Comment Opinion & Features

The satirist who illuminated the strange world of the 1970s

One of the handicaps of old age is the loss, one by one, of those few commentators and journalists to whom one has long looked for guidance as to what was going on in the world. Such geniuses did not necessarily provide any specific information so much as an insight into events – an answer to the question succinctly posed by Lenin: “Who, whom?”

How often in recent years I have heard friends lament, along with me, that Auberon Waugh is no longer around to give us his take on our modern world – on Brexit, on Donald Trump, on Meghan Markle.

When he died in 2001 there was with many of us a feeling similar to that expressed about the death of the great journalist William Cobbett in 1835 by the diplomat Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer:

“He left a gap in the public mind which no one else could fill, or attempt to fill up, for his loss was not merely that of a man but of a habit – of a dose of a strong drink which all of us had been taking for years, most of us during our lives, and which it was impossible for anyone again to concoct so strongly, so strangely, with so much spice and flavour and with such a variety of ingredients.”

Such thoughts will have been revived by A Scribbler in Soho (Quartet), a new collection of Waugh’s journalism published by his devoted patron and friend Naim Attallah. The book contains many reminders of Waugh’s unique talents, including some welcome extracts from his long-running Private Eye Diary, in which he adopted the persona of a wealthy aristocrat consulted by politicians and in regular touch with members of the Royal Family. It was done so authoritatively that some readers believed him when, for example, he wrote that he had recently been enjoying tea and cucumber sandwiches with the Queen Mother and advising her about Edward Heath’s Conservative government.

It may seem like a work of wild fantasy yet his Diary (reprinted in two books) gives a more convincing picture of the strange world of the 1970s than many a serious work of social history.

Apart from these extracts from Private Eye, I would have liked to see some of Waugh’s contributions to the Catholic Herald, to which he was recruited in 1963 to supply a column on current affairs for a weekly fee of eight guineas.

It was to be the forerunner of many subsequent columns in a variety of magazines and newspapers and, looking back, Waugh considered that his CH contributions were “more reasonable and politely argued” than anything that came later. Nevertheless, they managed to provoke a storm of protest from readers, leaving Waugh with the constant fear of getting the sack, the eight guinea fee being his main source of income at the time.

The situation recalls the experience of the youthful GK Chesterton when he first started writing a weekly column in the Quaker-owned Daily News, which likewise led to complaints from readers appalled by GKC’s enthusiasm for drinkers, soldiers and Catholics.

Possibly in each case the two columnists owed their survival to what Chesterton defined as “the great journalistic maxim that if an editor can only make people angry enough they will write half his newspaper for him for nothing.”

Heavily influenced by his domineering father Evelyn, Waugh was brought up as a Catholic and educated by the Benedictines at Downside. But though never wavering in his beliefs, Evelyn Waugh, who died in 1966, had been bitterly opposed to all the changes recently introduced by the Vatican, especially the new English liturgy. According to his son, he used to reply “Toodle-oo” in response to his neighbour’s “Peace be with you”.

Like Dr Johnson, who famously said that he would have been a Catholic but for his “obstinate rationality”, Bron Waugh was not gifted with a natural religious temperament and I think it likely that, in common with others, he used the Vatican’s reforms as an excuse for giving up regular attendance at what he called the new “Mickey Mouse church”. Our mutual friend AN Wilson considers that in the last 10 years of his life Waugh had lost his faith altogether.

But living, as he did, in his father’s Somerset mansion and working daily in his study, he found it hard to distance himself from that stern and formidable figure.

“It is my father’s fury rather than divine judgment which I dread,” he admitted. We must pray that he has by now received forgiveness from his two fathers, natural and divine.

Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie