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David Ashforth on the life of racing's most infamous journalist Jeffrey Bernard

Jeffrey Bernard: eccentric Low Life scribe wrote about racing in a way that no-one else did
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Published in the Racing Post on January 22, 2010

On October 3, 1970, reading The Sporting Life suddenly became a different experience. That was the day Jeffrey Bernard's first column appeared and, for exactly a year, until he was sacked, Bernard was a revelation.

He wrote about racing in a way that no-one else did, irreverently, as a losing punter. He wrote about the things he liked – women, drinking, gambling – and about the things he disliked, including trainers who took themselves too seriously. Not all his pieces were good but Bernard could be, and often was, very funny.

His first venture into racing came in 1948, when he was 16. "Another boy and myself laid Dramatic for the Stewards' Cup," Bernard recalled. "We lost 237 weeks' pocket money and, if you've never tried welshing on 150 boys at a boarding school miles from anywhere, then don't."

As well as illegal betting, Bernard had already discovered the joys of Soho and sex, both of which he indulged in enthusiastically for the rest of his life, body permitting.

Handsome and amusing, his many drinking companions included Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas and John Hurt, Peter Cook, Tony Hancock and even, on one occasion, Marlene Dietrich. His list of bedmates was a long one. As Graham Lord, his biographer, observed, Bernard "had a lot of wives, four of them his own".

What Bernard lacked was money, which he begged and borrowed but rarely repaid. During the 1950s, he worked, but usually not for long, as a dishwasher, model, fairground worker, boxer, labourer and stagehand. After the Old Vic sacked him, for drunkenness, he got a job sticking stars on the dancers' nipples in the Folies Bergere show. There were 40 of them.

Encouraged by his second wife, Jackie Ellis, he pursued photography, fitfully, and in 1962 obtained an advance of £100 for a collection of his work, Soho Night and Day.

Bernard lost the £100 in ten spins of a roulette wheel, was thrown out by his wife and tried to commit suicide, a pattern periodically repeated. Friends invariably bailed him out and took him in, which was often a mistake, as Cook discovered when Bernard promptly seduced his wife. Bernard was a charming and entertaining man but, particularly when drunk, could also be an unpleasant one.

He got his first job in journalism in 1964, with Queen magazine. The following year, he was sent to interview Prince Monolulu, the famous racecourse tipster. The Prince was in hospital and, when Bernard put a strawberry cream chocolate in the 80-year-old patient's mouth, Prince Monolulu choked to death.

Fortunately, Bernard also had a part-time job at a Soho pub. One evening the publican took Bernard to the nearby Pickwick Club where, after a few drinks, Bernard recalled: "He emptied an entire sauceboat of sauce tartare into my jacket pocket."

Bernard walked to a table occupied by the actor Peter Finch and asked if he would like some sauce tartare with his fish. When Finch said "yes," Bernard picked up a spoon, dipped it into his pocket, and put a dollop of sauce on Finch's plate.

The next day, wrote Bernard, "I took the jacket to a cleaner and a terrible old bag with a deadpan face behind the counter just wrote out the ticket saying, 'Gentleman's jacket. Sauce tartare in right-hand pocket'."

It could have been worse – and often was

In 1966, when he married his third wife, Jill Stanley, Bernard borrowed £100 and went to the Derby intending to back Charlottown. Unfortunately, he changed his mind and backed Sodium instead.

Things briefly looked up when Town magazine sent him to the Dorchester Hotel to interview Raquel Welch, the semi-naked star of One Million Years BC. Distracted by the actress's thighs, Bernard poured a pot of tea over her sandwiches. It could have been worse, and often was. At Royal Ascot in 1971 he was said to have been sick over the Queen Mother's shoes.

By then, he was in full flow for The Sporting Life, a job offering all that Bernard desired. At the racecourse, admirers of his column provided an endless supply of free drinks, which Bernard rarely declined. As a result, the morning after a race meeting at Huntingdon, he woke up in bed with jockey Barry Brogan and a woman he didn't recognise. Bernard wasn't sure what had happened but he was asked never to return to Huntingdon, to make sure it didn't happen again.

Drink and memory don't mix well and, after another racecourse outing, Bernard wrote: "Would the married lady who wasn't with her husband, but with the other chap, please contact me? I enjoyed drinking with her at Lingfield, have forgotten her name and wish to repeat the performance."

He found Chester particularly appealing. It "really was wonderful," he enthused. "I'd like my ashes to be scattered on the run-in, if there's room."

On the other hand, after two days at Newmarket, Bernard lamented: "It's always very depressing to discover that the best racing crumpet is usually accompanied by racehorse trainers and/or millionaires."

Reflecting on the fact that Fred Archer was in Newmarket when he shot himself, Bernard observed: "Knowing the place pretty well, I suspect he was trying to attract the attention of the staff in the Rutland Hotel."

He bet often, and generally badly, although during his year with the Life, he did strike a bet with a Brighton bookmaker that the winner of the Miss World contest would have a bosom measuring 36 inches. She did, at 5-2. During a bad run, he declared: "I want to bet on how many more bets I've got to strike before I make a winning one."

Bernard counted Fred Winter and Lester Piggott among his heroes, musing: "What's Lester really like? As one of the 50 million people in this country he doesn't want to meet, I can only guess."

When Piggott gave him a lift in his plane, from Newmarket to Newbury, Bernard was delighted. A week later, he received a bill for £35.

