Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

As I think I said in this column the other week, I used to sneak into English lectures at University College London, while officially studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies round the corner. I attended these lectures with such keenness and regularity that an English student called John Bradley, who now writes sometimes on Middle Eastern politics for this paper, one day asked me to contribute to the London Review -- a UCL student literary magazine. I chose to review a handbook of ferret husbandry by the artisan hunter D. Brian Plummer, who was my favourite writer at the time. I'd never written anything other than school or college essays before, let alone had anything printed. A few weeks later, there was my ferret husbandry review between glossy covers among erudite and witty contributions about Henry James and Ronald Firbank. I was thrilled and embarrassed in equal measure.

A few days later, John Bradley said to me that one of the UCL professors had liked my contribution and wanted to meet me. It was a professor with an honorary chair -- the Lord Northcliffe Chair of Modern English Literature -- whom I had neither met nor heard lecture so far. 'Don't be intimidated by his dour Scot persona,' he advised me. 'He's actually quite funny.' So John Bradley arranged a time and together we went to see this professor of his. He was in his study, which was huge and bare and totally devoid of books, except one paperback novel that the professor was reading on his lap with great absorption. As we walked in, he held the book aloft triumphantly like a trophy of war. 'Yes!' he hissed, through defiant, gritted teeth.

I was introduced. The professor said he'd enjoyed my ferrets piece, the best thing he'd read for a long time, he said. Did I like football, he said? Who did I support? I told him, and we chatted about football. He was Spurs. Then he said I should write a book. He would put me in touch with his agent. All she needed from me was a chapter and a synopsis. Then we could tout it round the publishers and flog it. A book? What of, I said? Autobiography, he said. Then he wondered whether either of us had a second class stamp on us by any chance. It seemed to be a matter of urgency. As it happened, I had a book of them, which impressed and delighted him more than anything. …

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