2 Jan 2011

The world of Auberon Waugh

I tend to love politically incorrect people, even when I do not agree with everything they may say, and especially when they are very funny. These last two statements are probably mutually incompatible, as humour, and particularly British humour, is often so much second or third degree that it is sometimes hard to know what exactly the writer does think. And in fact it hardly matters since the whole point is to make one laugh, and so grasp the absurdity of many a situation and most opinions. Few people have achieved this better than the late Auberon Waugh.

I recently read a bio-come-anthology of his journalistic writings, called Kiss Me, Chudleigh (sub-title: The World according to Auberon Waugh) and put together by William Cook. The writing of Waugh is regularly hilarious, always entertaining, and formed a revelation to one, who, having lived outside England for 40 years without reading English papers, was largely ignorant of the remarkable polemical and literary talents of the man. The reader should be warned however that some knowledge of English culture and events over the past 70 years will help him greatly to grasp the nuances of what Waugh is talking about much of the time, although his writing is of perfect clarity. Understanding terms such as "The Welfare State", "louts", "the working class", or "the Ramblers Association" will be a definite plus, although not essential as the subject matter is most varied.

His biographical details are fairly well set out in the usual sources, such as Wikipedia, so there is no point in repeating them here. What I like most about his writing is its ability to cut through the crap that so often wraps topics in a blanket of cotton wool, being perfectly clear as to the author's opionions and frequently as self-mocking as it is pitilessly mocking of others. The fact that he loved wine naturally endears him to me (he was also a wine critic) but this book sadly makes little mention of this aspect of his talents. Auberon Waugh was a highly cultivated and prolific journalist, in the line of a Samuel Johnson. He could turn his hand to most subjects, and be scathing about many. Yet he was also capable of passionate defense of certain causes, very often against the grain of what many of his critics considered to be his "conservative" positions. He was also loyal and courageous. For instance, his ardent defense of the Biafran cause even led him to give one of his children the name Biafra. He was against corporal punishement, including the death penalty, yet could talk about both with derision. He despised socialism, which he constantly mocked for its conceits and hypocrisy, yet was a staunch friend of such promonent left-wing figures as Michael Foot.

During his long career s a journalist, he wrote for an amazingly wide range of newspapers and magazines, including The Catholic Herald, The Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail, the Independant, Private Eye, the New Statesman, the Spectator, British Medecine, Books and Bookmen and the Literary Review. It was probably his 15 year stint at Pricvate Eye that made him famous, for his column, (first called "HP sauce" before becoming "Auberon Waugh's diary") which was, as he put it, "specifically dedicated to telling lies". The characters in the diary were usually real, but the rest was made up, occasionally based on real events. Here is an example:

Private Eye, 12th October 1972
"To get into the Women of the Year lunch at the Savoy Hotel I was forced to dress up in drag and give my name as Miss Glenda Slag, first lady of Greek Street. I disliked doing this, as it seemed to cheapen everything the Women's Freedom Movement stands for. I also thought my beard might excite ribald comments, but in this I underestimated the sisterhood. As Jill Tweedie of the Grauniad (this refers to the Guardian newspaper, notorious for its spelling mistakes at the time) points out, it is time people recongised that women do have the fundamental right to grow beards if they want to."

Waugh intensely disliked anybody trying to control his or other people's lives. In this he was true to an anarchistic spirit. Governments of all kinds, particularly (but not only) socialist ones, were favourite targets for him, as were all kinds of do-gooders. Here is an extract from a piece in the Daily Telegraph of March 13th 1996:

"National No Smoking Day was always celebrated at the Academy Club, Beak Street (a club he had founded) by the supply of free cigarettes to members and their guests. Two things make smoking a virtuous habit. In the first place, the smoker, by paying billions of pounds in tobacco duty, pretty well pays for the entire hospital service. In the second place, by dying on average five years earlier than the no-smoker, the smoker reduces the burden of old age on society as a whole. I can understand that some people might not wish to smoke - not all of us are called to virtue in the same way - but I cannot understand the passion for stopping other people from smoking."

Whether or not you smoke, please read on....

Kiss Me, Chudleigh, by William Cook (publisher : Coronet 2010)

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