Monday, June 27, 2005

William Donaldson

The Times seems to be back online. And although I have the impression that Times obituaries are not often made available online, or at any rate not for long, you can today find an obituary of William Donaldson; which I read over breakfast.

It's an entertaining reminder of a man whose work is familiar to me although I've never read it.

Donaldson was educated at Winchester and Magdalene College Cambridge, and you will not convince me that a man can get a better education anywhere in the world -- either in Donaldson's day or now.

Born into a privileged background, he proceeded to lose several fortunes (inherited), and went through whatever he managed to earn (considerable at times) at a rapid rate of knots.

He went through women at a rapid rate of knots too, blaming his sexual immaturity on the single-sex culture of Winchester. On the whole he seems to have preferred call-girls, but he had a couple of marriages (at least) and numerous affairs, including Sarah Miles and Carly Simon.

He dumped the lovely Carly while she was in the US arranging for their wedding. But years later she described him, nevertheless, as 'a wonderful, wonderful person: the funniest man I have ever met.' Not everyone, the Times notes, held him in such high regard.

Donaldson was also an enthusiastic user of illegal drugs, first cannabis and then crack cocaine. This habit seems to have bankrupted him fairly regularly, and on one occasion he found a temporary home with an old girlfriend who had taken to running a brothel on the Fulham Road.

From our point of view, the thing to note is that Donaldson was the writer who produced the Root letters. Posing as 'Henry Root', wet-fish merchant and eccentric right-wing bigot, Donaldson 'wrote to prominent public figures offering comment, advice and support -- often in the form of a one pound note. His outrageous yet deadpan missives succeeded in provoking a range of often embarrassingly positive responses from the likes of Esther Rantzen, Larry Lamb, Lord Grade, Sir David McNee (the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police), and Root’s personal and political heroine, Margaret Thatcher. The resulting book, The Henry Root Letters (1980), was a bestseller for months.'

I didn't read the Root output when it first appeared, and I suspect it may have dated horribly. It is certainly unlikely to be of interest to US readers. However, Donaldson wrote other stuff too, including a novel: Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen, 1975. And an autobiography, of which he remarked that the lawyer's libel report was longer than the book.

Donaldson's obituary makes one thing absolutely clear. He followed the first rule for writers, and one which, as I remarked the other day, is often broken by the young. First, get a life.