Auberon Waugh’s journalism was iconoclastic and truly daring, argues Andrew M Brown Kiss Me, Chudleigh EDITED BY WILLIAM COOK CORONET, £19.99
Auberon Waugh’s first weekly column appeared in The Catholic Herald in February 1963. Called “In My View”, it lasted 18 months. The Herald in those days was a “pinkish” paper, in Waugh’s words, and the 24-year-old polemicist goaded the readership with his feisty opinions.
Angry letters poured in, and for the first time Waugh became aware that there were total strangers out there who greatly disliked him. “To the hatred of progressive Christians for conservatives,” he wrote later, “I had to add the hatred of large numbers of people for Evelyn Waugh, the hatred of older people for the young, the hatred of the underprivileged for the privileged and the hatred of humourless people for anyone who tries, however unsuccessfully, to make jokes.” Not that the hatred of strangers put him off: he was the most hard-working Fleet Street journalist of his time, producing at his peak four or five columns a week, travel pieces, articles on medical topics, wine, plus book reviews and, later on, the editorials in Literary Review, which he edited.
Now William Cook has diligently gone through the cuttings and arranged some of Waugh’s best work in chronological order. He sets up each chapter with a bit of biography and some anecdotes, so you get an idea of how the writer’s life unfolded.
This hugely entertaining collection would suit both long-time enthusiasts and young readers who never knew Waugh’s writings. After all, he may only have been dead 10 years – but, as he well knew, journalists and their work disappear without trace in no time at all.
What was so good about Auberon Waugh? Well, he was the sort of columnist the readers turned to first. You had to read him, because he wasn’t predictable, he was hardly ever boring and he could turn a subject around and make you look at it from a new direction – a rare talent.
Other columnists seemed dull and obvious in comparison. What’s more, he didn’t subscribe to a standard collection of “Right-wing” opinions.
Often, you could detect an underlying gentleness. Take his views on corporal punishment and the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade, for example. He thought such people were probably mentally ill, and regarded “any form of judicial chastisement with abhorrence”. Goethe’s dictum was his guide: “Distrust those in whom the urge to punish is strong.” As for capital punishment, in 1994 he wrote in the Spectator: “The simplest and most fundamental tenet of social morality is that you don’t kill people or have them killed because they are inconvenient to you.” Reading this collection of his work there is no mistaking his deep and abiding mistrust of those who seek power and want to boss other people about.
Another theme that keeps cropping up is the importance of not taking things too seriously. He was merciless about teasing regular targets who didn’t, or couldn’t, see the joke – like Shirley Williams (“this silly woman”) or John Pilger, in whose honour he invented the word “pilgerish”.
His instincts were sound. So, he once wrote of Alan Clark: “Anybody who went to public school will have recognised Clark as the sort of Old Boy who returns to his old school in some veteran or vintage car to impress the smaller boys.” Unlike many lesser practitioners of the vituperative arts, he didn’t care how important the people he offended were. He was genuinely fearless. In fact, far from sucking up to the great and good, he was really an anti-establishment figure.
Frequently, the pieces here show Waugh to have been a percipient, not to say prophetic, observer. In a piece from 1977 he makes this observation: “The violence of the public reaction against paedophiles should be seen as a cover-up – not, heaven knows, for any sexual attraction towards children on the part of the general public – but as a sign of the guilt they feel for disliking children so much.” In his writings, especially in the surreal Private Eye “diaries” of the 1970s and 1980s – some of which Cook includes – he would present himself as irascible, an old buffer. This was a fiction. He was chiefly, as Cook says, an iconoclast – and, like all the best journalists, a trouble-maker.