Mike Molloy (From The Guardian, Wed 15 June 2005)
All of us have our Proust-like moments, when our own version of the Madeleine cake brings us remembrance of things past. For me it was the announcement that this year’s Royal Ascot meeting was to be held at York.
On hearing the news, things suddenly went out of focus, and there came that echoing style music that signified flashbacks in black and white films. Suddenly, I recalled a day at the races, long ago, with the legendary Jeffrey Bernard.
These days, on my visits to the pubs and clubs of Soho, I am sometimes introduced to a trainee hell-raiser as a friend of the legendary Jeff. They always ask me what he was really like.
I advise them to read Keith Waterhouse’s play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Everything is there: Jeff’s catastrophic marriages, his drunkenness, gallows humour, his reckless, self-destructive courage and his extraordinary ability to tap into the kindness of strangers. Jeff had to rely on the kindness of strangers, he had long before exhausted the supply of kindness from his friends.
Waterhouse crafted the play by distilling Jeff’s wonderful Low Life columns in The Spectator, and by adding a large measure of his own comic genius he fashioned one of the funniest plays in the English language. The script was so good that when Waterhouse first sent a copy to Peter O’Toole he received a message on his answering machine cursing him for altering the actor’s life. O’Toole had intended to take the following year off work, but the prospect of doing the play so excited him he decided he must commit to it immediately.
Because Jeff had only his own dark well of experience to trawl, just about everything amusing that ever happened to him appeared in Low Life, and subsequently in the play. But one anecdote remained unpublished – this one.
It began when Jeff and I set off light-of-heart to attend the opening day of Royal Ascot. In those days, Jeff was employed as a columnist by the Sporting Life, until he was sacked for a multitude of transgressions: all of them featuring the consumption of brutal quantities of drink.
“I’ve fixed it for us to meet William Marshall in the bar after the third race,” Jeff confided. “He’ll give us a couple of winners.”
I was thrilled by the prospect. Marshall, one of the greatest trainers in racing, amazingly still retained a wry affection for Jeff.
I must explain at this point, neither of us were wearing morning dress. I had on a plain grey suit that passed muster, but Jeff was decidedly more Bohemian in his choice of plumage.
He wore a pink, open-necked shirt, a crumpled, double-breasted blazer of the sort favoured by Trust House majors, ancient jeans, battered desert boots and the coveted brass badge of a racing correspondent. Eminently suitable for an afternoon boozing in Soho, but an unusual choice for a representative of Britain’s grandest racing journal attending one of England’s great racing occasions.
Having lost on the first three races, we once again went to the bar used by the press, where Jeff was received by other members of the racing fraternity with a show of warmth they usually reserved for Gypsy beggars. But our stock went up when Marshall joined us and ordered champagne.
It is always uplifting when a hero turns out to be as delightful as one hopes. Marshall, blithely ignoring Jeff’s louche appearance, regaled us with priceless information about the rest of the card. Information that sadly passed straight through our minds without making the slightest dents in our fuddled brains.
Eventually he announced that he was going to the paddock to view the runners in the next race.
“We’ll come with you,” said Jeff, quickly sinking his drink.
“Where’s your hat?” Marshall enquired as Jeff swayed away from the bar.
“Hat?” growled Bernard, suddenly belligerent. “What the fucking hell would I need a hat for?”
Marshall also bridled. “Suppose we meet the Queen,” he asked indignantly. “What will you raise?”
Jeff thought for a heartbeat and all others at the bar strained to hear his answer.
“There’s always the question of my knighthood,” he replied.
Although this story has remained unpublished I did have occasion to tell it in public – at Jeff’s funeral. It was a jollier occasion than you might imagine. I got a laugh from practically the entire audience. The only stony face in Kensal Rise crematorium was Keith Waterhouse.
It’s not that Waterhouse is mean-spirited, it’s just that as well as being a newspaper columnist, novelist, and playwright, he’s also a professional humorist, and they don’t laugh much – even at funerals. But as soon as the service was over, Waterhouse approached me with a notebook at the ready and a menacing expression.
“Tell me exactly what Bernard said to William Marshall,” he demanded. “I might write it into the play.”
Jeff would have been proud of him.
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