As you may know, this magazine has an edition in an alternate reality, otherwise known as the Spectator. Its politics may be bizarre and at times rebarbative – once so bizarre and rebarbative as to appoint Boris Johnson as its editor, and the less said about that episode the better, except to mention that he did less harm in that post than in others he has occupied. But if you showed this magazine and that one to someone with a scanty grasp of English, they’d say (not in English, of course): “Ah, I get it. These publications follow a similar template. Serious stuff at the front, arts reviews at the back, funny/personal stuff at the end.” They might add that our paper quality is much better than theirs, and if the byline illustrations are anything to go by – and why have them if they’re not? – our contributors are much better-looking.
The similarities extend to the nature of the columns at the back. Unlike the Spectator, we do not have a columnist who gloats about how great it is to be rich and is an obvious and widely recognised [redacted], but we both have, or had, someone at the back who lives on the seamier side of society, who exists hand-to-mouth and who has nothing to gloat about. In this magazine’s case, that would be me. (Forgive the grammar.) In the Spectator’s case, that would be Jeremy Clarke; or now would not be, for he died last month.
I don’t read that magazine much, so I only found about his death a week or so ago. And although I knew he had cancer, I didn’t know the details, or how ill he was. It turns out he was very ill.
He wrote the “Low Life” column, which before his own death had been written by Jeffrey Bernard, a charismatic but dissolute character interesting enough to have a successful stage play written about him: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a title taken from the italicised rubric that would occasionally appear where his column was meant to be when he was either too drunk, or too idle, or even actually unwell, to file. Bernard and his life made for compelling reading and as a prose stylist he was both a natural and a professional (when he could be bothered to deliver his copy).
And then he died, as diabetic alcoholics often do, sooner than most, and Jeremy Clarke was appointed to fill his shoes. At first I thought the column should have been allowed to fade out: those were big shoes to fill. But in those days, before my own life came crashing down, I could read the Spectator for free in the London Library, and I would happily turn to Clarke. He had a different cast of characters, different failings: Bernard wrote about the various chancers, spivs and wrecks who manned the bar at Soho’s Coach & Horses; Clarke’s milieu was more rural, or peri-urban, which meant that there was more insane violence, more illegal drugs (I was always struck by how casual Clarke was about documenting this), and if the police were called it was usually to break up a fight in a pub in the middle of nowhere rather than to break up an illegal book being run (by Bernard) in a pub in the middle of London.
A few years later I was asked, by the Spectator, to review a collection of Clarke’s “Low Life” columns. I was wary and, having been myself asked to compile a selection of my own columns for publication, fancied that I could hear the rattle of tank tracks approaching my lawn. But I was also curious to see whether the exercise of collecting columns was worthwhile.
As it happened, I was delighted, and said so: I went so far as to say that there were times, when reading, I regretted there was no one else in the room with me so I could say “listen to this bit”. Clarke was an excellent writer, but in the way that a really well-dressed person’s clothes do not scream “I’m really well-dressed”.
And now he’s gone, after 23 years in situ. I wish I’d kept up with the story more attentively and that there’ll be another collection. I don’t know what he thought of me, but I at least hope that he knew I thought well of him. In the world of personal columnists respect is not always a given. Just ask me – to pluck an example from the press entirely at random – what I think about Boris Johnson’s dismal column on cheese in the Daily Mail – a gig for which I gather he is being paid an annual sum in the high six figures.
We do not hang around though, we Low-Lifers, we Down-and-Outs. Bernard died when he was 65; Clarke when he was 66. As I have mentioned before in these pages, I am 60. I have done the maths, and they are not encouraging.
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia