Byron Rogers

Michael Wharton: A Peter Simple life

In praise of the satirist Michael Wharton, who would have been 100 this week

Michael Wharton: A Peter Simple life
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He was fascinated by the Welsh, whom he listed, along with walking and gardening, as one of his three recreations in Who’s Who, something that alarmed those few Welshmen he actually met. One of them, the political columnist Alan Watkins, who had been sturdily on the run from his race for most of his working life, said of him, ‘He’s mad, the man’s quite mad.’

The journalist Peter Simple, who wrote a column for almost 50 years in the Daily Telegraph and the centenary of whose birth is on 19 April, was almost as fascinated by the Tibetans, a people, he told me, who had forever solved the problems of political philosophy by reducing the subject to two propositions, ‘It is the custom’ or ‘It is not the custom’. That he managed to find himself loose, and employed, in the 20th century, which he survived by dying in 2006, is one of the mysteries of our time.

Kingsley Amis called him ‘The Master’ and kept his collected columns in his own holy of holies between books on drink and those on literary criticism. Anthony Howard thought him ‘one of the few original British eccentrics left to us’, and Frank Johnson, ‘the greatest living journalist’. It is just that all these are no longer with us, and who now remembers Peter Simple and the column in which fact mingled with fantasy, confusing even further those Telegraph readers who heroically tried to disentangle the two in the paper?

He provided them with glimpses of himself as his great car with outriders glided through the traffic, or paused to allow him to eat his seven meals a day every day, or answer telephones ‘embarrassingly inlaid with gold and lapis lazuli’. He retailed the doings of his circle of acquaintances, Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the left-wing Hampstead hostess with the four houses called Marxmount, Beria Garth, Glyn Stalin and Leninsmore, and Alderman Foodbotham, the 25-stone, crag-visaged perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee who once appointed a horse as town clerk. He offered easy teach-yourself guides to Etruscan, Pictish and Aztec, and was deluged by replies.

To confuse his readers even further he treated them to a glimpse of someone he had once seen from his car, ‘a somewhat worried-looking man in a mackintosh who had just alighted from what is, I believe, known as a “bus”.’ He had stared. ‘Was it possible, I wondered, for me to forget for a moment my Olympian status, this life of mine so utterly removed from all the cares and responsibilities of the vulgar, and by one immense, concentrated effort of empathy, to BE that man? It was.’

He was that man, small, neat and so quiet that in conversation you overheard him, who for four days a week for four decades caught that bus, the number 11, from a flat in Battersea to a cluttered office on the sixth floor of the Telegraph, where, secluded from his colleagues and attended only by a French secretary, he dreamed his dreams and tried to remember who he was. For Simple was just the name he wrote under.

His real name was Michael Wharton, at least it became so, for he had been born Michael Nathan, the son of a Jewish wool merchant. He changed this to Wharton, his mother’s name, only to have his own son change it back to Nathan, a progression rivalled only by those members of the Lord Protector’s family who changed their names from Williams to Cromwell and then back again after the civil war. But it was Lt-Col M.B. Wharton on the door of the Battersea flat, a rank he had improbably risen to during the war. Struggles with his surname were matched in complexity only by his marital track record: there were three wives, one of whom he shared with a colleague. The 20th century was something that went on in another corner of the park.

He had never had any ambitions, he said, and his only political ideas had been the extreme conservatism forced on him by his own extreme pessimism: at Oxford he had supported Franco. Afterwards he supported Welsh nationalism, but lost patience with them when their leader threatened to fast himself to death for a Welsh language television channel; it would have made more sense, he said, had the man fasted for a television jamming station.

He himself appeared once on television, interviewed late at night by Robert Kee, an old friend, who laid on supplies of drink, thinking this might loosen him up. Unfortuately it had the opposite effect, and Wharton became more and more rigid, answering every question with ‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that’ as Kee in turn became more and more frantic. The few people who saw it said it was one of the funniest things they had ever seen. Afterwards Wharton was given more drink, with the result that the television studio found it hard to get rid of him; he did not appear on television again.

For ten years after the war he worked as a radio producer for the BBC and encountered the left-wing, largely as a result of hearing the folk-singer Ewan MacColl compose ballads, one after the other, with hardly a pause for breath, all about the heroic working class. These he belted out in the BBC’s staff lavatories, and Wharton came to loathe the left-wing.

But his working life really began in the mid-1950s when he was invited by Colin Welch to join the team on a satirical column Welch had started on the Telegraph. There were five of them, but they dropped out one by one, for Childe Roland had to his Dark Tower come. He had always had a tendency to fantasise, so, as he put it, it was a logical conclusion. Wharton wrote the column alone from 1960 on.

What he would do was take a news story, then dream. Thus a fanatical exponent of intensive farming was sent to jail for cutting down trees. In the column, ‘He looked out from the revolving turret of his central control room over his 12,000 acres, where not a single tree or intrusive plant is to be seen, thanks to an automated electronic monitoring system which kills each unprofitable seed before it can even begin to sprout…’. In the end he dispenses with plants and grows banknotes.

Wharton went on writing into his nineties, in spite of the fact that the absurdities of the world had begun to outstrip those of his imagination. He wrote 18 unfinished novels and one that was. To his lasting embarrassment, that got published.