Show Hide image

Raising a glass

Observations on Fleet Street

No candle-bedecked cake will grace the west London home of Keith Waterhouse when he reaches his milestone 80th birthday on 6 February. The curmudgeonly Leeds-born novelist, playwright and columnist has strong views on such fripperies and would no doubt declare: "I don't do birthdays."

Though Keith has declined to leave the comfort of his flat for close on 12 months, he is still firing on all creative cylinders twice a week in the Daily Mail, and recently completed a play about Fleet Street, The Last Page. But reaching the foothills of his ninth decade is a remarkable achievement. The last of those great Fleet Street drinkers whose talent was sharpened by alcohol, he supplemented his meagre breakfast until recently with a daily Niagara of Pinot Grigio, consumed in the barnlike interior of O'Neill's public house in Earls Court. I have enjoyed multifarious stimulating and, indeed, dizzying drinking sessions there with Keith, during which he has shown unstinting devotion to his "just the one glass" philosophy (ie, one glass at a time).

When, on one occasion, the pub launched a promotion offering the rest of the bottle gratis each time two large glasses were purchased, I returned to our table clutching my prize. Keith glared at it before pointing an accusing finger: "What is that?" 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 handed over the 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!"

Keith is a man of pronounced likes and dislikes. Once, returning from a trip to Venice, I was enthusing about the city's beauty when he stopped me mid-spout to declare: "Sorry, I don't do scenery." On another occasion, I mentioned the late Spike Milligan. "I never liked him," offered Keith, pausing to sip his wine before exclaiming: "In fact I loathed him."

But he did like to recall his encounter with the late Robert Maxwell who, on purchasing the Daily Mirror, offered his star columnist a greatly enhanced Mirror pension to stay on board. Keith, a freelance, replied tartly: "Mr Maxwell, I don't have a Mirror pension to enhance."

Sometimes it was advisable to accompany the over-refreshed Keith to his nearby home, always abiding by the advice of his solicitous Irish housekeeper: don't put him on the bed; leave him on the floor. "He won't fall out of bed that way," she said. Eventually catastrophe struck. After a jolly lunch at Langan's Coq d'Or, he was assisted home by a fellow imbiber who made the fatal mistake of putting him to bed. During the night Keith fell on to the floor, fracturing his right arm. Recuperating in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, he was sent a large wicker basket of fruit by his editor, Paul Dacre. Pointing at it, he asked if anyone wanted a banana, sighing: "I suppose the basket will come in useful for holding pens."

After this incident, the trips to O'Neill's became less frequent, and the regular lunches at Langan's fizzled out. Then, early last year, he ceased going out altogether. But remarkably, neither his epic drink consumption nor his self-imposed reclusiveness has hindered the production of the magnificent Waterhouse prose.

Although frail, he still craves Fleet Street gossip and speaks regularly by telephone to his chums. His arm continues to bother him but his health is otherwise good. When I visited last month he was sipping Pinot from a glass clutched in his left hand. I urged him to make 2009 the year he resumes his perambulations. His response? "I don't do out any more."

Happy birthday, Keith.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009