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It's arguably the most popular column in Britain's oldest newspaper.

The "Low Life" column of The Spectator has entertained readers since 1975, when Jeffrey Bernard provided readers with, to quote Johnathan Meades, "a suicide note in weekly installments."

After Bernard's death, an assortment of men wrote the column but eventually, Jeremy Clarke took over. He wrote the column for 23 years.

The thing about Jeremy is, he wasn't a drinker like Bernard. A drinker, yes, but not like Bernard, which few men are.

But Jeremy was a reader. If Bernard was addicted to drinking, Clarke was addicted to reading.

So says Catriona Olding, the woman Clarke married later in life.

"He spent so much time in bed reading," Olding says, "that some weeks he had nothing to write about."

He accumulated thousands of books. After his Mom died, Clarke brought 2,500 books from her house, which was already jammed full of books.

He never wrote in his books, preferring to write out passages, which he put in his notebooks. Olding provides a few samples:

evanesce: fade out of sight
adventitious: coming from outside
accidental: casual

The novel is a kind of discourse and a frame of mind. As a frame of mind, it questions and subverts all totalizing systems by the liberating power of laughter and the celebration of the body.

"Jeremy," Olding says, "described himself as a reader who writes." He could (and preferred) "to read all day, every day and most evenings."

Clarke and Olding's life together revolved around reading. "It was," she says, "the mainstay" of their relationship. They would "read the funniest, cleverest, or most beautiful passages from books and newspapers aloud to each other."

Clarke seemingly read everything, often plunging deep into a single author, but then ricocheting quickly to others.

Curiously, Clarke was never much interested in the stories. He was interested in the authors themselves, as revealed in their works, and in their subtle mastery of the written word.

Plot interested Jeremy little. It was the quality of writing that mattered. His writers were masters of prose. They were outsiders; often destructive, sometimes tragic, and many struggled with mental illness or addiction. Pursued by furies they were, and, in his darkest moments, so was Jeremy.

Jeremy died in May 2023, at age 66.

Let's hope the grace that no doubt oozed from those pages found him in the end.

Jeremy Clarke’s life as seen through his books
Jeremy Clarke, my husband, spent so much time in bed reading that some weeks he had nothing to write about