JUST ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD

A note in last week's `Spectator' magazine said simply: `Jeffrey Bernard is not writing this week.' In fact, the legendary chronicler of Soho and the Turf was lapsing slowly into a peaceful coma in his flat next to Berwick Street Market. He was 65. He looked 80. He still thought 26. Drinking-up time was finally over
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I saw Jeffrey Bernard write his Spectator column once. Well, hell. It was in the York Minster pub in Soho, which was odd; you'd have expected him to be writing it in the Coach and Horses, just round the corner in Greek Street. The Coach was his office, its clientele his collective muse, its landlord, Norman Balon, a combination of Nemesis and mother hen, and its booze ... well, its booze was booze. A quick one to steady the nerves, another one to help it down, then just the one, just another, some more, off to the Colony Room club (next door but one to the infinitely more fashionable and infinitely more staid Groucho Club) for the afternoon, because the pubs used to close in the afternoon in those days, and then back to the Coach until closing time and the queasy, despondent taxi.

But this was the York Minster. It must have been around 1979 or so. Not long down from university, bewildered, trying to break in, I did not dare introduce myself: Jeffrey was a luminary, his celebrity all the more intense for being confined to what, in those frighteningly insecure days, I comforted myself by regarding as a very select few.

The Spectator, at that time, was edited by Alexander Chancellor, who turned it into what, for me, was one of the finest weeklies of all time. Later it was to deteriorate, becoming the house magazine of an appalling pack of "young fogies" who even had a book devoted to them, in which, I am embarrassed to say, my own name and a dreadful picture (for which I posed, quite deliberately) appeared, although I wasn't actually a young fogey, just a dreadfully insecure johnny-come-lately, posing as one. Which, of course, is far worse. The fogeys were later viciously and deservedly savaged in another book, Jane Ellison's novel Another Little Drink, as were the Coach and Horses, the majestically abrasive Norman Balon, and Jeffrey himself. The novel begins with a quote from Auden:

Let us honour if we can

The vertical man

Though we value none

But the horizontal one - which could serve both as Jeffrey's motto and epitaph.

And, astonishingly for a man who once summed up his life in the exhortation "Aim low - and miss" and determined to call his autobiography Reach for the Ground, Jeffrey was honoured. In a masterstroke of mischievous editing, Alexander Chancellor teamed him with the playboy, karate champion and cocaine user Taki Theodoracopulos, in a pair of strangely matched columns called "High Life" and "Low Life", launched in 1976. They were to be for 21 years a journalistic Odd Couple - and, as in Neil Simon's play, it was Jeffrey the slob who was infinitely the more sympathetic and amusing. While Taki maintained a rather grating delight in the parade of notabilities, habitues of Annabel's, and leggy, curry-combed blondes (all of whom seemed to be, although they weren't, the daughters of arms dealers, crooks and miscellaneous shits and bastards) who passed across his dinner table, Jeffrey's column wove a snakily unsteady path through Soho and the Turf, and his double vision somehow made him see more than any impeccably sober citizen.

He'd have been lynched in California, subjected to Tough Love, hauled onto a 12-step programme, counselled, shrunk and hung out to dry until he Came To His Senses, adjusted, stopped being co-dependent on women and utterly dependent on strong drink, gave up smoking, went to the gym and greeted each day with a happy smile on his face, eyes bright and cheeks as pink and soft as a baby's arse.

It wouldn't have done, of course. He'd not have written a bloody word, but our caring society's ascendant prigs would have loved that, just as they loved watching him fall apart from pancreatitis, neuropathy, eczema, diabetes, insomnia and renal failure. Some years ago he wrote, in one of the many columns filed from his bed in the Middlesex Hospital (where he was as much a regular as he was at the Coach), that the man in the next bed, who had had his leg off from smoking too much, complained to the doctor that "Bloody Jeff smokes more than I do, so how come he hasn't had his leg off?" "Aha," said the doctor, "the thing about Mr Bernard is that he closes the veins with 60 a day, then opens them up again with two bottles of vodka." Later, Jeffrey was to meet a similar fate, losing a leg to diabetic gangrene, but not before one of his doctors had observed that he was living testimony to the injustice of Nature.

So there he was, 1979 or thereabouts, in the York Minster. I had (so I thought) discovered this pub on my own, and rapidly became a regular. It was more like a club, governed by the looming presence of Gaston Berlemont, who looked like a cartoon Frenchman with his huge handlebar moustache but sounded like a well-to-do north-London plumber. The other regulars were an ill-assorted lot, most of them either pissed or barking mad or, quite frequently, both: ruined ex-good-time girls on the prowl ("You look like a nice young man"), a jittery photographer in a perpetual raincoat, a punchy old boxer called Chicago Dave, a couple of mousey, discreet retired hookers, a drift of lost souls, superannuated hoofers, translucent bookies' runners ... the usual. The regulars.

