Welcome to the Dead Drunk Poets Society

Article excerpt

Returning to the world of news and events after an absence of a week or so, I find that life has grown stranger than ever. A TV presenter of whom I have never heard has replaced Michael Barrymore as the tabloid hate figure of the moment. There are pictures of him apparently snorting cocaine on yesterday's front pages, followed by page after page of allegations of sexual behaviour so terrible as to relegate the events in Moscow to an inside-page, foreign news slot.

Elsewhere there is news of dead poets who, in the manner of their kind, have managed to spread discord and controversy from beyond the grave. Someone has discovered some rather lame Philip Larkin poems and is at war with the Society of Authors as to who should make money out of them. Two members of Ted Hughes's family seem about to go to war over his will. His daughter Frieda has apparently taken this financial blow particularly hard. "I walk into bookshops and see my father's astonishing works on the shelves, and have to acknowledge that I now feel they have been disconnected from me," she has written, rather peculiarly, in the introduction to her new collection, Waxworks.

The spirit of Dylan Thomas, meanwhile, is to live on in the form of a rest home for alcoholic poets that has been established in the house where he once lived. The new owners are to take in sozzled old versifiers who have "lost their way" and "encourage them back on the right path" with a course of rest, rehabilitation and - enough to send anyone back to the bottle, one would think - poetry readings.

More startling even than any of this was the face of Uncle Willie, my old friend Willie Donaldson, staring out from the cover of the review section of The Independent on Sunday, a glass of brandy in his hand, with, in the background, a blonde model perusing his latest work, Brewer's Rogues Villains and Eccentrics.

Weirdly, the perceptive profile of Uncle Willie by Robert Chalmers seems to offer a sort of response to the news of poets and TV presenters published elsewhere. On the face of it, his career as a moral miscreant would outstrip any coke-snorting, bimbo-bonking broadcaster; the poets, with their women and money problems, are simply not in his class.

So why do the shorthand headlines - "the grand old philanderer of British letters", "the former crack-smoking serial adulterer" - strike me as somehow missing the point about Willie Donaldson? …