Tuesday Book: Dear Bill, yours Henry Root

WHEN WILLIE Donaldson was a pre-pubescent pup, he persuaded his parents to let him travel up to London from Sunningdale to see the Folies- Bergere. "I understood immediately that these tall, silent women pacing the stage with nothing on - so different to anything in Sunningdale - were the self-evidently desirable representatives of sex, since men would pay to see them with nothing on." The glittering, feathered women sparked his thirst for the world beyond Winchester and nurtured a desire to escape.

His father was descended from a wealthy Glasgow shipbuilding family, and Donaldson's memoir provides several conflicting versions of his childhood. Among them is a scene in which Daddy hands young Willie, aged six, his inheritance. "Muspratt the butler appeared in my wing of our house with a message from my father, inviting me, if I had a moment, to drop in on him in his quarters." Daddy, a gentle alcoholic with a love for music, issued William with a cheque for pounds 150,000, share certificates, and the title deeds to a shipping line.

Whatever the truth, Donaldson came from a family with connections, wealth and pull. When he was called up for naval service, his mother simply rang up the First Sea Lord and told him that her son was about to do the season - "affianced at the time to Isabelle Giscard d'Estaing, the future President of France's sister" - and was not ready. "The First Sea Lord realised that he'd met his match and suggested that I pitched up when it suited." But the boy from Sunningdale, set up with all the advantages the British elite had to offer, went off the rails. He lost his inheritance twice and once fetched up in Ibiza with pounds 90 to his name.

For a black sheep, he has been suprisingly productive. He has edited Sylvia Plath and Beyond the Fringe, lived in a Chelsea brothel, run a music agency, written several books and supplied lines for Have I Got News For You. The spoof Henry Root Letters reflected most vividly his no-holds-barred method of pricking a very English hypocrisy.

And there have been spectacularly successful satires. In 1986 - as Talbot Church, a "royal intimate" - he published a book on Andy and Fergie, 101 Things You Didn't Know About the Royal Lovebirds. More recently, Donaldson - under the pseudonym of "Liz Reed" - pitched TV proposals to Dawn Airey at Channel 5. Liz, of "Heart Felt Productions", suggested such gems as Topless Gladiators, with former Judge Pickles acting as arbitrator. James Boyle at Radio 4 was offered a game show with "in the hot seat a celeb, who in spite of mega achievements, is thought by everyone to be a total pillock. Jeffrey Archer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Janet Street-Porter..." Donaldson gets within the English psyche and exposes its darkest side.

The author does not escape his own scorching gaze. From Winchester to This is written as a melange of dialogue with his hooker-girlfriend, and conversations about the book with his publisher and friends. It is a satire of a memoir by a man who protests that the past is dead, only useful for a drawerful of anecdotes. But resting underneath his often hilarious tales there is an admission of the pain endured. "Happy memories, since everything is over, hurt more than sad ones."

For a man who appears as a serious miscreant, he often veers towards alarming honesty. "I knew at the age of 20 that the rewards for good behaviour, while real and obvious, would never be enough - or, more accurately, would be too much; a burden rather than a solace. I knew that if you cherished nothing, nothing you cherished could be taken away."

Then there are the women, like the mysterious Penny, who is indulging in illicit drugs throughout the book and provides an audience for Donaldson's anecdotes. Comparing himself with his friend Kenneth Tynan, he reflects that perhaps he also "saw sex as an illicit drug to be most excitingly experienced with a silent performing woman off the premises". He admits to being "stupid and vicious enough to marry a nice girl who wanted to be ordinarily happy". He read pornography on his honeymoon, wrapped in a cover of Kingsley Amis's recently published Lucky Jim.

Another mystery woman, Melanie, still haunts his conscience. Relationships with women are about playing "a dangerous new game", and one night he chucks Melanie out of their Ibiza flat as "I was bored with her". She rings in desperation hours later and pleads while, in the background, partygoers are busy freebasing cocaine. "This was the best game yet. I told her to enjoy herself with her new young friends." The next time Willie sees her, "she looked as if she'd been living in a drain".

What is a memoir if not a confession of sins, a means to exaggerate achievements, and to exact revenge on enemies? From Winchester to This fulfils all these criteria, but en route through this hilarious, meandering cruise lies something dangerously close to pathos.

Julie Wheelwright