Knock­ing­some sense into ev­ery­body

When deal­ing with life’s big is­sues, one mustn’t mis­place a sense of satire, as Francis Wheen tells Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

PAD­DING sur­rounds the low wooden door frames in Francis Wheen’s Es­sex farm­house. Vis­i­tors, he says, were hit­ting their heads. Not that the au­thor and jour­nal­ist’s me­dia cronies jour­ney up the mo­tor­way to see him, here in his ver­ti­cally chal­lenged home to the left of the Spot­ted Dog pub, next to a big black barn in the mid­dle of a field.

Few have met his menagerie of res­cued cats and horses or had cof­fee made with a ket­tle that moos when it boils, or stood in his work space in a spi­der web- strewn shed out the back. As the deputy ed­i­tor of satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Private Eye , Wheen, 49, is in Lon­don ev­ery other week. But it’s in Es­sex, in a house shared with wife Ju­lia and two of their five chil­dren, that he writes his fig­u­ra­tive head- knocks, his polem­i­cal odes to com­mon sense, jus­tice and rea­son.

Point­ing out the naked­ness of un­de­serv­ing em­per­ors has been a cor­ner­stone of Wheen’s ca­reer. Named colum­nist of the year for his con­tri­bu­tions to The Guardian news­pa­per, he is the win­ner of the 2003 Ge­orge Or­well Prize for his col­lected jour­nal­ism work, Hoo- Hahs and Pass­ing Fren­zies (‘‘ a writer who can dis­patch an ar­gu­ment with the flick of a wrist, who seeks to en­lighten by means of his learn­ing and con­vic­tion’’, chair­man David Hare sighed).

Wheen is also the au­thor of sev­eral books in­clud­ing a highly ac­claimed bi­og­ra­phy of Karl Marx and last year’s equally lauded pre­cis of Das Kap­i­tal . He is in the process of writ­ing Strange Days In­deed , an ex­am­i­na­tion of why and how the 1970s be­came the golden age of po­lit­i­cal para­noia, which al­lows him to watch DVDs of The Par­al­lax View and All the Pres­i­dent’s Men along the way.

‘‘ De om­nibus du­bi­tan­dum. Ev­ery­thing should be ques­tioned.’’ Bald­ing, ge­nial and, de­spite the Latin, sur­pris­ingly un­pre­ten­tious, Wheen sits in an arm­chair in his liv­ing room, sur­rounded on three sides by books. ‘‘ It was Marx’s favourite motto,’’ he says in his pol­ished, pub­lic school vow­els, eye­ing a book­shelf filled with trans­la­tions of his 2000 bi­og­ra­phy. ( There are copies in Greek, Fin­nish, Ja­panese; there is even an Aus­tralian ver­sion, though he isn’t quite sure why.) ‘‘ You must al­ways ask, ‘ Are you sure? What’s your ev­i­dence?’ Oth­er­wise you end up ac­qui­esc­ing with com­plete non­sense.’’

Which, in Wheen’s not- so- hum­ble opin­ion, too many of us do. He said as much in his 2004 best­seller How Mumbo- Jumbo Con­quered the World , an al­ter­nately scathing and amus­ing as­sault on con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety’s predilec­tion for fancy over rea­son, emo­tion over fact. ( Or, if you like, ‘‘ on cults, quack­ery, gu­rus, ir­ra­tional pan­ics, new- age mys­ti­cism, moral con­fu­sion and an epi­demic of mumbo- jumbo’’.)

And he will be say­ing as much at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val of Ideas, which be­gins on Thurs­day and where he will speak on the fu­ture of jour­nal­ism and the bound­aries be­tween re­al­ity and satire, and dis­cuss Marx and Gandhi with his friend, In­dian his­to­rian Ra­machan­dra Guha.

‘‘ Rama and I thought about do­ing some­thing on Gandhi’s con­sti­pa­tion and Marx’s car­bun­cles and the ef­fect th­ese had on their ca­reers,’’ he says, eyes twin­kling.

