‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.
Belittling Boris: A Users Guide by Richard Heller
I have appointed myself Insulter-General against Boris Johnson. I offer this personal list of zingers to anyone, anywhere seeking to belittle him.
Most carry a core message:
Boris Johnson has the lowest personal standards of any Prime Minister. He does not understand – let alone, respect – the standards which voters follow in their lives.
Having delivered the core message one can then present the corollary:
In this Parliament full of Tory stooges and crawlers he has total power to do everything Dominic Cummings and Donald Trump tell him to do. (Wait for listeners to appreciate the surprise twist and the double-whammy: BJ is a bully and a puppet.)
Now one can elaborate on the core message:
Every day I meet people who are making some sort of sacrifice to make life better for others – usually their loved ones but sometimes for people they do not even know, by commitment to a good cause. Some of them do this in desperate circumstances. I’ve met lots of parents and carers who have given up all hope of better things for themselves to give them to their children. I’d like to bring Boris Johnson here to meet them and see if he dares look them in the face. I’d like him to answer: when did you ever make any kind of personal sacrifice, and was it more than a repeat visit to the dessert trolley?
We all know the expression Me Time. That period – it may not be more than five minutes – when we’re just not available to anyone else, our best friend, our partners, even our children because we want to do something for ourselves. For Boris Johnson every second is Me Time. How can I use it for Me?
Boris Johnson’s amazing career has never been hampered by honesty or principle.
I really owe this to Huey Long, populist American leader in the 1930s, who said: “The time has come for all good men to rise above principle.”
In family settings: For most parents and carers, the first lesson they try to teach children is taking responsibility when they do something silly or wrong. Boris Johnson never meets that standard. He has never taken responsibility for anything he has written or said or done, certainly not for lying. If he is caught out in one lie he simply tells another one. He even lies when he is correcting his lies.
Or: For Boris Johnson, the truth is an unimportant, dimly-remembered acquaintance at a reception. “I’m sure we’ve met somewhere before.”
You can’t believe anything from Boris Johnson without independent proof. If he says “Nice day, today” look out of the window.
The next is a bit erudite but it can work if the audience is kept teased and in suspense until the resolution:
There are sub-atomic particles which last less than one yoctosecond (a septillionth or ten to the minus 24). [A beat. Look around the setting.] But that is a longer life than any promise by Boris Johnson.
The next is now slightly nostalgic but should still hold up:
Or simply: Boris Johnson is a variety turn which has gone on too long.
Now on Brexit, a formula which should appeal to Remainers and Leavers alike, and the huge swathe of voters who are bored rigid by the whole subject:
Boris Johnson’s biggest lie is his biggest promise – to get Brexit done. Of course he is not going to get Brexit done. The most he can do with a Parliamentary majority is to pass his Withdrawal Bill – the one he cribbed from Theresa May. All that does is establish a timetable for hammering out the terms of our messy divorce from the EU. All the big questions – ones that are vital to the jobs and well-being of everyone in our country – are totally unsettled, and you’ll be hearing about them and Brexit non-stop next year if he wins. How are we going to trade not just with the rest of the EU but with more than forty other countries? Boris Johnson thinks we can reach trade agreements with them all within a year. If he believes that it proves again that he is a lazy twerp with a bit of Latin and Greek. [A good general description which could be used elsewhere]. The future of British farming and fisheries. Regulations for dozens of industries, including financial services. All things at risk in Boris’s Brexit Not Done.
The next comparison will enlist the millions of voters who have suffered from bad builders. You decide to remodel your home in a big way. A builder offers to do the job. You ask if he has done major jobs like this before. He tells you No but makes a promise to finish it some time next year. He then asks you to pay his whole bill upfront. Would you pay it? That’s what Bodger Boris wants. [Bodger Boris is another good all-purpose insult.] If Boris Johnson offered to work in my house, I’d send out for Laurel and Hardy.
