Friday, November 13, 2009
Rogues Eccentrics and Villains by Willie Donaldson
The remarkable thing about Willie Donaldson’s “Rogues Eccentrics and Villains – An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages” is that the thing exists at all. The late Mr Donaldson easily fell into all three of these categories himself – enjoying a feverishly scolded life of debtors, drug abuse and an expensive peccadillo for prostitutes. Before his crack-ridden body was discovered alone in a squalid London flat, allegedly slumped over a pornographic lesbian website – he had squandered at least three fortunes, had been responsible for stage productions involving Beyond the Fringe and Bob Dylan, had affairs with Sarah Miles and Carly Simon (Donaldson is in the running for being the subject of You’re So Vain), become homeless in Ibiza after the disastrous purchase of a glass-bottomed boat and wrote a great deal, like Balzac, out of necessity rather than love.
The book concerning Donaldson’s life has the remarkable title “You Cannot Live as I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This”. It is recommended. Like fellow rogues Jeffrey Bernard, Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, (who all have entries in Rogues Eccentrics and Villains) Donaldson represented the sort of drunken reprobate that is slowly eroding out of British cultural life. Wastrels that were happy to drink their lives away leaving a stream of tattered marriages behind them and yet possessing enough charm to squeeze another drink out of whichever poor unfortunate was within mooching distance at the bar.
Rogues Eccentrics and Villains collects the lives of many of these men and women, from every conceivable age. Murderers, witches gangsters, forgers, village idiots and violent aristocrats are collated and misrepresented by Donaldson, who joyfully assassinates the characters of those he feels deserve it (i.e. the entry for Oliver Reed begins: “bibulous show-off, known as the ‘hell-raiser’s hell-raiser’, a title that is thought to have gone to him because no one else wanted it). Donaldson seems perfectly happy in this company, gangsters in particular are presented with a rosy glow. Tricksters too are described with glee. Donaldson was an arch trickster himself, making his final fortune with the publication of The Henry Root Letters, in which he wrote annoying letters to celebrities and published the pompous results.
Like all writers, Donaldson hated writing and was forced to meet deadlines practically at gunpoint, which makes the creation of this 690 page compendium all the more remarkable. I’m sure many tears were shed and threats levelled before the manuscript was delivered. It was his last great effort. Donaldson’s disgraceful life ground to a halt in 2005. Sadly there are few contenders to take such a mans place.