- A Scribbler in Soho: A Celebration of Auberon Waugh edited by Naim Attallah
Quartet, 341 pp, £20.00, January, ISBN 978 0 7043 7457 7
On National Service in Cyprus in 1958, Auberon Waugh, having ‘miraculously’ become an officer, was sent out with his troop to cover the Nicosia-Kyrenia road between the Turkish village of Guenyeli and the Greek village of Autokoi. This was during the civil war at the time known as the Cyprus Emergency, and the aim of the mission was to prevent either village taking reprisals against the other. While his men were getting into position, Waugh noticed that something was blocking the elevation of the machine gun on the front of his armoured car. He got out to fix it, taking the opportunity to ‘seize the barrel from in front and give it a good wiggle’. As recounted in his autobiography, the incident unfolds in a laconic slow motion: ‘I realised that it had started firing. No sooner had I noticed this than I observed with dismay that it was firing into my chest. Moving aside pretty sharpish, I walked to the back of the armoured car and lay down.’ Six bullets had gone through him, inflicting injuries that compromised his health for the rest of his life and contributed to his early death at the age of 61 in 2001.
The journalism with which he made his name took essentially the same approach. Standing head on to a subject and giving it ‘a good wiggle’, regardless of the consequences, became his stock in trade. Many journalists are fearless in the pursuit of truth, but Waugh was not, for the most part, a campaigning or a political writer. He thought there was ‘nothing so ridiculous’ as the posturing of journalists who saw themselves as part of a ‘sane and pragmatic’ political process. His attitude to truth is best described as dynamic. In the aftermath of the shooting, he recounted, his corporal of horse, Chudleigh, ‘a tough Bristolian’, had looked at him so solemnly ‘that I could not resist the temptation to say: “Kiss me, Chudleigh.”’ Having failed to get the historical reference, Chudleigh treated him ‘with some caution’ thereafter. Chudleigh himself denied the exchange had ever taken place and Waugh concludes: ‘I have told the story so often now that I honestly can’t remember whether it started life as a lie.’ The ability to blend truth with invention on a sliding scale from the plausible to the surreal was the key to Auberon Waugh’s Diary, a column that ran in Private Eye from 1972 until 1985, which he regarded as his greatest achievement, and in which he claimed, with justice, to have invented a new form, ‘a work of pure fantasy, except that the characters in it were real’.
Affecting the persona of a grand country landowner with friends at court and exaggeratedly Edwardian views, Waugh responded to topical events. At one moment, he was in anxious consultation with the queen about the difficulty of finding a second husband for Princess Margaret and at another accompanying Idi Amin on the viola, enjoying his ‘light tenor’ in a selection of parlour ballads. The atmosphere of the Diary cast an aura of wild improbability over even such presumably real events as a press reception for the English Country Cheese Council. Learning that George Best is for sale for £200,000, he toys with the idea of using a recent legacy to buy him as ‘a companion on my occasional visits to the night club scene of our metropolis’, but reflecting that Best has a reputation for being ‘rather off-hand’ with his employers and speaking with an impenetrable accent, he decides to buy ‘a little Filipino servant instead’. There was no cage Waugh would not rattle. Sometimes it was just for fun. He could be, as his former colleague Max Hastings put it, ‘manically mischievous’. At others he would make a point with Swiftian savagery, as in July 1977 when the Gay News trial came to court. Mary Whitehouse, the campaigner against the ‘permissive society’, had brought a private prosecution against the magazine on a charge of blasphemous libel because of a poem by James Kirkup it had published which described Jesus having sex with a variety of men, including Pontius Pilate. John Mortimer and Geoffrey Robertson appeared for the defence, but lost. Gay News was fined and its publisher given a suspended prison sentence. ‘I have an open mind about queer-bashing,’ Waugh’s diary reflected, ‘from one point of view it seems rather cruel … I simply don’t know.’ ‘But,’ he concluded, ‘if it has to be done, it should be done properly on Wimbledon Common and not in an underhand way at the Old Bailey.’
The diary was a theatre of the absurd which Waugh occasionally took on tour in a kind of performance journalism, most notably during the 1979 general election. This was part of his ‘oblique, crablike’ pursuit of Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal Party. Allegations that Thorpe had hired a hit man to dispose of his former lover Norman Scott had been cropping up since 1975, nowhere more persistently than in Private Eye. Thorpe had used his influence and the libel laws to avoid prosecution, and Waugh felt the press had been craven. In 1977 Andrew Newton, the comically incompetent hit man who had missed Scott but killed his dog, Rinka, was released from prison and started hawking his story round the papers. Thorpe, as anxious to deny his homosexuality as the charge of attempted murder, set out to square the press. The diary reported:
To New Scotland Yard where Jeremy Thorpe has called a press conference to discuss various allegations that have been made about his sex life. I have many interesting new allegations to make, but they throw me out at the door.