‘‘ Marx’s car­bun­cles re­ally spurred him on; he blamed them on the bour­geoisie.’’ He shakes a fist at an imag­i­nary foe. ‘‘ But re­ally, it is just an ex­cuse for us to talk about their legacy.’’

Wheen is well known in Bri­tain for his un­abashedly left- wing pol­i­tics, but on the ba­sis of his back­ground he should be com­fort­able list­ing to the Right. The third son of an ex- army of­fi­cer mother and a ma­jor in the Royal Ar­tillery, he was packed off to board­ing school aged seven. Ul­ti­mately, he ended up not just at any old board­ing school: founded in 1572 un­der a royal char­ter granted by El­iz­a­beth I, Har­row in Mid­dle­sex is one of the most fa­mous schools in the world.

Old Har­ro­vians in­clude seven Bri­tish prime min­is­ters, and po­ets and writ­ers as di­verse as By­ron and Wheen’s class­mate — ‘‘ The only per­son who was at all bear­able’’ — Richard ( Four Wed­dings and a Funeral ) Cur­tis.

‘‘ I went to Har­row be­cause my fa­ther and my grand­fa­ther and ev­ery other Wheen since the dawn of time went there. It didn’t have an in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion like Eton. It was al­most a badge of hon­our to be a philis­tine. Many boys in my class were due to in­herit, to be­come dukes and things.’’ A wry smile. ‘‘ It’s strik­ing how many are ei­ther dead or in jail now.’’

He read a lot: Au­den, Dick­ens, Ki­pling; and that com­men­ta­tor on ev­ery­thing English, P. G. Wode­house. With his fa­ther mov­ing army bases ev­ery two years — from Kent to Glas­gow to Malaysia — school hol­i­days felt soli­tary, pen­sive.

As an ado­les­cent, he edited Har­row’s ‘‘ un­of­fi­cial’’ news­pa­per ( Cur­tis was at the helm of the of­fi­cial one), along­side a co- ed­i­tor who would be­come a min­is­ter in the Thatcher gov­ern­ment.

‘‘ He rather let the side down,’’ Wheen says. ‘‘ It was Private Eye to the power of 10, full of dread­ful li­bels of house­mas­ters and things. I’d type it out and run off copies and it would be passed around like samiz­dat.’’

He pauses while his el­derly bay thor­ough­bred, Norman, sta­bled with an in­jury, lets rip with a loud whinny. ‘‘ The house­mas­ter ran­sacked my room and found all th­ese ap­palling copies full of slurs. He burned them in front of the en­tire house to teach them a les­son.’’

By which point, the 16- year- old Wheen had run away. ‘‘ I’ve dropped out,’’ read his note. ‘‘ Don’t at­tempt to find me. I have joined the al­ter­na­tive so­ci­ety.’’

In thrall to the mu­sic of Fair­port Con­ven­tion, Pen­tan­gle and other counter- cul­tural folkrock­ers ( the web­site of Fair­port gui­tarist Richard Thompson is listed at the back of Mum­bo­Jumbo ), he threw his gui­tar over his back and went to live in a squat in West Lon­don.

‘‘ The next day I turned up at a place in West­bourne Park called the Al­ter­na­tive Help and In­for­ma­tion Cen­tre and said, in an ea­ger, young Tony Blair way, ‘ Hello, I have dropped out. I have come to join you.’ ’’ He de­liv­ers a wide- eyed, pup­py­ish im­pres­sion. ‘‘ All th­ese mis­er­able old hip­pies just groaned and told me to drop back in again.’’

He did, even­tu­ally. Af­ter a de­gree from the Univer­sity of Lon­don he got a job as an of­fice boy at The Guardian , where his oc­ca­sional but al­ways for­mi­da­bly ar­gued opin­ion pieces begged

no­tice. He has since worked for ev­ery­one from the New States­man and Esquire to The In­de­pen­dent and the BBC. He joined Private Eye in the late 1980s.

