I got to know Michael Wharton in the early 1980s, when I was working as an editor at Chatto & Windus. We had commissioned him to write what turned out to be The Missing Will, the first volume of his autobiography, and every now and then I would meet him for a drink in the King and Keys, a narrow, smoke-filled pub next to the old Telegraph building in Fleet Street. It was usually half-empty when I went there during lunch breaks that continued well into the afternoon, but in the evenings, Michael told me, it was crammed to overflowing with his colleagues from the Daily Telegraph, red-faced and sweating and jostling for a place at the bar.
He enjoyed the fact that whereas journalists from ‘red-tops’ like the Sun or the News of the World hurried back to respectable semi-detacheds in Banstead or Epsom as soon as they decently could, the men from the Telegraph were drunk in the pub every night, and were quite likely to end the evening asleep on the floor or in bed with someone else’s wife. Booze and its consequences were to loom large in Michael’s two marvellous memoirs, in which comicality and an overwhelming sense of life’s absurdity are interlaced with melancholy and a sense of loss, jovial carousing with debilitating bouts of depression and a complicated private life.
Michael had been writing his satirical ‘Way of the World’ column for the Telegraph since 1955, under the pseudonym of ‘Peter Simple’. A creature of habit, he worked out what he was going to say on top of the various buses that took him to the office from his flat in Prince of Wales Drive, Battersea, wrote it all up on arrival, and – his labours done – made his way to the King and Keys on the dot of half-past two for a lunch consisting, without fail, of a corned-beef sandwich washed down with a double brandy and ginger ale, soon followed by a second. A small, neat figure in a brown tweed overcoat, he posi
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