When all the weeping toadies are assembled, only one of them dares to ask him whether he has ever done it. Mr Keith Graves, of BBC TV, who is hereby given the Gnome Award for News Reporter of the Year, has been vilified by every prig and pharisee in Fleet Street for asking the only worthwhile question.
Poor Jeremy. He is his own worst enemy, but with friends like these he really has no need of himself. The only remaining mystery is why the Liberal Party policy committee decided to murder Scott rather than Jeremy.
The next year Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder and was awaiting trial at the time of the 1979 election. Waugh was infuriated by the way the ‘savage’ British libel laws, a minefield through which he was obliged to tiptoe, could be manipulated ‘as a convenience for the rich and powerful to save themselves from criticism’. Richard Ingrams, then editor of Private Eye, suggested that, since he felt so strongly, Waugh might stand for Parliament himself. It’s possible Ingrams was joking, but Waugh took up the suggestion and ran in Thorpe’s North Devon constituency for the Dog Lovers’ Party, campaign slogan: ‘Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof.’ Before Thorpe’s lawyers could get an injunction, the Dog Lovers’ manifesto was printed in the Spectator and the Guardian. It argued that while Thorpe should be considered innocent unless proved guilty, for a man ‘publicly accused of crimes which would bring him the cordial dislike of all right-minded citizens and dog lovers’ to be hailed as ‘a hero’ and applauded by the Liberal Party at its Conference was ‘disgusting’. The manifesto was duly banned and Thorpe’s barrister, George Carman QC, an old antagonist of the Eye, brought a charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice against Waugh, which was upheld on appeal by Lord Denning.
This prevented Waugh from campaigning, but he still won 79 votes. He noted that allegations of attempted murder were not enough to cause more than five thousand Liberal voters to abandon their loyalty to the party. He found this shocking. There was something in Waugh of Molière’s misanthrope, Alceste, a savagery of disillusionment that came from having once believed better of humanity. Waugh had stood for Parliament before, in 1969, in a bid to draw attention to the Biafran famine. He had been to Biafra and seen for himself the effects of the blockade by the Nigerian federal government (Biafra had declared independence from Nigeria), supported by the British. With the South African activist Suzanne Cronjé, he published Biafra, Britain’s Shame, made a speaking tour of universities and attended rallies in Trafalgar Square. It was a role that ‘did not come easily’, as he admitted, but he thought that if people knew the truth they would change their minds. His election meetings were thinly attended, then Biafra collapsed and the cause was dead. It was Waugh’s only attempt to take up a public cause, ‘with all the pomposity and self-importance’ required, and it convinced him of ‘the fatuity of politics’ and the ‘wickedness of politicians’, who were prepared to commit any atrocity in the pursuit of power ‘if they think they can get away with it’. With the Thorpe campaign he repeated historic tragedy as satirical farce. It’s unclear to what extent his scepticism was the cause or the consequence of his decision in later life to abandon the Catholic faith in which he had been brought up. Musing in the Literary Review in July 1998 about the rodomontade of book festivals, he wrote: ‘It would be absurd to describe such pleasant occasions as a waste of time. Is anything a waste of time, in the perspective of a godless eternity?’
It is these editorials, written ‘From the Pulpit’ during his editorship of the Literary Review from 1986 until his death, which form the most useful part of Naim Attallah’s ‘celebration’. As a survey of Waugh’s career this collection is less balanced than William Cook’s anthology of 2010, Kiss Me, Chudleigh, the World According to Auberon Waugh. Attallah, who is chairman of Quartet Books and who bankrolled the Review and Ingrams’s magazine the Oldie for many years, is not unreasonably concerned to focus on his own relationship with Waugh and through him on the last days of the Soho world of Grub Street scribblers. Attallah’s own standing as an author has been somewhat ambiguous since 2004, when Jennie Erdal’s memoir, Ghosting, explained that she had written many of Attallah’s books and much of his journalism. Neither she nor Attallah seems to have been resentful about the relationship, and it seems, reading this book, that he is now so used to having his writing done for him he is unperturbed by the fact that his own supposed ‘commentary’ often refers to him in the third person. It is almost as if he has not only not written it, he hasn’t read it either. This, and the absence of any notes to clarify contemporary references, make the book somewhat baffling at first, but it comes in time to seem the sort of absurdist format that Waugh would probably have enjoyed.
