Michael Wharton (19 April 1913 – 23 January 2006) was a newspaper columnist who wrote under the pseudonym Peter Simple in the British Daily Telegraph. He began work on the "Way of the World" column with illustrator Michael ffolkes three times a week in early 1957. In 1990 he began a weekly Peter Simple column in the Sunday Telegraph, before returning to the Daily Telegraph as a weekly columnist in 1996. He remained there until his death, aged 92, in 2006, his last column appearing on 20 January 2006.
Life and career
Wharton was born as Michael Bernhard Nathan, the son of a businessman of German-Jewish origin, at Shipley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire ("Wharton" was the maiden name of his mother). Wharton was educated at Bradford Grammar School and Lincoln College, Oxford. His career at Oxford was undistinguished, partly because he spent his time writing Sheldrake, a novel that had little success when published in 1958. After Oxford, Wharton served in the Royal Artillery from 1940 to 1946, rising to the rank of Major (acting Lieutenant-Colonel). He then worked for the BBC as a producer and scriptwriter, but left in 1956.
His two volumes of quasi-autobiography, The Missing Will and A Dubious Codicil, combined his fantasy world with the mundane reality of the life as a jobbing journalist. Wharton married three times. His daughter and literary executor, Jane Wharton, works as a psychotherapist.
The column satirised what Wharton saw as modern, fashionable ideas; and readers often claimed to recognize his invented characters in real people. The columnar Dr Spacely-Trellis was the keenly progressive bishop of Bevindon, part of Stretchford, a fictional conurbation somewhere in the English Midlands, possibly named after Stechford, the area of Birmingham once represented in Parliament by Roy Jenkins, a figurehead of the political ideas Wharton despised.
The progress of the local football team, Stretchford United ("The Deckchairmen"), was regularly reported. With their lethargic, goal-conceding goalkeeper, Albert Rasp, United generally did not win games at their subsidence-plagued Effluent Road ground and inspired the similarly hapless Neasden F.C. in Private Eye. Elsewhere in Stretchford was lovely, sex-maniac-haunted Sadcake Park with its resident, council-subsidised Indian hermit, but the conurbation was also roamed by dangerous gangs of middle-aged women affiliated to rapidly changing fan-clubs and anti-fan-clubs. Of the resulting violence, the expert psychoanalyst Dr Heinz Kiosk was always ready to assure journalists that "We are all guilty!" The nearby Mountwarlock Estate, with its deadly wyverns, gorgons and upas tree, was owned by the eight-foot, cyclops-eyed Earl of Mountwarlock and overseen by his butler Phantomsby, "one of the few practising werewolves left in the Midlands".
Wharton also regularly chronicled the life of the august Alderman Foodbotham, perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee, who was said to be buried in the grounds of his country seat Green Garth just outside town and awaiting a glorious resurrection. Not fictional was the column's presiding spirit, Colonel Sibthorp, an eccentric and reactionary Victorian Member of Parliament, about whom Wharton made a BBC radio documentary in 1954.
"Fulminator", in his Daily Telegraph blog, said of Wharton:
Wharton’s political views were so far removed from the mainstream that they’re practically unclassifiable – a feudalist and a rabid reactionary, certainly (he invented the fictitious Feudal and Reactionary Herald). He hated “Progress”, loathed communism and socialism with a passion, and wasn’t keen on capitalism or money-grubbing in general.
Writing in The Independent J. W. M. Thompson suggested:
As befitted a satirist who was wounded by the changes he observed in his country, he had a profound attachment to the land and a true Tory's nostalgia for an idealised vision of its past.
Wharton consistently criticised and ridiculed what he described as the "race relations industry", and one of his most famous comic creations was the "prejudometer", an anti-racist instrument that supplied readings in prejudons, the "internationally recognised scientific unit of racial prejudice", when pointed at a suspected racist. Concerned individuals could even point the prejudometer at themselves:
Almost single-handed, Ariel Sharon may have ended the Jews' virtual immunity from hostile criticism that Hitler's persecution assured for more than 50 years. Anti-semitism is stirring. So far it may be only the so-called "anti-semitism" of people who think of the immense influence the Jews have in the world, and wonder whether it is always, everywhere and in every way an influence for good. First that; but later, for worse, the real thing.
However the quote occurs in a context of a passage gleefully satirising the Boycott Israel movement.
His obituary in The Guardian pursued the same thread:
In his comment paragraphs, he aired a conservatism light years to the right of most conservatives, stealing sometimes into fleeting, only half-retracted, laments for the Europe that Hitler's New Order might have created.
After Wharton expressed his desire to write less often, Way of the World was written twice weekly for a brief period in the late 1980s by Christopher Booker under the name Peter Simple II, with Wharton continuing to write the column once a week on Thursdays. In 1990 the Peter Simple column and the Way of the World column became fully separate entities, and for the next ten years (7th May 1990 – 16th December 2000) the Way of the World column was written by Auberon Waugh, who died in January 2001. It was then written by the satirist Craig Brown until he left the Telegraph late in 2008. A. N. Wilson began to write a column also under the title Peter Simple II in The Sunday Telegraph on 26 February 2006, but it did not last long.
Admirers of Peter Simple
- Simon Hoggart — parliamentary sketch writer for The Guardian.
- A. N. Wilson — novelist and journalist.
- Auberon Waugh — wrote The Daily Telegraph's Way of the World column after Wharton's semi-retirement.
- Alexander Waugh — writer and son of Auberon Waugh.
- Kingsley Amis, who wrote an introduction to The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple (1980).
- The Missing Will (1984) (first volume of autobiography)
- A Dubious Codicil (1991) (second volume)
- Sheldrake (Anthony Blond and Allan Wingate, London, 1958) (novel)
Compilations (illustrated by Michael ffolkes)
- Way of the World (1) (1957)
- Way of the World (2) (1963)
- Peter Simple in Opposition (1965)
- More of Peter Simple (1969)
- The Thoughts of Peter Simple (1971)
- The World of Peter Simple (1973)
- The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple (1980)
- The Best of Peter Simple (1984)
- Peter Simple's World (1998)
- Peter Simple's Century (1999)
- Peter Simple's Domain (2003)
- "In memory of my father, Michael Wharton", Daily Telegraph, 2 Oct 2009, by Jane Wharton
- Daily Telegraph 24 Jan 2006
- "In memory of my father, Michael Wharton" The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 2009, by Jane Wharton
- thefulminator (2010-11-13). "Homage to the funniest newspaper columnist of all time". My Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2012-05-09.
- "Michael Wharton". The Independent (London). 26 January 2006.
- Daily Telegraph 15 March 2002
- The Times article
- Wharton, "End Column", Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2002
- The Guardian article
- Comic fantasy of Michael Wharton comes to a close
- Obituary in The Daily Telegraph
- Obituary in The Times
- Obituary in The Guardian
- Obituary in The Atlantic