Wheen, Francis 1957–

views updated

Wheen, Francis 1957–

(Francis James Baird Wheen)

PERSONAL: Born January 22, 1957; son of James Francis Thorneycroft and Patricia Winifred Wheen; partner of Julia Thorogood; children: Bertie, Archie. Education: Royal Holloway College, London, England, B.A.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Pat Kavanagh, PFD, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England.

CAREER: Guardian, London, England, editorial assistant, 1974–75; New Statesman, London, staff writer, 1978–84; New Socialist, London, news editor, 1983–84; Private Eye, 1987–, began as contributor, became deputy editor. BBC TV, London, presenter of News-Stand; Granada TV, presenter of What the Papers Say; BBC Radio 4, London, panelist on The News Quiz and contributor; guest appearances on various television programs and in films.

AWARDS, HONORS: Columnist of the Year, "What the Papers Say" Awards, 1997, for Guardian column; George Orwell Prize, 2003, for Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism, 1991–2001; Isaac Deutscher Prize, for Karl Marx: A Life.


The Sixties: A Fresh Look at the Decade of Change, Century Pub./Channel Four Television (London, England), 1982.

Television: A History, Century Pub. (London, England), 1985.

The Battle for London, Pluto Press (London, England), 1985.

Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions (biography), Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1990, reprinted as The Soul of Indiscretion: Tom Driberg: Poet, Philanderer, Legislator and Outlaw, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2001.

(Editor and author of introduction) The Chatto Book of Cats, illustrated by John O'Connor, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1993.

(Editor) Lord Gnome's Literary Companion, Verso (New York, NY), 1994.

Karl Marx: A Life, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.

Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism, 1991–2001, Atlantic (London, England), 2002.

Who Was Dr. Charlotte Bach?, Short (London, England), 2002.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, Fourth Estate (London, England), 2004, published as Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense, Public Affairs (New York, NY), 2004.

The Irresistible Con: The Bizarre Life of a Fraudulent Genius, Short (London, England), 2004.

The Lavender List (television film), BBC4 (London, England), 2006.

Marx's Das Kapital ("Books that Shook the World" series), Atlantic (London, England), 2006.

Also editor of World View 1982: An Economic and Geopolitical Yearbook, Pluto Press (London, England); contributor to books, including introduction to A Modern Utopia, Penguin Classics, 2006. Contributor to numerous publications in England and the United States, including the Independent. Contributing editor to Tatler, Sunday Correspondent (magazine), and Vanity Fair. Former columnist for the Observer, Guardian, and Esquire.

SIDELIGHTS: Francis Wheen has written a number of well-received nonfiction works since the early 1980s. A journalist in England, Wheen has been associated with the Independent on Sunday newspaper for a number of years. His first foray into book publishing came in 1982 when he was invited to edit World View 1982: An Economic and Geopolitical Yearbook, a current events primer that was originally published in French. The volume attempted to provide a nonpartisan review of international events, with reports on political, social, and economic situations in thirty-three countries. The work contains several articles and essays from experts on particularly troubled spots around the globe.

Wheen was also associated with another title published in the United Kingdom in 1982, The Sixties: A Fresh Look at the Decade of Change. The extensively illustrated tome was a companion to a British television documentary of the same name, and it is divided into four parts: Politics, Class, Sex, and Money. Since both the television series and the book were aimed at a British audience, the work is dominated by events and people exclusive to the British Isles. The sweeping social changes that took place during the decade, and some of the more notorious government scandals of the era feature prominently in the recap. Yet a Books and Bookmen reviewer, Cosmo Landesman, felt that some of the illustrations might have had more impact in color rather than black and white, and further noted that the images seem to compete with Wheen's text. Of the writing itself, Landesman stated: "It is competent, at times cogent and always colourless." Anne Smith, writing in the New Statesman, gave particular praise to one of Wheen's chapters, "for when he writes about money he is brilliantly lucid and satisfyingly cynical," she declared.

Wheen penned another companion book to a small-screen documentary series with Television: A History. Again, the text emphasizes British media, but also provides much insight into the American influence on the medium in general, as well as the occasional foray into television viewing habits and trends in countries such as Japan and Germany. Wheen explores the significance of the medium over the years through anecdotal evidence. He notes, for instance, that in 1968 American presidential candidate Richard Nixon appeared on a highly rated prime-time comedy variety show called Laugh-In, and won the presidency by a very narrow margin of votes a few days later. Other sections delve into the various forms that information and entertainment take in the medium, such as the hour-long drama, news broadcast, and sitcom. Wheen also writes about the debate that for many years prior to the explosion of cable and satellite channels plagued both European politicians and industry officials: whether the medium should be funded through commercial advertising or by the government. Writing in the New Statesman, Bob Woffinden observed: "Without getting lost in discussion of the infinite social ramifications of television, Wheen still manages to cover considerable ground."

