Bite the Hand That Feeds You

Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations

Henry Fairlie
Edited and with an introduction by Jeremy McCarter
Foreword by Leon Wieseltier
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1njmzp
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Bite the Hand That Feeds You
    Book Description:

    Henry Fairlie was one of the most colorful and trenchant journalists of the twentieth century. The British-born writer made his name on Fleet Street, where he coined the term "The Establishment," sparred in print with the likes of Kenneth Tynan, and caroused with Kingsley Amis, among many others. In America his writing found a home in the pages of theNew Yorkerand other top magazines and newspapers. When he died, he was remembered as "quite simply the best political journalist, writing in English, in the last fifty years."

    Remarkable for their prescience and relevance, Fairlie's essays celebrate Winston Churchill, old-fashioned bathtubs, and American empire; they ridicule Republicans who think they are conservatives and yuppies who want to live forever. Fairlie is caustic, controversial, and unwavering-especially when attacking his employers. With an introduction by Jeremy McCarter,Bite the Hand That Feeds Yourestores a compelling voice that, among its many virtues, helps Americans appreciate their country anew.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15552-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Leon Wieseltier

    Henry Fairlie was the most independent spirit I have so far encountered in the highlands of journalism, which is of course a profession made up entirely of independent spirits. He carried his aversion to gangs and parties to extraordinary lengths, preferring friendlessness to clubbability, and regarding his alienation of others, especially his admirers, as somehow a mark of his probity. He regularly confirmed my belief that the surest sign of intellectual integrity is the willingness to offend one’s own congregation, though as the years wore on it was no longer clear who precisely belonged to Fairlie’s congregation. He was not...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-38)

    Even by the standards of a profession that likes to salute its own, the tributes to Henry Fairlie were unique. In theIndependent, he was dubbed “a mythic figure” who had been, for a time, “the most influential journalist in the country.” “His was a story of triumph and disaster,” according to theDaily Telegraph. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, the editor who had been a longtime friend, called him “quite simply the best political journalist, writing in English, in the last fifty years.”

    Political journalism was Fairlie’s chief profession, and it is for a political column that he is best known:...

  5. A GENIUS FOR CONFLICT: The Life of British Politics
    • Sketches of MPs
      (pp. 41-45)

      One can leave aside theDaily Mirror, which has now reached the point of billing each great speech by Sir Winston Churchill as “Positively his Last Appearance,” but there are still others of more serious intent who think that the Prime Minister has ceased to be a useful servant of the State. If they heard, or have read in full, his speech on the hydrogen bomb, they must either revise their opinion or be very deaf to the accents of leadership. Sir Winston Churchill uses oratory for a specific purpose: not to press home an argument or push a policy...

    • The BBC Attitude to Politics
      (pp. 46-50)

      There are two ways by which a political commentator can struggle through a Parliamentary recess. One is by substituting an “Economic Diary” for a “Political Diary.” The other is by writing what journalists know as a “think-piece.” During the next three weeks I am going to write three “think-pieces” on the causes of our present discontents—assuming, of course, that Sir Anthony Eden does not once more change the composition of his Government and that Mr. Gaitskell does not ask to see the Prime Minister again.¹ From time to time I am urged to make this column more “serious,” and...

    • In Defence of Ordinariness
      (pp. 51-54)

      Every reviewer should declare his interest; and I frankly confess that I sleep more soundly in my bed at night if I know that Parliament is sitting. It is becoming fashionable again to decry Parliament and its members. I wish, therefore, to use this occasion, not only to celebrate the second edition of one of the great constitutional textbooks of this century, but to celebrate also Parliament itself and its honourable members. It is one thing to criticise the activities of individual members of Parliament; it is quite another to criticise the activity of being a member of Parliament. It...

    • On the Comforts of Anger
      (pp. 55-67)

      Anyone who writes a fair amount (and we all, these days, write far too much) about political and social issues is always in danger of writing what may briefly be called “State of England” pieces: editors, for one thing, like them; and they are, for a second thing, easy to write. You only have to make a certain kind of noise. Elsewhere, I have called them “Wurra-wurra-wurra-wur-awaw-aw” articles, for that is the noise which the lions make inThe Rose and the Ringwhen they gobble up Count Hogginarmo; to this I have little to add, except that I have...

    • Evolution of a Term: THE ESTABLISHMENT
      (pp. 68-91)

      The term “the Establishment,” as it is now popularly used, was introduced into the common language and speech of England on September 23, 1955. Since then, it has made an antic journey into the language and speech of many other countries, and it is now reaching the dictionaries and reference books. It seems time to examine both its origins and its uses.

      When Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two officials of the British Foreign Office, disappeared, in 1951, I was a leader writer on theTimesof London, which still occupied its old building, at Printing House Square, E.C. 4....