And there was Jeffrey, glazed over at a table beneath a wall of boxing photographs, writing his column. One eye screwed up, an unfiltered Camel in his mouth, a flop of greying hair falling over his forehead, bent over the page, he was an irresistibly romantic figure, and still, in his middle forties, breathtakingly handsome. You could imagine women falling for his flawed, wilful, go-to-hell beauty; and they did. (So, in his younger days, did gay men, although they were poofs then; but they fell away earlier, being blokes, more interested in physical perfection than in the image of someone who didn't give a flying fuck.)

The pen would crawl agonisingly slowly over the paper. Then a pause; the sort of pause we all do when thinking of the next word, the next paragraph. But instead of descending onto the page again, the pen remained poised, motionless. Jeffrey had nodded out. The head would droop, the breathing become regular; a deep peace would descend upon the Damon Runyon of Soho, as coltish, impressionable young American girls in yellow windcheaters and improbable teeth would watch, transfixed. You knew what they were thinking. They were thinking: "God, he's pissed. God, he's handsome. God, he's devil- may-care. I could have him. I could change him."

But they couldn't. Many tried. Four wives. Countless others: 250 by his own estimate, later revised to 500 when his third wife said 250 wasn't very many. Editors tried. Little men from the Customs and Excise tried. Little men from the Inland Revenue tried. A whole pinched, nasal, dyspeptic raft of prudes, bores, rule-keepers, ratepayers and assorted Mrs Grundys of both sexes would have liked to have tried, but didn't dare. Jeffrey was, quite literally, incorrigible.

His significance was out of all proportion to his readership. The Spectator, in its heyday, was compulsory reading for the entire media industry. It was the almost-civilised voice of the right-wing. In Chancellor's day, it inclined towards a plain-speaking Tory anarchism in the Cobbett tradition; later, it became more slavishly Thatcherite, and the front part of the magazine became correspondingly vicious and dull. But at the back were the infallible delights of Jeffrey's "Low Life" column. No. Not infallible. Frequently he wouldn't be there at all, too pissed or hung-over or ill or absent to write. Then the portmanteau excuse would appear: "Jeffrey Bernard is unwell."

But when the column did appear, which was most of the time, it was like a cool drink in the dry lands of Tory hegemony, a marvellous antidote to the endless bitterness and spite, the pulling-up of socks, the balancing of books, the subsuming of individuality in the beehive of corporatism, the sharp suits, the possessions, the mortgages, the duty and the hate. The British orthodoxy was predicated on three terrible phrases: "How would it be if everyone did it?", "It's all right for some", and "I suppose you think you're clever." Jeffrey's column shrugged them all off: the health fascists, the scaremongers, the soft-voiced counsellors, the promoters of conformism. Instead, he offered a weekly palliative, an eloquent, witty, honest account of an individual, marginal life spent mostly among the very people that Margaret Thatcher was put in power to hate.

Is this overrating him? I mean, hell, he was a drunk, a philanderer, a man who seldom held a regular job for long, a lurcher-about-town who, in his own ironic obituary of himself, wrote: "In 1946 he paid his first visit to Soho and from that point he was never to look upward." But, incorrigible himself, he was nevertheless a general corrective, offering an often distasteful recipe for another way of going about life at a time when the British tendency to conformity had never been stronger. The political message was clear: get a job, pay your taxes, work hard, save, consume, don't get ideas above your station, mow the lawn and wash the caravan. The message from Jeffrey was: fuck that for a game of soldiers.

In print (and in his life, for his column was nothing if not true) he was a sort of Dicken- sian character, a doomed life-force, a one-man Saturnalia where the laws did not run, frequently awash with vodka, frequently rude (his last words to me, from his wheelchair outside the Middlesex Hospital, were "Fuck off, you cunt"), for whom, despite his lack of Methodist prudence, something always turned up: a woman, a drink, a meal, a conversation, something. The nation may have been overrun with blue-lipped little schoolboys in neatly polished shoes, everything in order, staring at the wall in desolate despair each night; but for Jeffrey, this bad person, life just kept on happening.

Writing in the Independent, Jeffrey's obituarist Christopher Howse described him as "his own Boswell" and the parallel is apt. Jeffrey Bernard's writing was an extraordinary paradox, the meticulously observed documentation of an unconsidered life. It was journalism in its truest and oldest sense: it was gossip, and a lot more artful than it appeared. His column was a prose equivalent of that particular French school of photography exemplified by Henri Cartier-Bresson: apparently spontaneous, in truth meticulously composed, presenting, without explanation, the decisive moment which brings the thing into focus, into the light.

But it was also in a direct line from the great English diarists and snappers-up of unconsidered trifles. I remember talking to him about John Aubrey, who wrote that he had always sought out the company of "old men, as living Histories". "Fucking pissed old bores," said Jeffrey, "banging on. I know the sort"; but although he would denounce bores with the vehemence most people reserve for world hunger or smoking in the workplace, he had the same memorious ear, the same sympathetic eye.

