In his famous publisher’s statement in the first issue of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. declared that his magazine “stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop.’” I’m not sure he meant it even then, and certainly he’s availed himself of many innovations of the modern age in the years since, including television and computers.
By contrast, Michael Wharton did mean it. He had no use for television, and never watched it unless he happened to be in a room in which the “receiving apparatus” was present. His conservatism was founded on the proposition, “All change is for the worse,” and thus history should have stopped round about the year he was born, 1913. For a British writer truly standing athwart the march of time yelling “Stop,” there are two ways to go: you can create an idealized Edwardian England, as P. G. Wodehouse did (though he preferred to live on Long Island), or you revel in your latter-day dystopia, creating a range of fantastical characters emblematic of England’s decline. That’s the path Wharton chose, under the pseudonym “Peter Simple” in the country’s best- selling broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph.
For forty-nine years—from New Year’s Day 1957 to the column filed four days before his death on January 23—Wharton chronicled British life as a satirical fantasia through the eyes of Dr. Spacely-Trellis, “the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon” and author of God The Humanist; the environmental consultant Keith Effluvium; Dr. Heinz Kiosk, psychiatric adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture and many other eminent bodies, with his great cry of “We are all guilty!”; Mrs. Dutt-Pauker, “the Hampstead thinker” and prototype of what Americans would call “limousine liberals,” who champions the world’s most deserving causes from her north London mansion Marxmount; the hard-hitting Fleet Street columnist Jack Moron, “The Man Who Knows It All,” with his mostly unheeded clarion call, “Wake up, Britain!”; Sir Herbert Trance, of the British Boring Board of Control, whose deliberations, reported by Wharton’s correspondent “Narcolept,” determined which modish transgressive cause was now sufficiently tedious to be admitted to the torpor of its hallowed if drowsy precincts. For the country’s burgeoning “race relations industry,” Wharton invented the “prejudometer,” which simply by being pointed at any person could calculate degrees of racism to the nearest prejudon, “the internationally recognized scientific unit of racial prejudice.”
If the professional grievance industry, tabloid blowhards, trendy clerics, eco-zealots, pampered progressives, and psychobabbling social-pseudoscientists seem rather obvious targets in 2006, well, most of Wharton’s cast of characters were in place by the early ’60s, and the author had the melancholy satisfaction of spending the next forty years watching the real world remorselessly close the gap with satiric invention. The “go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon” eventually acquired a “partner,” Dr. Mantissa Shout, but the gay bishop of New Hampshire’s explanation to the Episcopal Synod that sex with his own long-term partner was “sacramental” must have had Wharton fearing for the future of satire. Decades ago, he invented a pliable, media-friendly “moderate” Conservative of no fixed beliefs—Jeremy Cardhouse, leader of the Tories for Progress group—only to see him at the very end of his long life triumphantly anointed as head of the apparently real British Conservative Party under the name “David Cameron.”
For most of Wharton’s time there, the Telegraph was not known as a home of “good writing.” Indeed, it was a point of pride: the paper had no op-ed page, and scarcely any columnists save for the pseudonymous Wharton. Battered by imperial decline, the “permissive society,” and later “political correctness,” his middle-class readers were appreciative of Peter Simple, if not always clear on the point of intersection between reality and the author’s imagination. A reference to the book The Naked Afternoon Tea by Henry Miller prompted many complaints from frustrated readers that the volume appeared to be unavailable in any store.
Much of Peter Simple’s world revolved around “the Stretchford conurbation” in the industrial heart of England, a grim conglomeration of boroughs, from Nerdley to Soup Hales, centered on “lovely sex-maniac-haunted Sadcake Park,” “the iron lung of Stretchford,” and the dozens if not hundreds of universities with which the conurbation was endowed. There was no conceivable ethnic minority unrepresented among its terrace houses. In 1991, Harold Pinter, who is a real person and not a fictional character, decided to oppose the grotesque half-millennial celebrations of Columbus’s discovery—whoops, “discovery”—of the Americas by launching a group called Five Hundred Years of Resistance. Immediately, Stretchford’s Aztec community, comprising descendants of settlers who’d crossed the Atlantic in stone boats in the Dark Ages and settled in the West Midlands, announced its support for Pinter’s campaign. The community’s leader, a forty-three-year-old twenty-fifth-year sociology student at Nerdley University, offered the playwright the high honor of being the principal sacrifice on the group’s anti-Columbus step- pyramid, assuming its grant from Nerdley Arts came through.
Stretchford’s mercantile establishment coped with a changing Britain as best it could. At the start of the Iraq War, in 2003, Sir Edwin Goth-Jones, chairman of the Stretchford Tourist Board, announced plans for VI DayVictory over Iraq. “My aim,” he said,
“is to stage a celebration which will be worthy of the victory of good over evil but at the same time will avoid triumphalism … In the event of victory by Saddam Hussein, the above arrangements will be canceled. No monies can be refunded.”
Wharton himself was opposed to the invasion of Iraq. He despised the “war on terror” as an obvious bit of weaselly obfuscation. There was no “neo” in his conservatism, and his antipathy to Bush was muted only by his more generalized dislike of the American imperium, reflected in his reprinting of “thoughtful” editorials from The Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald. On the president’s trip to London in 2003, the futile Times editors recalled the visit of a previous “leader of the North American rebel colonists”:
Woodrow Wilson, “in his self-righteous folly and ignorance of world affairs, preached ‘self-determination for all nations’ and approved the tragic collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and other noble and historical institutions, with consequences that are with us to this day.”
Which was more or less how he felt. His idealized England, like Wodehouse’s, was the last Edwardian summer, the sun-dappled lawns of 1914. The first volume of his autobiography, The Missing Will (1984), begins with a marvelous evocation of his ancestral homethe great house and gardens, the long gallery with its portraits of ancient forebears—and young Michael’s earliest childhood memory: of the telegram from the Western Front bearing the news that his brother, the viscount, was dead.