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BOOK REVIEW / Brass beds and wet blancmange: 'The Kenneth Williams Letters' - Russell Davies: Harper Collins, 18 pounds: Anthony Quinn finds humour, pathos, and telephone phobia in the witty and engaging letters of Kenneth Williams

READERS who managed to make their way through The Kenneth Williams Diaries last year may well hesitate before sampling any more of the agonies this lonely, lugubrious man committed to paper. The spectacle of a mind slowly torturing itself to death isn't easily borne, even when accompanied by Williams's great trumpet screeches of vulgarity. Happily, this companion volume of letters elicits the public performer in him, shifting from the introspective gloom of the Diaries to a more relaxed and benign gregariousness. Forced to deal with lives outside his own, Williams proved to be a witty and vivacious correspondent.

His pathological hatred of the telephone made letters a fixture by necessity as much as by choice. According to Russell Davies, who also edited the diaries, Williams kept carbon copies of his letters, which he typed with meticulous care. He had a horror of crossing out, so corrections were assimilated into the text: 'bloses O dear, that was supposed to be blouses]' and so on. His correspondents tended to be less reliable than himself, and mornings without any post were a keen disappointment.

His close friends were generally in showbiz - Stanley Baxter, Gordon Jackson and his wife, Michael Codron, Maggie Smith, Beverley Cross - but he also struck up epistolary friendships with a wide range of others. With Erich Heller, a specialist in Germanic studies, he would discuss weighty philosophical issues; with Andrew Hathaway, a fan from New Jersey, he would swap anti-liberal opinions ('Of course you are right about Jane Fonda. Politically she is about as effective as a fart in a wet blancmange. We've got one over here called Vanessa Redgrave'); with Annette Kerr, an actress friend from his early days in rep, he shared the latest developments in his reading - 'I have left the Rationalist philosophy for a bit, and am now in the middle of the Stuart period. . .' Literature, particularly poetry, was a constant with him.

Davies admits to having made extensive editorial cuts, so there is none of the desolate garrulity that reigned over the Diaries. Indeed, in the early years a note of pawky optimism can occasionally be heard. As Williams tells Stanley Baxter in March 1954, 'if you feel that Life is one of God's jokes, there is still no reason why we shouldn't make it a good joke'. Even when the morale is 'round the ankles', as he puts it, a kind letter lifts his spirits immeasurably. There is a particularly touching expression of gratitude in a letter to an artist living in Kentucky, whose 12-year-old daughter had died in an accident; he had written to thank Williams for helping him to cope with his bereavement, recalling the delight his daughter took in Williams's voice on the radio: 'it was tremendously rewarding to read your words', writes Williams, and you can almost hear the catch in his throat.

Dependable though he may have been as a correspondent, he was rather more mercurial as a man: even his friends had to tread warily ('I go off people every now and again and am capable of utter treachery'). His natural mode was one of outraged decency: if it's not one thing it's another, the government of the day, the latest actor to get on his nerves, the noise from the flat below.

Health was a perennial worry ('Well the bum was a joke this morning I can tell you') and in later years the creeping indignities of age demoralised him beyond endurance. Looking after his increasingly frail mother Louie did nothing to alleviate the misery. Yet even in his low periods he seems to recognise that things could be worse - he might have ended up like Charles Hawtrey, for instance. In one of his last letters Williams describes a visit to his old Carry On colleague, then in bibulous retirement on the coast, and the account which unfolds perfectly combines his characteristic cruel humour and quiet pathos:

'As we walked along the front, fishermen eyed us warily. Charlie was in orange trousers, blue shirt and silk scarf at the neck. He was carrying his umbrella as a parasol. . . The rest of us were trying to look anonymous. 'Hallo lads]' he kept calling out to men painting their boats. 'They all adore me here,' he told us, 'brings a bit of glamour into their dull lives.' They smiled back uneasily, and certainly some returned his salutations, but I didn't get the impression of universal adoration. The house was awful. Everywhere you went there were these huge brass beds. 'They'll come back into fashion one day and I'll make a fortune]' he declared as he rubbed them affectionately.'