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’.

Auberon was about seven years old when these character assessments were mailed to Evelyn’s friends, but the verdicts were not significantly softened with the passing years – indeed, the older Bron got, the more harshly he was likely to be judged. In his teens, he is said to be a ‘queer, morose boy, sloping round the woods with a gun alone and playing light opera on his gramophone’. He gets into scrapes and miniature rebellions, but it takes just a few unforgiving words from father to get him back on track: ‘Don’t write in that silly tone ... You have made a mess of things ... You must help yourself.’ And there was never any point – it should perhaps be said – in Auberon running to his mum. Her tenderness, he claims, was reserved for her small herd of cows: ‘She loved them extravagantly, as other women love their dogs or, so I have been told, their children.’

What he really wanted was to be patted on the head by pater. So far as we can tell, he never was. His mordant first novel was found to be needlessly offensive to the monks of Downside, its success entirely ‘undeserved’. Even his near-death in the Army aroused no more than a flicker of paternal interest. From a bed of pain in Cyprus, Auberon wrote Evelyn ‘a maudlin, deeply embarrassing letter telling him how much I admired him’. The letter was intended to be read ‘in the event of my pre-decease’. Even as Bron penned it, though, Evelyn was telling Diana Cooper that he had no plans to fly out to his stricken son – unless the boy died, of course, in which event he might feel obliged to put in an appearance. The only marks Auberon managed to win from the whole uncomfortable episode were for having been observed ‘quietly speaking the De Profundis in his extremity’.

Evelyn, of course, liked to be seen as having a brusque way with the emotions and – as we can deduce from the entertaining Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch – he would not have wished the likes of Diana Cooper to think of him as boringly tethered by fatherhood. He would also not have wished his lady-friend’s attention to be distracted from his own interesting personal development. Even so, it does seem that his dislike of young Auberon was genuine, (‘I think I must have been a difficult child to like,’ says the obliging Bron. And here, too, he was just like dad. In A Little Learning, Evelyn recalls with some satisfaction ‘the dislike in which I was held’ in early childhood.) When Bron told ‘the august creator of my being’ that he, Evelyn, was about to become a grandfather, the response was challengingly gnomic: ‘I hope the coming year will find you the father of a son as worthy of your devotion as you have been of mine.’ Auberon explains: ‘I do not think, as others may decide, that the ... sentence was intended ironically. Or at any rate, not very ironically. It certainly was not intended as an embittered father’s curse.’

Well, he should know – except that, on the matter of his dad, Auberon Waugh is not the most confident of explicators. He would probably wish now to be able to write about Evelyn with the same ease of condescension that he brings to other subjects, but whenever he does try to shuffle free of the intimidating presence (‘from that moment, I never treated anything he had to say on faith and morals very seriously’), we know that some counterbalancing obeisance will follow.

The overbearing presence of Evelyn perhaps explains the curious lopsidedness of Auberon’s account of his ‘First Fifty Years’. The pre-1966 material is rendered with an unusual care for detail. Episodes from infancy and adolescence are recalled with no more than the odd glint of affectation. And the prose in these early sections of the book is more workmanlike than in those which deal with Waugh’s own career as a prose-writer, where there is much repetition-and clumsiness (‘he was not someone with whom I ever established an instant rapport’).

Now and again, in the first hundred or so pages, we are in the presence of a genuine investigator of the past; later on, we are gradually introduced to the smirking columnist, the reminiscer; by the end, it is all Private Eye buffoonery and gossip. Since Auberon on Evelyn comes under Biography, there isn’t, on this subject, the usual scope for jaunty fibs. But Auberon’s filial respectfulness goes deeper than any nervousness about being rumbled by Waugh Studies. Even as a grown-up memoirist, he is incapable of being truly Bron-ish so long as – in his narrative – the remembered Evelyn still lives. To have written too saucily of family matters up to the year 1966 might have been to tempt terrible reprisals.

With Evelyn dead, Bron was both released and at a loss. He was gripped by two warring impulses: emulation and escape. Free to become himself, what self should he become? There was still a chance, he at first seems to have thought, that he might turn out to be a novelist with gifts of his own. He published five novels, and then stopped. It was not that the books were rubbish; indeed Bron is at pains to let us know which of them got good reviews or was chosen as a Book of the Year by Books and Bookmen. It was just that ‘any success which I might enjoy would always be attributed to the fact that my name had already been made famous in literary circles.’ There would from him be no ‘corpus of beautifully polished writing as a permanent memorial to his genius’ (which is how he describes his father’s work). How painful the repudiation was we do not learn, but we can guess.

