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A Post Mortem Adventure


Even at the best of times, this is a dying season – I mean a season for dying.

Throw in Covid, which puts daily death rates into the regular news headlines, not to mention the fear of death propagated by a government to produce behavioural change – stay at home and keep clear of others so you don't kill your Gran – and death is presently looming large.

More positively though, admiration for the NHS, with all its committed professionals, has never been more apparent.

Death all around, with dedicated doctors desperately working to save lives...

We go back to the Battle of Trafalgar, back to William Beatty, Surgeon on HMS Victory.

Here he is, portrayed by Devis, not long after the battle - a clear-eyed, confident but humane young man in his thirties.

The surgeon triaged each wounded man in turn, regardless of rank, as they were brought below decks. There were three categories: not needing immediate care, so leave; sufficiently seriously wounded, with the possibility of survival, so render immediate attention; very seriously wounded and likely to die, so leave.

Beatty worked on in dangerous and exceedingly difficult conditions, which are hard to imagine. Cries, shouts and screams; deafening explosions, terrifying shocks and deep shudderings; an uneven, sloping and slippery (blood, sea water, gore) floor; the stink of torn open viscera; a low ceiling, obstructions everywhere and minimal light... Of the eleven amputations he performed that day – mainly legs – five of his patients survived, which was considered remarkable at the time, and certainly is now.

So, some he saved.

This particular one, triaged into the third group, died.  But in this case, his care extended beyond death.

A Case of Preservation 1805

I used a Leaguer – the largest cask

to be found on board. As you know

he was slim and slight – just five feet four

so foetally he bundled in.

I sank the upturned hull of back

one fin arm and floating shirt.

Spirit of wine – not rum – works best

I know – I have experience.

And so it proved. It took a week

to reach Gibraltar, during which

we withdrew liquor and refilled

the cask. There was a deficit

but I was pleased when the time had come

to find the body well preserved –

the bowels however, much decayed

I removed, then wrapped the corpse

in fresh clean linen, when I was able

I added myrrh and camphor

to his familiar brandy

and laid him in a proper coffin.

No longer was his little body

compacted in a wooden vessel –

for now he lay in state – at length

preserved, ready for drawn-out pageantry.

Nelson was beloved not only by his sailors, but by the nation at large. So Beatty's challenge was to preserve and bring the body back to England for what would turn out to be a massive state funeral.

The naval surgeon set about the task in a scientific manner as best he could, with such materials as were to hand. It must have been with a mixture of a surgeon's respectful care and simple practicality that he would have folded the damaged corpse with its absent arm into that brandy-filled barrel, pushing it deep down to make it sink.

Their journey home was eventful, the battered Victory needing a tow, delayed by storms and the brandy vanishing – was it just evaporation, or wilful removal? – but eventually Beatty was able to cleanse and prepare the body appropriately.

As a doctor, Beatty commands my admiration. I've tried to communicate his sense of clinical curiosity combined with loving care, describing his interest in the technical processes (which happened on this occasion to be the preservation of a corpse), along with his diligent attention to a known and much loved individual.

Such a combination has to represent the aspiration of many of those of us who've followed him.

My poem has an explanatory tone – the surgeon wants, needs, to tell us what he did, how he did it and what the results were. He sees the body as a vessel, using – as to be expected from a naval surgeon – both medical and nautical terms. He assumes we know certain basic facts, such as Nelson's physique. He uses no emotional words, apart from expressing his pleasure at finding his (post mortem) ministrations were successful, but I've tried to suggest a flavour of care, as he shares with us his concerns to perform his duties properly.

As this boils down to an apparently straightforward account from a practical professional, it may be asked why it should aspire to poetry.

My response is that I found the compactness of poetic form, offering the opportunity to break the description and line of thought into small succinct pieces (the cleanly cut comments of a surgeon?), the chance to develop an appropriate voice for Beatty, scrupulously considering the words and phrases he chooses to use, the hidden emotion, and the rhythm of a clinical history carefully related (combined with so many gaps in the narrative) – all these contributed to my wanting to make this powerful story into a poem.

Whether the resulting poem about what happened to a particular corpse succeeds in interesting or even moving you, my wish is that you too may feel some warmth towards this exemplary surgeon, as I honour his memory.

All of which might not remove the fear of death as Covid and its variants blows near, but may reinforce the gratitude universally felt towards those who are prepared to look after us in the face of personal danger in these dark times now, should we need them.


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