Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

Only joking

Sir: As regards The City of Light by `Jacob of Ancona' (`Chinese fake away?', 25 October), surely the first question to put to David Selbourne should have been what language the purported manuscript was written in. Mediaeval Latin? Mediaeval Italian? Franco-Italian, the language of Marco Polo's book ('a strange composite tongue fashionable during the 13th and 14th centuries', as the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it)? Hebrew? Whatever the answer, how can Mr Selbourne, a political philosopher, be qualified to decipher, let alone translate a manuscript of this kind?

The International Herald Tribune (1 October) has quoted from a telephone conversation with Mr Selbourne where he refers to the possibility of his book being a `great picaresque, philosophical novel'. The quotations from The City of Light in a recent review in the Times surely point in this direction. Like another eminent political philosopher, Montesquieu, who in his Lettres persanes satirised the French civilisation of his age by portraying it through the eyes of two invented Persian travellers, the author may have chosen his hero to castigate some of the cultural (including sexual) peculiarities of our age. `Jacob of Ancona' may be as authentic as `Alice von Schlieffen'. Shouldn't we appreciate the whole affair as a joke rather than viewing it from Mr Honigsbaum's moral high ground?

Leonhard Walentik

Translation Service,

Austrian Federal Chancellery,

Wallnerstrasse 6A,


Widmerpool nominations

Sir: I was intrigued by Frank Johnson's piece about the possibility of the existence of real Widmerpools among us today (Shared opinion, 25 October). I noticed in the second episode of A Dance to the Music of Time that at one stage Widmerpool himself appears wearing a tie of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC). This I know backs up his own claim that he was very interested in `my territorials'. As a member of that august body, I suggest that it is probably unnecessary to look much further. Frankly, the regiment is full of Widmerpools. A visit to Armoury House, although you won't get further than the guard room, will confirm this. They are all there beyond the barriers.

Incidentally, I notice that later on in the second episode Widmerpool appears to have acquired two medals, neither of which I could identify but neither of which could possibly have been awarded to him in the space of time allotted. Even worse, at a later stage, in episode three, he appears as a Grenadier Guards officer wearing a badge which during the war would certainly have been blacked out for security purposes. We are indeed surrounded by Widmerpools; and beware, there is a whole regiment of them up in City Road.

Leo Cooper

The Chantry,



Sir: I loved Frank Johnson's `Paging Mr Widmerpool' though I was a little dismayed to learn that so many of his acquaintances are putting themselves forward as counterparts of Anthony Powell's creation. I do hope they are doing themselves an injustice. Certainly Michael Heseltine is out of the running because he is too flashy and too excitable, though he and some others you mention no doubt fall into a whole category of people, singled out by Powell, as seeking power over others by a variety of means: in Volume I alone of Dance these include such disparate characters as Sunny Farebrother, Buster and Miss Weedon.

If you are looking for a true Widmerpool however, he must be dogged, determined, reasonably intelligent, but lacking imagination, a sense of humour or compassion.

Hence he goes on until he is stopped, but is never stopped and, what is more, stops at nothing. Getting Ackerly sacked at school was just a prelude to disposing of Peter Templar later on and many other iniquities. He bullies his inferiors, creeps to his superiors and, as you say, makes sure he is on the winning side. However, those who have not read the novels may be surprised to see how he ends up. …

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