Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Another unsuitable role model

Another favourite writer who was an inspiration and a joy to me throughout my childhood was career drunk, Jeffrey Bernard. The poor man was a hopeless alcoholic who came to a very unhappy end, but he wrote about his self-destruction with great wit and, sometimes at least, a ruthless insight. And he pulled off the enviable trick of making a living out of his addiction, by writing about it in a number of magazines and newspapers - most notably The Spectator, which carried his 'Low Life' column every week throughout my school and University days.

Well, not quite every week, of course. He was sometimes incapable of submitting anything, and thus was born the magazine's celebrated, oft-repeated single-line apology for his absence, "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell" - which was later used as the title of a theatrical celebration of his life and work by his friend Keith Waterhouse. On certain occasions, an editor would feel obliged to vary this time-honoured formula: "Jeffrey Bernard's column does not appear this week, because it is remarkably similar to the one he submitted last week."

I fear the seductively seedy Soho he portrayed in the column was always partly romanticized, perhaps heavily flavoured by his own youthful first taste of it back in the '50s. By the time I was old enough to make my first pilgrimage there in the '80s, many of its most famous denizens (such as the painter Francis Bacon) had died or moved on, and the Bohemian savour of the place was fading. But the bars and clubs he had celebrated, those magical-seeming dens of iniquity which had haunted my childhood - The Colony Room, The Groucho Club, The Gay Hussar, The French Pub, and, most of all, The Coach and Horses on Greek St - they were all still there, and just as I had pictured them all those years.

I even met the great man himself a couple of times. Once in his 'local', The Coach - where I enjoyed a brief conversation with him. Nervous of irritating him with a standard, grovelling groupie approach, I instead offered him a straight business proposition which I felt sure would appeal to him: I'd buy him a vodka & orange in exchange for a racing tip. He gave me one, although I have long since forgotten what the horse was called. It finished nowhere. I'm not sure if he was playing a trick on me because he didn't take to me, or if he was just a lousy tipster. The second time was early in the opening run of the 'Jeff is Unwell' play at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue; he was skulking in the Stalls bar throughout the show, getting absolutely steaming as he fretted, quite unnecessarily, that the show wasn't going down well. My friends and I did our best to reassure him at the half-time interval. And, I imagine, I bought him another vodka & orange to help settle his nerves.

A strange man - but a terrific writer.


Anonymous said...

The play is fantastic - I saw a rerun a couple of years ago and laughed throughout. A true genius! Hic!

Froog said...

Who was playing Jeff this time?

I imagine Peter O'Toole isn't quite up to the stage any more, but he was superb - Jeff incarnate.

James Bolam was pretty good, too. Tom Conti was too Tom Conti - a bit too cuddly and ingratiating. I heard Dennis Waterman wasn't bad, but didn't see his version. I have seen the play quite a few times, though.

I've always thought it a bit of a lazy job by Keith Waterhouse, though; about 90% of it is lifted directly from Jeff's great collection of gambling anecdotes, 'Talking Horses'. I assume you have that? If not, I may have to lend you a copy.

Anonymous said...

i believe it was dennis waterman, who was terry out of minder.