The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

I was walking along Cleveland Street the other day in a cold drizzle when I suddenly came across an amazing collage on the pavement which just about summed up the human condition to perfection. It comprised a pool of vomit, an empty beer can, some dog shit and a sprinkling of confetti.

– 3 January 1987

My favourite English writer finally got his name in lights in 1989 with the hit play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell that was largely based on his long-running column for the Spectator magazine. That column was also published in three collections – Low Life (1986), More Low Life (1989) and Reach for the Ground (1996) – though some notable omissions mean these are not the collected pieces.

In these books the style changes over time in one important respect. The earliest is perhaps the most uneven. Presumably written in more of a hurry, it still contains more high points of utter quotability than the other two. By the last book, his various ailments have slowed him down so much that he inevitably has more time on his hands, as incident gives way to reflection.

No matter the year, though, Bernard (1932-97) still gives the reader a reassuring feeling like the one he himself had about Turkish baths. You can walk about and have a chat and all sorts of oddballs loom up in the steam. The main subjects remain the same. Booze, women, horse-racing, hospitals, the peculiarities of the rich and famous, getting away from it all, and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, with his comic foil the gruff Jewish landlord, Norman Balon. I overpaid him with a penny for his thoughts.

In more ways than one, as Bernard reminds the reader, drink gets you somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise be. I have even woken up in a drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe. That was fairly frightening. Trying to open a drawer from the inside. It’s quite tricky. 

His real boozing set in during the Sixties. There is a vignette of the comedian Tony Hancock (1924-68) falling in a heap on the floor of a London cab, after a ten-hour session with Bernard, but still reaching up and handing him his card. Phone me if you get into trouble. I think you may have a drinking problem. Nevertheless it is doubtful Bernard was ever in the eating-is-cheating camp, as is evident from this one-liner.

People who drink wine without food smell like drains.

Drink was always the other woman, he eventually grasped. What I know about women could be put inside the head of an ant. This of course was not true. With seriously dangerous women you can hear them thinking in the dark. He had reached the point of low to zero expectations – All I expect is that they wake me up when the waiter brings the bill – but it was there he could make a vintage brew from emotional and literal car crashes.

I remember once being given a severance kiss in favour of a property dealer who turned out to be impotent. There was also a woman… who… jumped into her car and drove straight into a wall, blinded no doubt by crocodile tears.

I just heard a terrific bang and smash followed by screams, and ran out into the street to find that someone had driven a car right into the Draper’s Arms. It was sitting there oozing smoke in the saloon bar. Luckily the occupants were… simply shocked. Whether they were shocked by the crash or shocked by the fact that it wasn’t quite opening time is debatable.

On life’s episodes of jumping into bed, un-followed, though he was married four times, Bernard focuses on the effects of pre-coital (or non-coital) tobacco consumption.

Sadly I’ve never had a footman to summon and have these people thrown out before they smoke all my cigarettes. I resign myself to the situation, take a Valium and then fall asleep and burn the bedspread… I now have a fire extinguisher by my bed but I never really know whether to aim it at my privates, the lady or the bedspread.

On hospital patients, his conviction did not quite match the old theatrical metaphor that the characters may change but the play remains the same. For him the characters alas did not vary either.

my three companions are dead ringers for any and all the other trios I’ve ever served time with in hospitals. It’s a bit like being in rep.

Sadly the patients never change. Are they provided by some sort of agency? Is anyone worth talking to ever hospitalised?

… it is the patients who get up my nose the most: readers of The Sun, football fans, moaners and men who would take an oath on Reader’s Digest. I sometimes wonder if it is only the ugly and mindless who get sick.

To be fair he does not care for medical students either, with one or two “who couldn’t diagnose a decapitation” but all exuding halitosis.

Norman is a kind but sometimes embarrassing hospital visitor, paying calls as he does to every bed in the ward and then announcing in a loud voice gloomy prognoses on the doomed inmates. ‘He hasn’t got long,’ is his usual verdict. He should wear a black cap on his hospital rounds.

In honour of his hero Admiral Nelson, Jeff recounts the highest point of his hospital career in the style of a naval battle in the days of sail but, in the excitement and fog of war, he also lobs in land-based allusions to Shakespeare, horse-racing and the English Civil War. The incident took place at dawn, while he was trying to sneak a cup of tea, outside the surveillance of a West Indian kitchen tyrant.

This mere sloop, as redundant as a dinghy at Trafalgar, was suddenly about to be engaged by the… Santissima Trinidad, the biggest warship afloat. Vainly I swung the wheel hard to port but her first shot knocked the cup out of my hand and sent boiling water everywhere… ‘Dis my kitchen. Get the f*ck out.’ Now she was wrestling the kettle away from my grasp and… the last thing I could afford was a Rastafarian boarding party. I backed away and dropped anchor by the fridge… There are… moments of inspiration that have changed the course of history and as my right hand suddenly felt the comforting lump of a half pound of butter I knew she was but a Rupert to my Cromwell. I had offered my kingdom for a horse and got Shergar. The butter hit her on the left shoulder with such force she spun round and dropped the kettle… I could hear her in the distance… ‘… Mister Bernard, he f*cking mad. Try to kill me. He cut my arm wid butter…’ It was a momentous victory.

Regarding those historical figures he did know personally, in little more than half a page elsewhere he touches lightly on Germaine Greer, Mick Jagger, George Best, Michael Parkinson and the writer of Chariots of Fire, one Colin Welland, whom he labels Smelly Welland. But the Stone is the most vivid.

