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.’

The disparate paragraphs of his ‘Peter Simple’ column seem to support this self-analysis. If Wharton had more will-power he could be a playwright, easing himself into different roles, rapidly switching his persona. Sometimes he appears as a decent old buffer, a Victorian paternalist with faithful workers on his grand estate; but sometimes he poses as Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the wealthy Stalinist of Hampstead; then he may become a disturbed police officer struggling to control the fanclubs of Nerdley where all the housewives are violent supporters of different members of the Kennedy-Onassis family. Sometimes ‘Peter Simple’ is a warrior chief, defending columnar territory against incursions from the public-school and masonic gatherings on the north-west frontier (under ‘Court and Social’) or the coded messages from crooks, spies, lovers and the adherents of St Jude, grouped to the north-east (under ‘Personal’). Now he is a Byronic Luddite, with a sneaking sympathy for Arthur Scargill’s pugnacity; now he is a ‘Green’, a true conservative determined to conserve the land of Britain against the assaults of oil magnates and Mr Buchanan-Smith, the Minister for Energy. (This January he has also twice denounced Macmillan for being soft on Russia: the only politician he has praised is his old favourite, Powell.)

The column has a repertory company of fantasy figures – most of them mean, stupid and well-to-do – and when he solemnly reports their fatuous statements ‘Peter Simple’ sometimes sounds as if he were parodying his fellow-columnist, ‘Peterborough’. But in the next paragraph he will break into rhapsody, responding to the numinous quality of deserted Midland countryside, of secretive old men who catch rats and play crib, of the speakers of Gaelic or Welsh (he is good at Welsh), of the Friends of the Refreshment Room on Platform 3 at Soup Hales, of Bradford’s iron-watch-chained, grim-booted Alderman Foodbotham, Permanent Chairman of Tramways and the Fine Arts, and of lovely, sex-maniac-haunted Sadcake Park, Stretchford’s ‘iron lung’, where the magical R.D. Viswaswami, Environmental Activity Officer (Grade III), annoys the boat-keeper by projecting ‘thought-forms’ of Rotary Club dinners, starring the Lord Mayor of Stretchford, Cllr J.S. Goat. He is strong on magic, from the respectable, almost dowdy covens of the West Midlands to the more formidable necromancy practised by Ayurvedic dentists in India or by Life-Presidents in West Africa. He is in sympathy with the ancient rites of the Tibetan lamasseries and the Ras Tafari, Lion of Judah. (Indeed, he records, Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia was the last occasion on which he suffered from a faint spasm of ‘liberal feeling’.) He is perhaps out-ranked by the posher sort of Telegraph journalists, the Chancellors and Johnsons, the Waughs and the Worsthornes: they like to sound haughtily bemused when away from the West End and the County Set, suddenly confronted by jumble sales or football supporters. ‘Peter Simple’ knows about football teams and is severe about the follies of their managers and chairmen. He has been around. Yet to none of these communities does he wholly belong: he wanders among them, a scholar-gipsy, resenting that word ‘community’ with its modern, municipal tone.

The Missing Will is not unlike the ‘Peter Simple’ column: readers cannot be sure whether Wharton is attempting to speak truth or giving free rein to his fantasy. He begins with a persuasive account of his upbringing at Wharton Hall, under the easy regime of Nanny Forbes from Elgin: she somehow turns into Nanny Grant, Nanny Findlay and Nanny Ritchie, before the author changes his mind and admits that he had no nanny at all – he has decided to be melancholy and make a bid for our sympathy. He was brought up amateurishly in Greater Bradford by Paul and Bertha Nathan, assisted by a serf-like sister of Bertha’s who had lost her own name and answered only to ‘Aunt’, referring to herself by this name and inscribing it in the fly-leaves of her precious books, A Peep Behind the Scenes and Froggie’s Little Brother. When young Michael was out in Nab Wood, his ‘first intimation of the numinous’ (quite near the spot where Sir Oliver Lodge photographed fairies), Aunt would be close at hand, in helmet-hat and nigger-brown costume, to make sure Michael did not fall down a rabbit-hole, while Aunt, muttering Yorkshire gibberish, searched for magical comfrey. Later, as an Army officer lost in the Sind Desert, Michael Wharton sat alone on a stony hillside, waiting for Aunt to turn up.