A variant on the last: Boris Johnson says he’s got Brexit “oven-ready”. If Boris Johnson offered to cook me an oven-ready meal, I’d throw myself on the nearest mousetrap and eat the cheese.
Now for some general abuse. The next is not original but I think it would have much resonance. Boris Johnson is a tourist in his own country. To him, the British people are just part of the sights. Or backdrop and extras in the endless movie of which he is the author, director, and star.
A slight variant: To Boris Johnson, Britain’s history is a long parade with himself taking the salute.
For use in any run-down High Street: Here we are in High Street Boris, part of Boarded-Up Britain.
Highlight Tory donors and call him Britain’s first pre-paid Prime Minister.
When Boris bottles out of anything I’ve seen more backbone in a jellybaby. Or More yellow than his hair. More yellow even than Donald Trump’s hair.
On his fakery: Everything about Boris Johnson is phoney. It takes him hours to look so untidy. His suits are hand-rumpled by a leading Savile Row tailor.
And finally a switch on Winston Churchill (Johnson’s supposed hero) and his line about Clem Attlee: Boris Johnson is a very conceited person with a great deal to be modest about.
Ends Richard Heller was chief of staff to two masters of political invective, Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He has also been educated by the caustic responses to five novels and a dozen or so screenplays. His latest book, White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, was written with Peter Oborne, creator and editor of the website calling out Boris Johnson’s false statements https://boris-johnson-lies.com/
Candidate 1 (Mr Aardvark): In all my time in politics,
My friends will all agree
I never dodge the issue
I say just what I see.
That’s why I tell you firmly
(It’s what I’ve always said)
The past is now behind us
The future lies ahead.
All together: Politics, quick fix, old dogs new tricks,
Spend, spend, spend, I’m everyone’s friend.
I spin, he spins, she spins, sweep in –
No matter what you choose, we win you lose.
Candidate 2 (Ms Abacus): My friends, you know my record,
It’s there in black and white,
I’ve heard what you’ve been saying –
And you’re absolutely right.
We’ve always been together,
And I say it now with pride
Whatever is the issue
I’m always on your side.
All together: New wealth, new birth and promise the earth.
Mom’s apple pie in the clear blue sky:
I talk, he talks, she talks, de-tox –
Trust us if you choose, we win, you lose.
Candidate 3 (Dr Acula): The other guys have failed us
On every policy.
We need a new beginning –
Begin right here with me.
I’ll get us moving forward
To somewhere really new.
A vote for me, I promise,
Will be a vote for you.
All together: Hope on a rope and the old soft soap
Clear belief and a clean set of teeth.
I smile, he smiles, she smiles, free style,
Smile back if you choose, we win, you lose.
Where the bespoke Bermudas ride
On sated tourists, plumply thigh’d,
And Palm Beach suitings come to greet
The guaranteed sub-tropic heat,
A Margarita’d poolside throng
Delivered up this holy song:
“How should we render HILTON’s praise
Who searched through these undiscovered bays
To find us a land so far unknown
And make it the image of our own?
The boundless sea he had in-filled,
With pre-stressed walls the tide was stilled:
Where waves once crashed on empty sand
The jumbo jet may safely land.
The idle streams he dammed to make
One azure artificial lake,
Where safe from the tides’ and trippers’ reach,
He laid a freshly-sanded beach,
Laundered each day, of sea-wrack clean,
Served by a synthesized-wave machine.
But let us rather hymn the fame
Of the Hotel that bears his name
In giant letters orange-bright
As master of the neon night.
There for the packaged journeying man,
Every arrangement shows his plan.
He gave us air-conditioning
Which temporizes everything
And makes the climate fit for mink.
He made the water safe to drink,
And, for our pleasure, filled the wind
With subtle scents and music tinned.
With waxen fruit his rooms were lined,
Lusher than the unvarnished kind.
In custom-built bazaars he shows
Imported local curios.
Yet would we sing of HILTON’s gifts:
Escalators, express lifts,
Ever-watered tennis lawn,
Room TV with choice of porn.