I went on the piss with Mick Jagger and… he suddenly burst into tears. Solicitous as a spider to a fly, I enquired as to the cause of the dreadful stream of tears and mucus ruining my lapels. ‘I can’t take it,’ he howled… ‘The success. The money and all those birds.’ At the time, I happened to be short of both… and suggested a transfer of both cash and crumpet into my safekeeping. He soon stopped crying and left without paying. My turn to cry.

Laurie Lee, however, proved even more bizarre and miserly.

Last year I sat next to him and he shovelled four lamb cutlets into his jacket pocket without even bothering to wrap them up in a napkin. I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’ He said, ‘I haven’t. They’re for me. I shall heat them up again tonight for my supper.’ I should have thought that the royalties from such works as Cider With Rosie would bring in enough to pay for food instead of having to wash old chops covered with fluff and bits of tobacco from a jacket pocket.

As for getting away from it all, Samuel Johnson is enlisted to frame the context of it all.

that daft utterance about London and not getting tired of it (a man, like him, who has an opinion on everything can be a bore).

Sitting beneath the palms… I can hear the fizz of frying prawns, the dying hiss of a lobster and the rattle of a cocktail shaker and, with luck, the scream of a German tourist treading on a sea urchin.

The only foreigners he liked and had real sympathy for were the Irish. With the understandable exception of Terry Wogan.

I expect strange things from Americans but this nut introduced himself and then said, ‘You write for the Psychic News, don’t you?’ I told him I didn’t and held out very little hope for much entertainment after death which is why I was holding on to the bar with such tenacity.

For the reader, his best holiday is his most nightmarish, in Egypt, where he battles diarrhoea cramps in forty degrees, with no hat. But, like Indiana Jones, our hero escapes in the nick of time.

I found a lavatory with as much wonder as Carter experienced in 1922 on opening that tomb.

Jeff is nothing if not a philosopher, whose imagination is not of the fantasy variety but that of the man who can grasp connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Note how a glass of vodka in the sun causes him to reflect on playing the Good Samaritan.

the ice melts away as quickly as a man you’ve helped.

Nonetheless, where such a man may disappear to can still surprise him from time to time.

A couple of Sundays ago I was watching Songs of Praise, which was coming from Maidstone prison of all places, when to my amazement I spotted a man in the congregation of the chapel who owes me £50. He was standing there and had the gall to be singing Abide With Me.

Another example of his philosophical talent is shown after he has a bag nicked in the pub and he extrapolates on theft.

Most blessings are heavily disguised… I vaguely remember having left a chunk of cod fillet in the carrier bag with the sweater and by this time the thief will have come to acknowledge that it is better to give than to receive.

His powers of sociological observation are also considerable. Though, with the amount of geography thrown in, it is only fair to give credit to both his social and spatial awareness.

Today’s spiv is a smoothie more than anything. He is to be found in advertising, television, Fleet Street and, by the score, in the House of Commons… Most Soho spivs work at producing television commercials.

… journalists are simply shit-stirrers paid to drink on expenses. 

A lot of people in Islington have been hinting at potential talent for at least fifty years. Most of them end up as rip-off antique dealers

Name me a gossip who has been snatched away too soon. You can’t. (…) There’s a nasty grin that plays around their wet lips when nothing whatsoever funny or amusing is being said… they understand the human condition, which is something the village idiot can’t comprehend… The village idiot is the man who mentally jogs through life.

The key to Bernard’s black comedy is that it hinges on the sinister side of life, his philosophical consideration that something bad has either previously happened, could still happen or might just as easily have happened. The more surreal the better.

His life in the Coach and Horses included the day he was stared at and then chatted up by a beautiful black woman who turned out to be the tax inspector who was on his case. The pub also landed him famously in court for operating an illegal gambling book for his friends on the premises.

My lawyer made a really excellent speech to the magistrate but my friends in the gallery who came to lend me support, and in some cases write about it all, laughed too much and the beak didn’t like the levity.

By 1990, the phone revolution was underway and his biggest remaining problem in the Coach was gaining attention at the counter.

A man came into the pub the other day carrying one of those awful mobile telephones. I asked him if I could use it and he kindly obliged and asked me what number I wanted. I gave him the number of the pub. Norman was standing no more than six feet away and when he answered the call he barked, ‘Coach and Horses! Hallo!’ I said, ‘Is there any chance of being served a bloody drink in this ghastly pub?’ My language was a little stronger than that…

At that point Norman just called him a bastard and gave him a vodka. Bernard goes on to link this moment to a racing reminiscence.

… I remember once being served by an Irishman at a Derby lunch in the Dorchester when I spotted Sally, the Begum Aga Khan, a couple of tables away. I asked the man to deliver… a note without a word in her ear. I had written on it, ‘Although I am only a humble Irish waiter, I think I am in love with you.’

Though the play conveyed with pathos the happiness of lunchtime sessions in the Coach and Horses with many old friends by then dead, Bernard’s columns also captured the sadness of the pub life, as in the last days of the year, of any year, as Christmas goes on too long, like the patron who should just go home.

The crowd in the pub is a human left-over soup of a kind… A cheque is cashed, a round is bought and Chorus enters stage right declaiming, ‘You should have been in here last night.’

In his introduction to the first volume, John Osborne remarks on Bernard’s eye for physical detail. This is perhaps most evident in two passages from the late Eighties in which Bernard looks back on good times, out in the country, where, despite the failed attempts to settle down with various wives and despite the various spats with vicars and rural gentry, he was evidently happiest, at least when he was on his own.

