Celebrated diarist, raconteur and renowned author John McEntee remembers the latter years of the award winning novelist, script writer, journalist, and legendary imbiber Keith Waterhouse.
Sometimes in the early evening gloom of Old Brompton Road I catch a glimpse of a shambling figure. He is wearing a creased, Colombo -like raincoat, his long, unkempt, white hair blowing in the breeze. His step is unsteady. As the traffic lights wink green, he shuffles towards the swing doors of O’Neill’s cavernous public house on the corner of Earls Court Road.
It is the ghost of Keith Waterhouse, author of the immortal Billy Liar, journalist and bon viveur. His spirit is recreating the journey he took every day during the last decade of a life that ended in 2009 at the remarkable age of 80. I say remarkable because Keith’s alcohol consumption alone – not to mention his sparse diet – should have seen him off at least 20 years earlier. I was privileged to share Keith’s twilight drinking years. I still miss him greatly.
In O’Neill’s, Keith invariably sat alone at a table surrounded by a jumble of newspapers and magazines, sipping on a large glass of Pinot Grigio. A professional curmudgeon he constantly complained, about the noise of the pub, the rudeness of the staff, the long journey up the grand stairway to the gents and the type of customer with whom he he was obliged to rub shoulders.
But it was the environment he preferred. Still tip tapping out two brilliant columns a week for the Daily Mail on his manual typewriter as well as columns for Saga magazine and work on a still unseen play, he rewarded himself daily with a trip to O’Neills, before which he would have polished off a bottle or more at home at nearby Coleherne Court. Sometimes, Stella, his former wife, who in his final reclusive years nursed him tenderly, joined him. But he was often rude to her, sometimes suddenly staring at her in the chair beside him in O’Neills as if she’d just landed from another planet.
He did not welcome visitors to his table. Once mischievously returning in a taxi from lunch in Chelsea, I told my companion, the writer and journalist Noel Botham, that the great man was probably in O’Neill’s. We halted the cab outside and found Keith sitting with Stella. Botham, six foot two and carrying a large internal cargo of Chablis rushed over and attempted to lift Keith from his chair with a huge embrace.
“Please forgive me, Keith,” he gushed, referring to an earlier fall out. “I love you. Let’s have dinner, on me, on Thursday.” Extracting himself from Botham’s embrace Keith produced from the inside pocket of his manky battered tweed jacket a tiny pocket diary which he thumbed through. Peering at an open page he said “I’m sorry Thursday is out. I find I am cleaning my tennis shoes that evening.”
Waterhouse frequented O’Neills so often, that the staff gave him the key to the disabled lavatory on the ground floor. On one occasion, Keith excused himself from the table and walked shakily the 20 yards across the shiny wooden floor to the door of the loo. When Keith emerged, he was even shakier on his feet. As he closed the door he peered intently at his distant chair and gamely put his first foot forward. Just then the jukebox burst into life playing a rap record.
Keith’s spasmodic, shoulder movements and mini lurches as he negotiated the vast ocean of floor brilliantly, and inadvertently, kept time with the music and when he was safely berthed in his chair a group of young men reacted with a cry of ‘Bravo!’ and a round of applause. Keith was baffled but from then on the record became known as The Waterhouse Rap.
Regularly Keith would enjoy lunch at Richard Shepherd’s Coq d’Or, adjacent to O’Neills. He enjoyed the company of colleagues from The Mail, the late Ian Wooldridge, John Edwards, Peter McKay and Jeff Powell. On one occasion, after ordering his usual eggs benedict, he complained he couldn’t reach the bottle of white wine marooned in an ice bucket just out of his reach.
Three times he asked the Polish waitress to bring it to him and three times she misunderstood and merely topped up his glass. Eventually I called her aside and pointed at the bottle, while Edwards lifted the dripping bottle from its moorings and plonked it down in front of Keith.
By 4pm, Keith was slumped in his chair, most of two bottles residing in his tummy with the barely nibbled eggs benedict abandoned in front of him. “I must go to my beautiful home,” he slurred. He tried to rise and slumped back in the chair. I went out into Old Brompton Road and hailed a taxi explaining to the driver that I had a distinguished, if feeble writer who lived within sight of the restaurant but was unable to get home unaided. He needed assistance to get home. Then, with the help of the former newspaper editor, Bill Hagerty, I half-carried half dragged Keith to the waiting cab. I climbed in beside him and pointed towards the nearby red bricked block of flats on the other side of the road.