Winter was more accommodating. When he showed Bernard around his Lambourn yard, Bernard, wanting to say the right thing, ventured, "Your horses look healthy". "Yes," replied Winter, "they don't stay up all night playing cards and drinking vodka."

Drinking was Bernard's core activity and a reliable source of disaster, for himself and others. Periodically, The Sporting Life reported, "Jeffrey Bernard is ill. It is hoped that his column will be resumed shortly."

The end came when Bernard was invited to present a trophy at a point-to-point dinner, armed himself with too much Dutch courage and, depending on one's choice of witness, either fell asleep on a sofa in the hotel lobby or stood up to speak and fell, head first, into his soup. A dozen years later, in 1983, Bernard would return to the fold, with a column in the Weekender.

Meanwhile, in 1972, having graduated to two bottles of whisky a day, Bernard entered an addiction clinic, where a fellow patient advised him that, if he ever resorted to surgical spirit, "for God's sake drink Boots' and not Timothy White's. It's got a better-looking label and doesn't look as sordid on the sideboard".

His wife (the third one) left him in 1973 and, after punching a woman in the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, Bernard shocked himself into two and a half years of abstinence. During this untypical period, he wrote to the New Statesman, to which he was a contributor: "I have been commissioned to write my autobiography, and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974." The autobiography was never written.

Low Life, the column that made his name

He wrote for various publications, including Men Only, where, in a column entitled Bedtime with Bernard, he claimed to have visited a church in Suffolk and seduced the vicar's daughter while she was playing Bach on the organ.

Another claim, made under the byline of Colonel Mad in Private Eye, was that "England's largest open-air lunatic asylum, Lambourn, is shortly to be wired off in an attempt to stop the spread of drunkenness and wife-swapping that is becoming a national disgrace".

1978 was an important year, in which he was sacked by the Daily Express, married his fourth wife, Sue Ashley, moved to East Garston, near Lambourn, and launched his Low Life column in the Spectator, which made his name.

Memorably described by Jonathan Meades in The Tatler as "a suicide note in weekly instalments", Low Life achieved the remarkable feat of making a weekly account of a life based largely around a refilled glass of vodka, engaging.

After giving up driving, "for fear of killing somebody between Lambourn and Great Shefford", Bernard obtained a daily lift to the Queen's Arms, whose buckled railings bore the imprint of his car, by posting an envelope addressed to himself, then getting into the postman's van when he delivered the letter to Bernard's home at Crane's Farm. Tony Lovell, the pub's landlord, obligingly opened the back door at 9.00am.

Decades of heavy drinking translated themselves into a range of ailments, including diabetes and pancreatitis, so that, by 1982, Bernard reported: "When the door bell rang this morning, I was sure it was the grim reaper but, luckily, it was the milkman."

Admitted into the John Radcliffe Hospital, Bernard managed to get expelled for secretly eating jam sandwiches, which didn't form part of his treatment for diabetes. Later, when a doctor asked him, "Why do you drink?" he replied, "to stop myself jogging".

By the end of 1980, his wife (the fourth one) having finally left him, Bernard was back in London, mainly in the Coach and Horses, although in 1983 he accepted an invitation to Barbados, where his companions were amazed when they visited a run-down bar in a wooden shack and the barman turned to Bernard and said: "The usual, sir?" When he left Lambourn, Bernard was still a good-looking man and, into his 50s, had no difficulty charming a succession of much younger women to his new home, which he called "the Great Portland Street Academy for Young Ladies".

He posed for Naked London, clutching a carefully placed Timeform volume, yet, by the end of the 1980s, Bernard looked like an old man, with two large, disfiguring lipomas on his neck. Drink and diabetes had taken their toll. "Last week, I had an erection," Bernard reported. "I was so amazed, I almost took a photograph of it."

Rising to the challenge of the weekly deadline for his column became even more difficult. In 1987, the Spectator informed readers, "Jeffrey Bernard's column does not appear this week, as it is remarkably similar to that which he wrote last week."

When Keith Waterhouse completed his script for a play based on the Low Life columns, Bernard was seriously concerned that he might not live to see the play performed, a concern widely considered to be justified.

Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, its title based on the note which appeared in the Spectator when the Low Life column was absent through alcohol, opened in Brighton in September 1989, moved to Bath and made its triumphant debut at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in October.

Bernard, magnificently played by Peter O'Toole, gets locked in the Coach and Horses for the night, with his reminiscensces, a bottle of vodka, and a collection of ghosts for company. Very funny, yet scratching, with increasing sadness, at the line between comedy and tragedys, the play ran for a year, with a successful revival in 1991.

It gave Bernard great pleasure and financial security, although the Inland Revenue, already pursuing him vigorously, took most of the money.

In 1986, Bow Street Magistrates Court had taken more, after Bernard pleaded guilty to illegally taking bets in the Coach and Horses. Two months later, the police officers who had arrested him invited Bernard to their Christmas party. Bernard, inevitably, accepted.

I met him twice, equally inevitably in the Coach and Horses, where he took four large vodkas to establish contact with the day, dismissively discarded written offers from attractive women who had sent photographs of themselves for his consideration, and mulled over an offer of £2,000 to write 350 words about a pub.

You would have laid 10-1 against him living another five years but, minus one leg, he did, dying, aged 65, in 1997.

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When Piggott gave him a lift in his plane, from Newmarket to Newbury, Bernard was delighted. A week later, he received a bill for £35
E.W. Terms