(The first spell was ruined when he unwisely invited two rowdy house guests to join him in the sticks.)

There was a cold winter that I did enjoy though… [X] lent me a cottage in Suffolk and I got a job from the neighbouring farmer. For two months I worked at hedging and ditching and it was tremendously satisfying… After every twenty yards or so I made a little bonfire with what I had cut and sat down and had some tea from the thermos. The country was crystal clear. Cloudless pale-blue skies and the cold brought everything into the sharpest of focuses so that a frozen blade of grass was as a needle. Blackbirds and squirrels followed my progress along the edges of the frozen meadows, and then just as I was beginning to feel like St. Francis of Assisi the spell was broken. (…) No more log fires, bonfires and blackbirds eating the crusts of my sandwiches under the frozen blue silence of that sky. I could have killed them but they managed that themselves in their own good time. I miss them a lot.

– 5 November 1988

But the thing I thought mostly about during this sleepless night of remembrance was walking my dog… at dusk on autumn and winter evenings. She was a very pale Labrador – the pallor native to East Anglia … I had a very good gun… and when the sun began to dip below the trees of the wood we would walk along through the mist that gathered above and beside the river. She would go along ahead of me, stopping from time to look back and see if I was still following, and I would be looking out and listening for pheasants, wood pigeons and rabbits. I was poaching but… the farmer didn’t spend money on breeding game. It was just there, like the trees that had been there for hundreds of years. An all-too-rare treat we had was to see the barn owl gliding down along the river. He was so powerful that one that one languid flap of his great wings would carry him about a hundred yards. Freewheeling majesty. Then, when the sun had really sunk, we walked home through the wet grass, the smell of gunpowder lingering, cold and hungry towards the log fire.

– 21 January 1989

As for an epilogue, I choose the passage most apt for these Brexit times, which Jeff would have seen as the predictable evolution of the grossness of this age.

The English man-in-the-street… is largely envious, vindictive and punitive. (…) He knows little about himself, would not even understand the recent Budget but, by jingo, he knows what is best for other people. It is a mercy that there aren’t more referendums in this country. They would be hanging children.




Sam and Jim

Sam and Jim

Paris 1971 … an American and an Irishman meet by chance in a bar.

The young American tries in vain to attract the attention of a waiter for another beer. Nearby the Irishman reads a newspaper and sips a whiskey.

Excuse me. Excuse me. S’il vous plaît. Une bière. It’s no good. But hey, it’s Paris. (turning to SAM nearby) Excuse me, sir, can you speak French?

Would you like some help?

You live here?

Yes. A long time.

I live here too, now. Not so long.

I see. How do you find it?

Hey man, it’s Paris. But I can’t speak the language. That kind of bums me out a little.

Why don’t you learn it?


Why don’t I learn to play the guitar too… why didn’t I just plod away in my own garden?


Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin… Are you interested in music or gardening? Or do you like both?

More like music is interested in me.

I don’t follow you.

I’m in… eh, show-business, back home.

But you just said you live here now.

I’ve got the soul of a clown and it’s taken me a long way, so far. But who knows what’s round the next corner? I came here to get away from something.

Haven’t we all? What do you play? Maybe you sing. Is that it? Do you sing?

Classical buff, I imagine? Thought so. Well, it ain’t Schubert. Let’s just say I’m a troubadour. A minstrel. But where are you from?

Eh, Dublin.

Getting nowhere here with this waiter reminds me of a play by an Irish guy. It’s about two bums on a road, just shooting the breeze. Years ago, when I was back there in some school or other, I had to write a paper on it. I put forth the proposition that it was a Civil War story. It had a Grant, a Lee and a Slave.

What part of America are you from?


Warm and dry. People can swim. They can be happy.

The water is very cold. I’m Jim.

Sam. I was in New York once.


It was a few years ago now. The people there… were all a bit odd.

I should have been a poet. A love poet, perhaps… I wish I was a girl of sixteen/I’d be the queen of the magazine/And all night long you could hear me scream.

Ah, sweet sixteen. An exceedingly unhappy birthday, zero by the chronometer. But why a poet?

Feelings are disturbing.

Einer muss wachen, heisst es. Einer muss da sein. Someone must watch, it means. Someone must be there. Find someone you can talk to. It’s just a bonus if you don’t mind the cut of her jib.

Jib – a triangular staysail, set forward of the forward-most mast. That implies going by first impressions. I never heard of an unattractive muse so I’m looking for another flashing chance at bliss.

When I was your age, or thereabouts, I used to console myself by saying that at least, with my initial efforts, Lord help us, I’d achieved creative fulfillment and a preparation for death at such an early age. Later, I maintained that success or failure on a public level didn’t matter and indeed that the latter had a certain vivifying air about it.

I guess you knew what you wanted to do. You just didn’t know what you were doing. What tripped your wire?

It was an extraordinarily bitter season, zero by the thermometer. The winter of forty and forty-one. The Gestapo started arresting my friends. I couldn’t just sit around, waiting for inspiration. But I ended up down South, working on a farm, just for food, until other Americans came, so don’t talk to me about gardens, metaphorical or botanical.

What did you do then? Just come back here and stroll around?

When it was over, I went back to see my mother.

Don’t talk to me about mothers, man.

That’s when I finally saw it. What I had to do from then on. I was nearly forty. Imagine. If only she could have seen that I made something of myself, in the end, on my own terms.

Some of us get the vision early. Maybe it was the acid… This waiter could be a regular guy on a bad day or he could be a real asshole. Were we in former times, back home, way out west, I could just shoot him and put him on my tab. But I haven’t reacted because at least he doesn’t know who I am. I haven’t given him any trouble yet.

