“An unpleasant man with a dreadful lifestyle” was how one angry reader of the Oldie described Wilfred De’Ath, who died in February at the age of 82. It was a common response to my old Oxford contemporary recruited by me in 1998 to write a monthly column, which he continued to do until his death.
The editor’s permanent quest is for originality, for someone who is not like the other contributors. Wilfred ticked all the boxes. He was a clever, well-educated man and an excellent writer who for whatever reason, conscious or unconscious, had chosen to live the life of a vagabond. In an age obsessed by success he seemed set on being a failure, a ne’er-do-well, a scrounger and a petty thief. It made him a most unusual columnist, possibly even a unique one.
It is regrettably true that many of us take pleasure in reading about the misfortunes of others as we sit comfortably with our feet up by the fire. “There but for the grace of God …” is a reassuring thought. Wilfred wrote a good deal about his life and was utterly frank about all his misdemeanours, though he struggled to find a publisher for his memoirs; perhaps because it was hard to believe some of the romantic episodes in which he starred as a dashing and irresistible Romeo.
But he never explained what had led him in 1977 to abandon his wife and children and a very promising career at the BBC. He became an accomplished shoplifter – “Nothing compares with the satisfaction of walking out of Tesco with a tin of baked beans under your cap.”
For a time he was irresistibly attracted to the monastic life, having convinced himself that Benedictines, in particular, were obliged to offer hospitality to any stranger, however disreputable, who came knocking at their door – “as though he were Jesus Christ come to stay”.
It worked for a while but Wilfred was adept at biting the hand that fed him and most of his benefactors, of whom there were many over the years, soon found their benevolence had been tested beyond its limits.
He took to staying in posh hotels and leaving without paying (“jumping”), something it was easier to get away with in more trusting days. But inevitably the long arm of the law caught up with him and he was twice sentenced to a spell in jail, once on the floating prison HMP Weare, then moored off Portland Bill.
He claimed that he had no real objection to prison life, recommending the sense of security it gave him and even praising the food.
Later on his life became a little more stable thanks in part to the regular, if limited, income from the Oldie and the helpful publicity he gained from it. Then the Royal Literary Fund, a charity established to help struggling writers, came to his assistance, though it made the mistake of giving him a lump sum which he squandered almost immediately.
Still, he was able to make frequent trips to France, having discovered that conditions for homeless people in the French foyers (hostels for the homeless) were preferable to anything on offer in this country. For a time he even entertained hopes of marriage to a wealthy divorcee, though it was hard to imagine a woman so foolish that she would consent to be his wife.
You might have expected that a man in Wilfred’s situation would sooner or later take to drink or drugs and end up in an early grave. He never did. For a man with such a chaotic lifestyle he had astonishing stamina and, like the proverbial bad penny, came bouncing back from a string of misfortunes.
I can’t help thinking that religion was partly responsible for his perseverance and longevity. Originally an Anglican, he became a Catholic in 1979, attending Mass daily for several years. He saw no contradiction between his faith and his way of life, convinced that it was “perfectly possible to be a bad person and remain deeply religious” and comparing himself, in that respect, to Rasputin.
Later, when living in Avignon, he decided to join the Greek Orthodox congregation and for a time served as janitor in their church, until being expelled for stealing money left to pay for candles. He then announced that he had become an atheist while admitting that he was still devoted to Our Lady and still going to Mass every morning – “because the wise old Church has discovered, and teaches, that if you continue to behave as if you believe, belief will finally be granted to you.”
Wilfred was proud of the fact that at one time in his Anglican days he had served briefly as the press officer of Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, an unworldly cleric once described by PD James as “a benevolent white-haired figure as benign as Father Christmas”. When Wilfred joined the Catholic Church, Ramsey wrote to him from his retirement home in Durham saying he sympathised with his decision and adding that he was inclined to go the same way, but was unable to do so because of his position.
It would have been a feather in Wilfred’s cap if this notorious jailbird and ne’er-do-well had contrived to bring about the conversion of a onetime Archbishop of Canterbury. But, sadly, it was not to be.
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie
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