Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

I took a dab of antiseptic gel and rubbed my hands together. 'Alone tonight, sir?' said the charming head waiter. I was, I said. For the sake of conviviality, he seated me opposite the only other lone diner in the ship's restaurant, a chap in his mid-sixties with his head in a book. This bookish loner had a jutting Mr Punch chin and an old-fashioned lothario's pencil moustache. A few hours earlier, I'd noticed him prowling the deck wearing only a minuscule pair of leopard-skin print bathing drawers and a sea captain's hat. We shook hands and exchanged Christian names. Gunter hailed from Germany but spoke basic English.

I asked him what his book was about. 'It is about life after death,' he said. He was disinclined to elaborate, but willing to initiate a conversation about death. 'And was your grandfather killed in the first world war?' he said. No, I said. He was only wounded -- shot in the leg near Ypres. And your grandfather, I asked? Was he killed? 'No, no,' he said. 'My grandfather was only a regimental tailor. At Verdun. He mended the broken uniforms.' I pictured his grandfather pedalling away on his sewing machine in a dugout, then ventured that my grandmother's brother was killed by a direct hit from a shell on the Somme. 'The headmaster at my first school lost his arm at the Somme,' said Gunter. 'He was kicked by a horse and the arm was destroyed and the surgeon had to cut it away. Have you ever seen an amputation? Or perhaps a dissection of a dead person?' Alas no, I said. 'And would you like to see a photo of a dissection? I have one in my cabin. One moment. I will bring it.'

He rose from the table. While he was away, a waiter appeared with a menu and took my order for asparagus soup followed by the stir-fried pork. A minute later, Gunter returned to the table, with the photo buttoned into the breast pocket of his country and western-style shirt. He unbuttoned the flap, took out the photo and passed it across. 'I was in Thailand,' he explained. 'I just walked into the university, found the dissection room and nobody said anything.' The photo showed a hideously bloated, flayed corpse face-down on a table. A young student was leaning over it and making a careful incision in the neck. I congratulated him on his audacity. …

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