‘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 Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

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’

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