If we all got drunk like Jeffrey Bernard, we could save the NHS a lot of money

Plus: in Scandanavia there’s nothing posh about summerhouses

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

Just back from a few nights in Sweden to find the perfect programme on Radio 3. It was one of those interval shorts that are always such a nightly bonus during the Proms season. That 20-minute space between concert halves is the perfect length for listening. On Sunday night it was Kate Clanchy’s turn to fill in between Sibelius symphonies and what better topic than The Summer House (produced by Julian May), or rather the stuga, mokki, sommerhus or dacha beloved of Scandinavians and Russians, where Sibelius would retreat to write those symphonies redolent of dark woods and deep waters. Here the hassle and routine of city life are abandoned and days are spent chopping wood, gathering cloudberries or just soaking up the long-awaited sunlight.

We don’t really have a word in English to describe them. To us a summerhouse is usually a folly on a lawn, a creosoted doll’s house for adults, somewhere to store the croquet set or have tea on a dismal afternoon. In Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, though, it’s always a real house, a place to go back to every year, where you spend time with family and friends and get back in touch with what matters. There’s nothing posh about them, says Clanchy. One third of Sweden’s population have access to a family stuga, to these clapboard homes where there’s nothing to do except hang out on the deck or lose yourself in watching the clouds moving across a startling blue sky.

She reminded us of Tove Jansson’s haunting evocation of the experience in The Summer Book. A grandmother leaves the city behind to spend the summer on a tiny island with her granddaughter Sophia. It takes only four and a half minutes to walk round the island in the gulf of Finland but to the reader the distances travelled each day by Sophia and her grandmother appear much, much longer because of Jansson’s imaginative freedom, her willingness to explore inwardly.

‘Are there ants in heaven?’ asks Sophia. ‘No,’ says the grandmother, bluntly, before telling Sophia, who is lying beside her on the grass, to stay still and listen to the insects. ‘You could hear thousands and millions of them.’

Saturday afternoon’s dramatic performance of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (Radio 4) was a welcome reminder of Bernard’s Spectator column, last seen in 1997. That ability to turn a life of doing nothing into 800 or so words of razor-sharp wit smacked of some kind of literary genius. He always made you laugh even while appalled by his apparent behaviour. And not just laugh. He also made you wince; wonder whether perhaps you might be that ice-cold harpie, or dyed-in-the-wool toadie.

John Hurt took the part that Peter O’Toole so memorably made his own in Keith Waterhouse’s West End play, the title of which came from this magazine’s cryptic announcement whenever Bernard was too ill (or drunk) to produce his weekly Low life copy. To create the right atmosphere, the play was recorded in Gerry’s bar in Soho, which claims to be ‘one of the last places keeping the Soho boho tradition alive’, and where Bernard once worked as a barman. The sound effects were suitably Bernardian: liquids being poured, glasses clinking, a match being struck and cigarette smoke exhaled. Hurt did his best to recapture that compelling mixture of booze-inflated self-aggrandisement and remorseless self-pity. He even attempted, and succeeded (so we were led to believe), the infamous egg trick perfected by O’Toole on-stage. Yet there was something missing and, dare I say it, at one-and-a-half hours there was a touch of the longueurs.

What was so remarkable about Bernard’s column is that mysterious thing called ‘voice’ (also possessed by his much-loved successor Jeremy Clarke). That unmistakable presence on the page. Plus an uncanny ability never to use a word out of place. Bernard might have been a disreputable presence in the Coach and Horses, and insufferable to be with when too much under the influence, but on the page his prose was always crystal-clear and impeccably crafted.

Sian Williams’s lunchtime series for Radio 4, How to Have a Better Brain (Monday to Friday, produced by Dixi Stewart), was inspired by her encounter with Dr Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster, and her mother Scilla, who used to work as a psychiatrist. Scilla is suffering from accelerated memory loss and her daughter is trying to find ways to stem the tide of symptoms. Exercise has been proven to help, with studies showing that there is less shrinking of the brain and fewer lesions on the white matter in those who walk regularly. More critical, though, are levels of stress. Cognitive tests have shown that prolonged anxiety causes increased cortisol levels, which are toxic to the brain.