In his time as a columnist he wrote for many papers, from the Catholic Herald to the Daily Mail, by way of the Spectator, the New Statesman and the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. The Private Eye diary, however, saw him at his best. Nobody but Ingrams, as Waugh acknowledged, would have published it and taken the attendant crossfire, certainly not for 14 years. The end came in 1986. Waugh was the victim of a practical joke after his friend Henry Porter, who was working on the Sunday Times, sent him a letter apparently from Claire Tomalin, the paper’s literary editor, asking him to review Mae West Is Dead, Adam Mars-Jones’s selection of lesbian and gay fiction, adding that she would ‘expect a generous piece’. Waugh duly relayed this breach of professional etiquette to readers of the diary, whereupon Tomalin had no alternative but to sue. To Waugh’s disappointment, Ingrams was minded to accept an out of court settlement. Waugh made vigorous attempts to inflame the situation, giving it ‘a good wiggle’ with a number of articles in the Spectator which he hoped would lead to a charge of contempt of court, but to no avail. The anti-climax left him depressed. ‘If all libels were to be settled by large sums of money out of court, what joy was there in writing them?’ Two months later he resigned. At his farewell lunch he was upstaged by Ingrams, who announced his own retirement to cries of dismay all round, except from the ‘small young man called Ian Hislop’ who sat ‘tight-lipped’ as Waugh begged Ingrams to stay. After lunch Waugh walked round the corner to the offices of the Literary Review and took up his last job.
The Literary Review began life forty years ago, along with the LRB and Quarto, with which the Literary Review later merged, during the Times lockout, which meant that the TLS was not published for a year. This created a vacuum into which hopeful new magazines flooded. My first job was on Quarto where I worked for the editor, Craig Raine, on the Alice principle, that he was one and I was all the rest. I remember the literary scene Attallah recalls, a world of long lunches, overflowing ashtrays and the regular run to Gaston’s, the depot where pristine review copies were somewhat furtively exchanged for hard cash to be spent later at L’Escargot. By 1986 that world was dying, indeed its death had been pronounced repeatedly for at least twenty years by Soho habitués from Quentin Crisp to Jeffrey Bernard. At the root of the perhaps unlikely friendship between Waugh and Attallah was a commitment to keeping up the old ways. The offices were cramped and editorial work was done amid chain-smoking, bridge playing and heavy drinking, which was not confined to the men. These fledgling papers employed young people, notably young women, in proper, if badly paid jobs. From the Literary Review Waugh helped to launch the careers of arts journalists including Laura Cumming and Kate Kellaway, and the poet Carol Rumens. Members of staff at a particularly low financial ebb might be put up rent free in his flat.
The Academy Club, which Attallah founded at Waugh’s request in the tiny basement of the Literary Review’s offices, was a place for more drinking and talking. There was an erratically enforced ‘no poets’ rule, because Waugh claimed that poets talked about nothing but themselves and never paid for their drinks. It was the poetry itself, however, that he really couldn’t stand. ‘Free verse’ was one of his bêtes noires. It was in the spirit of the Review that while Waugh complained in his column about the unsolicited poems that arrived by every post, he acknowledged that the poetry editor, Rumens, ‘on whom the task of reading all this drivel falls’, took a different view. Thus, while she selected poems to go in the magazine, Waugh attempted to encourage the sort of verse he preferred with a regular competition. Entries were to be in a traditional form, such as haikus or terze rime. His conception of the role of editor extended to the active discouragement of certain kinds of writing, hence his invention of the Bad Sex Prize, which still flourishes, and was meant for the ‘admonishment and guidance’ of novelists. The actual prize went to the reader who sent in ‘the most remarkable example of bad sexual description taken from any novel published this year’, while the award was presented at an elaborate ceremony featuring readings from the unlucky winner’s efforts. Recipients have included Rachel Johnson and Melvyn Bragg.
