydn, then resident in London, found himself unable to compose, so troubled was he by a nasal polyp.” There was something about the notion of Haydn’s nasal polyp — rather like Flaubert’s parrot, or Lenin’s brain, or Churchill’s black dog — that seemed almost purpose-built for a story title. Not that I really wanted to write anything serious about Haydn: this was going to be more a piss-take of that particular strain in contemporary letters, perhaps exemplified by the titles above, that seeks out profundity by yoking a mundane, or curious, thing — parrot, brain, polyp — to a great name.

My story (I’m definitely going to write it) will focus on the effects of the polyp on Haydn’s sense of his own musicality. I think it will revisit some of the torments I visited on Simon Dykes in my story Chest (collected in Grey Area). Anyway, I wrote it on a Post-it note, this title, and stuck it on my wall, as is my wont. It’s now been there for years, unremarked on by anyone until Ian Rankin came to film a short interview with me for a documentary he’d been making on Stephenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

On seeing the projected short-story title, Rankin expostulated: “Haydn’s nasal polyp! That’s uncanny! Why have you got it written up on your wall?” I explained, and he told me in turn that he and his crew had just been to the Hunterian Museum (named after the celebrated anatomist and surgeon, John Hunter), where they had been told the story of Haydn’s nasal polyp by the curator. For, it transpired, Hunter, as well as being the real-life model for Dr Jekyll, was also called upon to operate on the offending polyp.

I offer this to you all as an example of the merest literary coincidence.