Saturday, 8 March 2008
Jeffrey Bernard is unwell...
Down with diplomacy.
Frequent adventures with a well-informed companion have led to the discovery of one of my current favourite phrases: “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.” Regular readers of the Spectator, frequenters of certain Soho establishments, and Keith Waterhouse devotees will have to excuse my previous ignorance and present enthusiasm, but what a guy that Jeffrey Bernard!
I’m still relatively ignorant (Low Life is on order from Amazon) as to the minutiae, but I feel confident that I’ve been introduced to the more essential anecdotes. When I knew nothing of Mr Bernard, before I heard of the marvellous “Low Life” column and its inspired epithet “a suicide note in weekly instalments” I assumed that Bernard must have been a cadish, louche, Victorian era, gentleman’s gentleman; the lowest of low, but fashionably so. You can imagine my surprise then, when I found out that Bernard only began writing his column for the Spectator in 1978. While there is something slightly repulsive about Bernard’s tale, primarily his penchant for self-destructive behaviour, there’s a certain essence of glamour and good old-fashioned decadence that makes his (completely romanticised) lifestyle so attractive.
Walking around Soho these days (okay, mostly nights), there is little sense that this is where things are happening, where things are exciting or progressive. Decadence and glamour are long gone and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone as properly devil-may-care as Jeffrey Bernard, drinking himself to death, refusing to pander to other people’s expectations and having a damn good time doing it. Case in point: Jeremy Clarke who, in taking over from Bernard, currently writes “Low Life.” His current column is on the tranquil pleasure of lane swimming in public swimming pools. Yawn. His column is safe, boring, the complete antithesis of what ought to constitute a London, but especially Soho, low life – a drunk, a womaniser, a dandy, one with zero comprehension of or care for political correctness. Really, The Low Life ought to be someone who doesn’t give a damn about much else apart from personal pleasure and who consequently spends the majority of their waking moments in pursuit of said pleasure. As Bernard demonstrated, this need not necessarily mean an especially active pursuit of pleasure, though perhaps shunning one’s responsibilities and having no concern for other people’s opinions on how to live one’s life are a sort of pleasure in themselves.
I was in one of Soho’s private clubs last night and the evening sort of summed up everything that feels wrong about modern Soho. Though to be fair, I have a bi-polar relationship with private drinking clubs in general. On the one hand, I enjoy having a place to go that isn’t packed with tourists, yobs, and drunken Essex girls, but the down side is that most people in the clubs are so self-righteous that I find I would almost rather be out with the ya-ya’s and “normal people” than the Cheshire Cats stuffed in the clubs. There’s also the curiosity of members clubs’ demographics. In other parts of London, say the East End, everyone’s young and fashionably deconstructed. There may be queues for clubs and bars, but if you’re clever you won’t have to wait in one. Members clubs, on the other hand, especially in Soho, are either full of pseudo-celebrities, B-list celebrities, and City Boys, or curiously strange old men, who think drunken conversations about obscure, out of work actors (i.e. themselves) are nothing short of the most potent aphrodisiac for a twentysomething female.
But what really drives me up the wall is the attitude that accompanies most clubs. As darling Jamie T puts it “if you got the money” you can pretty much walk through whichever doors you desire. But if you don’t, you have to network your way into a club, which primarily constitutes genuflection to the point of knee injury. Seeing as I'm not especially inclined to shell out an extortionate amount of money for my membership, nor will I run the risk of doing permanent damage to my knees (not to mention my pride) I don’t plan on becoming a permanent member any time soon. Perhaps that’s why Jeffrey Bernard’s most beloved drinking spot was the Coach and Horses pub and not Gerry’s, Blacks, or the Colony Room – because when anyone can get in, sure it might be more annoying, more tedious, and less appealing to the snobby elitist in me who enjoys exclusivity, but at least things happen in places where regulation doesn’t exist. In many ways members clubs simply play on the insecurities of people who want to feel like they belong and who want to believe that exclusivity makes them superior. It’s curious that most of the people in the club last night would absolutely lambaste the idea of a paying £3,000 for a status handbag, but are happy to do essentially the same thing in paying the, admittedly less expensive than a Prada handbag, annual fee for admission into clubs, some of which aren’t even very nice inside and stuffed with the most eccentrically tedious people in London.
So in salute to the increasingly fascinating Mr Bernard, I shall endeavour to be more decadent, less diplomatic, and in constant pursuit of my own pleasure, which means staying away from members clubs in Soho. Unless they let me in for free, of course.
Here’s to being a Low Life…