Keith Waterhouse was “the journalist’s journalist, the columnist’s columnist…the best by a mile”, according to Michael Parkinson.
Here we summarise some of the best of the tributes to Waterhouse, who died on Friday – aged 80. Waterhouse stopped writing his twice-weekly column for the Daily Mail in May after a 60-year journalism career, 35 years of which were spent at the Daily Mirror, the last 23 years at the Daily Mail.
“Keith never missed a deadline, however poorly he was, however hungover. His column was always immaculate and written to length. Quality control worked overtime at the Waterhouse words factory.
“‘Language affects values so much,’ he once said. ‘Your vocabulary includes everything you want, cherish, own or aspire to. Language is a great liberator.’
“He once told me the art of writing a column is not to say what the man in the pub is thinking, but what he will be thinking once he’s read it.”
“When you put the entire parcel together, I don’t think there’s ever been a journalist as good as him – certainly not in my time. And certainly not one I admired as much.,
“Drinking was part of the culture of the Fleet Street where we both worked – I was on The Daily Express, Keith was on the Mirror – and it was hardly an exaggeration to say that, if you didn’t go back to the office drunk at five o’clock, they had grounds to sack you. At the Express, there used to be a fight at five o’clock conference. If there wasn’t a fight in the reporters’ room, people would be very disappointed. And it wasn’t a sacking offence: you were thought to be a jolly good fellow. Anyone who didn’t drink was immediately beyond the pale. It was so, so different in those days.
“He was the columnist’s columnist, the journalist’s journalist, the writer’s writer – we all bowed down before him. He was the best by a mile.
“He had a strong sense of who he was and where he came from, and that informed his writing and his humour. His was a wonderful, dry, West Riding humour. He was never impressed by anything or anybody. He had the journalist’s cool eye for every situation, which made him a formidable writer. His ability to transform an ordinary scene with a flash of comedy made him a wonderful playwright. His sense of humour made him a wonderful columnist; his fictional Clogthorpe Council told you everything you needed to know about political correctness, which he despised.”
“Keith Waterhouse, who has died at the age of 80, was a spirit of more than one lost age. His acerbic, precise and accessible writing kept his name and columns before the large readership of the Daily Mail for the last quarter of a century of a long, successful and -bibulous life.
“Waterhouse was one of the last of that cohort of working-class journalists – without formal education, elevated to fame and wealth through industry and love of language – who started their trade soon after the second world war.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Independent
“….one of the great popular journalists of his age, writing in an easy conversational style that was perfectly grammatical. He was a model to anyone who wants to write English prose.”
For much of the week Waterhouse had a strict routine, keeping office hours and rewarding himself with the first drink of the day only when all his work had been corrected. Trollope, one of his favourite authors, used to time himself to write 250 words every quarter of an hour. Waterhouse could not quite match this but he was in the Trollope league. Neither believed in waiting for inspiration.
“Keith Waterhouse wrote so much – and wrote it all so well – that there is a temptation to fill the threnodies that follow his death with lists of successful plays, newspaper awards, bestselling novels and famous film scripts. Many of them will last to be enjoyed by future generations and their quality will speak for itself.
“But it hard to believe that what used to be called Fleet Street – the subject of his last play – will ever see a character quite like him again. Looking back on all his extraordinary qualities, I suddenly realised how little he had performed in public. He recounted more hilarious anecdotes, real and invented, than anyone I knew, but the great raconteur did not appear on television chat show or in radio parlour games. He could make words do almost anything, but he wanted to write them, not speak them. The memorials should not particularise. ‘Keith Waterhouse, Writer.’That is enough. He would want nothing more.”