    • Chips of Memory
      (pp. 92-98)

      My career as a movie actor was not long. But it had a certain dramatic unity to it. One line in one scene in one film. No critic gave my performance a bad review, and even today, when the movie is shown on the late-night shows, my appearance is passed over by the viewers in silence, the tribute of their unspeakable satisfaction and surrender.

      To explain why I gave up so promising a career, I need to tell the story from the beginning. I was the son of Scottish parents who moved to London, my father having thrown up his...

    • A Volcanic Flash: WINSTON CHURCHILL
      (pp. 99-112)

      The opening sentence of this eighth and final volume of the offcial biography of Winston Churchill finds him sleeping late on the morning after the surrender of Germany. He was 70. Within two months the British people would throw him out of offce; but any fear that the rest of his life will be an anti-climax is at once dispelled. He awoke that day to news of the capture of Rangoon, “the splendid close of the Burma campaign,” he telegraphed to Mountbatten; the struggle against Japan must continue. He lunched in bed, his most favored desk. To Truman he telegraphed...

  6. THE LAST, BEST HOPE FOR MANKIND: American Space and Time
    • A Cheer for American Imperialism
      (pp. 115-125)

      Is America an empire? It is a question which no American cares to ask himself and, if you ask it of him, he returns a hasty negative. “Imperialism is not in our blood. You are still thinking in terms of the British Empire.” I have got used, by now, to the answers. But it seems to me a question which needs not only to be asked but to be answered with some frank regard for the facts. To an outsider, the fact that America is an empire is the most obvious fact of all.

      The idea of empire, I realize,...

    • In Defense of Big Government
      (pp. 126-136)

      There is something more than a little deceitful in a presidential candidate who tries to get to Washington by saying that he is running “against Washington,” and hopes to be elected to the most powerful office in the world by proclaiming that he is against “big government.” A saloon-keeper might as well justify his application for a license by saying that he is a member of the Temperance Reform League. It is as if Julius Caesar had exhorted his troops to cross the Rubicon by saying that the purpose of their march on Rome was to restore the city to...

    • Let the Convention Be “a Brawl”
      (pp. 137-140)

      Nothing could be more exhilarating or more healthy for the American political system than a Democratic National Convention this year at which the nomination of the presidential candidate runs to 36 ballots.

      Perhaps it is too fanciful to expect it at the Republican Convention, but why not at Madison Square Garden? Why should the nation not be kept on tenterhooks as three and a half votes from Indiana at last switch from Birch Bayh on the eighteenth ballot, while on the twenty-fourth ballot the favorite son from West Virginia still holds his delegation—until at last a vote in the...

    • The Importance of Bathtubs: FAIRLIE AT LARGE
      (pp. 141-145)

      In order to reconcile their pupils to the spartan regime which they were forced to endure, the headmasters of English public schools used to warn them that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the decadent habits of the Romans, and especially by their habit of lolling about in warm baths.

      In the depth of winter, therefore, when icicles hung by the wall, and Dick the shepherd blew his nail, and Tom bore logs into the hall, and milk came frozen home in a pail, little English schoolboys were forced to immerse themselves, perhaps once a...

    • Mencken’s Booboisie in Control of GOP: FAIRLIE AT LARGE
      (pp. 146-150)

      To say so is of course a kind of apostasy from the true faith of a journalist in this country, but I am not a great admirer of H. L. Mencken, and will lay no wreath on his grave when his centenary is observed in September.

      Here and there his wit is coruscating, but usually it is labored, and too often he writes like a brewer. His denunciations of his victims can be pure savagery, and one cackles at them, like the old women sitting and knitting at the foot of the guillotine, but what else does one gain? The...

    • The Voice of Hope: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
      (pp. 151-161)

      “Fairlies don’t cry,” my mother told me. Even when I was a small boy growing up in London and my father arrived home dead in a taxi, my tears had to be contained until I was among my friends at school. I was therefore all the more surprised when, a few years later, on the morning of April 13, 1945, she came into my bedroom with tears of her own. She had to wake me, a lazy undergraduate on vacation. “Mr. Roosevelt is dead!” she announced, and added, choking, “It’s on the wireless!” I can remember no other occasion when...

    • My America!
      (pp. 162-179)

      I had reported from some twenty-four countries before I set foot in America. I will never forget the first shock—even after having been in every country from the Sudan to South Africa—at realizing that I was in another place entirely, a New World. In the casbah of Algiers during the first referendum called by de Gaulle in 1959,¹ when the women hurrying down the steep streets to vote for the first time pulled their yashmaks around their faces as they passed a man (which seemed to me only to make their dark eyes more fascinating), I was still...

