Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy of Liberal Cant

Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy of Liberal Cant

Article excerpt

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. …

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