‘How much harm was really done?’
Auberon Waugh had a witty way of confronting enemies. We’ll never see his like again, says Christopher Howse
The funniest joke that Auberon Waugh made was very nearly his last. In 1958, as a cornet in the Blues during his national service in Cyprus, he attempted to unjam a Browning machine gun by wiggling the barrel. Six bullets pierced his chest and hand. As he lay in the dust, pouring blood, he could not resist the temptation of saying to Chudleigh, the corporal of horse beside him: “Kiss me, Chudleigh.” Chudleigh, not spotting the historical reference, treated him with some caution thereafter.
Bron Waugh, as he was known, was only 18 then, but spent the next 43 years making lots of people laugh by writing things that made a few people very angry. He died a generation ago, in 2001. In today’s climate of censoriousness, many things he wrote would not be published in a daily paper. Indeed, it is hard even to mention some of them.
That is a bad thing, as I’ll try to explain. I didn’t see it coming, not even when Polly Toynbee, two days after Waugh’s death, leapt to denounce his “coterie” as “effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist”. Her remarks seemed to come from the margins then. Now, though, what is it about Auberon Waugh that makes him still worth reading?
The central point is the same one he made of his father, Evelyn, on his death in 1966. It was not that Evelyn Waugh was conservative, a class warrior or a Catholic. “It is simply that he was the funniest man of his generation,” he wrote. “He scarcely opened his mouth but to say something extremely funny. His house and life revolved around jokes.”
This was equally true of Bron. Take the case of Nora Beloff who crops up in a new book, A Scribbler in Soho. This “celebration of Auberon Waugh” gives a version of his working life between extracts from his journalism in Private Eye and The Literary Review, which Waugh edited for 14 years under the proprietorship of Naim Attallah, whose idea the book was. In 1972 in Private Eye Waugh wrote that “Nora Ballsoff ”, the veteran political correspondent of The Observer, whose age he gave as 78 (she was 53), “was frequently to be seen in bed with Harold Wilson and senior members of the previous administration, although it is thought that nothing improper occurred”. She sued for libel and won. Waugh’s rude remarks had been prompted by her jumping to the defence of Reginald Maudling, the home secretary, who had been paid money by the architect John Poulson, jailed a few months later for corruption. It was the only time in 14 years that Waugh was sued for anything he wrote in his diary in Private Eye, which is surprising, since he later described it as “the first exercise of British or indeed world journalism specifically dedicated to telling lies”.
Every fortnight in Auberon Waugh’s Diary, under a picture byline of him in a beard that he never sported in real life, he would tell readers of entirely invented incidents, such as his trip to ask Emperor Hirohito about pubic hair in Japan, or his dutifully accompanying the Prince of Wales, who dressed up as a woman on a visit to Nepal. One of the lies, or fantasies, was that the curly-haired politician Lord Gowrie was an African, the motive of this onesided feud being that Gowrie had stolen Waugh’s girl at Oxford.
Instead of inventing a fictional comic universe as Michael Wharton had done in his Peter Simple column, Waugh projected events into his strange camera obscura, as Craig Brown has put it, “creating a parallel world at once more colourful and more grotesque than our own, and, of course, immensely funny”.
The humour could go several steps beyond satire, as in his “hounding”, as he called it, of Jeremy Thorpe. Waugh stood against Thorpe in the 1979 election as a candidate for the
Dog Lovers’ Party in order to draw attention to the bungled attempt to murder Norman Scott, whose Great Dane, Rinka, had been shot dead instead. Thorpe was defeated, though not by Waugh who got only 79 votes. Despite “lurid accounts of buggery, financial crookery and attempted murder, fewer than 5,000 voters out of an electorate of 77,000 actually switched their votes away from him,” Waugh reflected gloomily. Moreover, Thorpe was acquitted of conspiracy to murder. It all made Waugh wonder, in his memoir from 1991, Will This Do? “how much harm was really done to anybody by the written word, and how much our savage laws of libel can really be justified except as a convenience for the rich and powerful to save themselves from any criticism”.
A clue to Waugh’s broader satirical intent is suggested by a quirk of vocabulary picked up by the humorist Matthew Parris. “He called me (one of his favourite invented words) a homosexualist,” he wrote last year. “Bron had a lifelong antipathy towards people who turned a disposition into a cause. But one could never get indignant about his sallies.” That reflects Parris’s forgiving nature, but he was wrong to think Waugh had invented the word homosexualist. First recorded in the journal Insanity in 1895, I believe that Waugh picked it up from Vatican terminology, where it was used to distinguish the promotion of homosexual behaviour from a mere homosexual disposition. So homosexualist is to homosexual what Islamist is to Islamic.
Turning “a disposition into a cause” is, of course, identity politics, the modern proponents of which have made Twitter a piranha pit and politics a game of spotting offence. Waugh’s catalogue of hate-figures – anti-smoking campaigners, ramblers, feminists, the “screeching busybodies” of the RSPB – reflects his antipathy to identity politics, almost avant la lettre. He didn’t elevate his hatred of identity politics into a theory, since he was suspicious of theory. “I am convinced that intelligent, educated and literate Englishmen are neither left-wing nor rightwing,” he wrote, “but are bored by politics and regard all politicians with scorn. That is my political creed, so far as I have one.”
The ideas implicit in his writing were made digestible by his style. He never bored; the reader was carried on. Like the exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal in the decade after his death, his brand of conservative anarchism tended to diminish politicians in public esteem. Yet idealistic causes were not unknown to him. His championing of Biafra in the Nigerian civil war led him to call a child born at the time “Biafra”. Fortunately, the boy also had the name Nat to use in preference. (Not that names counted for much: Waugh addressed his eldest son, Alexander, for much of his childhood, as Fat Fool.)
Waugh would surely be entertained by the present civil war between transsexual women and those they call Terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), who are very annoyed that men can come along, declare themselves women, with or without surgical intervention, and start bossing them about all over again. (Some of the trans brigade advocate the murder of Terfs as the best course.)
Waugh knew that sexual behaviour is inherently comic, and just as his father Evelyn pretended that President Tito of Yugoslavia was a woman, so Bron claimed to have mistaken prime minister Edward Heath for an attractively
His diary was ‘the first exercise of world journalism dedicated to lies’