Low Life by Jeremy Clarke

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Low Life by Jeremy Clarke

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Category: Humour
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Spectator fans will delight in the back-catalogue, others may find a few snippets to amuse, but on balance somewhat underwhelming.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 285 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Short Books
ISBN: 978-1907595516

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This collection of Spectator columns is subtitled One Middle-Aged Man In Search of the Point, but really it's more a case of accepting that there isn't one.

I'm not a Spectator reader – indeed other than seeing on the shelves I'm ashamed to say that before starting to write this article I knew absolutely nothing about the magazine, its style, ethos or readership. Having (obviously) done the obligatory websearch I know understand that being its editor is considered a reasonable a route to success in the Conservative Party or other public office on a right-wing ticket. A sister publication to The Daily Telegraph, it is quoted as being Atlanticist, usually supportive of Israel, and Eurosceptic in outlook.

This makes me utterly unsuitable as a candidate to review Clarke's book.

So why am I? Mainly because life can be stressful and sometimes I want to read something light and frivolous and funny. The magic colouring book feel of the cover with its scattered sketches of an isolated house, fag-smoking car crashed into a lamp-post, open bottle and spilled glass of vino suggested this was about as frivolous as it gets. It also promised some humour.

I might have also suspected that that tagline promised a degree of acerbic social commentary. I might have been wrong about that last bit.

The Spectator Low Life columns were originally penned by the legendary Jeffery Bernard, who genuinely did live the Low Life and paid the price for it. Clarke comes across as much more professional, stable and as having less acquaintance with the gutter than I have myself. Nothing wrong with that, I hasten to add. I don't see any reason why a humourous newspaper column has to be based on reality – much less why the columnist concerned should be a dissolute, law-breaking individual in order to earn a crust. In fact, on balance, I probably prefer the notion that he dreams it all up while walking the dog on Dartmoor and tests the jokes over a perfectly sociable pint with charming folk who don't mind having a bit of a temper being transmuted into a fully-fledged, misogynist, drunken, drugged, violent default-setting.

There are echoes in the text from the author's personal experience – at least the official version of it that we're given. He is well-educated, has travelled and (presumably) has a son by a relationship that didn't sustain. I don't doubt that he draws on real life for his columns. I just can't help feeling that he has to draw a lot further than Bernard did.

Fans of the column – he's described as a cult columnist so there must be some such – will no doubt welcome the chance to reacquaint themselves with past episodes. Newcomers like me may have no idea what to expect.

For the latter: imagine a 53-year-old bloke, unmarried, romantic enough to get smitten with the most unsuitable female in town, crude enough to think that taking a couple of young women back to a hotel room that he's sharing with someone he barely knows is some kind of achievement, but subtle enough to spare you the sordid details; someone who drinks too much, but not sufficient to warrant detox, and takes the occasional illegal substance but not enough to seem either truly pathetic or remotely exotic. Imagine, in other words, a stereotypical journalist. Stereotypical being the operative word.

This is the character whose tales of everyday life we are about to indulge in.

General themes include the women in his life. This is mainly Sharon, his latest ex-girlfriend who comes complete with a violent ex-boyfriend (Trevor obviously) together with a parade of beauties who seem happy to share his company / dining table / bed for unsurprisingly short durations. Football and his mates – he is being a bloke after all – not to mention the local dog and ferret club. Foreigners, mainly met on their own turf during his travels. And the unfortunate of society – his dementia-suffering uncle, the special-needs gymster, whack the malteaser players…

Did I get what I wanted and/or expected from the book? Not really. It is light and frothy. I read it very quickly. And yes it made me smile. Occasionally it made me laugh.

Unfortunately, it also made me absolutely certain that I don't like Jeremy Clarke and have no wish to ever pick up a copy of the Spectator. Speaking as one who hasn't ever had any notion of wanting to grow up, I couldn't help but find the style and attitude of many of the columns immature. I was reminded of conversations in our lunchtime common room at my comprehensive school back in the seventies. Although I am also virulently opposed to the special needs tag that we use as a softener for the harsh realities of some folks' lives, I found the items on the people concerned more mocking that empathetic – although one does have a totally disarming sign-off which I do applaud. His descriptions of foreigners make me wonder why he travels.

Am I just too PC to get the jokes? No. I'll allow any taboo to be broken if the observation is honest enough to be funny – and the best humour is always deeply rooted in honesty. Perhaps the fact that I didn't believe in the characters is why most of it didn't really work for me.

If any kind of social commentary is intended, I simply failed to spot it. Or perhaps I'm just on the wrong side of the political divide to appreciate it. Either way, if a point is being searched for, it won't be found among these covers. There are few I know just what you mean moments, and yet nothing obnoxious enough to be offensive.

Mildly entertaining is the best I can say.

We also have a review of Low Life: The Spectator Columns by Jeremy Clarke. For more back-offers from the general media try the recommended Interventions by Noam Chomsky.

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Catriona Stoddart said:

Dear Bookbag,

I read this review with utter disbelief having been a fan of Jeremy Clarke’s Low Life column for some years. Unlike this review Jeremy Clarke’s columns are beautifully constructed, keenly observed in that unfettered way The Spectator does so well, utterly hilarious, intelligent and a joy to read. Many weeks they come about as close to perfection as an 800 word piece of this type can. The funniest I read and I’ve only been reading them for a few years - isn’t in the book which, from Lesley Mason’s point of view is just as well. It would probably send her into a dead faint of left-wing, feminist indignation.

What struck me about Mason’s review was the carping bitterness of it. She doubts the truth of his writing and his life only ‘presuming’ the son he writes about exists – what arrogance! She uses that old favourite missile ‘misogynist’. I don’t think having many relationships, and let’s face it an unmarried man in his fifties has bound to have had a few, makes him a misogynist. Anyway the nastiest misogynists I’ve ever met happen to be women.

I can hardly claim to have been in the gutter myself although have pretty close to outside edge of the kerb on a few occasions. Twenty two years ago I stood with my baby daughter in the homeless queue of the local housing department because we couldn’t keep up our mortgage payments for our tenement flat in a run-down post-industrial town in the West of Scotland. I was a nurse and although my husband worked 12 hour days he earned nothing. Oh yes and I went to a ‘sink’ comprehensive school in the 1970s too before the term became common usage. Occasionally I have opinions of which I’m frequently uncertain but no party political affiliations.

Without boring everyone too much with my own ‘life’, I have to say I owe Jeremy Clarke. Short-changed on the parental front I was extremely close to my grandmother, who from a distance of 300 miles managed to keep me sane during many difficult times. When she was dying, there was a period when I thought I would never smile or laugh again. By nature I’m a sunny person - this was serious. I loved her dearly and was utterly heartbroken. In the midst of all this one Saturday morning in April 2009 I was reading The Spectator. No one else was up, the dogs were fed and quiet. I read front to back, agreeing, disagreeing but always thinking. I came to Low Life and laughed so much tears poured down my face and my sides hurt. The dogs looked anxiously at this spectacle having not seen anything like it for some time. Thank you Jeremy Clarke!

I can’t recommend this book highly enough nor the other articles he writes regularly for The Spectator on drink and travel. Lesley Mason should give the Spectator a trial. A month at least. The cinema reviews by Deborah Ross are fantastic, Taki’s a scream, Rod Liddle is great and often funny as are Hugo Rifkind (none of can help our background), James Dellingpole and Toby Young.

Many thanks,

Catriona Stoddart