Until I read his enthralling account of what it’s like to be a middle-class sixtysomething crack addict, I’d never quite appreciated the genius of William Donaldson. I know his Henry Root letters are supposed to be very satirical but I found them a bit hard going myself — like a complex in-joke that you really need to have been somewhere weird like Harrow to understand. Initially, I felt the same way about I’m Leaving You Simon, You Disgust Me. Like Root, it’s sure to be found in every middle-class downstairs loo everywhere by the time Christmas is over, but on my first flick-through it seemed to me to fail in its most important duty: casual browsability.
It purports to be a dictionary of received ideas and sometimes you stumble upon a definition of truly staggering aptitude — e.g. ‘Beckham, David. Attention-seeking football player admired by children for the accuracy of his corner kicks’; ‘Georgian Town Houses. They don’t come cheap’; ‘Black Men. Always a surprise to hear them speaking French.’ The big problem is, though, that these nuggets of brilliance threaten to be overwhelmed by the swathes of dialogue in between.
Much of it is spoken in an Islington tapas bar by Simon and Vernon, a couple of pedantic, boorish know-alls given to stock phrases like ‘guilty as charged’, ‘we’re none of us getting any younger’ and ‘don’t want the world and his wife beating a path to the door.’ Now I know such people exist in popular mythology but I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually met one. And if I have, I certainly haven’t been sufficiently annoyed by them to want to read a book in which their dubious eternal verities and facetious asides are satirised at such length. In fact it felt rather like being trapped in someone else’s private hell. Donaldson gets sat next to these types at dinner parties a lot, you rather get the impression, and if that’s the case my advice to him is to do what I do and go out less. Better to reject a thousand potential new friends than to risk having to spend even a single evening stuck with a bore.
So, that’s my only quibble and there are two good reasons why I suggest you ignore it and buy the book for all your friends and relatives this Christmas, anyway. First, once you’ve acquired a taste for Donaldson’s peculiar style and world view — which you do, after a couple more browsing sessions — even the dialogue you didn’t think much of at first starts to exert its charm.
Second, because for the most part it’s frighteningly accurate in its summary of middlebrow cultural truisms; razor-sharp in its dissection of popular culture; cheerfully relentless in its assault on worthwhile targets like TV detective series clichés, the earthy wisdom of Michael Parkinson, and the matey demotic of TV pop historians; and, in that characteristically bone-dry Donaldson manner, very, very funny.
Here are some examples:
Strawberries, the. Always disappointing this year.
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968). In spite of Leone’s operatic direction and Henry Fonda’s ‘against type’ icy-eyed gunslinger, the real star of the picture, of course, is Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable score.
Welsh politicians. Forever fellating Rastafar- ians on Clapham Common.
Mortgaged. Always ‘to the hilt’. That said, you can’t go wrong with bricks and mortar.
Ali, Muhammad (1942-). Pound for pound the greatest boxer ever to put gloves on. ‘I don’t hope to see a better in my lifetime’. See also ARMSTRONG, HENRY ‘HANK’; DURAN, ROBERTO; HAGLER, MARVIN; HEARNS, THOMAS ‘THE HITMAN’; LEONARD, SUGAR RAY; LOUIS, JOE; MARCIANO, ROCKY; MOORE, ARCHIE; PEP, WILLIE; ROBINSON, SUGAR RAY.
He. Disquietingly ubiquitous. ‘He could be out there now, Sergeant. Watching us.’ See also A TOUCH OF FROST.
See what I mean?