You might be surprised to learn that this ladykiller is no hollywood film star, but a criminally forgotten writer called Jeffrey Bernard. He’s most famous for writing a column in The Spectator called ‘Low Life’, which recounted his disgraceful exploits in the trashy solar system that was the Soho of the 70’s, where he orbited the Coach and Horses and the French House, two pubs that pulled in artistic reprobates like iron filings towards a magnet. Even then it was becoming seedy, and Bernard felt he dwelled in a faintly glamourous snakeskin, with the brylcreemed python that was the Soho of the 50’s having slithered jauntily away, never to be seen again.
His columns recount the men and women he drank with, his four ex-wives, his one true love that was Norman Balon, the offensive landlord of the Coach and Horses, his glory days as a racing correspondent for Sporting Life, the superiority of Smiroff, fights with chinese waiters, his fear of buff envelopes containing missives from the taxman, and his weird tendency to attract gerontophiles (look it up). They are sinuous, despairing, joyful, biting – and always hilarious. His prose is honest and moving. It’s rare to find somebody actually living a low life – and to describe it so unflinchingly. Frequently he was too sick to write them, and the memorable phrase ‘Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell‘ often appeared in their place.
But what’s puzzling about him is that it is virtually impossible to find any of his writing in print in Britain. I challenge you to go to any bookshop in London (London, mark you, the land of cultural milk and honey) and bring me back the collected Low Life columns. Nobody sells them. I came by mine as a christmas present, which was imported from America (lovingly, I might add, by my girlfriend. This is interesting, given the self-destructive subject matter. Maybe she’s trying to corrupt me). Thing is, I feel that Jeffrey’s observations on things would be extremely popular, and so i’ve decided to put a few choice cuts from his columns up here. This seems only fair, as I appear to be the only man in Britain with a copy of them. So without further preamble, the wit of Jeffery Bernard:
On the desire to take a cow to the pub:
“I’d very much like to wake up one morning with a cow of the Friesian variety and walk her down to Soho to the Coach and Horses, stopping on the way to buy twenty Players, ply her with vodkas until closing time, whip her off to an Indian restaurant, take her up to the Colony Room till 5.30 and then to the Yorkminster, Swiss Tavern, Three Greyhounds, get beaten up by Chinese waiters at midnight, have a row with the taxi driver, set the bed on fire, put it out with tears and then wake up on the floor. Could you then milk said cow? I doubt it.”
On being discovered in another pub by Norman Balon, the landlord of his local, the Coach and Horses:
“Who should walk in but Norman Balon. I felt i’d been caught in flagrante. Not since Mavis’s husband came home unexpectedly twenty years ago and found me sitting next to her, stark naked on a chaise-longue, have I felt such an utter shit. Out of bed at last and into the Blue Posts and not the Coach and Horses. Norman, of course, was doing his daily Soho round being bloody inquisitive and trying to assess more or less how much other pubs in the area were taking. So I had to go back to him and unlike a lot of wives, he took me. Half an hour later I was in the Coach having ‘the one’ as though i’d never left it..
….I must say Norman was charming. Some poor bastard, an absolute stranger who’d walked in for a quiet, small beer, was told: ‘Get off that fucking stool and give it to Jeff here. He’s sick’. No, nothing had changed….”
On over-the-top Hollywood acceptance speeches:
Last week, our loveable editor was in the Duke of York and in a good mood. ‘Look here Jeff’, he said, ‘I thought your column last week was pretty okay. Have a drink.’ Silence descended as the barman assaulted the vodka optic twice before plonking the ice, squeezing the lime and squirting the soda into the crystal goblet. I walked up to the bar – trotted and bounced up to it more like the stars in fact – and turned to address the pub.
I kissed the barmaids on both cheeks and said, ‘Thank you, darlings. It’s been a great privilege and an honour to receive this drink. I’d like to say it’s been a team effort and I want to thank, not only my wonderful editor, but also Jennifer Paterson without whose motorscooter peregrinations to the Coach and Horses the column would never have arrived at the typesetters; Gina Lewis whose expert subbing prevented the column from being spiked; Jenny Naipaul for phoning me to remind me it was copy day and last, but not least, Suki Marlowe for giving me an encouraging wink. I’d also like to thank all those people who made me feel sufficiently inadequate to take refuge in journalism – my mother, my headmaster, my four wives, bookmaker and Smirnoff.’
It was a wonderful evening and I shall always treasure the drink that is now on my mantelshelf. It makes me feel so important and it’s wonderful to know that we’re all truly wonderful.”
More to come soon……