What a time for a funny writer to die

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The Independent Online
About 20 years ago I was on a plane going from London to Zurich and found myself sitting next to Geoffrey Dickinson, the cartoonist and assistant art editor of Punch. This was no coincidence; we were travelling together. Before take-off, Geoffrey nudged me violently and pointed to a tall, grey-haired man disappearing into the section with bigger seats and freer drinks.

"Did you see who that was?" he hissed.

"No," I said, "never seen him before in my life."

"Yes you have," he said. "It was Charlie Chaplin."

And so it was, Charlie Chaplin going home to Switzerland. It was a strange thought to be so close to one of the most famous men in the world, a man whose silent image is still to this day better known than that of most people alive and well.

"You know what this means?" said Geoff. "Having Charlie Chaplin on board? It means that if this plane crashes and the newspaper headlines say `Famous Funny Man Dead', it won't be me or you they're talking about."

I thought of this melancholy but funny remark when I heard of the death of Jeffrey Bernard. What a bad time to choose to die, when so many more famous people were taking the headlines. Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Sir Georg Solti - all titled, oddly enough - and then a long way down the fame stakes, jostling for media coverage, poor old Jeffrey Bernard, whose passing may well have gone unnoticed by many people.

Many people, of course, won't even know who he is, will not have read his weekly "Low Life" column in The Spectator (to counter-balance the "High Life" column of Taki), and thus will not have met one of the most graceful and funny writers of the back-end of the century. As he got older and more immobile his writing became grouchier, as some humorous writers tend to do, but at least he was grumbling about the here and now and not looking back resentfully to a golden youth, and he grumbled with great style.

In earlier days, though, when he was just a young soak, he was not an old grouch. I have been going through old volumes of Punch searching for material for an anthology, and I have come across a piece he wrote on cat-racing which I think is one of the funniest pieces ever written.

(Cat racing? Well, Jeffrey liked to back the horses, so l963 was a bad year for him. The winter was so hard that all horse-racing was off for months. Nothing to bet on. But one of his friends rigged up a course for cat-racing in a long corridor in his flat, and invited Jeffrey and a few others round to place bets on which of several half-starved cats would run (and jump) from one end of the corridor to the saucers of cat meat at the other. When you get to the stage where they tried to handicap the fastest cat by taping kitchen weights to its stomach, you should be rolling around with laughter. Whatever else I put in this anthology, there will be nothing funnier or better written.)

One of my few claims to fame is that I had a letter read out in full in the play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. When I was literary editor of Punch I commissioned a book review from him, which he left unwritten for so long that I finally wrote to him, saying: "Dear Jeffrey, Are you going to write the f*****g article or aren't you?" ( No asterisks in the letter, of course.) The next day he appeared with the article in hand. "Good letter, Miles," he said. "That's what I call real editing."

I believe he kept the letter framed in his lavatory - certainly it was read out by one of the actors in every performance of the play, and I calculated that if I had got 2p royalty every time it was used, I might now be the proud owner of a lot of 2p pieces.

How The Spectator will replace Jeff's "Low Life" I do not know. Michael Bywater is the only person I can think of who comes near him in terms of elegantly turned misanthropy. It would be even better, though, if it could be replaced by a cordially grumbling column written by Jeffrey Bernard from the other side, criticising the service in heaven, the terrible people there and the dead souls he keeps bumping into to whom he still owes money.

The column, I think, would have to be called "After Life".