Steaming saunas, his and hers,
With aromatic Thai masseurs,
Londoner’s pub (its lighting low-key),
Hawaiian bar (with karaoke).
O that our praise resounding may
Echo throughout our fortnight stay:
Let us with grateful glory greet
Him who has made a dream, concrete.
Homage to “Bermudas” by Andrew Marvell, written around 1986
unanswered letter to Keir Starmer MP, Labour Brexit spokesman, July 26 2019
As you can see, I do not have the good fortune to live in your constituency, but I hope you might answer this letter as Shadow Brexit spokesman and as a potential replacement for Jeremy Corbyn.
I am a veteran Labour supporter. I worked in the past for two Labour giants, Gerald Kaufman and Denis Healey. In company with well over three million Labour supporters I voted Leave in the referendum. It now seems more and more likely that we will be unable to vote for a Labour government at the next General Election without voting to Remain in the EU or to rejoin it, formally or de facto. In some constituencies we may even be unable to vote for a Labour candidate, if the party stands down in an electoral pact with other Remain parties.
I have seen very little effort within the party to understand the motives of Labour Leave voters, still less discuss them with us.
Too many Remain advocates dismiss us as unreconstructed Bennites (like Jeremy Corbyn) or assume that we are against immigration or that we simply voted Leave in a fit of rage against a despised political élite, as so many American working-class people voted for Donald Trump.
These explanations ignore the strong “progressive” reasons to object to the EU.
We see an organization dominated by special interests – including its own bureaucracy – which are almost impervious to democracy, generate copious unnecessary policy and regulation, and spend huge sums of money wastefully or even corruptly.
We see its flagship policy – the euro – as an engine of misery and unemployment for the weaker economies under its thrall.
We see its agricultural policy, although improved, as wasteful, harmful to consumers and the environment, and still biased towards giant agri-businesses rather than small family farms.
We see the EU’s protectionism as a major contributor to poverty in Third World countries.
Above all, we see the EU’s governance as neither efficient nor democratic – and on a permanent and continued journey away from democratic control. Our views were confirmed by the recent choices of EU Commission President and head of the ECB – and the manner in which they were chosen. If we cling to the idea of a nation-state, it is not from narrow nationalism it is because the nation-state is still responsive to democratic control, and the EU never will be.
We do not believe that any European people actually want to cede more power to European institutions at the expense of their own country’s. I have never met any European politicians who preferred a career in Europe to one in the politics of their own country. That is true even of passionate Remainers in our own country. The best-known British EU Commissioners – Jenkins, Kinnock, Mandelson – took their positions only after failing to realize their ambitions in British politics. Mandelson leapt at the chance to get back into British politics – he even took a big pay cut.
We do not believe that the EU can ever develop into a democratic polity to match the United States. The United States began its life as a federal democracy (at least for white men) and took immense care to work out a system of checks and balances on local, federal and judicial power. As it expanded by conquest, that system was embedded in its new territories. It met and suppressed its lone national challenge in the Civil War. The United States was peopled by immigrants or freed slaves who were almost universally eager to be assimilated as Americans. Through the Federal budget the United States transfers huge sums between states to share the pain and gain of being one nation, with a common currency and interest rate. None of these conditions apply to the EU – and after over two centuries of success the United States is now showing signs of stress as a federal democracy.
Even so, Americans are willing to sacrifice personal and local interests to the United States – even to die for it. We do not believe that anyone will ever make similar sacrifices for the sake of the EU. Those of us who have been to any sort of EU negotiation know that all the participants try to advance their own interests and do down all the others. Back home, they invariably present the result as a triumph for their own country.
Of course these views are debatable, but I do not think that they are irrational – or unusual.
Now the Labour party tells us to swallow them without debate. We can have a Labour government only by voting Remain (or return). If we abandon our right to Leave we will become helpless passengers in the EU – sitting on the “naughty step” to show penitence. We will sign up for everything in the EU’s agenda – EU army, common fiscal policy, more support for the euro even if we are allowed to remain out of it, more EU direction of everything, new spending on EU projects to extract sunbeams from cucumbers (I made that one up). To resist any of these, we will have to make extravagant concessions in other areas to other EU countries.
