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Boers, Peter Simple, and Pith Helmets

Sometimes something rather interesting is right under your nose and you never even notice it. I read the Catholic Herald — the premier Catholic newspaper in the English-speaking world — every week and have been reading it since university days, but I have rarely read Stuart Reid’s “Charterhouse” column on the back page. A few recent perusals have exposed my foolishness for neglecting it. They are presented for your reading here.

(Of course, there has never been a columnist as brilliant as Peter Simple, whose works we have shown you in a series of installments.)

Charterhouse
by STUART REID

Everyone needs a secular hero or two, and one of mine is Rian Malan. In the Sunday Times at the weekend he had a very nice diary, in which he said that he liked Jacob Zuma, because the president-elect of South Africa had “old-fashioned views on stuff like law and order”.

Malan also said that it was a good time to be a Boer: “…as South Africa staggers towards its destiny, it’s white Left-liberals who are wailing about our government’s shortcomings. The Boers never expected any better, so we are generally immune to the gloom.”

The diary made my heart go out, once again, to the Boers. They are brave, honest, hard-working, courteous, old-fashioned and often God-fearing, with a weakness for the bottle. Plus they were on the right side in the Boer War and their women – sometimes their men too – are beautiful.

Malan was born in Johannesburg, in what was then the Transvaal, and was a teenage rebel against apartheid. He is probably best known for My Traitor’s Heart , a gripping, and grippingly honest, book about race and violence in the Republic.

I first met him fairly late on the night of the 1997 election, at a party given by the Daily Telegraph. I listened to him talk for about a quarter of an hour, but without understanding a word he said.

He’d had a few drinks, and there was a lot of noise in the room, and he speaks quietly. I just nodded and laughed every now and then, in case he’d make a joke.

The Sunday Telegraph’s Jenny McCartney later told me that at five in the morning of the same day she’d had a similar experience at Tory party headquarters. By that time Rian was well relaxed, and Jenny said that in a conversation lasting perhaps half an hour she’d recognized only one word: corduroy.

It would be fascinating to know what he’d been getting at. Tony Blair evokes flannel rather than corduroy, but no doubt Rian had some insight.

• • •

On Sunday I went to Naphill Common in Buckinghamshire with Harry Mount and Mrs Reid to pick up some holy relics. I am not talking here about tongues or toenails or blackened index fingers – body parts have never really worked for me – but of typewriters once belonging to the late Michael Wharton, who, as Peter Simple of the Daily Telegraph, was one of the great satirists of the 20th century.

Harry needs no introduction. He is an occasional contributor to these pages, as well as to the pages of the Daily Mail, and a distinguished author, most recently of A Lust for Window Sills (about architecture, by the way). He is one of a group of young people who, to my great delight, revere Michael Wharton. Another is Mary Wakefield, deputy editor of the Spectator, who has also contributed to these pages and on whose behalf we picked up an Adler built like a tank Such is Harry’s charm that Sue Wharton, Michael’s widow, produced another relic after feeding us a splendid lunch – one of Michael’s working notebooks from 1998. It was very small, about the size of a mobile telephone, and contained ideas for his column, all set out in meticulous hand. There were lots of names there (the Pope and Lady Warnock among them) and of course phrases, too (“Are we insects?”, “Racists are people who fear change”, “pernicious nonsense”).

Michael remains an example to the many people who call themselves conservatives, but are often nothing more than libertarians.

He thought that Clement Attlee was one of the great English Prime Ministers of the last century (he had little time for Churchill), and he supported almost anyone who resisted change – thus, in the Eighties, the Fleet Street printers and the coalminers, and especially his fellow Yorkshireman Arthur Scargill.

The economic and military humiliation of Anglo-America would not have surprised Michael. He detested international capitalism and the war on terror, believing that both were inspired by what he might have called “pernicious nonsense”. As he used to say: “Things are never as they seem.”

• • •

On Friday I dropped into Oratory House and, waiting in the hall while a friend of mine left a Mass stipend in the office, I noticed a huge and elaborately carved chest of drawers, on the top of which were what looked like dead crows or maybe fedoras left by visiting members of the Camorra, but which on closer inspection turned out to be birettas. What a thrilling sight. But even more thrilling was the fact that among the birettas were three pith helmets.

This post was published on Monday, May 4th, 2009 7:49 pm. It has been categorised under Church Peter Simple South Africa and been tagged under , , , .
Comments
  1. B T Van Nostrand
    4 May 2009
    11:13 pm

    Mr Reid is certainly delightful, but there is in truth nobody quite like Michael Wharton, wisest of satirists.
    Treat your readership to further examples of his genial musings..

  2. Steve M
    6 May 2009
    7:29 pm

    Hear hear. (Lord help me, I started to write here here–Andrew would remember that in nasty comments for the next three decades.)

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