William Donaldson's Week: Patch this up if you can, then

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The Independent Online
I'LL SAY this for Justin Judd: he's sending me on a writer's course in the nick of time. The idea was that I learn how to create believable characters in 48 hours, but with Roger from Chicago away in Lisbon I have discovered that I need tuition urgently in other aspects of a writer's craft.

It seems that Roger from Chicago doesn't just pop the jokes in here, he takes care of the construction, too. This week, I'm in deep snooker construction-wise, as you'll see as we proceed.

I came home on Tuesday after a tricky day up west - bucketing around production offices, trying to sell young men with hairstyles stuff from a briefcase - to discover Pete the Schnoz holding a bridge party in my drawing room.

Good, there'll be a column here, I thought - and so there was, except that there wasn't. As I walked in, 12 well-behaved young people stopped finessing one another's trumps and said: 'How do you do?', thereafter being introduced by Pete the Schnoz, who, after he'd announced their names - and to make me feel less out of it, I think - added who each's father was and what the latter's prospects were.

This was Rebecca, he said, whose father was my friend so-and-so's psychiatrist, and this was Hugo, whose father's novels I must have read, and, finally, that this was Candida, of the banking family, whose father I must have met.

'Indeed,' I said, '20 years ago he . . .' - and then I stopped, realising suddenly that I couldn't continue with this column-saving anecdote, since to reveal that Candida's father had tried to take me to the cleaners would be in very poor taste.

Confounded, you see, by construction - or rather by the lack of it. Here I was - and am - a third of the way through a column, and I'd hit the buffers. I couldn't go on and I couldn't go back, and I cursed myself for not working out ahead of time - as they'd told us to do at school - where I wanted to go and how to get there.

You'd have panicked; I rang the Independent, only to be told that Roger from Chicago was away till Friday and that I'd better kick my heels till then. This was leaving it late, but, being up the creek without a paddle, I had no alternative.

'What's the problem?' said Roger from Chicago when I rang on Friday.

'Construction,' I said. 'I'm launched on an anecdote which, for reasons of taste, I can't complete. It's a cracker, too, involving Pete the Schnoz, a bridge party, a shady banker, shifty lawyers, Spike Milligan and Lord Goodman. I'm a third of the way through - half-way now - and I've nowhere to go.'

'Have you done anything else in the past week?'

I'd been to the 1992 Oldie of the Year lunch, I said, but I couldn't say anything about that because we'd been specifically asked not to reveal the various winners ahead of publication in the Oldie. Mavis Nicholson and the Ink Spots had tied for the main award, I said; Charles Moore had won the Stephen Fry award (for someone who is young in years and yet assumes oldie attitudes); and the Snap Left in Celery award (for the most active oldie) had been won by my friend Terence Blacker, which surprised me.

'Bung it in anyway,' said Roger from Chicago. 'I'll glue it to the other bit and no one will notice the join. Construction's my game.'

Here goes, then. The Oldie lunch wasn't that bad, in fact, mainly because I sat next to Mrs Baker-Finch, of Baron's Court.

'I'm cross with you,' she said. 'Your piece about Wales and the Bluebottle impressions made it look as if I don't admire Spike Milligan. In fact, I think he's a genius.'

'So do I. And, more importantly, he's a very nice man.'

Then I told her how, 20 years ago, when I'd had a lease on the Comedy Theatre, he had saved my bacon. I let it to a well-known banker, who put on a tremendous flop. It came off after one night, but the banker refused to pay the rent he owed. Instead, he instructed smart lawyers to argue that the contract was null and void because the cloakrooms hadn't been painted, or something equally daft.

Lord Goodman was asked to arbitrate, and with one massive shift of weight, he squashed the banker flat, telling him to cough up pronto. The lesson was that respectable lawyers with contracts up their sleeves are indistinguishable from Soho card-sharks, and I'd have followed the banker down the pan but for Milligan.

The Bedsitting Room, with Spike in the lead, was tucked in nicely at the time at the Duke of York's, but when I asked him if he'd mind switching to the Comedy, he didn't hesitate, even though the move was unlikely to help the play.

'That was very nice of him,' said Mrs Baker-Finch. 'However, I can't for the life of me see how Roger from Chicago will be able to blend an account of this rotten lunch with your anecdote involving the bridge party and Pete the Schnoz.'

I'm more optimistic. Either way, we'll discover on Saturday whether Roger from Chicago is as good at construction as he says he is.