And if we don’t want any of that, we are told to vote for the Boris Johnson-Nigel Farage coalition.
Enough already. I hope that this letter has at least helped you understand a real dilemma for many Labour supporters, and would be glad to have any response.
Published in www.politics.co.uk August 14 2019
It is part of the price of Britain’s political life, especially if you become a minister. At some point you must give a speech for the sake of your party or government which is so cringingly horrible that it keeps you awake at night, repeating brokenly “Did I really say that?”
For the sake of our Middle East minister, Andrew Murrison, I hope he never has to repeat the experience of his recent speech in reply to a backbench debate on Saudi Arabia. He rattled off bromides like machine-gun fire as he explained Britain’s current “nuanced and complex” policy towards the place. It makes one proud to think that we are selling them nuanced weapons to kill civilians in Yemen (we are still a world leader in such weapons). It is indeed a complex task to ask the Saudis to buy more of them while asking them gently not to detain quite so many people without trial or torture them and execute them. He managed to praise “the scale and scope of reform driven by Crown Prince Mohammad” without linking him to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
One sentence was especially revealing. He spoke of Britain’s “frustration” when the Saudis detain people on “outrageous and ridiculous charges” (including teenage bloggers). “But that is because we are judging by our own standards and mores.”
Indeed. That is a crucial test for Boris Johnson’s new would-be Churchillian government (which has just reappointed Dr Murrison to his post). Will it do more to express British standards and mores in its foreign policy?
One must be fair to Dr Murrison and his new government. All of its predecessors, including Churchill’s, have pandered to Saudi Arabia, ever since it came into being. We virtually created it – the only country in the world named after its ruling dynasty, whose founder, Ibn Saud, was advised by Kim Philby’s father. We have pretended for generations that each new ruler from the corrupt and brutal dynasty is a great reformer and moderate and friend and admirer of our country.
But our servility will become even worse after Brexit. I write as one who urged the Leave cause in the referendum. I did so in the hope that an independent Britain would forge a political consensus to make the sacrifices needed to tackle big problems at home and abroad and pursue a creative, independent foreign policy.
More fool me.
Our post-Brexit foreign policy looks starkly clear under the Johnson government.
After Brexit we will have deserted not only our major trading partners but those most committed to our international values. We will make ourselves more dependent on people and powers who do not care about them at all. We will be begging them for trade and investment.
Already our “tough” new Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is truckling to Donald Trump. We will not get anything in an election year from him, least of all a trade deal, unless we help him get re-elected. That is how American politics works. If Boris Johnson does not know this he is an even bigger fool than he pretends to be.
Post-Brexit we would become more dependent on China. Expect us to tone down to pianissimo any criticism of Xi-Jinping’s totalitarian dictatorship, the biggest violator of human rights in the world, and the biggest contributor to climate change. Do not expect us to defend democracy in Hong Kong. Hold your nose as we ask the Chinese for a jackal’s share for British business in their empire overseas.
Post-Brexit we will desperate to sell more not just to the Saudis but to every other despotic and corrupt regime in the world. We will want to sell more to Putin’s ramshackle economy, even if he murders more people in our country. We will be still more eager to launder dirty money from Putin’s cronies or anyone else.
Those who thought British foreign policy was already too deferential will find things even worse after Brexit. Our diplomats will have to find more weasel words to placate our new paymasters. Boris Johnson’s FCO will have to rename itself the Fawning and Grovelwell Office.
Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey, then Deputy Leader of the Labour party and Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Gerald Kaufman.
shorter version published in www.politics.co.uk July 22, 2019
The advent of Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street sends a terrible message to younger politicians of all parties. Why bother to be truthful, competent, diligent, or set an upstanding example in public or private life? None of these things are now part of the job specification for our highest political office.
