Magazine article The Spectator

A Singularly Plural Life

Magazine article The Spectator

A Singularly Plural Life

Article excerpt

YOU CANNOT LIVE AS I HAVE LIVED AND NOT END UPLIKE THIS : THE THOROUGHLY DISGRACEFUL LIFE & TIMES OF WILLIE DONALDSON by Terence Blacker Ebury, £12.99, pp. 342, ISBN 9780091913861 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

If nothing else, this biography has to be a candidate for the Title of the Year prize. The fact that it's about Willie Donaldson gives it a good shout, too, at Subject of the Year.

Just amble through the CV: feckless squanderer of inherited shipping fortune; impresario of Beyond the Fringe; ponce (though he was frequently and, he felt inaccurately, described as a pimp); submariner; author of the Henry Root Letters; lover of Carly Simon and Sarah Miles; unsuccessful glass-bottomed boat entrepreneur; geriatric crack-fiend; self-confessed pervert; corrupter of innocence; balletomane; Old Wykehamist.

'Disgraceful' he frequently was. The tone of Terence Blacker's book -- somewhat too personal and too partisan to be a proper biography, yet more than a memoir -- is captured by the way that word is used in the title. Blacker approaches Donaldson -- a friend and collaborator for many years -- as many seem to have done: the vocabulary is of disapproval but the effect is of congratulation.

There's room for both. Donaldson was a brilliantly gifted comic writer, and a man who lived his life with an indifference to received opinion that, Blacker suggests, adds up to some sort of existential heroism. From another angle, though, he was a selfish shit: a man in perpetual flight from responsibility. He lived in several social worlds, and several moral worlds, at once.

His was a singularly plural life.

As a memoirist, Donaldson was alternately self-excoriating and self-exonerating, and the holes and contradictions in his story are considerable. Blacker has patched some; others (as he admits) gape. As Donaldson put it, 'I've always taken it as axiomatic that the truth should never be allowed to stand in the way of a huge, life-enhancing joke.' Donaldson's story lurches from triumph to disaster -- he recognises both as imposters, but tends to greet the second as an old friend. He was comfortable with disaster, and set about engineering it wherever he could. Required, before passing out as a midshipman, to deliver a speech on a non-naval subject to his fellow tars, he chose to discuss 'Ballet as a career for men.' On that occasion, as on many others, his attempts to fail failed. …

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