Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Several times in my life, I’ve woken up in a pub. Sadly though, these days lock-ins no longer happen to me. I think part of it is the licensing laws. Since the Licensing Act 2003, landlords kick everyone out at 2am rather than lock the doors at 11 and join in the fun, The authorities, too are more punctilious about enforcing the the new rules. Either that, or I’m no longer 25, and I’m no longer invited. But here we are, I’m in a pub, the estimable Coach and Horses on Greek Street, Soho, and we’ve been locked in with a drink-sodden roué called Jeffrey Bernard (played by Robert Bathurst).
Jeffrey Bernard wrote the Low Life column in the Spectator until his death in 1997. It was “a suicide note in weekly installments”. Weekly, unless he was “unwell” and failed to deliver his copy on time. He chronicled the lives and loves and descent of old Soho, though the adventures of a cast of a few thousand inhabitants of what was then a glamorous but shabby and disreputable part of west central London. Many of the watering holes, where politicians, journalists and whores rubbed shoulders with Luvvies and criminals, are now closed. The Gay Hussar, a Hungarian restaurant just up the road, where lefties plotted revolution, shut last year. Only the Coach and Horses, or “Norman’s” remains a monument to this lost world. It’s interior remains unchanged since the 1970s, and this production a stripped down, solo version of Keith Waterhouse’s play, is being put on in the very place it was set.
The Pub itself is as much as a star in this performance as Robert Bathurst, who delivered his monologue pretty well, but without the cameos, it felt a bit like a string of drinking anecdotes. Bathurst held up tolerably too, to the inevitable comparison to Peter O’Toole, for whom the part was written. But what made the evening special: You cannot recreate the deep atmosphere of a place like that pub. It’s still in touch with a lost community – though cartoons on the wall, to the graffiti in the bogs and the affection many people feel for the place. I’ve made friends here, and this pub is one of my favourite places on earth. The history and the characters keep drawing me back for “just the one”, and I’m not alone. Celebrities have turned out to support this institution. Stephen Fry attended the Premier, to honour the place where Ian Hislop and Peter Cook could once be found propping up the bar, being witty.
But these people aren’t in the Coach and Horses as much recently. These people have either died, or they don’t drink any more. The life of the piss-artist is, like tinker and jester, one soon to be lost to history. Chronicling the lives of interesting drinkers no longer sells papers, because it’s not sexy to die with one leg, suffering the complications of diabetes. And, as Bernard himself observed, the pub’s great characters drift off, and you’re left with the kind of “character” who’s eccentricity is to lose umbrellas. This generation’s piss artists will be found in Camden, not Soho. If there are great piss-artists, they’re not the sort to honour their predecessors by frequenting the same watering hole to bask in the glow of someone else’s genius. True piss-artistry cannot be other than original and singular, otherwise it’s just alcoholism. And these days the kind of people who manage to survive on a few well-turned phrases and the generosity of older sexual partners don’t drink, they take Cocaine.
Cocaine, you see doesn’t put a spare tyre over those beautiful, instagrammable abdominal muscles, and whilst a coke-head will die no older than the drinkers did, they go quickly and aesthetically of a heart attack, not as a doubly incontinent carcass rotting away with a faint whiff of peardrops and urine. Hanging around outside the pub 10 minutes before opening time grey faced and suffering the DTs simply doesn’t look as funny or clever as it once did, because we’ve watched where it leads.
Fullers, the Pub’s owners, want to revamp the property, and manage it themselves. It does need some money spent. Pubs these days must get the basics right, or the people will move, whatever history they have. The “characters” these days don’t need a venue to live in. Today’s equivalent of the Bar at the Coach, is Twitter. And unlike at the Coach & Horses in the 1980s, you don’t need to drink your liver away to hear a great wit’s bon mots.
We cannot keep places frozen in aspic, monuments to moments and people who have passed. We all move on, or perish. The current landlord has made the pub a Vegan restaurant, and I wonder what Bernard would have made of that, so he’s trying. But pub laws are so cruel to landlords who make a success of their pub, as they can find the business they built taken from them. I’ve seen too many PubCos rip the heart out of communities with ill-judged renovations and break the heart of Landlords by installing managers. Sign the petition here, if you agree. But I think, like the drinking anecdotes at a bar, we’ve heard this story before.
Sitting just behind Cambridge circus, between Chinatown and Soho, Fuller’s calculate they can make more money than the current tenants. That which will be lost when they do so is only really of value to a dwindling band of romantics, and fans of a 30-year-old play about a journalist who stopped writing in the ’90s. And that isn’t a magic powerful enough to overcome the brute economics of central London property prices.