Wheen next turned his energies to writing a biography, the first in his career. He fortuitously chose a subject whose life was rife with controversy, as the title Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions implies. Wheen's account was the first full-length look at this iconoclastic British politician and writer since a memoir by Driberg appeared after his death in 1976. An Oxford-educated, left-wing intellectual, Driberg numbered among his friends many of England's leading minds of the mid-twentieth century. Early in his career, he enjoyed nominal success as a poet, too, before becoming a gossip columnist for a decade. After a flirtation with Communism, Driberg won election to Parliament on the Labour Party ticket, and he even chaired the party for a time in the late 1950s. Yet when Driberg died in August of 1976, the venerable London Times described him as a homosexual, marking the first time in the history of the newspaper that an individual was so tagged. Though he was married for a time, Driberg was infamous in Britain because of rumors about his sexual appetites. Criminal charges were even brought against him in 1935 for assaulting two men, but Wheen casts great doubt over the veracity of this incident as reported in court documents.

Wheen's biography recounts incidents of Driberg's well-known personality, which was often described as insufferable, as well as periodic episodes of deceitfulness and the misery he inflicted on his wife of twenty years. Still, Driberg was the darling of many prominent Britons, among them the author Evelyn Waugh. Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, and Labour Party leader Aneurin Bevan were also among the many luminaries who were on friendly terms with the unrepentant Driberg. Hints that he may have been involved in espionage activities involving some of his contemporaries dogged Driberg's legacy after his death, but Wheen concluded that a lack of evidence seems to challenge such accusations. "Wheen's book provides necessary clarification of a life-story which is, in its bizarre and seedy way, utterly and unregenerately English," noted Times Literary Supplement reviewer Roy Foster, who also called it an "elegant, forceful, well-constructed portrait." An Economist reviewer commended the tone of Wheen's account, "which throughout is affectionate, detached and gently mocking."

Wheen also served as editor and author of the introduction to The Chatto Book of Cats. The tome, illustrated by John O'Connor, is rife with feline-related lore, historical anecdotes, and literary references. Its text traces the status of the cat throughout recorded history. Once reviled as malicious rat-catchers, cats gradually earned a more comfortable berth inside homes as one of the most popular domesticated animals, Wheen explains. During Elizabethan times, however, Protestants would burn wicker effigies of the pope during periodic outbursts of religious zealotry, and a cat was stuffed inside so that terrible wails would emanate when the papal likeness was set aflame. Quotes from Colette, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Hardy's legendary "Last Words to a Dumb Friend" comprise some of the literary references that Wheen culled for The Chatto Book of Cats. "His book reflects the extraordinary blend of prejudice and superstition which made the cat an outcast until modern times," noted E.S. Turner in a Times Literary Supplement review.

Wheen returned to the biography format with the publication of Karl Marx: A Life. As the title suggests, Wheen gives greater emphasis to the political theorist's personality and personal life than to his role as a founder of communism. He discusses Marx's early life in Germany, his early journalism career in England in the 1840s, and his perpetual flirtation with financial ruin throughout his life. "But through it all, there was a single-mindedness that kept him hard at work, beyond ephemera, to understand what was the mysterious process by which the rich in England became very rich while most of the poor got poorer," observed Norman Stone in a Sunday Times review of the book. The biography relies heavily on Marx's own prolific correspondence for its primary source. Marx's rather forceful personality emerges as his most distinctive personal trait. Arrogant and difficult, he disliked being contradicted, shifted alliances with friends and enemies mercurially over the years, and devised several pointed insults that remained in use long after his 1883 death. "Wheen has clearly enjoyed writing Karl Marx," noted Times Literary Supplement contributor Mark Garnett, "and his relish is conveyed through a lively narrative." Garnett also declared that Wheen's "combination of verve and forensic skill has infused much new life into the old revolutionary."

After Marx's passing—and especially after the rise of Marxism as a viable, though often violently achieved, political institution—he became the subject of countless biographies, but this Karl Marx attempts to provide a more intimate portrait. "Wheen is bent on showing that the brutish and acerbic polemicist, while he undoubtedly existed, was not the only Karl Marx," observed an Economist reviewer. "Even so, this excellent book leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling that over the century more people might have died peacefully in their beds if communism's founding father had been just … a little readier to accept that political opposition need not necessarily and always be equated with treason," concluded the reviewer.

