Tuesday, 27 May 2014

You Cannot Live As I Have Lived And Not End Up Like This - Terence Blacker


Well, that's a title and a half for a book is it not? Before picking up this biography I'd never heard of Willie Donaldson and I put it down to being perhaps a generational thing, that he was simply before my time. But then after reading of all the people whose lives had crossed with his and the number of them whose names I knew - many of them household names - I realised this couldn't be the reason. Generations bleed into one and other and continue bleeding, sometimes haemorrhaging so age and time become meaningless. No, for some reason Willie Donaldson had fallen beneath my radar but thanks to writer Terence Blacker this has been rectified and Willie Donaldson's name is now up there with his peers, tarnished but twinkling mischievously in the cultural firmament.

Being the only son of the chairman of a shipping dynasty, Donaldson was born into privilege and at the age of 27 on the death of his father he inherited the equivalent of around £3 million in today's money. Having studied at Cambridge he already had a substantial amount of contacts within the arts which included Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Malcolm Bradbury and Bamber Gascoigne among others. With his newly inherited wealth he launched himself into being a theatrical impresario which set him on a course to meet a host of other rising stars and movers and shakers of that period. This was in 1957, a time of a great sea change within Britain when the old guard were under attack from a new wave of artists clamouring for social and cultural change.
He produced the landmark satirical revue show Beyond The Fringe featuring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett; as well as financially supporting the launching of the careers of Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and - apparently - Bob Dylan. Guests at parties he held at his home included Susan Hampshire, Cleo Lane, JP Donleavy and Susannah York; and amongst the women he dated was Sarah Miles and Carly Simon.

All very impressive but there was something at the core of Donaldson's being that wasn't quite right or at least, not quite the same as those he was mixing with. Donaldson not only had a predilection for prostitutes and porn but also an almost self-destructive urge to fail. For all his life he had been extremely rich, his father bankrolling him for practically anything he chose to do and because of this he placed no real value in money at all. He was a free man who was able to see beyond the ghetto of wealth and to realise that more satisfying pleasure might lie elsewhere. The paradox he failed to come to terms with, however, was that money was actually his ticket to an escape from money.

By the end of the following decade after a string of bad investments, bad business decisions and fatal generosity Donaldson was bankrupt. Free of all his money he was free to start all over again with a whole new life and after visiting the legendary Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris he set off for Ibiza to open his own secondhand bookshop, to cater for the jet setters and hippy aristocracy who were starting to live there. Just over a year later, however, he was back in London; penniless and destitute.

One of the few bridges he hadn't burnt was one leading to an old girlfriend who since leaving his employ as a secretary had become a call girl. Donaldson moved in with her and became her kept man, or as Donaldson called it, 'a ponce'.
He wrote up the story of his time living in a brothel - or rather, the flat he shared with his girlfriend - which was duly published, and so was born Donaldson as a humorous writer. He had found his vocation. From there he went on to write a number of comedy books culminating in the creation of a character called Henry Root, an 'irritating patriot and over-enthusiastic defender of traditional values' who wrote 'unwelcome letters of support or protest to the famous and self-important'. Donaldson's book - The Henry Root Letters - became a number one bestseller and one of the most successful books of the 1980s. Subsequently he wrote a number of follow-up books and became a columnist for various newspapers, causing many to admire him - "What we are talking about is a genius," said publisher Mike O'Mara "He was the wittiest man I have worked with including Peter Ustinov and Barry Humphries." - and many to despise him - "This appalling little shit," said Private Eye.

Through his writing, Donaldson was waging a one-man war against the pompous, the smug, the privileged, the hypocritical and the conservative. Senior policemen, politicians, newspaper editors, judges, business managers, Esther Rantzen, Leslie Crowther, the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, etc, etc; all fell victim to the right-wing ridiculousness of letters from Henry Root - and all replied sincerely. What Donaldson was doing was years ahead of his time; pricking the bubble of celebrity and inauthenticity and paving the way for satirists and comedians such as Chris Morris and Sacha Baron Cohen.
He was still, however, not content and his appetite for self-destructive failure had not mellowed, so with an echo of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, he became at the age of 50 a regular user of crack cocaine. With equal measures of despair and delight he descended into an underworld of crack dens, armed Yardies, perverted sex and Will Self; culminating in another bankruptcy in 1996. Whilst managing to give up Will Self rather easily, his crack cocaine use continued for almost another 20 years.
Throughout this period he still continued to write, producing more comedy books and a regular column for the Independent newspaper; all the time being vilified by some but praised as a national treasure by others. Finally, at the age of 70 Donaldson was found dead in his rented flat in Fulham; his computer still running and logged on to a lesbian porn site.

With his passing (and on reading this book) the question arises as to whether Donaldson's was a life wasted? Without question he squandered his privileged upbringing and the wealth that came with it but then also without his privileged background he would never have had the connections with the people who collaborated in his successes. Would he ever have been published, for example, were it not for his contacts in the book publishing industry?
Should he have followed his father into the shipping business? It would have made for a far more secure life but would it have been a fulfilling one? Probably not but then being a crack fiend for 20 years didn't bring him much joy either.
What then, is a life not wasted? What examples might be given? What is the criteria? Who is to judge?
By all accounts Willie Donaldson was an extremely entertaining man. To some he was a genius. If nothing else, he led what might be called an 'interesting' life. A helter skelter mad ride that fathomed hell and soared angelic.
And I'm pleased - through Terence Blacker's book - that I've now made his acquaintance.

Reprobate. Crackhead. Genius.
John Serpico

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