When all the political pundits are dust, when the theorists and commentators are got under their gravestone, we turn to Aubrey or Pepys to see what things were like. Nor do we read Pepys to see what he said to the King about the naval dockyards; we want to read about his furtive reading of a dirty book, his supper parties, the matrimonial nightmares when his wife found him interfering with the servant-girl, Deb. The pleasure is that of recognition. We all lead more or less chaotic lives, things not going as we wanted, making a hash of it, waking at 4am to inexplicable despair. But most people pretend things are fine, going well, getting better. A man who not only admits to, but chronicles and almost embraces his own inability to order his own life, is like a secret friend with whom we do not have to dissemble.

It was something on which editors soon picked up, landing us with a Sargasso Sea, inert and weed-choked, of "domestic columnists" of which, God help me, I suppose I am one. Now, every newspaper, every day, has someone banging on about his or her own life: their troubles with the car, their problems with babysitters, the amusing thing their friend said in the fashionable restaurant, the council's neglect of the trees in their dripping semiburb. Far too much of this stuff occupies a sclerotic emotional band between the mawkish and the stupefying, but the idea is that, from sheer relentless repetition, we come to think of these people as our friends.

Friends? You wouldn't want them as your acquaintances. You'd be busy when they asked you round for boeuf en daube and a slosh of Plovdiv. You'd make a detour to avoid the street. Hell, you wouldn't even sleep with them. Not even pissed. But Jeffrey? You'd want to drink with Jeffrey. You'd want him to know your name, to call you over, to be your friend.

And people did. He acquired a strange sort of celebrity after Keith Waterhouse wrote the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a brilliant weaving- together of Jeffrey's life and the columns he drew from it. It was an extraordinary succes d'estime, a one-man show based on the life of a dissolute degenerate, the journalistic star of a small-circulation weekly magazine. Jeffrey used regularly to turn up at the Apollo theatre where it was playing, with Peter O'Toole in the title role; as Stanley Reynolds observed, "It was as if Hamlet showed up drunk at the Globe." Jeffrey seldom managed to get further than Mrs Mac, doling out his vodka, lime and soda-water behind the downstairs bar, on the grounds that he didn't need to see the play because he'd lived the bloody thing; but as the run went on, he took to announcing himself to theatregoers, on one occasion, witnessed by a mutual friend, being dismissed with the words: "Don't be ridiculous. We've just seen Jeffrey Bernard, and he's much more handsome."

The play and its success gave Jeffrey another wind. Not his second, nor probably even his fiftieth. He went through more winds than a round-the- world yachtsman, and everyone spent years expecting him to pack up at any moment. I was introduced to him by the cartoonist Michael Heath. "That's Jeffrey over there," Heath said; "I'll introduce you. It's a nightmare. He's only got three months to live." Then he thought for a bit. "You know," he said, "when I first met Jeff, the bloke who introduced us said, 'You'd better be nice to him. He's only got three months to live.' And that was 15 years ago." There were periods when everyone expected to see not "Jeffrey Bernard is unwell" but "Jeffrey Bernard is dead" in his usual slot in the Spectator. Rumours would fly about. Jeff had been run over. Jeff was not going to make it to the morning. The doctors had told Jeff that there was nothing more they could do.

But there always was. Even nine days ago, when he died, there was still more the doctors could have done. It was just that Jeffrey wouldn't let them do it. His body had rebelled to such a degree that he could no longer satisfy his appetite for life, and the hunger-pangs were killing him. In the Spectator of 6 September, a note said simply "Jeffrey Bernard is not writing this week". No. He wasn't. Jeffrey had decided to stop having kidney dialysis, and was at home in his Soho flat overlooking Berwick Street Market, lapsing slowly into a peaceful coma. He was 65. He looked 80. He still thought 26. Drinking-up time was over. The "suicide note in weekly instalments" - as Jonathan Meades called his column - was being suspended sine die.

In the end ... in the end, I hate paragraphs beginning "In the end". Sententious, pompous, self-aggrandising. Everything Jeffrey hated. He was a bugger, but an enchanting one. A Bohemian puritan. Hideously intolerant, too. "Look at that ... fucker," he said to me once, pointing out a young git in a ponytail and a baseball cap. "Go and punch him in the face." "Why?" I asked. "Because you're younger than me," said Jeff. The reasoning impeccable, but the viewpoint skewed. Perhaps that's why women wanted to change him; perhaps that's why they couldn't.

Back to the York Minister. Time passes. The American girls stare, moistening their lips. Jeffrey wakes up without a start; the pen lowers itself onto the paper and, without hesitation, resumes in the middle of the word where it left off. Another column.

Another in his series of weekly lessons to us all on life, drink, the dispossessed, the reckless, the feckless; on women, officials, women, poseurs, madmen, tarts, dirty-bookshop owners, nurses, women, bookies, jockeys, women, wives, women. And the main lesson of all, in these pinched times when our duties seem to be to conform, to fret, and to go shopping, was: you do not have to do what other people tell you to do. !

Comments