Jeffrey Bernard Was Unwell, and Wonderful

By Deborah Bosley 06/15/15

Memories from The Groucho Club  . . .

Jeffrey Bernard
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The most colorful and frequently funny years of my drinking life coincided with the period from the late 1980s to the early 1990s when I worked at London's Groucho Club, a private members' club in Soho favored by some of the most celebrated and notorious figures from the worlds of journalism, publishing and film. Jeffrey Bernard, the writer and celebrated alcoholic, was a constant feature of life at the Groucho, part of the furniture, if you like. He had gained some notoriety when Keith Waterhouse wrote a play based on his life called Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell starring Peter O' Toole. The title of the play was a line which used to appear beneath the title of his Low Life column for The Spectator magazine on those occasions when too much good living prevented Jeff from filing his copy.

His other regular watering hole and second home, The Coach and Horses, was around the corner from the Groucho on Greek Street, and had become something of a destination as people came along hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary writer and drinker. Jeff had made a career and built his considerable notoriety around a life of excess but he wasn't just some drunk who made people laugh; he wrote with elegance and insight, was a cultured man with considerable knowledge of music and naval history, particularly his hero, Lord Nelson. He was complex and contradictory and though drinking often made him foul-tempered, he was capable of great charm. 

He was forever being chased by his editors from various publications for late copy and the Groucho switchboard was regularly lit up with frantic calls from papers and magazines about to go to print with a blank space where Jeff's column should be. He was never in a rush to appease them and it would often be a good 10 minutes between delivering the message and his eventual appearance in reception to take the call. What was extraordinary about Jeff was his ability to dictate an entire word-perfect column down the telephone line no matter how many vodka and sodas he had imbibed. He might have been a grumpy bugger but he was a class act and one which encouraged me to think that my own fledgling career as a writer could only benefit from a steady commitment to the bottle. The romantic connection between drinking and literature had not passed me by. 

One particularly busy morning when I was snowed under with people checking out of rooms, the Daily Mirror put in their weekly call for Jeff's copy. I went into the bar and told him he was wanted then returned to my queue of guests. Jeff finally weaved his way out to reception to find the Mirror had grown tired of waiting and hung up. Jeff exploded, and where usually my instinct would have been to appease, on this occasion I had pressure coming at me from all sides and was not in the mood for taking his abuse. I responded along the lines of, "Go fuck yourself you old piss-head," and after a moment of silent astonishment, Jeff's face creased into helpless laughter. When he managed to compose himself sufficiently to speak, he said, "Nobody has been that rude to me in years! Can I take you for a drink?" I was a 26-year old receptionist and he was a 60-year old writer in frail health due to his love affair with the bottle. It was an unlikely alliance but a true friendship was born.

Jeff and I very quickly fell into a mutually supportive routine. He would start his day at the Coach and Horses and then stagger to the Groucho Club around lunchtime where he would pass the time steadily downing vodka and sodas, and abusing the other members of the club until I finished work at 4pm. It is a matter of record that Jeff had said of the club: "Most of the members are wankers. I come here for the staff." Difficult though he undoubtedly could be, most of us who worked at the club really loved him. He was a one-off, a true original. After work, he would take me next door to the Colony Club and I would help him up the stairs to the fetid little room where Ian Board, the Colony's legendary manager would greet him with "Jeff, you cunt!" They were friends of long-standing. Jeff having been a feature of the Soho scene since the late 1950s, moving in bohemian circles which included the artist, Francis Bacon.

At the Colony, we would down a few room temperature drinks—there was never any ice—and afterwards Jeff would sometimes take me for a meal to Kettners, or the local Chinese restaurant which he favored due to a crush on Christine, the manageress. In exchange, I used to collect his dry cleaning, do bits of shopping, and guide him back to his flat on Berwick Street when I'd had enough and was ready to call it a day. Jeff seemed rather proud of our friendship and used to introduce me as "Debbie, a plumber's daughter." I always had to correct him by pointing out that my dad was a builder, and a painter, and decorator but the distinction seemed lost on Jeff. Jeff came from an upper-middle class family and, as is sometimes the way with people from such backgrounds, he had a fascination and admiration for the working class, considering us somehow more "real" than his social peers. I'm not sure about that, but perhaps we just have less to lose and are therefore not as guarded.

Jeff's health was in a terrible state after a lifetime of excess and in addition to being reed-thin, he had developed all manner of complications including diabetes. It was not uncommon for the staff at the Groucho to have to feed him sugared milk when he lapsed into one of his diabetic comas in the bar, or discreetly place a napkin across his lap when he lost control of his bladder while sleeping. There was a touching vulnerability about Jeff and for all his furious bursts of temper there was a sweetness which endeared him to people. Sometimes, he would be doing too poorly to leave his flat and so Norman, the landlord from the Coach and Horses, would deliver him ready meals from Marks and Spencer and I would be sent off on errands to get supplies of vodka and Players cigarettes. The Groucho didn't mind excusing me from my post to help him. 