No modern British politician has ever paraded an élite education so assiduously as Boris Johnson, or shown how little he learnt from it other than the ability to create intellectual graffiti with a spray gun of Latin and Greek. In this he reminds me of Mussolini, who liked to impress visitors with scraps of erudition (in case they missed them, he would say “Forgive my learned references”).
After Boris Johnson’s success, why think deeply about any subject when it is so much easier to skim the surface and strike poses? Why bother to learn facts and figures when it is so much easier to invent them? Long before Donald Trump Boris Johnson was a master of fake news. Long before Donald Trump Boris Johnson learnt to pander to racism and bigotry. Recently he had the nerve to dismiss a long history of offensive language as satirical. Wrong. Satirists mock their targets by laying them bare through their own language and image. That is not what Boris Johnson was doing when he talked about bumboys or piccaninnies or Muslim women in bin bags. He made the people who use that sort of language feel good about themselves, and that’s what he meant to do.
Why bother to take responsibility for your words and actions? Boris Johnson never did.
The British traditionally do not like clever, ambitious politicians, so Boris Johnson has successfully manufactured an image of being a lovable bumbler. It has been maintained meticulously: I suspect that his dishevelled suits are hand-rumpled by a Savile Row tailor. He presents himself as an exile from a P G Wodehouse novel. For years he has impersonated Bertie Wooster but in reality he is Sir Roderick Spode, although his immediate programme has the inebriated optimism of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s speech to Market Snodsbury Grammar School.
I will no doubt be accused of being a resentful Remoaner. Not so. I wrote in favour of Leave and voted for it. I do not believe that Boris Johnson deserves the trust of Leave voters, least of all the four million or so who normally vote Labour or for other left-of-centre parties. I have no belief that he will deliver a successful or even bearable Brexit.
Boris Johnson is extraordinarily lucky to have reached the Premiership with so little to offer to it.
He is lucky to be faced by Jeremy Corbyn, who offers the British people even less and has made his party a dismal haven for racism, rancour and extremism. The Conservatives might have been less willing to take a chance on him if they were faced by a plausible alternative Prime Minister.
But he is even luckier to be seeking ultimate power from the British people after thirty years which have given them very low expectations of their politicians and their wider ruling class.
They went through the Major government crashing out of the ERM and then beset by division and scandal (although poor Mr Major is starting to look good compared to what followed.) They went through the Iraq war and the banking collapses and bailouts. They saw dozens of MPs and peers cheat and chisel them over their expenses. Lately, of course, they have seen their politicians unwilling or unable to execute their referendum instruction to Leave the European Union.
In general, they have seen a wider and wider gap between official propaganda and the realities of what they themselves must do to earn a living or get decent housing, education, health and social care, transport and other essential services for themselves and their families.
In one government after another, they have had to endure too many ministers whose titles took longer to read than their achievements, whose names were unknown to them until the day they disappeared from office. They have seen too many ministers, senior officials and advisers treat their public service as a waiting room for the gravy train, selling the know-how and contacts they have gained at the taxpayers’ expense, often to the special interests they were meant to be regulating. In the private sector, they have seen too many senior executives award themselves Premiership money for League 2 performance.
The British people are losing their respect for previously cherished institutions. They have seen their armed forces diminished and weakened amid wild over-spending on defence contracts. They have seen service men and women sacrificed in futile missions by leaders too weak to stand up to politicians’ fantasies. Our underfunded and mismanaged court system has allowed Russian oligarchs to buy British justice while victims of crime have to wait for it long and often in vain.
They have seen major faith groups, including the Established Church, fail scandalously to tackle sexual abuse.
Above all, in both the public sector and the private sector, they have seen too many leaders who never take responsibility for error and failure, who protect and sustain each other, and glide regardless of performance into highly-paid positions and honours. They have seen too many institutions resist restitution or even an apology for victims of their failings, and punish whistleblowers for exposing them.