‘‘ I first vis­ited the Private Eye of­fices when I was 14, when some Har­ro­vian’s step­mother was the re­cep­tion­ist. I wanted to work there even then,’’ he says of the mag­a­zine that was launched in 1961 with fund­ing from co­me­dian Peter Cook and a brief to ex­pose the mis­deeds of the pow­er­ful and fa­mous. It con­tin­ues to take pride in its nu­mer­ous li­bel writs.

Edit­ing Private Eye dove­tails tidily with Wheen’s per­sonal bug­bears, which have re­in­forced his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the best Bri­tish jour­nal­ists, left or right, work­ing to­day: less gonzo than Amer­i­can provo­ca­teur Michael Moore, more lib­eral than his great mate Christo­pher Hitchens ( whose latest book, God is Not Great , is here on the cof­fee ta­ble).

Wheen likes to ar­gue, for ex­am­ple, that the ideals of the En­light­en­ment have been al­lowed to founder. In Mumbo- Jumbo he pin­points the crit­i­cal year of 1979 — when the Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini and Mar­garet Thatcher came to power — as the start of the de­cline.

Wheen was in Aus­tralia pro­mot­ing Mum­bo­Jumbo in Oc­to­ber 2005.

‘‘ A month af­ter Bri­tain won the Ashes,’’ the avid cricket fan says. ‘‘ My youngest son would say, ‘ Are you rub­bing their noses in it?’ And I’d say, ‘ No, be­cause they’ll win them back in no time.’ Which of course you did.’’

He has no qualms about pro­mot­ing the book again: ‘‘ It is end­lessly self- up­dat­ing. There is no end to hu­man folly. When Madonna starts wear­ing a bit of red string around her wrist to ward off evil forces, you think: ‘ Ah.’ If you want a guide to the 57 va­ri­eties of hu­man folly and id­iocy, you cer­tainly need look no fur­ther than the re­cent his­tory of Iraq.’’

Such folly does seem to come in waves, none­the­less. ‘‘ The last quar­ter- cen­tury has seen the re­turn of su­per­sti­tions, delu­sions and mass hys­te­ria, like the one that gripped us af­ter the death of Diana.’’ He puts it in con­text with a wal­lop: ‘‘ I re­mem­ber think­ing, if a dem­a­gogue came along and har­nessed this, god knows what would have hap­pened. You only have to watch footage of old Nurem­berg ral­lies.’’

Is it harder to be taken se­ri­ously as a po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor when hu­mour is your de­fault po­si­tion? ‘‘ The point of satire is to turn things up­side down and ex­pose their ab­sur­dity. There are sit­u­a­tions that are so se­ri­ous, only hu­mour can do jus­tice to them.

‘‘ As lit­er­ary meth­ods go, it of­ten helps get the mes­sage across more ef­fec­tively.’’

Where is he on sar­casm? ‘‘ I know much lower forms of wit,’’ he says with a grin. ‘‘ There are cer­tain mo­ments when only sar­casm will do. It’s a very no­tice­able thing in younger peo­ple’s vo­cab­u­lar­ies: ‘ As if.’ ‘ Yeah, right.’ In fact I think ‘ Yeah, right’ is a good ri­poste to a lot of things.’’

Even Marx, the fig­ure through whom Wheen sees much of the world (‘‘ I find echoes of things he wrote ev­ery­where’’), liked a bit of satire. ‘‘ He was writ­ing about a world in which work­ers are es­sen­tially turned into ma­chines and the com­modi­ties they make ac­quire more life than the hu­mans who make them. How couldn’t he be hu­mor­ous?’’ Wheen sighs, stands to see me off. ‘‘ It’s a topsy- turvy world. Satire is the best way of ap­proach­ing it,’’ he says with a smile. ‘‘ Now, mind your head on the way out.’’ Francis Wheen speaks at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val of Ideas next Fri­day and Sun­day.

Pic­ture: Jane Corn­well

Mind your head: Bri­tish au­thor and jour­nal­ist Francis Wheen says hu­mour is the best an­ti­dote to hu­man folly

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