Thursday 24 November 2022

Wharton's World

In happier times, English newspapers (and indeed magazines) found space for more than a dash of humour in their pages. J.B. Morton's 'Beachcomber' column was not the only one of its kind, and of the others the doyen was undoubtedly the Telegraph's 'Way of the World' Column, bylined 'Peter Simple'. This, for much of its long life, was written by one Michael Wharton, a man whose political views were off any known scale but could perhaps be summed up as feudal (one of his inventions was the Reactionary Times and Feudal Herald newspaper). Fortunately, he had a true gift for humorous writing that was often (unlike much 'humorous' writing) actually funny – and he had a comic invention every bit as fertile as Morton's, but with less of the Goonish whimsy and more genuine satire.
  His cast of characters included the ghastly champagne socialist Mrs Dutt-Pauker of Hampstead, Dr Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon, Lt Gen.'Tiger' Nidgett of the Royal Army Tailoring Corps, psychoanalyst Dr Heinz Kiosk, J. Bonington Jagworth of the Motorists' Liberation Front, the '25-stone, iron-watch-chained, crag-visaged, grim-booted' Alderman Jabez Foodbotham, and dozens of others. And he created a grand dystopian world for them all to live in, based firmly on contemporary reality as he saw it. Some of his fantasies now seem remarkably prescient: take his 'prejudometer', an anti-racist instrument that took precise readings of degrees of racial prejudice, and could be turned on the user until 'at 3.6 degrees on the Alibhai-Brown scale, it sets off a shrill scream that will not stop until you've pulled yourself together with a well chosen anti-racist slogan'. Check your privilege, indeed. Or there's the vibrant Aztec community of Nerdley, constantly asserting their inalienable right to commit human sacrifice on state-funded stepped pyramids.
  For 30 years from 1957, Wharton wrote his column for the Daily Telegraph, working in a tiny, cell-like office with room only for him, a small secretary and a fire escape. His last column was written as the workmen were unscrewing the bronze nameplates from the old Telegraph building on Fleet Street, preparatory to moving to Docklands and a new newspaper world that Wharton would have found unbearable. However, the Sunday Telegraph managed to woo him back, as did the Daily soon after. He filed his last column in 2006,  a few days before he died, aged 92. His successor, for a while, was Auberon Waugh. There is an anthology of Wharton's Peter Simple columns, The Stretchford Chronicles, with an introduction by Kingsley Amis. And there are two volumes of Wharton's autobiography, which sound so intriguing that I've bought the first (The Missing Will) online. I'll report back on that...


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