The Spectator

The best of Low Life: Jeremy Clarke remembered

Jeremy Clarke, with Boris Johnson, at The Spectator summer party in 2018

Jeremy Clarke, The Spectator’s Low Life columnist, died this morning at his home in France. He was 66. For 23 years, his column was, for many readers, the first page they turned to in the magazine. Here is a brief selection of the best of Low Life:

On self-confidence 

30 March 2002: ‘Two Christmases ago, Sharon gave her Mum a self-help paperback called The Duty Trap. The book is aimed at people who persist in unhappy, one-sided relationships out of a misplaced sense of duty. On New Year’s Eve, says Sharon, her Mum finished the book, went upstairs, packed a suitcase and walked out. She went back to the farmer, now widowed, with whom she’d had the one love affair of her life. They are unbelievably happy, though their happiness is tinged with sadness that they left it so late.’

On missing the point 

2 August 2003: ‘Rain has been falling continuously since we arrived, out of a sky so low that if I stood on the roof I could probably reach up and touch it. We’ve done nothing but sit in our luxuriously appointed caravan staring back at the passers-by and playing a few hands of pontoon in the evening. The boy and his half-brother, aged 13 and 12 respectively, have arrived at that stage of character development where they just sit or lie down for long periods with their mouths open, growing pustules.’

On being caught out

9 August 2003: ‘If I thought an account of my wrongdoing would send a small cloud across the magistrates’ cheerful countenances, I was mistaken. On the contrary, the magistrate on the left wing, whose head from his neck to the top of his bald pate was scarlet with high blood pressure, leaned in towards his chief and, shaking with suppressed laughter, whispered to him what I can only imagine was a very funny story.’ 

On partying

18 June 2005: ‘My friends told me that halfway through the ball they’d gone to look for me and found me unconscious outside, flat on my face on the lawn, next to the naked girl. Someone had taken off my shoes, arranged them neatly side by side and set fire to them.’

On lower living

20 August 2005: ‘Once you’ve been doing it for a while, it’s not easy to stop being a low life. There’s nothing people enjoy more than watching someone going to hell on a poker, and they rather resent it if that person suddenly decides he wants to get off. No one objects in principle to an idle, self-centred, addicted life, as long as it ends prematurely in lonely and squalid circumstances and everyone can read about it in the papers. Renege on the deal, like a footballer in mid-contract, and people feel cheated.’

On drugs

26 November 2005: ‘Trev washes up the coke and round goes the crack pipe, with Sharon carefully recording each turn at the crackpipe like a cricket scorer. And she’s right! When the crack’s used up, Trev’s somehow gained an extra three pipes on the rest of the field. And then the shouting and the recriminations begin again. I go out to the cold kitchen to sit with Trev’s anxious-looking labrador for a while, wishing I’d stayed in.’

Jeremy, with his fellow columnist, Taki, in 2015
On Scientology

25 November 2006: ‘The Church of Scientology have been bombarding my mobile with calls and messages. Each number that they called from I carefully logged in my phone book, so that whenever they rang me the word ‘Scientology’ came up on the screen and I knew not to answer it. But her ringing from a new number while I was returning to the sofa after a visit to the crackpipe had wrongfooted me.’ 

On seaweed 

8 September 2007: ‘Her pubic hair was unbelievably profuse. It was a map of British India, roughly speaking, including what later became Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir, with parts of Burma, Tibet and Afghanistan added on. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.’ 

On renting

29 March 2008: ‘”Do you smoke?” Only when I’m drunk, I said. “You get drunk?” Of course I get drunk, I said — I’m a journalist. It’s expected of us. “I see,” she said, again finding the explanation perfectly satisfactory. “As long as you don’t smoke inside the cottage,” she said.’ 

On hotels

1 November 2008: ‘The bottom half of the bed was sodden. Further investigation told me that, although the sheets were soaked, the duvet and the suit trousers I’d slept in were perfectly dry. Strange.’ 

On short relationships

23 October 2010: ‘Discarded clothes were strewn all over the floor. I picked mine out and was wildly elated to find my wallet and phone intact. I dressed, then pulled on the curtain cord, revealing yet another miraculous October day. I thought about leaving a note saying it had been a wonderful relationship but it just wasn’t working out, but couldn’t find any paper.’ 

On getting married

8 January 2011: ‘Bed was fine. No complaints there. Well, there was one thing, actually. My kissing technique was rubbish. “No tongues!” she’d exclaim crossly, even when she was tied up.’ 

(Credit: Carmen Fyfe)
On cancer

13 July 2013: ‘It was here (to my profoundest regret afterwards) that I broke my promise to myself not to bore anyone with my news. Coming up on the train, I’d had a strong word with myself not to mention it at all costs. Vain hope. Sober I can be a model of modesty, propriety and restraint. Drunk: not so much. All too predictably there came a point in the evening when someone said, “How are you?” and I replied, “I’ve got fucking cancer.”’

