16 MAY 1981, Page 31

Low life


Jeffrey Bernard

didn't know Bernard Walsh who owned Wheelers at all well, but when I heard that he'd died this week I naturally started to think about the branch in Old Compton Street which has played such a big part in my life, as it has to so many people addicted to Soho. As far as I'm concerned Wheelers is Old Compton Street and all the other branches are mere imitations. The reason for this is twofold, My mob go there more for the ambience and because of the staff than for the actual food and I'd like to point out, lest anyone think I'm trying to do a Taki, that in all the hundreds of visits I've made there, about nine times out of ten I've been taken as somebody's guest.

When I was a teenage bum and layabout, it was one of my pathetic ambitions to go to Wheelers, and I can still remember, so much did it impress me, my first visit there. I was taken by Tony Hubbard who was a Woolworth heir and someone I went to prep school with. At that time he'd just successfully cut a swimmer's foot off with the propeller of his motorboat on the Riviera and had, by so doing, earned himself a place in The Guinness Book of Records, having had to shell out about £50,000 in damages. Quite a considerable sum of money in those days, I'm told.

In those early days I thought it all terribly posh. It's not and although it's terribly expensive, a very mixed bunch go there and the staff certainly put up with some strange behaviour. Peter Jones the conductor, Arthur, Bert, Charles, Ken, Tim, Henry on coats and John behind the bar are an excellent band. The three people I used to go to Wheelers with most frequently were Alan Rawsthorne and Frank Norman and is Francis Bacon. Alan and his wife Isabel were marvellous to have lunch with, and the lunch that sticks out most in my mind was pretty typical of Alan's dry wit. Very young I was, and trying to show off a little, I told Alan I didn't think much of Szigetti. 'Oh dear,' he said. 'Why, what's wrong?' I asked. 'Well, I've just dedicated a sonata to him,' he answered.

Out of the countless times Francis Bacon has taken me there, two lunches are memorable for what he said. On one occasion, during a lull in the general conversation, he asked me loudly, 'Now that you've lost your looks what are you going to do?' As you may imagine, that broke the entire place up. But more memorable was the time he asked me — again in a natural quiet, the entire restaurant with their feet in the trough — 'Who would you most like to fuck in the entire world?' My brain raced thinking of the Cyd Charisse legs and the Loren face and I said, 'Oh Christ, I don't know. What about Monica Vitti? It's impossible. Anyway, what about you?' He thought for a moment and said, `Out of everybody in the world I think I'd rather fuck Colonel Gadaffi than anyone.' Four American tourists at a nearby table immediately got up and left.

Now, you may not be aware of it but Wheelers do a very good takeaway service. I remember being with Frank Norman late one night in the Stork Club when he was sick over a hostess. She screamed, poor cow, and someone rushed over and said, `What's that?' Cool as ever, Frank replied, 'That's a lobster thermidor.'

Of course the greatest nutter ever to grace Wheelers was the greatest eccentric and sometime actor, Dennis Shaw. He was barred for the umpteenth time once and thought he'd get his own back. One Friday night, after they'd put the dustbins out, he dragged one into the packed restaurant and tipping it out he shouted, 'This is what you're all eating with sauce TARTAREr Although quite a few of the customers have been mad, they did actually have a mad employee there once — a Cypriot doorman. He'd go round the corner to the betting shop for me and put on bets and then he'd come back and blurt out — particularly if I was having lunch with someone I was feigning reliability and respectability to — 'Lester Peegott he get stuffed.'

I can't bring myself to be as nice as I'd like to be about Wheelers. You know what happens when you recommend a place, suddenly it's full of ghastly, respectable bloody businessmen and that would never do. It's just right as it is. Now I must pop along there and see if they've got a tip for today.