At the Literary Review Waugh held up a distorting mirror to the literary world. Some of his scepticism must have been a product of his relationship with his father. Geoffrey Wheatcroft noted that as he grew older Waugh ‘became more candid about his father, until in his memoir Will This Do? (1991) he admitted that he had been starved of affection as a child’. Wheatcroft suggests that this may have informed his ‘savage public personality, by contrast with a private man who … was genial and generous’. Perhaps. Waugh exhibited that mixture of pride and resentment towards ‘Evelyn Waugh’, as he referred to him, that the sons of overpowering fathers often feel. At the same time, he may simply have inherited his father’s vituperative streak. He was relentless in pursuit of vendettas, one of the most successful of which was the campaign against Anthony Powell, which offered scope for every element of Waugh’s mixed feelings about literary life. He objected to Powell’s ‘abominable’ prose, to his pretentiousness in insisting that his name be pronounced ‘Pole’ because of his supposed descent from a 12th-century Welsh king, and to the fact that Powell thought the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time was on a par with the novels of Evelyn Waugh. After years of mutual antagonism, the feud came to a spectacular climax in 1990 when Powell published a collection of his reviews, many of them from the Telegraph, where he was lead reviewer. Exactly how and why that paper’s literary editor, Nicholas Shakespeare, came to send Powell’s Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers to Waugh remains obscure. As recently as January last year Shakespeare was still trying to explain the course of events in the Spectator. Waugh’s review, which he insisted was a ‘good-natured’ bit of fun, was precisely calibrated to hit all of Powell’s many tender spots, from his snobbery – ‘the fortnightly lead review by Anthony Powell has become an institution for which I can think of practically no equivalent in the whole field of British publishing, unless perhaps the excellent Jennifer’s Diary in … Harper’s & Queen’ – to ‘the wonderfully recycled source of his literary style’ and his lack of humour. Hell broke loose on a scale beyond Waugh’s wildest hopes. Powell resigned from the Telegraph, Shakespeare was ‘allowed to leave’, and, to make up for the offence it had caused, the newspaper took the extraordinary step of commissioning a bust of Powell to go in its offices. Waugh wondered if that was entirely wise: ‘people are often sensitive about these things.’
Not all of his campaigns were so funny or so fair. Powell was himself a great bearer of grudges and should have been able to take it on the chin, but Waugh was capable of turning on anyone, including his friends. Choosing Will This Do? as his Sunday Telegraph Christmas book choice, Kingsley Amis wrote: ‘Despite the known dangers of mentioning this person, even favourably, I nominate Auberon Waugh’s volume of autobiography … It is not the most agreeable nor certainly the most edifying of reads, and now and then it portrays the author in an even worse light than he perceives, but it is unusually entertaining.’ That Waugh lacked insight, an ability to calibrate his behaviour even approximately on a conventional moral scale, was a shrewd observation. In his ODNB essay on him, Wheatcroft refers to Waugh’s ‘fatal facility’. Early in his career he dashed off five unremarkable novels before giving up fiction. He later wished he had spent more time on them, but writers are like runners, and for Waugh it was the 100 yard dash of the column, not the marathon of the novel, that brought out his peculiar talent. His journalism was written too fast to be filtered and it was accordingly contradictory, impulsive, sometimes regrettable, seldom regretted.
Despite his fragile health, his death when it came in January 2001 was unexpected. His friends and colleagues were devastated, his enemies rejoiced. Two days later the Guardian published a piece by Polly Toynbee denouncing Waugh as one of the ‘reactionary fogeys’ whose icon was Evelyn Waugh. ‘Effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist’, he was a writer of ‘limited vocabulary’ whose work was ‘empty and destructive’. Eighteen years later the article is remarkable for its prescience on some points and its obtuseness on others. Toynbee was wrong about Waugh’s writing, his personal style and his view of his father. He had long since described the Brideshead fantasy of ‘some sort of norm or state of grace from which a bad world had fallen’ as ‘dangerous nonsense’. She had no ear for his irony and seems to have mistaken the persona of Auberon Waugh’s Diary for the man. As two of the best-known journalists of the day, Toynbee and Waugh epitomised everything the other most disliked. Toynbee’s was the political journalism of an intellectual aristocracy Waugh thought pompous and pointless. His was the sceptical black comedy of the columnist, which she considered reckless and damaging. She exempted him, however, from her principal objection to his set:
This coterie has led the spirit of anti-Europeanism that pervades Tory Party and country. Christopher Booker, Richard Ingrams and the rest posit a brave little England of crusty country-living upper-class eccentrics versus the dread (another of their words) bureaucracy of Brussels … Don’t imagine that the breed is dying out. Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator, is only 36, a writer of just this humorous stamp, with mannerisms to match. The fact that the obits proclaim Waugh ‘the most courteous and loveable of friends’, or that Boris Johnson is also a charming and affable fellow, is neither here nor there.
As their political careers demonstrate, Waugh and Johnson were opposites. Johnson wanted power, Waugh distrusted power, wanted to subvert it, and believed that the best form of subversion was flippancy. By the time he wrote Will This Do? flippancy was under increasing pressure from political correctness, the libel laws and an increased social anxiety about causing offence. ‘I am mildly surprised,’ he wrote, ‘that I am still allowed to exist.’ For an indication of what his diary might have said today here is the entry for 2 July 1982:
Nearly 2000 readers have written to ask my advice on whether or not Prince William of Wales should be circumcised. It is not an easy question … It all depends on what sort of a monarchy people want … I feel it should be made the subject of a national plebiscite, like the Common Market referendum. We have to think of something to keep us amused now the Falklands are over.