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Analysis: Vicious as Voltaire, but simple

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   April 23, 2003 at 5:16 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, April 23 (UPI) -- First of two parts.

Britain's greatest living satirist, and quite arguably its greatest living writer -- a figure who has been admiringly compared Jonathan Swift, Thomas Carlyle and Voltaire for his influence, genius and scathing, lacerating wit, has just turned 90. And nobody in America knows -- or cares.

This is not so much irony as a logical and expected conclusion. And far from outraging or upsetting the writer in question, Michael Wharton of Buckinghamshire, who for more than 46 years has written his regular satirical column "Way of the World" in the London Daily Telegraph under the byline "Peter Simple," it is likely to give him a deeply emotional satisfaction. For that is the kind of fellow he is.

There is no Reaganite or neo-conservative rational optimism in the world view of Peter Simple. None at all. Indeed, American readers may find the world of Peter Simple, collected in a number of highly influential, well-selling books none of which are currently in print in the United States, unsettling. For his profound pessimism and joyously unrepressed hate for the modern world fly in the face of our optimism and "smile-on-demand" good nature.

Nor is America looked upon as a shining city on a hill. Rather, it is seen as the source of the crude, crass and avaricious spirit that has already destroyed Olde England. Virtually every "thoughtful editorial" in Way of the World" supposedly reprinted from the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald ends with a clarion call for the re-imposition of British imperial rule over India and the ungrateful American Colonies.

Nor will traditional American Anglophiles find much comfort in these pages. Peter Simple loves the Victorian England of grace, gentility and tea after cricket on the country-house lawn more than any of them. But in his world, even 45 year ago, it had long been superseded by the endless housing estates and chemical-crazed inhabitants of the Midland mega-cities of Nerdley and Stretchford with their "Hanging Gardens of Nineveh" supermarkets.

For almost five decades, Wharton, as Peter Simple, has penned his alternative version of reality in his column, in his hey day several times a week, reaching at least 1 1/2 million readers a day. In them, he has consistently presented a comic vision as relentless and awesome in its reactionary purity compared with Barry Goldwater or Reagan himself looked like Michael Dukakis or Joe Lieberman.

What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that Wharton was such a late developer in literary terms. He only came to his life's work when he was well into his 40s and had shown no signs whatsoever of such amazing gifts before the discerning eye of Colin Welch, then deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, sought him out for the column in 1956.

Previously, Wharton, the son of a German-Jewish wool merchant in the Yorkshire city of Bradford and a mother descended from a long line of hermit shepherds in the Pennine mountains, had boozed and wenched his way through Oxford, served in the British army in India in the World War II twilight days of empire rising to become a colonel in Military Intelligence. Then, he generally led a dissolute but impecunious existence financially akin to his character Julian Birdbath's for a decade after the war.

But Welch's coup in recruiting him out to take over the then-new satirical column proved a match made, if not in heaven, at least in the inspired Tibetan monasteries of some of Wharton's theosophist heroes.

Like his literary hero Evelyn Waugh, Peter Simple celebrates the values of reactionary English civilization. But Waugh could still linger in the delusion that the embattled culture he loved was alive, or at least dying gloriously in defiance of the 20th century.

For Peter Simple, the apocalypse has already struck, and the glories of the past can only be revived in the thought-images of his columns. Flower-powered fools have inherited the ruins, while in the shadows the savage bands of barbarians both within the nation's inner cities and across the seas await their moment to strike and plunder. First presented in the late-1950s, it appears an uncannily prescient vision of America and Britain alike in the early 21st century.

Indeed, as a prophet, Wharton-as-Simple has a track record that any Sunday morning tele-evangelist can only envy. Four and a half decades ago, he penned haunting and very funny visions of northern British cities such as his beloved Bradford transformed into devout Muslim strongholds of South and Western Asia indistinguishable, for example from Isfahan in Iran. Thanks to amazingly liberal immigration policies and enormously high birth rates, this has since happened.

Simple ominously foretold the collapse of legendary British gentility and its prized social consensus amid a towering wave of destructive, know-it-all liberalism that was even then smashing to match-sticks every old social institution and social value before it. As inner city crime rates have soared and swaggering street gangs, often ethnically based have proliferated, this was a decades-old Simple vision remorselessly come true too.

What made these visions not only acceptable, but amazingly even beloved to his readers was that they came wrapped in an internal consistent, satirical world that was not merely -- at times -- dark, but always very, very funny. The closest thing American popular culture has had to offer has been "The Simpsons".

By writing ahead of his time, Wharton has come to be beyond time, and selections from his columns three and four decades ago appear more eerily relevant today, when so many of his visions,absurd and dark alike -- and usually both -- have come to pass.

Next: Inside the World of Peter Simple

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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