Obituary: Jeffrey Bernard

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The Independent Online
Jeffrey Bernard was his own Boswell. From 1976, when he was taken on at the Spectator by Alexander Chancellor, he wrote in hundreds of columns, week after week, ostensibly about low life in Soho and on the racecourse: but all the time he was writing about himself. He had the rare gift of making the reader, once he had begun a column, want to go on to the end. And his writing was funny.

He wrote a spoof obituary of himself in 1978, which is acute but unfair, being self-deprecatory, presumably from motives of self-defence. "In 1946 (aged 14) he paid his first visit to Soho and from that point he was never to look upward. It was here in the cafes and pubs of Dean Street and Old Compton Street that he was to develop his remarkable sloth, envy and self- pity."

On any day in the mid-1980s Bernard would arrive in the Coach and Horses public house, in Greek Street, Soho, a few minutes after opening time. He would be grey and trembling (his shakes amplified by the broadsheet of the Times in which he checked the racing). He would ask for a paper serviette to blow his nose into and take his seat on a tall stool at the deep end of the bar, near the lavatories. Then he would begin to converse. Latterly it seemed sometimes a rehearsal for his column, though most of the run-throughs were forgotten.

One day in September 1987, a Soho eccentric, now murdered, known as the Red Baron came up to him and asked, "Do you know what Randolph Churchill said when he first read the Bible?" Jeff said, "No, and I don't fucking want to know. Why do you treat me like I don't know anything or anybody?" His voice rising to a shout, he continued, "I knew Dylan Thomas, I knew Ian Fleming and Anne Fleming . . ." and, turning to the stage-door keeper next to him, "I even know Gordon Smith."

All his stories have to be understood within the context of Soho, which had been dying at the same rate as Bernard for 40 years or more. Within that little world a dramatis personae of a few hundred characters collided with each other. One day someone used the word "collate". Bernard said, "Don't use that word. The collator from Vine Street once arrested me in here. He was sitting down there just behind us and just said, `You're under arrest.' He was very nice about it, just doing his boring job.

"I knew they knew a lot about people in Soho, but I didn't realise how much. We were walking past the Swiss on the way to the station and he said, `You've been knocking off the landlord's daughter there.' Now how did he know that? I thought the landlord would kill me or break my legs or something, but all he said was, `I'll give you pounds 150 to marry her.' I said, `No, it's not on.'

" `All right,' he said, `make it pounds 300.' He must have been pretty desperate to get rid of her."

He liked people to talk back and carry the conversation on, and he was good at providing openings. He once said to Graham Mason, a former television journalist, "You know those fish in Richard's in Brewer Street, haddock particularly. You can tell if they're fresh by the eyes. Well, if you were a haddock I'd leave you on the slab."

Sometimes the openings could be startling. "When I went to the lavatory this morning, the bowl was full of blood." He had been diabetic for many years and once said, "My thigh's like the triple 20 on a dart board." Or, when a friend and doctor came into the pub, "Oh, there's Neil. I'll ask him to come into the lavatory with me and look at my cock. I think I've got thrush." On that occasion there did indeed seem to be something wrong, and he followed it up by getting a prescription from a GP who turned out to be a woman: "When she looked at my cock she said, `Oh, that's interesting.' No one ever said that before. I felt like saying, `Well, it's been in some interesting places.' "

Oddly enough I do not think that the increasing impingement of medical matters as a topic stemmed from self-pity. One of his great qualities was courage. He was dreadfully ill: his thighs ended up thinner than his knees; he had agonising pancreatitis, neuropathy, failing eyesight, insomnia, eczema and, of course, amnesia. He had an operation to remove two cysts the size of apples from his neck. One leg, gangrenous from the complications of diabetes, was amputated below the knee. He would wave the stump to emphasise a point in conversation. His kidneys finally failed, and he lived until he decided to give up dialysis. But he was constantly fascinated by the strange and horrible things that were happening to him.

Until his fifties he was tremendously good-looking and charming, both to men and women, in his own theory attracting the latter with his "little boy lost'' manner. He always laughed at people blaming their childhood for what went wrong with their lives, but he referred to his own often.

His father, who died in 1939, when Jeffrey was seven, was a self-made stage and interior designer whose work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. His mother, Fedora Roselli, was an opera singer. Jeffrey had a good voice, but hated singing "Oh for the Wings of a Dove" for her friends. Mrs Bernard also dabbled in Christian Science. Jeffrey went to Sunday school in Curzon Street from their house in Holland Park. At public school he was confirmed in the Church of England, since he was too scared to mention the fact that he had never been baptised. This school was Pangbourne, which he loathed. His brothers went to the intellectual Westminster and the liberal Bedales. Pangbourne was neither, though perhaps there he learnt to be neat about his dress and lodgings.

"I remember school holidays being pretty ghastly. I spent every day dreading the return to school and the anxiety made me feel quite ill. Anyway there was little to do in Holland Park in the Forties apart from trying to destroy it." He sent a rocket down a chimney into a drawing-room where his mother and a bridge club were enjoying a quiet evening. He was surprised and felt betrayed when she immediately surmised the culprit and told the police.

Already at home he was half in love with his mother, "a cross between Maria Callas and Ava Gardner". At school there came smoking, worth the risk of a beating, then racing and drink. He was asked to leave Pangbourne and fell with delight into the haven of Soho, where one of his brothers was an art student. He met Peter Arthy, who nearly 30 years later gave him a room to live in.

