Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews

Reach for the Ground: The Downhill Struggle of Jeffrey Bernard

Jeffrey Bernard
Duckworth (2003) 160 pages

Review by Kevin McGowin

If it were the custom here to give titles to reviews, I'd call the present one "Jeffrey Bernard: Booze Wasn't the Half of It." He may or may not have agreed, for Jeffrey Bernard, a popular and indeed famous columnist for the London Spectator, died of kidney failure in the fall of 1997. In the U.S., few have even heard of him, save for the staunchest Anglophiles, who are usually people not inclined to like Bernard's work anyhow, though his friends were Artistic Royalty and his column an institution. Later, it became the basis for a long-running and very successful play by Keith Waterhouse (Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a title taken from a Bernard column), which opened starring Peter O'Toole, who played the part of Bernard to enormous acclaim in London on and off for years, and who wrote the Forward to this book, a collection of Bernard's columns from 1990 to 1994.

O'Toole was both an obvious and inspired choice for the role, as he had been a friend of Bernard's for some forty years, and by the late 80s was almost every bit as decadent, not to mention that in the great English tradition he is himself an enormously gifted writer who, unlike Americans, writes as he speaks in run-on sentences such as you're reading in this review. Distracting? I hope so. You should read Peter O'Toole's fabulous quirky and underrated semi-autobiographies for more, justice to which a pussy lite-beer alcoholic like me can't even begin to do justice. But the writing is "lit", like the acting—theatre in London is not fuckin' Hollywood, or even theatre in New York. It's more real, I daresay more honest, and takes pride in its long and esteemed tradition—the ideal place to place Jeffrey Bernard and the ideal place for Peter O'Toole, the last of his Breed, to give perhaps his last great shows.


Bernard's column, a weekly thousand-word or so vignette about himself, usually, is essentially a protest against what he saw as middle-class philistinism and mediocrity. An alcoholic, to be sure, Bernard was also a martyr of sorts, nonewithstanding his column's once being described as "A suicide note in weekly installments." As few but certain of the Brits can do, Bernard somehow made this observation and implicit truth a protest (the opposite of a hunger strike) and an ennobling Artistic Statement.

On this note, Bernard's collected "essays" conjure images of certain American "Artist Saints"—St. Kerouac, St. Bukowski, St. Harry Crews—all of who wrote in this vein in one way of other, the vein of brutal honesty and personal regret coupled with outrageous humor and caustic wit.

These essays depict the internal struggles of a brilliant man writing non-stop while aging and drinking himself to death, sitting at a typewriter in a cluttered attic room, listening to classical music. He's an uneven writer and a bastard of a fellow and he knows it. I wish to God Allan Swafford, another newspaper columnist who drank himself to death while doing likewise were alive to read this volume—coward that he was, he'd doubtless shy from Bernard's (never-maudlin) accounts of his own personal shortcomings and failings, but would laugh in Hell at such characteristic Bernardine quips such as "The Scots are resilient, as we saw at Waterloo and the Somme, and I am sure they will get over it."

As the columns progress, Bernard becomes physically sicker , and correspondingly cynical. It's not pretty, but it's honest, and many of his observations about humanity (he sees those surrounding him as humanity in microcosm, and he's probably right) are so aptly put, like a knife thrust into the liver with a smile, that people who are afraid of honesty in any form (most people) will doubtless flinch and consign this slender volume to the rubbish heap. And Bernard's observations so often take on the English flavor of rugby and cricket (like American writers on their favorite sports—horses, whatever) that such passages may be hard to follow unless one wants to follow them.

And at the end, Bernard, sick and alone on New Year's Eve, ponders the question of happiness. As elsewhere in his writing, he observes that many people have told him that his own UN-happiness is his own fault and entirely of his own doing. This is, as he admits, doubtless true, so far as it goes. He was sober as he wrote in this last period—alcohol, the Great Panacea, was a symptom (and a convenient one for others to point to) rather than the cause of whatever it was that had made Jeffrey Bernard unwell. He was sick, dying, still writing. His only friend, it seems, was the also-sober Peter O'Toole.

And here we have some of the most insightful and touching writing of the book—in knowing himself, Bernard, the self-absorbed narcissist (as one—though not me— might say) cuts with laser-accurate efficacy into the sordid hearts of the human condition, and perhaps shows that those who presume to know the whys and wherefores of another's misfortunes, and worse, to pipe up about it, are themselves the sickest cowardly shits of all.. But he doesn't say this—in fact, Suggestion is his specialty, and all the rest head-fakes and window dressing.

Perhaps hate is recycled love, says Bernard in another place, and then follows it up—perhaps these questions are too complex for platitudinous answers. And then, the man who has been compared to such other alcoholic fools and losers as Samuel Pepys and Samuel Johnson has one laughing again—at one's self. Or at least I very strongly hope he does.

For if he doesn't, I suggest you Start Drinking. You can reflect later. Or not, as your case may be.


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