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Low life

Call myself a Low life? You lot put me to shame

Your entries to the ‘drunkest I’ve ever been’ contest make me feel sober and upright by comparison

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

The entries are crawling in on their hands and knees for the ‘drunkest I’ve ever been’ competition to win a place at the launch party for the Low life column collection. Gawd. Reading your accounts makes me feel as sober and upright by comparison as a sidesman in the Dutch Reformed Church, and that I have the Low life position on this magazine under false pretences. What we do have in common however, I think, is that we are terrible lightweights who can’t take drink like others can. For me, a single pint of strongish lager is a shape changer. Pass me a second and I couldn’t give two figs about the future. Three and I’m Gussie Fink-Nottle giving out the prizes or Augustus Carp after several glasses of Portugalade.

Or Evelyn Waugh on his first night out in Athens: we went straight to a nightclub kept by a one-legged Maltese who gave us cocktails made out of odd drugs and a spirit of his own distilling. Later the première danseuse of the cabaret came out and warned us on no account to touch the cocktails. Later still, I drove around the city in a taxi cab on I forget what errand, and then back to the nighclub. The taxi driver followed me back to our table. I had given him as a tip over ten pounds in drachma, my watch, my gloves and my spectacle case. It was too much, he protested. The rest of my visit was rather overshadowed by this introduction to Athenian life.

Or my wonderful friend the late Miss Freda Busby. During the first world war, two soldiers — brothers — were billeted at her family home in High Wycombe. Freda fell in love with one, her sister Olive with the other. The soldiers duly went to France and the sisters corresponded with them until they were duly killed within days of one another. Olive and Freda remained faithful to their respective loves and lived the rest of their lives together as a blameless couple of spinsters. Olive was literary and liked poetry; Freda served for decades on the committee of the Women’s Institute. They were lifelong churchgoers.


Olive died at a great age; Freda went on and on. When she was 104, I used to sleep with her. I would lie beside her on a camp-bed in case she needed assistance during the night. Often we would lie awake talking. I love to talk to anyone whose formative years came before Dr Freud’s messianic delusions caught on and buggered everything up. One night I asked her if she’d ever been drunk.

Oh yes, she said. Once. She and Olive were keen walkers. On a coastal walk one hot summer’s afternoon in the 1960s, they had paused at a pub to refresh themselves. Neither had touched a drop of alcohol in their lives, but for devilment (‘I cannot think what possessed us!’) they decided on a half of rough cider each. They were thirsty, they liked it, they had another. And they sang exultant hymns and laughed all the way home. Since then she has held cider in the highest regard, she said, though she and Olive were never tempted to repeat the experience.

Had I ever been drunk, she said? Oh, once or twice, I said. I then told her about a recent Dartington College of Arts summer ball. I’d gone with Sharon and Trev and I suppose we’d taken odd drugs. On the lawn in front of the entrance, a female student was lying on her back, her clothes either torn off or in disarray, blood trickling from her nose and mouth. Her isolation and the piety of those paying her any attention told us that she was a living art installation, there to remind us, we were told by the woman who clipped our tickets, of the horror of rape.

I was trying to win Sharon back and she was treating me with justified contempt. At the ball I deliberately and abjectly drank too much cider too quickly with the usual result that my legs went and I was reeling. I reeled back outside. People were still arriving and queuing to have their tickets clipped. My legs now gave out completely and I lay face down, inert and semi-conscious, beside the feminist art installation, as though I was her assailant, and I had expended so much energy during the assault that I had passed out immediately afterwards. Some passing comic added an imaginative finishing touch to our cautionary tableau by placing lit sparklers into my shoes, which must have lent a much-needed touch of gaiety to the general impression.

When I’d finished my account, Miss Busby let out a sigh of ineffable nostalgia into the darkness and said, ‘How wonderful — sparklers! Oh, how Olive and I used to love sparklers!’

Please send an account (up to 800 words) of your worst or funniest debacle when intoxicated to editor@spectator.co.uk by 15 June to win an invitation to the launch party for Jeremy Clarke’s collection of Low life columns.


Join Jeremy Clarke on the Spectator cruise. For details please visit new.spectator.co.uk/cruise.


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