It must be a pact with the Devil, setting out down that road into the high life.

It was different with me. Spring came early.

Shed some light.

I think I knew exactly what I was doing, at least at the beginning. Even when no one else knew it.

There are two great, mirror questions of faith, it seems. How should one live and when should one believe that other people actually know what they’re doing.

I knew, man. I knew.

I admire your youthful clarity.

But if you’ve got anything to say, you’ve only got so much of it to say and you’ve got to hope you don’t run out too fast.

I admire your clarity.

If you failed first, when you were young, at least you know you can live with it.

I went on. Like almost everybody.

I was sleeping on the roof of an empty warehouse and doing a lot of acid. It was then that the orchestra started up, just in my head. All I had was a candle and a blanket and an occasional can of soup. Then I met one of the other guys on the beach and I gave him a blast. The rest is, well, you can guess the rest.

You’re in pop, I take it.

So here I am, an American in Paris, at the end of an incredible springtime. Why are you here?

It was the place that bothered me the least. Why don’t you stop what you’re doing now and go do something else for a while? Clear the head a bit.

Like what?

I don’t know.

I’m an American in Paris. What you want me to do? Start dancing?

You must have some idea otherwise. Plus you can always keep your hand in.

If I try to keep my hand in they’ll take it off at the shoulder.

There’s always the Legion. But you’d have to learn French.

My father was in the navy… could be, still… From a thin raft, one clown could be drowned while the other was saved.

Well, why not?

It’s my job. There’s no going back now. When we started out we dreamed of being big in the city or even all along the coast but then the bullshit took over and I made interviews into an art form. It’s something I invented. But I wish I could build me a woman.

Bastard journalists. I wouldn’t give them the time of day.

I gave them the best time of their lives.

Never say anything under interrogation, if you can help it at all.

Is that something you learned in the war?

In boarding school.

Now I can’t stand it anymore. I’d be so glad if people just didn’t recognize me.

Poor you. The world is full of distress. What did you expect? A land without shadows? Why should you or I think we should be any different?

What gives you the most pain?

Whatever it is, we must master our anguish.

But what gives you the most pain?

What I’ve had to master.

But what-

The past, what else? Christ, what else?

Pain is something to carry, like a radio, to keep us awake.

I usually listen to sports on the radio.

I guess that’s enough pain if it’s your guy who’s losing.

We must master our anguish.

If you hide your feelings, you’re denying a part of yourself, you’re letting society twist your reality.

What I’ve felt has been clear since 1945. I don’t care about society. I just know that I’m not afraid to stand up for my friends. That’s all. That’s me. It’s not about what I feel, it’s about what I do. It’s what you do with it. The tracks of my tears are like invisible ink.

But how’s that trick done?

You don’t have to be a saint. Heaven knows you don’t. When you have to be somewhere, you’re there, that’s all. Someone must be there. Someone must be sound.

You don’t know shit, my friend.

That’s what tortures me.

Tortures you? You’re killing me, man.

You try to grasp a piece of flotsam, only to slip beneath the waves into the black void again.

That’s the killer on the road. Is that all you have to tell me?

For heaven’s sake, boy, go easy on the sauce.

Like I said, who knows what’s round the next corner? Now I think I got to get out of here.

I’m about to leave, myself.

Come on a crawl with me, man.

I don’t think so.

Come on, man. I can show you an amazing hole in the ground just a few blocks from here.

What hole? The earth is full of holes. Getting out at night holds different meanings for us now, Jim.

Come on. Let’s move on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.

Good luck, Jim.

You threw me a bone, you explained your twilight. But I’ve got to believe there’s still manna in Paris for imbeciles like me. So long, Sam.

God bless.

Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

O Cadhain s&b pb 227062.indd

Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-70) is a name that can be anglicised as Martin Kyne. He was a former IRA prisoner from Connemara who became Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. His 1949 novel Cré na Cille (literally, clay of the church) has been translated into at least half a dozen languages, with two English versions finally appearing in the past five years. It is said the first English attempt, in the Fifties, turned to dust when the young woman hired as translator joined a convent. There have also been stage and radio adaptations and an Irish-language feature film (2007).

The two central characters are the rival sisters Caitríona and Neil (pronounced Nell). Caitríona is dead in a Connemara graveyard but continues to live their feud from beyond the grave. Hence the brilliant conceit but the tragic element, evident from the first chapter, is that Neil took the man Caitríona loved.

Pursuing an ambition to read it in Irish was a proud undertaking in my book, though I was nearly fifty before I got round to it. Before long I got used to the non-standard spelling Ó Cadhain favoured but still had to turn to the dictionary quite often, not being completely familiar with our past customs either. After a hundred pages I hoped Caitríona would be seen yet to have put one or two over on her sister, by way of reprisal. The carry-on at her wake, the treatment of her corpse, is practically sacrilegious, even to a non-believer.

All updates come from the newly buried, though a French pilot arrives after a plane crash and no one can understand French. A hundred and fifty pages in, Caitríona gets her first bit of good news since she was lowered. It seems her previously despised daughter-in-law is a new woman since going over and hammering Neil’s equivalent over an insult and, when Neil tries to intervene, shoving her into the fire.

There is a key section near the middle of Cré na Cille – a passage of criss-crossing accusations of rural stealing and robbing this, that and the other – that performs two non-comic functions. It reminds the reader (a) not to take all that is said here at face value and (b) similarly not to take all that the living Irish say as gospel.