Wheen collected many of his essays to date are collected in Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism, 1991–2001. In the same year that book was released, his Who Was Dr. Charlotte Bach? was also published. The latter is a biography of the man born Karoly Hajud in Budapest, Hungary, in 1920, who declared himself a baron in 1942 with a forged birth certificate, falsified his academic past, prospered as a scam artist, and changed his name to Michael Karoly after going bankrupt. Then his life began to get really interesting. He set up a practice as a hypnotherapist and began writing. He cheated on his wife, stole books from a library, and served jail time. After his wife died, Karoly became a transvestite and adopted the identity of Charlotte Bach. Karoly explored a range of sexual pleasures and established himself as an expert on sex whose theories included the idea that evolution is driven by sexual deviations. He died in 1981, at which time his true identity and sex became known. Spectator contributor Dot Wordsworth wrote that "Wheen has knitted an entertaining account of her—or his—life of deception." Wheen also wrote another book about Karoly titled The Irresistible Con: The Bizarre Life of a Fraudulent Genius, in which he draws on the writings of his subject while both a man and living as a woman. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "each page is more amusing and unbelievable than the one before."

In reviewing How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, Spectator reviewer Philip Hensher wrote: "Mr. Wheen's argument is that, over the last 25 years, the Enlightenment aspiration to rational thought and truth has been replaced by delusion, error and obscurantism. This has occurred across the board; governments, serious newspapers, university departments and financial institutions as well as the general public. His examples are powerful, and rather frightening." Wheen writes that former Prime Minister Thatcher interpreted the "Good Samaritan" parable in the Bible as an affirmation of the virtue of wealth. He notes that the majority of Americans do not accept evolution as fact and describes the faith of George W. Bush and Tony Blair as being a "postmodern relativism to justify appeasing pre-modern zealots." Wheen explains the disconnect between stock prices and the real state of the economy, including the booms and busts of the "dotcom" era, and the fall of Enron, a company that had been the model of the new economy. Also published as Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense, the book was reviewed by Harper's contributor Terry Eagleton, who concluded: "Wheen also turns his fire on hypocritical leftist attitudes to the murderous thugs of radical Islam (considered okay, since they're anti-American). He has an extraordinary immunity to bland pieties and a natural allergy to sanctimonious cant."



Books and Bookmen, January, 1983, Cosmo Landesman, review of The Sixties: A Fresh Look at the Decade of Change, pp. 31-32.

Contemporary Review, June, 2002, review of Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism, 1991–2001, p. 381.

Economist, May 12, 1990, review of Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions, p. 89; October 16, 1999, review of Karl Marx: A Life, pp. 6-7; November 23, 2002, review of Who Was Dr. Charlotte Bach?

Guardian (London, England), February 7, 2004, David McKie, review of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions.

Harper's, March, 2005, Terry Eagleton, review of Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense, p. 91.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2004, review of Idiot Proof, p. 322; September 15, 2005, review of The Irresistible Con: The Bizarre Life of a Fraudulent Genius, p. 1017.

Kliatt, January, 2006, Ann Hart, review of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, p. 32.

London Review of Books, May 10, 1990, Christopher Hitchens, review of Tom Driberg, pp. 6-8.

Nation, July 10, 2000, review of Karl Marx, p. 36.

New Statesman, January 21, 1983, Anne Smith, review of The Sixties, p. 27; February 15, 1985, Bob Woffinden, review of Television: A History, pp. 32-33; January 26, 2004, Suzanne Moore, review of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2000, review of Karl Marx, p. 60; April 19, 2004, review of Idiot Proof, p. 49; September 12, 2005, review of The Irresistible Con, p. 55.

Spectator, October 19, 2002, Dot Wordsworth, "Master and Mistress of Ambiguity," review of Who Was Dr. Charlotte Bach?, p. 54; January 31, 2004, Philip Hensher, review of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, p. 49.

Sunday Times (London, England), October 10, 1999, Norman Stone, review of Karl Marx.

Times Literary Supplement, May 11, 1990, Roy Foster, review of Tom Driberg, p. 487; November 12, 1993, E.S. Turner, review of The Chatto Book of Cats, p. 10; October 8, 1999, Mark Garnett, review of Karl Marx.


PFD Web site, http://www.pfd.co.uk/ (August 22, 2006), brief biography of Francis Wheen.