For a time, in the late Sixties, Auberon thought of setting up as a straight-faced man of conscience, and we can measure the absurdity of this ambition by the amount of fuss he still makes over his one flirtation with a Cause. Writing of his efforts on behalf of the Biafrans, he almost brings a tear to the eye – his eye. One of his children, he says, is named Nathaniel Thomas Biafra. Should he have persevered along this high road? He would like us to think that he could have if he’d wished. The Biafran adventure he now presents as formatively souring: ‘I think it had a profound effect, convincing me not only of the fatuity of politics – I was already more than half convinced of that – but also of the wickedness of politicians.’

Auberon would now say that his career peaked in the late Seventies, with the Diary he kept for Private Eye. ‘However ephemeral it is bound to prove, I suspect it will remain my proudest achievement.’ Certainly, it was pretty funny at the time, but there is something rather ludicrous in the way he dredges up a string of ancient Eye vendettas as if they had been to do with fighting a good fight. More than once, he swells into the cadences of an old general reliving world-altering campaigns: ‘The enemies we made were worth making, the battles we fought were worth fighting. I am happy and proud to have been given the chance to serve beside him.’

The comrade-in-arms here is Richard Ingrams, with whom Waugh is now serving on a new journal called the Oldie. Ingrams, we learn from a recent interview, also has a father-problem. He told Lynn Barber that ‘he could not have worked for Private Eye if his father had been alive, because “he would have been so disapproving.” ’ Private Eye humour has often enough been called schoolboyish, and so it is, but perhaps we are close here to discovering its source: a fear of father, or at any rate a need to remain within a dread father’s imagined zone of jurisdiction. The fogey aspect of the Eye is thus meant to appease the father’s wrath; the urchin ingredient is what can be got away with when the old brute isn’t looking.

Commercially, it has been a winning formula, having an appeal both to nose-thumbing student types and to reactionary buffers from the shires. The young could be made to feel superior, the old to feel mischievous. Not bad. And for Auberon it was the perfect platform: he could be like his father after all – rude, bigoted, irascible and so on – but in short trousers. If Evelyn were watching, he would see not a grown-up hack journalist but a still-errant schoolboy, the Auberon of whom he wrote (in 1946): ‘I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober.’

Perhaps Private Eye served a similar function for the Ingrams psyche. We know little of his father. According to Lynn Barber, Leonard St Clair Ingrams was ‘a freelance banker’ whose doings are ‘shrouded in exotic mystery’. Leonard may or may not have been a great athlete, a fascist and a spy – ‘I don’t know if he was pro-German or pretending to be pro-German,’ Ingrams says. He may even have been put in a novel by Jean Cocteau, ‘as the archetype of the dashing English gentle-man’. Whatever he was, he died at the age of 53, and Ingrams ‘has just passed that age himself’. It has been observed that when a son gets to be older than his dead father ever was, strange things can happen to him. He might buy a house, get married or go gay. He is likely to feel that he has finally ‘come into his own’: he has no senior. Ingrams has chosen to celebrate his self-ownership by founding a magazine for 53-year-olds. He resigned some years ago from Private Eye because he felt that ‘he was losing his grip. He was very tired.’ The Oldie is aimed at a readership which might have some understanding of this malaise.

Certainly, the magazine seems mightily fatigued. The routine Spectator and Eye names are there, but wearily, the layout seems to have been borrowed from friends and there has clearly been a how-to-get-the-space-filled difficulty – note the full-page photograph of Lord Deedes of Accrington, 78, and another of the front door of Kelmscott Manor. And much of the writing needs an early night: Kelmscott is ‘a hard place to leave, for it is one of the most peaceful houses I have ever been in, but you can always linger on the way back and look at the Ernest Gimson cottage built for May Morris, William’s daughter, in 1915, and the memorial cottages designed by Philip Webb for Mrs Morris in 1902 ... The village hall was also designed by Ernest Gimson, and is well worth a glance.’ Which brochure was this lifted from, we have to ask, and why was Germaine Greer’s climactic paragraph not instantly redirected to Pseuds Corner?

The sunlight has turned faintly rose. A pallid moon like a broken plate is sidling up the sky behind the rags of thinning cloud. The night will be very, very cold. I am so full of joy that I am almost afraid to move in case I spill some.

The Oldie pretends to hate the young, but – like Private Eye – it actually sucks up to them. Freddie Mercury, Madonna, Heavy Metal and the like are given the expected dressing-down but with a knowing wink: we may be oldies but we’re not really out of touch, and nor are you. The Heavy Metal piece, for instance, could only be struggled through by someone who wanted to know, or already knew, the difference between Chuck Shuldiner of Death and Glen Benton of Deicide. There are some nice ideas – an oldies’ video column and a ‘Still with us’ feature about people who we think are dead: but even these have the feeling of a one-off joke, a dummy rather than a magazine that’s built to last. Unlike the former editor of Private Eye, I am inclined to welcome new periodicals and to hope that they survive. Of this one, though, I’ll settle for hoping that it does not die any sooner than it wants to.