A cigarette, a fond farewell and Jeffrey Bernard takes his leave

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Jeffrey Bernard is no longer unwell. The man who proudly lived as London's most disreputable wit has finally died, aged 65. Famed for a lifetime of reckless excess, he succumbed to one of the many illnesses which had ravaged him for years.

After a year spent writing his Low Life Spectator column from a Middlesex Hospital bed, the celebrated smoker and drinker finally lost his battle against kidney failure late on Thursday evening. He accepted a cigarette from his niece just hours before dying in his Soho flat surrounded by family and friends. He had begged doctors to let him spend his final hours at home.

"I don't mind dying," he once said, "I just don't like the idea of being dead. I'm gregarious. I shouldn't think there is a bar in heaven."

Bernard was given only a few years to live in 1965 when he was diagnosed with pancreatitis. But he confounded doctors, friends and even himself, by drinking heavily, chain-smoking and clubbing for the next 25 years.

It was only last year that a diagnosis of life-threatening kidney failure finally confined him to a hospital bed and he accepted that his end was near. Even then he was able to joke about his imminent demise.

"I will surprise God because I'm late," he said. "I'm usually very punctual. I was always punctual with the devil."

Bernard was one of Britain's great humorists and a famed member of a Soho set, in which his friends and fans included Francis Bacon, Graham Greene, Lucien Freud, Peter O'Toole and Lester Piggott.

But it was not until 1989 that he became famous nationally , thanks to Keith Waterhouse's hit West End play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, the title referring to the apology which occasionally appeared when Bernard's over indulgences prevented him writing his weekly column.

Last night, Peter O'Toole was quick to pay tribute to his friend's life and said: "In Jeff's own words: `Maybe the party can go on, though. Different premises and no closing time.' My love to his family, especially his lovely daughter, and all his chums."

Norman Balon, who, as landlord of Bernard's local pub, the Coach and Horses, knew him better than most, said: "He held everyone enthralled with his tales. He had his bad sides - we all do - but Jeff was a good man."

Geraldine Norman, journalist and widow of Bernard's best friend, the playwright Frank Norman, said: "He belonged to a generation where people took having fun seriously, rather than scrabbling around for jobs. He loved the process of commuting between the gutter and the Ritz. He loved bathing in champagne at the races. He loved to go over to drink in Soho, when other people went to the office, to take up his stool in the Coach and Horses.

"I don't think he had fidelity in his blood. He believed it was a good idea to bed any beautiful woman, and he liked racing and drinking just as much. So he would be sidelined from marriage by having a bet on the 2.30 and come back two days later."

Bernard happily admitted as much in a recent Channel 4 documentary on his life: "I've always been drawn to the things I was told not to do. Drink, sex. God! how I have loved sex and racing. They're against the rules and that's why I like them. I never liked anything that was good for me, like All-Bran and fresh air. I like the things that kill me."

His lifestyle reflected that creed and included four marriages, dozens of affairs, innumerable binges and several suicide attempts, which he later said, had been genuine and not "cries for help".

He distinguished himself, however, from being just another amusing but ultimately tragic bar room raconteur by the way he chronicled his inexorable decline in print. His art fed off his own demise.

With a morbid curiosity reminiscent of Sigmund Freud's final days and a commitment to explicit, self-deprecating description that was often shocking, he captivated fans of his Spectator column.

Though, say his friends, he was horrified by the prospect of death, he confronted it relentlessly in his writing and contributed to it incorrigibly through a lifestyle which typically started at 11am with a few double vodkas, was punctuated by 50 cigarettes a day and which eventually left him with diabetes, kidney failure and a right leg that was amputated at the knee due to gangrene.

His despatches from the civil war that raged in his body and within his personality were dubbed by him " suicide notes in weekly instalments".

Regrets, he had a few. But in the end, Jeffrey Bernard stayed loyal to the cause of his fame and his death.

He wrote: "In the past, at my lowest ebbs, I used to think that maybe drink had destroyed my life, but that was dramatic nonsense and temporary gloom. Without alcohol, I would have been a shop assistant, a business executive or a lone bachelor bank clerk. The side effects of my chosen anaesthetic have at least produced some wonderful dreams that turned out to be reality."

Obituary, page 14