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