Before I got to the fourth and latest book in the exhausted but inexhaustible Henry Root corpus, I allowed myself some shallow research on his previous works. The first was memorable enough, even without the help of a library. The Henry Root Letters was not so much a work of tenacious parody or stomping satire as a pretty good leg-pull: which may be why the London Review of Books, when the letters were published in 1979, called them ‘a disgrace to publishing’.
I liked the jape. Or at least, I liked maybe two-thirds of it. Because once you realised what Root was up to and how he made the joke work the fun began to fade. His trick of getting laughs depended not so much on the egregious contents of the letters, which soon became repetitive, but on the imagined reaction of their recipients as the paper knives of public figures fell from fingers trembling with rage or bewilderment. And I liked the device – ‘Here’s a pound!’ – which guaranteed a reply, if only to return the backhander or thank the donor for his gift to Conservative Party funds.
This, of course, was the sneaky side of the book. Root’s dupes had their replies published whether they liked it or not, whereas those who rumbled Root (if indeed there were any) had no opportunity to expose the bogus nature of his correspondence. The Henry Root Letters was an exclusive exchange between conman and victims – or those who found it politic to pretend to be victims. Is it possible that no one in the private office of the new leader of the Conservative Party was suspicious of this letter of congratulations from Root?
One last thing. Mrs Root and I have recently formed ‘The Ordinary Folk Against Porn Society’. We meet once a week with some of our friends (Dr Littlewinkle and his good lady, the Smithsons, Major Dewdrop and Fred and Rita Snipe, who live opposite, form the hard-core nucleus) to discuss sex, drugs, nudity and violence ... a signed photograph and message of encouragement would mean a lot to our members.
Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary answered in this vein: ‘she has asked me to say how grateful she is for your kind donation and your kind words of support’; and set the tone for a series of replies which remained seamlessly bland and unflinchingly polite while appearing to swallow the most pop-eyed examples of Root’s exhortations. Your Man on the Door-Step pursued the Prime Minister into office and into the second volume of letters, The Further Letters of Henry Root, with advice of this nature: ‘Let’s dump the doves and rout the wets! (By which I don’t necessarily mean old Willie Wethouse though he is beginning to wobble somewhat as to the chops.)’
To this and other tips and observations the long-suffering Richard Ryder replied, poker-penned: ‘The contents of your correspondence have been carefully noted,’ and – doubts obviously stirring – returned Henry’s usual enclosure of £1 ‘with best wishes as always’. The Further Letters of Henry Root, in other words, was much more of the same. A dash of interest was added by the fact that by the time they were published Root’s cover – or Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s hype – was blown, and the scribe who ‘stands slightly outside the tradition of the English Man of Letters’ was unveiled as Willie Donaldson, playwright, soon-to-be-failed gossip columnist (he had a brief career on the Mail on Sunday) and self-proclaimed former brothel-keeper. From then on, it was clear that the spoof was not going to work again.
There followed opus three, Henry Root’s World of Knowledge, in which the retired wet fish tycoon switched genres from belles lettres to reference. This book was heavily described as ‘the first and most comprehensive one-volume encyclopedia of British common sense ever to be published’, and was a most mysterious work, inducing feverish anxiety in readers who felt, every so often, that there was a joke in there somewhere which they might be missing. Root’s ‘humorous’ definitions (‘Womanisers: They dislike women, of course, and at bottom are afraid of them’) were interrupted from time to time by some quite straightforward piece of information, as in Woolf, Virginia (1882-1941): ‘One of the foremost experimenters with the technique and form of the novel. She was a leading member of the Bloomsbury Group among whom many new artistic ideas were discussed.’ After reading such an entry six times, readers would finally decide, nervously, whether or not to take it at face value. This tedious farrago of elementary facts and elementary wit (‘Wykehamists, Old: Exceptionally clever. If someone mentions Reginald Bosanquet, say: “The exception that proves the rule” ’) suggested failure on three fronts: material, intention and comedy. The wet fish king was floundering. There was even a certain wistfulness in his entry for Fey-deau, Georges (1862-1921): ‘The past master of the bedroom farce. Though his plays were constructed almost a century ago they still tick with the inevitable precision of a Swiss watch. What is less generally known is that because of their anarchic world-view they are a genuine foreshadowing of Beckett, who was, of course, a great admirer of Feydeau’s craftsmanship.’
Does Henry Root present an authoritarian Thatcher-view of Britain in which dashing libertarianism and surly repression are but two sides of the same monetarism, and should his breezy, Blimpish, downwardly-mobile aperçus on the social and political landscape of Britain (which owe much to Alf Garnett, also currently enjoying an Indian summer) be regarded as straws for the bricks of some greater genius, who will validate the Root phenomenon in a future oeuvre of monumental stature? Or is he simply in the business of belly-laughs? Belly-laughs, I think; and damn few of them, too, in his latest work, although the really fanciful semiologist might just find a metaphor for the self-punishing nature of Thatcher’s Britain in the new sexual awakening of Henry Root. In the course of his researches for Root on Women – ‘to balance Anna Ford on men’ – the barnstorming litterateur discovers the vice anglais. Talk about flogging a dead horse. From then on, it’s bondage all the way for the captive reviewer, with exchanges of this kind:
‘The upper classes, you say? Etonians? The wellborn? In Whites, in Pratts, they whack each other? Is that the size of it? “Evening, Minister. Over you go!” Is that it?’
‘Well, not really, sir. Not often, anyway. In later life, after school, enthusiasts for this prefer women, or so I’m told.’
‘Women, eh? A whacking from a woman. This is interesting.’
A reference to the smarting state of the nation? Despite the signals, Mrs Thatcher manages to win only three passing mentions in this desperate work, for which she is no doubt grateful. The structure of the book departs again from all previous known forms. It has a narrative of a kind, sustained in diary style. And it has a series of set-piece episodes seemingly calculated to attract the attention of some daring producer of stage or television comedy. But it most seriously fails in allowing Root only the occasional leap into letter-writing and demoting him to the third person – thus removing him from the uncertain territory of the nearly-possible, might-just-exist, and planting him crudely on a landscape of lamentable fiction.
As Root barges from strip club to hotel bedroom to massage parlour, accidentally inflating his favourite accessory of giant rubber penis (‘The Thruster had exploded out of his trousers, knocking him backwards into Dr Lovejoy’s sex-boutique, clutching his pork-pie hat’), the metaphor for Thatcher’s Britain recedes to be replaced by inelegant and prurient farce, without the clockwork precision of Feydeau. This is a Henry Root who would have been most perfectly realised, in dramatic form, by the late Dick Emery. Just occasionally, as when he addresses Cecil Parkinson on the subject of his (Root’s) daughter Doreen, there are bursts of nostalgic sniggers from the artillery of past Root offensives, redirected against new targets:
I am concerned about my daughter Doreen. She is currently a Scargill bully-boy and showing every sign of going the wrong way. I feel she could be straightened out if she were to meet others than Yorkshire miners and Greenham Common women, relieving themselves in the road and taunting Old Bill with their used sanitary towels. Is there a place for her on your research staff, such a position, I gather, being the quickest way to a settlement these days? The lass went to Essex University so is not without an education, having acquired a first-class degree in philosophy, politics and sociology, for what that’s worth. I, like you, Cecil, have a first from the University of Real Life. Could you at least see the girl? She’s no looker, but then nor was Sarah Keays. I address you as a Tory and a father.
Still straining to sustain the joke, Root/Donaldson uses a pseudonym for these letters, as well as the identity of his fictional research assistant, Kim Kindersley, and now and then it seems to come off. A secretary from BBC Television gives Kim this information in reply to his request for one of Jan Leeming’s cast-off blouses: ‘As Miss Leeming gives some of her clothes to Charity Auctions, and keeps the classics and the ones she specially likes wearing – she cannot help you apart from telling you the designer names of the clothes she wears, then you could possibly look for the names yourself.’ And an attempt by Root, alias Norman Norman, to place an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph inviting contributions to the ‘Leon Brittan Fighting Fund’ gets this reply from the Telegraph’s worldly-wise classified advertisement department: ‘Thank you for your letter of 5th July together with Treasury Notes £20. Before we can insert your proposed advertisement we will require written confirmation from Mr Brittan that he has no objection to its publication.’ No mention, I note, of returning the £20.
But as sources of humour these exchanges merely point up the fact that Donaldson is more amusing when he gets other people to do the work for him: like Anna Raeburn, quoted extensively by the androgynous Kim Kindersley who, with his religious attention to the Lifeplan of the Cosmo girl and his profligate fashion consumerism, begins to approach the semblance of a comic invention. Cast down by another drearily ludicrous adventure in the furtherance of Root’s research, he cheers himself by reading a chapter or two of Anna Raeburn’s ‘inspirational’ book, Talking to Myself.
Donaldson must be credited, I suppose, with having a keen ear for the more absurd resonances of contemporary journalism and publishing, as processed through the echo chambers of gossip columns, political diaries, glitzy women’s magazines and the self-help pronunciamentos of television personalities. He is capable, too, of playing a kind of oxymoronic game with the names of the well-known and the distinguished, neatly making the distinction between the two: ‘Was it Clive James or Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine poet, who pointed out that if we saw every leaf on the tree we would go mad?’ But it takes a talent of greater stamina and range to realise these skills over 184 pages, including index. (Index? Who but reviewers refreshing their memories would want to look up anything in this book?) And among the funnier fashionable references there are many too many unfunny references to the merely fashionable: Charlie Allen suits, Bo Bo Kaminsky jackets, Stringfellows disco and so on. This is a trick which more and more self-styled humourists are employing these days: Sue Town-send in the Adrian Mole enterprises uses the same device. It relies on the assumption that if you drop the name of something terribly contemporary, like a Well Woman Clinic or a nose stud, everyone who picks it up will be so impressed by their own Fleet Street wisdom that they will laugh with relief. It isn’t good enough. And it’s been done before: in local pantomime, where the comics always tailor their jokes to fit the identity of town councillors or high street shops. Henry Root’s A-Z of Women, which of course isn’t about women at all, has its genesis in this facile, indolent method of winning laughter.