Towards the end of the book I began to wonder nonetheless would the whole prove less than the parts. With fifty pages to go it looked like there would be no climax, as I read a diverting passage of hospital slapstick about the mixing of two patients’ innards. That life goes on above ground seemed to be the overall message but I didn’t want to finish it just feeling sorry for Caitríona.

Nevertheless there is a kind of climax, in the end, when one ghost likens Neil and Caitríona to two pups he once saw watching a dying mule. In stopping the other getting at the mule, the one gets so worked up that it expires but, when the mule itself goes, the other pup just slinks away, leaving it all to the dead one.

agus nach bhfágann ansin ag an gcoileán caillte é.

It thus seems the positive reports of Neil that torment Caitríona have something to them and that she really wasn’t so bad after all… once Caitríona was gone. Otherwise, half the community – above ground – ends up in court and/or prison.

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Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Photo (c) Paris Review

Philip Larkin (1922-85)

Christopher Hitchens saw Larkin and George Orwell as embodiments of a certain type of Englishness. Both men loved the English countryside and feared for its future. Neither had any religious faith but both respected and learned a lot from the simplicity of Anglican prayers. When his collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) appeared, fellow poet John Betjeman felt Larkin had “closed the gap between poetry and the public” with his down-to-earth, casual, often humorous style. Larkin and Orwell also admired English church architecture and furthermore both cherished the English affection for animals. In At Grass, Larkin writes of former champion horses in retirement; horses that were famous years before.

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry

He wonders for a moment if “memories plague their ears like flies” but then observes they have “slipped their names, and stand at ease”. He is glad that they, at least, can enjoy their well-earned, care-free retirement, so the mood of the poem is human nostalgia for the passing of those old glories; those “classic Junes” of racing seasons past.

In MCMXIV the faded photograph is of an English crowd at the start of the Great War. The poem indicates colossal loss as he writes of the army recruitment lines having been like crowds gathered for sporting occasions at “the Oval or Villa Park”, uniquely, innocently

Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark

The poem is packed with everyday details of the vanished world: the coins; the “tin advertisements”; the children named after royalty; the large number of domestic servants. They were all enveloped in hazy summer when the war began, when all these men signed up for the carnage.

The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

A personal suspicion and fear of marriage features strongly in Larkin, even when writing of the excitement it can initially bring. The Whitsun Weddings title poem was inspired by a journey from Hull to London in 1955. Traditionally Whit Saturday was a popular choice of wedding day for the working class. A few years before his death, Larkin recalled the genesis of this, one of his most famous poems.

I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me… there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped, fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things… Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it… It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”

The poet vividly sets the scene in terms of touch, sight and smell as the journey begins, “all sense of being in a hurry gone”, giving us sensations like hot cushions, blinding windscreens and a smelly fish-dock. Industry breaks into the countryside, in the form of “floatings of industrial froth” on a canal and “acres of dismantled cars”.

It takes him a while to notice the fuss at the stations, mistaking it for “porters larking with the mails”, but he is soon leaning out the windows, to see the girls in “parodies of fashion”, the “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. These are not rich people but Larkin does not despise them. He uses ambivalent phrases like “happy funeral” to describe the mixed feelings and tension among the female onlookers before turning to the “fresh couples” catching their breath aboard the train.

It speeds up for the last fifty minutes of the journey as the couples sit side by side and watch the passing landscape, all oblivious of the others sharing this same special, brief experience.

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Though the poet later said he meant the last line of the poem to indicate fertility, to go with the postal districts of London “packed like squares of wheat”, many people have read the transformation into rain as a sad metaphor. Thus there are other aspects of Englishness in which Hitchens thought Orwell and Larkin also had a share. This was the world of bad food and watery drinks, drab and crowded accommodation, bad plumbing, long queues, poor hygiene, rain and uncultured ignorance.

For a man who knew such things yet never really engaged with life, not to mind entertaining the idea of an afterlife, Larkin had an excessive fear of death. Ambulances is a meditation on how near and random death still is (“They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited”). Today people may see them as a positive intervention, preserving life, but, when the poem was written, in the Fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a very bad sign, when passers-by could be morbidly hypnotized by, for example

A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets

He links his personal and cultural obsessions again in Church Going, by which he means his habit of visiting churches. His comical English diffidence appears again at the very beginning. Only when he is sure there’s nothing going on does he step inside. He has no hat so he takes off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” before he moves to “the holy end” and gets up on the lectern, where he imitates a vicar. Back at the door, he signs the book and, in a cynical yet funny gesture, donates an Irish sixpence.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into

He muses about who will be the last person to go to the church just because it is a church. Will it be someone like himself?

Bored, uninformed…
…yet tending to this cross of ground
… because it held…
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these

So it actually pleases him to stand in silence there. He becomes a spokesman for all those who, lacking belief, nevertheless find some spiritual need satisfied by churches. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, where individuals can at the very least place their own lives in the context of the life and history of their tribe.

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious

Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” and he found much of his inspiration in the overcrowded, grubby society that he so much claimed to resent. After his death, the publication of his letters led to him being widely condemned as a misogynist and racist but, as Clive James has written, Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say awful things. Nonetheless he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said forever.

In his last interview, Larkin recalled judging the final stages of a poetry competition. When he commented on the absence of any poems about love or nature, the organizers told him they had thrown all those away. “I expect,” said the disappointed and politely disapproving Larkin, “they were the ones I should have liked.”

