Geoffrey Wheatcroft: A great popular writer of his age


Saturday 05 September 2009 00:00

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.

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