Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 28 February 2013

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Neil Clark’s wonderful piece three weeks ago, ‘Running out of sweeties’ (The Spectator, 16 February), has lingered in my mind. He pointed to a type of Englishness characterised by kindness, eccentricity and a complete absence of malice, which used to be known, he said, as ‘sweet’. Like rare and delicate flowers, our nation’s sweeties are facing extinction, he claimed, in the harsher economic and social climate. These holy innocents see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and are always the first to volunteer, yet today’s rigorously equal society allows them no room. Sad.

I’ve known sweeties from all walks of life. There used to be more in the country than the town. But Neil Clark is right: there are fewer around. I’ve been checking on it. Take last Saturday night, for example. I had a date with a woman I’d met just once before, back in July. She’d sent a text suggesting I take her out for the evening. She was getting desperate, she said, because that weekend in July was the last time she’d had a night out. If I wanted to, I could stay the night at hers, she said.

So we went out. At the first pub we went in, we sat and drank and chain-smoked in a freezing wooden shelter in an empty beer garden while she cross-examined me on a number of unrelated topics. She looked fantastic. But when I told her this through chattering teeth, she cruelly demolished me with sarcasm. I therefore concluded early on that under Neil Clark’s definition of the term she was no sweetie.

After that we went down the hill to the Bull to see Trev. It was one of those depressing Saturday nights when the Bull was empty. So the three of us finished our drinks and took a cab into town, to the newly refurbished Hole in the Wall club. Outside, tense bouncers were denying entry to a bellicose group of lads who were almost certainly not sweet. Inside the club was a ten-piece, sunglasses-wearing, Blues Brothers tribute band in full flight, a dance floor packed with bobbing heads, and a heaving bar run by sullen birds showing their pierced navels. In other words, almost Heaven.

But my date wasn’t in the mood for any of this. She refused point-blank to dance, and wasn’t in a drinking mood either. This didn’t leave much, as the music was too loud to allow conversation. She sat on a stool at the edge of the dance floor and morosely studied the carpet while people danced around her. And then out of the blue, and for no reason at all, this bloke who might have been a sweetie, but I doubt it, took a wild swing at Trev, who jerked back his head beyond reach of the flailing fist with amazing alacrity, stepped forward, and clipped the guy on the side of the jaw. And then there was some frantic pushing and shoving as his mates appealed to the guy to tone it down, at least for a bit, and then led him away before the bouncers turned up and started hoofing people out.

Then the dance floor overflowed and her stool was engulfed by dancers and I lost sight of her. When the tide receded I saw that her stool had been abandoned. I went to look for her and found her outside on the pavement, tearfully smoking a cigarette. She was upset, she said, because Trev had tried to kiss her, and because her life had been difficult lately, and because of lots of other stuff that she couldn’t explain. She was sorry, she said.

And then more drunk guys who were by no stretch of the imagination sweeties arrived and began threatening all and sundry on the pavement. And then police jumped out of a van and wrestled one of them to the ground. And because of this drama, the phalanx of bouncers around the door were on their mettle and aggressively refused to step aside and let me back into their club. So we bought kebabs and ate them on the pavement while watching the police wrestling with the main troublemakers and throwing them into the back of the van. And then Trev finally appeared, out of breath, saying it was best if we left the area in a hurry, and we flagged down a passing minicab and headed back.

I fell asleep on my date’s sofa, only to be woken up about three hours later by a little boy tickling my feet. His name was Boris, he said, and he was three years old, and he was without question, and by all definitions, a sweetie with knobs on. So I sat up and read him a story about Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy and enjoyed it as much as he did.