Bite the Hand That Feeds You, By Henry Fairlie

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The Independent Culture

Henry Fairlie, who died at the age of 66 two decades ago, is remembered with awe by a few fellow journalists of his era. Born of a Scottish journalist father, he rapidly climbed the heights of British journalism before embarking for America in 1966, where he wrote mainly for the Washington Post and the political journal, New Republic. Linking his name with George Orwell, Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker maintains that his political essays "can induce something like ecstasy."

The title of this collection, immaculately edited by Jeremy McCarter, derives from Fairlie's legendary fearlessness. He once attacked the Washington Post, (where he had a column) in the New Republic: "One puts down the Washington Post each day with profound sense of dissatisfaction, that so much energy and intelligence... should have been expended to so little obvious purpose." Though Katherine Graham, the paper's owner, told Fairlie that his view was "bullshit", she kept his column.

Outside his chosen trade, Fairlie's prolific freelance output has been largely forgotten. Unlike Orwell, his many books have not lasted. Even among those who recall his name, Fairlie's versatile journalism has been eclipsed by his rackety personal life. A heroic drinker and womaniser, he dispatched his wife and three children back to England soon after settling in Washington. His financial ineptitude was exceptional even among journalists. Finding himself homeless, Fairlie took up residence in an office of the New Republic.

Reading this absorbing haul from 30-odd years, you are impressed by Fairlie's muscular style and remarkable range, but the most striking quality of his ruminations is their prescience. As early as 1988, he was pondering the burden imposed by the increasing number of elderly: "Old age must be redefined, with the majority of benefits going only to the needy... Early retirement must be discouraged." Even in the radical Sixties, Fairlie was an unwavering Conservative, though his idiosyncratic adherence to the right is reminiscent of Samuel Johnson. Indeed, many of his essays have an 18th-century tang. In 1963, he suggested that the gloomy expostulations of British pundits might be the result of "bad digestion". Even if you disagree with Fairlie, this collection offers much illumination and even more entertainment.