The Last Edwardian

Michael Wharton (1913–2006)

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.

And then the scene dissolves, and Michael Bernard Nathan is born in rather more modest circumstances in Shipley to a German-Jewish father and a mother with a broad, working-class Yorkshire accent. It was after Oxford in the early ’30s that he adopted his mother’s maiden name of Wharton. No friend of Israel, indifferent to charges of racism and anti-Semitism, Wharton-Nathan would be an easy case for a Dr. Heinz Kiosk: the exile who doesn’t quite fit in who converts himself into a parodic English xenophobe only to discover that he, too, no longer fits in. Wharton’s second volume of autobiography, A Dubious Codicil (1991), includes a passage where he threatens to cut his son off without a penny for changing his surname back to Nathan. Is he really that twitchy about his Jewishness? Is it just another joke? Or is not making quite clear which it is the best joke of all?

In the course of his ninety-two years, Wharton wrote millions of words but said hardly any. W. F. Deedes, the model for William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s great novel of British journalism, Scoop (1938), and still a columnist at the Telegraph today, went to interview the elderly cherub for his ninetieth birthday and had to crowbar out every three-word responsemost of them “I suppose so” and similar.

You were a Colonel in the last war?”

“Yes, but only in Intelligence,” he replied, as if, wrote Deedes, “it had been an occupation reserved for men of low mental ability.”

Even then, Wharton found himself oddly drawn to his nation’s enemies. In an idle moment, he invented a fanatical one-eyed general in Hirohito’s Imperial High Command consumed by a visceral hatred of England after a brief stay in Harrogate. He genuinely admired the Serbs, as the chaps who held the line against the marauding Turk so gallantly, but otherwise he had a preference for unsympathetic lost causes: Ulster Unionists, white Rhodesians, etc. He had a sneaking respect for the bloodier aspects of Islam, but the British Left embraced the jihad so wholeheartedly that it was hard for him to get a word in.

The gulf between Michael Wharton and Peter Simple was largely unknown to the author’s devoted suburban readers. For several decades of his adult life, he operated an “open marriage.” His memoirs detail his second wife’s twenty-year affair with another well-known journalist, “a man I liked and admired, an honorable man,” who eventually comes to Wharton and says: “I will ask you a question. If you answer ‘yes,’ the affair will go no further. Do you love Kate?”

Wharton mulls it over and answers, “No.” The scene has odd echoes of that cruel moment in Evelyn Waugh’s cruelest novel, A Handful of Dust (1934), and it makes you wonder whether Wharton might also have had a great novel in him (he published one, unsuccessfully). He pondered that question, tooafter all, his equally fictional columnar colleague at the Telegraph, Bridget Jones, jumped to hard covers and the silver screen. But he consoled himself in later years with the thought that, even if he had been a hugely famous novelist, he’d undoubtedly have outlived his success and been washed up by now. Instead, he kept going up till the Friday before his death.

In the last days of his life, two of the four leadership candidates for the Liberal Democrat Party were outed for consorting with rent boys and calling gay chat lines, and a gay Conservative leaped to their defense by arguing that sexual recklessness went hand in hand with political courage, citing as evidence his own experience of oral sex in the office of a minister of the crown.

It was a good week for a satirist to check out.

As Wharton wrote of Alderman Foodbotham, “the 25-stone, crag-visaged, iron-watch-chained, grim-booted perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee”: “According to legend, he did not die, but lies asleep in a convenient cave, awaiting the blast of a horn, mill-hooter or other appropriate instrument which will summon him to wake and save his city and his country in their hour of greatest need. But the hour is late and few believe in the legend any longer.