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S02E57 Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo? by Gerald Kersh
Episode 5715th November 2021 • Classic Ghost Stories • Tony Walker
00:00:00 01:23:17

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Gerald Kersh

Firstly, I need to thank Gavin Critchley who commissioned me to record this for his birthday in August and then very generously allowed me to broadcast it to you all on the podcast.

Gerald Kersh was born in Teddington (just outside Central London) in 1912. He was born into a poor Jewish family and during his life had to turn his hand to many jobs to survive. These included being a cinema manager, body guard, cook in a fish and chip shop, French teacher, travelling salesman, night club bouncer and professional wrestler. 

It is said he began to write when he was only eight and did all the other jobs to keep him going while he tried to make a living as a writer. His first book was autobiographical and a family member sued him for libel so he withdrew it. His third novel was his most famous one. This was Night And The City which was published in 1938 and made into a film twice. Robert de Niro played the main role in the 1992 film.


Kersh joined the British Army during the Second World War and went into the Coldstream Guards but ended up working for the army film unit. He was discharged from the Army in 1943 after having both his legs broken in a bombing raid. While in France, after the liberation that many of his Jewish relatives had died in the Nazi concentration camps.


Kersh wrote in a variety of genres after the war and he moved to the USA because he disliked the British tax system which he felt took too much money. 


He became an American citizen in 1958. He died in New York in 1968.


His biography on the Villancourt Books site states:


Kersh was a larger than life figure, a big, heavy-set man with piercing black eyes and a fierce black beard, which led him to describe himself proudly as “villainous-looking.” His obituary recounts some of his eccentricities, such as tearing telephone books in two, uncapping beer bottles with his fingernails, bending dimes with his teeth, and ordering strange meals, like “anchovies and figs doused in brandy” for breakfast. Kersh lived the last several years of his life in the mountain community of Cragsmoor, in New York, and died at age 57 in 1968 of cancer of the throat.


Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?


This is a story of immortality. If we think of the alchemists who spent their lives, their fortunes, their reputation and their health to find the Elixir of Life and historical figures such as Emperor Rudolf II who, in Prague, funded lots of alchemists to produce such a tincture, then in Whatever Happened To Corporal Cuckoo, we see all of this is turned upon its head.


Cuckoo gets the Elixir of Life by accident, it is invented by accident by the French surgeon who treats him. Ambroise Pare was a real military surgeon from this time.


After becoming immortal, Cuckoo then spends the rest of eternity looking for get rich quick schemes in order to fund his buying what sounds like a low rent clip joint with girls and booze for low rent customers. He squanders every gift that eternity could have given him, not least by saving a little of his pay (and putting into attacker account as Warren Buffet would have you do). His answer when asked, is that he can’t be anything other than he is. He will do what his character makes him do. This is his dharma. This Indian term means duty but has come in some circles in the West to mean that what you do and can do no other. I often reflect on this these days. Could I be anything other than I am? I think within a limited circle of actions I can change the way I am, but like Cuckoo that is severely limited by my circumstances and my physical, mental and temperamental make up.


I ramble about this and more in the audio notes to this episode. 


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