Against this background it is not surprising that Boris Johnson can gain a public following. “They’re all the same, they all look after themselves. Say what you like about him, he’s a character…”
There will be some macabre fascination in watching the Boris Johnson administration unfold.
First we will see how many timeserving Tory MPs will be rewarded with jobs for swallowing their principles and (much harder) their personal antipathy to him.
Sooner rather than later, we will see how far he and whatever stooge becomes his ambassador to Washington are prepared to stoop to Donald Trump and help his re-election campaign.
Sooner rather than later we will hear his first sub-Churchillian appeal for sacrifice from the British people. They might fail to empathise with a man who earned over £5000 an hour last year for knocking off speeches and articles, according to his entry on the Register of Members’ Interests (in which many entries were late). Some people might even laugh. Many more will be angry that he never warned them of the need for sacrifice before he became Prime Minister.
In Number 10 he will discover that he cannot ask Jeeves to get him out of the soup. Like all other Prime Ministers, he will have to get on top of really difficult problems himself, and take the blame for everything that goes wrong even when it is not his fault. In those circumstances, he will discover that the media and the British public are an implacable and terrifying Aunt Agatha.
Boris Johnson in Number 10 may make the Tory party and voters generally feel marvellous for a little while, but so do binge drinking and most recreational drugs. Sooner rather than later any Boris bounce will be followed by a massive Boris hangover and associated repentance.
It would be ironic indeed if Boris Johnson, chosen to deliver Brexit at any cost, induced the British people to beg for re-admission to the EU on any terms.
Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He attended the same Oxford college (Balliol) as Boris Johnson, but not at the same time.
Letter published in Daily Mail July 18 2019
The Mail’s Investigations Unit did a public service by showcasing the lax rules on leave of absence from the House of Lords.
Formally, peers are summoned to the House by the Queen. In beautiful 16th-century prose she calls on them to advise her on “certain arduous and urgent” affairs of state and to drop any other business.
But present-day peers are allowed to desert the Queen to make money for themselves from anyone they like, even foreign governments. Then, when they have made enough money or been sacked by their paymasters, they can come back to the Lords with no questions asked.
For too long the rules of the House have been made by peers for peers. If we are to continue with unelected legislators, most chosen by patronage, then we, the people, should set their terms and conditions.
Summer journeys down to Brighton
And to other places simply
Heighten our cares:
We’ll save our fares.
In a London maisonette
We two could find a raison d’etre,
So let’s settle down
Right here in town.
We’ll build in Mayfair
And just to play fair,
Park Lane too
A place where we can be
We’ll buy up Harrods,
Aspreys and Garrads,
Just for show.
With precious bibelots
And jewels we’ll overflow –
Quite de trop!
Our other shopping
We’ll do in Wapping
In a boat
Then watch the seagulls swoop
This great big city’s a Hamley’s toy
Just made for a girl and boy
And we’ll turn London
We’ll both go silly
We’ll stroll up Burlington
And if our luck fails
We’ll go for cocktails
At the Ritz,
Amid the glam and glitz
We’ll sip white wine and spritz
And test our wits.
We’ll look at Eros
And hope he’ll steer us
And then in Berkeley Square
The city’s magic can soon employ
The hearts of a girl and boy
And we’ll turn London
The grim old Tower
In the spring.
In football stadiums
If we feel wealthy
We’ll vithit Chelthea
On a thpree:
We’ll thpend our L-S-D
On fashions wild and free
Thee and me.
Then down in Soho
We’’ll find a Boho
In Ronnie Scott’s we’ll hear
The city’s simply a wondrous pearl
For one boy to give one girl,
So let’s give London
A mad abundant
We’ll check the night clubs,
Find all the right pubs,
Drink real ale:
Then sleep it off on Network Rail.
In Oxford Circus
We’ll watch the lurkers
At Lord’s we’ll throw a bat.
At Lock’s we’ll buy a hat
Just like that.
We won’t look shabby
Inside the Abbey.
