Francis Wheen’s diary: I’ve lost my appetite for vituperation

Private Eye’s erstwhile deputy editor used to love a feud. But these days, he’s more about hymns and reconciliation

October 04, 2023
At the Private Eye offices, where Wheen worked for 36 years. Photo: Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo
At the Private Eye offices, where Wheen worked for 36 years. Photo: Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo

Time to confess: I am both an atheist and a churchgoer. Does that make me a hypocrite? When Richard Dawkins admitted some years ago that he loves belting out Christmas carols, he was given a stern telling-off by Libby Purves in the Times. “If you loudly and repeatedly make a career of denying any possibility at all of the reality of God, how honest is it to sing?” she demanded. “How easy to reconcile? How insulting to those who mean every word of it?” Taken to its logical conclusion, this suggests that atheists mustn’t be moved by Handel’s Messiah—or any religious art—without suffering agonies of embarrassment and guilt. 

No such qualms for my late friend Carmen Callil, co-founder of Virago Books, who was always happy to feast on beauty wherever she could find it. An education in brutal Australian convent schools turned her against religion for life, but her obsequies last November were held amid the splendour of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square. “I want a real funeral,” she had explained to the priest, Marie-Elsa Roche Bragg. “And the first thing you have to say is that I am the least Christian person you’ve ever met.” Bragg duly obliged. Then, in a fine display of lower-case catholicity, the choir sang the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem—and Abba’s Fernando”. 


Over the past year, I’ve become a more frequent churchgoer than usual. You might assume that I’m hedging my bets, as in Pascal’s wager, or confirming the truth of Arthur Hugh Clough’s lines in Dipsychus: “And almost every one when age, / Disease, or sorrows strike him, / Inclines to think there is a God, / Or something very like Him.” Not so, however: it’s simply that people keep dying, damn them, and even the non-believers often follow Carmen’s example. 

I still don’t wish to believe in God. A character in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day (1978) says of the fourth estate: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.” My attitude to the first estate echoes that. I adore the hymns, the liturgy, the numinous architecture; it’s the divinity I can’t abide. 


Stoppard’s Night and Day was dedicated to his friend Paul Johnson, the historian and polemicist. Of the many funerals I have attended in 2023, Paul’s was the one I’d least expected to be at. For 25 years, from the late 1970s on, I mocked him in print whenever he wrote anything that seemed to merit it—which, given his prolific and often intemperate output, was very often. He in turn accused me of “playing Job Trotter to [Christopher] Hitchens’s Alfred Jingle Esq”, a taunt I still cherish. When he threatened to sue unless I stopped goading him, this merely encouraged me to give him another prod. 

About 20 years ago, however, the fun went out of this sport—perhaps because Paul was well into his seventies, or perhaps because I’d run out of epithets to hurl. Thanks to an intercession by his saintly wife, Marigold, he turned up at a book launch I was hosting, shook me firmly by the hand and agreed an immediate ceasefire. A few years later, he descended into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. “The Gospel today had Jesus enjoining us to make peace with our enemies,” one of Paul’s children later wrote to me, “and I am sure that you did the right thing by putting an end to your feud with my father while you could.” 

He threatened to sue unless I stopped goading him

The funeral was a full-dress Catholic epic—about two hours long, with spine-tingling performances of both Mozart’s and Fauré’s requiems. But the spirit of reconciliation had clearly not suffused everyone: as Tony Blair and Boris Johnson strolled towards the exit afterwards, the author Ferdinand Mount could be heard declaring that he’d never seen so many rogues under one church roof. 


At the same eirenic party where Paul and I shook hands, Christopher Hitchens and Michael Foot also ended their feud, which had begun in 1978 with an exchange of insults in the New Statesman. Foot (then a cabinet minister) had complained to the editor that Hitchens was “a Trotskyite Nigel Dempster… drool[ing] a steady flow of malicious tittle-tattle into your columns.” Hitchens retorted: “Mr Foot is entitled to his ad hominem remarks, though to be accused of fakery by him is like being sold hair tonic by a man as bald as an egg.” At the book launch, however, Hitch spoke so lovingly to Michael that I feared he might give the old boy a hug and break his ribs. 


Tit for tat, reprisals make the world go round!” Karl Marx would sing to himself while writing a jeremiad dismissing erstwhile comrades as buffoons, windbags and cuckolded jackasses. It was once my motto, too, but recently I have lost the appetite for vituperation. Is it because there’s now so much of it, as Elon Musk’s digital sewer engulfs the world in a flood of cloacal slurry? Sometimes I even fantasise about becoming a vicar; then I remember that I’m an atheist. 

A clergyman friend assures me, however, that in the Church of England this has never been an insuperable obstacle.