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, unknownst to 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.
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.