We had better leave Aunt, before she turns into Nanny Forbes and flies back to Elgin on her broomstick, and make the literary point that the Wharton Hall blague sounds rather like one of Alan Bennett’s fantasies. Michael Wharton is an admirer of Alan Bennett, as he made clear in the ‘Peter Simple’ column recently, while offering assistance to an Oxford phonetician on a visit to Leeds University to record examples of ‘Modified Northern’ English. The column explained that the accent she required was strictly ‘improved South Yorkshire’, not ‘Northern’ at all but ‘North Midland’: it is ‘used by Mrs Elvira Mutcliffe, who runs a highly respected witches’ coven at Sowerby Bridge, and the very talented Leeds-born playwright Alan Bennett is a master of it.’ Michael Wharton is himself an accomplished phonetician, he assures us in The Missing Will (when he was a major in India, other officers complained that he spoke Urdu like a native), and he has long been familiar with the Alan Bennett variant of gritty Northern speech. When Wharton went to Bradford Grammar School he found himself among ‘a rougher sort of boy, some of whom mimicked my improved Yorkshire accent and tended, though without malice, to set my hair on fire ... ’ It was at this school that he grew a beard – thus becoming, he believes, the only bearded schoolboy in the West Riding.

His father, the Fleyboggard, had sometimes been prosperous, but not for long. He was the least successful son of a family, with many servants, housed in ‘a superior part of Bradford where such people as the Rothensteins and Eurichs lived and Delius was born’. The other young Nathans made ‘good’ marriages into the English middle class: but the Fleyboggard dropped out of this league and eventually ‘sank into an apathy which only furtive betting and the company of low companions could relieve’. Michael Wharton recalls his annoyance at discovering his father had kept only one gramophone record (Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody) as the ‘sole sad relic of his parents’ standard German-Jewish culture’. Later, though, soldiering in Kashmir, Michael remembers that his father had one other record, ‘Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar’, and he begins to think more kindly of the Fleyboggard, with his generosity, humour and bursts of lunatic bad temper. The Fleyboggard’s jests and fantasies about his Yorkshire neighbours have influenced Michael Wharton’s sense of humour, ‘which, though it has helped, against all the odds, to keep me alive and even to earn me a living, is not a thing I can really approve of,’ he admits. ‘There is cruelty in it.’

At Oxford he made friends with two other able autobiographers, David Thomson, the future BBC producer, and Denis Hills, the African explorer, destined to be rescued by James Callaghan from the clutches of Idi Amin. Michael Wharton spent much of his term-time practising West Riding Knife Throwing with his mates, or drinking in the magical St Ebbes quarter (recently flattened by commercial interests), playing dominoes with little old rat-catchers, descendants of the Otmoor marsh-folk: during vacations he walked through the most primitive areas of Ireland, honouring Yeats and being bitten by fleas, or he would take his girlfriend (from the Ruskin School of Art) to sleep with him in unoccupied rooms at New College. He began a novel about Bradford declaring its independence and the numinous effect of this policy upon a retired army officer, an explorer of Tibet. Under a cloud he left Oxford, taking his girl for a long walk through the most primitive areas of Wales, under the influence of George Borrow.

The girl became his wife, for some years, and they lived hand-to-mouth in Chelsea, where she sometimes got work as an artist’s model and he wrote about Welsh nationalism for the New Statesman. (‘Are you sure these Welsh nationalists aren’t Fascists?’ barked Kingsley Martin.) Wharton’s politics were akin to those of Chesterton’s ‘distributivist’ movement: he had developed an extreme hatred for Communism, partly because of his ‘general loathing for progress and technology’. (‘I can claim to have been what is now called, somewhat nauseatingly, a “friend of the earth” thirty years before the Environment was invented,’ he asserts.) Most of his friends were bohemian intellectuals, attracted to Communism. Of himself he writes: ‘Although I had no love for either, to say the least, I would, I suppose, have had to say that I preferred Hitler to Stalin.’

