Jeffrey Bernard | William Yarwood
Jeffrey Bernard lit a cigarette and dragged on it slowly. Five minutes later, leaving barely a second before he finished his last, he lit another and then another, and then another. This may seem abnormal to the modern eye, indoctrinated by the combination of anti-tobacco ‘public health’ and neo-Cromwellian puritanism. But if one understands the smoking habits of people in the yesteryears of indoor smoking and cheap cigarettes, one may be charitable towards Bernard’s chain-smoking. Some may conclude that Bernard was simply at lunch with a friend, others that he was on the phone with a relative, or maybe he was simply waiting for a late taxi to arrive. However dear reader, I have yet to inform you that Jeffrey Bernard was still in bed as he was smoking his cigarettes. And he remained in bed chain-smoking for around half an hour before he had even so much as put his slippers on and heated the kettle for his morning cup of tea. Hilariously enough, Bernard declared bluntly that this habit was “pretty disgusting.”
The reason I start with this anecdote about Jeffrey Bernard, the now deceased writer of The Spectator’s ‘Low Life’ column, is not to make Bernard seem like a disgusting old man whose bed sheets were encrusted with the smell of tobacco and despair, but to highlight the self-awareness and dark hilarity that Bernard emits. This paired with a brilliant ability to write and entertain and one has, I think, an endearing rogue worthy of our remembrance.
Jeffrey Bernard was born in Hampstead, London in May 1932 into a rather successful middle-class family. His father was an architect, his mother an opera singer, his siblings a future photographer and a future poet between them and his cousin an actor. This artistic milieu in which Bernard was born would be one that would influence him heavily – making friends with various artists, writers and actors throughout his life. However, despite his middle-class upbringing, Bernard endured a rather unpleasant childhood.
Bernard was a sensitive, weak and thin-skinned boy who had few if any friends at the boarding school he attended. A school he ended up leaving after the headmaster had stated to his parents that Bernard was “psychologically unsuitable for public school life”. Bernard loathed his boarding school but never minded his lack of formal education in comparison to his peers. On the contrary, Bernard disliked the idea of going to university at all – especially women – resentfully exclaiming once that:
“A lot of girls annoy me who go to university – one girl told me she was going to Oxford because it was something to do between leaving school and getting married. And I’ve got to pay for that being an income taxpayer.”
However, he did claim that the only reason he would have liked to have gone to university is because he enjoyed cricket, which he claimed was “as good as any” reason to have bothered going at all.
Instead of education, Bernard was dropped into the bohemian haven of Soho; where the drinking, the lights, the women and the lurid glamour and pomp of it all led him to move there permanently when he was all but 16. He worked odd jobs, from boxing booth attendant to dishwasher to coal miner – all in conflict with his middle-class background and general dislike of hard work. More than anything though Bernard wished to enjoy himself, which is where his troubled relationship with alcohol comes into the fold.
Bernard was a prolific drinker, often starting on the vodka (his chosen drink) at around 10am while typing away at his column. He had been fired for drunkenness, got into fights, set couches and beds on fire and woke up in the middle of God-knows where more times than he could have counted. The extent of his alcoholism and the effect it took on his life is summed up in his quip in Sporting Life regarding the writing of his autobiography he never ended up writing:
“I have been commissioned to write an autobiography and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974.”
While some may find this repugnant, I cannot help but laugh along with Bernard’s self-awareness at his booze driven lifestyle. After all, Bernard’s self-aware nature gave him an excuse to laugh at himself, which was a distinct and positive change from his youthful sensitivities.
Alcohol is termed a ‘social lubricant’ by many and ‘liquid confidence’ by others, but Bernard needed neither confidence nor a lubricant in his relations with women. In his youth, Bernard was considered extremely good-looking, and he made sure to put his aesthetic talents to use by supplementing his earnings, from whatever backbreaking or boring job he was working, with gifts, loans and sexual favours from older wealthier women. Bernard always claimed how much he enjoyed women, sex, drinking, smoking and other things which could bring his life to a sooner end. Bernard joyously remarked:
“I’ve always been drawn to the things I was told not to do. Drink, sex. God! how I have loved sex and racing. They’re against the rules and that’s why I like them. I never liked anything that was good for me, like All-Bran and fresh air. I like the things that kill me.”
A free spirit and contrarian in nature, it was unsurprising that he eventually became the writer of The Spectator’s ‘Low Life’ column. After all, a ‘low life’ is one that has been free-spirited and contrarian; going against the grain of societal expectations all in the name of enjoyment and pissing off the powers that be. He fell into writing by the suggestion of the Canadian poet and novelist Elizabeth Smart (a favourite of Morrissey’s) and began writing about another love of his life, namely horseracing, in Queen and later Private Eye and Sporting Life. However, when The Spectator in 1975, recognising his talent as a writer, offered him a weekly column, little did anyone know how much Bernard would come into his own and how beloved he would become.
