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Sober Life
by Sinclair Newton



Sober Life

I am indebted to both the Daily Telegraph and to the late Nicholas Tomalin for this week's column. The Telegraph obituary column carried it and Nicholas Tomalin opined that one of a journalist's supreme abilities was to borrow someone else's words.

Either way, Graham Mason, the journalist who has died aged 59, was in the 1980s the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses, the pub in Soho where, in the half century after the Second World War, a tragicomedy was played out nightly by its regulars.

His claim to a title in bibulous misbehaviour was staked against stiff competition from Jeffrey Bernard and a dedicated cast of less celebrated but formidable drinkers.

Mason was a fearsome sight at his most drunkenly irascible. Seated at the bar, his thin shanks wrapped around the legs of a high stool, he would swivel his reptilian stare round behind him to any unfortunate stranger attempting to be served, and snap: "Who the f-- are you?"

Sometimes this prompted a reaction, and on one occasion a powerful blow to the head sent Mason flying, with his stool, across the carpet. Painfully clawing himself upright, he set the stool in its place, reseated himself and, twisting his head round again, growled: "Don't you ever do that again."

Unlike his friend Jeffrey Bernard, though, Graham Mason did not make himself the hero of his own tragedy. His speciality was the extreme. In one drinking binge he went for nine days without food. At the height of his consumption, before he was frightened by epileptic fits into cutting back, he was managing two bottles of vodka a day. His face became in his own description that of a "rotten choirboy". At lunchtime he would walk through the door of the Coach and Horses still trembling with a hangover, his nose and ears blue whatever the weather.

On one cold day he complained of the noise that the snow made as it landed on his bald head.

His practice of "boozer's economics" meant dressing in the shabbiest of clothes, many of them inherited from the late husband of the woman with whom he lived. He wore a threadbare duffel coat with broken toggles. One day it was inexplicably stolen from the pub coathook. Jeffrey Bernard took the opportunity to combine kindness with condescension by buying a replacement of much grander design and cloth.

From the 1960s on, Mason was a friend of many of the painters as well as the writers, actors, layabouts, retired prostitutes, stagehands and hopeless cases that then gave Soho its flavour. He enjoyed talking to Francis Bacon in the Colony Room Club because Francis Bacon was very funny; and, until they finally had a row, Francis Bacon enjoyed talking to him.

Mason had a gift for contriving very telling nicknames. A failed actress who rode a bicycle and was addicted to tittle-tattle became "The Village Postmistress". Gordon Smith, a stage-door keeper of fussy temperament, was "Granny Gordon". One barman was "Princess Michael".

In a couple of hours one evening in February 1988 he had loud altercations with John Hurt ("You're just a bad actor"); with a law writer nicknamed The Red Baron, who was later murdered ("You know I don't like you. Go away and leave me alone."); and with Jeffrey Bernard (who stood up and shook him by the lapels).

Michael Heath often featured Mason in his strip cartoon The Regulars. In one episode he is shown apologising for being so rude the night before: "You see, I was sober."

Amid the violence of Soho arguments he became a friend of Elizabeth Smart, the Canadian author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a book about her lover George Barker, the poet, who became another friend. Mason succeeded in liking Francis Bacon's final close friend, John Edwards, which some people did not; and the poet John Heath-Stubbs took a shine to him.

One of his first friends in Soho was John Deakin, the photographer, whom he defended against the charge, put about by Daniel Farson, of being cruel to everyone. "The only man John Deakin was unkind to was David Archer," Mason asserted. David Archer, who ran a bookshop at a loss, was the man Deakin lived with.

Mason felt at home in the Colony in the years before homosexuality was decriminalised because no one minded one way or the other.

Mason's own closest friendship was with Marsh Dunbar, the widow of an admired art director at The Economist. He lodged with her at first in a fine early-19th-century house in Canonbury Square, Islington, where she was bringing up three sons. She had herself fallen into Soho after the War, knowing everyone from John Minton to Lucian Freud. Though enthusiastically heterosexual, she lived with Mason until her death.

In the days before licensing liberalisation, he resorted in the afternoon when pubs were closed to drinking clubs such as the Kismet, a damp basement with a smell that wits identified as "failure"; it was known as The Iron Lung and Death in the Afternoon. Mason admired the diminutive but firm presence behind the bar, known as Maltese Mary. But his favourite resort remained the Colony.

Graham Edward Mason was born on July 19 1942 in Cape Town, South Africa. He had been conceived on a sand dune, and to this, as a devotee of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, he sometimes attributed his abrasive character. He was educated at Chingola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and then joined a local newspaper. From there, as a bright and promising 18-year-old, he was recruited for the American news agency UPI by its bureau chief in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe).

He learned fast as a reporter of the civil war in Congo, finding the veterans from the Algerian war among his colleagues both kind and helpful. He witnessed a line of prisoners executed with pistol shots to the head, and was himself injured in the thigh and chin by a mortar shell. Among those he interviewed in a Rhodesia moving towards UDI were Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe; he did not take to the latter.

Posted to the UPI office in London in 1963, he set off in a Land Rover with three friends and no proper map, through Tanganyika, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and thence on an East German ship via Trieste to Hull.

From UPI's London office in Bouverie Street, Mason soon discovered Soho, and, like many before him, felt he had come home. He continued as a foreign correspondent, taking a year out in 1968 to work for 20th-Century Fox on feature films, which he hated. With BBC Television News he reported from the Northern Ireland troubles, and in 1975 took another year out to run a bar in Nicosia. It happened to coincide with civil war, and he and Marsh Dunbar were lucky to be evacuated by the RAF. From then until 1980 he worked for ITN. One day he was found asleep under his desk, drunk. It was something of a low point.

He was living with Marsh Dunbar in a flat in Berwick Street, Soho. A fire there sent them, fleeing bills, to a run-down council tower-block on the Isle of Dogs. The compensation was a view of a sweep of the Thames towards Greenwich. He worked while he still could managing Bobby Hunt's photographic library.

Graham Mason cooked Mediterranean food well, liked Piero della Francesca and Fidelio, choral evensong on the Third Programme and fireworks. After Marsh Dunbar's death in 2001, with almost all his friends dead, he sat imprisoned by emphysema in his flat, with a cylinder of oxygen by his armchair and bottles of white wine by his elbow, looking out over the Thames, still very angry.

(c) Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited

Sinclair Newton