The war came, he served in India, admiring the pretty aborigines and the Ayurvedic dentists, quarrelling with other officers (who had developed a sentimental affection for Uncle Joe Stalin), seducing wives and composing fantasies to be enacted by this ‘forgotten army’ with no enemies in sight: these fantasies were called simulated intelligence exercises. Wharton invented the Thargs, a fanatical sect with red hair and blue eyes (descendants of Alexander’s soldiers) who were in wireless or telepathic communication with the German High Command, since Dr Rosenberg recognised them as fellow Aryans. ‘As the first panzers appeared on our side of the Khyber, the Thargs were ready to rise as one man.’ The scenario was so plausible that Wharton was ordered to ‘abolish’ the Thargs. It was in India that he developed his admiration for the Midland pedagogue, Brigadier Enoch Powell, famous for reading Thucydides while wearing a hot and uncomfortable non-regulation uniform and planning to become Viceroy of India – ‘which, if there were any justice in this world, he would have been,’ Wharton loyally assures us.

But the war came to an end and Wharton had to return to London, where Thomson found him a job writing scripts about the Luddites for the BBC Schools Programme: ‘Our children are starvin’! Smash the frames! Aye, smash the devil’s frames!’ The trouble with his BBC associates was that they were stubbornly soft on Russia – Wharton has a good story to tell about the day Stalin died – and the same was true, oddly enough, of the publishers of the Football Association Yearbook, a periodical which Wharton edited for a while, under the authority of the titanic Sir Stanley Rous, President of the Football Association.

Regular readers of the ‘Peter Simple’ column will have recognised in this account many pointers to the sources of the fictional characters (if such they be) who people it. Sir Stanley Rous might well be the original rock from which was hewn Alderman Footbotham, Perpetual Chairman of Tramways etc. On the other hand, Wharton had already found a Perpetual Mayor (Lord Hothfield, in Appleby) when he was exploring Westmorland in search of his Wharton ancestors. He travelled widely in the United Kingdom, while working for the BBC, glad to be away from Stalin’s admirers – and those ‘grey men’ who had decided Wharton was not ‘really BBC material’ – and he took a special pleasure in one delectable region where his ‘numinous feelings, long thought dead, revived’: the lead-mining area of Derbyshire, where Julian Birdbath is now incarcerated.

Such was Michael Wharton’s roving life before he secured his comfortable berth as the time-honoured ‘Peter Simple’ aboard the Telegraph. The traditional pseudonym derives, of course, from Captain Marryat’s sea-story, first published in 1834, but after 27 years the sinister old sea-cook surely deserves promotion to higher Marryat rank – equivalent to, say, Mr Sawbridge, the first lieutenant of the Harpy in Mr Midshipman Easy: ‘Mr Sawbridge was a good officer, one who had really worked his way up to his present rank – that is to say, that he had served seven-and-twenty years, and had nothing but his pay. He was a little soured in the service, and certainly had an aversion to the young men of family who were now fast crowding into it.’ We remember how Mr Sawbridge was provoked by philosophical young Lefties, like Jack Easy, gently reared by his permissive father at Easy Hall. ‘I hope to make you a convert to the truth of equality and the rights of man,’ observed that impudent midshipman. ‘By the Lord that made us both,’ roared Mr Sawbridge, ‘I’ll soon make you a convert to the thirty-six articles of war!’ The ‘Peter Simple’ column sometimes explodes into the Sawbridge roar, when Wharton is in a mood to denounce nouveaux riches and new ideas: ‘rich Hampstead thinkers, technology-crazed politicians, hypocritical prairie-farmers, monstrous architects, respected pornographers, millionaire pop-singers and their managers, ever searching for new forms of profitable barbarism and decadence to exploit’.