There was never any question of him moderating his lifestyle to halt the decline of his health and he became something of a medical celebrity on his many visits to University College Hospital. One distinguished consultant introduced Jeff to a group of medical students with the words, "This is Mr. Bernard who closes his arteries every day with 60 cigarettes and opens them up again with two bottles of vodka." Even after Jeff had his leg amputated above the knee because of complications from his diabetes, his thirst showed no signs of slowing and he chronicled his descent into decrepitude in a series of hilarious Low Life columns for The Spectator. He had apparently stayed sober on willpower alone for around a year once, but whichever wife he was with at the time found it such a trying business that she confessed she preferred him drunk.

For all Jeff's reputation of being a difficult character, he had a generous side that few got to see. One December, several weeks before Christmas, he found me in floods of tears in the club because I had just received news that my estranged husband in the United States had been taken into the hospital yet again and I simply did not have enough money for a plane ticket to go and see him. The next day, Jeff turned up at the club and presented me with a check for £600. At first, I refused to take it but he pressed me saying there was something I could do for him in return. He had always wanted to try LSD but had no idea how he could source it. This was not a problem for me, though I was wary of supplying a hallucinogenic to someone in such frail health.

After a bit of negotiation, we compromised on a quarter of a tab of acid and he could hardly contain his excitement on the day of the deal. I made him sit in reception where I could keep an eye on him and was in a state of high anxiety about the drug's potential effects. I need not have worried. He sat in one of the comfy chairs in reception crying with laughter at all the members  who came in and out and several hours later staggered up on to his crutches and asked me if I would walk him round to Ketttners as he was feeling a bit peckish and fancied a steak.

For all the many moments of amusement, the shine had gone off life in Soho for me and the desire for change, which had been building up in me for many, many months was reaching a peak. I knew that working at the Groucho was fueling my often problematic drinking but was lost for alternatives. Fate intervened to offer me an escape and when the phone call from my mother-in-law in the US arrived to tell me that my husband was in the final stages of his debilitating illness, I had no qualms about chucking in my job and flat in London to go and spend what time remained with him. I was done with Soho and still clung to the misleading illusion that a change in countries would lead to a change in habits.

The Groucho, with typical kindness, agreed to let me go with only two weeks' notice. Jeff's response was to immediately set about organizing a party. Our birthdays at the end of May were only a day apart and Jeff hired one of the reception rooms at the Groucho for a joint birthday/farewell lunch. We would have room for around 16 guests and he encouraged me to get my dad—who he had met and loved—and some friends along for the occasion.

One day about a week before the party, I was chatting in the bar with Richard Ingrams, the former editor of Private Eye who was launching a new magazine called The Oldie. Richard was very well regarded by the staff at the Groucho and we all agreed that he was a total gent. I had heard of Private Eye and read it a few times but it was not really on my radar and I was not quite as aware as I might have been of the esteem with which Richard was held by his fellow journalists. People liked to talk about him though and he was, depending on who you asked, an old curmudgeon or one of the greatest living Englishmen. To me, he was just a nice bloke with a good sense of humor and when I said I was leaving the club and having a farewell party, he expressed an interest in attending. I didn't see the harm. 

Jeff was beside himself when I informed him. "Well you can fucking un-invite him, that cunt sacked me!" I learned that Jeff used to write the Colonel Mad column for Private Eye but due to his unreliability and frequent inebriation, Richard had been forced to "let him go." Jeff was contemptuous of Richard being teetotal and bridled at Richard's advice that Jeff could be a very fine writer if he stopped drinking. "What that cunt doesn't realize is that I couldn't write a note to the milkman with my heart-starter!" Slightly embarrassed, I had to inform Richard that he would not be able to come to the lunch after all, but he seemed to take it in good part. 

The day of the lunch arrived, a Thursday, my penultimate day of work at the Groucho. I was touched by the gifts and flowers that kept arriving at reception for me. I had to work a few hours in the morning but was excused at mid-day so that I could attend the party. The guests, a hilarious mixture of Fleet Street grandees and my dad and some old friends from South London got along famously and spirits were high. Just as we were about to take our seats, Richard Ingrams came into the room and sat himself down directly opposite me. Jeff fumed silently but had the good grace to shake his hand. Richard seemed tickled by the odd gathering and laughed his way through lunch. Before he left, he handed me a copy of his anthology, England, inside of which was a piece of paper with his address on.  

I don't remember an awful lot about the occasion but by 5pm most of the guests had drifted away leaving just me, my dad, Jeff and the writer Sue Townsend, who was a great friend of Jeff's and a dearly loved member of the club. The drink continued to flow and my dad and Sue ran through a series of old songs of the "Danny Boy" variety until none of us could see straight. I felt warm with love for the Groucho, for my dad, for Jeff, for all the workmates who had been such a support and source of great fun for the last few years. It was handy that I had such a wonderful goodbye. There wouldn't be many laughs in the months ahead and my drinking would take me to new and terrifying places.

For years, I continued to drink trying to recapture those feelings of excitement and hilarity which were such a feature of my time at the Groucho. Finally, after six and a half years in and out of AA, I managed to put the drink down and now 10 years sober, I can look back on those days with fondness but I never lapse into nostalgia; those times are gone and with them many of the characters who peopled my world. Picking up a drink will never recapture the past. I tried it repeatedly and it does not work. The thrills and spills may be a thing of the past but I can look myself and the world in the eye. Don't go back. Never go back.

Deborah Bosley is a writer and novelist based in the UK. She last wrote about depression and recovery.

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