Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

At ten to eleven we filed outside the church and assembled in the graveyard around a small cenotaph commemorating the dead of two wars with a dozen unmistakably local names. As we shuffled out, we hoped that the rain would hold off -- no offence of course to any of the names on the cenotaph who copped it at Passchendaele. We were about 30 souls, combined age about 2,500. At 60, I was the second youngest by a decade or so, and I was attached by the hand to grandson Oscar, aged seven.

The rain couldn't decide whether or not to hold off. Oscar and I sheltered from the horizontal spits in the lee of a gravestone five feet tall. Resting under our feet were William Weeks, who died in 1850 aged 57; Sarah Weeks, 'wife of the above', who died in 1867 aged 72; their daughter Lydia, who died in 1865 aged 30; and William Isaac, grandson, who was taken aged eight months, also in 1865. The information was detailed in remarkably well-preserved lapidary. I was grateful to the family for the protection of their gravestone, particularly to Bill, and I was sorry that he missed the miracle of paraffin, invented and patented the year he died, by a whisker.

The vicar came out, magnificent in his flowing robes and full to bursting with the Holy Spirit. The rest of the congregation tottered out behind him and carefully watched their step on the uneven ground. Shepherded by the vicar, we formed a sombre, runny-nosed semi-circle around the small cenotaph. The recorded chimes of Big Ben boomed out from an unidentified portable speaker and we fell silent.

I read about the first world war all the time, and the more I read, the more it strikes me as an unfathomable international suicide. Where on earth does one begin to think about Armageddon? I can't bear to think about the lads as so many terrified lambs driven to the slaughter, so I started off wondering what proportion of those who went to France enjoyed themselves, on the whole, until they became exhausted or were blown to bits. But I don't find it easy to control and channel my thoughts, not even when I'm wearing a tie and standing six feet from a vicar.

From my mental picture of laughing, lucky lads in khaki, my thoughts strayed wildly, first to a yellowing, typed notice of dismissal from a psychiatric hospital that I'd found tucked in a disintegrating paperback Knut Hamsun novel earlier that morning. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.