A very different sort of Peter Principle was at work in the literary activities of Michael Wharton, a.k.a. Peter Simple, who for nearly fifty years bemused, delighted, irritated, and entertained readers of Britain’s Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Wharton, who died last month at ninety-two, wickedly satirized the absurdities of the politically correct, sanctimonious British establishment through a steady stream of fictional characters and events whose preposterousness was perfectly calibrated to mirror the preposterousness of their real-life counterparts.
As an obituary in The Daily Telegraph noted, Wharton early on demonstrated his fundamental unclubbability. Engaged at the BBC features department in 1953, he perpetrated the ghastly floater of lamenting that Stalin had ever been born on the very day that his BBC colleagues were in mourning over news of the dictator’s death. Which is stranger, the current Archbishop of Canterbury—who, among much else, recently announced that he was a Druid—or Wharton’s Bishop of Bevindon and his “partner,” the Rev. Mantissa Shout? You won’t find Wharton’s invented company “Rentacrowd, Ltd.” in the phone book, but we all know what he meant by “rentamob.” Not everyone was taken in by a review of a book called The Naked Afternoon Tea by Henry Miller or an advertisement to “Learn Etruscan the Way They Did” (though quite a few were). But what about “Abdul Rashid Mahmud, otherwise Stan Horrocks, 29, of no fixed address,” who made his appearance in Wharton’s column after the Afghan war in 2002? At his court hearing, Mahmud declared that he was “a prominent member of the Spagbollah, an extremist wing of the Taliban, sworn to liberate first Nerdley, then the Stretchford conurbation, the whole world. His breath smelled of newsprint.” Whose antennae are sufficiently sensitive to distinguish with confidence between Mr. Mahmud and Richard Reid, the London-born product of an English mother and Jamaican father who converted to Islam, took the name Abdel Rahim, and culminated his brief career by attempting to blow up a commercial flight using bombs hidden in his shoes?
The last few decades have not been kind to the arts of satire and parody. The acceleration of absurdity in modern life has guaranteed a short shelf-life for such deflationary arts. Reality has been relentless about catching up and then overtaking even the most exaggerated spoofs, send-ups, and burlesques. The art world is a notorious laboratory for the defeat of satire. (Imagine: a chap puts a cow carcass in a tank of formaldehyde and calls it art: is that a diseased parody or a Turner-Prize-winning work of art?) But social and political life has not been far behind. Consider, to stick with an English example, the phenomenon of George Galloway, the Respect Party MP, friend of Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad, and reality television contestant. Is he a malevolent public relations prank? Or is he really the Honorable Member for Bethnal Green and Bow? With Peter Simple, Michael Wharton consummately ventriloquized such egregious imponderables. He possessed perfect pitch for bombast, and commanded the rhetorical skill to twist it, ever so slightly, so as to expose it to the astringent sanity of ridicule. What a pity he will no longer be plying his trade. The George Galloways of the world—their name, alas, is legion—deserve him.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 6, on page 2
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