Friday 11 May 2012

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Jonathan Cape First Edition, 1979): Lewes Bookshop Bargain

This next book in this series of posts on journalistic-type tomes is, in truth, closer in style and tone to a novel than it is to non-fiction. But it was written by a journalist, and it is essentially factual, and I can't think of any other forthcoming series of posts in which it will fit, so here it shall reside:

It's a UK hardback first edition/first impression of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, published by Jonathan Cape in 1979 under a dustjacket designed by Craig Dodd. I bought this copy in Lewes' Bow Windows Bookshop, and while it may not have been, strictly speaking, a "bargain", it was certainly reasonably priced, given that 1st/1sts on AbeBooks – of which there are only about ten – range from £20 to over £40. (Historically – or at least as long as I've lived in Lewes, which is about four years – Bow Windows' modern first have been priced... shall we say, somewhat optimistically, but recently they've been pricing their newer acquisitions at much more agreeable – and affordable – levels, with the consequence that I've found myself buying more books there this year.)

As I'm sure we're all well aware, The Right Stuff is an ardent account of the early years of the space race, charting the adventures of the US air force pilots who formed the vanguard of the American space programme – John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, etc., and especially Chuck Yeager. It originally appeared as a four-part article in Rolling Stone magazine in 1973, and was a prime example of "the new journalism", i.e. that writing by Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and others in the 1960s and '70s which took a more literary approach to journalism.

As a book, The Right Stuff certainly reads more like a work of fiction than non-fiction: though written in the third person, Wolfe frequently ventures inside the heads of the various protagonists, and artfully constructs a propulsive narrative far removed from that of a dry biography. And that's what really makes the book such a joy to read: Wolfe's special knack for colourfully communicating the sheer, breathless excitement of it all, as, led by Yeager, the test pilots break the sound barrier and then are supplanted by the Mercury astronauts, hand-picked to be blasted into space atop towering rockets instead of at the stick of a rocket-propelled plane – "spam in a can", as one of the Mercury seven, Gordon Cooper, so memorably put it – but actually more concerned about retaining the respect of their pilot peers.

Like the previous two books in this series of posts, I originally read The Right Stuff years ago, and was bowled over by it – and by the terrific 1983 Philip Kaufman film adaptation, starring, among others, Scott Glen as Shepard, Fred Ward as Grissom, Ed Harris as Glenn and Sam Shepard as Yeager. Both book and movie brought a number of hitherto arcane phrases into common parlance – "pushing the envelope" among them – and helped ignite a passion for space exploration in a generation too young to have witnessed Project Mercury first hand (myself being a case in point). It is, by any yardstick, a brilliant book, and if you haven't read it, I urge you to do so.

The Right Stuff is, as I say, novelistic in approach, but the final two books I'll be reviewing in this run of posts are both yer actual, proper novels. Each is set in a newsroom – one in 1980s Florida, the other 1960s Fleet Street – and each is comically illuminating as to what journalists actually do (or don't do, in some cases) – although the two papers concerned couldn't be more different...

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Just the One: The Wives and Times of Jeffrey Bernard, by Graham Lord (Biography, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992): Book Review

From a 1986 collection of journalist and epic boozer Jeffrey Bernard's Low Life columns, we move on in this series of posts on journalism and media-related books to a 1992 biography of Bernard:

First published in hardback in the UK by Sinclair-Stevenson, Just the One: The Wives and Times of Jeffrey Bernard by Graham Lord is a warts-and-all account of Bernard's life – and there are, it has to be said, numerous warts within. For while Bernard subjected his own day-to-day existence to what appeared to be forensic scrutiny in Low Life – detailing hilarious drunken episodes but also charting his deteriorating health with admirable frankness – Just the One reveals that there was much that Bernard didn't cover in his columns. Lord had known Bernard for getting on for fifteen years by the time he came to write this biography, and he turned up all manner of interesting nuggets in the course of his research – both from Bernard himself and from his many friends, associates and enemies. As Lord reports in his introduction: 

Slowly the secrets started emerging. That his childhood had shimmered with lust for his mother. That his 'mad' sister Sally had been certified and committed to an asylum in 1953 but was still living in South London in 1992. That many of his friends are convinced that he went through a homosexual phase late in his teens and early twenties. That his first wife Anna's real name wasn't Anna at all, a revelation that astonished Bernard when I told him. That she was forced to give up her illegitimate daughter Alfreda for adoption and regretted it ever after. That her mysterious – perhaps sinister – suicide happened neither when nor how he had thought it had. That Alfreda herself later changed her name to Sally Bernard and claimed to be the mother of Jeffrey's grandchildren. That Bernard too had made several suicide attempts. That his third wife's daughter, Isabel, was not his child and that Isabel, now twenty-two, had known this for five years but had kept it from him to protect his feelings. That he had in fact been sterile from puberty. That his marriages had been disturbingly violent.

Jeffrey Bernard's Low Life column was, of course – and as a later paperback printing of the first collection (a second collection, More Low Life, was published by Pan in 1989) had it – "A Kind of Autobiography", but Lord also reports that he had "for years tried to persuade [Bernard] to write his autobiography but he was always too lazy (and often too 'unwell') to do more than doodle a few notes. This did not of course prevent him from accepting several large advances from naively optimistic publishers for this non-existent biography..." One of those advances famously led Bernard to write to the New Statesman, stating he'd be "grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974" – prompting a response from the Daily Mirror's Michael J. Molloy, who replied that "on a certain evening in September 1969, you rang my mother to inform her that you were going to murder her only son".

I originally read Just the One many moons ago – my mum has a first edition on her shelves – but the copy seen in this post was a much more recent acquisition. The biography has been out of print for years – a Headline paperback printing followed the Sinclair-Stevenson edition in 1993, but that was it – and is in fairly short supply. But on a recent sojourn to the excellent Slightly Foxed secondhand bookshop on Gloucester Road (I was in town for the London Book Fair, and managed to slope off for an hour) I found a fine first of Just the One in the shop's basement for a fiver (I ferreted out some other nice books in the shop too, two of which, Anne Chamberlain's The Tall Dark Man and Mary Kelly's A Cold Coming, with their Peter Rudland-designed wrappers, have already made it into my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery). The jacket design on the Sinclair-Stevenson edition, by the way, is by Button Design Co., and the splendid painting of Bernard on the front is by Michael Corkrey.

A few final notes before we move on from Mr. Bernard: journalist Ian Penman drew my attention on Twitter to a couple of other Bernard-related books, neither of which I'd come across before. One, The Big One, the Black One, the Fat One and the Other One: My Life in Showbiz (Michael O'Mara, 1992), is a collection of William Donaldson's Independent columns, and features, according to Ian, a "long section written in a boozy persona parodying Jeffrey Bernard", while the other, You're Barred, You Bastards: The Memoirs of a Soho Publican (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1991), is the memoir of Norman Balon (co-written with Spencer Bright), the landlord of Bernard's Soho watering hole of choice, The Coach and Horses, and is, Ian reckons, "not half bad at all". And it was the Coach that was the venue for perhaps my favourite Jeffrey Bernard story, which occurred around the time mobile phones were first appearing. Having trouble attracting Norman's attention in the Coach one day, Bernard spied a city type next to him at the bar talking on his mobile. Bernard asked to borrow the phone, and then rang the Coach on it. When Norman answered, Bernard barked: "Is there any chance of getting a fucking drink in this place?"

And from Jeffrey Bernard's low life, next in this series on journalistic books we turn to a rather more high altitude existence, with an excitable account of man's envelope-pushing attempts to conquer space...

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.