When I was in my teens, a schoolfriend lent me a copy of The Henry Root Letters, which made me laugh so much that I went out and bought (or ordered, in those old offline days) a copy of my own. Since then, hardly a year goes by without another set of hoax letters cluttering the 3-for-2 tables; and Henry Root himself was “a straight rip-off” of Don Novello’s Lazlo Toth letters. However Root’s wit, language and phrasing gave his letters a Wodehousian poetry, as well as a longevity that makes them still seem fresh while their addressees (Mary Kenny, Shirley Conran, Margaret Thatcher – who they?) are all but forgotten. “Avarice is patriotic! Here’s a pound. Your man on the doorstep, Henry Root.”
When they were first published in 1979 and 1980, the Henry Root letters (“A disgrace to publishing” – London Review of Books) were big news, but by the time I read them, a handful of years later, I had no idea who the author was (I’m pretty sure they weren’t credited on the copyright page). When I found out, I made sure to keep an eye on the other works of William Donaldson. More than twenty years later, I’ve never quite given up on him, and to this day his magnum opus – 2002’s encyclopaedia of Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics – remains a regular dipper on my bedside table. But only now have I bothered to read Terence Blacker’s biography of the man.
The inevitable observation about Donaldson’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (initially published as Brewer’s, later Willie Donaldson’s; I prefer the mock-formality of the former) is that he might have appeared in it if he hadn’t written it himself. He was born into money and educated privately, but drawn to the seedy and the disreputable, and was a user of crack cocaine for most of the last twenty years of his life. His autobiography was called From Winchester to This. His money – though he was bankrupted three times in his life – enabled him to spend just one day of his seventy years as an employee. Otherwise he lived by his writing or, in the early days, as a theatrical producer, most famously with Beyond the Fringe, and he gave Michael Palin and Terry Jones their first paid writing jobs. (He also published Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in his short-lived university literary review, Gemini.)
Donaldson got to know many people, but he was an unreliable friend. Blacker himself, as a sometime writing partner, experienced this, or as Donaldson put it: “it would be a most interesting challenge to betray a very close friend for a joke.” Blacker’s take is fairly generous, all things considered, diagnosing simply “a profound allergy to responsibility.” That is one way of putting it of a father who left his wife and two-year-old son and said: “I could do without children, I must admit – particularly my own. I don’t find it sad, which is odd.” Others are less forgiving than Blacker. “He could be quite savage and a bully,” says a schoolfriend. He had “a profound instinct to corrupt and destroy,” says the screenwriter to the stars, Peter Morgan. Or Jonathan Miller, who felt ripped off by Donaldson over Beyond the Fringe: “He was a sort of idiotic, fly-by-night flâneur who had some sort of pleasure at his own bad behaviour and thought it was all rather charming and forgiveable.”
Donaldson was not much more forgiving of himself. His appetite for sex, drugs and other distractions was forged early. “I made this disastrous discovery at the age of twenty-one: we can’t organise happiness but we can organise unboredom. It was downhill all the way since then.” His sister, astutely, observed that it was less the things he wanted than the circumstances in which he wanted them that were important to him: “You cannot value anything unless you are within a hair’s breadth of losing it.” Blacker speaks of Donaldson’s “perennial agonising over the right sort of life to lead” but there isn’t much evidence of agonising here. He did what he wanted and fled when he stopped wanting it. He became obsessively devoted to a string of women, often prostitutes, and was depressed and vindictive when they left him. Perhaps what Blacker is referring to is that Donaldson, a student of FR Leavis at Cambridge, “respected and longed for seriousness but never quite had the confidence to be serious.” This may have led to his lifelong antipathy for Richard Ingrams and Private Eye (who hated him in turn): Donaldson “disliked the pseud joke, sensing that the mocking of those deemed to have ideas above their station was a bullying and peculiarly English form of anti-intellectualism.”
Donaldson’s lack of self-confidence as a ‘serious’ writer was one of the reasons why he was “more at ease among thieves and prostitutes than among literary people – one doesn’t have to try so hard.” But it also gave us great comic riches. After making me want to read the books again (or buy the ones I didn’t have), the greatest effect of this biography was to render me amazed that such a louche, unreliable and frequently addled character could have produced such tight, witty writing. Nonetheless, Donaldson’s desire to maximise his returns (money was “a means to amusement rather than profit”) did make him tap the same vein rather often. Toward the end of his life, he said of the ‘toilet books’ he produced with such care, seriousness and attention to detail, “when I’m invited to write a book these days, I always go to my shelves to check that I haven’t already written it.”
The material here is impossible to make dull, though Blacker occasionally slips. A sentence like “although he never talked in any detail about his years as a producer in the early sixties, they must have been an exciting time” is unworthy of him or his subject. Similarly, when Blacker moves into the foreground, he does not always come across well, as in his dismissal of Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff as a toilet book to be ranked alongside forgotten fillers like How to be a Wally, when Liff (whose title he gets wrong) is still in print almost thirty years later.
The idea of much of Donaldson’s work, whether the Root letters, the posthumous Dictionary of National Celebrity or his World of Knowledge (inspired by Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas), was that of “inauthenticity – people being unable to distinguish between themselves and a socially imposed reality.” Donaldson himself was all too self-aware. Blacker quotes a note he made to himself near the end of his life (he was found dead in his flat, his computer still logged on to a lesbian porn site): “The present. Never could abide it. The future yes. The past, carefully edited. Not the good bits, not the loss of everything.” This biography, with its perfectly iambic title, shows Donaldson as a man full of doubt and gifted enough to know his limitations; which I suppose is what finally confirms him as a real writer.