At St Paul’s
Upstairs we’ll whisper sweet
The city’s charms cannot ever cloy
For this footloose girl and boy
And we’ll make London
My tribute to Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, in current edition of Wooster Sauce, journal of the PG Wodehouse Society
“His narrative and dialogue could not be improved, and he passes the supreme test of being re-readable. I don’t know how many times I have read the stories, but plenty. I know exactly what is coming and how it is all going to end, but it doesn’t matter. That’s writing.”
That could come from any number of readers of P G Wodehouse. But it was actually written by Wodehouse himself, about his friend and favourite detective story writer, Rex Stout. It is part of his introduction to Stout’s official biography, and echoes the compliments the two paid each other in a long mutually-admiring correspondence. Rex Stout is one of the few real writers, living or dead, to get a favourable mention in Wodehouse’s fiction. Bertie and Aunt Dahlia actually struggle over a copy of the latest Stout in The Code Of The Woosters.
It is easy to understand why Wodehouse relished Stout. His full name, Rex Todhunter Stout, is one Wodehouse might have given to a struggling author posing as an expert on pigs – or even to a detective.
Rex Stout had a varied life, with some echoes of Wodehouse’s. He was born in Indiana in 1886, one of nine children of Quaker parents who encouraged him to read omnivorously. As a young child he read the Bible twice over and would have edged Bertie Wooster in a prize contest for Scripture Knowledge. At 13 he became the Kansas state spelling champion. After a variety of short-term jobs, including warrant officer on Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht, he became a published writer at the age of 24 and served a long apprenticeship, like Wodehouse, in magazines. Unlike Wodehouse, he gave himself a financial cushion against failure as a writer, by patenting a successful school banking system. Ironically, he lost most of his money from this in the Great Depression and was forced to become a full-time author.
He wrote some serious psychological novels and a political thriller The President Vanishes. Astutely, he published this anonymously and encouraged speculation that it had been written by a major politician. Then in 1934 he turned exclusively to detective fiction, with the publication of his first Nero Wolfe story, Fer-de-Lance. Another 72 would follow, the last, Death Times Three, posthumously after his death in 1975.
In most photographs, he is wearing a beard which even Gally Threepwood would regard as too extravagant for use as a disguise.
Like Wodehouse, Stout became famous for wartime broadcasts, although for the right reasons, combatting Axis propaganda in America as presenter of a long-running radio series called “Speaking Of Liberty”. Unlike Wodehouse, Stout was politically active. He was a co-founder of the left-wing Vanguard Press and a strong campaigner for civil liberties and authors’ rights. He was badgered by the FBI and took his revenge on them in a late Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang. But he also detested Communism, and unleashed Wolfe against it in The Second Confession.
Stout created a few other detectives, including a pioneering woman PI, Dol Bonner. But his greatest creations were Nero Wolfe and his live-in assistant Archie Goodwin.
Wolfe must be the bulkiest detective, real or fictional, in history. Archie, his narrator, regularly puts his weight at one-seventh of a ton (American not Imperial) which makes him nearly 290 pounds. He solves all his cases by deep thought in the chair specially built for him, in the intervals between reading, cultivating orchids, drinking beer and consuming gourmet meals cooked by his resident chef Fritz (a loyal and much calmer version of Anatole.) Wolfe almost never leaves his house, a brownstone mansion on West 35th Street, Manhattan. Clients and witnesses are delivered to him (usually with a curt instruction to Archie to “Bring them”) and Wolfe exposes the murderer in his crowded office in the presence of his ally and occasional adversary Inspector Cramer of Manhattan Homicide.
For all Wolfe’s genius the murderer usually strikes two or three times before the exposure (as with his fictional rivals Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple). Despite Wodehouse’s tribute, plots were never the strongest element in a Wolfe mystery. All too often, Wolfe’s solution depends on the discovery of a surprising fact by Archie or Wolfe’s brilliant sub-contracted private detective, Saul Panzer. The addictive properties in the series are the dialogue, the characters and the setting.
