Low Life: One Middle-Aged Man in Search of the Point Jeremy Clarke

Short Books, pp.285, 12.99

Some may question whether a review of a columnist’s work in the magazine in which that columnist’s work appears can ever be impartial. It can, and not just because this particular magazine is, as far as I recall, honest about this kind of thing. It’s because it’s in my interests to be hard on Jeremy Clarke. I write what you may describe as the equivalent column for your anti-matter counterpart, the New Statesman; moreover, I am engaged in the business of bunching my selected columns into a book, rather as he has done here. One does not want to encourage the competition.

Furthermore, I knew Clarke’s predecessor, the late Jeffrey Bernard, and although I had the odd misgiving about him as a person (one did not go to him in order to bask in the benign sunniness of his personality; and he once pinched a girlfriend of mine off me), I had considerable respect for him as both a writer and a personality. A hard act to follow, then, and one that I assumed would be impossible.

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So my reactions to Clarke’s work, as I progressed through his book, went through the following modulations: from wariness, to grudging acceptance, to grudging admiration; and finally — this would be about page 47, so this progress was pretty swift — to outright, unqualified admiration. It was, in fact, on page 47, that I started wishing that I wasn’t alone that evening, so that I could read it out to someone, and make them laugh.

The regular reader of this magazine is presumably familiar with his oeuvre, so this is the column when he goes to an NHS anti-smoking therapist, having been refused Zyban, a drug which reputedly does the trick but carries with it a risk of causing epilepsy. Clarke, admitting that he only smoked when he went to the pub, is asked to describe his previous evening and the effectiveness of the nicotine patches he’d been prescribed. He tells the therapist that the pub was easy, he hadn’t wanted to smoke there at all; but he had wanted to smoke after the fight that broke out afterwards; he’d wanted to smoke when the police arrived; he’d wanted to smoke when someone pushed an Ecstasy tablet into his mouth, and when he’d sneezed all the cocaine off a mirror …  and so on. It is a masterpiece of narrative comic timing.

And there is so much like that. At a meeting of well-meaning bores against air travel, he tells us of a man who

couldn’t understand why people flew when train travel was so exciting. He went on to describe an arduous and degrading four-day train journey he’d once undertaken across South America.

It is that ‘degrading’, worthy of Evelyn Waugh, which announces that one is in the presence of safe hands (and makes one laugh). Columns are brief, and the joke, or the point, has to be made in as small a space as you can. Luckily, English has enough words to deliver the right punch if you can dig them out. Clarke can do this. His life is also truly low. Rural, where Bernard’s was mostly urban, it also includes a cast of ne’er-do-wells which, frankly, I envy (for professional purposes). His own self-revelations are eyebrow-raising, too, in their fearlessness; he has no problem confessing to the occasional bang on the crack pipe, for instance. As Orwell said, no autobiography can be trusted which does not reveal something scandalous. He can do various registers beyond the comedy, but comedy is hard. I finally got to read out his account of a visit to the Scientology Centre (he pretends to be a deckchair attendant. ‘Stressful job?’ ‘Nightmare’). It took some time. The room was in stitches, and so was I. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Biography, Book review, Jeremy clarke, Lives, Non-fiction