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Book Review: Just the One: The Wives and Times of Jeffrey Bernard by Graham Lord

I first came across Jeffrey Bernard in the late 70s when he was writing a column for a Sunday redtop. Even as a pre-teenager I was fascinated by this flamboyant character and his vivid Dickensian descriptions of Soho with its cast of gypsies, tramps and thieves. After devouring the football pages, it would be to Bernard's column that this 10-year old would turn next. The Coach and Horses felt like it was located in my own street in the north west of England rather than Soho. This biography relates a tragic story. It is a story of potential squandered, talent wasted - a medieval morality tale that could save others from a similar fate. Bernard was Britain's greatest ever piss head, an alcoholic of Olympian prowess who could happily down a couple of bottles of vodka on an average day, and the rest. Sadly, alcohol defined Bernard. Without it one feels he would have been just as miserable - more so - than with it. Lose-lose. The story of this handsome but feckless cad has to be read to be believed: married four times, gambler, bookie, actor, pugilist, author, adventurer, womaniser, diabetic, alcoholic, sage (post this biography an amputee) - his was not an ordinary life. Mr Lord has certainly managed to present the man in all his many guises. From labourer to West End sensation, this book charts the ups and many downs of Bernard's life in glorious technicolour. Assisted by Bernard himself, Mr Lord's biography is a dead cert though the dig at Peter O'Toole for his non-contribution tickles the fancy. Anyone who has written a biography will know the sinking feeling that non-cooperation brings. Nonetheless, this is the definitive biography with revealing contributions from a host of people including Bernard's brothers, ex-spouses and many concubines. A conundrum for any biography lies in honesty. How honest should a biographer be about the subject? As Mr Lord relates in his introduction honesty had to be integral to this book or frankly what would have been the point? Sugar coating Bernard would have been futile and ridiculous. Thus, this book is a portrait of a petty, vain, arrogant, feckless man quite happy to rip off close friends and seduce their wives. Jeffrey Bernard come across as a 'little shit.' One of the most intriguing aspects of reading this book is to puzzle over why and how such a flawed human being (one wants to write 'disgusting' but 'flawed' will have to suffice) could have had so many friends ready to bail him out of trouble only to be given the Bernard brush off. Lovable rogues can and often are not so lovable in reality. It seems that certain individuals exploit weakness in others. Bernard's treatment of women was reprehensible. Yet they kept coming back for more - 500 of them apparently. Indeed, modern sensibilities might well be affronted by Bernard, lovable rogue in the 80s would be today's misogynist and reviled rather than feted. Times change. Jeffrey Bernard was, if nothing else, a man of his time. It all makes for a fascinating read. Bernard's oedipal yearnings for his admittedly very attractive mother add an element of Freudian suspense. The constant threat of penury though might have been exaggerated - certainly after west end success arrived late in life. From Errol Flynn to Oliver Reed hell-raisers come and go. And Bernard was in many ways the last of a dying breed. It's almost impossible to imagine these guys thriving let alone even surviving in these censorious, politically correct times in which we live. Bernard's response to the thought police would have been short and to the point: 'fuck off.' Jeffrey Bernard, hero and villain, written four years before the death of the subject, Graham Lord's meticulously researched biography is a warts and all account of a life that promised much, but delivered so very little and should therefore be required reading for every procrastinator, shirker and dreamer out there.