Arts & Books Books

Auberon Waugh was as brilliant as his father

Auberon Waugh: funny, completely fearless and a great prose stylist

A Scribbler in Soho
By Auberon Waugh, with commentary by Naim Attallah,
Quartet, 341pp, £20/$29

In a 1973 essay about PG Wodehouse, Auberon Waugh wrote about discovering his 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, spluttering with laughter on the sofa at home. Sophia had worked out Wodehouse’s crucial lesson; what Bron called the Great English Joke: “All seriousness – personal, religious, political – is reduced to absurdity … the best jokes completely ignore everything in which men of authority try to interest us.”

To anyone who gets the essential joke of life, Auberon Waugh (1939-2001) was the greatest journalist of the 20th century. Humourless people never work Bron out; they crassly think of him as a hang ’em and flog ’em authoritarian.

Bron, who would have been 80 this November, wasn’t just extremely funny – a rare enough gift. He was also completely fearless. And he was a prose stylist as accomplished as his father – the greatest novelist of the 20th century. (I must confess that I knew Bron – a great friend of my parents and very kind to me as a child; always a good sign.)

To possess one of these attributes is impressive enough – to have all of them is unique. All three were on prominent display in Bron during the Jeremy Thorpe trial. It’s easy enough to accuse Thorpe of conspiracy to murder, now that he’s dead. Bron came as close as legally possible to saying it while he was alive – which showed real bravery, as well as an understanding of libel law. (He kept a copy of Gatley on Libel and Slander by his bed.)

Here is Bron on Thorpe in 1982 in his masterpiece, his Private Eye diaries. The opening line refers to Thorpe having Rinka, his ex-lover Norman Scott’s dog, shot dead.

“Jeremy, Jeremy, bang, bang, woof, woof. How nice it was to have Mr Thorpe back in public life. I have been missing this blameless and distinguished man more than I can say. People who complained that he was not the best person to head the British section of Amnesty International are missing the point. Amnesty’s purpose is to rescue people from prison, and nobody in the country has better experience of staying out of gaol than our Jeremy.”

This small passage is just a taster of Bron’s talents: his mastery of sarcasm, irony, crystal-clear prose and the targeted deployment of individual words. To call him “our Jeremy” is so much more derisive than saying “Thorpe” or using some rude adjective. And all within the law.

(Further to Rinka’s fate, one of Bron’s best jokes was at Richard Ingrams’s suggestion, to stand against Thorpe for the Dog-Lovers’ Party in North Devon in the 1979 general election, his election address being denied distribution by the Post Office on grounds of libel.)

Because Bron was so funny, people often forget how brilliant his understanding of real life was. As he told the journalist Henry Porter, “You should tell the truth as often as you can, but in such a way as people don’t believe you or think that you’re being funny.”

Beneath the jokes, he had a serious, strongly held, humane philosophy: that no one should tell anyone else what to do. He, in turn, told no one what to do – thus his kindness to children and friends – and railed against busybodies; politicians, chiefly.

What a joy to read an anthology of the best of Bron’s writing. But this isn’t it – you’re better off with William Cook’s tremendous collection, Kiss Me, Chudleigh: The World According to Auberon Waugh. This book is more The World According to Naim Attallah, who owned the Literary Review, edited by Bron. So we hear at length about Attallah – who usually refers to himself in this book in the third person as Naim – launching his own perfume collection: “For the woman whose nights of passion dissolve into clear mornings of tenderness and tranquillity, I bring Avant and Après l’Amour.”

We hear Attallah’s employees singing his praises – “[Naim] was far and away the most enthusiastic employer I ever had, with a generosity, theatricality and warmth that was extremely endearing,” says Kathy O’Shaughnessy of the Literary Review. Jo Craven, also of the Literary Review, calls Attallah “the endlessly benevolent owner”.

Space that could have been taken up by more of Bron’s sublime prose is given over to these paeans of praise to Attallah.

So there’s only a small selection of Waugh’s Private Eye diaries. His work at the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Telegraph and the Oldie (of which I am the current editor) also takes a back seat.

Strange, too, that there’s no index. And the editing is sloppy: I suppose Punch magazine may sell its satirical products as stationary items; more likely, it sells fully mobile stationery items.

The lion’s share of Bron’s pieces in this book comes from Literary Review. They’re still a joy to read, like everything he wrote. But, still, this book remains Hamlet without the best work by the funniest prince in Denmark.

Harry Mount is editor of Auberon Waugh’s Closing the Circle: The Best of Way of the World (Macmillan)