MAN OF WAUGH
His Father's Son
12:00 AM, Oct 5, 1998 • By JAMES BOWMAN
Not long ago, when Emperor Akihito of Japan traveled to Britain for a state visit, a group of former British POWs demonstrated in protest along the route of the royal parade to Buckingham Palace. Although there are few British cows more sacred than the remaining survivors of Japanese captivity during the Second World War, Auberon Waugh denounced in the Sunday Telegraph "these angry, avaricious old men" who had decided "to make an exhibition of themselves and insult our guests of honor."
He went on to note that "nobody quite dared to tell these Thai-Burma road veterans to shut up and count themselves lucky to have survived" because the country remained regretably "stuck in wartime attitudes," including a lot of humbug about the nation's suffering. In fact, he wrote, "for nearly all those who were young adults in the war, and connected in any way with war work, it was quite easily the happiest time of their lives. . . . Survivors return to those years with joy whenever they get the chance. We should envy them. But it does not look as if we shall ever be able to afford another. Those who knew the suffering, as well as the fun, must count themselves exceptionally lucky."
Naturally, the column elicited many angry letters to the editor, the funniest thing about them being the headline that some wag put over them on the letters page: "Not all agree with Auberon Waugh," it read.
And that, allowing for British understatement, is the point. It is because no one agrees with Auberon Waugh -- or at least because no one dares say so -- that he is so compulsively readable. What is at present the only easily obtainable evidence of that in America comes with the belated publication here of his now seven-year-old memoir, Will This Do?, written when he was fifty.
A lot of the later parts of the book -- those that deal with the ups and downs and parochial quarrels and pranks of his thirty-year career in British journalism -- will be rather obscure and lacking in interest for American readers. But those that describe his school days and the remarkable experience of growing up as the son of Evelyn Waugh are utterly delightful -- often on the same principle by which war can be said to be fun. For "Evelyn Waugh," as his son calls him was by late twentieth-century standards a barbarically neglectful and unfeeling papa, and most of young Auberon's years in more or less prestigious Catholic private schools seem to have consisted of tormenting the various masters and headmasters assigned to educate him and being beaten by them in return.
The fun in this instance, however, comes from the writing, which is a model of what personal journalism ought to be. Quotation is irresistible. The story of the bananas has by now been retailed so often as to be familiar to anyone with the most casual interest in any of the Waugh family, but at the risk of boring repetition, the reader ought to know that the first consignment of bananas to reach Britain after the worst of the wartime shortages was earmarked by the government for distribution to the nation's children. As there were at the time three little Waughs, three bananas duly arrived in the household -- and were promptly consumed by papa Waugh, with almost equally scarce cream and sugar, before the hungry eyes of his children. Auberon, the eldest, writes:
A child's sense of justice may be defective in many respects, and egocentric at the best of times, but it is no less intense for either. By any standards, he had done wrong. It would be absurd to say that I never forgave him, but he was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment, in ways which no amount of sexual transgression would have achieved. . . . From that moment, I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.
And yet, for all his irony at his father's expense, genuine forgiveness and affection for the old man manage to shine through in places -- especially on account of what, in retrospect, was his probably clinical depression. Evelyn treated it with nothing but large quantities of gin and barley water, "a peculiarly nauseating mixture," as his son notes, "although I suppose that at fifty my own intake is only slightly smaller."
This is about as near as his son comes to claiming any kind of intellectual or spiritual patrimony, though the reader will often find himself groping after whatever adjective can be made of his surname to describe his style and perhaps even his temperament. After his father's death in 1966, says Auberon, "It was many years before I could break the habit of viewing every event with half an eye to the bulletin I would send to my father. Even now, I find that when I hear a funny story about someone in whom he would have been interested -- the child of a friend, perhaps, or some grandee -- I mentally store it away to repeat to him. There always follows a pang of bereavement when I remember that he is no longer around to hear it."
The quality of forbearance and tolerance is no less real because it often adds an edge to the satirical barb. So, of Dom Wilfred Passmore, the headmaster of Downside when Auberon was at school there, he declares:
I do not think he was particularly cruel, although it seems odd, in retrospect, for a highly intelligent man to have spent so much of his time beating boys. . . . Every evening in term-time a list of boys he wished to see appeared on the headmaster's noticeboard. Sometimes it was merely to tell them that their mother had died or whatever, but mostly it was to beat them. I held the school record -- possibly still do -- of fourteen beatings in a single term. But I find it hard to believe he derived much pleasure from them. Even if he did, I cannot find it in my heart to grudge him such little consolations.
Something of the same spirit enters into his jolly accounts of his years as a controversialist. In describing the anger of a distant cousin, Jonathan Raban, over a bad review he once gave one of Raban's books, he writes understandingly that "Hell hath no fury like a writer unfavourably reviewed. I suffer from the same problem. My first novel (or possibly my second) received a bad review in the Sunday Times from either Frederic Raphael or Mordecai Richler. I do not know which, but have regarded both with the deepest suspicion ever since, and the Sunday Times with a total loathing which becomes easier and easier to justify with every year that passes."
As with his piece about the old men on the Mall, one of his favorite tricks is to set up his own idiosyncratic point of view as the norm and then to pretend to regard conventional wisdom as a weird, incomprehensible divagation from it. So on the subject of David Dimbleby, one of Britain's most famous broadcasters, whom Waugh knew as a fellow student journalist at Oxford, he writes: "And poor old Dimbleby appears to have sunk without trace into the hellish world of television folk. Unless you happen to watch television, you might not be aware that he exists."
Only, perhaps, on the subject of the new "Mickey Mouse" Catholic Church does the ironic playfulness that makes him such a delight to read desert him. "It is hard to believe that these kindergarten assemblies bear much relation to the ancient institution of the Church as it survived through the Renaissance," he writes. "Whatever central truth survives is outside it, buried in the historical awareness of individual members. Or so it seems to me. But whenever I have doubts, it is my father's fury rather than Divine retribution which I dread."
Like so much else in this thoroughly enjoyable memorial to genuine diversity of opinion, even so extraordinary a statement as this makes, in the context, a melancholy kind of sense.
James Bowman is American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London.