Mr William Donaldson, the most subversive and mischievous Englishman since Titus Oates, started his literary career with Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen, a DIY guide to brothel-keeping and the choreography of orgies. He extended it with the Henry Root Letters, in which, posing as a demented if upwardly mobile fishmonger, he entered into a correspondence with the great, the good and the gullible in public life, flattering them outrageously, even trying to slip them the odd fiver. And they, Mrs Thatcher (who kept her fiver), Esther Rantzen, and President Zia-al-Haq, innocents undented by humour, wrote back. Donaldson published the lot and held them up to ridicule.
But why? What made Mr Donaldson, a public-school man and a graduate in English from the University of Cambridge, stand up and shake his fist at the whole Establishment? We shall probably never know, any more than Edmund Gosse did when he agonised over what had made Thomas Hardy stand up in the pleasant land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator, an entity for some reason not on Donaldson’s hit list. It may be some disappointment over an MBE, or the failure of his youthful hope to make himself the Ziegfeld of the West End, but, whatever his motives, his iconoclasm has, in age, become as imperial as that of Dr No.
Now an old age pensioner, he has come,
with woundes rede
To deme the quikke and the dede.
Mr Donaldson has embarked on his Last Judgment on what his publishers call the infamous and the egregious, past and present, from serial killers like the Brides in the Bath man to serial columnists like Craig Brown. And that is just the start.
Being Donaldson, he includes the Queen, whom he accuses of ‘entrenched snobbery’, miserliness and smuggling (‘On one occasion she rebuked her private secretary for making a full declaration to HM Customs of foreign goods she had brought into the country’). He concludes, ‘See also MISERS.’
For the man who stumbled on the spoof letter has stumbled on something far more deadly, the cross-reference, a blunderbuss in his hands. Thus for him the Queen enters eternity coupled with Daniel Dancer, an 18th-century eccentric so mean that, being given some stewed trout, he sat on them until they were warm enough to eat.
He then turns his attention on her unfortunate consort. ‘Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, believed she was enjoying carnal relations with Christ; his father, Prince Andrew, lived on a boat with a French actress called AndrZe de la Bigne.’ But that is small stuff compared to what follows when relentlessly, page after page, he gets the Duke in the sights of his cross- references. ‘Sadomasochistic pornography, the most comprehensive library in Europe. See Edinburgh, Prince Philip, Duke of.’ But all that reveals is that this was owned by a relative. Again ‘Magnetic, believing oneself to be. See Edinburgh, Prince Philip, Duke of.’ Only this is a reference to his mother. ‘Monkey, kings who have died as the result of being bitten by a monkey, See
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 16, 2002