Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

Frantic chewing of sugar-coated nicotine gum had caused my left lower molar to go irretrievably rotten, and the dentist finally extracted it after a prolonged and heroic struggle. Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor was playing in the background and the extraordinary thing was that from start to finish the music exactly mirrored the vicissitudes of his battle to pull the tooth out. While we waited for the anaesthetic to take effect the music was gently soporific. As he applied his pliers to the tooth and carefully loosened it, the mood darkened and built to a turbulent climax until I gestured with an unhappy hand signal that I could feel the roots twisting in a place that the anaesthetic had yet to reach. He downed tools and placed two more injections of anaesthetic deep in the gum. As he did so the musical tsunami crested and broke and then flowed calmly again.

The roots were unfortunately bifurcated and it took him ten minutes of hard, sweaty physical labour with several rests in between -- during which he flexed and massaged the strained muscles in his forearm -- to loosen the tooth without snapping it off the roots. Again, the increasing intensity of his exertions and his periods of rest were exactly matched by the sweeping emotional ebb and flow of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. It was as if the man were being subliminally directed by it. The match was so perfect that during one of his resting periods I asked him if the music he was playing was carefully chosen. The suggestion was peremptorily dismissed, however. 'Music? I put music on because it's better than silence, that's all. I'm not even hearing it,' he said, making a fist and flexing his strained forearm. I was feeling marvellous. While he got his strength back in his arm, I asked him a supplementary question. 'You know all this local anaesthetic you've given me. Would it be affecting my consciousness?' I said, hoping he was pumping in some derivative of the coca leaf. If my first question shook his confidence in my intelligence, the second made him lose it altogether. 'No,' he said, shortly and dismissively, delving into my gob and returning to work.

It was amazing. His final, prolonged assault was mirrored exactly by the intensity of the symphony's final musical climax, and the tooth surrendered itself whole exactly on cue. …

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