Jeremy Clarke, The Spectator’s Low Life columnist, died this morning at his home in France. He was sixty-six. For twenty-three 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:
March 30, 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.”
Missing the point
August 2, 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 thirteen and twelve 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.”
Being caught out
August 9, 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.’’
June 18, 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.”
August 20, 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-centered, 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.”
November 26, 2005: “Trev washes up the coke and round goes the crack-pipe, with Sharon carefully recording each turn at the crack-pipe 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.”
November 25, 2006: “The Church of Scientology have been bombarding me 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 crack pipe had wrong-footed me.”
September 8, 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.”
March 29, 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.”
November 1, 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.”
October 23, 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.”
January 8, 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.”
July 13, 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.’”
August 24, 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 ninety-two of the hormone injection contraindications leaflet. Fantastic! Just what I’ve always wanted.”
November 30, 2013: “The delusions began; the usual delusions; my ordinary neuroses writ large, I think. An unshakable 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.”
December 7, 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!”
April 19, 2014: “The young amateur boxers dash over to their father — their favorite 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.”
My hangover was what the great Kingsley Amis describes in his Everyday Drinking guide as a ‘metaphysical’ hangover
June 7, 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.’
November 8, 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 honor) 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 favor 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.”
October 24, 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 apologized 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
December 31, 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.”
April 12, 2017: “At the last stop before the terminal, car park 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.”
February 22, 2018: “My hangover was what the great Kingsley Amis describes in his Everyday Drinking guide as a ‘metaphysical’ hangover. Apart from the usual feeling of being unwell, stealing over me was that ‘ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future.’ Amis’s remedy was to read the final scene of “Paradise Lost,” Book XII, lines 606 to the end, ‘which is probably the most poignant moment in all our literature’. Otherwise he recommends battle poems, such as Chesterton’s ‘Lepanto.’ But now the random selection of images and scenes recollected from the previous evening paused on a new and particularly horrific one. So before I searched for ‘Lepanto,’ before rising even, I reached for the phone and typed in ‘how to clean vomit from the inside of a car.’”
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
May 17, 2018: “The most obvious result of taking the LSD was that it took us a lot longer to walk back than it had taken us to walk there. And that Yves, whose saintliness had indeed been to my nineteen-year-old mind a kind of revelation, became uncharacteristically tetchy. Our idiotic laughter at the ineffable rightness of the shape of a small stone lying on the path irritated him; also our continual stopping to marvel at the amazing greenness and sentience of a grasshopper sunning itself on a stone, or the lightness and buoyancy of a passing solitary cloud, and I forget what else. And of course the irritated head of a saintly French priest was one of the funniest things we’d ever seen, too. At once the natural world had become prouder, funnier and more unified than we had ever seen it before. And forty years on, that cloud, grasshopper, stone and French priest’s bewildered irritation remain as vivid in my imagination as they were in reality at the time, and imbued still with the same profound glamour.
“So the other day I went online and typed in ‘buy’ and ‘LSD.’”
October 12, 2019: “Fumbling outside my door in dripping swimming trunks for my room key, I was hailed cheerily by the maid from a doorway further along the corridor. I hadn’t met her, but her greeting was not without a touch of familiarity, if not intimacy, I thought. The latter, I guessed, must be predicated on the fact of her coming into my junior suite when I was out and restoring it to a holiday-brochure photograph, then arranging my tawdry collection of toiletries into little islands on the marble counter. What she made of my penis vacuum pump, I couldn’t guess. I rather think that while she could only speculate as to its function, she probably imagined it to be the latest Western bourgeois ‘must-have’ gadget. This patronizing thought was based on the way she polished the Perspex tube and deified it and the heavy motor unit by arranging them side by side and centrally on a glass shelf lit by four spotlights.
“‘Tense,’ she cried, beaming at me. ‘Well, yes, I suppose I am a bit,’ I said.”
April 25, 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 neighbor’s desk and rummaged in it, emerging eventually with a medicine bottle of kaolin and morphine.”
Communists and fascists
May 30, 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.”
July 3, 2021: “I sat between Phillipe 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.”
Dying I am, but clean and smelling of soap
The Platinum Jubilee
June 4, 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.’”
July 30, 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 tumor 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.”
December 10, 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!).”
March 25, 2023: “As I write, Catriona is coming and going, modeling 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.”
April 15, 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.”
April 22, 2023: “And so that’s me now back at base, no legs, no feeling below my sternum, catheterized, dying, watching the light play on the hills in the distance. A nurse comes and goes daily. Dying I am, but clean and smelling of soap. Cleaner in fact than before. Radio 3. Drowsing over The Portable Gibbon. Pink roses. Union Jack mug of tea.
“Where did it all go? And so suddenly?”
May 6, 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, twenty-four hours a day, instead of packing me off to a hospice, and let 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.’”
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.