Bernard’s ‘Low Life’ column – set up to contrast with the ‘High Life’ column by the wealthy socialite Taki Theodoracopulos – was, as described by the English film writer Jonathan Meades, a “suicide note in weekly instalments.” Bernard’s column chronicled his daily comings and goings, what was pissing him off that week, and his bohemian life as a veteran of Soho lunch clubs and pubs. This mixed in with anecdotes of cat racing, his infidelities with women and throwing up on the Queen Mother’s shoes proved to be a sensational reading experience that drew a wide crowd of readers, even attracting famous writers like John Osborne and beloved actors like Tom Baker.
Bernard wrote over 1000 ‘Low Life’ columns (most if not all of which are available in print books compiling them and digitally via The Spectator’s online archives) but he did often forget or fail to submit his manuscript for editing and publishing. This happened more often than not as he was usually at the bottom of a bottle in a secret corner of Soho. If this had occurred, the reader would find written in the place of Bernard’s column the line ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell’, a euphemism for Bernard’s libertinage getting in the way of his writing. This now famous line (which I laughed at as I wrote it) became the title of a hit West End play written by Kieth Waterhouse in which the actor and friend of Bernard, Peter O’ Toole acted out and monologued prose from the infamous ‘Low Life’ column. All the while the audience was presented with a Bernard on stage who had found himself in a typically Bernard-esque situation – waking up in a locked-up pub at 5am after passing out the previous evening.
As far as I am aware, Bernard never saw ‘the play’ as he called – he claimed he’d already lived most of it — but he did enjoy going to the bar in the theatre it was shown in. He would chat with theatregoers and let them buy him drinks. One evening, just before the interval, a temporary front of house manager saw a drunk and dishevelled Bernard slouched over a table in the theatre bar: “Get that drunk out!” he cried loudly. The barmaid replied, “I can’t do that, that’s Jeffrey Bernard”. The house manager pointed his finger and said sternly “Don’t you try that on me, Jeffrey Bernard’s up on the bloody stage!” An unintended but welcome compliment of O’Toole’s acting skills and commitment to the role. After all, he didn’t want to disappoint his friend who, by the time of the interval, was at least on his fourth or fifth vodka and soda.
While there were many problems with Bernard, especially in regard to his treatment of his four wives, as Norman Balon, the landlord of Bernard’s local pub, the Coach and Horses, once said after Bernard’s death:
“He held everyone enthralled with his tales. He had his bad sides – we all do – but Jeff was a good man.”
Many people had fond memories and anecdotes of ‘Jeff’, as he was known to his friends, with many having memories pertaining to the opposite. Bernard’s decline in health, mentality and spirit occurred at the same time as the decline of his bohemian home of Soho, which seemed to die a little bit every time one of the great socialites, bar owners or celebrities of the area passed away. As Bernard once said, “Who can blame them? [But] their replacements are monstrous”. In Bernard’s eyes, Soho’s death came at the fault of advertising executives and idiots with a taste for cheap wine who, as he once said, had destroyed “the best part of London for anyone who never saw in virtue work for its own sake.” For Bernard, it was vodka, smoking and diabetes that destroyed him – even having to have his right leg amputated due to complications surrounding him not taking his insulin regularly. He eventually died aged 65 in 1997 of renal failure in Soho. Bernard now as dead as he considered his beloved Soho to be.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s line about man being ‘condemned to be free’ comes to mind while thinking about Jeffrey Bernard. Sartre lamented about how man had to be responsible for his actions and the fact that it was up to us to give ourselves meaning in our lives. Well, Bernard was certainly ‘condemned to be free’ as well all are, but he never lamented the fact that he was free nor that he was responsible for his own life. He regretted none of it.
While Bernard did complain at times about drinking, even at one point stopping for two years on Doctor’s orders, he never rejected the overconsumption of his favourite intoxicant, saying that:
“In the past, at my lowest ebbs I used to think that maybe drink had destroyed my life, but that was dramatic nonsense and temporary gloom. Without alcohol, I would have been a shop assistant, a business executive or a lone bachelor bank clerk. The side effects of my chosen anaesthetic have at least produced some wonderful dreams that turned out to be reality.”
Contrary to the puritanism of many moderns who push forward health, longevity, uniformity and sensible living to the forefront of what it means to be moral; Jeffrey Bernard is a reminder to us all that hedonism, passion and eccentricity dashed with an element of self-awareness and good humour makes for a more meaningful existence than those who thrive on the idea of being stuck behind a desk 5 days a week or running headfirst into ‘settling down’. Bernard was an unashamed bohemian who belonged to a generation where people took having fun seriously.
A low life he may have lived, but the rogue of Soho certainly did live and continues to live on in the columns he wrote, the laughter he fostered and the paradoxically sober ponderings on life that he left us.