Bernard went Awol from military service, but got off relatively lightly thanks to the intercession of his brother Bruce. He worked as a miner, attracting the ridicule of his fellow miners by wrapping his "snap" in sheets of the Times. He was often skint when not working on a building site or washing up in a restaurant. He accepted drinks and money from rich "queers", as they were then known, including Francis Bacon and John Minton, who took him on a tour to Spain. At one time he qualified as a professional boxer.

In place of halves of bitter, whisky became his tipple, taken seriously when he was working for Michael Tobin on the tour of Expresso Bongo in 1962. By 1972 he had been sacked from the Sporting Life and was in St Bernard's (no relation, as he said) Hospital, Ealing, to "start again". He was dry for two years. But boozing had become his "first loyalty - that's why marriage is impossible. Drink is the other woman." He turned from whisky to vodka, ice, soda and lime. His doctor advised him to cut out the lime, because of his diabetes. In 1986 I remember a conversation about how much he might drink a day. The consensus was one and a half to two bottles of vodka.

Unless a woman shared his drinking habits, it is hard to see how he could have stayed married. (The last of his four wives said that she thought he would change and settle down.) But he continued to retain the affection of women, not just many old flames, but also generous souls who washed, ironed and cleared up for him. One of his former landladies wrote an article for the Spectator about how depressing it was to have him for a lodger. He was shown it and gave permission for its publication unchanged. Wisely, for the sake of privacy, the editor decided not to use it.

Bernard was moved and momentarily helped, if not fulfilled, to see a successful play about him, Keith Waterhouse's Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), produced in the theatre where he

once worked as a stage-hand. Indeed he could have been an actor. His voice was good and he enjoyed working for Joan Littlewood in his friend Frank Norman's play A Little Kayf Up West.

Waterhouse's play did a marvellous job, using extensively the text from the Spectator "Low Life" columns. Bernard had known Peter O'Toole, who played him but did not imitate him on stage, since The Long and the Short and the Tall at the Royal Court in 1959. Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell played best with O'Toole in the title role. Sandwiched between his triumphant runs in 1989 at the Apollo and in 1991 at the Shaftesbury, the season in which Bernard was played first by Tom Conti, then by James Bolan, never had the same appeal.

During the three decades in which he kept up his contributions to the Spectator Bernard began to collect more commissions from other papers. The Sporting Life took him back for a time. He appeared in increasingly alarming picture features in Sunday magazines, and in television documentaries about old Soho. He was delighted to be listed in Who's Who, like his father, and to be invited to choose his eight favourite records for Desert Island Discs; the programme turned out to be a tour de force of wryly melancholic introspection. He produced two books of racing anecdotes, Talking Horses (1987) and Tales from the Turf (1991).

Although his "Low Life" columns numbered some 1,000 he never wrote the autobiography that publishers invited him to undertake. Matthew Evans, of Faber, tempted him with the promise of pounds 1,000 per chapter, each chapter to be completed in a month, but he wouldn't take the plunge. Instead, in 1991, Graham Lord, then literary editor of the Sunday Express, began his biography. It was published as Just the One: the wives and times of Jeffrey Bernard in 1992. Though full of facts it was a negative study, seeming cruel in exposing every incident of spitefulness, questioning his virility and clothing all in a cloud of misery.

Bernard did not quite invent Norman Balon, the cantankerous but golden- hearted landlord of the Coach and Horses, who figured in his column. Balon was a Frankenstein's monster waiting to be brought to life in print. A glimpse of the relationship between them could be gained from that day, 20 September 1986, when the police and Customs and Excise swooped on the Coach to arrest Bernard for acting as a bookmaker and evading betting duty of pounds 31.12. At Vine Street police station where they had taken Bernard, Balon fearing for his licence, said, "Jeff Bernard's a cunt; he's stitched me up for life." By half past six, when we were all back in the Coach, Balon bought him a drink.

Balon remained a friend to the end, cloaking his own emotions by glib references to him as a "bastard". He took lobster salads to him at his flat in Berwick Street; he prowled the wards of hospitals, inspecting fellow patients with damning amateur diagnoses. Though Balon said another Soho character would replace Bernard in his pub he knew in his heart that the supply was running low and Jeffrey Bernard was impossible to follow.

Bernard always lived in one room - at someone else's house, whether Geraldine Norman's or Peter Arthy's. Even his last flat was organised round the room where he spent all day. This room always had a few fixed points: a bed, an Anglepoise, an electric typewriter, an overflowing ashtray, a bottle of vodka, a bust of Nelson, but, above all, photographs on the walls.

Bernard was a good photographer himself and chose well. I remember about 50 photographs, mostly black and white, mounted in black frames: Jeffrey with Francis Bacon, Lester Piggott, Bruce Bernard, Terry Jones, Richard Ingrams, Fred Winter, his daughter, Graham Greene; other solo shots of wives, friends and himself. At a party once, a girl asked, "And is this Jeff's room?" His brother answered, "Well, it's either his or someone's who likes him very much."

Christopher Howse

Jeffrey Joseph Bernard, journalist: born London 27 May 1932; columnist, Spectator 1976-97; married four times (one daughter); died London 4 September 1997.