Thursday, November 30, 2017

Susan’s funeral and her husband’s sense of humour and ‘an aesthetic approach to politics’

A funeral today and my birthday (this entry was started on November 21). There is no particular connection and most certainly no meaningful connection, but I thought I would mention my birthday anyway: 68 and never been kissed, or at least as far as I am concerned not been kissed enough. I should like to do some more kissing, and as for the other, well, however the desire is, the flesh, as other gents of my age and older will agree, gets weaker. Sod it, but there’s no pretending.

The funeral was that of Susan Wharton, nee Moller, a devout Roman Catholic and a lovely woman. I wrote of her death a week or two ago, but I shall repeat that she was one of the nicest and most interesting people I have known. RIP Sue. Her funeral mass, attended by family, friends and members of her church community, was at St Teresa’s, Princes Risborough.

Afterwards, as is customary, there was what the Irish call a wake and the rest of us call a buffet, booze and tea or coffee for those who had arrived by car and intended to depart by car and who didn’t want to risk death or, worse, being nabbed for drink/driving on the journey home. Sadly, I am not one of that wisest of wise groups and enjoyed several glasses of house red wine.

The funeral mass was pretty much as all other funeral masses are, and I can’t really add much detail. Once again as at the wedding of my nephew in Cologne several weeks ago when mass was also celebrated I didn’t – I won’t say couldn’t, just didn’t – take part in any of the liturgy. I’m afraid I and the Roman Catholic church have long since parted company. Susan’s cousin David Moller gave a eulogy, again stressing just what a kind and unassuming women Sue was, and although that kind of thing is par for the course, it was still good to hear, especially as it was so true.

Sue put herself out for others and of how many of our family, friends and acquaintances can we say that we do that? But what did strike me as remarkable (in as far as I am going to remark on it) was that her late husband Michael also featured, quite prominently in that eulogy. And ironically this entry will largely be about Michael, but also his extended family. The irony is furthered in that it must surely be a real pain for some women that they and their lives are still apparently defined by ‘the men in their lives’.

. . .

I have written about Michael Wharton before, here and here, but, briefly, he was a right-wing satirist who wrote a column called The Way Of The World for the Daily Telegraph, using the columnar nom de plume of Peter Simple. I
got to know him and Sue as they were friends of my father’s and regularly came to visit him and my stepmother, Paddy, in North Cornwall for many years.

Usually, probably because they had two Labrador dogs, they stayed in one of the two holiday cottages my stepmother had come to own which abut her own cottage in De Lank (once Lower Lank, and I really can’t remember why or when the name was changed to De Lank. I live just up the road at Higher Lank, and both – well, what do you call them, they are not even hamlets – are just over half a mile from the moorland village of St Breward).

My father, who also liked to call himself ‘right-wing’ – he even once, when I asked him what he was politically, called himself a ‘right-wing radical’ which is pretty much meaningless in as far as it can mean pretty much anything – had, in the early 1970s contacted Michael after being a fan of his Peter Simple column in the Telegraph, and the two met up and became friends. Their friendship endured until my father’s death in 1991 and Michael’s in 2006.

What concerns me a little is that the description of ‘right-wing’ is, at least, in their cases, rather misleading. I shan’t talk about my father here, but pass on what Michael’s son Nicholas said about his father’s politics.

NB I am about to write what might be regarded as ‘personal stuff’ about Michael and his family, and although none of it is in the least contentious or slanderous, I should like their family – his son Nicholas, his daughter Jane, his son Kit and his grandson’s Max and Isaac – to know that if they feel I am stepping on toes (although I don’t think I am), I apologise, as I really don’t mean to. But to be honest I don’t think any of them would object to what I am about to write.

. . .

Michael Wharton wrote two volumes of autobiography, The Missing Will and A Dubious Codicil, and both are good to read although the second is more in the way of memoirs (and if I remember correctly as I haven’t read it in years anecdotes of Fleet Street colleagues and pubs) than autobiography. He was born in Bradford to a German Jewish father and a Yorkshire woman, a gentile. And his birth name was Michael Nathan.

At some point, and this is not talking out of school, he changed his name from the Jewish ‘Nathan’ to the gentile ‘Wharton’, which, I’m told was his mother’s maiden name. Doing such a thing is not at all uncommon among Jews,
or was not earlier in the last century, because their Jewishness was often, though subtly, held against them. Thus a Goldstein might become a Goodman and a Jewish reporter I once worked with, a Pru Philips, came from a Cardiff family who were once known as Pinkas-Levi. And given the almost insufferable and as far as I am concerned inexplicable prejudice against them ‘as Jews’, I can’t say I blame them. In fact, I don’t blame them at all: why let something as ridiculous as prejudice hold you up in life and if a simple change in name takes you out of the line of fire, go for it. I know I would.

Nicholas was his son from his first marriage, ironically to a Jewish woman, born in the early 1940s and as this will have been before Michael changed his surname, he is known as Nathan. Nicholas (with whom I chatted later after the funeral) studied philosophy and then taught it at Liverpool University.

Jane (who wrote in interesting piece for he Daily Telegraph which you can find here) was his daughter by his second marriage, but Michael then went on to bring up two more children, though neither was biologically his, but the result of a long and, as I understand it, open affair his wife was having with a journalist friend and colleague. (I know his name and it would be well-known to those with knowledge of Fleet Street and its papers in the 1960/70s but there’s no very good reason to give it here.)

Michael was a one-off, journalist and satirist who could be very, very funny in a very dry way, so I asked his son Nicholas who of Michael’s children had inherited his father’s sense of humour. ‘None of us,’ he told me. Well, perhaps not, but Jane is – as she will tell you and as she has told me more than once – is very much her father’s daughter, which might well be summed up as having a keen eye for bullshit and no patience with it at all.

But when I say Michael could be – was – very, very funny, he was not one of those life and soul of the party types with a quip and a joke for every occasion and can often rather soon evolve into a distinct irritation. At least, he wasn’t when I knew him, but I am pretty certain he wasn’t either as a younger man. I’ve met several over the years, and if you and I ever meet, I can assure you I am not ‘the life and soul of the party’ and would be mortified ever to be so described. (NB Whenever I hear anyone described as ‘larger than life’ I always take it to mean ‘a complete pain in the arse’.)

As for his ‘right-wing politics’, Michael, Nicholas explained, using a very useful and thoroughly illuminating phrase, had ‘an aesthetic approach to politics’ and was not essentially right-wing at all. Michael, Nicholas told me, disliked Communists and the Left intensely and thus took up a ‘right-wing’ stance on many matters pretty much only because it was in opposition to what the Left might believe. For example, in the post-Tito disintegration of then Yugoslavia he championed Serbia not because he felt any particular sympathy for Yugoslavia but because demonising Serbia was the Left’s cause.

I think I know what Nicholas meant when he said Michael had an ‘aesthetic approach to politics’ because I suspect I do, too, although I like to think I am not in the slightest ‘right-wing’. And nor, Nicholas told me, is he, and he went on to say he had many political disagreements with his father.

And here I will end this entry. As I say above, it was started and more or less completed more than a week ago, and after going through it, dotted i’s and crossing t’s here and there and trying to ensure it isn’t complete gibberish, I can’t really build up steam to carry on. I also can’t remember the point I was hoping to make (if I indeed had one). Sorry.

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