A few hundred yards through the traffic lights the driver did a U-turn and parked outside Colherne Court. Keith was now asleep, inert and incapable of independent movement. The driver came round to the passenger door and we both manoeuvred Keith so his feet were dangling out of the taxi. The driver lifted his feet, but as I left the cab Keith’s jacket slipped off and he gently glided to the pavement.
His blue shirt was now scrunched up around his neck exposing his scrawny stomach. Just then, the burly Irish housekeeper and his wife dashed to our assistance. Depressingly familiar with Keith’s routine, they helped us get Keith through the door and into an armchair in the hall, before dragging him into the tiny lift and up to his flat where we left him on the floor of his bedroom. “It’ll stop him falling out of bed,” sighed the housekeeper. The following morning, appropriately April Fools’ Day, I telephoned to see if Keith was ok. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just a little stiff, see you soon.” Click.
Our next lunch was a meeting of the ‘Useless Information Society’. The all male grouping was simply an excuse to get very pissed in congenial company while pretending to enjoy fine food and witty repartee. Members were also obliged to rise to their feet at the pudding stage and recite a new piece of useless information such as “banging your head on a wall for an hour and a half burns 150 calories.”
Once again Keith had to be carried home, this time by the Daily Mail’s John Edwards. Nonetheless, the pair needed help from a friendly pharmacist from nearby Zafrash, the all night chemist who had been watching the drunken ballet and came out of his shop to anchor Keith and John to the railings on Old Brompton Road. Unfortunately the housekeeper was not on duty that day but John somehow managed to deposit Keith in his bed. At some stage in the night Keith fell onto the floor fracturing his right arm.
If Stella had not arrived in the morning, it would have been the late Keith Waterhouse. Even so, he never fully recovered and if it weren’t for the compassion of Stella he would have spent the rest of his life in care.
But even recuperating at the nearby Chelsea and Westminster Hospital he had lost none of his vinegar. Pointing to a large wicker basket containing fruit sent by his editor Paul Dacre, he asked if anyone wanted a banana. Then musing on the gift he sighed: “I suppose the basket will come in useful for holding pens.”
But so successful was the ‘Useless Information Society’ that publisher John Blake brought out a handbook of information based on our dinners. Noel Botham carried out the bulk of the research and work and the book went into nine editions and was a great success. But the problem was that no one apart from Blake, a member, and Botham, a co-founder, saw any of the royalties.
At an extraordinary general meeting upstairs in the French House, we discussed the matter of the absent royalties. Noel proposed a Society-funded trip to New York to have lunch. Waterhouse counter-proposed that the money go to charity, in particular the homeless centre in Westminster where the Society’s chaplain Fr. Michael Seed ministered. Fr. Michael, a very thirsty Franciscan monk, who became a celebrity of sorts for converting to Catholicism Ann Widdicombe, John Selwyn Gummer and the Duchess of Kent, sat next to Botham at the fateful meeting at which we voted overwhelmingly in favour of giving our invisible earnings to Fr. Michael’s charity.
Botham rose to his feet, produced a piece of paper he described as the articles of association of the Society and pontificated. “According to this document, I, as co-founder, can overrule any vote and I say we are going to New York for lunch.”
He sat down and Waterhouse rose, shakily to his feet and pointed at Fr. Michael. “I don’t care if you do go to New York but whatever happens I want my share of the royalties to go to Fr. Michael.” Fr. Michael whispered frantically in Botham’s ear. He rose gravely and declared “Fr. Michael says that if Keith gives him the money he will use it to go to New York for lunch with the rest of us.” Uproar ensued and Keith stood up and declared that he was resigning from the Society and would not be back. He never returned.
After his fall Keith slowly retreated from O’Neill’s. Pre-planned lunches at Langan’s had an empty chair invariably in place of Keith but for the man who agreed with Kingsley Amis that the worst phrase in the English language was, “Shall we go straight in?” Keith never again lingered over a pre-lunch glass at Langan’s or anywhere else.
Just before Christmas 2008, Peter McKay and I visited him at his apartment. Although frail and sporting a Howard Hughes like beard he still craved Fleet Street gossip. He had his bottle of Pinot Grigio on the floor adjacent to his left, undamaged arm. Stella was looking after him. I urged him to make 2009 the year he resumed his perambulations. “I don’t do ‘out’ any more,” was his answer.
He died in September 2009, but if you’ve had a few and find yourself of an evening on the corner of Old Brompton and Earls Court Road look out for a shambolic figure in the battered raincoat and the white hair. And if you listen carefully you might hear the Waterhouse Rap.