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1st January 2020

If you hang around in bars you will soon find yourself consorting with the thwarted and the never-wases, those poor souls who believed themselves cut out for greater things but who for some reason fell some way short of their own imagined apotheosis and seem only capable of examining this failure by becoming pot-valiant. We’ve all been there.

Some never understand why a successful life has eluded them, and this can be fascinating. Over the years I have ‘collected’ such types, and mentally filed their anecdotes. I’ve met wannabe football players, actors, models, artists, porn stars, novelists, master criminals and musicians. Now there was a time when a failed singer would give you, from the depths of his cups and the Palladium of his mind, Sinatra: a closing time bellow of My Way; or perhaps an Elvis number, which would invariably mean a lip-twitching bawl of American Trilogy with the landlord threatening to call the police as a sort of Greek chorus counterpoint. I know one who to this day does selections from Fiddler On the Roof. They are getting rarer, and youth seems not to go in for it so much, perhaps because Ed Sheeran and mumble-rap don’t lend themselves to pub recitative. But I digress.

The finest example of a thwarted star I ever saw found me in a Wetherspoon in south London a few years ago. I had been to Brighton for the day and had, like the doomed Fred Hale in Brighton Rock spent the day strolling around drink gins and tonic in the sunshine. I had met a friend down there and as a consequence was well past nicely-thank-you and advancing into half-seas-over by the time I got back to London.

I have a tradition of visiting this particular town-centre Wetherspoon after alighting back from Brighton. I can’t really explain why but it’s something to do with the contrast of the sea air and light with cosy, carpeted gloom of the huge pub.  On this occasion I almost didn’t go in due to inebriation; prudence almost prevailed, but didn’t.

I sat at a table with a rum and cola and settled down to observe the world at hand.

‘What, she stood you up?’ said a short, wiry man in old-school cockney. He spoke as if he knew me but I had never seen him before. His eyes were black, his hair was dyed black, he wore black suit and his face was as lined as WH Auden’s. He was about 65 and looked Italian: think minor enforcer in the background of a Scorsese film.

‘Mind?’ he asked, indicating the stool opposite. I told him to be my guest. He introduced himself as Bernie.

Somehow, I cannot remember how, he rapidly segued from generalities into talking about himself. This was his grand passion. He had been in ‘showbiz’ all his life – ‘but as a backroom boy,’ he said with melancholy. He took a swig of Jack and cola and said, ‘Yeah, backroom boy. I was a child actor. Never a star you understand, but I was in all sorts of things.’ He reeled off several shows from 50 years ago and several related anecdotes. ‘Then I got into rock and roll, but again never the star. I was road crew, fixer, you name it. I knew ‘em all. Moon the Loon, fucking Zeppelin, Stones, you name it. But, well, it all seemed a bit like measly, cos, well, Nick (he had obtained my first name and now used it gratuitously like a salesman), when you have a talent like mine, I mean, when you can really sing, I mean, really sing, then all the fucking big shot singers back then, well, it’s small potatoes. Some of us never got the breaks.’ He said the last sentence in a kind of faux-American, a slightly nauseating kind of Sixties showbiz accent. ‘But what am I doing? You need a drink – and so do I.’

His gold be-ringed fingers opened his wallet, which was stuffed with banknotes, and went to the bar. When he began his stories I had simply thought him a common or garden bullshitter. But his yarns contained a great deal of unusual detail which, as a sometime student of the golden age of rock and roll, made me conclude he was, as far as his work history went, telling something like the truth.

Bernie returned and resumed his story staring at me with those black eyes, eyes that glazed with instant boredom if I so much as tried to jemmy in a word about myself. For the next hour he kept this up, buying more drinks before we had finished what we had and gabbling his story, about his wives, his woes, his ingrate kids, his thwarting and always back, quite staggeringly and shamelessly, to his incredible vocal talent. ‘You see Nick, I’m a soul singer. Forget rock! That’s for boys, kids. When you have my sort of talent . . . Soul, that’s the real deal. I’m going back to the masters: my kind of people, people on my level. Nat King Cole, Otis Redding . . . Trouble is, I never got the breaks, never got the chances. Ah, some of us are not so lucky.’

The table now had about six large Jacks and cola and rums and cola on it – four each – and he was jabbering like a man possessed. Even I, jaded as I was in every sense, had become curious.

I asked him if he would consider singing. He made a sort of aw shucks expression and looked at his nails. I asked him again and he kept up a rigmarole of modesty and refusal while all the time looking very pleased to be asked. Eventually he relented, took a swig of Jack and cola and opened his mouth.

A quick Scorsese freeze-frame: what followed when he began to sing still counts as one of the most bizarre things I have seen in a pub, and I’ve seen a lot. Freeze-frame ends. Bernie starts to sing.

I say sing, but it wasn’t anything like any singing I ever heard. It was a sound so absurd it was almost sinister. Imagine the bit in Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West when Laurel sings in the deep voice of a black singer then cross that with Jim Davidson’s very non-PC Chalky character from the Seventies.  It was a kind of crazy honking and braying, like a donkey It was an appalling noise. It was hysterically funny. Other drinkers turned to stare; the bar staff looked worried. Bernie kept on. I think he was singing an Al Green number. It was hard to say. I fought, fought like a commando with the strength of a lion, to keep a straight face. It was agony. My body was weak with the effort of containment.

Suddenly, as I was about to crack, the landlady, or what passes for a landlady in the Wetherspoon operation, stormed into the bar, stood in front of Bernie and yelled: ‘I could hear you in the cellar! What are you doing!? Get out! Get out now!’

Bernie tried to argue – I said not a word. Two bouncers appeared from the door and he was removed, cursing and shouting. I watched as he was propelled through the front doors.

I was left with the drinks. Gentle reader, I abhor waste. Bernie stared through the glass doors at me drinking his drinks and mine. He occasionally banged on the window. After a while he lit a cigarette and sloped off. I was now grandly coddled in the roaring fire lotion of rum and Jack mixed and I was laughing at the memory, as I still do from time to time. But I also felt like catching Bernie up and saying to him in a mid-Atlantic accent, ‘Yes, you’re a never-was, but let me tell you something kid, you’re the greatest never-was I’ve ever seen! You really are a star!’

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