Why should you do what everyone expects from you? Learn from Jeffrey Bernard instead, says Ian Anderson
You probably won’t have heard of Jeffrey Bernard, which is probably just as it should be in a drip-fed soda-pop prescription-view world. You’re going to read about him now because he coined the phrase ‘aim low and miss’.
Jeffrey was known, by those who gave a toss about not giving a toss, for his ‘Low Life’ weekly column in The Spectator. He was notorious for an irresponsible and chaotic career, and his life of alcohol abuse. His choice.
His ‘aim low and missives’ obsessed on “life, drink, the dispossessed, the reckless, the feckless; on women, officials, women, poseurs, madmen, tarts, dirty-bookshop owners, nurses, women, bookies, jockeys, women, wives, women...” Between the lines, his main lessons for all of us to learn in these pinched times – when our duties seem to be to hide in conformity, to fret when there is none, and to go shopping when the shit hits the fan – were that you don’t have to do what other people think they expect from you.
Jeffrey Bernard personified what was swinging Soho’s lurid, bohemian art-mosphere, the kind of scene that eventually kinda dried up when Damien Hirst dried out and moved up a gear. He was a fallen, pickled god of earthly delights attracting ever-circling kindred spirits like Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas and the Queen of Bohemia, Nina Hamnett. Ultimately, his relentless wolf-racing to Leatherhead had the inevitable effect on his health and reliability, and in place of his increasingly irregular column, the magazine regularly had to post the notice ‘Jeffrey Bernard is unwell’, a professional epitaph that Keith Waterhouse borrowed to title his hit comedy in which Peter O’Toole immortalised the painfully mortal Mr Bernard. A recording of Jeffrey intoning “I’m one of the few people who lives what’s called the low-life” was sampled on New Order’s ‘This Time of Night’ on their Low-Life album. If you give a toss.
The typical expression of success in our Cheryl-Cola Mild Western wannabe culture is the acquisition and hi-vis spunking of the readies on stuff we’re told we want, but don’t need: Getting-It (off the shelf) and Flaunting-It (like people do in magazines), all garbed up in the fake expectations of other people’s ideas. For Jeffrey Bernard, ‘aim low and miss’ described a life where original thought is the key to an alternative life with different ideals – somewhere between different strokes for different folks and self-determination. You. Us. In fact.
And, to keep us out of trouble – or more accurately distracted in ‘manageable trouble’ – we’re encouraged to live a series of ‘either / or’ realities; to participate in a mass culture divided and ruled between the pre-packed partisan identities of warring brands and style tribes.
Essentially, as Simon Reynolds raises in Retromania, ‘either / or’ is the logic of difficult choices in, and perpetuating, an age of scarcity. The twist is that, historically, life itself has always been a scarcity economy of limited time and energy. You see, what’s missing from the supertechno-utopian scenarios of Cockayne and access and choice is the reality of limits, barbwired by the brain’s finite capacity to process information.
Jeffrey Bernard’s ‘aim low and miss’ inadvertently pre-outmoded the ‘either / or’ thinking of divide and rule in favour of the new improved buzz of ‘plus / and’, a fucking mindbomb that means we don’t have to choose: we can have both – we can have it all (lollipop) in all its technicolour post-aspirational contradictory glory – if we use our creativity to simply be better, rather than just better than someone else.
AIM LOW + M—SS isn’t a cop out. It’s not a resignation to failure nor the misguided whoring of futility rights, it’s the hot pursuit of defining success relative to your own creative goals, free from the shackles of social expectation and the cathode ray phone-in public vote. It’s a personal vote for hyperbole-free happiness neither totally nailed nor smashed, not standard, not ‘put down’, high-fived nor dragon-approved; not the richest, fastest, strongest, biggest, thinnest, sexiest… just a wonderful ‘doowutchyacan’ life, neither more nor less ordinary. “If at first you don’t succeed, then failure may be your style,” just like Quentin said.
But what is success? And failure on whose terms? If the best things in life aren’t things and if, as the singing goat Bob Dylan observed, someone is successful if they get up in the morning and go to bed at night and in between do what they want – what is it you want to do today, beyond the value judgements of others?