On hormones

24 August 2013: ‘Golly my testicles are shrinking fast. At this rate,by Christmas they’ll be down to the size of garden peas. And I might have breasts on the way, too, it says on page 92 of the hormone injection contraindications leaflet. Fantastic! Just what I’ve always wanted.’ 

On pot paranoia

30 November 2013: ‘The delusions began; the usual delusions; my ordinary neuroses writ large, I think. An unshakeable conviction, for example, that these confident, consummate actors gathered here in the bar were operating on a higher plane of consciousness than I was, and that they knew something of crucial importance, perhaps about me, that I cannot imagine nor will ever be permitted to know.’ 

On Mayfair

7 December 2013: ‘I couldn’t believe it: 3 a.m. in the bohemian quarter of the greatest city on earth and you can’t get a reasonably priced drink anywhere? What was I supposed to do next? Go home? Boris! Are you listening! It’s an absolute disgrace!’ 

On grandsons 

19 April 2014: ‘The young amateur boxers dash over to their father — their favourite punchbag — climb up on to his chair, and administer a damn good leathering. Their father cowers weakly in his chair as the blows rain down. “Good day at the office?” I ask him. He looks out at me between the blows and I get another one of those desperate looks.’ 

On Pamplona

7 June 2014: ‘The drama of the situation seemed only to relax her. She bent calmly and gracefully to her line, took it up her nose, then stood and inhaled deeply through her nostrils as though she were taking in the invigorating air on top of Beachy Head. The door by now was coming off its hinges, the thunder of the kicking deafening. Goodness knows how many people were out there, or what was the general point they were making.’ 

If I’m honest with myself, I’ve never completely known or understood what I was doing, or supposed to be doing, every week when writing this column

On dancing

8 November 2014: ‘In Soho we lost two of our party between quitting the taxi and entering the first club. One of these was last seen on the very doorstep. There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip, we supposed. We lost another at the entrance to the second club, assessed correctly by a doorman as being too inebriated to be allowed in. Which now left three of us still dancing and chucking back vile concoctions of every hue. Then (it all went black, your honour) I met a woman in the street quite at random and I went off to a club with her. But when she took off her coat in this club and started dancing, she looked so well that she was immediately besieged by fervently attentive Italians, and I was rejected in favour of these younger, more upright suitors. Outside in the street, a busker was sawing the theme to The Godfather on his violin with such heart-rending emotion, I leant heavily against the railings and tears welled in my eyes and I let them fall.’

Beautiful day

24 October 2014: ‘But what do I know about art? I don’t even know what I like. And I was feeling so good, so alive, and so in love with London, that I mentally apologised to myself, God and the universe for slipping into judgmental nitwit mode again, and I headed on up the road towards the drumming and the tumults in Trafalgar Square.’ 

My year of drugs

31 December 2015: ‘I looked fondly, too, on the daily steroid pill called prednisolone, which I took to compensate for my knocked-out adrenal glands and which gives me a noticeable mental lift. A prednisolone pill is a tiny white roundel with the letters P and M stamped elegantly on it. What P and M stand for, I don’t know. Poor Me, perhaps.’ 

On airport buses

12 April 2017: ‘At the last stop before the terminal, carpark A, a documentary fat woman, with gothic lettering tattooed up the side of her white leg and a dotted line across her neck above the words “tear here”, clambered aboard wheezing heavily. She could only be of the English working class and proved it immediately by saying “Christ almighty” in a beautiful Lancashire accent as the bus lurched away from the stop and she had to put a hand on my shoulder to stop herself from falling. “Are you alright, dear?” I said, standing smartly so she could sit next to the Frenchman. She accepted gratefully and fell backwards into the seat, partially obscuring the Frenchman with a bare arm as thick as my thigh.’

First day

25 April 2020: ‘She reached down and slid open the bottom drawer of her desk, showing about 100 vodka miniatures. I nodded complicity. She emptied four into two plastic water cups. “Have you got anything to go with it?” I said, which wasn’t very Low Life-like of me. She reached down and pulled out the lower drawer of her neighbour’s desk and rummaged in it, emerging eventually with a medicine bottle of kaolin and morphine.’ 

Communists and fascists

30 May 2020: ‘”See that ugly customer over there,” I say: “bald head, slow-eyed, face of a Marseille gangster? That’s the head communist.” Generally speaking, the regular customers’ faces are prematurely creased and hardened by toil, anxiety and fags and slower to smile than those up the road at the fascist bar. Though whether only communists come here and only fascists go to the other is impossible to know.’

