Geoffrey Wheatcroft: A great popular writer of his age

Appreciation

Share
Related Topics

Sitting in El Vino's with Keith Waterhouse... No, that's too obvious a way to remember any journalist. But where else would I have been with Keith, unless a Soho restaurant, or the French pub before lunch, or Muriel's afterwards? This is not to suggest that Keith's whole life was spent eating, drinking and talking, although a good deal of it was.

He did, after all, reach the age of 80 before his death yesterday, not to mention that he produced novels, plays and columns with a prolificity and range that marked him as a man of another age, or an older Grub Street.

He was a Leeds boy who began his working life on local papers. Today someone of his intelligence would go to university – Keith was as clever and as well-read as some Oxford dons – but his education was completed instead in the RAF, and the University of Life.

We know what young Keith was like from his first novels, There Is a Happy Land and Billy Liar: the boy dreaming of life outside his provincial office. Billy Liar was Keith's breakthrough, as a play with Albert Finney and a film with Tom Courtney, and the beginning of his long partnership with the playwright Willis Hall.

They were men of another generation in their uneasy attitude to women. Either Keith said he never went to Willis's weddings "as we don't like to intrude on each other's private grief", or the other way round, or they both said it.

When Keith turned up at the Daily Mirror and was asked what he wanted to do, he said, "to be the next Cassandra" – the famous columnist William Conor.

And so he did, one of the great popular journalists of his age, writing in an easy conversational style that was perfectly grammatical. He was a model to anyone who wants to write English prose.

They were palmy days, with lavish expenses and short working days. One of the privileges for senior Mirrormen was attending the party conferences and the American party conventions.

In San Francisco in 1984 I bumped into Keith at the Democratic convention, though none of the Fleet Street contingent was much animated about the nomination of Walter Mondale.

All the talk was of the Mirror's new owner, "Cap'*Bob", as Keith called him with slightly forced jocosity. It was no surprise when Keith left the Mirror not long after Robert Maxwell acquired it and moved to the Daily Mail, "like transferring from the Palladium to Drury Lane", as he put it.

At one time Keith lived in Bath, where he used to come to Sunday lunch with us. When my late father-in-law Frank Muir was staying, it was a treat to hear these two old pros comparing notes about the techniques of comedy writing. And it was characteristic brilliance on Keith's part to see that Jeffrey Bernard's Spectator column, that hilarious, awe-inspiring chronicle of disaster and self-destruction, could be turned into a play.

Some years ago, we were sitting with the old gang in, well, yes, El Vino's, after a memorial service up the road at St Bride's. A bottle of Bollinger came, and another, and one more. When that was empty, we all looked at each other a little guiltily, until Keith raised an arm for the waitress, and said, with a straight face and flawless comic timing, "It's what he would have wanted." As I finish this, I think I know what Keith would want.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Designer / Design Director

£38000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This B2B content marketing agen...

Austen Lloyd: Law Costs HOD - Southampton

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: An outstanding new...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Threatening social workers with jail won’t do much for recruitment

John Mullin
 

£3bn to repair Parliament? Knock it into flats and send MPs up North

Matthew Norma
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn