Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

The flight from Gatwick to France was cancelled and there was no prospect of another for three days. Paddington station was closed and the road to the south-west of England and home was impassable. Gatwick airport railway station was in chaos as train after train in both directions was cancelled due to snow.

Then a friend came to the rescue and offered her flat in south London until I could book another flight. A train to Clapham Junction then a bus would get me there. The keys were in a key safe attached to the rear of the porter's lodge.

A rogue northbound train arrived and everyone jumped on irrespective of its destination, as though it were the last train out of Berlin before the Russians turned up. At Clapham Common the bus was still gamely running and it stopped right outside the imposing 1930s block of flats. The porter's lodge was deserted but I located the key safe. Revolving the numbered wheels to the correct code and flipping the safe open was very difficult as I had no feeling in the tips of my fingers.

The flat was enormous. And pure 1930s -- original metal windows, vast bath, art deco-style fireplace. I called my friend to learn how to turn on the heating. 'Amazing flat, Penny,' I said. She gave a brief history. During the war, General de Gaulle had lived in that very flat, she said. Post-war builders had uncovered the buried fuel tank in which his government-issued petrol was stored. And the flat had witnessed a tragedy. She'd bought it a decade before. The previous occupants were a very elderly lesbian couple. One died of natural causes and the other was so grief-stricken that she set fire to herself and burnt to death in the guest bedroom. If I looked carefully at the bedroom ceiling when I was lying in bed, she said, I would see the smoke damage.

I set up camp in the kitchen. It was the soonest warm and there was a telly. I hadn't watched a television for months. I switched on and flicked through the channels. Nothing appealed until I arrived at one devoted to history called Yesterday. Currently showing, weirdly, was a documentary about General de Gaulle so I sat down and watched it. During the first world war the big contrarian lump was shot in the knee and in the hand, bayoneted in the thigh, gassed, blown up and taken prisoner, subsequently making five escape attempts. …

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