The Kafka of Sociology

The Kafka of Sociology

In November 1952 Erving Goffman took a phrase from the world of confidence trickery for the title of his essay “On Cooling The Mark Out”, which was subtitled “Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure” and published in the journal Psychiatry. A mark in the jargon is the victim of a scam. For the mark, such cooling is a process of adjustment to a situation arising from his having defined himself in a way that the social facts (e.g. his loss) contradict.

In stark cases, as in those of physical death, the role of spiritual cooler is given to doctors or priests. A priest must not so much save a soul as create one that is consistent with what is about to become of it. A second typical solution to the problem of reconciling a mark to his loss consists of offering him another status that provides something else for him to become. Usually the alternative presented to the mark is a compromise of some kind. As examples, Goffman offers the lover who may be asked to become a friend and the student of medicine who may be asked to switch to dentistry.

A third standard method of cooling the mark out is to perform a controlled explosion. If this eruption of emotions does not find a target, then it at least serves as a release and catharsis. When a blow-up of this kind occurs, friends of the mark or psychotherapists are often called in. Friends are willing to take responsibility because their relationship is not limited to the role the mark has failed in. Psychotherapists, on the other hand, are willing to take responsibility because it is their business to offer a relationship to those who have failed in some other relationship.

In an increasing number of cases, the mark is given professional help of some kind. The psychotherapist is, in this sense, society’s cooler. His or her job is to send the patient back in a condition in which he or she can no longer cause trouble to others and can no longer make a fuss.

As a fourth cooling procedure, the operator and the mark may form an understanding according to which the mark agrees to act as if he were leaving of his own accord and the operator agrees to preserve this illusion. Bribery is a form of exchange. In such cases, the mark guarantees to leave quickly and quietly and in exchange is allowed to go under what the writer calls a cloud of his own choosing.

Goffman also writes that persons who have died in social ways come gradually to be brought together into a common graveyard that is separated ecologically from what he terms the living community. For the “dead”, this is at once a punishment and a defence. Jails and mental institutions are the most familiar examples but other important ones exist.

In America, he observed the interesting tendency to set aside certain regions and towns as retirement asylums for those who have died as workers and as parents but who are still alive, financially. In Europe we can view the south coast of Spain as a parallel zone.

Hobo jungles provided another case in point for Goffman but, just as a residential area may become a graveyard, so also certain institutions and occupational roles could take on a similar function, he maintained. The religious ministry in Britain, for example, had sometimes served as a limbo for the occupational stillborn of better families, as had the British universities. Nonetheless Goffman accepted that there were few positions in life that did not group together some people who were there as failures and others as successes.

In this sense, the dead are sorted but not segregated, and continue to walk among the living.

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. On p. 38 of his lexical memoir, Les Mots de ma vie (2011) there is a quote describing the author (“un concentré de Français”) that suggests his book will reflect both sides of the French coin – bittersweet romance and meaningless abstraction – but coins have three dimensions and here there are also many passages of wit and comedy.

Pivot seems to have been especially amused by Vladimir Nabokov. Marguerite Duras turns up a couple of times too, such as when he didn’t want to encourage her after she rang him at two in the morning to read some newly written text over the phone, but the account of Nabokov’s studio demands is perhaps the funniest.


That Nabokov’s teapot contained whiskey was well known but on Apostrophes the great man didn’t want to present the French public with the spectacle of a man drinking on live television. Therefore a verbal formula was devised to enable him to tipple away discreetly on set. Encore un peu de thé, monsieur Nabokov?

The novelist also insisted, on the basis of some prostate trouble, that an emergency urinoir be installed behind the studio decor but this demand was quietly ignored and of course Nabokov forgot all about it. He kept talking long after the final credits and then used the regular toilets like everyone else.

Such a happy ending did not ensue the last time someone was allowed smoke on Bouillon de culture. An unfortunately-placed camera made it look like a female guest – Jacqueline de Romilly, already nearly blind – was engulfed by the cigarette smoke of Philippe Sollers. This led to the switchboard being inundated by protest calls and a snowstorm of letters accused Pivot of complicity in such boorishness and barbarity.

Invited by RAI to watch an episode of an Italian programme he was told was inspired by his own, he emerged horrified after an hour of shouting – fuelled by a noisy presenter – in which the guests brandished books like the Red Guards waved the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Though he never learned English properly, Pivot also mentions he was reliably informed that English political and literary talk shows, in contrast, were just boring. A wild guess.

He claims that foreign writers, especially Americans, were surprised to be able to talk about their books on French TV with a host who had actually read them. This happened without being interrupted by ads or having a minister, a stripper or a golf champion on as fellow guests. Pivot then likens the differences in talk shows to different national styles of playing soccer. His love of le foot is a recurrent theme that helps put a more regular face on the writer.

In other passages he is an anorak, not least about food. Only a Frenchman could be an anorak about food, though his exploration of its impact on French slang and idiom is instructive. There is also a pair of funny food stories, as in the time Pivot, as a young journalist sent to report on a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium.

On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips / fries and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In the entry on freeloaders and gatecrashers, Pivot distinguishes between those who come just for the show and those literary ones who come to eat and drink, wolfing glasses of wine and sandwiches in the morning and champagne and petits-fours in the afternoon. Always located very near the table or the bar and sometimes shoved aside by impatient publishers, without ever protesting they give way just enough to regain their strategic position with minimum delay.

Not all Pivot’s comedy is intentional, though, as in the classic line, Certains couples lisent au lit, puis mettent un marque-page, referment le livre, éteignent et font l’amour (‘Certain couples read in bed, then place a bookmark, close the book, switch off the light and make love’). Only a Frenchman could solemnly sketch that scene that in the English-speaking world would always be played for laughs.

