A recollection of a memorable fraternal encounter.
Two of the three Bernard brothers, Bruce and Jeffrey, would die within several years of one another, in 2000 and 1997 respectively. Although their lives had often been publicly fractious, they became differently attached as their elderly health grew more perilous. ‘The animosity between us was always a bit overrated,’ Bruce once told me.
Jeffrey’s mordant alcoholic self-loathing was legendary: he was once sick on the Queen Mother’s feet at Ascot. Once, while trying to settle a dispute with his infuriated editor, Jeffrey whipped out his penis and shouted ‘beat that!’ to his boss. He was fired on the spot. ‘Why do I drink so much? To stop myself from jogging,’ he once wrote. Bruce could be just as miserable and cutting. ‘I’ll never be angry with you again’ appeared on the back of a photograph he gave me one birthday, although the darkness that haunted him was less vocal. Many people were convinced the two brothers were capable of killing one another.
One night, somewhere in the middle of the 1990s, Bruce invited me to his flat in Frederick Street for a drink, aiming to take me out to dinner. He enjoyed exploring new restaurants and we often stayed out late, drinking and talking. That evening, as he carefully went about arranging the ingredients for our cocktails, he said he was worried about Jeffrey as he hadn’t answered his phone since the evening before. We started to drink our French 75s, but Bruce was increasingly unsettled. Eventually, he asked if I would come to Jeffrey’s flat with him. He did not want to be alone when he found his brother’s dead body. In any case, it was on the way to the restaurant, he added, as if I needed further inducement.
We took a taxi to Berwick Street Market and picked up Jeffrey’s key (from the nearby barrow man he’d left a spare with). We entered Kemp House, the looming tower block where Jeffrey lived on the 14th floor. After ringing the bell several times, Bruce unlocked the front door with the key. We could hear his brother’s voice. ‘I was worried about you,’ Bruce said immediately upon entering.
It was as if he’d shed a layer of clothing. We found Jeffrey immobilised in his wheelchair, wedged into the bathroom doorway, dehydrated, his pants down, desperate for a piss after spending the afternoon unable to move. Together we dislodged his chair and Bruce pushed him into the bathroom.
‘I’ve been stuck here since 2pm,’ said Jeffrey, gloomily, as Bruce helped him stand to use the lavatory. He stood holding his brother from behind as Jeffrey peed for what seemed like hours. The physical pathos of the two frail men was terribly affecting. I went into the living room to give them some privacy. Bruce helped his brother back into his wheelchair, then parked him in the living room.
‘For fuck’s sake, get the lady a drink,’ Jeffrey barked, frustration faded into his tired old voice. He’d recovered his equilibrium and went about lighting a cigarette, coughing horribly. ‘I’ll have one too,’ Bruce added with a wheeze. He located a bottle of whisky, making his way backwards and forwards across the room between the two sofas piled with books and cushions, then to the kitchen for glasses and water. In the absence of a drinks tray, he brought our drinks out in several separate trips. ‘No ice!’ Jeffrey said, glaring suspiciously at me.
‘Who is she, Bruce? Why have you brought her here?’ Bruce told his brother we had been on our way out to dinner, that we’d worked together cataloguing the 5,000 or so images in the John Deakin archive. We’d come across a number of portraits of each of the brothers, but at the time, Jeffrey’s two dramatic profile images were as yet unpublished. He seemed flattered to imagine his part in Deakin’s album of legendary Soho identities. Usually, the very mention of John Deakin in the circles Bruce and Jeffrey inhabited would be cause for snarls of disapproval. It was familiar territory to me. Even by the 1990s, few if any photographers were given much credit. Theirs wasn’t an art form many had embraced, and Deakin was not the only artist condemned in this milieu of insecure bohemians. The gifted photographer had managed to offend virtually all his friends, employers and subjects.
This time, though, I wanted to intercept the usual flare of disdain that tended to snuff out greater insight into Deakin’s character. I told Jeffrey that my mother had known him in the early 1950s. At which point, he began fulsomely praising Deakin’s work, as if to defend him against her. It was like watching someone fighting with a feather pillow. Bruce had dedicated a great deal of effort into seeing Deakin’s talent recognised, Jeffrey reminded me proudly. Photography is a medium that makes the experience of looking at beautiful images a casual, democratic luxury, we each agreed.
As middle-class Englishmen from an artistic family, photography had been in the Bernard brothers’ lives for as long as they could remember. Jeffrey was showing signs of being warmed by the whisky; the pain and indignity of his long afternoon of uncomfortable dishabille was abating at last. He began directing Bruce to retrieve favourite childhood possessions. From a gold-trimmed red leatherette album, he took out an image of their mother, which was then passed backwards and forwards reverently between the brothers before it was handed to me. ‘She was lovely, wasn’t she?’ said one of them. The aged son’s roughened thumb gently stroked the powdered cheeks of their mother’s face. Against all odds, bonded in mortal endurance, the brothers chatted for a few minutes until suddenly Jeffrey snapped again. ‘Put some music on, for fuck’s sake!’
No one moved for a few moments until Bruce got to his feet and shambled over to the record player. He picked up the LP from the turntable and peered at it. ‘What’s this you’ve been listening to?’ Jeffrey told him it was Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 performed by the Trafalgar Sinfonia, a recently established ensemble.
The early notes of the symphony rang out as he straightened up again and turned to face us. Bruce told his brother about my grandmother’s connection to Admiral Nelson’s brother, William, a pastor in Surrey. Jeffrey nodded as if he’d known all along. It was a typical middle-class English ritual, elaborating upon preposterous historic connections, family legends relived in the frayed armchairs and sagging sofas of London’s summer evening light.
At last, Beethoven’s music overcame the slightly competitive brotherly exchange of favourite anecdotes of Nelson’s audacious marine manoeuvres. Their duet of gentlemanliness resumed. I learned the Bernards were related to the actor Stanley Holloway and that their mother Dora Hodge had used the stage name Fedora Roselli.
I was enraptured by the conversation, their attention, and the differences and similarities between these two legendary Soho figures, the brothers Bernard, so close at hand. Although it seemed they’d performed the evening’s amusements time and again, it was as if they had planned that night for me long ago. Being with them together at such relative ease, keen to pleasure my visit with intelligent treats as a meaningful form of light entertainment.
At first, it was a surprise for me to hear Jeffrey speak. His voice was languid but terse, its register slightly raised. Yet there was something in his phrasing that echoed his brother’s way of talking. Bruce distilled his thinking, never wasting words and sometimes pausing to mentally flick through rhetorical options. It often made for quizzical silences when the flow of a conversation was left in Bruce’s hands. He was not readily inclined to lead the early moments of a chat, much less conduct a conversation.
Bruce and Jeffrey loved one another, it was clear that night. Their affection for each other was not just for my benefit. The more I expressed my enjoyment of the books and photographs Bruce fetched and carried for Jeffrey to show me, the sweeter they became towards each other. Their well-told anecdotes of the London of their youth gave an intimate picture of post-war Britain as a cruel cultural testing ground for the artists and writers they knew. Social acceptance was in short supply, critical appreciation even less so. They shared a unique moral tolerance for misfits and failures that touched me deeply.
The night I spent with Bruce and Jeffrey reminded me that neither of them were in the least bit unfamiliar with the burden of grudges and cutting betrayals. They’d had more than their fair share of caprice and, of drunks and dowagers. That night, though, they were not bitter or sad: they were brothers.