Bryan Appleyard: Who are you calling gloomy?

Both the nature and scale of feature writer Bryan Appleyard's output have earned him grandee status. He just wishes people saw more of his funny side, he tells Ian Burrell

Bryan Appleyard, the great sage of The Sunday Times who for two decades has pondered the meaning of life in his weekly analysis of the latest scientific discovery or cultural development, has momentarily clambered under his own microscope.

"The box I'm most commonly put in is right wing," he says. "This is completely incomprehensible to me. I certainly would have said I was conservative but I don't know what right wing means any more. I'm certainly not as far to the right as Blair. On some things I'm conservative and on some things I'm not. I completely believe in global warming which seems to be a left-wing thing to believe. I completely believe in the necessity of central government to regulate markets and I completely believe in markets. The only thing I'm sure I am is culturally conservative - the only way you have a culture is being conservative."

Appleyard, three times winner of Feature Writer of the Year at the British Press Awards, is sensitive to what others say of him. So much so that when the former Independent on Sunday editor Peter Wilby recently described him as "the most cerebral, if gloomy, writer in the industry", Appleyard went on to his website, bryanappleyard.com, to post an entry on his blog. Not only did he question the notion that his work was "gloomy" but he also admitted that Wilby's suggestion had so affected him that he had written an unjustifiably upbeat review of a book (Affluenza by Oliver James) in The Sunday Times. "I suspect that I was thinking about [Wilby's comment] when I wrote the review and, as a result, gave James an easier ride than he deserved," he blogged.

Appleyard is not only one of Britain's best-known journalists, but he is also a prolific author, and in both capacities he manages to get underneath people's skin. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks he wrote in The Sunday Times such a passionate defence of America and its place in the world that it prompted a deluge of letters from readers.

"That piece got up a lot of people's noses and got me pigeon-holed as bog-standard right wing," he recalls, speaking in his sixth-floor London flat. "Everyone assumed it meant I was a neocon. It didn't. America has guaranteed my freedom all my life and whether you like it or not we are protected by America."

Appleyard wrote the piece because he had been riled by a notorious edition of the BBC's Question Time, broadcast after the tragedy. "The audience howled down the ex-US ambassador when 3,000 of his countrymen had just been killed. They were dancing on their graves. There was a distinctly dodgy New Statesman leader saying these people weren't innocent. For God's sake! Disgraceful! I was very angry and probably overstated the point."

Considering his undoubted success, his forthright writing style and his naming of his website Thought Experiments, Appleyard is not without humility. "I remember thinking a few years ago that I've been writing for The Sunday Times since the mid-1980s and they've never published a favourable letter about me," he observes.

Within the scientific community, he is something of a bête noire, though he claims that some former critics have since become his friends. In 1992 Appleyard published a book called Understanding the Present, which questioned the positive histories of science and derided what he saw as the "crass popularisations of the subject". The publication coincided with a Tory government White Paper on science and was promptly denounced as right-wing propaganda. "Since then I have been known as this crazed critic of science which isn't quite accurate. These paranoid lunatics were convinced that I was an agent of the Tory government. I didn't even know there was a White Paper coming. I wasn't interested in that. I couldn't open a newspaper for about three weeks because scientists were queuing up to trash me."

The experience hasn't inhibited him and he has since published books on several other science-related themes, including Aliens: Why They Are Here ("Curious, cranky" - The Observer) and, most recently, How to Live Forever or Die Trying ("He doesn't understand science" - The Independent).

While the former showcased Appleyard's journalistic dedication - he underwent hypnosis in order to "witness" a space ship - it is the latter project that best reflects Appleyard's constituency. At 55, he is, as much as anyone in the British media, a voice of the baby-boomers. Appleyard doesn't think much of the generation in the media that came after him which he believes is blundering off in search of a youth culture it doesn't understand.

"There's a very self-conscious attempt by certain types of 40-ish executives to grab a hold of the internet, new technology, youth, everything. I don't think they're intuitively able to do it. I think older people are. I was marinaded in popular culture in the late 1960s and I completely get it. I completely lived it."

These self-conscious 40-somethings are not good for newspapers, he believes, turning them into audio and video-based media and turning reporters into bloggers. "I think blogging is blogging and newspapers are newspapers. They are different things. I strongly believe and hope it comes true that newspapers will suddenly rediscover what they do best - which is being newspapers. I don't believe that newspapers are iPods, which seems to be the thinking at the moment."

Appleyard, who is from Bolton, had an "old-fashioned gutbucket training" in journalism, starting out on the Wimbledon News, then working as a city reporter for the United Newspapers regional press group. He joined The Times but was glad to leave, going freelance just as newspapers began developing the multi sections that craved the long pieces that are his trademark. He has contributed to The Independent and once wrote an interview with Keith Richards for Vanity Fair. ("I didn't enjoy the experience; they overedit everything. They drained a lot of the blood out of the piece.")

But The Sunday Times - from the News Review section to the magazine - has become home. "It is unbelievably indulgent towards me. I get away with murder. I get some pretty obscure stuff in there."

To "expose folly" is a principal aim of an Appleyard piece, he says. "What I like doing best is pointing out what seem to me to be gigantic misconceptions, trying to expose patterns under arguments and the way they are presented." It was Appleyard who encouraged the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil to establish its arts supplement The Culture, a response to the success of Julie Burchill and Toby Young's Modern Review, which he had partly inspired through his serious treatment of popular culture.

Though steeped in the ways of the press, Appleyard is anything but suspicious of new media. His website, nine months old, has become an obsession, and he monitors the origins of his web traffic to a level that the Mori founder Bob Worcester would be proud of. "China became the biggest country viewing it this week. There's a regular in Mongolia and one in Uruguay, who might be Martin Amis."

He walks down to his uncluttered study, which is decorated with paintings by his friend, the architect Will Alsop. He cannot resist another check of his site. Last week he was posting away furiously at the crack of dawn on such subjects as avian flu (Dead Turkeys and Rationality, 5.53am) and the maverick footballer Joey Barton (Footballer Talks Sense Shock, 6.13am). His blogging, he claims, is 30 per cent serious and 70 per cent funny. Leaving not much room for gloomy.

Bryan Appleyard's 'How to Live Forever or Die Trying' is published by Simon and Schuster at £12.99

Voices
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
scienceHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
scienceBumping fists rather than shaking hands could reduce the spread of infectious diseases, it is claimed
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

BI Analyst

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency in Central Lo...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried