One of the most influential prophets of the last half century’s great conservative free market revival in Britain has just died, and almost no one in America knows anything about him.
This would not have bothered Michael Wharton, born Michael Nathan, but known and beloved by readers of the London Daily Telegraph for half a century as Peter Simple, byline of the “Way of the World” column for nearly 50 years. While a great admirer of President Ronald Reagan, he never could forgive or forget the ingratitude of the American Colonies for rejecting the paternal protection of the Mother Country in 1776–a misstep that “thoughtful editorials” from the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald, which he reproduced in his column, never failed to call attention to.
But Wharton/Simple’s impact and significance were enormous. For almost 20 years before Margaret Thatcher won the leadership of the British Conservative Party in 1974, he had been a lone satirical voice ridiculing the absurdities and obscenities of socialism, Communism, state control, state planning, moral relativism, arrogant incompetent academia run amok, and many more of the bizarre plagues of our modern world.
Nor was he a hermit in the wilderness (though, on his mother’s side, he was in fact descended from any number of hermits from the Yorkshire moors; on his father’s side were German-Jewish businessmen from Bradford who eventually fell on hard times). His column ran in the largest and most influential quality newspaper in Britain, the voice of the Tory establishment, of the respectable propertied middle class and the rural squires of the shires alike. The mighty Telegraph in its heyday reached a reading market of more than a million purchasers a day, more than the circulation of the Times and the Guardian combined.
Through those long decades, when Britain wilted under a “wet” Tory-Labour Party Socialist consensus, Wharton created for his fascinated and often bemused readers an amazing uber-conservative, pre-1914 fantasy world with a prodigal explosion of creative detail and vividness that Matt Groening and The Simpsons would have envied. He combined the absurdist slapstick of Monty Python with the angry, pitiless piercing clarity and rage of Jonathan Swift. As the great Sir Kingsley Amis noted in his introduction to the 1980 selection of Simple’s pieces, “The Stretchford Chronicles” (he was commenting on an item describing a “brilliant” liberal television producer “hacking at the furniture with an axe or setting his desk on fire in a frenzy of compassionate hatred”), “This is new ground. I know of nothing like it anywhere.”
Wharton created a world in his column peopled with characters more vivid than life, always identified for new readers with useful, piled-on descriptive tag-lines straight out of a 20th century absurdist Iliad. Mrs. Dutt-Pauker was a Hampstead Garden Suburb Marxist and respected “thinker” of limitless wealth who used the skull of Marshal Tukhachevsky as a paperweight. It had been given to her as a present by her great lover, real-life (though in the world of Peter Simple, such distinctions rapidly lost their meaning) East German Communist leader Walter Ulbricht, whom she met while they were happily massacring recalcitrant social classes during the Spanish Civil War (“Love bloomed amid the barbed wire and the reeducation camps”), after her first husband was “accidentally liquidated.”
Dr. Spacely-Trellis, his “go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon” in the trendy, with-it Church of England wrote a book entitled God the Humanist and described the 12 apostles as Jesus’ first-class sociological research team. And who can forget Roystan Huitzilopochtli, born Roystan Vibes, 49th year student at Soup Hales University and leader of the Aztec Liberation Front.
Wharton’s alter ego, Simple (memorably rendered in outline cartoon-form by the brilliant pen of the late Michael Foulkes) was impeccably dressed in pith helmet, bald, mustachioed and monocled, a born aristocrat and snob, master of men and known to all. Who could take seriously the brutal, insecure macho-fantasies of Ernest Hemingway after reading Peter Simple’s account of Hemingway supposedly boasting of how he had beaten an elderly grandmother to death in her bath chair? (“She was tough. But I was tougher.”) Who could respect any psychiatrist after meeting Dr. Heinz Kiosk, psychiatric advisor to the South-Eastern Gas Board, whose invariable pronouncement was “We are all guilty”? What conservative could not but rejoice at Simple’s description of hunting left wing sociologists instead of grouse on his spacious estates? The “game,” he explained, was then prepared for dinner at Au Petit Coin Anthropophage, an exclusive London restaurant specializing in exotic New Guinea cannibal recipes.
The real(?) man was very different from his dream self. He was quiet and shy with most people, lived in Battersea and commuted every day to his office at the Daily Telegraph on a red double-decker Roadmaster bus. (It was this experience, presumably, that inspired his visceral loathing of drunken, brutal Scottish soccer supporters.) There is already intense debate among his many admirers as to whether the Great Man dined nightly on four frozen fish fingers or five. The obituaries in the British press were refreshingly contradictory, which would have delighted him.
He was married three times. The first two marriages were described by his friends as having come straight out of a horror comic. He threw wonderful, boisterous, wildly drunken parties, where guests in states of extreme inebriation would act out such subjects as the French Revolution or the Russo-Japanese War. And he also raised successive generations of British conservatives in the realities of the Progressive Absurd.
His prophetic inner eye was extraordinary: As early as the late 1950s, he already saw his beloved grim gray industrial home city of Bradford transformed into an Iranian Islamic stronghold. He created a fictional “Race Relations Industry” and then saw enormous real ones appear throughout the Western world. For him, as for Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the siren seductions of liberal relativism led to the Abyss, an Infernal World of abortion on demand, and the effortless dissolution of any separation of right and wrong. We are still in it.
He should rank with George Orwell for the clarity and power of his political and moral vision and for the genius of his dystopian fantasy world, and with Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse as a stylist and wit. Collections of his wirings sold well for generations in Britain, but an American edition has yet to be published.
His version of the apocalypse was typically absurdist, bizarre and wholly original: At the Last Trump it will not be any conventional Christian, Muslim, or Jewish Messiah who will ride out to save the City of Bradford and the world, but Alderman Jabez Foodbotham, the 25-stone (350-pound), iron watch-chained, grim-booted perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Council’s Tramways and Fine Arts Committee in the Great Days, riding on his enchanted tram out of the secret cave on Clackheaton Moor, where he has been slumbering. Surely Wharton, transmogrified at last into the Simple of his dreams, nonchalant as ever, will be riding at his side.
–Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International.