Reputations

Willie Donaldson, subversive comic writer

It is now over 40 years since Margaret Thatcher received a congratulatory letter on having been elected Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. “Congratulations! We did it!” the letter went. “Now it’s straight down to business. (Don’t worry! There’ll be plenty of time later for women’s work like measuring new curtains!)”

There followed some advice on Thatcher’s first cabinet, which included weeding out softies – “I don’t much care for the look of Norman St John-Stevas” – and closed with the words, “Bring back the rope! Let’s go! Your man on the doorstep! Henry Root.”

Root, a retired wet-fish merchant who decided to share his robustly patriotic views with public figures – politicians, policemen, models, football managers, Esther Rantzen – was, of course, the creation of William Charles Donaldson, one of the great and funniest disruptors of the second half of the twentieth century. 

The joy of The Henry Root Letters (1980) was not just in the irresistible bumptiousness of Root, so eager to share his cheerful bigotry with those in power, but also in many of the solemn, self-regarding replies it solicited. Years before Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G or Chris Morris and Brass Eye, Willie had noticed that a new age had dawned – the age of celebrity. In that parallel world, it made absolute sense to write to the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty or the President of Pakistan in the same jocular tone as one would write to the Petal Model Agency or Brian Clough. They were all part of the same club, and the best way to satirise them was to let them do it themselves.

Willie Donaldson, who was characterised in one profile as “crack smoker, retired pimp, serial adulterer, genius, national treasure,” died aged 70 in 2005 after his lungs, shredded by years on the crack pipe, gave out during a summer heatwave. When his body was found in his Chelsea flat, a porn film was running on his computer.

I had known him for the past 30 or so years of his life. I had published him, written three books with him and housed him for a while during one of the many turbulent periods in his life. After he died, I was commissioned to write his biography, the title of which was taken from something he had said during an interview, You Cannot Live As I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This (2007).

These days I often find myself wondering what he would make of the strange times through which we are living. How would he have dealt with the gallery of clowns and mediocrities who wander across the stage of public life like confused actors caught in the wrong play? Liz Truss, posing in a tank. Dominic Raab, looking like a character out of Thunderbirds.  Smoothie-Chops Shapps. The hilariously bogus Rees-Mogg.

Although our world is very different from that which he satirised, there are echoes of the past even today. During the Brexit debacle, some gormless, flag-waving descendant of Henry Root seemed to be on Newsnight every evening. When Prince Andrew’s career recently took a turn for the worse, it was difficult not to think back to the book commemorating the marriage of the Playboy Prince to Fergie, his tousle-haired temptress: 101 Things You Didn’t Know About the Royal Lovebirds (1986), written by the oily court correspondent Talbot Church, “The Man the Royals Trust”.

At first glance, Willie looked and talked like a man from the heart of the establishment. He was quietly spoken with the good manners one would expect from an Old Wykehamist. He was invariably dressed in a blazer and Marks & Spencer’s trousers although, after several bankruptcies, the shirts became frayed and the hair on his balding head was a little longer than one would expect from a navy man like himself. 

Beyond these externals, he was always an outsider. Clive James once described him as “a fringe character”; it was the dismissive sneer of an insider looking out, but it had some truth to it. Yet Willie’s best books, the autobiographical novel Is This Allowed? (1987), a bizarre and wonderful memoir From Winchester to This (1998), The Heart Felt Letters (1998) and his last great work Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (2002), had a spark and originality to them that put him among the funniest and most original comic writers of the past century. Kenneth Tynan compared him to Evelyn Waugh. He was “the English Nabokov” according to Auberon Waugh. “His humour outlives him,” Craig Brown wrote after his death. “It will outlive us all.”

But it hasn’t – at least so far. His books are out of print and nowhere to be found. Unlike some of his contemporaries, notably Peter Cook and Spike Milligan (both of whose careers he helped launch), his name is rarely mentioned in the pantheon of twentieth-century comic writers.

That has partly to do with the fact that the ex-wife who controls Willie’s estate was worried that the taxman would come after her if his books started earning again (he added VAT to his invoices for a few years after he de-registered) but it’s also fair to say that some of his jokes would not find favour with the sensitivity readers of today’s publishers. 

The sex in his books, of which there is a lot, is, as we would now say, “problematic”, involving as it does money, infidelity, pervy power games and drugs. A recurring theme in his writing – and arguably the great tragedy of his life – was that he was only truly attracted to a woman who was putting on an act, playing a sexual part. For him there could be no connection between that performing woman and the normal domestic life of a relationship, which bored and scared him in equal measure.

In From Winchester to This, he recalls his engagement to the talented and beautiful American singer Carly Simon in 1965, and why it went wrong.

“One night, before she flew back to America, Carly quite embarrassed me. She took a bath and then stretched out on the bed with nothing on. ‘What do you think?’ she said. She looked magnificent, in fact, but I felt most uncomfortable. She’d slipped embarrassingly out of character… This was a woman I loved and respected, a woman I was going to marry… Carly had confused herself with a Helmut Newton woman, a woman whose business it was to do this sort of thing, to pose and mock you at a distance, to wear thigh boots and stand in the corner if you told her to.”

Today Willie is largely forgotten, and that would have delighted him. No one could have worked harder to sabotage his own career and to blacken his own reputation than he did. While most people’s lives follow a pattern of dogged struggle with the occasional breakthrough, his reflects the opposite: an apparently easy advance – into life, into the theatre, into writing – interrupted at regular intervals by catastrophic acts of self-destruction. He lost several fortunes, one of which he was born with, and, whenever life threatened to become easy, he made sure that it didn’t. “I enjoy being down and out,” he once told an interviewer. “Failure is lovely and cosy.”

And yet, for all his weaknesses, Willie Donaldson had a great and estimable life. Away from writing, he brought Beyond the Fringe to the West End and, as a producer in the 1960s, helped nurture the talent of Marty Feldman, John Bird, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Ivor Cutler and others. Towards the end of his life, his column in the Independent was wildly, dangerously original.

The best of his writing reveals, through the jokes, our culture’s scruffy underbelly – the experimentalism of the sixties, the seedy hedonism on the seventies, the greed and snobbery of the eighties, the triumph of tabloid values in the nineties. Reading it now, though, what comes through above all is an impish, teasing love of our vulgar, disgraceful modern world. 

For all the confusions and conflicts in his own life, it conveys joy.

Terence Blacker is a songwriter, novelist, children’s author and former columnist for the Independent. His one-man show “The Shock of the Old” will be touring theatres this autumn

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