Edward Pearce, the Telegraph parliamentary sketchwriter (1979-87) and Moral Maze panellist who died last month, was known for his witty invective. Matthew Parris quoted him on Jim Callaghan: “If you were hanging from a ledge by your fingers, he’d stamp on them.”
Colleagues we spoke to for the obituary remembered him as quirky and chippy, “an extreme right-wing leftie”. He once wrote a piece in the Spectator on “why I have long disliked the sight of this magazine” in which he bashed its “brutish Europhobia” and “snob-flecked malice towards the Prime Minister” (John Major).
He was also prone to losing his temper. One contemporary saw him getting agitated during a discussion with the Telegraph’s editor Bill Deedes, picking up a heavy glass ashtray and waving it around. Worried that the ashtray might fly out of Pearce’s hand, the friend found himself edging closer to Pearce so that if need be he could dive at him and deflect the ashtray.
It is fun to hear journalists reminiscing about eccentric figures like Pearce. In putting obits together you also have to go through paper cuttings, which offers the same sort of pleasure that you get from stumbling on a yellowing newspaper page that has been used to line a drawer.
Today most newspaper archives are digitised by companies such as Gale Historical Newspapers. In this way you can browse and cross-search all Pearce’s parliamentary sketches. Nowadays they read as quite dense and involved, not light-touch – though good lines can be picked out: Michael Heseltine, for example, induced “a feeling of unease; rather like Goering playing the piano, it doesn’t seem quite right”.
And a striking feature is the relative frequency of biblical references. For example, when a politician resorts to repeating a tedious formula, “numbing opponents by iteration”, Pearce compares it to the slogan, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians”, which was chanted to St Paul by a mob of rioting silversmiths at Ephesus after Paul condemned their shrines to Diana (Acts 19). On another occasion Roy Hattersley is quizzing Margaret Thatcher about sanctions against the South African apartheid regime. Mrs Thatcher repeats the same “dull, departmentally vetted” formula, that she is against violence from either side.
Again Pearce concludes: “One got rather to seeing the point of St Paul pouring out all that Helleno-Hebraic eloquence on an undiscerning congregation in Asia Minor and getting back nothing but ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’.”
Pierce’s technique here recalls that of PG Wodehouse, who was the master at deploying scriptural allusion for comic effect. Take Right Ho, Jeeves (1934); the rich language and vivid colour of the King James Version is woven through the text. Sometimes it’s an echo, and the contrast with the solemn source material generates comedy, as when Bertie Wooster says of Aunt Dahlia’s approach: “And a moment later there was a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and the relative had crossed the threshold at fifty m.p.h. under her own steam.” That evokes the “rushing mighty wind” of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Acts 2:2.
At other times you get an explicit reference, such as when Aunt Dahlia complains to Bertie: “If the prophet Job were to walk into the room at this moment, I could sit swapping hard-luck stories with him till bedtime. Not that Job was in my class.”
“He had boils.”
“Well, what are boils?”
“Dashed painful, I understand.”
Wodehouse had a particular liking for the gruesome story of Jael, Heber the Kenite’s wife, who sedated the Canaanite leader Sisera with a milky drink then hammered a tent peg “through his temple, till it went down into the ground” (Judges 4:21).
Here is Bertie talking to his cousin Angela about why she cynically got engaged to Gussie to score off her ex-fiancé Tuppy: “You gentler sexes … pull off the rawest stuff without a pang. You pride yourselves on it. Look at Jael, the wife of Heber … Dug spikes into the guest’s coconut while he was asleep, and then went swanking about the place like a Girl Guide.”
There is something natural about the way the Bible lives in Bertie Wooster’s imagination, and that’s because not only was Wodehouse a brilliantly creative writer, but he was also a Victorian (born 1881). So was Bertie Wooster. For the Victorians the words of the Bible were part of their mental furniture, since most of them learnt to read from it.
Presumably when Edward Pearce deployed his references in the 1980s he thought that a chunk of his readers would still “get” Diana of the Ephesians, with a bit of contextualisation. But that represents the last gasp of the biblical reference. Since virtually no one reads the Bible at school today, even in church schools, a bottomless shared resource of culture and potential comedy has gone.
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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