In conversation with Jeffrey Bernard
From Idler 8, February 1995
This was easily the most awkward interview I have ever done. Jeffrey Bernard, now sadly dead, was living at the time in a tower block in Soho. I had never met him before, having got the interview through his niece Kate, who I knew then.
My first mistake was to forget which flat he lived in. I called him from a phone box and he shouted “FOURTEEN!” at me, as if I was the greatest imbecile ever to cross his path.
The flat was tiny. I entered it using a key attached by a piece of string to the letterbox. I found Bernard – scowl at the ready – sitting on the sofa, his one remaining leg stlylishly clad in Levi 501s.
It struck me as sad that the window opposite him was positioned too high for him to enjoy the view over London from where he was sitting. He could see only clouds.
He made no attempt to make me feel at ease. As usual, I had not prepared any questions, relying on the conversation to produce its own momentum.
This led to long and agonising pauses.
A couple of hours later, however, he softened somewhat, and became chatty. I made him a cup of tea.
It was like he didn’t want me to leave.
It’s a clich?� to say it, but he was a great character and a great loss.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Jeffrey Bernard, one of the country’s best – known journalists had a leg amputated a year ago. We visited him in his 14th floor Soho flat and talked about working, life without booze and how cosy things used to be.
Idler: Do you enjoy doing nothing?
Bernard: I enjoy doing nothing. There’s no virtue in work for its own sake. It’s a myth that was invented by people like D.H. Lawrence – back to the earth. As if there was something romantic and glamorous about hard work like being a coal miner in Sons and Lovers. If there was something romantic about it the Duke of Westminster would be digging his own fucking garden, wouldn’t he?
Idler: That nobility of labour thing is a ruse by the people with money to make people happy doing a shitty job.
Bernard: Well, yeah, shitty jobs are alleged to have dignity. There’s nothing undignified about lying about all day and being waited on by servants, sipping bloody champagne.
Idler: Do you find it easy to work?
Bernard: I’m fed up with working. Now I find it very difficult. I do as little as possible.
Idler: Have you been driven to do things in the past?
Bernard: Well yes, a lot. Driven by a shortage of money, by nothing else. Not bloody … what, you mean a muse or something? Good God, no. Has to be done for bread and butter. Being a journalist is a shitty job. It’s a building up and then a breaking down of anxiety and tension. It’s only pleasant when you finish it.
Idler: When you’re writing are you like Dr Johnson and trying to get it out of the way as quickly as possible?
Bernard: Yeah. I dictate most stuff nowadays, since I’ve had this leg off. I’ve made up book reviews on the phone pretending that I’d already written them. I made them up off the top of my head as I’ve been talking to the copytakers at the newspapers. Very risky business because – oh, I was going to say ten times – it’s 50 times harder than it sounds.
Idler: But you had read the book?
Bernard: Oh Christ yeah.
Idler: Do you ever feel guilty doing nothing?
Bernard: I don’t think I’ve ever felt particularly guilty about it. Although I have to admit I have despised a couple of people simply because they have never had a job in their lives. Which I think is a bit wet of them. I just don’t trust people who have never really been up against it. [long pause]
You have to ask me questions, I’ve got nothing to say.
Idler: What do you mean by up against it?
Bernard: Skint, hungry, cold.
Idler: Why don’t you trust them?
Bernard: There’s a half of life that they haven’t seen. Like the other side of the moon. Incomplete.
Idler: I wanted to ask you about when you stopped drinking. How has that been? Why did you stop?
Bernard: I stopped because I was ill. I mean really ill. I had a hemorrhage last time. Like Peter Cook. He was up here a few weeks ago. Yeah.
Idler: What’s it like not drinking?
Bernard: Awful. Boring. Miserable. Lonely. It’s like being half dead.
Idler: What does drinking give people?
Bernard: A cerebral kick, a lift. Confidence. The ability to chat up crumpet. Oh, to me not drinking is like being dead, almost. I sit here taking endless journeys down memory lane. It gets boring.
Idler: Have you ever been interested in other drugs apart from drink?
Bernard: I’ve tried them. I’m not interested really. I’ve never tried heroin. I’ve got my drug which is alcohol, it’s the one that suits me. I took a lot of amphetamines in the Fifties … which I hate now, because it’s another way of talking rubbish. Marijuana I actually don’t like, I don’t like smoking pot. Physically I find it unpleasant. It makes me cough.
