‘The Viagra tablet slipped through my fingers… it bounced erratically across the room. My new yoga teacher and I watched it go’: Read the best extracts from Jeremy Clarke’s much-loved Low Life column following The Spectator writer’s death at 66
Jeremy Clarke ‘wrote like a dream’. Among old hacks, there is no greater praise than that phrase, reserved for the pro columnists who deliver perfect copy every week – full of wit and unexpected modes of expression, yet always precisely to length and free from garble.
Clarke, who died from cancer last week aged 66 at his home in France, was the Spectator’s Low Life columnist from 2001, detailing his drunken escapades and erotic catastrophes with a charming frankness. He inherited the column from Jeffrey Bernard, a reprobate so infamous around Soho that his adventures were turned into a hit West End play starring Peter O’Toole – called Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.
Clarke never courted that sort of notoriety. Yet his excesses were even more reckless: he was not only a long-term alcoholic but an enthusiastic dabbler in drugs and at one time a crack cocaine addict.
Modest, amiable and mostly sweet-natured (unless you were a cat – he loathed cats), he was a romantic at heart, unable to resist the lure of a shapely bosom or a saucy wink. For many years, mostly spent in the West Country, he was reliably unfortunate in love, until he met artist Catriona ‘Treena’ Olding at one of his own book launches.
Devoted to her for more than a decade, he married her shortly before his death. His honesty about his many failings, allied to his delicious turn of phrase, made his column a joy for his fans. Read a selection and you’ll have to agree: Jeremy wrote like a dream.
Read a selection below and you’ll have to agree: Jeremy wrote like a dream…
I arrived at the yoga centre in a lather. I’d had a stressful day and was off my head. But I’d booked a private one-to-one session with an international yoga star. One glance was enough to verify her credentials. Seeing was believing. Here was an athlete at her peak, radiating health, strength, poise, power.
In that small room she was an overwhelming presence, formidable in skintight pants, resting her weight on one bare, muscular foot while accepting a cheque for £110 from a client.
I took off my sweater, shoes and socks and emptied my jeans pockets on to the bench. A sky-blue 50mg Viagra tablet slipped through my fingers and fell on to the floor. Exactly like a tiny blue rugby ball, it bounced erratically and unpredictably from one side of the room to the other, while the international yoga teacher and I, fascinated spectators, watched it go.
‘Do you need to get that?’ she said.
She asked me to lie on the floor, which I did, and she stood astride me. From below she looked tremendous. She asked me to raise my pelvis towards her. I did this. ‘Relax your jaw,’ she said. ‘You are tensing your jaw. Have you ever noticed how you tense your jaw?’
I had a think. ‘Occasionally, yes,’ I said. ‘In the past. When I’ve taken drugs.’
GOOD PALS: Jeremy with former Spectator boss Boris Johnson in 2018
‘Which drugs?’ she said.
‘LSD,’ I said.
‘Ah,’ she said.
‘Coke,’ I said. ‘Amphetamine, MDMA, mushrooms.’
‘Jeremy,’ she said. She was a colossus with a serious face. ‘The question I think that you have to ask yourself is a very simple one. Do you want to live or do you want to die?’
It was indeed a great question. It was a question that was easily worth £110. I paid up without demur, determined to go away and think about it.
FALLING OFF THE WAGON
After a sober fortnight I was the captain of my soul, albeit an unusually diffident one (captain’s orders: no more smoking, boozing or drugs for the foreseeable future).
On the way back to the car park after I’d eaten, I had to pass the Good Intent, a favourite meeting place for the combination of thugs, slappers, mystics, space cadets, drug dealers and long-term unemployed that passes for the Devon town’s jeunesse doree.
A firm of builders down from London was in town. They were a sociable, free-spending, hard- drinking, coke-snorting gang of blokes and immensely popular, I’d heard it reported, especially with the ladies.
My fellow low lifes gathered outside the Good Intent and literally dragged me across the road to the pub where a pint of Stella was thrust into my hand and a lighted fag was put into my mouth. Then I was introduced to the builders as if I was some kind of local boozing champion.
One of the builders immediately led me inside to the toilet and chopped me up a line of cocaine on one of the cisterns. What time did I call this, he said. I had a lot of catching up to do, he said.
I could have refused, I suppose. I could have argued that I was more of a speed freak than a coke tart. But the captain of my soul had now locked himself in his cabin and was refusing to come out.
Lying awake in the footwell of my car at five o’clock next morning, cold, ill and repentant, how I wished I’d spent the evening pursuing righteousness, faith, love and peace.
I’m not a prude. Neither am I against public nudity. In fact, I live close to, and occasionally lie on, a popular nudist beach. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to scrutinise minutely a naked stranger from an embarrassingly short distance, then try to depict what I saw on a sheet of paper, then have my effort criticised by an art expert.
We arrived a minute late at the Porthmeor studios at the St Ives School of Painting. A young, raven-haired woman in a blue, towelling dressing gown insinuated herself sideways through the crowding ring of easels and let the gown drop from her shoulders. Her figure was voluptuous and her skin was nearly as white as my sheet of A2.
