Meeting the squire of Levington Park, JP Donleavy
15 September 2017
The news that JP Donleavy – author, playwright, litigant and squire – died earlier this week has reminded me of one of the more peculiar meetings I had while researching a biography of our mutual friend Willie Donaldson in 2006.
Donleavy’s early novels, The Ginger Man, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and The Onion Eaters, had been a revelation to me when I read them in my early twenties. He was one of a small group of writers (Frederick Exley was another) who reminded me that fiction could be wild, subversive, sexy, skittish – and serious. They showed me that writing could be fun. After three years of reading English at Cambridge, that was an eye-opener to me.
JP Donleavy – ‘Mike’ to his friends – had worked with Willie Donaldson when Willie was a producer in the 1960s. With his friend Lord Dynevor, Willie put on the play version of The Ginger Man and also A Fairy Tale of New York. The three remained friends and, with the director Philip Wiseman, held raffish parties at Richard Dynevor’s flat in Sheffield Terrace. They called themselves ‘the Sheffield Club’.
They went their different ways. Twenty years on, Wiseman took Willie to the High Court in a disastrously unsuccessful plagiarism case which rested – and fell – upon a joke contract drawn up by Donleavy. But Donleavy remained an important friend of Willie’s until the end of his life, to the extent that Willie kept in his wallet this photograph of them both in Soho, probably taken by Lewis Morley.
Writing a book about Willie six months after his death, I went to see Donleavy at his house, Levington Park on County Westmeath. Richard Dynevor had warned me that I should not expect much hospitality – ‘Take your own biscuits and a flask of coffee,’ he said – and he turned out to be right.
Here is some of what I wrote in my notes at the time:
I went to Levington Park the next morning, arriving slightly early. It is one of those grey, distinguished baronial places which are peculiarly Irish. They are always in a perfect situation, always surrounded by parkland and almost always have seen better days (some in fact are ruins).
Levington is visible from the small country road, with a drive that leads through parkland, but the gates were firmly locked and chained and a notice warns of an unchained bull and dogs, neither of which were visible when Teresa [Donleavy’s assistant] turned up to find me looking gloomily through the gates. She let me in and I followed up the drive.
The house is impressive in a forbidding, crumbling way. Every room is large and light and most of the floors even upstairs are stone. But there’s a smell of decay in the air and damp seems to be coming through the ancient wallpaper. Teresa and I walked down the hall, flanked on each of whose walls were pictures by Donleavy. She had been ill and had a terrible headache, but clearly knew that she had to be here to set me up. While we were in the kitchen, Donleavy turned up – a fit, beady-eyed character, rather shorter than I had imagined. He was very much the country squire with a coat, cravat, corduroys. His glasses were held on by a length of red ribbon.
We went to one of the many drawing-rooms, which had a lived-in feel with magazines and newspapers piled on chairs. Donleavy brought in a large cardboard box marked ‘Donaldson/Wiseman’ and later in our conversation he would refer to files in the box.
He sat by the fire and began to talk. His accent, half-American and half-Anglo-Irish toff, seemed to me faintly bogus, like his tweedy attire. He has given many interviews, and the truth is that most of what he told me had the whiskery air of having been told rather too many times. At some point the story had taken over from the reality. Clearly, he was fond of Willie and saw him as something of a character, but the stories were mainly about Mr Donleavy (somehow I could never bring myself to call him ‘Mike’) and I got the impression that he was rather more intrigued by the style that he told them than by the content.
He was courtly and kind (he seemed, for example, confident that I would do justice to Willie) but the natural egocentricity that is evident in the early books has hardened over the years into something almost self-parodic. He told the story about his talent for delivering five punches in a second; someone had not believed him, he had been timed. ‘Mike,’ he said. ‘You did not punch five times in one second. You actually punched seven times.’ Another story involved one of Willie’s sexual adventures and ended with the woman involved telling Willie solemnly that Mr Donleavy was ‘ the most impressive man I have ever met.’ He repeated this verdict solemnly. He then went on to say that Willie had been a boxing blue at Cambridge – one of the wilder claims I have heard about him.
Quite soon, I realised that, unless I was careful, I was going to spend my allotted time listening to anecdotes about Mr Donleavy, some of which had nothing to do with my subject. Once his stories were out of the coral, they were like wild mustangs. They could go anywhere and were almost impossible to bring under control. By the time we reached 1.30, I realised that I hadn’t heard the full Wiseman story but knew I had to start making a move.
I asked to see his pictures and he showed me a few – I liked them rather less than I had when I saw them in the catalogue. Then we looked around the garden and the house. Cattle had been on the lawn. There was not much of a garden but the view and quiet was spectacular. I remembered that Mr Donleavy does not like to leave Levington for fear of it being broken into and there were signs of this paranoia during my visit. He was worried that a file full of personal letters had been stolen. There was no sign of any staff.
The house itself began to feel rather sad – a big, crumbly place, occupied by a great and self-important writer all on his own. Although the damp is clearly a problem (several of his paintings had been spoilt) he insisted that a gutter had leaked. Halfway up the broad stone stairs on a vast golden wall table and under a similarly vast golden ornate mirror were ranged several photographs, curling in the damp, of the various rather beautiful women in his life.
I drove him to the end of the drive so that he could let me out through the chained gate. I was relieved to get away.
In an unpublished version of his memoirs, Willie wrote, ‘Friends should present themselves as revealingly as characters in a comic novel or what’s the point of them?’
In that sense at least, Mike Donleavy was the perfect friend and foil to Willie Donaldson.