Interview: Keith Waterhouse is not remotely unwell: A column, a book, a play, a television sitcom . . . Fleet Street's finest just can't stop writing

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
There are three Keith Waterhouses. He is best known, perhaps, as a journalist, with a twice-weekly column in the Daily Mail. Also a prolific author, with about 50 books to his name. Also creator of a dozen West End plays, from Billy Liar to Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.

Admired by all brows, which is unusual. Tabloid stalwart for decades, yet a member of a government body, the Kingman Committee on the Teaching of English. Admired for keeping at it, 65 this month, and still producing good stuff. And for his formidable income. His journalism pulls in pounds 130,000 a year - his books and plays the same again. That's more than a quarter million a year. And he is admired for himself, always amusing, never nasty.

Yet perhaps we were in danger of taking this grand old icon for granted, thinking we knew all about him, till last month, when his former secretary popped up to reveal some interesting details of daily life with Dear Keith. After a champagne lunch, she would appear in a basque, whatever that is, and let him have his wicked way. Has Our Keith being keeping a sex slave? That's what his nudgier friends immediately started asking him.

The said secretary, Jean Leyland, told the Sunday Times that she is taking him to an industrial tribunal, for wrongful dismissal, so we'll have to tread carefully there. But surely after almost 50 years of journalism, Dear Keith will not simply mutter 'no comment', should this doubtless awfully trivial, terribly minor aspect of his life crop up in our conversation?

His London home is in Earls Court, a pretty bijou cottage but dark, sombre and literary inside. A large Ruskin Spear. Very good Elisabeth Frink sketch. Stacks of well-read books, including first editions by P G Wodehouse and Arnold Bennett. Radio 3 tinkling. The home of a cultured, educated man; sorry, self-educated. He describes in his new book, City Lights, out next month, how he was an 11- plus failure, leaving school in Leeds at 14. The book finishes when he is 22, about to come to London. I assumed it must be book one of a five-part autobiography, but it's meant as a fond memory of a soot-covered provincial city. 'I don't plan a sequel. Why should I? The next stage in my life is Fleet Street and the beginning of a writer's life, and that is boring, as you must know. You sit around all day, writing. Very boring.' Not always, Keith, from what we've heard.

With strangers, he talks deliberately, using words like thither, commodious, concurrent, like a cagey trade union official. In company, and in drink, he is much quicker, more open, much funnier.

He now lives alone, so there was some messing around in the far kitchen while he made coffee, then a hunt for sugar, till he emerged beaming with a glass jar full of vintage British Airways sugar packets. At least they're not BOAC, I said. 'What are you on about? Sugar doesn't go off.'

He gave up sugar 25 years ago on the day he gave up tea, deciding in a flash that he'd never really liked drinking tea. Twenty years ago, he gave up smoking. The fact that he'd been smoking 40 Gauloises before breakfast and felt ill for the rest of the day was a factor. Three years ago, he gave up driving. 'I was on the way to Brighton one day and I thought I don't like driving. I don't have to do it. I'm giving up.'

The drink? He admits to a bottle of champagne a day, plus half a bottle of white wine. Someone who so readily admits to one bottle a day usually means three. 'You're right,' he said. At six each evening he also has his zonko. This is an industrial-size glass of vodka and Martini, a reward for having got to six o'clock. He spends about pounds 500 a week on lunching and drinking, or at least drinking. He hardly eats, tinkering with his food.

He rises at six, straight into his dressing gown, and slummocks off to his ancient Adler manual typewriter on which he bangs away till eight, when he goes for the papers and has his breakfast. Then from nine he's back to banging, finishing at one, his day's work over. After that, he potters, seeing friends in Fleet Street or the theatre.

He never thought of giving up journalism when his books and plays started doing well. Not even to help his literary image. Reviewers can be snotty about books by journalists. 'It's never happened to me. I've had stinkers, but I've never been patronised for being a journalist. They accept me for what I am: a journeyman writer. I look upon myself as a mixed economy. I've no intention of giving up any of the things I enjoy doing. If I only did books, I'd probably sit around consumed with self-pity. As a journalist and playwright, I can live a gregarious life.

His column began in the Daily Mirror in 1970, then he moved to the Mail because of Maxwell in 1986. He's never been sacked - 'perhaps I've missed out on something' - nor felt out of favour with his editors. 'I've always been loved.' He knows rival papers are still waiting to snap him up. What's the secret, Keith? 'I give good value. They know I'll never short-change them. Each column will get my full attention.'

Yes, but you're bound to fall out of fashion eventually. 'You mean people will ask, 'Is that silly old bugger still at it?' I like to think I've subtly changed over the years. I have a more satirical edge. One has an instinct when certain things have been done enough and I say 'Stop writing about cigarette cards, Waterhouse.' Coming to the Mail was a good thing, because the Mail has so many columnists. I know my opinions will be fighting against theirs, so I have to have a spin on it.'

Isn't it just word-spinning, out of your head? Like all columnists, you are reacting to the day's papers. Some would say it's a soft job. 'That's what my sister tells me. She says that's why I've got soft hands.'

He was finishing his new play that day, a grey comedy, about comedy, called Bing-Bong] 'That's what you hear in sitcoms when the doorbell goes: bing-bong. Then someone says, 'I'll get it.' ' The director is ready, cast being lined up, yet no one has seen it. People have such confidence in Keith. 'Oh, I know it'll get on. The question is, when will it come off? Perhaps the following week.'