After ten minutes, she changed position and orientation. After a further ten minutes, she changed again. This time, as she shifted position, she said: ‘Who wants more f****?’ It was the only utterance I heard her make all evening.
Nobody responded. They’d all gone into yet another concentrated frenzy of creativity.
When I looked up I saw that she was sitting on a small wooden chair right in front of me with her legs wide apart and she was looking me right in the eye. Going with her f**** joke, I held out my charcoal stick at arm’s length, closed my left eye, cocked my head and did that perspective measuring thing with the charcoal tip on her aforementioned. She applauded with a lovely smile.
HIGH ON LOVE: With his beloved Catriona
AN ABSINTHE BENDER
Last Bank Holiday weekend I took a bottle of French-made absinthe round to Sharon’s house. The line-up around the kitchen table was as follows: Sharon, Sharon’s brother, Sharon’s father, Sharon’s brother’s girlfriend and me.
It was a Sunday evening. Sharon was feeling crapulent. Everyone was yawning. I placed before us a bottle of Grande Absinthe, 69 per cent ABV, made with star anise, wormwood, mugwort and lemon balm.
Sharon’s brother drank the first glass. He plays rugby. In spite of my entreaties to keep things civilised and responsible, he downed half a tumbler neat. His head tilted slowly back to catch the dregs, then catapulted forward and he sat with his chin on his chest, paralysed, and we all thought that was the end of him. But after about half a minute he lifted his head and with tears standing out in his eyes pronounced it ‘not bad’.
The rest of us took ours in the more traditional, sedate manner, diluted with water trickled over a sugar lump suspended above the glass on a perforated absinthe spoon.
After about glass number four everyone was standing up and shouting at one another and Sharon was crying and I can remember noting with surprise a feeling of utter peace, clarity and self-possession, as though my mind wasn’t impaired by the alcohol in the slightest, rather that I was at my alert and perceptive best.
Next morning with this feeling of clarity and imperturbability still on me, I stepped on something hard and sharp.
It was the upper set of Sharon’s dad’s false teeth lying abandoned on the living room carpet.
LOOKING FOR SALVATION
Billy Graham toured Britain’s football stadiums in 1984, one of which was Ashton Gate, home of Bristol City. For I was there on one of the four successive nights he spoke, and the stadium was packed: 30,000 spectators, a 2,000-strong choir, the singer George Hamilton IV as a warm-up and then the world famous evangelist got up to speak.
‘The wages of sin is death,’ said Billy Graham. ‘Hell begins here, but hell is to come as well. You won’t find the answers in drugs or sex. Change your heart, your way of living.’ I knew it already. The man was quite right.
And then came the moment that many of us had been eagerly awaiting. The trademark of a Billy Graham rally was the call to faith; the invitation to come to the front in a public declaration of repentance.
I was so desperate for a reboot, I climbed over the wall and I sprinted on to that pitch, one of the first to arrive in the centre circle. There were many other sprinters. For those like us, Billy Graham might as well have mounted the lectern, cut out the chat, raised a starting pistol above his head and fired it.
More than 2,000 souls ran, walked or sauntered on to the pitch that night and gave their hearts to Jesus. I wonder how they’re all doing.
COMING OUT WITH CANCER
On the train to The Spectator summer party, I’d had a strong word with myself not to bore anyone with my news. 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 f***ing cancer.’ I have. Prostate and spreading. Two, maybe three lymph nodes. They are going to try to zap it. It might be possible to keep it at bay for a few years yet, they say. But please. The Spectator summer party?
And now that all sense of decorum had deserted me, I started telling everyone — friends, strangers, even the barman. First I told it bitterly, then boastfully, then hilariously. Come the end I was using it as a chat-up line. And though horribly ashamed the next day, I also felt somehow differently about my carcinoma and inexplicably better for having told about it.
DRUGS AND THE OLDER GENTLEMAN
The unmistakable sound of the Hammond organ introduction to A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum began playing in the background on the CD player. One of the nurses went over and turned up the volume and sang along to the chorus.
‘Oh, God. Val’s off,’ said Steve, whose job as acting quartermaster is to pass out the dressings as and when required.
‘Don’t you like Procol Harum, then, Steve?’ I said, turning my head to look at him. Steve is about 60 years old.
‘I prefer modern stuff,’ he said.
‘Garage?’ I said.
‘Yes, I like some garage,’ he said with dignity.
‘Ever taken an E?’ I said.
‘Yes, I have taken one, actually,’ said Steve, quietly proud. ‘Once. At a Conservative club. I didn’t notice any effect because I was drunk. We’d been on a coach tour of all the Conservative clubs in the area and this bloke got some out and handed them round for a laugh.’
I knew what he meant, I said, because exactly the same thing happened to me the only time I ever smoked heroin.
I was so drunk I didn’t notice any effect whatsoever.
‘Was that in a Conservative club as well?’ asked Val.
‘No, in a mental hospital,’ I said.
THE JOY OF LIVING
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.
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