Whose idea of a joke involves sneering at dead people?

How strange it is that the years when, allegedly, the British people discovered their caring side have been followed so quickly by a golden age of bullying. At a time when the power divide is at its widest, it is those at the top who are cheerfully taking advantage of their position. What Evelyn Waugh’s Gilbert Pinfold described as “the underdog’s snarl” is now rarely to be heard. It has been replaced by something altogether nastier: the sneer of the privileged insider.

 It is always done, of course, in the name of humour. When a rich and influential presenter of Top Gear mocks impoverished Mexicans, or MPs imitate someone with cerebral palsy, or a stand-up comic extemporises zanily about a Down’s syndrome child, the excuse is always the same. It was a joke, for heaven’s sake.

Last weekend it occurred to me that the new nastiness has become almost obligatory. To be unkind, preferably towards someone who has no opportunity to answer back, has become a sound career move. A bit of muscle-flexing from a bully in the public eye reminds his audience (this is something of a male thing) that it is getting value for money.

I was reading a restaurant column. It is not something I normally do but the establishment under review had been inspired by (or at least named after) Henry Root, a fictional character created by a late friend of mine of whom I wrote a biography, Willie Donaldson.

The idea of his being associated with a restaurant would have made him shout with laughter: no man has ever been less interested by food. When Tina Brown, then editor of Tatler, took him out to lunch with a view to convincing him that he should become the magazine’s restaurant critic, he ordered fish cakes. When the wine waiter appeared, he asked for a glass of milk.

Willie took the job, and hated it, but, by the time he resigned, he had pioneered a style of restaurant reviewing which lives on today. The trick is to write about everything except the food. Following that convention, The Times’s Giles Coren must have thought he could pad out his review of the new Henry Root restaurant with some off-the-top-of-his-head guff about Willie.

“Donaldson himself I know little about,” he wrote, before expending several eye-wateringly inaccurate paragraphs on that very subject. Donaldson, Coren pronounced confidently, “was not really a writer at all”; his work had failed to outlive his death. In the end he had just been “an independently wealthy whoremonger, alcoholic and crackhead who cobbled together a successful bog book in the late Seventies”. His aim had been to buy off creditors, “his life in letters thus coming about every bit as gloriously as Jeffrey Archer’s”, as Coren put it with customary elegance.

There follows a desperate filler-paragraph about “the sort of man” Donaldson was – “rich, posh, sallow, aloof, hard-living, hard-shagging” – followed by the witty conclusion, “But he is dead. So thank heaven for small mercies.”

Too lazy to Google an obituary, Coren has, as it happens, managed to get virtually everything wrong. Willie wrote if anything too much, not too little. His work has survived pretty well: in addition to one of his characters being commemorated by a restaurant three decades on, his novel Is This Allowed? was compared to the work of Nabokov, and his Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics, praised to the skies when it was published, has never been out of print. Far from being a boozer, he was excessively prim about alcohol. He was neither hard-living, nor hard-shagging. Hanging out with the famous would have been his idea of hell. He spent most of his life laughing about them in his writing.

He was admittedly born into wealth but that, as Giles Coren will know better than most, is considerably less of a professional advantage than, say, being the son of a famous writer whose reputation helps jump-start his son’s media career.

The sneer of the moment, though, is nothing if not predictable. The tone will be one of utter self-satisfaction. Establishment bovver-boys like Coren or Jeremy Clarkson see it as part of their job to kick sand in the face of those less plumply in the centre of things than they are. Their targets tend to be those without a voice in the media: the powerless, foreigners, the dead. While boasting of their political incorrectness, they are enforcers of the status quo.

Their view of the world is inevitably more circumspect, less interesting, than that of a rackety, dissatisfied outsider like Willie Donaldson. Those who are pleased with who they are, what they have done, where they fit in the world, are never ever funny. They are public versions of the saloon-bar bore, sounding off.

Because they appear on TV themselves, they see nothing odd about fame, and go easy on the well-known – unless, as in the case of Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and Andrew Sachs, the celebrity under attack is too old to matter. It was Willie Donaldson who was first to recognise the peculiarity of 20th-century celebrity, in which ministers, senior policemen, models and newscasters all belonged to the same club and often behaved in similar ways.

Once those in a position to reveal the flaws of those in power become establishment insiders, the world is considerably less problematical for politicians. Rather than hold the influential to account, they prefer to concentrate on the easily bullied.

 The reason why the life and writings of someone like Willie Donaldson continue to alarm those like Giles Coren who are doing comparable jobs today – gingering things up with their pen – is that, for all his weaknesses, there was an integrity to him. He was a genuine enragé, not a fake careerist.

It was a strange life that the Henry Root restaurant is unwittingly celebrating, one full of moral confusion, emotional dysfunction, hurt and rage, peculiarities of every imaginable sort. It also produced work which helped to change the way we look at the famous, which is remembered years on, and which has given hundreds of thousands of readers the pleasure of laughter.

In 30 years’ time, will there be many sneering media commentators of the early 21st century whose legacy will compete with that?

Independent, Tuesday, 8 February 2011