It doesn’t do much for me. I did like LSD, I must admit. It made me feel very cheerful, happy. I took some and I went to the Groucho Club and I sat in the reception hall. And everyone who came in apparently said to the staff and barmen, “what’s the matter with Jeff? He’s smiling. Can’t stop smiling.” Usually I look bad tempered, when I’m not feeling it. But on this occasion I really was grinning from ear to ear. It felt really good. But I don’t want any more habits, you know. All these things interfere with the smooth running of day-to-day existence. I think cuntstruck is a boring drug too.
Idler: What’s that?
Bernard: How old are you? Cuntstruck means obsessed with cunt.
Idler: Oh I see. Why is it a boring drug?
Bernard: It interferes with life, that’s part of it.
Idler: Drinking doesn’t get in the way of everyday life, does it?
Bernard: Unless you can control it, it does. I mean it doesn’t with me now. Most alcoholics dramatise themselves. They think it’s romantic and macho. They end up not being able to cope. I pay the bloody bills on time. I eat three meals a day. That’s the difference. I know what I’m doing and what I’m about. With some drunks it’s like having Alzheimer’s in the gut – they don’t know what the hell’s going on at all.
I don’t want to be like that.
Idler: Have you ever been close to that before?
Bernard: Once. I’m not a drunk anyway. I drink – these words are all wrong. I mean, do I appear to be a nutcase to you?
Idler: No. Who called you a drunk, though?
Bernard: You did, about three minutes ago.
Idler: I didn’t call you a drunk, I was just talking about drinking.
Idler: So, what sort of things do you think about here?
Bernard: I think about the past a lot. I’m not doing anything, am I, now? I’m disabled. I don’t go out so much, since that came off. It’s eleven months. My home help sometimes takes me to the Groucho. I go there a lot because it’s the nearest. Now that pubs don’t exist any more.
Idler: What do you mean?
Bernard: They’re awful. All pubs are terrible places now. I mean you wouldn’t have known a decent pub at your age, I shouldn’t think. They didn’t have fucking music. They didn’t have cigarette machines. They didn’t sell the chemical beer. They were for proper drinkers, not for fucking yobs, hooligans. I want to go into a pub and meet interesting people, not to look at a lot of people sitting on the floor drinking out of tins. I can’t stand it. Mostly people in your age group. Ruin pubs.
Idler: So do you feel nostalgic?
Bernard: For company, yeah. I feel nostalgic for Soho, for what it was. There were a lot of genuinely interesting people in it. Genuine bohemians. Now it’s full of advertising agency creeps. Suits. Bloody Essex Man and Soho man – there’s very little difference nowadays. But it was like bloody Disneyland.
Idler: Because of the fun?
Bernard: I talked to people. It’s not name dropping, but not many people can say, like me, that they spent the day with the likes of Francis Bacon or that boring drunk Dylan Thomas. You don’t forget things like that. Because they were outstanding insofar as they stood out. Simple. I’ve met some extraordinary people round here over the years.
Idler: Would you say that’s the essence of life, for you?
Bernard: Yeah. Being with people. Eating and drinking and talking with people that you like. And sometimes fucking them.
Idler: What do you like reading?
Bernard: I don’t read as much anymore. I find it hard work now, my attention span is not as good as it used to be. I read mostly journalism nowadays.
Idler: How has journalism changed?
Bernard: I don’t think writing’s got any better, despite Fleet Street trying to insist on more undergraduates in the business. Having been to university doesn’t help anyone. Reading English has got fuck all to do with writing. A lot of girls annoy me who go to university … one girl told me she was going to Oxford because it was something to do between leaving school and getting married. And I’ve got to pay for that being an income tax payer. I said to her, why can’t you read bloody Pride and Prejudice in the fucking kitchen? Why have you got to got to Oxford? No answer. The only reason I would have liked to have gone to university is because I like cricket. Not a very good reason to want to go, but as good as any, I suppose.
Idler: The student lifestyle is quite attractive though, loafing around, reading …
Bernard: If you’ve got money …
Idler: But even if you haven’t got money …
Bernard: 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. Which of course hasn’t been the case, but I couldn’t go through all that shit again. Being on the breadline. I’ve done some terrible bloody jobs.
Idler: What depresses us is the party conversation, “what do you do?” Everyone has to have some sort of job that they can quickly describe as if that somehow sums them up for the other person.
