Wharton the Wise

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Missing Will by Michael Wharton
    Hogarth, 216 pp, £10.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2666 3

For 27 years Michael Wharton has written the ‘Peter Simple’ column in the Daily Telegraph. He was only 43 when he secured this good, steady job and now he has published an autobiographical account of his 43 apprentice years – dissident, drifting, bohemian years, marked by a lack of will-power, what the Greeks called aboulia. His title, The Missing Will, refers not only to his aboulia but also to an agreeable fantasy of his mother’s: she was an almost illiterate but very pretty Yorkshirewoman, called Bertha Wharton, who had married a German Jew from Bradford, called Paul Sigismund Nathan, presented here as something of a schlemiel. When Bertha was annoyed with Paul, she called him a ‘fleyboggard’ and then brooded romantically about her ancestry. Michael recalls: ‘A shadowy greatness gathered. She hinted at connections with the Whartons of Wharton Hall in Westmorland ... She even hinted at a Missing Will. I listened and pondered.’

Shortly before World War Two, Michael dropped the name ‘Nathan’ and adopted ‘Wharton’. His wife had borne him a son and he wanted to make a new start in life, to become ‘more responsible, soundly based and honest’, now that he was a father. ‘I wanted to escape once and for all from the oddity and even absurdity of my early life,’ he explains. ‘One symbolic way of doing this was to remove a label which did not suit me or, quite apart from its immense potency in the eyes of others, rightly belong to me.’ It is true that ‘Nathan’ is a very potent name. To some it may suggest Guys and Dolls, with good old reliable Nathan Detroit who runs the oldest-established permanent floating crap game in New York; or it might recall Lessing’s play, Nathan the Wise, about the good Jew making peace between Muslim and Christian in the Holy Land. But really Michael Wharton, in his ‘Peter Simple’ role, is more like the original prophet Nathan, telling an interesting little fable which abruptly concludes with a fierce, authoritative denunciation of his audience: ‘Thou art the man!’ (II Samuel xii 7). Young Michael was brought up vaguely C of E (like both his parents) and did not feel that the potent Hebraic name of Nathan really belonged to him. He seems to feel that ‘race’ should be a subject for amusing fantasy, not to be taken seriously. Just at the time he was changing his name to ‘Wharton’ he was getting used to ‘hearing, with a kind of horrid fascination, the voice of the Führer on the wireless as he went into the hwyl – I had a theory that he was really a Welshman, an Alpine Celt such as the Nazi racial theorist Rosenberg might have dreamed of in an unguarded moment.’ Many years later, Michael’s son, ‘himself one of the reasons for the change, decided, in a burst of Jewish romanticism at the time of the Israeli victory in the Six Days War, to change his name back’ to Nathan. Old Wharton tells us what young Nathan said to him: ‘Would you really rather belong to generations of English North Country clodhoppers and dolts or even landowning bullies and villains than to the ancient people of Heine, to say nothing of the people of Goethe and Beethoven?’ Old Wharton thought for a long time about this, then answered: ‘Yes.’ But he recognises that it was neither a straight question nor a straight answer. ‘Having no choice I belong to all these disparate worlds at once.’

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