    • If Pooh Were President: A TORY’S RIPOSTE TO REAGANISM
      (pp. 180-192)

      The pretense will be made during the next few months that the presidential election this year is a clash between two political philosophies. But one thing on which almost everyone is agreed is that the liberal philosophy that nourished the Democratic Party a generation or more ago has long since been exhausted. And it has not been replaced by a new one. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been saying for several years, “It is a long time since the Democrats had a new idea.”

      Any notion that the election will be fought over a political philosophy also rests on the...

    • Migration: WASHINGTON DIARIST
      (pp. 193-196)

      I returned to Washington in September, having spent fourteen weeks traveling around the United States in a Chevy van. One unexpected result of my journey is that I think it highly unlikely that I will spend another summer in Washington, and just as probable that I will shake the dust of the capital from my feet for good in fifteen months or so. More insistently than at any time in the past, I have found myself asking what the East Coast has to offer. The answer is now clear: with the exception of New York City, very little. Unless you...

    • Citizen Kennedy
      (pp. 197-202)

      On January 20 it will have been a quarter of a century since the young president stood bareheaded in the cold, and gave an inaugural address of such brilliance and power that Sam Rayburn pronounced it “better than anything Franklin Roosevelt said at his best—it was better than Lincoln.” Four of the presidents since then have given six inaugural addresses. We can remember not a word from any of them, nothing of the bearing of the men or the atmosphere of the ceremony. The inaugural address of John F. Kennedy can be quoted by those who were not even...

    • The Idiocy of Urban Life
      (pp. 203-211)

      Between about 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. the life of the city is civil. Occasionally the lone footsteps of someone walking to or from work echo along the sidewalk. All work that has to be done at those hours is useful—in bakeries, for example. Even the newspaper presses stop turning forests into lies. Now and then a car comes out of the silence and cruises easily through the blinking traffic lights. The natural inhabitants of the city come out from damp basements and cellars. With their pink ears and paws, sleek, well-groomed, their whiskers combed, rats are true city...

    • Merry faxmas: WASHINGTON DIARIST
      (pp. 212-216)

      If TNR were to choose a Man or Woman of the Year for its cover, my nomination for 1988 would be the five nuns of the Discalced Carmelites of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Morris Township, New Jersey, who this fall barricaded themselves in their monastery in protest against the introduction of modern comforts to their cloistered life. The worldly distractions against which they revolted, all introduced by Mother Teresa Hewitt since she took over the monastery a year ago, include “television, newspapers, radio, snacks, and a high-tech lighting system in the chapel,” according to the...

    • Greedy Geezers
      (pp. 217-225)

      Thirty percent of the annual federal budget now goes to expenditures on people over the age of 65. Forty years from now, if the present array of programs and benefits is maintained, almost two-thirds of the budget will go to supporting and cosseting the old. Something is wrong with a society that is willing to drain itself to foster such an unproductive section of its population, one that does not even promise (as children do) one day to be productive.

      It is always difficult to question the programs for the aging because of an understandable if increasingly misdirected sympathy for...

    • Brief Whining Moments: THE COLLAPSE OF ORATORY
      (pp. 226-234)

      So far in the presidential campaign this year neither candidate nor his running mate has made a speech that was worth hearing or, by any standard other than the meanest calculations of political advantage, worth delivering. What is more, we do not expect to hear anything resembling a memorable speech before the election is over. If voter turnout is lower in 1988 than even in other recent elections, this oratorical void will be one reason. After months of wearisome campaigning, the differences between the candidates and the parties are more blurred than at the beginning. The American people themselves are...

    • Pen Ultimate
      (pp. 235-239)

      “My, my!” Winston Churchill exclaimed shortly after the war, when an American said that he and his wife always got up to breakfast together. “My wife and I tried two or three times in the last forty years to have breakfast together, but it didn’t work.” Clementine Churchill found other ways to communicate with her husband during his busy days, not least by letter. Not only did the two of them write often lengthy letters to each other when they were apart, but Clementine wrote to him even when they were both at home. Her letters were frequently sharp corrections,...

    • Spurious George
      (pp. 240-244)

      On the 250th anniversary of his birth, I called George Washington “the greatest man who ever lived.” I did not then know that William IV, the son of George III, used precisely those words about him, and what is more, refused to qualify them after Washington died. Of other contemporary judgments, perhaps that of Abigail Adams, never easily taken in by anyone, not even her husband, is the most sufficient: “Take his character together, and we shall not look on his like again.” Of today’s salutes, none is better than that of his biographer, James Thomas Flexner: “The gentlest of...