Pivot retired as a regular TV host in 2005. The day after the maiden broadcast of his first programme, Ouvrez les guillemets, back in the early Seventies, the channel boss Jacqueline Baudrier phoned him to tell him the show had not been good but that was normal, as it was his first time out.

Ne remettez cette veste : vous aviez l’air d’un garçon de café. Je suis sûre d’une chose : vous êtes fait pour la télévision.

(‘Don’t wear that jacket again, you looked like a waiter. I’m sure of one thing. You were made for television.’)


A Writing Life

A Writing Life

Chuck Ross submitted a freshly typed copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1969 National Book Award winner, Steps, to fourteen publishers and thirteen agents as an unsolicited manuscript. All twenty-seven failed to recognise it and all twenty-seven rejected it.”

The Cynic’s Handbook, p. 63

Apart from a streak of cynicism like that shown by Chuck Ross, what’s really required for a writing life? Anybody that’s interested will be familiar with the usual advice from how-to books and features: try to write something every day, get an agent and be prepared for all the rejection slips. To my mind, though, it would be much better if all those books and advisers started off with the following quotation. It doesn’t matter how pretentious or down-to-earth the writing ambition is. We all think we have something to say and we want the world to hear it.

“The creative artist seems to be almost the only kind of man that you could never meet on neutral ground. You can only meet him as an artist. He sees nothing objectively because his own ego is in the foreground of every picture. (…) If he is a writer, he tends to associate only with other writers and with the various parasitic growths which batten on writing. To all these people literature is more or less the central fact of existence. Whereas to vast numbers of reasonably intelligent people it is an unimportant sideline, a relaxation, an escape, a source of information and sometimes an inspiration. But they could do without it far more easily than they could do without coffee or whiskey.”

– Raymond Chandler

If you can stand that much detachment, you then have some questions to ask yourself. For example, would you really like to spend most of your time, when you’re out of the house, attending literary lunches and book festivals, seeing the same kinds of faces, hearing the same conversations and answering the same old questions? Would you cope with sitting for hours in bookshops, waiting to sign something, anything? Could you take it if a customer finally came up and you lifted your pen and then the person only asked if the bookshop had a toilet? Even prize-winning scribblers have endured that… and worse.

Right now I’d like you to try and see the writing life from the point of view of a witness to a couple of literary bigwigs in live action. In this case, I was only present to help a book dealer friend get stuff signed. In 2006, in Listowel in Kerry, the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee made a rare festival appearance. It was hot enough in the hotel function room already but his first reading – a piece about agri-tourism in an arid region of South Africa – did not encourage the will to live. It was hardly accidental when audience applause filled a gap between sheets of paper, when he was slow to turn a page. Next Coetzee read from his then work in progress (“Diary 2005”). In other words, these were his musings from the year before. He seemed to be preoccupied by George W. Bush, as many people were at the time, I suppose.

The next day, in the hotel, John Banville worked the same crowd with some dry self-deprecation. When a woman near the front got up and left without a word he felt obliged to ask, “Was it something I said?” The only time he smiled was when he quoted something he’d written at the age of twelve. I wondered if it was sheer coincidence then, or just a writerly dig, when he mentioned he might have sold the kiddie stuff to the University of Texas in Austin – the place where Coetzee had studied, according to the festival programme.

By then it was well into question time and many present were no longer listening. Some of the elderly were dozing in the heat, while the people sitting by the windows had already been diverted by an incident on the racecourse, just across the river, where a horse ambulance had to be called to the scene. Banville is known to ask, “Why do we do it?” and “Certainly not for the money” is one of his answers but, of all the people there that day, my dealer pal at least was in it for the extra money that the writer’s signature would bring.

I was there to carry up half the large stack of books. To lessen the bad impression, in other words, but, assuming the writer got paid for his appearance, why would anyone in their right mind have been there otherwise, especially on a hot day? The most sensible answer, to my knowledge, comes from Bret Easton Ellis, who said he only went to such events as an unknown because he wanted to make contacts. Evidently he could stand the bullshit. For getting involved in such stuff is, in the end, a matter of temperament.

When does a writer first become an unknown? It’s when he or she decides to write. In my case, the age was seventeen and the genre was poetry. At eighteen, I got my first rejection slip. It came from the old Irish Press newspaper, in early 1983, the year I started keeping a diary. Later, the most interesting period of my younger life came between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six, when I wrote diaries about, among other things, my adventures in various jobs in Belfast, Dublin and London. A variety of jobs is good for a writer, as it is good for any person, but the point of such reminiscing is that as late as 2012 I was still fussing with those diaries, thinking there’s a novel, a book there, somewhere.

A Hollywood lawyer called Fred Leopold once said real people as characters in films can have lattes and muffins but cannot say, “Let’s go and have sex in the bushes” and you may get positive comments from traditional publishers about your writing about your own life but, unless that life is a horror story and/or a triumph of the human spirit, nobody else will publish it.

Then you may be tempted to become your own publisher. After all, it’s a long-established practice in the music business, with no stigma of vanity attached. New technology has made even paper book production cheaper – no printer should manage to con you into paying for printing plates any more, for instance – so you shouldn’t have to risk your life savings on your masterpiece either, not least because you now have the option of e-books.

So, what kind of writer are you? If you manage to restrain your urge to tell your whole life story, you might pick a subject that allows you to express your view of the world in a way that just might possibly be of interest to others.

