Sunday, December 24, 2006

Not now, Bernard

“‘ People like to read about someone who is deeper in the shit than they are,’ [Bernard] said. In fact the real reason for his popularity was much less cynical and cruel: people like to read about someone who broke all the rules, who drank and smoked far too much, who was rude about feminists, homosexuals and ethnic minorities, who was politically utterly incorrect, who behaved outrageously, and yet who somehow survived and even managed to surround himself with an ever-increasing harem of beautiful women.”

Graham Lord, Just the One – the wives and times of Jeffrey Bernard, pp. 229-230.

I was first made aware of Jeffrey Bernard by reading a newspaper obituary. In the photo, a glut of uncommon celebrities jostled one another at the wake. And in the background, ignoring the camera, Tom Baker propped up the bar.

Tom was one of many contributors to Graham Lord’s 1992 biography. Jeff had just turned 60 when the book first came out (the link above is to a posthumous reissue), and it’s telling with what surprise his acquaintances saw him to lesser decades. He really did himself no favours.

The book is a catalogue of stupid and greatly pissed behaviour – Jeff being sick on the Queen Mother and shagging the wives of his mates. I struggled with a tale about a Christmas tree that got taken on a pub crawl because I kept expecting it to be some sort of euphemism. No, they really did mix a tree’s drinks.

Rude, snobbish and just as much lazy as pissed, Jeff spent years stumbling between jobs that would pay for his drinking before finding a role as a writer. He stuck broadly to just the two topics for all his subsequent career: racing and the “low life” of being out on the lash. Lord argues that really it was all just one topic: Bernard on loss as a loser.

One editor, Alexander Chancellor, says of him in the book,
“‘I can’t think of anybody else in journalism who writes only, only about themselves. It’s a considerable achievement, I think, to (a) do nothing at all except drink, and (b) be able to write about it ever single week and still be interesting.’”

Ibid., p. 230.

Most boozers just couldn’t do that. That you got something – a joke or a smile or an article – explains how Jeff persevered. He’d scrounge hand-outs and floorspace off anyone, and sex off girls who could surely do better.

For all he’s a monster and alienated his friends, Jeff knew how to turn on the charm. Irma Kurtz said he had a smile like
“‘a little devil caught out in an act of charity.’”

Ibid., p. 255.

Tom who, flush as the fourth Droo, bought him a couple of suits, says that Jeff at least sang for his supper. Bernard, not the drinking, was witty and exciting. He was an exception to the borish, dull alkie – a bit apart from the other self-destructing regulars. His writing can be keenly observant and hilarious, and even Jeff is often bored by his lifestyle. He is less a role model as a warning.

Yes, there’s something salaciously thrilling about someone who breaks all the rules. But I also think there’s an appeal in the distance – he’s funny so long as he’s happening to other people. Jeff could make those near him miserable, and was not very fond of himself.

It’s also affirmative and good for finger wagging to see the depths that beckon a man who won’t bother with bills and a mortgage.

(As well as talking to Tom himself, the book also makes mention of Jon Pertwee (p. 126) and David Tennant (p. 79).)


Keith Ramsey said...

Ah, Jeff, if he wasn't dead he'd be a living legend.

Somebody once described his column in "The Spectator" as "a suicide note in weekly instalments". In one of his more sober incarnations he also wrote a racing column for "Private Eye" under the pseudonym of "Colonel Mad".

For some years he was a fixture in the latter magazine's local, the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, a pub I've often walked past, but sadly never drunk in.

His supposed exploits there feature in Keith Waterhouse's play "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell" which enjoyed a long London run starring Peter O'Toole and I believe also spawned a television version.

Anonymous said...

"the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, a pub I've often walked past, but sadly never drunk in"

I've quite *cheerfully* never drunk in it, and never will - unless it
becomes the only pub left in
the entirety of fucking

That it has some notoriety due to
apparently being managed and run by a wanker and frequented by a bunch
of self-important tedious pricks
doesn't make it any more important
than any other
random backstreet boozer full of
lowlife scum, and I'll cheerfully
go to my fiery grate not having
contributed to any such pointless,
unconvincing, self-canonising
auto-hagiography on the part of
people desperate to devise and
sustain their own legend.

I speak as a borderline alcoholic.
And yet somehow I know my own
insignificance. If only others did
too. Being a wanker does not make
you in any way important.


0tralala said...

T'was Jonathan Meades as said about the suicide note, and that, Colonel Mad and Keith Waterhouse's play are all covered in depth in the book.

I am not unconvinced by DJ's reasoning, though Jeff could often be stunningly funny.

As I say: quite happy reading about him from a safe distance. No great desire to have sat with him getting tanked.