    • Perrier on the Rocks
      (pp. 245-248)

      For a weekend, the news was big. Nothing more could happen in Moscow, since Dan Rather and Peter Jennings had left. But Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, and Rather all turned up in South Africa, and such is the power of the anchors, Nelson Mandela was at once released. Blacks in American cities as in South Africa danced in the streets. But the big news these days all seems to come from abroad. Nothing as significant and electrifying ever happens in America. No issue here arouses any passions. Wrong. On Saturday, February 10, a news story sent frissons, then shock waves,...

    • An Evening with Hooter
      (pp. 249-260)

      We headed south late one afternoon, having no idea where we would spend the night, more or less following the course of the Minnesota River through the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant to Le Sueur. The Green Giant Company is the only one of the canning and fast-freezing firms, drawing its vegetables from the truck farming in the area, which has its headquarters in Minnesota. I admire the Jolly Green Giant for that. Ho! Ho! Ho!

      So we came to Mankato, an immediately inviting town, but also, at a first glance as strangers, a puzzling one. We needed to...

  7. THE HARLOT’S PREROGATIVE: Writers and the Press
    • Necessary Weapons
      (pp. 263-267)

      Parliament has risen for the summer recess and the Chamber of the House of Commons is left, with its ghosts, to the parties of school children and curious New Englanders. In other words, this column, which began with the opening of Parliament last November, has now completed its first Parliamentary year. If my view of the general political situation has not become apparent during these nine months, then the failure has been so great that it can scarcely be rectified by a hurried summing-up in twelve hundred words. It seems to me to be far more useful to devote the...

    • Press Against Politics
      (pp. 268-279)

      At one point between about 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. on the morning of November 3, the voice of Walter Cronkite changed. After hours—and weeks—and months— of talking about Jimmy Carter as a candidate, he suddenly found himself using the words, “the President-elect.” There may be no way of hushing the voice of Walter Cronkite, but there is no doubt that his voice becomes hushed by itself in the presence of immanent power. If one can imagine the late Cardinal Cushing at the manger of the infant Jesus—a picture that does require a considerable exercise of imagination—one...

    • Magnates, Mischief, and Mass Circulation
      (pp. 280-292)

      Piers Brendon, inThe Life and Death of the Press Barons(Atheneum), defines a press baron “by his extravagant display of journalistic independence. What distinguished [him] from a mere conductor of newspapers . . . was his will to freedom. He was determined to run his life and his journals with as little interference as possible from outside—from politicians, commercial interests, advertisers, from his own kind, sometimes even from his readers, from popular opinion itself.” The press barons might be driven by a “ruthless quest for wealth, power and independence. But whatever their motives, their refusal to endure restraints...

    • How Journalists Get Rich
      (pp. 293-304)

      In the eighteen years since I first visited Washington, I have seen two major changes. The first I noticed after I had been away for three years and returned on the eve of Thanksgiving Day in 1975. I was struck by how altered the life of the city seemed, and wrote a piece for theWashington Post, which proclaimed in its headline: “Washington—A Capital at Last!”

      By this I meant the much more varied social and cultural life that was finding expression all over the place; and I attributed it to the way Washington seemed to have become a...

    • A Radical and a Patriot: RANDOLPH BOURNE
      (pp. 305-324)

      The pandemic of influenza that swept across the world at the end of 1918 killed some 25 million people. Willard Straight, the founder and owner ofThe New Republic, died in Paris. On December 19, a brilliant and impoverished young writer, formerly a frequent contributor toThe New Republicbut then bitterly at odds with it, was bothered by a cold, and moved into the apartment of the woman he was soon to marry, on the third floor of 18 West 8th Street, New York. Three days later, gasping for breath, balking at the oxygen, he asked for an eggnog....

    • Tory Days: GEORGE F. WILL
      (pp. 325-342)

      With this new volume, which covers the years (so far) of the Reagan presidency, George Will has given us three collections of his newspaper columns in eight years. He has also published one book whose title,Statecraft and Soulcraft, invites us to a work of political philosophy. Given that he is taken to be a conservative, and announces that he is a Tory, we can look to him for a clear statement of contemporary American conservatism, a definition of what an American conservative today should believe. And since Will’s career as a syndicated columnist has coincided with the flamboyant rise...

    • When Challenger Fell from the Sky
      (pp. 343-346)

      With an immediate concern for the feelings of the pupils in his charge, Mr. Charles Foley, the principal of Concord High School, asked the students to return to their classrooms and the reporters and cameramen to leave the building. In that local and exact response, he distinguished himself from the hollow emotions that television tried to arouse in the American people from the moment Challenger exploded and fell from the sky. For a nation, rightly, a president speaks. Like presidents before him at such moments, President Reagan was adequate to the occasion and humble in his address. But as if...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 347-348)
  9. Index
    (pp. 349-355)