Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

Words Darren Hawes

Illustrations Luke Stuart

“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.”

There are many things you think about when entering into journalism, a thought process which is based on a series of emulations, influences and personal style. There have always been two names that spring to mind when spending long dark days wondering what I’m doing with myself: first of these is Hunter S. Thompson, the infamous American writer and self-styled Doctor Gonzo, secondly, and closer to home is Jeffrey Bernard, the grand bohemian, alcoholic miscreant and for some time, the literary face of Soho.

We’ll get the relevant, if not perhaps colder, information out of the way first. Jerry Bernard was born in London on the 27th of May 1932. His father an architect, his mother an opera singer, his middle class upbringing was not to prepare him for a life of notoriety. Self-styling came early for young Bernard, who changed his name to Jeffrey whilst still a young boy, and at the age of 16, Jeffrey Bernard decided it was time to move out of his parents’ home and make for the bohemian lifestyle offered by Soho. It was 1948, a time when youth cultures were throwing down the shackles of the past in hope of a new world following two world wars in quick succession.

Bernard’s life is mixture of fact, speculation and myth, not helped by the production of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (original showing 1989). The play starred the late and talented, Peter O’Toole. Reliance on his own words is of course problematic in this search, as he himself once said that “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.”

The title of the play, which came to be seen as Bernard having “written his own eulogy,” is based on a long running joke from Bernard’s long-time place of employment: The Spectator. This tenure lasted from 1975 until his death, spearheading the Low Life column (which has since been led by Jeremy Clarke). When he felt unfit to write, the paper would simply publish the by-line “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell,” or at least words to that effect, in order to explain the absence of his column in the issue.

When in a fit state to send it in, Bernard would pen a column which usually consisted of what, to the naked eye, appeared as humorous ramblings of a drunkard which contained many philosophical musings on everything from class differences, “But you’ve got to have money for comfort, which obviously doesn’t matter as much when you’re young, but even so. I always like to bloody eat well and be warm. Have a drink when I want it.”, to what he saw as the perils of ageing – “One of the things that goes with getting older is that one becomes more conservative, and I emphasise that when I use the word conservative I do not mean politically.” – an interesting take considering who he was writing for.

These lines, of course, do not exist in a vacuum and a single piece from the Low Life column allows us a glimpse into what made the celebrated journalist tick, whilst he sat ‘sipping’ on ale in his favourite local Soho pub: The Coach and Horses, Greek Street. Of course this is an unassuming place for his work to come from; it was called “the office and habitat of Jeffrey Bernard and other Spectator journalists,” by Richard West, Bernard’s contemporary, in 1984. It is, therefore, only fitting that the setting of Keith Waterhouse’s play is set entirely within this most infamous of public houses, exploring the most infamous of public characters.

Unfortunately, like the boy who cried wolf, Jeffrey Bernard’s lifestyle eventually led to him becoming truly unwell. In fact, it was in 1965 that the first signs of deterioration due to lifestyle occurred. He was admitted into hospital sometime in this year and subsequently found himself diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, a condition where inflammation of the pancreas occurs and persists for many years; this is due to the enzymes in the gut which begin to attempt digesting the organ itself, causing intense pain for the sufferer. Of course, this initial diagnosis could not dissuade Jeffrey Bernard, nor did the (to most) sobering news that he was given just a few years to live. “For years I drank whisky until it caused me to get pancreatitis and subsequently diabetes. Now that I am not supposed to drink at all, I find vodka to be the next best thing to abstinence,” is how Bernard described how he dealt with his condition in 1988, a good 20 years after his supposed death sentence. This was not for lack of trying to leave the devil’s drink behind and one article concludes with “I only wish I could get out of tea what I get out of vodka.” Proof, if ever there was one, that Jeffrey certainly understood his problems.

Alas, all miracles must come to an end. And in 1994, Jeffrey Bernard finally succumbed to his ailments and was found, because of his diabetes, to have developed a gangrenous leg which required amputation. The spiralling loss of health had him write in his column on August 13, 1994 that “A certain amount of loneliness is beginning to creep into my life — very different from being alone, which I like, and it has prompted me to put an advertisement into the personal columns of this journal, stating quite simply; alcoholic, diabetic amputee seeks sympathy fuck.”

Not two years later, he was admitted as an inpatient at Middlesex Hospital where he would remain until he succumbed to renal failure and died fighting against his liver at the age of 65 on the 4th of September 1997. I like to think this giant of Bohemian Soho lived his life to the fullest. He wrote his Low Life column from his hospital bed and the final line written by the soon to be stopped force goes as this, “In Bridgetown, Barbados, they have the equipment for dialysis and I suddenly realise that what cures any itch and most complaints is £1 million in your current account.” And now, in memory of such a great man some of us might have known, most of us would have heard of, I’m off to have myself a bit of a drink, and tomorrow morning worry not, for I just might be unwell.

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