Analysis: Inside the mind of Peter Simple

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  April 25, 2003 at 3:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 25 (UPI) -- Michael Wharton, the now-nonagenarian satirical genius who created the world of Peter Simple in his "Way of the World" columns in the London Daily Telegraph over the past four and a half decades, does not share the now-common optimism about America's blitzkrieg victory in Iraq.

"I think it may lead to never-ending war," he told his fellow 90-something and old friend William Deedes in an interview published last Friday.

On Northern Ireland, he is equally -- and unfashionably -- pessimistic. When Deedes asked him if he thought the Northern Ireland conflict was insoluble, along with many others, he replied with alacrity, "Yes, I agree entirely. We just have to accept that."

These are not the kind of views acceptable in American liberal circles for many decades now, or even many supposedly conservative ones, for that matter. But they have this to say for them: They eerily accord with ordinary people's experiences and observations of the world.

This has always been one of the greatest strengths of the amazingly detailed, internally consistent fantasy world that Wharton, 90 years old and still going strong, has fashioned since taking over the then-infant "Way of the World" column on New Year's Day, 1957. And over the years, in accord with his Law of Accelerating Fantasy, the time-differential between a character appearing in his column and then turning up in the --so-called -- real world has become exponentially less.

Wharton-Simple has long delighted in identifying particularly pretentious and absurd figures pontificating in the virtual reality of the modern media-verse as escapees from the confines of his column, escaping its border patrols, manned, he emphasizes, by telescope-welding spotters carried aloft by 18th-century Montgolfier hot air balloons.

Many of them, indeed, will prove startlingly familiar figures here for any American reader. How familiar are we in our own opinion columns with Dr. Heinz Kiosk, chief psychiatric adviser to the Plastic Gnome Authority, whose response to every terrorist outrage is, "We are all guilty."

How often have Marylou Ogreburg and her Multi-Racial Bread and Marmite People's Dance Theater Group stalked our streets and public television network? "She uses a combination of dance, mime, dustbin lids, lumps of solidified risotto and wall posters to create a uniquely impactful effect of protest and social awareness." Just the thing for the National Endowment for the Arts to fund.

Grimmer aspects of Wharton's visions have long since come true in America's inner cities as well as Britain's. He invented "Beautiful, sex-maniac haunted Sadcake Park," prompting Deedes to comment to him, "Most of our parks today seem to be 'sex-maniac haunted." In response, Deedes reported, "Wharton nods gloomily."

Wharton even foresaw the annihilation of literature in the face of the behemoths of commercial publishing. Another beloved column character was destitute author Julian Birdbath, sensitive last survivor of the Republic of Letters, who had been reduced to living with his pet toad, Amiel, at the bottom of a disused Derbyshire lead mine, eating surplus books to keep hunger at bay.

It was a world where millions of supposedly normal people had already been driven mad by the incessant media blathering over supposed celebrities. In Wharton's imagined Midlands city of Stretchford, hordes of crazed housewives with razor-tipped handbags roamed the streets terrorizing all. They were members of feuding factions of the Jackie Onassis Fan Club. Presumably today they have transferred their -- psychopathic -- loyalties and passions to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts.

But the World of Peter Simple holds Beauty, Civilization and Grace as well as barbarism and madness.

For at the extensive Scottish estate of the eponymous Simple, the fall shooting season has begun, and the fields are well-stocked with left-wing students and wild sociologists, and the first game shot is flown down to London, where roast sociologist and student flambé lead the menu at Au Petit Coin Anthropophage, the exclusive restaurant specializing in exotic New Guinea cannibal recipes.

In some key respects, the Apocolypse Wharton foretold in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s never came to pass -- at least, not yet. Until the emergence of Margaret Thatcher reversed Britain's apparently inexorable economic decline and general disintegration, the World of Peter Simple took the nation's coming collapse as inevitable, given the dominance of the Amalgamated Holeborers' Union, whose rule book was longer than the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud and the Mahabharata combined, and the interpretation thereof so abstruse that it is reserved solely for the hereditary heirs of the union's founder, Habakkuk Luggage.

However, other prophecies have proven all too true.

Crazed academics fill and terrify the world of Peter Simple, as they do this so-called "real" one, the way mad preachers and bubonic plague-carrying rats infested the Dark Ages.

"Did Man originate in Soup Hales? That at least is the theory of Prof. J.S. Goodbane, head of the Anthropology Department of Soup Hales University.

"He claims that a skull unearthed during a routine 'dig' on a site near the 'Star of Bangladesh' Take-Away Curry Institute in Sebastopol Road is over 1,000 million years old, predating the skull discovered at Nerdley two years ago 'by at least five years.' ...

"'Like Homo Nerdleiensis, Homo Souphaliensis,' says Prof. Goodbane, must have lived in an environment very different from that of Soup Hales today. 'Most of it was underwater, and a modern man, if he could be transported there, would immediately be struck by the absence of supermarkets, traffic-lights, bingo-halls and other things we take for granted.'"

In the World of Peter Simple, wild fantasy often curves back upon itself, like some Einsteinian twist in the fabric of the universe, to prove the most accurate political and cultural prophecy.

What is one to make of such an amazing thought construction? For, beginning as Wharton's revenge on the modern world, Peter Simple became his readers' refuge from it, the linchpin of a satiric world more detailed, more internally consistent and more compelling than anything found in Jonathan Swift, George Orwell or Monty Python.

For if the great poet Philip Larkin symbolized resigned suffering at the end of English civilization, Peter Simple embodies defiance. The clock of his imagination is set forever before 1914, and as they celebrate the Master's 90th birthday, his appreciative readers would never have had it any other way.

(This was the second of two parts.)

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