Author and journalist

Born: July 28, 1937;

Died: February 19, 2020.

WILFRED De’Ath, who has died aged 82, was a writer and columnist known for his riotous adventures as a rogue, a thief, and a gentleman drifter and tramp. He spent several spells in prison and during one period of destitution lived in a railway station. All of it was material for his celebrated column in The Oldie magazine. He led a wicked life, he said, and was proud of it.

In some ways, the fact that his life ended up being so chaotic was a surprise. Born in Hertfordshire to a British father and German mother, he studied English at Oxford and looked set for a successful career as a writer and broadcaster. At university, he wrote reviews for the student paper and later joined the BBC Home Service as a producer and interviewer. It was a traditional and respectable start.

However, De’Ath said later that he had always felt like an outsider, partly because of his German heritage. At school, he was singled out and labelled “the little hun”, and he felt just as excluded when he went to Oxford. Nearly everyone else, he said, was a public school boy, or homosexual, or both.

For a time, his career at BBC radio flourished. He produced Today and Midweek and promoted more programming for young people. Later, he went freelance and worked as a correspondent in America for Radio 4; he was also, for a short time, press secretary for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, the spiral downwards started with an article he wrote for a local newspaper in which he described nine BBC colleagues as intellectual pygmies. They sued and the case cost him £4,500, which was pretty much every penny he had at the time. It also cost him his career in broadcasting.

By the 1990s, he was living rough in Britain and France and spent one Christmas sleeping on the floor of the train station at Limoges and stealing to make ends meet. He made many appearances in court, which he said he relished (“I feel very, very alive”), and spent several spells in prison, the first of which was in 1993. His offence was usually doing a runner after staying in a hotel. He called them victimless crimes and continued to steal “very small items” even after finding relative respectability again with a column in The Oldie.

The offer of the column came in 1997 from the founding editor of The Oldie, Richard Ingrams, who had known De’Ath at university, and it quickly became a popular fixture of the magazine. What set the column apart was De’Ath’s willingness to admit his bad behaviour and his refusal to apologise for it. He was, in his own words, a natural extremist who loved being the centre of attention.

In 2012, he was arrested in the fallout of the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal after an actress told police that De’Ath had groped her at a film screening almost 50 years earlier when she was 14. She later withdrew her claim and De’Ath was never charged. He said he was aware of Savile’s behaviour at the time but was too frightened to do anything about it.

De’Ath published a number of books including a biography of the Labour politician Barbara Castle in 1970 and a memoir, Uncommon Criminal in 2008. He married his secretary, Erica, in 1963 and had a son and daughter. The marriage broke down in 1978. He also had a daughter from another relationship.