Comment: The appeal of the well-oiled oldie

Strangely, the general rule that applies to sex is reversed when it comes to booze
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IT HAS been a mixed week for the image of oldsters. The posthumous memoirs of Nicholas Fairbairn are rumoured to reveal that the eminent Scottish politician was as boastfully rampant in his later years as most men are in their twenties. Poor old Prince Philip has committed yet another of his classic gaffes, causing much high-minded huffiness in liberal quarters with a faintly dotty remark about fuse boxes and Indians. And the media world's favourite pensioner of recent years moved one step nearer to canonisation with the triumphant revival of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

There has been something skewed and odd about the coverage of these events. The Duke of Edinburgh may be prone to making remarks that are not entirely in keeping with the role of consort of the monarch, but he is 78 and spends more time every year shaking hands, making mindless conversation and opening this and that, than any other member of the Royal Family, with the exception of Princess Anne. If, during the course of his mind-numbingly dull round of public events, he has occasionally let slip an iffy joke or an insensitive remark, is it really so shocking and surprising? Are there not, even in August, more worthwhile news events to cover in such detail?

The discomfort caused by Fairbairn's randiness is easier to under-stand. In an age so youth-struck that Menzies Campbell was apparently advised not to run for the Liberal Democrat leadership because he was too old at 58, and when book publishers throw vast advances at any writer in their twenties with even the slightest hint of talent, the last thing anyone wants to hear about is the sex life of old folk.

A hint of this social distaste is to be found in the sneering, mocking news coverage of ageing rock stars who lose their young wives, or of middle- aged football managers who are discovered to have been playing away from home. Its full nastiness is revealed in the contempt expressed by young Turk reviewers, both women and men, for the recent fiction of John Updike, which uncompromisingly expresses the erotic longings of the ageing male, however unseemly or embarrassing they may be.

Fine for the young, inappropriate for the old; strangely, the general rule that applies to sex is reversed when it comes to booze. Here, a man in his teens or twenties who drinks to excess is a lager lout; a beery figure like Paul Gascoigne's pal Jimmy "Five Bellies" Gardner is portrayed as a menace to society. Celebrity boozers from the ranks of footballers or game-show hosts are obliged to make tearful public confessions on their way to the Priory.

Yet, add on a few years, and suddenly the dangerous, self-destructive alcoholic becomes a much-loved senior tippler - an Oliver Reed, a Kingsley Amis, a George Best or a Queen Mum. When, on a recent edition of Loose Ends, Ned Sherrin told a story about Peter O'Toole keeping a bottle of whisky in his dressing-room, his studio guests fell about with indulgent laughter.

During his lifetime, and now beyond it, Jeffrey Bernard became a sort of patron saint of the hopeless, ageing boozer. Once he had been a talented comic journalist - while working for the Sporting Life, he would regularly outrage the racing establishment with wild tales of collapse in the bar at Cheltenham or of flashing at an owner's wife in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.

He drank that talent away, becoming over the last two decades of his life that dreariest of creatures, the Spectator bore. Yet the more inconsequential his columns, the more predictable the subjects of his endlessly repeated moans about modern life or the heroic, loyal women who kept him alive, the more heroic a figure he became - at least to other journalists.

Why was this? Because his was the last gin-sodden breath of the old Soho, where soaks, bores and the odd artist would hang around at the Colony Rooms, getting pie-eyed and insulting one another in a self-consciously Bohemian manner? It seems unlikely. Because his columns were a refreshing antidote to the new mood of political correctness? Surely not.

In one of the many tributes to Bernard on his death, a fellow hack stated that, had he wished, he could have been as great a comic novelist as Evelyn Waugh. Yet, even if we accept the asinine notion that fiction is like journalism, only longer, the point is that Bernard preferred not to test the limits of his talent.

Yet now he is an icon, celebrated in Keith Waterhouse's dramatisation of his life. Perhaps that is how we like our oldsters: not chasing House of Commons secretaries, not still working and making dodgy jokes, but sitting in a corner, glowering biliously at the world over a large gin and tonic.