On leaving lockdown

3 July 2021: ‘I sat between Philippe and the detached French woman. She was quite old. She hadn’t yet got over the death of her lover, she told me, even though she’d passed away a decade before. After telling me this she rested her head against my chest as though exhausted by grief. Offered wine, she sprang to life and filled her glass dangerously close to the brim with red. 

I liked this woman and told her so. I also said something inane about how we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can. To express profound agreement she took my wrist, held it to her bosom, and looked deep into my soul with black featureless eyes. Then she turned her head away and slightly down and projectile vomited over the American woman’s bare right leg.’

On the Platinum Jubilee

4 June 2022: ‘I’ve often wondered whether Her Majesty the Queen glances through The Spectator from time to time. And if she does, I wonder whether her kindly eye lights on this column. And if it does, I wonder what she thinks of what she reads there. 

“Philip, there’s a man here writing about going to the Cheltenham Festival and messing his pents.” “Very easily done at Cheltenham, my dear. I’ve often wondered why nobody has written about it before.” Or, “Philip here’s that man again, the one who messed his pents at Cheltenham, assisting the ferret-judging at a country show. It’s frightfully interesting. The judge takes so long to judge each class, they drive a car into the tent so that he can judge them in the headlights.” “Does he mess his pents again?” “He doesn’t say.”

I’m going downhill fast

On TikTok

30 July 2022: ‘And I think: is this how it ends? Lying in bed watching TikTok videos? At the weekend I had planned a retreat in a nunnery. Three days of silent prayer and contemplation. But two of the nuns have caught Covid and the technical nun thought it best that we postponed. And at the weekend the tumour pain in my armpit, shoulder and shoulder blade intensified alarmingly. For the first time, the usual dose of the usual painkillers didn’t touch it. An escalation. I have always imagined that when it was time for me to die, I would make a serious effort to prepare myself. And now that the warning light is flashing, what do I do? I tap the TikTok app and there’s Bernard Manning saying, “A man walks into a pub with a crocodile under his arm.” Shoot me.’

On Spectator readers

10 December 2022: ‘If I’m honest with myself, I’ve never completely known or understood what I was doing, or supposed to be doing, every week when writing this column. I don’t have much of a grasp of English grammar for a start. Therefore I’ve always been careful not to take too much pleasure in praise; to accept it only as a courtesy of the heart, rather than its exact and fatal opposite, a vanity of the mind. But after reading three of four emails and letters a day for a month from strangers all over the world telling me how much they’ve enjoyed reading this column over the years, my head is now so pleasantly swollen I couldn’t get through the kitchen door and out on to the terrace even if I wanted to. (Thanks to all!)’

On Catriona

25 March 2023: ‘As I write, Catriona is coming and going, modelling outfits in the swing mirror. This afternoon we are getting married in the town hall in a brief civil ceremony conducted by the mayor. As I say, it’s all go. “Lovely, darling,” I tell her with perfect honesty as each new dress is paraded in front of me. “Beautiful.” And she is. Inside and out. I’m a lucky man. And today I’m a very happy one too.’

On morphine

15 April 2023: ‘I’m going downhill fast. The numb fingers of my left hand are barely strong enough to unscrew the cap from a tube of toothpaste. And the morphine dose occasionally still fails to mask the pain, which achieves an unsurmised, unimaginable, unsupportable level. It makes one wonder what role in nature that level of pain is supposed to be playing. “Treena,” I say. “I don’t think I want to live any more.” Then I swallow a big short-acting morphine dose and after half an hour the pain subsides slightly, and I have a sip of tea, and I can hear a choir of village children singing over at the school, and a soppy dove almost flies in through the open window, and life has interest once more.’

On love 

6 May 2023: ‘When Marketa leaves, Treena supervises the cleaning of my gob. On the bed table she lays out a hand towel, a tooth mug with warm water in it, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste and three paper towels to spit into. She also places upon the table an anti-fungal mouthwash. Mouth fungus, apparently, is an inevitable side result of these cancer treatments. Unfortunately, by kissing her too frequently and too passionately, and vice versa, I have passed mine on to Catriona.

But I’m sorry. Wouldn’t you kiss passionately, deeply and often the lady who loves you so much that she is willing to care for your each and every need, as Catriona does with mine, 24 hours a day, instead of packing me off to a hospice and letting them do it all?  Yet this amazing woman does it and kisses me deeply and passionately, no matter what the consequences for her own health.

When I read out that final paragraph to her just now, however, she says: “Early doors yet, as they used to say.”’

INVITATION: Readers are invited to a memorial service for Jeremy at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London on the morning of Monday, 10 July. Details are yet to be confirmed but anyone who might like to attend can register their interest here.


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