The advance publicity for Christopher Howse’s new book about Soho seems to be concentrating so far on affectionate recollections about Jeffrey Bernard, a self-destructive drunk made into an icon by Peter O’Toole’s astounding portrayal in Keith Waterhouse’s Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a by-line used by the Spectator when Bernard was too drunk or sick to send in his ‘Low Life’ column in the magazine. I can add some memories to that all of my own.
In response to a huge row that erupted when Roald Dahl wrote a highly contentious review of a book which contained an attack on the Israeli occupation of Gaza, Bernard entered the fray in ‘Low Life’ by proposing that, as a retaliation for the sentencing of ‘a parched man’ to six hundred strokes by those ‘awful Arabs’ (referring to a recent event in Saudi Arabia), six hundred strokes should be inflicted on an Arab in London. He nominated me for this punishment as the boss of Quartet Books and possibly ‘the ugliest man he had ever met’.
It was beyond comprehension that the Spectator should have published such offensive material, but the Mail on Sunday ferreted out a reason to explain ‘why the genial Jeffrey is lashing out at Naim in the Spectator’. David Skan, the writer of the short piece, speculated that it was ‘probably not unconnected with an encounter between Attallah’s Quartet book firm and Bernard, who was commissioned to write a book about racing. Deadlines were missed and the book never appeared. Attallah made Bernard repay the advance.’
Bernard continued with his abuse. In describing another flat-racing season, Jeffrey Bernard wrote that ‘watching a mediocre steeplechaser negotiating twelve fences on a damp and cold winter’s afternoon is about as inspiring as watching the Ayatollah Attallah chatting up a beauty at a publisher’s cocktail party. You can admire them both for their gall.’
Despite this, he was still invited, and often attended, our publishing parties and even appeared in one of Quartet’s more outrageous books, Naked London, published in September 1987. Private Eye in ‘Grovel’ fired off its own salvo of shots a few months before the book appeared: ‘I am told that an unseemly disagreement has arisen between the seedy Palestinian parfumier and publisher Naim Ayatollah and the world’s most famous cottager Adrian Woodhouse . . . Woodhouse apparently accepted gelt from Naim to write the text for a book of soft-porn photographs featuring London’s glitterati in their naked glory . . . But as . . . no words have sprung forth from Woodhouse’s pen, [the] camel herder has resorted to employing the glue-sniffing dope smuggler Taki Theodoracopulos to write the text instead.’
In April ‘Grovel’ was expounding on the story, announcing the further difficulties he heard the ‘seedy Palestinian publisher’ was having with ‘his absurd book’. Meanwhile ‘the book is proving to be a disaster’. Unfortunately several so-called celebrities have decided to withdraw their pictures at the last minute, including Margaux Hemingway, Samantha Baring and even Oliver Gilmour – Katya Grenfell’s husband. In desperation, therefore, Katya has had to persuade cadaverous wino Jeff Bernard to lend her his body. Thankfully, his vitals were ‘draped’ with a racing-form book.’ [NB. The book sold out!]
Jeffrey was admittedly a talented character but a nasty piece of work whose humour to me was unpalatable to say the least. Give me Private Eye at any time.