Cold Shoulders, Short Trousers

Ian Hamilton

  • Will this do? by Auberon Waugh
    Century, 288 pp, £15.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7126 3734 6
  • Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper edited by Artemis Cooper
    Hodder, 344 pp, £19.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 340 53488 5

When Evelyn Waugh died in 1966, his son Auberon felt that a ‘great brooding presence’ had been lifted ‘not only from the house but from the whole of existence’. Auberon was in his twenties then, and – as he tells it in his book of memoirs – he had long ago got used to living in the shadow of his famously unpleasant dad. ‘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.’ ‘The strain of living two lives, one on my own, and the other through his eyes, was greatly relieved by his sudden death.’

Indeed he was a most loyally imitative son – and remained so, long after the lifting of the presence. He wrote satirical novels and became a ‘grinding snob’. He attended Roman Catholic church services until Cardinal Hume turned them into ‘kindergarten assemblies’ which would be ‘completely unrecognisable’ to Evelyn. He secured a commission in his father’s regiment and then, as if in some post-Waugh comic fiction, peppered himself with bullets from his own bren gun. He married well and learned to write sneeringly about the working classes. He served time as a down-market Fleet Street dandy and as an indignant country squire. He went to Africa, he lost hair, trod on toes, and made no secret of one or two ignoble yearnings. ‘An ancient name, a stately home and a couple of thousand acres’ would, we understand, have had a calming influence on Evelyn. So, too, with the son.

Auberon believes, or so he says, that one of his father’s great missions in life was to ‘make jokes, to turn the world upside down and laugh at it, to enrich and enliven this vale of tears with a little fantasy’. He also says he believes that the old man’s fabled rudeness was no more than the nervous exasperation of an artist whose audience rarely understood what he was up to. Evelyn’s great fear was ‘incomprehension’: ‘It was this, more than anything else, which he dreaded, and which made him shun strangers with a rudeness which never failed to make people gasp. “Why do you expect me to talk to this boring pig?” he would suddenly shout at his hostess about some fellow guest. “He is common, he is ignorant and he is stupid, and he thinks Picasso is an important artist.” ’ This story is told fondly by a son who now boasts of himself: ‘Looking back over my career and at all the people I have insulted, I am mildly surprised that I am allowed to exist.’

Unhappily, it was also Evelyn’s fear of not being comprehendingly admired that caused him so often to rebuff his children’s efforts to impress him. Auberon in particular was given the cold shoulder, being treated from infancy with a mixture of indifference and contempt. Although Evelyn’s ‘desire for a son and heir could not have been stronger if he had been a reigning prince’, there was evidently something about the tiny Bron, when he appeared, that fell seriously short of the ideal. The boy was swiftly reckoned to be ‘sly, without intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual merit’, he was ‘mindless and obsessed with social success’, a sort of ‘defective adult ... sadly boring’.

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