From the October 1998 issue of Chronicles.
When, after a stint in the British Army which left him crippled for life, Auberon Waugh went up to Oxford in 1959, by his own admission he knew nothing of the place apart from what he had read in his father’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, describing the Oxford of 35 years earlier—and in Sinister Street, portraying Oxford 25 years before that, and Zuleika Dobson, ten years earlier still. He was appalled, he recalls, “by how few public schoolboys there were, appalled by the number of earnest, working-class youths whose humorless faces betokened young men on the make.” It was equally sobering to learn that few of his contemporaries at university “had ever heard of Evelyn Waugh, let alone read Brideshead.” But of course. The ambitious working-class youths had not yet taken to television in those days, and it was not until John Mortimer’s adaptation of the Oxford novel for the screen that Evelyn Waugh became as famous as he is now.
I start on this note because both in real life—that is to say, the cultural life of London during the last 30 years—and in his own autobiography—the off-the-cuff squib under review here—Bron Waugh is shadowed, if not always overshadowed, by his electronically enlarged father. This is absurd, but it often happens. During much of his life, Boris Pasternak had to smile pleasantly and endure comparisons with his father, an academic painter, laid on by family well-wishers. I do not want to argue that there is not much in Waugh père that is as funny as anything in Jerome K. Jerome, or as precisely observed as anything in Somerset Maugham. I merely wish to point out that without Waugh fils and his band of merry men at Private Eye and elsewhere, London as I have known it would not have existed. It may not exist much longer anyway, but at least an honest review may repay an aesthetic debt for one writer’s attempts at keeping alive what is truly worthy of preservation.
Better than any novel by anybody’s father, Waugh’s journalism prepares us for life in the continuous present of a civilization on its last legs. This treasure is collected in the two volumes of his magazine or newspaper diaries, Four Crowded Years (1976) and A Turbulent Decade (1985), and two additional volumes of newspaper column-type essays, In the Lion’s Den (1978) and Another Voice (1986). The last time I looked, “Another Voice” was still running in the Spectator, while the Telegraph was continuing to pay Waugh to vent his emerald spleen alongside my friend Michael Wharton in “Way of the World.” The diary genre, as adapted to journalism, is long lost in the United States, and it is now next to impossible to describe to an American audience the hideous excitement of opening a mainstream broadsheet to check whom or what Bron Waugh is skewering this morning. “My own small gift,” he notes here, is “for making the comment, at any given time, which people least wish to hear.”
When Conrad Black bought the Telegraph, where Waugh’s column had been appearing since 1981, he appointed Peregrine Worsthorne as the editor. At one point in this memoir we learn, apparently apropos of nothing whatsoever, that “Claudie Worsthorne, wife of the great Conservative thinker” once told Waugh that “her husband wore a hairnet to bed.” But when we later read that, on Worsthorne’s elevation, “things did not go quite so smoothly” with the Sunday Telegraph column, the frivolous intelligence picked up along the way comes in handy.
Perry is not, of course, a vain man, but I had the impression that he rather resented the expression of opinions other than his own on the page which now belonged to him. His first action on becoming editor was to announce that he was moving the column off the leader page. I resigned. Perry would probably not have minded in the least to lose me, but other counsels prevailed. . . . What in fact had happened was that his dear wife, Claudie, had told him that if he lost my column, she was going to cancel the Sunday Telegraph.
Bear in mind that Perry Worsthorne is by no means one of the villains of the decade. In fact, he is a kind and in many ways gifted man, with the shortcomings and weaknesses—apart from his colossal vanity—of just about anybody else in highbrow journalism. But to be Bron, the “vituperative artist” of his own definition, is to have no easy friends and no corporate loyalties, to accept the face of no man unless, perhaps, he likes the look of his wife. As is the case, for instance, with the late Charles Douglas-Home—undoubtedly the last great editor of the Times—to whom he had taken a rather groundless dislike which he later hoped would be mitigated by his fulsome praise of Jessica.
With the feigned naivete that is another trademark of Waugh’s journalism, this book is divided into two sections, some 200 pages for “Youth” and a mere 80 pages for “Maturity.” It does not surprise me in the least that the first section, more classically “autobiographical” in that it covers Waugh’s relationship with his father and the many branches of a becomingly complex family tree, is actually quite dull. This is because, deep down, Waugh does not fully appreciate his own uniqueness and cannot entirely accept his role in the modern world as the great progenitor he is, rather than a mere descendant of a world that is no more. Bron Waugh modest?! In this sense he is excruciatingly so, to the detriment of his writing. He simply cannot write—not with a straight face, at any rate—in a genre that he has not himself at least in part invented. Perhaps for this very reason, though it may also be just so much perverse coquetry, he is very firm about dissuading us from reading any of his five published novels.
The second, ridiculously brief, section where he finally comes into his own as England’s favorite venomous viper is itself worth the price of the book. Here, for instance, is how Waugh describes the birth of a great British institution, the “Diary” in Private Eye:
The essence of the ‘Diary’, as it emerged, was that it was a work of pure fantasy, except the characters in it were real. If ever some president or head of state paid an official visit, I was there to greet him. If ever the Queen gave a ball or luncheon party, I was there to dance with her or help her survive the terrible bores who had in fact been invited—their names were often available in the court circular or gossip columns. The technique, whenever possible, was to find someone who had been present and could give an amusing account of what had happened, and then stretch and distort it, inserting myself in whichever role seemed appropriate—the sexual opportunist, the millionaire patron of the arts and learning, the M.I.5 or CIA agent, the drunk, the Thomist theologian, the confidential adviser to princes and presidents. It worked very well indeed, and I began to think I might have created a new art form.
Notice the meek “might” in the last sentence. I swear, to his dying day Bron Waugh will continue believing that his father’s novels are the loftier achievement. I leave the reader with a similar thought from the author, one of the few occasions in this book when his tone turns overtly philosophical:
It was many years before I could break the habit of viewing every event with half an eye to the bulletin I would send to my father. Even now, I find that when I hear a funny story about someone in whom he would have been interested—the child of a friend, perhaps, or some grandee—I mentally store it away to repeat to him. There always follows a pang of bereavement when I remember that he is no longer around to hear it. But the strain of living two lives, one on my own, and the other through his eyes, was greatly relieved by his sudden death. Perhaps nobody is completely grown up until both his parents are dead.
[Will This Do? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh: An Autobiography, by Auberon Waugh (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers) 288 pp., $24.00]