A Nero Wolfe mystery is a journey into a magic private world, in many ways similar to that of Jeeves and Bertie.
In both worlds, intricate problems are solved by a cerebral figure for a baffled narrator. Archie Goodwin is considerably smarter than Bertie (although his narration is much less “literary” than Bertie’s). He is far more active as a participant in the stories than Bertie, doing all of Wolfe’s leg work, supervising the sub-contracted operatives, and often needing to use his fists or his Marley automatic gun. He regularly has to needle Wolfe into accepting a job. But he shares Bertie’s unabashed admiration for the problem-solving genius of a superior mind.
Like Jeeves, Wolfe likes to spend time with an improving book. Like Jeeves, Wolfe is nervous in the presence of women (although there are hints of a romantic past and he supports a distant grown-up daughter). Wolfe relies heavily on Archie’s ability to charm women (these passages have not kept pace with modern times: Archie’s chat-up routines would now earn a slap or even a jail sentence), but like Jeeves with Bertie, Wolfe frets when any woman gets too close to Archie.
The two pairs cannot live without each other. There are intermittent rifts between Wolfe and Archie to match Bertie’s and Jeeves’ battles over clothes and the banjolele, and Archie periodically threatens to leave the brownstone and work independently. But the crisis is always resolved. Eventually, Archie achieves a long-term extra-mural relationship with the wealthy Lily Rowan, which allows him to remain with Wolfe.
Both Jeeves and Wolfe have distinctive dialogue, but Wolfe’s is so stately and ornate as to make Jeeves seem almost vernacular. He dismisses nonsense as “flummery”, and his highest word of praise is “satisfactory.” He reserves his best phrases to describe himself. In the first Wolfe mystery Fer-de-Lance he announces that “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.” He puts this point a little more concisely in Murder By The Book when he refuses to abandon his set hours with his orchids: “No. A schedule broken at will becomes a mere procession of vagaries.” However, he also proclaims in Too Many Cooks that “a guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality.” Stout gives Archie a brash, hard-boiled, wisecracking style of narration which perfectly sets off Wolfe’s rolling periods.
Above all, the world of Wolfe and Archie is timeless in its essentials, like that of Jeeves and Bertie. The reader is more aware in Wolfe stories of outside events, such as the war, civil rights and women’s liberation, Communism, Red-baiting and the FBI, and ultimately Watergate. But the characters do not age and their behaviours are delightfully consistent. Among the regular supporting characters, Inspector Cramer can be relied upon to bluster, to threaten Wolfe with imprisonment for obstruction of justice, and to chomp a cigar between his lips without lighting it before throwing it away in disgust. But he will re-join Wolfe’s admirers in the end while arresting the villain. In spite of the numerous murderers he nails with Wolfe’s help he is never promoted beyond Inspector. In a similar way, the supporting operatives stay in character: Fred Durkin ponderous but reliable, Orrie Cather self-satisfied and ambitious, Saul Panzer anonymously brilliant.
When forced by exceptional circumstances to leave the brownstone, Wolfe will invariably exhibit extreme anxiety in any moving vehicle, even the sturdy Heron Sedan he buys for Archie to drive. In the later novels, Wolfe acquires a television only to glare briefly at programs before returning to his latest book. In Please Pass The Guilt he announces: “I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”
Wolfe would have glared at most of the attempts to render him on television, largely because the adapters generally lacked the confidence in the original material which was shown by the best adapters of Jeeves and Bertie. He deserves a first acquaintance in his beloved medium of books. My own personal favourite – read and re-read many times, is And Be A Villain which the British publishers incomprehensibly re-titled More Deaths Than One.
The plot is, as Wolfe would say, satisfactory, particularly in the introduction of Wolfe’s Moriarty, the arch-villain Arnold Zeck. It allows Wolfe to rail agreeably at radio advertising. And his vocabulary includes the words “temerarious”, “chambrer,” and “dysgenic.”