08 September 2015

A Last Call for a Bit of Old Soho

You have about a week left to catch a radio dramatisation of Keith Waterhouse's famous play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. It has an amusing moment or two, but more in the nature of tragi-comedy than side-splitting slapstick. I strongly recommend giving it a listen if you want gain an idea of an eccentric corner of London Life during the postwar era. It could be considered a sort of parody of the Algonquin Round Table, a place where civilly vicious quips were replaced by out-and-out drunken insults and so will pass largely unmemorialised.

Bernard is the sort of person who disproves my fundamental notion that the English-speaking world has a culture that transcends the national boundaries that divide it. He drifted from job to job within journalism, eventually fetching up in Alexander Chancellor's version of The Spectator, a magazine long associated with the Conservative Party in Britain. Bernard wrote a weekly column under the characterisation, 'Low Life'. In this, he described a life largely empty of middle-class achievement, but one full of the kind of incident that could amuse, such as the story of the racing cats featured in the play.

My recent hiatus was due in part to the necessity to leave Canada, and during the journey to my new location (Boca Raton, FL), I bumped into the Waterhouse play while lying in bed one morning in Lexington, SC. Wherever I had wifi and time, I would listen to it. I have heard parts of it multiple times during the past month, and it has sent my memory (and my internet searches) back in time to 1980s London. for some of that time I was working for a publishing company just off St Martin's Lane. I had also been, for some years already, a loyal Spectator reader, and would read Bernard's column on occasion. Of the men I met who knew Jeffrey Bernard, apart from his brother Bruce, they seemed an insecure lot ready to intimidate with shouts and words in order to establish some kind of pecking order. Bernard does not come across like that here, but I have to believe he could give as good as he got from the likes of Graham Mason.

So, I encourage you to have a listen to this play (or you can look for a filmed version on YouTube; there used to be a few) before its iPlayer time is up. Many people see Bernard as something of 'a man's man', for those of you interested in issues of gender. His Anglospheric connection is made through the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart (here presented with a cringe-worthy accent), who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and worked for Queen magazine. That bohemian Soho of which Bernard was a part will surely, before long, become a popular subject for academic research (if it hasn't become so already). Because, apart from the drunkeness, metropolitan intellectuals kind of all live like that now.

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