With the death of George Melly, Soho has lost another great character. it's becoming a very bland place. It was becoming a corporate entity when Jeffery Bernard died in September 1997. I miss Soho as it was and I miss Jeffery Bernard himself.
Although I often saw him out and about I'd never talked to him –. In fact never wished to –. For a period during the 80s and first part of the 90s I felt that I knew the minutiae of his entire life. He was the legendary Soho journalist and boozer who spent over 40 years popping into the pub for ‘just the one’. His column in The Spectator was described by the writer Jonathan Meades in The Tatler as ‘a suicide note in weekly instalments’. It was much more than this. And Bernard was much more than that. Yes he was a bottle-of-vodka and 60 cigs a day man but he was also a young gigolo, professional boxer, miner, actor and stagehand as well as being a magnificent writer. He was married 4 times and divorced 3 times. It'd have been 4 but his 1st wife committed suicide and he claimed he’d had 500 lovers including the actresses Fenella Fielding and Wendy Richard (yes THE Wendy Richard). His life has been immortalised in the play ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell’. Starring Peter O’Toole and since his death no other columnist has come close (or would never dare) to replicating his style.
Bernard was born in Hampstead, North London, in 1932 the son of a successful architect that nonetheless found bankruptcy easy to come by and a snobbish working-class opera singer who liked to be known by her stage name of Fedora. He was sent to the naval public school at Pangbourne, which he hated and it’s ghosts would blight him for the remainder of his life. It was only when he was in his early teens that he discovered booze, betting, birds and his spiritual home –. Soho –. That his life was truly to begin. What came first we're not to know. But Bernard and his two brothers embraced the Soho of the late 40s and 50s. This was the Soho of the painters Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. The tarts and the queers. The Coach &. Horses and the York Minster pubs. And the clubs such as the Caves and the Colony Room. Inhabited by characters such as Muriel Belcher who owned The Colony and Gaston Berlemont who owned the York Minister and because of his ancestry lent the pub the name of ‘The French House’. That it's officially known as today. Jazz clubs where George Melly and Johnny Dankworth played jostled next to Jamaican Shebeen’s and the young Bernard loved every minute of it.
With no discernible income Bernard took any number of jobs from navvying to acting to pay the way. Due to his good looks he was never afraid to “ponce off”. Rich older women or men (for that matter although he vehemently denied he ever had any homosexual experiences) to make his way through life. In his later years friends would often see him chatting to doddery old ladies making their way and when asked who they were he'd reply: “She was a superb fuck back in 1949”. He drifted into writing and started selling short pieces to a variety of magazines but it was only when he started writing for the left-wing journal New Statesman that he began to find his voice. However he felt stifled when there as he felt the socialists had no sense of humour. Many consider his writing while there was the best he’d ever done and others pointed out that it was also a period of sobriety in his life. He later moved to the right-wing journal The Spectator and this is where his fame and notoriety set in. he started writing his ‘Low Life’. Column in August 1978 and for the rest of his life it became essential writing for him and essential reading for his many fans. His was often said to write to pay for the vodka and would then write about what happened to him after the vodka. But it was much more than that. He wrote about horse racing, sport, women, the mundane life we all lead and of course booze. If The Spectator column was his weekly wage it was never enough for his lifestyle. He was continually in debt and counted the Inland Revenue amongst his many creditors. He was convicted of taking bets in the Coach &. Horses and threatened with imprisonment and was continually moving flats. He never owned a property. His haphazard lifestyle, drunken bouts and genuine unreliability saw him sacked from the Daily Mirror and the Sporting Life. His column in The Life was his ideal job as it afforded him a free pass to all the racecourses in Britain and he took advantage of it to the full. The punters loved his column because he was the first journalist that actually talked about losing and attacked the world of horse racing with a vengeance. Yet he loved Lambourn and the whole racing fraternity where he'd get drunk at night with the jockeys and stable lads before getting up early to watch the horses on the gallops. Along with Soho he was at home there.
His health was always a problem and how could it not be when he often started drinking at breakfast and smoking continually. He'd been given a year to live some thirty years before he actually died and he was in and out of the Middlesex Hospital with alarming regularity. By all accounts he was an irascible old bugger and doesn't come across as a likeable man. He was undoubtedly callous, vain and self-centred and as his illnesses got progressively worse his columns became more cantankerous. Occasionally though he’d write a gem. But now he was in a seriously bad way. Even during the successful runs of Keith Waterhouse’s hilarious play ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell’. (the royalties for Bernard from this went straight to the taxman) in 1989 he wasn't in the best of health. That didn’t prevent him enjoying this monumental period of his life. The BBC filmed a day in his life for an Arena special and his notoriety had spread throughout the country. Over the next few years he'd suffer the amputation of his leg and was more or less confined to his flat apart from when his help wheeled him to the Groucho Club or the Coach. When he finally died in 1997 there was a non-religious ceremony at Kensal Green with over three hundred mourners present. The people that attended reads like a Who’s Who of Soho. His ashes were later scattered over the gallops at Lambourn. It was a fitting end for an irreverent man.
Jeffrey Bernard’s work can be found in three collections:
Reach for the Ground
And Graham Lord’s excellent warts and all biography of him ‘Just the One’. Is a great read As is Daniel Farson’s pictorial study ‘Soho in the Fifties’
George Melly’s trilogy of memoirs ‘Owning Up’. Tells you all you need to know about the great man.
So when you remember George Melly please also remember Bernard, Bacon, Belcher and the glorious place that was once Soho.
“Things ain’t what they used to be”