Tuesday 8 May 2012

Low Life by Jeffrey Bernard (Gerald Duckworth, 1986): Book Review

After a Westlake Score opener, let's get stuck into the journalism and media-related books posts proper, with a collection of columns by a British journalist who turned his inebriated existence into an ongoing kitchen sink drama...

Low Life by Jeffrey Bernard was first published in hardback in the UK by Gerald Duckworth in 1986. Featuring a foreword by John Osborne – who calls Bernard "the Tony Hancock of journalism" – the book compiles some of the best of the Low Life columns that Bernard wrote for The Spectator magazine in the 1970s and '80s (a counterpart to Taki's jet-setting High Life column). I actually read many of them on original publication – or rather, shortly after original publication, because I read them not in The Spectator but when they were reprinted the following week in a long-defunct free London listings magazine, the name of which now escapes me. They were, as I recall, the only part of that forgotten magazine I did read, for the simple reason that they were utterly brilliant.

Week by week Bernard would chronicle his heroic efforts to drink and smoke himself to an early grave in the pubs and clubs of London's Soho – efforts which proved, in the end, only partly successful: he died in 1997, aged 65. He'd been a regular in the various hostelries of the area – The Colony Room, The French House and, most famous of all, Norman Balon's The Coach and Horses, where I would occasionally see him propping up the bar, grimly stirring his vodka, lime and soda – since the late 1940s, and was friends with the likes of Francis Bacon, Tom Baker and sundry other artists, actors and writers. As a result, he had a bottomless reserve of booze-sodden stories to draw on, but he would also cast a sour and unforgiving eye over whatever newspaper articles and television programmes happened to irk him that particular week, and indeed over Soho itself, which seemed to him to be in terminal decline.

The opening lines of his columns are masterpieces of acerbic scrutiny and self-deprecatory despair – "I've just spent two days sitting on the floor surrounded by remorse-inducing memorabilia" ("Happy days"); "It's been a perfectly dreadful week relieved only by the reappearance of Tom Baker, who's finished his stint in Treasure Island and survived the dreadful parrot, and I've decided definitely to give up playing poker on Thursday nights" ("Cards"); "I'm thinking, quite seriously, of retiring. The list of things I haven't done is far too long and I'm well into the second half of this ridiculous game" ("Wanderlust"); "I'm getting a little sick of Soho. There was a time when you could always find somebody there to talk to – your actual conversation I mean – but recently it's been all World Cup and, for longer than that, money" ("Half measures") – but the columns would often then veer off into sublime flights of fancy. As John Osborne notes in his foreword: 

[Bernard's] fantasies, at their most poetic, owe far more to Swift than to Smirnoff: 'I'd very much like to wake up one morning with a cow of the Fresian 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 a taxi driver, set the bed on fire, put it out with tears and then wake up on the floor. Could you then milk the said cow? I doubt it.'

Osborne also identifies the "autobiographical momentum and unity" of the collected Low Life columns – something playwright Keith Waterhouse picked up on when he turned the columns – and thereby Bernard's life – into a stage play, Jeffery Bernard is Unwell (the title taken from the notice which would appear in The Spectator when Bernard was too sozzled to deliver his copy), starring Peter O'Toole as Bernard (a role later taken by Tom Conti, James Bolan, Dennis Waterman and Robert Powell, although it was the terrific O'Toole incarnation I saw).

Which is why it's even more remarkable that the collection has apparently fallen out of print*. There are only around ten copies on AbeBooks in any edition; even a Pan paperback will set you back around twenty quid these days, while you'd have to stump up north of £50 for a Gerald Duckworth first edition/first printing (it went into a second printing swiftly after the first). I "borrowed" my mum's Pan paperback years ago, but she'll no doubt be delighted to learn that she can now have it back, as I recently won a Duckworth 1st/1st – with its Michael Heath-illustrated jacket – on eBay – and it was definitely worth doing so, because unlike the Pan edition, the Duckworth hardback features a generous helping of photographs, many of them from Bernard's personal collection. It also boasts some highly amusing letters (click to view larger):

Moreover, the eBay seller I acquired my copy from kindly included some related newspaper clippings too:

Low Life still ranks as one of my favourite books, but although, as John Osborne states, it is autobiographical, by its very nature it provides only a partial picture of Jeffrey Bernard. A fuller account of Bernard's life can be found in the next book I'll be blogging about – a 1992 biography which contains some startling revelations about Bernard, but which, like Low Life, has also fallen out of print...

*At least, under its Low Life title. Because as Ian Penman pointed out to me on Twitter after I posted this, Gerald Duckworth did issue a version of Low Life, retitled Reach for the Ground: The Downhill Struggle of Jeffrey Bernard, featuring a new foreword by Peter O'Toole, in 2002. UPDATE, 12/6/13: Except, as Kim Davis points out in the comments below, that collection only contains a few of the Low Life columns. Which rather makes a mockery of this footnote. Sigh.


  1. I do believe you refer to the 1992 biography which sits in my bookshelves. I look forward to your blog.

  2. Mater: I do indeed, although not the same copy (I did consider nicking your one, but didn't need to in the end).

    Carole: Nice idea. By all means link to this post, as Low Life is indeed a book I love.

  3. thanks for the link - I'll put the book title in for you

  4. I just came across this discussion on the occasion of Oliver Bernard's death, having been amazed myself to find that the pbk edition of Low Life is almost unobtainable (there's one on Abe for $60, and it's a later edition). Just wanted to say Reach For the Ground is NOT Low Life. It includes some essays, and a few of the late Low Life columns, not in the original book.

    Any comments, I'm at pinkpignyc@hotmail.com

  5. Ta for the update, Kim. And I missed the news of Oliver Bernard's passing, so thank you for that too.

  6. Pan brought out a follow up book imaginatively entitled More Lowlife. Oliver Bernard's translations of Rimbaud and Appolinaire are my go-to versions.

  7. The freebie magazine that reprinted the Low Life columns was called Midweek. PS today I managed to order a paperback copy of Low Life for as little as €14.

  8. Midweek was the name of the freebie magazine

    1. Midweek, that was it! I can even picture it now (and remember how the ink used to rub off on your fingers). Thanks for that, John!