The basics of being a Walter Mitty are simple. Your delusions of grandeur must take the form of fantastical dreams and pretensions, and you must be their hero. Do you tick those boxes? Brilliant. You’re following in the footsteps of James Thurber’s most durable creation, the protagonist of his 1939 short story, and its 1947 film adaptation, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He’s the kind of guy who imagines a drive with his wife to be a death-defying military air mission, one that only ends when Mrs Mitty screams at him to slow down. Two-thirds of a century later, Ben Stiller’s sugared adaptation (released Boxing Day), is about a daydreamer who must become a real hero. But Walter Mitty has already been re-made thousands of times, for whenever journalists chuck his name at fantasists, its meaning is refined. These are the rules of its definition.
Rule One: all Walts are clowns, especially when caught out. Think of Grant Shapps, who has provided us with a particularly deep well of schadenfreude since it was revealed that the Tory Party Chairman had constructed a false personality to front his business, and that he allegedly promoted it by faking testimonials. Oh, how we laughed as Channel 4’s Michael Crick followed Shapps backstage at party conference, asking embarrassing questions while the Member for Welwyn Hatfield repeatedly failed to find the exit.
When someone like Shapps gets branded a Mitty, the sadism of our condemnation is on show, as well as the individual’s supposed dishonesty. But when the label’s not applied, it’s equally telling.
Former Co-op Bank chairman Paul Flowers seems like the perfect candidate for such a branding. In his vainglorious dreamland, a deficit in banking knowledge constituted the capacity to preside over £36 billion in customer deposits, while long term use of Class As was disguised as the quiet moralism of the Methodist movement.
However, his sad case avoided the Mitty label because the people surrounding Flowers actively bought into his deceit. His CV was well known, but as one act of groupthink led to another, the Co-op appointed him, the FSA approved and the Labour leadership put him on their finance and industry advisory board. It seems that, by contrast, real Walts must have patsies with no inkling of the truth. Rule Two: Mittys must be alone with their lies.
Like Flowers, Dr David Kelly was also not-a-Walt. But the man who may or may not have told Andrew Gilligan that Alastair Campbell had sexed up the dossier on Iraqi WMD was nonetheless branded as such by Tom Kelly, Tony Blair’s favoured spokesman.
The accusation was devastating because it seemed to make sense. With his reticent manner, wary eyes and tired, hanging jowls, the weapons inspector appeared too small for such a significant role in the greatest political scandal of the decade. But the moment Kelly was spun as a Walt, the story became digestibly coherent once more.
We ignored that he was a Nobel-nominated UN adviser on biological warfare, so it seemed like he was just a nobody pretending to be a somebody. The spin doctors, the journalists and the public relied upon Rule Three: all Walts are somehow undistinguished.
David Kelly’s tale shows that however big you are, you can always seem small. Even Harold Wilson, twice Head of Her Majesty’s Government, felt the need to show off. Once, when Margaret Thatcher was still Leader of the Opposition, he chastised her for demanding the freedom of Soviet prisoners. But he also announced that he had saved more of them than her, only he was too well-mannered to disclose how many.
On that occasion, the ‘Mitty’ label was so obviously deserved that the Times‘ political correspondent used it to describe him, not in a sketch, but in a front page report, and devoid of scare quotes. The British Establishment knows no greater shame.
Here we have evidence for Rule Four: Walts are “pathetic” in our laughing and sadistic sense of the word, but not so according to the piteous classical definition. Even after he left Downing Street, the politician suffered the indignity of having to sue for libel the publishers of a biography entitled “Sir Harold Wilson: Yorkshire Walter Mitty”.
All the Walts so far have shared one trait, which points to Rule Five: Mittys are men, and the only women ever described as such are those who give up their traditional gender roles by becoming leaders. This label has been slapped on Hilary Clinton a number of times, most memorably when she made the fictional and tellingly macho claim of having escaped sniper fire in Bosnia.
Women are rarely branded as Mittys because in a sexist society, their being out of touch with reality is treated as a given. If on one side of the coin, women are represented as a priori Walts, then on the other we have Rule Six: men who are Mittys are always emasculated. Indeed, Wilson was portrayed by his libellous biographer as a cuckold who only sought power because his mother never loved him.
This self-deception can be a strength. After Wilson won the February 1974 general election, the Times described his Walter Mitty tendencies as having “allowed him to bounce back every time he was thrown down”.
Even so, these rules are really a list of off-limit activities for anyone with ambition. Our rulers need arrogance, but they must make it suit them, and that brings us, finally, to Rule Seven: Walts are not posh. Grammar schoolboy Wilson could never wear his pretensions as well as Blair and Cameron later would, because Britain’s public schools teach pupils how to convince people with their hubris.
Consequently, X Factor contestants are today’s perfect Walter Mittys. The majority are in low-pay jobs with no prospect of career progression, and we laugh as millionaire panellists mock them for having ideas ‘above their station’.
That is the sad truth about Mitty: he has survived as a ploy in the sport of name-or-be-named. Every time we identify one of his ilk, we can ignore the fear that while few of us are Walts, all of us are fantasists.