From 1957 to 1990, Michael Wharton, under the pen name of “Peter Simple,” was partly or solely responsible for writing the Daily Telegraph‘s famous “Way of the World” column. Now well into his 80’s, he continues to write in the same paper under the name of Marryat’s hero, though Telegraph readers are rationed to just one column every Friday. (The “Way of the World” still appears, but is now written by Auberon Waugh.)

Over the decades, “Peter Simple” has become synonymous with unfashionable opinions of all kinds. He has become an institution in his own right, one of the few permanent features in a newspaper which has undergone many changes in recent decades. During all of this turmoil, Wharton has kept alive a beacon of visceral, romantic, traditional Toryism very much at odds with the bloodless and vulgar liberalism espoused by Margaret Thatcher and her drones. His column has certainly been one of the major reasons why many of the paper’s traditional readers stayed with it during its various transitions. From the white Rhodesians and the Serbs to Jörg Haider, Wharton has consistently spoken out on behalf of lost causes and demonized right-wingers (usually one and the same thing), using his vibrant imagination and his keen sense of the absurd to subvert the idiotic but powerful notions of the establishment. The fact that his column is often humorous and always witty goes a long way to explain why it was not quietly dropped as an anachronistic embarrassment during one of the paper’s spasmodic attempts to “modernise.”

Wharton’s conceits are legion; some are even legendary. He has invented and maintained a whole rogue’s gallery of leftist characters—all of them only too recognizable. There is Mrs. Dutt-Pauker, a rich communist from Hampstead, who lives in a house called Marxmount, full of mementos from the “good old days” of “Uncle Joe” and Lavrenti Beria. There is Anglican cleric Dr. Spaceley-Trellis, the “go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon,” who expresses himself in fashionable post-Christian inanities. There is Dr. Heinz Kiosk, a sociologist and chief psychiatric adsisor to the “Meringue, Eclair and Profiterole Authorit),” whose notional lectures always end with the shouted statement, “We are all guilty!” There is Pippa Banshee, the literary critic, with her didactic strictures against didacticism. Of course, Wharton has a great deal of raw material to draw on for these caricatures, but few could manipulate the material so proficiently, and few have such keen insight into the underlying trends. His fiendish inventiveness extends to at least two fictional colleges—Nerdley and Stretchford universities (whose faculties include distingiushed Visiting Professors of Road Rage Studies, Fat Cat Studies, Non-Smoking Studies, and Alcopop Studies) —and an (as yet) silent British “ethnic minority”: the long-repressed Aztec community, “estimates of whose numbers range from three to 45,000.” Famously, he also invented the phrase “race relations industry,” and came up with the idea of Rent-a-crowd, the “mammoth consortium which supplies howling mobs for all occasions,” manufacturing semi-automatic demonstrators in their factory “on the North Circular Road.” He may well have anticipated the next move of the “anti-racist” crusaders by speaking of the “prejudometer,” the “handy little instrument” that, pointed at someone, reads off his level of racism in “prejudons, the internationally recognized scientific unit of racial prejudice.” His jocular item about how the Campaign for Racial Equality might seek to vanquish racism in space (black holes and “brown dwarfs” are particularly at risk) predated the recent row about the naming of a U.S. satellite after Gunga Din.

As a slight counterbalance to his fundamentally unappealing, if extremely amusing, leftist caricatures, he has created several more attractive characters, like Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick “Tiger” Nidgett (Retd.) of the Royal Army Tailoring Corps (whose brusque manner of speaking is modeled on that of Montgomery); “Redshank” the naturalist; and the “grim-visaged” Alderman Foodbotham of Bradford, who, with his iron watchchain and powerful voice, exemplifies a civic. Northern, and English confidence that has now all but vanished. He has also brought into ethereal being a journal called the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald, whose sonorous editorializing (on South Africa’s planned new constitution) has an immensely calming effect:

Citizenship, democracy, equality of race and sex, rights and freedoms—we cannot but aver that these well worn terms, so familiar in the mouths of levellers and foaming radicals of every kind, carry little or no meaning when taken singly, and amount, when taken together, to nothing more than an horrific chimera . . . this whole phantasmagoria, in which so many false hopes have been invested, rests on the fatal principle of arithmetical democracy, universal suffrage, “one man one vote” or by whatever other term this obfuscatory principle may be described.

