Wednesday, June 29, 2005

William Donaldson

Another great Telegraph obituary.
William Donaldson, who died on June 22 aged 70, was described by Kenneth Tynan as "an old Wykehamist who ended up as a moderately successful Chelsea pimp", which was true, though he was also a failed theatrical impresario, a crack-smoking serial adulterer and a writer of autobiographical novels; but it was under the nom de plume Henry Root that he became best known.

I remember Henry Root although I was still a teenager when the letters saw the light of day. (I can't help but wonder if they played any part in the inspiration of Ali G.)

Willie Donaldson's alter ego was a Right-wing nutcase and wet fish merchant from Elm Park Mansions, SW10, who specialised in writing brash, outrageous and frequently abusive letters to eminent public figures, enclosing a one pound note. Donaldson's genius was to write letters that appeared absurd to the public but not to those to whom they were addressed. The recipients duly replied, often unaware that the joke was on them.

Root chastised the Archbishop of Canterbury for failing to thank him for the five pounds he had donated towards roof repairs; suggested to Margaret Thatcher (who kept the enclosed one pound) that Mary Whitehouse should be made Home Secretary; sympathised with the Queen about the "problems" she was having with Princess Anne ("My Doreen, 19, is completely off the rails too, so I know what it's like"); and told the Thorpe trial judge, Sir Joseph Cantley: "You tipped the jury the right way and some of your jokes were first class! Well done! You never looked to me like the sort of man who'd send an old Etonian to the pokey", a communication which brought a visit from the police, investigating allegations of attempted bribery.

He volunteered to run sundry failing football clubs; to visit the Chief Constable of Manchester with his newly formed-group The Ordinary Folk Against The Rising Tide of Filth in Our Society Situation (TOFATRFLOSS); asked Angela Rippon to send him a photograph of Anna Ford and enquired of the Tory Party director of finance the going rate for a peerage. He wrote to the late Sir James Goldsmith urging the elimination of "scroungers, perverts, Dutch pessary salesmen and Polly Toynbee". "Dear Mr Root", Goldsmith replied, "Thank you for your letter which I appreciated enormously."

Some recipients were puzzled, some furious, and some swallowed the hoax, hook, line and sinker. Nicholas Scott MP answered Root's letters about his love life, claiming that all was well between himself and his wife. The Foreign Office replied to Root's enquiries as to whether Mrs Root might be assaulted by "local Pedros" on holiday in Ibiza, informing him that "the activities to which you refer are indeed apt to occur in most popular tourist centres". When he told Sir David McNee, then Police Commissioner at Scotland Yard, that it was "better that 10 innocent men be convicted than that one guilty man goes free", he was told: "Your kind comments are appreciated."
He had an unerring eye for the approach which would rankle most with his recipients. Writing to Harriet Harman, then of "The National Council for so-called Civil Liberties", he began: "I saw you on television the other night� Why should an attractive lass like you want to confuse her pretty little head with complicated matters of politics, jurisprudence, sociology and the so-called rights of man? Leave such considerations to us men, that's my advice to you. A pretty girl like you should have settled down by now with a husband and a couple of kiddies." If she must work, he continued, she should consider a career such as "that of model, actress, ballroom dancing instructor or newsreader", before enclosing a pound for her to buy a pretty dress and urging the future MP to get in touch with "my friend Lord Delfont".

Compiled and published in 1980, The Henry Root Letters became the number one best seller... It was claimed that one of his more redeeming features was that while he hated pomposity and hypocrisy in others, he disliked himself even more.

This might have been so, had he not enjoyed hating himself so much: "The salient features about me are laziness, self-indulgence and sex addiction," he confessed, in his characteristic melancholy drawl. "I'm genuinely shocked by my own behaviour."

Although the potted biographies of the eccentrics are a thing of beauty and a joy forever, it is also worth reading the Telegraph's obituary column to salute, sixty years on in their twilight, the generation that fought World War II. It is genuinely humbling to read of apparently ordinary people who performed extraordinary feats of valour in the Fourties and then returned to steady jobs and allotment tending, seldom it seems even raising their voices again. (I always find it amazing, as he is so modest and unassuming, that Kevin's dad fought his was up through Italy with the Eighth Army and had a good friend and comrade shot dead as they stood shoulder to shoulder. What an easy life I have by comparison.)

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