When the Twin Towers collapsed, I read nothing sane upon the subject in any newspaper until Michael Wharton, as Peter Simple, filed the following to the Telegraph: ‘Only a stony-hearted fanatic could have been unmoved by the massacre in America. Yet for us feudal landlords and clerical reactionaries, cranks, conspiracy theorists and Luddite peasants, the downfall of the Twin Towers that symbolised the worldwide empire of imaginary money is not in itself a cause of grief. Ever since the atrocity, dense clouds of hysterical rhetoric have been drifting about the world. America is at war, says President Bush. Britain is at war, says Tony Blair, dutifully echoing his master. The whole world is at war, say the “media”. But what enemy is the world at war against? Terrorism! A war against terrorism is as futile and fatuous as those other fashionable wars, “the war against drugs” and “the war against racism”. You might as well declare war against old age or death. September 11, the “media” say, was the day that changed the world for ever. But the world has not changed. It is still the same old world, good and bad, that it has always been. As for terrorism and terror, only one thing is certain: we have seen nothing yet.’
Now, incredibly, that voice which has been sanely commenting on the world’s affairs, and delighting us with his array of characters — Dr Spaceley-Trellis the Go-Ahead Bishop of Bevindon, Keith Effluvium, Environmental Consultant, J. Bonington Jagworth, leader of the Motorists’ Liberation Front — is silent. Aged 92, Michael Wharton is dead. In 1957 he joined his great friend Colin Welch as co-writer of the Daily Telegraph’s Way of the World column under the pseudonym Peter Simple. He was assisted by Claudie Worsthorne and eventually by a merry band of others.
From the beginning the column was a team effort, but over the years Wharton was clearly its presiding genius, and the world of it all — Stretchford Conurbation, with lovely, sex-maniac-haunted Sadcake Park — was very much his. (Stretchford is now inhabited by housewives wearing ‘hastily run-up burqas’, all opponents of the ‘war against terrorism’. It also boasts innumerable ‘universities’ in its small terrace houses.)
The man who created this alternative universe, which bears alarming resemblances to our own, was legendarily self-contained. His corned-beef sandwich lunches, washed down by brandy and ginger ale, were often all but silent, even when surrounded by his friends. I can remember reams of what he wrote, but only snatches of his conversations — one was about the difficulty of obtaining foolscap paper since the scandalous introduction of A4. At a dinner held in his honour at the Beefsteak Club — was it his 80th birthday? his 90th? he seemed both ageless and immortal — after a fulsome speech by the then editor of the Daily Telegraph, Wharton simply said, after a very long silence, ‘VIVA PINOCHET!’
Laughter is a serious business. Many of the funniest writers, from Chaucer to Oscar Wilde, perceived truths about the world which were obscured from those with no humour; but this did not make them unserious. Their jokes sprang from their ability to see the intrinsic absurdity of human arrangements. Most schemes for political improvement, as Samuel Johnson observed, are very laughable things.
In the death of Michael Wharton we have lost both the funniest writer of our generation, and the truest. Time was, when The Reactionary Times and Feudal Chronicle was scarcely distinguishable from those parts of the Telegraph, Daily and Sunday, written by Michael’s friends Colin Welch, Malcolm Muggeridge or Peregrine Worsthorne. (If accosted by strangers, Wharton would hotly deny working for the Daily Telegraph at all; he wrote for the Morning Post, the Tory paper which was absorbed by the formerly Liberal Telegraph in 1937.) Little by little, however, like the Welsh language or the Grey Elves in Tolkien, the Old Believers died out, and soon their voice was only to be heard in the ‘Peter Simple’ column.
What fired the whole vision was the idea, which had been clear to Cobbett, to Chesterton, to John Ruskin and Carlyle, to Belloc, to J.B. Morton (Beachcomber), that the whole liberal capitalist progressive idea, preached by and to the English liberal establishment since the time of Macaulay, was an almighty con. What represented itself as the force of sweetness and light was actually brutal. Its alliance with manufacturing and finance led to the ruination of the squirearchy, the wreckage of agriculture, and international wars in which millions of young Europeans were slaughtered.
Wharton’s ‘alternative reality’ might have been thought, by his creation Dr Heinz Kiosk (the chief psychiatric consultant to the Plastic Gnome Advisory Council), to spring from discontent with his origins. His chillingly self-abrasive autobiography The Missing Will (1984) begins with a great house, with a long gallery and sweeping lawns, a library and a butler, who brings the news in 1914 that his elder brother the Viscount has died on the Western Front. With a brilliant, cinematic ‘cut’ we then have our hero’s actual birth, Michael Bernard Nathan, the son of a German–Jewish businessman, at Shipley in the West Riding of Yorkshire.
How easy it would be for the heavy-handed to explain his subsequent career in terms of ‘living down’ his sense of exile. I think the precise opposite is the case. When I first met Michael he corrected a remark I had made in print to the effect that he was religious, saying that unfortunately he was unable to believe. What he shared with truly religious people (including two of his wives who were Catholics) was a perpetual sense of exile, and this sprang not from his non-English ancestry but from being a human being. The essential strangeness of life on this planet, especially in England during the period of her putrescent decline, would create this sense of exile in any but the insensitive.
The obituaries recalled his sometimes tortured emotional journey, his marriages, and his friendships. These will remain, in the memories and hearts of those few who knew him well. There is a much wider circle, however, who will continue to read him.
When the ‘serious’ commentators on the 20th century already look not merely laughably wrong but also flyblown and out of date, Peter Simple’s version of events still shines pristine and realistic as a glimpsed landscape in Van Eyck. And as if in tribute to his comic genius, the Conservative or ‘Conservative’ party has chosen as its leader someone who seems indistinguishable from Peter Simple’s Jeremy Cardhouse, the portable, all-purpose politician who was originally leader of the Tories for Progress Group and later Labour MP for Stretchford North.