Another pleasing conceit is his occasional description of his column as a sort of actual nation, a metaphysical “space” where his perfect social order—of contented, ruddy-cheeked yeomen, Augustan prince archbishops, great nobles, and enthusiastic tribal levies, living in a mysterious and half-wild country almost without technology—can wax even as the outside world wanes.

Wharton has adopted several Luddites, localists, and patriots as columnar heroes, such as a marvelous Indian lady who has campaigned against a dam-building scheme in her home state; Wittgenstein; and Colonel Sibthrope, Tory MP for Lincoln for some 40 years until 1855, described fondly by Wharton as “a man after my own heart, a landowner of the old school, xenophobe, enemy of any and every kind of change from railways to public libraries, and to his contemporaries a comic figure who was continually lampooned in Punch and laughed at whenever he spoke in the Commons, which was often and at great length.” Elsewhere, Wharton has described his views as being those of a “Tory anarchist” and a “universal nationalist,” whose principal complaint against militant nationalists is that they are not militant enough in protecting their identities against the onslaught of technology.

Wharton was born Michael Nathan in Bradford in 1913, of part-Jewish origin, a fact of which he has always been aware and which long made him actually uncomfortable. He assumed his mother’s maiden name of Wharton in 1937 in order to distance himself from both this disliked dual ancestry and the “oddity and even absurdity” of his early life. A shy but clever child, he went to Bradford Grammar School, where he took an early interest in poetry. He went on to Oxford but was sent down for smashing crockery and throwing a Scotch egg at the high table in hall. He began writing fantastical pieces for Punch and other magazines. When war came, he joined up and, much to his own surprise, ended as a lieutenant colonel. After the war, he found odd, unsatisfying writing jobs and worked for the BBC until, on New Year’s Day 1957, “with one of the most appalling hangovers I have ever had in my life,” he sat down for the first time at his desk in the Daily Telegraph‘s offices in Fleet Street. The richly marked characters he met while at the paper have fueled his imagination ever since. The second volume of his autobiography, The Dubious Codicil (volume one is called The Missing Will, a reference both to Wharton’s mother’s belief that she was somehow the rightful owner of the estates of the landed Yorkshire Whartons and, more subtly, to Wharton’s perceived lack of self-confidence) is full of hilarious anecdotes of heroical fleet Street tapsters. The current collection of his pieces, covering 1987 to the present, is the latest of 13 such anthologies. They are uncategorized and undated, but appear in roughly chronological order. The columnar ingredients have been well chosen to reflect all of Wharton’s diverse preoccupations over a depressing era in British life, during which the Conservatives failed to conserve, the leftists forgot their working class decency, and everyone forgot about England in their anxiety to consume.

Naturally, Wharton has also picked up a few enemies: In The Dubious Codicil, he recounts his delight at seeing a leftist demonstration passing the Telegraph offices under banners denouncing “The fascist Peter Simple.” His autobiographical candor, in which he mentions unashamedly his contemporary support for Franco and his belief that “to have been a German tank commander, on that first morning [of Barbarossa], waiting on the fragrant turf, with the larks singing, for the order to advance into the blue distances of Russia, would have been to experience true military glory, perhaps for the last time in the history of the world,” will not help dispel that superficial impression. But to the more thoughtful and romantic—his admirers include Auberon Waugh, Kingsley Amis, A.N. Wilson, Anthony Howard, and Roger Scruton—and at least some others with sound instincts (like those who flooded London for the recent “Countryside Marches”). Wharton is no longer a mere columnist. For all his essential modesty and the origins he decries (or, perhaps, because of them), he has become an ipso facto tribal elder. Even in his seemingly ephemeral medium, thanks to editors like those who painstakingly produce these delightful miscellanies, Wharton has attained to an ink-stained glory of his own. Rather like the original Peter Simple (or von Grimmelshausen’s Simplieissimus), Wharton is “no longer the fool, but the head of the family.”


[Peter Simple’s Century, by Michael Wharton (London: Claridge Press) 168pp., £12.95]