Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

Credit: Jeremy Clarke

Depressed and demoralised after the defeat of his nation of farmers in the second Boer war, Eugène Marais, an Afrikaner patriot, lawyer, naturalist, poet, lifelong morphine addict and journalist, went to live with a troop of baboons in the then remote Waterberg area of South Africa. He camped in their vicinity and was gradually accepted by them and afforded a place in their society. His books about his experiences, My Friends the Baboons and The Soul of the Ape , have subsequently made his name as the father of the scientific study of the behaviour of animals. In The Soul of the Ape he proposed a theory of the evolution of the human psyche that runs approximately as follows. Man and all the higher primates are in a state of bewilderment. Why? Because before the unlikely genetic mutation that gave rise to human intelligence and consciousness, the higher primates were no more intelligent than rodents. And ever since man's sudden and unlikely mental endowment, there has always been this terrible conflict between the old mind -- the inherited, instinctual, animal mind -- and the new mind, developed by learning and experience: a conflict perhaps most perfectly expressed by Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, or indeed by Shakespeare's entire output. To walk through the door of the Singing Ringing Tree, that snobbish, soul-destroying, and madly popular café, and see Mr Paterson seated there at the table by the window in his ill-fitting suit, studying the menu, his brow creased in furious concentration, was to witness this horrific primordial dilemma of hominid and baboon in transparent action.

Mr Paterson is a financial adviser. I'd met him in the pub the previous Saturday night. It must have been at an earlier stage of the evening when I was still able to hold a conversation but no longer able to judge character. I'd said I was half-thinking of buying a flat and what were my chances of a mortgage application being approved these days. He asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, and for whom, he was incredulous. I think he had been brought up to believe that people who spoke with regional accents as pronounced as mine, and poured lager down their throats from angles so near to the vertical, could only ever be hewers of wood and drawers of water. …

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