An afternoon with Keith Waterhouse


WHEN Robert Maxwell bought the Mirror in 1984, one of the first tasks he set himself was to make sure that Keith Waterhouse stayed with the paper since, for many readers, his twice-weekly column was the only reason for buying it. Cap’n Bob summoned Keith to his lair and said that, in return for a vow of loyalty, he would greatly enhance his star writer’s Mirror pension. The emptiness of this pledge would emerge after Maxwell’s death by drowning in 1991, when he was found to have plundered hundreds of millions of pounds from the pension fund.

In any case Waterhouse was not taking the bait. He was a freelance and replied: ‘Mr Maxwell, I don’t have a Mirror pension to enhance.’

In 1988, Daily Mail editor David English engineered Waterhouse’s defection by mocking up one of his columns on a Mail page – virtually identical to the way it appeared in the Mirror – and offering him a hefty pay rise. It was an inspired move for all concerned. Over the next 20 years Keith’s brilliance reached new heights as he chronicled the dozy shopgirls Sharon and Tracy, the prehistoric Ug family, the doughty councillors of Clogthorpe and the insistence of greengrocers on using aberrant apostrophes.

In the early 1990s, when I was planning a comic novel about politics and newspapers, I contacted the author of Billy Liar and many other bestsellers to seek his advice. He agreed to meet me one afternoon in Scribes West, a private members’ drinking club beneath the Mail’s Kensington offices then owned by Terry Venables, the former England football coach.

I had never seen Waterhouse in the office but there was no mistaking his snow-white mane as he sat waiting at the bar, glass of pinot grigio in hand. The meeting began inauspiciously with my asking on what type of computer he wrote. Had I carried out proper research, I would have discovered that he would use nothing but his vintage typewriter.

However the conversation began to flow after a few drinks, particularly when the subject got on to PG Wodehouse. We both owned all his books, albeit mine were mainly tatty paperbacks and his were priceless first editions, and I had recently reviewed a hefty bibliography of the Master – occasioning the only Daily Mail byline I ever received.

Keith said that when writing his novels he had always borne in mind Wodehouse’s advice that he treated his characters as a group of professional actors. So when he invented someone new, he would be sure to give him or her plenty of lines to make sure they earned their keep.

We were chatting merrily when a waiter told Waterhouse that he was urgently needed on the phone. The call was from his Girl Friday, Jean, whom he had asked to ring him within an hour of our meeting in case he was desperate to get away. However he assured her he was OK and a few more drinks went down the hatch before we departed on friendly terms.

Keith was kind enough to recommend me to his literary agent, who read the first 20,000 words of my novel and declared herself unimpressed. Another agent was more enthusiastic but I took a long, hard look at the work in progress and was forced to admit that it was not much cop. A lifetime of boiling down stories for newspapers had been, alas, poor preparation for the descriptive prose that fiction requires.

The next time I saw Waterhouse was at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane, where Sir David English was throwing a lavish and star-studded party to mark the Mail’s 21 years since switching from broadsheet format to tabloid (or ‘compact’, as Sir David insisted). Keith, never the most gregarious of chaps, looked a little lost amid a sea of bodies and, meeting my eye, came over to chat. We spoke for a while until someone more senior whisked him away to be introduced to some VIPs.

Afterwards I was mobbed by colleagues hugely impressed that the great Waterhouse had seen fit to converse with a humble sub-editor. Several asked: ‘How did you get to know him?’ ‘Oh, me and Keith?’ I replied airily. ‘We go back a long way.’ Later I looked in a mirror to see if the fib had caused my nose to grow, Pinocchio-style, but I got away with it.

Incidentally, our friend and former Mail colleague Tom reminds me that a not-too-bright chap from the circulation department used to come into the office and ask the subs to provide local bills on stories, supposedly to be displayed outside newsagents, for example ‘Burnley footballer snubs young fan’ or ‘Nelson tourist in Greek lavatory horror’. I never actually saw any of these bills on the street.

Anyway, in his latest column Waterhouse had supplied another of his hilarious local newspaper parodies, describing proceedings at the fictional Clogthorpe Council.

Tom says: ‘He riffled through the pages of the first edition, picking out names of towns, and we dashed off a few bills for him. But he still wasn’t satisfied.  

‘Pointing to the Waterhouse column, he said, “Can you give me one for Clogthorpe? There’s a big story about it here”.’ 

Keith Waterhouse died, at the age of 80, in September 2009. His retirement from the Mail had been announced in May of the previous year. One of his faithful drinking companions in his declining years was John McEntee, a genial Irish bloke who wrote Wicked Whispers and other showbiz frippery for the Mail Diary department. In his entertaining memoir I’m Not One To Gossip, But . . . John recalls how he and Keith would drink pinot grigio in O’Neill’s, a huge barn of a pub near their homes in Earl’s Court.

He writes: ‘To my cost, I discovered Keith’s stubborn adherence to his “just the one glass” philosophy (just the one glass at a time, that is). When the pub launched a promotion offering the rest of the bottle when two large glasses were purchased, I returned to our table clutching the bottle. Keith glared at it before pointing an accusing finger, “What is THAT?”

‘I explained. He was having none of it. As I attempted to replenish his half-empty glass he placed his hand over it. “No, I don’t want a bottle.” He then shuffled to the bar and ordered two large glasses of white wine. When the barman insisted on handing over the entire bottle, Keith objected, “I don’t want the rest of it, pour it down the sink.” He then turned in exasperation towards me and bellowed, “We’ll be here all day!”.’

Old jokes’ home

There was a gratifying response last week to my item about gags  beginning: ‘What do you call . . .’ Among my favourites were two from Andy Marshall: ‘What do you call a woman who sets fire to her bills? Bernadette.’ And: ‘What do you call a woman who rescues frozen cows? Thora Hird.’

‘Labour is bunk’ supplied several golden oldies, including: ‘A grandfather has gone missing after eating four cans of baked beans, two cauliflowers and a jar of gherkins. His family have made an emotional appeal for him not to come home for at least a fortnight.’

‘I’d like a copy of the Conservative Party Constitution please.’
‘Sorry, I’m afraid we’ve sold out.’
‘Yes, that’s perfectly obvious, but I’d still like a copy all the same.’

News Headline: ‘Woman Climbs Everest Twice In One Week’ . . . that’ll teach her to leave her handbag at the summit.

I’ve cut my alcohol consumption – I now only drink on two days each week. Today and tomorrow.

Apparently, TV viewers in Dubai don’t have The Flintstones, but those in Abu Dhabi do.

‘Moto’ suggested a series of ‘she was only a’ jokes but I fear most of those I know are too filthy to repeat. One exception is: ‘She was only a telegraphist’s daughter, but she did-it, did-it, did-it, did-it.’

A PS from PG:

He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.

PG Wodehouse: Big Money

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