Portrait of the artist as an obnoxious drunk

Portrait of the artist as an obnoxious drunk.

In 1980, Jeffrey Bernard had been a hopeless alcoholic for fifteen years but he had only turned professional seven years before, when he started a weekly column on his life in the Spectator. The magazine had hired him as television critic, but by seven in the evening he was normally on the verge of passing out, before video tapes this was a disadvantage. So he was bumped sideways to write "Low Life": 650 words a week of bitter, cantankerous whinging about the pleasures of his life that could make grown men weep with laughter. He was the man I most wanted to meet when I started as a young factory worker to write for the magazine myself.

In 1978 he had written his own obituary: "Aged 14 he paid his first visit to Soho and from that point he was never to look upward. It was here in the cafés and pubs of Dean Street and Old Compton street that he was to develop his remarkable sloth, envy, and self-pity."

After drink, he loved women, horses, and unfiltered cigarettes, all most immoderately and with frequent confusions between them: one night he rang the novelist Jill Neville, and when her husband answered the phone asked him to run away and marry him. When his third wife was unimpressed by his reckoning that he had slept with 250 women he started to claim 500. Whichever figure applied, he was a man of startling good looks well into his fifties. Drink ravaged rather than bloated him, and all his life he had a smile like the devil at fifteen.

He lived at the Shaftesbury Avenue end of the Coach and Horses, a large, rather grim pub in Greek Street in Soho, though his formal address between marriages was a bedroom in someone else’s flat. Shortly after eleven every morning, he would arrive grey and shaking, holding a copy of the Times. Somewhere around midday, after an hour’s steady drinking — vodka, lime, and soda water until he had to give up the lime because it tickled his diabetes — his conversation would take wing and for about an hour he could be luminously funny, charming and profound. "Just as sexual intercourse is an interesting way to meet people, buying rounds is in interesting way to go on meeting them."

Most of this talk ended up in his column, improved by the removal of the surrounding life. By two in the afternoon, much of the interest would have gone from his eyes and most of his listeners would be half-way between lunch and coma. He seemed to drink between a bottle and a half and two bottles of vodka every day, and to keep up with him, was impossible for anyone not in the most rigorous training. But by the early Eighties there was seldom a shortage of admirers to buy him drinks and tap into his column at the source.

After 1989, when a play was made of his life, which ran for a year in the West End with Peter O’Toole in the title role, it grew difficult to force one’s way into the crush at that end of the Coach; but fame didn’t change his life, except to make him able to afford it, though he was never free of debt since he objected to taxes and paid them only on the point of jail. One of his favourite remarks was that doctors would never really cure misery until they could prescribe money on the National Health.

By the time I knew him the women had slowed down enough that he could remember their names, (he married his fourth and briefest wife in 1979) and often he would fill a column with bitter animadversions on someone trying to save him from himself, usually identified by names such as She Who Would Drown In My Eyes, or She who would Iron 14 Shirts. Several months of this treatment would usually see off the most persistent.

But he remained a figure of fascination for women readers; and in 1985, I was trying to impress a rather literary girl, who told me how much she had laughed at a column in which Jeff had described waking to find he had a paper clip in his pubic hair, and no idea of what he might have done the previous night to lodge it there.

So I arranged for us to meet, on our first date, in the Coach and Horses before supper. When she arrived I was talking, as I’d planned, to the great man. He left the bar and sat across from us at a small table where he talked for about twenty minutes, with studious concentration, about President Ulysses S Grant. Just as my date grew completely bewildered, he leant across the table, and said with sudden hoarse vehemence "You know the trouble with English girls? You have to buy them a meal before they let you fuck them."

There was nothing to say after that except "Where would you like to have supper?" Later that evening I discovered that I had no money to pay for either the meal or the subsequent taxi, and we had to walk the last mile back to her flat.

His last years were grim. His health had always been fragile. He had first been told the drink was about to kill him in 1965 and towards the end of the Eighties the joke began to run out. First he gave up smoking; then he had one leg removed, from complications of his diabetes. Finally he gave up drink; and then his kidneys failed. In a last, magnificent gesture of abstinence, he gave up kidney dialysis last week. He would have been enchanted to know that he shared the obituaries pages with Mother Teresa, and died thirty years older than Diana.

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