Francis Wheen is not a household name in New Zealand but he should be. He has been mentioned here before as biographer of Marx (he talks in a TV interview about the book here); author of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World; long-time mainstay of Private Eye; and a frequent entertainer on English TV and radio. His very amusing Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion is a permanent fixture on the bedside table of our guest room.
Clive James says of him:
His gift for invective can be uncomfortable for those who find themselves on the other end of it, as I know to my cost, but there is no denying the continuing relevance of his fine anger. His book Hoo-hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism 1991-2001, which came out in 2002, remains a model of the genre: it deservedly won the 2003 George Orwell prize. To hindsight, the book, from which the pieces featured here are taken, proves that Wheen, while blazing away at all the expected targets, was already preparing himself for a new impatience: the Left, to which he nominally belonged, was starting to worry him with its incurable yearning for something more decisive than democracy. This new impatience broke into the clear when he gamely pilloried his own newspaper, the Guardian, for apologising – cravenly, in Wheen’s view – to Noam Chomsky over its supposed misrepresentation of his views on the massacre in Srebrenica. Wheen was a valuable addition to the list of signatories on the Euston Manifesto in 2006. The manifesto marked the point when a left-within-the-left lost patience with the host body’s sympathy for any force, no matter how extreme, that might embarrass the Western democracies. Along with Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens, Wheen became a target for unreconstructed radical journalists who found their breakaway colleagues guilty of Liberal Universalism. It was an accusation that Wheen, in particular, was well equipped to counter with learned scorn. As a Marxist who had actually read Marx (his biography of Marx was another prize-winner), he has the advantage of being able to provide his own theoretical back-up. But finally what makes him stand out is his inclusive style, sensitive to everything that is happening, and sometimes, remarkably, to what will happen next.
Francis has been laid-up for a while post-op – very serious post-op – and is unable to shave, so he now sports a magnificent beard, Marxian in its magnificence. It is so magnificent that he is a nominee for the Beard Liberation Front’s 2013 Beard of the Year award.
Other nominees include Billy Bragg, Tony Benn, Jeremy Paxman and Michael Eavis, the bloke who runs Glastonbury, so the competition is fierce. The shortlist will be announced on 28 November, and the winner on 28 December.
Francis has appointed me his New Zealand campaign manager, so let’s get out the vote. I hope that all my friends will vote, even those in the VRWC, plus the entire population of Australia. You can vote here at Keith Flett’s blog (“bloggings about beards, beer & socialism”), as long as you vote Wheen. I have promised him a host of post-colonial votes.
So here are the Beatles in their last live performance with “Don’t Let Me Down”: