Jeremy Clarke, the Spectator’s Low Life correspondent, has sadly died. His friend Piers Pottinger pays tribute
Taking over a legendary column is normally an impossible task. Not so for Jeremy Clarke, whose Low Life column in The Spectator was a triumph over adversity.
Jeremy became a friend of mine soon after he had established himself as essential weekly reading. For over fifteen years he would join a party of “rogues and funsters” for the annual Racing Festival at Cheltenham in March. It was an eclectic group who somehow managed to gel over a three, then four, day festival of drinking, gambling, storytelling and, of course, enjoying the racing too.
Jeremy could get on with anyone. One year at lunch he was sitting next to the then Chairman of The Prudential who admired his tweed suit. “Got it from The Oxfam Shop for a tenner on the way here,” Jeremy admitted. The businessman didn’t know he was not joking.
Jeremy’s laughter would fill the tent at Cheltenham and later the house where we stayed. He took a keen interest in everyone and everything. He had a capacity to surprise you with his knowledge of an historical period or a literary figure. He was totally self-deprecating and wouldn’t dream of scoring points over someone or trying to cap a poor anecdote. He was genuinely the life and soul of the party. Every year.
On one memorable occasion, Jeremy whispered to me that he had a bit of a problem. It was towards the end of the day’s racing when he announced he could only walk backwards, forwards was beyond him. I guided him out of the course to our waiting transport a mile or so away, passing bemused racegoers, security staff and policemen. He was still able to talk lucidly, a rare feat considering the quantity of refreshment that had been taken. We made it back to the house where he walked backwards up two flights of stairs to his bedroom and quickly fell asleep. An hour later, forward propulsion restored, he emerged, glass of champagne in one hand and cigarette in the other, as if nothing had happened.
By the time Jeremy moved to France to be with his true love, the beautiful artist Catriona, he was already seriously ill. They lived in Cotignac, quite literally in a cave, in a cliff overlooking this picturesque village. We had a house about an hour away, and would meet for lunch when we could. He bore his illness with fortitude, his laughter and his interest in everyone unabated. Gallons of rosé were consumed over countless happy hours. At one point he began to write a comic novel but found it very hard going and gave up early on. He had always found writing his column extremely draining as he was a literary perfectionist. He was terrified of letting his readers down although clearly he never did.
Although based in France he kept closely in touch with his family in Britain, especially his grandsons on whom he doted. His spirits rose when he met up with them either in France or in Britain.
After his love for Catriona and his family came West Ham United. In his younger days he was an active supporter, relishing the intense fanaticism of a football hooligan. He occasionally referred to the odd punch-up in his column with an almost wistful sense of nostalgia. He remained a loyal supporter to the end, seeking out bars in and around Cotignac to watch the games.
Even Jeremy’s great optimistic spirit was becoming severely tested by his aggressive cancer. The French health service was remarkable in its support for him, greatly assisted by Catriona who had been a nurse herself. He was in severe pain and became increasingly restricted in his daily habits. Yet every week he produced a searing, often moving, column. Lesser mortals would have thrown the towel in a long time before Jeremy. His readers followed his demise with a mixture of admiration for his courage and sadness at the impending conclusion. He was greatly touched by the messages of support sent by many. He was especially proud of a librarian from Oxford who revelled in the literary references in his articles.
Books played a big part in his life. He read and collected classic literature as well as historical biographies and wartime histories. Whenever he visited me he brought a book. Knowing I was a great fan of P.G. Wodehouse and thoughtful as ever, he enjoyed finding an obscure title which I was unlikely to have read.
Jeremy’s self-effacement was almost as endearing as his infectious laughter. He was genuinely surprised by the high esteem in which his readers held him and I’m sure this helped him in his battle against his painful illness.
Earlier this year my wife and I went out to stay with the two of them. He could only get up from his bed to sit on the sofa for a short while. Drink would be taken, although he only nursed his glass, but his laughter felt stronger than ever. We always came away having relished every moment in the great man’s company. Unique is an over-used word these days but there was nobody like Jeremy Clarke, and there never will be. It was and is a privilege to have called him a friend.