His Jeffrey Bernard play, an obscure Fleet Street joke when it first appeared in 1989, has been round the world. Last month it opened in Dublin. 'To poor reviews, as the Dublin critics like to think they have their own wits, their own drunks.' He went across for the US opening in Buffalo, mainly because his 28-year-old son, Bob, was the director. '0n the opening night, we went to Buffalo's equivalent of Sardi's restaurant - and everyone stood up to applaud us, father and son, playwright and director. It was a lovely moment.'

He's waiting to hear about a sitcom pilot he's made for the BBC, and in the spring he'll start a new novel. Scribble, scribble, Mr Waterhouse. 'People always say I'm a workaholic, but I'm never conscious of working. And I only do it mornings, after all.' Yes, but they're long mornings, seven days a week, most of the year. He does take holidays, but tries to work on them as well. 'When I went to Italy with Jean, I took a pad and pen and wrote all morning. Her job was to check out all the restaurants, picking me up in time for lunch.' Is it some sort of compulsion, all this work? 'I do feel wretched if I haven't done any. It's like a disease. A diabetic needs his insulin. I need my injection of work. If I didn't have work, I'd have to face the real world. I'd think what's it all about, and get very depressed. I plan never to retire.'

He often has a nightmare in which he's the only survivor on a plane crash - but he can't find his pencil. He was once mugged by three youths in Dallas, and as he was running away, he found himself writing the intro in his head.

His worst nightmare is the ribbons for his manual typewriter coming suddenly to an end - before he comes to an end. 'I have this scene in my head of the world's last ribbon factory in Wigan, run by old Mr Jonas, who finally sells out to the Japanese. They close the factory - and I commit suicide.' In the meantime he has a cupboard full of ribbons. Never ever will he learn how to use a word processor. Jean used one.

He married first at 21, a typical northern journalist marriage, he says, in that when he moved down to Fleet Street he went on the piss most nights, leaving his wife, son and two daughters at home. One of his daughters is now in antiques, one a picture framer. His second marriage lasted only four years, though they were together for 17 years. They had no children.

Eight years ago, along came secretary Jean, who was said to do everything for him, from filling his glass to cutting his hair. She lived mainly in their Brighton flat and he visited her half of each week. Since their relationship ended, he has given up going to Brighton. Instead, he has bought himself a flat in Bath, where he goes every few days. On the train, on his own. It must be strange being alone after all these years?

'My Mum looked after me till I did National Service, then the Army looked after me. Since then, I've always lived with someone. People have said I've always been looked after, hand and foot. It was one of Jean's endearing characteristics, looking after me. She longed to please. But it turns out I can get myself out of bed in the morning. I can wash my own glass. I don't do any cooking but I can buy smoked salmon and fruit and boil an egg if I have to. I'm now enjoying a belated bachelorhood. I can come and go when I like, hang around the Garrick all evening, stay out when I like. I am surprised how well I'm managing.'

He's lost some weight and shaved off his distinctive mutton- chop whiskers. 'I just got fed up of hair, that was all.' Tut tut, Keith. Fed up with, surely. He is a known pedant, author of a standard work on newspaper style. 'Yes, I said it,' he smiled, then started coughing. He does have a nasty bark, but says it means nothing. 'I've coughed a lot since I stopped smoking. When I had a nicotine lined throat, it protected me from cat hairs, dust and germs. So there is something to be said for smoking.'

Presumably living alone is a stage? 'I don't know. Who knows what the future will bring? I might carry on like this. I'm not looking for anyone else.' So what went wrong last time? 'Well, she was my secretary and my mistress for those eight years. We had a lot of fun and jokes, champagne in bed. Yes, there was a bit of sex, but overall, we probably spent more time playing games of scrabble than screwing.'

And the basque? 'She just turned up wearing one. I didn't ask her, but I wasn't complaining, was I. Once she'd told everyone about it, my friends started taking the piss. I haven't given my side of the story; I think she has been exaggerating. I realised one day she was getting bored - before she realised it. She found someone else, and that was it, though she carried on as my secretary for a while, till I sacked her. I don't want to go into details, but it was to do with a bit of gossip that got around.

'I haven't spoken to her for months, except through solicitors. But I hope it will all be settled soon. We did have some happy times. I'd been faithful during the eight years of our relationship.

'For the last year, I've been celibate. I never thought I'd last so long, but it hasn't been too difficult. It's quite enjoyable. It takes a lot off your mind, being celibate. Sex does occupy such a lot of space. It's like giving up drinking. You find you don't have to go to the off- licence so often. I have much more time now - not that I want to give the impression I spent my whole life screwing. Now if you've don't mind, I've got this play to finish.'

I rang him later, to check something, and found Jean's voice on the answering machine. He doesn't know how to alter it, waiting for his daughter to come and do it. In the meantime, it amuses him to have Jean's voice still heard by the outside world.

'It reminds me of the old joke about the fellow who dies and the widow puts his ashes in an hourglass. 'The bugger never did a stroke in his lifetime,' says the widow. 'Now he's doing something useful.' I like the fact that despite what happened, Jean is still working for me.'

(Photograph omitted)