Another key question is, if you are a writer, is that all you are? Now we are getting down to the business of books. According to Samuel Johnson, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. I first got into self-publishing in 2002 but mention of that year means a digression about protecting one’s interests. It was then that I had to act on the upshot of one of many false dawns. There is never any shortage of what Samuel Beckett called “discourteous bastards who won’t let you know where you stand” so let’s talk for a while about silence.

In 2000 I submitted a play script to a Tony-Award-winning theatre company (i.e. Druid) in Ireland. Then one of the company’s representatives asked to meet me in Dublin, in April 2001. At this meeting the chap described the script as like a middle-class version of British TV’s The Royle Family and he said they wanted to do it later that year. At the same time, though, my driving instructor – he was an actor – warned me not to expect too much from that quarter and he was right. In March 2002 I got back in touch.

“You may rest assured of the lasting impression made by the lack of courtesy shown me by you and your company. I’d ask for my script back only I couldn’t see the point, given that an e-mail costs less than the price of a stamp and I haven’t received even that minimum after almost a year. Such casual, arrogant rudeness may seem to cost little or nothing when dealing with someone who is unknown and without the influence that can command prudent good manners. That would be a short-sighted view. Whatever fortunes rise and fall in the future, the fact that I was misled and shabbily treated will remain uppermost in my mind.”

In the end the excuse was they hadn’t the money and so I didn’t make my dramatic writing debut there. I finally got another play, called Happy Nights, professionally produced, in both senses of the word, by another Irish company (the late Red Kettle) in 2007. Based on a real-life break-in at Samuel Beckett’s country cottage in 1961, when thieves stole his wine and even his old underpants, this short play imagined two tramps burgling their creator’s house. John Hurt showed up and he liked it but nothing grew out of it afterwards. But what really could have come of it, theatrically or financially? Of sixteen new plays by established writers that were put on in London’s West End in 2005, only two made any money.

At other times, the silence can be sinister as well as discourteous. In late 2007 I submitted a proposal for a TV history documentary, backed by extensive research, to an Irish production company that took it up with enthusiasm. For a year or so I thought I was in the loop. Then silence descended again, due to funding issues, I thought, until I discovered by accident that the thing had been commissioned and was in production. Legal advisers were then called in and happily the project soon got put back on the rails, contractually. Plus I got paid, even if I had to pay a lawyer out of that. The legal lesson was that copyright isn’t just about plagiarism, it also covers adaptation, and it was nice to win one for a change.

Anyway, let’s get back to self-publishing: in 2002 I had a couple of partners and we were all in it for the money. By the way, if possible you should avoid collaborators who don’t contribute to improving your material. Otherwise, the only partners worth having for paper books are your printer, your wholesaler and your media contacts, if any. Wholesalers are useful for getting your book to places you cannot get to yourself but don’t rely on them to flag your product to booksellers. If a wholesaler takes it on, your book will appear on a list of titles and it’s up to the shops to spot it and ask, “Um, what’s this?”

The original idea – not mine – was to write a series of history books about the Irish in America, with each volume covering a different Irish county. I wrote the text for four of these books in what we called the Journeys in America series. These covered Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Clare. Two of them – the Cork and Waterford books – made a modest profit, selling over 2,000 copies between them, while the other two were an expensive waste of time despite some good reviews, such as in the Irish Times, where “innovative and useful” was the verdict.

Our venture, High Table Publishing, was conscientious about administrative matters – such as getting a tax number and registering a business name – but we lacked experience in the book trade. There are many books about Dublin and the population of that city doesn’t care too much about its history in the first place, so printing 2,000 copies of Dublin Journeys in America was an exercise in cultural futility. Less than 250 were sold and I ended up depositing many of them in charity shops in the city, just to shift some boxes.

When it came to writing about Clare, geography came into play. I left Dublin for Waterford on the south coast in 2004 and found I could even sell my books in supermarkets there, and in Cork, but Clare turned out to be simply too far away. Our wholesaler had in the meantime lost interest. After a while it wasn’t a new title any more and it certainly wasn’t Harry Potter. We had also found out the shops at Clare’s many heritage sites were a state-owned brick wall so the Clare book was doomed, logistically. Three-quarters of 1,000 copies still sit in their boxes.

Nonetheless if you’re still confident and determined and you go ahead with your idea, don’t be mean with free copies to the media. It’s a hit-and-miss approach but it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, you will probably know enough about the world already to assume a degree of critical stupidity. It’s less likely that you will fail to assume critical fairness but remember that the critic almost certainly hasn’t picked up your book as a fan. It is work, to be done in a hurry, and it is your tough luck if you get a smart-arse on top of that.



When it came out in 2010, the then deputy editor of the Irish Independent called The Cynic’s Handbook “smart, funny and illuminating” but sales were neither good nor bad. In the meantime I’ve continued to get out of the house and make a living and maintain the discipline of writing things that other people can understand.

The most recent project that made it to this world was Fiddlers Cross, a film about a new banker in town, making his name, scorching the earth around distressed loans. After another busy day working the guillotine for his employers, he heads down to a local pub to unwind. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it, someone with ambition, and now he needs something stronger than fishing. Silence descends when he walks in past the creaking door. Then, through a random act of kindness from a fellow stranger, with whom he finds he shares a love of angling, our banker turns up a further business opportunity. It will involve a touch of moonlighting but, if he plays his cards right, he’s in for a major bonus. First he needs to borrow some cash that’s just resting in the vault and that no one will miss between two working days.

Starring Gerry O’Brien of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, King Arthur, The Tudors and Father Ted, this short film was the work of first-time director Michael McMahon, with whom I wrote the script. It won first prize in the Best Screenplay category at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August 2014.

November 2016