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,, 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

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

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

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice