Oddly enough, the person who probably had the greatest influence on my early political development was (in a sense) not a real person at all, but the Daily Telegraph’s satirical columnist Peter Simple. Those were the days, back in the sixties, when you could actually do satire. These days, as is frequently pointed out, satire is impossible. The idea we satirise today will be tomorrow’s reality. Lunacy has so far outstripped common sense that the wildest ideas of the satirist are at risk of implementation by the progressive mind.
But in those days, Peter Simple was perhaps the greatest satirist of all. I came across a copy of “Peter Simple in Opposition”, a selection of his columns from 1964 and ’65 (nearly half a century ago), as I was checking through the bookshelves in the spare bedroom, looking for a biography of James Elroy Flecker. Riffling through the pages, I was reminded of Peter Simple’s wonderful cast of characters.
There was Mrs. Dutt Pauker, the Hampstead Thinker at “Marxmount”, and her Albanian Maoist au pair Gjoq; General Sir Frederick Nidgett, formerly of the Royal Army Tailoring Corps; Dr. Heinz Kiosk, psychoanalyst to the Ministry of Jet Propulsion (“We are all Guilty!”); Dr. Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon (on whom Rowan Williams appears to model himself); and Alderman Foodbotham, the 25-stone, crag-visaged, iron-watch-chained, grim-booted Perpetual Chairman of the Bradford Municipal Tramways and Fine Arts Committee. We shall not see their like again.
And who can forget the Leek and String Bean Marketing Board? Or lovely, sex-maniac-haunted Sadcake Park, the “iron lung” of the Stretchford conurbation, with R. S. Viswaswami, the naked Indian sadhu, living on the island in the lake? The Incas, rowing across the Atlantic in their stone boats? The Amalgamated Union of Hole-Borers, with its Rule-book Exegesis? Or the column’s own newspaper, the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald?
Perhaps my own favourite character was J. Bonington Jagworth, leader of the militant Motorists’ Liberation Front, drinking a toast in champagne from his gold-plated hub-cap (no alloys in those days). He seems to have been an early precursor of Jeremy Clarkson. How he must rejoice as he looks down from the Great Parking Lot in the Sky and observes the current deconstruction of the hated speed cameras!
Flicking through the pages, I came across one piece that struck an immediate resonance with a thoroughly modern issue. We hear a lot about the need for fairness in university admissions, so that those from less privileged backgrounds can have the same access to our universities (or as I would put it, the need to lower standards in the interests of social engineering). We all remember Gordon Brown’s hysteria over the Laura Spence affair, and her failure to gain a place at Oxford despite innumerable A-grades. But I was struck by the fact that the same issue seems to have exercised Peter Simple – and the TUC – back in 1965.
The TUC was recommending that admissions to Oxford from state schools should be pro-rata to the proportion of children in state schools. Peter Simple’s response was (I thought) so funny that I hope you will bear with me if I quote it at length:
“I have been worried for some time about the small number of public school men, and in particular peers of the realm, who are appointed as trade union officials. In fairness, the number of titled and land-owning trade union officials ought to be in proportion to those with a working-class background.
“The principle of equality, to which we are all committed, demands that there should be no damned merit about it. It is outrageous, for example, that the number of good-looking girls who work as models is far in excess of the number of plain girls; and that not one single illiterate, club-footed Scottish-born woman of eighty has ever been selected to play cricket for Yorkshire”.