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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

TAC Bookshelf: The Greatest ‘Low Life’ Columnist

Few were so in touch with the, shall we say, earthy side of the journalism business as the late Jeffrey Bernard.
Jeffrey Bernard new play

Jude Russo, managing editor: There are few things worse than a pompous hack. This is a grubby business at best; Samuel Johnson referred to us as the men who scribble on the backs of advertisements. What we do is a combination of three antisocial behaviors—snooping, gossiping, and preaching—and putting on airs about it is just silly. You might as well imagine a self-righteous bookie or pawnbroker.

Few were so in touch with the, shall we say, earthy side of the business as the late Jeffrey Bernard, a world-beating rake and degenerate. Bernard’s “Low Life” columns, which ran in the Spectator as foils to the “High Life” column of the immortal Taki Theodoracopoulos (a founder of our own magazine), were dispatches from the void.

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Bernard had been the racing columnist for Sporting Life until his antics got him the sack (imagine being too badly behaved for sportswriting). For the Spectator, he would bash out Hogarthian tableaux on his typewriter (“Monica”) from a perch at the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, featuring characters from the seamy side like “No Knickers” Joyce and “London’s rudest landlord,” Norman Balon. These little sketches of betting shops, bars, and seedy studio apartments were so vivid that Keith Waterhouse wrote a play based on a number of them, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (a turn of phrase used by the Spectator editors when Bernard was too drunk to file). Peter O’Toole starred in its first run, which was a huge success.

A number of the columns were collected in a 1987 volume, titled simply Low Life. Essential reading for people who take journalism seriously.