Bernard: Yeah. That’s boring. It was never like that. It’s got quite a lot to do with the Conservative party, I think. Mrs Thatcher. I think work should be secondary. I mean life isn’t just about working, Christ. I suppose this is one of the nice things about being a freelance writer. You just come and go. What is quite nice is being quite well known, because people are different to you. Which is true, I’m afraid. It may not meet with one’s approval, but nevertheless, it’s a fact. They’re nicer to you, generally. I wonder how I’d be treated in the Groucho if I was a dishwasher.
Idler: I suppose what you’ve done with your work is make the work out of your life. That has to be the best way.
Bernard: I’ve just written about myself, that’s all. That’s all I know anything about.
Idler: Things you write about in your column, would you write it without having talked with about it with people.
Bernard: Oh Christ yes all the time. I don’t talk to people about what I think about, necessarily. I think mostly pretty gloomy thoughts. I think that life is an absolute bastard. I think it’s awful. But I don’t go around saying so.
Idler: We had an issue where we were saying on the one hand, Life is Shit, but on the other you should drink cocktails and listen to Easy Listening music.
Bernard: Yeah well, because of the way I was brought up, I only like classical music. If I like pop music it’s old pop, like Cole Porter. The lyrics to pop music in those days were sheer poetry. I hate contemporary music. I don’t like much about today, at all.
Idler: Why not?
Bernard: It’s not cosy any more.
Idler: Not cosy? Too big and sprawling?
Idler: But don’t people make their own cosiness?
Bernard: When did anyone walking up Berwick Street at this moment last sit down by a log fire with a good book and a nice glass of something to drink? As opposed to going to watch Arsenal on a Saturday, fucking beat someone up then get pissed on lager, go home and listen to pop music till three o’clock this morning while you’re smoking pot? No. I hate it, hate life today. I wouldn’t like to be your age. Do you know Tom, the word is cosy. People
as I’ve said were skint and life was hard, as it
is now, but there was something more cosy about it.
Idler: Were people supporting each other?
Bernard: Yes. You would have been asked to supper tonight by friends, at his or her flat with three or four other people. You don’t have to go out and have your eardrums smashed in some fucking pub by muzak or something. I suppose families don’t count for anything now … although I loathed mine. I don’t know whether they’ve ever counted for much. All the bloody hate and anger generated down.
Idler: I’m not sure you’re right about young people. if you’re talking about cosiness and people looking after each other, it seems to me that’s around more perhaps, than it was ten years ago.
Bernard: Oh good.
Idler: People do seem to be relaxing.
Bernard: I don’t remember ever being full of dislike and hatred for people, like some kids I’ve come across now. 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. I’d rather cut off the other leg than vote fucking Tory. I suppose I am conservative. I don’t know what’s going to become of people. I mean the great miracle of inventing the computer was that it was going to give the people more leisure. What are they going to do with it? Beat each other up or, …
Idler: Not if you can somehow build it into the culture …
Bernard: Well they won’t will they? I mean what will the culture be?
Idler: I mean it isn’t just beating each other up, there’s all sorts of other things people do.
Bernard: watching Philip Gascoigne playing football.
Idler: But you know there’s …
Bernard: Paul Gascoigne.
Idler: There’s quite a lot of non-beating-up type activity going on now … there’s lots of groups of people who enjoy doing things together, like putting on parties, doing little magazines, printing t-shirts. And having their own cosy little families.
Bernard: I wish I knew where I could get a T-shirt without something stupid fucking written on it.
Idler: Well do you want an Idler T-shirt? They have a snail on the front.
Bernard: No, I’ve got a phobia about slugs and snails.
Bernard: Slimy. Like our beloved Chancellor of the Exchequer … what’s his fucking name … Clarke … no, Portillo … all fucking monsters of all time. Oh, it’s disgusting. [calls out to a cook who has just come in] Augustine did you buy lottery tickets today?
Augustine: No, I haven’t bought one today.
Bernard: I was just wondering.
Augustine: Do you want to pick a number?
Bernard: 27 is a lucky number
Idler: So you’re not into the lottery.
Bernard: Fucking 14 million to one against? It’s hard enough racing and I really know what I’m talking about when it comes to racing. 14 million to one. And you’ve got to be a special person to win. You’ve got to be either a housewife from Scunthorpe or a panel beater from Warrington as far as I can make out. Not a freelance journalist from Soho, Christ, that’s asking too much.