Terence Blacker: Sex addict, crack fiend - and moralist

Willie Donaldson's life may read like a catalogue of talent betrayed, but in many ways it was a blazing triumph
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The Independent Online

"Too much sex and cocaine but very prompt in delivering manuscripts," read the caption in The Guardian. "A womanising satirist who squandered several fortunes on wild living," was The Times's summary, while in The Daily Telegraph he was "a Wykhamist pimp, crack fiend and adulterer ... a lazy, self-indulgent sex addict and comic genius".

Reading some of the obituaries for my friend Willie Donaldson, I seem to hear the squawk of outraged delight with which he would greet particular outrageous oddities from our very odd world.

He would have accepted the references to drugs, pimping and the squandering of fortunes - in fact, he would have thought they had been a bit easy on him. The charge of laziness would have irritated him and, oddly for someone who had a lot of sex, he would not have liked to have been thought be a womaniser, disapproving as he was of traditional philandering. That casual squelch of a compliment about delivering manuscripts on time would have had him wheezing with laughter.

The obituarists who had to sum up Willie Donaldson had a tough gig. Apart from the fact that it was difficult to extract truth from the semi-fictional versions of his past that were in his writing, he had led a life which resisted any tidy narrative line. Unless one happened to know him, and sometimes if one did, it was difficult to pull the different aspects of his past and present into any kind of coherent shape.

The polite and quietly spoken gent in a John Lewis Partnership blazer was also an enthusiast (but never an addict) of the crack pipe. The theatrical producer of Beyond the Fringe and would-be promoter of the young Bob Dylan was dogged by bankruptcy and financial ducking and diving.

The man who lived with Sarah Miles (and was cuckolded, he claimed, by Sir Laurence Olivier) and was engaged to Carly Simon led a private life consistent only in its pervy, doomed obsessiveness.

"Fantasy comes first," he wrote towards the end of his life. "Then you fall in love with the created object. It's an act of faith - like religious belief. And you must remain loyal to this fictional object of your love, this perfect other woman. Finally, you must live with her, rather than visit a service flat in the afternoon."

This is not a recipe for domestic contentment. But while, on paper, Willie's life may read like a catalogue of opportunities lost, talent and love betrayed, it was in many ways a blazing triumph. His writing, which in some accounts over the past few days had been squeezed out by the events of a shambolic existence, was at the centre of his life from 1975 onwards. At its best it was utterly original, howlingly funny and, now and then, piercingly sad. Is This Allowed?, the novel that he wrote at the end of a disastrous, addictive affair, remains a lethally perceptive account of writerly exploitation and middle-aged guilt.

A strange galère of characters appear as authors on the title pages of his other books. Apart from the wet fish merchant Henry Root, there was Dr Kit Bryson, sociologist and expert on all things naff, the court correspondent Talbot Church ("The Man the Royals Trust"), and Liz Reed, the head of Heart Felt TV Productions, whose company's motto was "A tragedy aired is a tragedy shared".

Looking at these books now, one realises that Willie was prescient about the way a celebrity-obsessed culture, with its fake intimacy, vulgarity and prurience, would take over our lives. Not that his view of that tabloid world was in any way disdainful. In fact, he was fascinated and appalled by it in more or less equal measure.

The central paradox that was bubbling away beneath the surface of his writing and conversation was that, for a crack fiend and sex addict, Willie Donaldson had a strong, innate sense of morality. His version of right and wrong might not have been everyone's - not a team player, he was out of step not only with the establishment but with those, like Private Eye, one might have expected to have been on his side - but, much as he denied it with exasperated rage, there was, beyond genuine remorse about what he had done in his life, a sort of moral code.

No life, once passed, that leaves many people missing its charm, company, strange enthusiasms and habits, its wit and warmth, can be counted a failure. Never mind the mess of his private life, Willie was not just a very funny man but a sweet, kind and generous one. His sense of humour was actually not that of the hard-eyed satirist and man of the world, but was essentially childish, skittish - more Tommy Cooper than Evelyn Waugh.

That charm, a mixture of dangerousness, a courtly manner and laughter, was not just seductive in itself. It informed lasting and loving friendships. Carly Simon, who had more reason than most to be annoyed with Willie, later described him as "a wonderful, wonderful person: the funniest man I have ever met".

He was a dear friend, a writer who kept working, and working well, until the end. He had a talent for making one look at the world from a perspective that was utterly different from anyone else's. By any standard, it is not a bad achievement.