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MAN OF WAUGH

His Father's Son

12:00 AM, Oct 5, 1998 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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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.