What to do about it? Have a good laugh, says Dr Hannah Critchlow. This releases endorphins which help us to feel good (and keep the memory working well) while also exercising the ribs and intercostal muscles. What, I wonder, would Bernard have made of the idea that by making us laugh with his stories of drinking to excess he was saving the NHS a lot of money?

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Show comments
  • Sean Grainger

    I claim I wrote the saving money piece nearly ten years ago sitting in the Hirschgarten in Munich. I turned it into a radio piece for Point Of View that I would attach if that option was offered. The numbers are quite striking,

  • davidshort10

    The headline is misleading in more ways than one. Not least because JB’s drinking cost the NHS quite a lot of money, though I for one do not begrudge it.

  • Blether

    Yeah, and how much did he cost it through encouraging dipsomaniacs the length and breadth of the realm?

    More than 9 million people in England drink more than the recommended daily limits
    In England, in 2012 there were 6,490 alcohol-related deaths, a 19% increase compared to 2001
    Alcohol is 10% of the UK burden of disease and death, making alcohol one of the three biggest lifestyle risk factors for disease and death in the UK, after smoking and obesity.
    An estimated 7.5 million people are unaware of the damage their drinking could be causing
    Alcohol misuse costs England around £21bn per year in healthcare, crime and lost productivity costs

    • Peter Stroud

      Thank you for your cheerful opinion.

      • Blether

        Oh, I’m all for joy, mate. I just wonder how real is the kind that comes out of a bottle. Nor would I prohibit the stuff, or make the stupid mistake our society does of prohibiting other artificial highs regardless of the merits in each case and in defiance of official independent advice.

        I suspect Jeffrey Bernard was at heart a broken little boy. Is it a cheerful thing, watching someone drink himself to death? Not to me.

        Nonetheless, there’s a constant drip of these “drinking is fun” sort of stories in the national press. Pushed on us by the PR efforts of the alcohol industry, of course.

        From [Jeffrey Bernard] at Wikipedia:

        “… Over time his drinking affected his health more seriously; he was hospitalised for detoxification, he suffered from pancreatitis and then diabetes. Ultimately his right leg was amputated, three years before his death. He died at his home in Soho at age 65 of renal failure after voluntarily refusing further treatment by dialysis”

        How he must have been chuckling to himself, eh Peter?

        • Trofim

          So if he died at 65, and the average age of death of a male citizen of the UK is 80, he saved the state, and the taxpayer, 15 years of shelling out his pension. After all, aren’t we constantly being told how scary it is having so many old people? Any responsible government would encourage people to lead more risky lives and thus counteract the trend.

      • ViolinSonaten b minor.

        I cannot believe what a depressing person that is. Everyone knows about the perils of alcohol and the need for moderation. But he/ she wishes to remove
        every ounce of joy out of life.

    • hugh

      The one greatest risk factor, my doctor recently told me, is age.

      • Blether

        How’s that then? Risk of death? Or do you really think that more old people get liver disease, for example, than drinkers?

        A 19% increase in alcohol-related deaths in ten-odd years is a staggering figure. Those i quoted are from alcohol concern

        • blandings

          There’s more than one way to die – You’re boring me to death

          • Blether

            Some good news at last.

          • blandings

            Mine’s a double

          • Blether

            Dead men don’t drink.

          • blandings

            Much to your satisfaction no doubt

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Good grief, he’s a doom monger.At least Blether might become a decent spirit if he bores you to death ( he’d be a Brandy).
            I myself am a chilled white wine in the garden underneath the
            wild roses- what will be will be, as far as life is concerned.

  • Sean Grainger

    After two,and,a,half bottles of Riesling I may have slightly missed your point but Jeff just wrote pretty well. We had off course betting the Coach getting old monumental vodka consumption Norman above all the food us drinkers find in the morning. He didn’t go in for endorphins ….

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      The best cure for a hangover is whatever food you can find hanging around
      in the darkest corners of your fridge the morning after.

  • Leon Wolfeson

    Yea, then there’s the problem that stress levels as a product of government cuts…oops!

  • Jeff bin in? Sorry I didn’t get to know him longer.

  • Sue Smith

    For a moment I thought that was Peter O’Toole in that picture, until I remembered…..