Letter from London May 2001

Bron and His "Affec. Papa"

Auberon Waugh, the acerbic British man of letters, died in January. Our author remembers him and reflects on Waugh's complex, heartbreaking relationship with his father, Evelyn
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We didn't look like the coterie we had been called, if only because there were so many of us. On a wet winter's day several hundred people packed into St. Mary the Virgin, the beautiful pink-stone parish church of Bishops Lydeard, in West Somerset, to say good-bye to our friend Auberon Waugh. After the funeral we saw him buried in his own village of Combe Florey, whose church would have been much too small for us all. And then we crossed the road to his house for a last gathering, old and young, rich and poor, smart and dowdy, left and right, high and low, united by nothing but sorrow and affection.

For years "Bron" Waugh had been the most violently controversial English journalist of his age, and controversy followed him to the grave. Some of the London papers gave him the treatment usually reserved for Presidents or Nobel-winning poets. The conservative Daily Telegraph gave his death five pages; even the liberal Guardian had two pages, one an unusually long obituary (by me, as it happens). What with claims that Waugh was a genius, or the Swift of his age, maybe the eulogies were a touch overdone. They certainly produced an explosive reaction.

The next day the Guardian ran another piece, of most unusual invective. Defying the convention that death is a time for bland pieties, Polly Toynbee told her readers that Waugh had been a "ghastly man" at the center of "a coterie of reactionary fogeys." "Effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist, they spit poison at anyone vulgar enough to want to improve anything at all." This effusion was answered by several journalists, among them Francis Wheen and William Shawcross in the Guardian. In its Sunday sister paper, the Observer, Lynn Barber wrote that the idea of Waugh as the head of some right-wing cabal was risible, and added that of course "you needed a sense of humour to appreciate him which is why Toynbee drew a blank."

But enough. I really cannot expect Atlantic readers to follow these intestine Fleet Street squawks and squabbles, which exhaust even those of us involved. Who was the man who could inspire that kind of affection, and that kind of rage? Well, Auberon Alexander Waugh was born in November of 1939, the second of Evelyn and Laura Waugh's six children and their first son. His parentage was the key to his life, obviously enough, though not in an obvious way. Bron was brought up in the west of England, amid a growing herd of his siblings and his mother's cousins, and barely saw his father for several years after Evelyn set off for the war, on what proved a bitter pilgrimage. Barely was Evelyn home than Bron was sent away to school. He was a rebellious little boy, and as a teenager he tried to get away from school. Before university he did National Service, as our draft was called in the fifteen postwar years it lasted. Despite loathing the bull and the brutality of army training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, or cornet, into the Royal Horse Guards, "the Blues." During the war Evelyn had joined the Royal Marines, admirable but unfashionable, and had later transferred into the Blues, the social pinnacle, though he never saw action with that illustrious regiment. The eighteen-year-old Bron was sent to Cyprus when it was in the throes of violent conflict with Greek nationalists, all part of the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of empire. Evelyn cynically reported that Bron "goes to Cyprus to be stoned by school-girls," but then that "Cornet Waugh is enjoying Cyprus top-hole."

One day in June of 1958 Bron was annoyed by a fault in the machine gun of his armored car, grasped it by the muzzle, and shook it. He realized that this was a mistake after it had fired six rounds through him at point-blank range. Years later this inspired one of his funniest pieces. He had heard various accounts of this mishap, he said, such as that he had been shot by his own men or that he had shot off his testicles. In reality he had lost a lung, several ribs, a finger, and his spleen, "but nothing else." He was very lucky to survive, and for the rest of his life was in ill health, not to say more pain than most of us realized. His death, at sixty-one, came after his liver had nearly packed up and his heart finally did, but those machine-gun bullets hadn't helped.

After recovering from his grave wounds he went to Oxford but was restless; he left after a year and began working as a journalist. He was an energetic young man, publishing a novel at twenty and marrying at twenty-one (on the day Princess Diana was born, he often reminded us). Before he was thirty he had four children, had written for several papers, and had published four novels. I met him in 1971, during my brief and inglorious career in book publishing, when I edited (after a fashion) his fifth and last novel. At least one of his novels is worth reading if you can get hold of it. Consider the Lilies (1968) is a clever and amusing book about an emotionally detached parson and his awful wife. But even that is good rather than very good, and Bron wisely gave up fiction. Of course, there was that shadow. It is hard trying to write operas if you're called Siegfried Wagner, or trying to write novels if you're called Auberon Waugh. It was in the following decade, his thirties, that Bron found himself and escaped from his father's shadow. He wrote at one time or another for various daily papers, but I thought that he really came off only in magazines with smaller circulations, where his combination of smartness, ferocious wit, and outrageous saying-the-unsayable flourished. Although it's tempting to claim that the phenomenon of Bron Waugh is inexplicable to Americans, it would not be quite true. To be sure, as part of his highly individual world view, he affected an increasingly vehement anti-Americanism, partly inherited from his father but exacerbated by hatred of Hollywood, the Pentagon, McDonald's, and The New York Times, and then by American indifference to him and his works. This was the one subject about which he was boring, complaining volubly that no American publisher had taken his memoirs. When the indefatigably Anglophile Carroll & Graf finally did bring them out, several years late, that silenced his plaints for a while.

What some Americans liked in him was indirectly described once by Michael Kinsley:

The bitter wit of Private Eye, Britain's satire and gossip magazine that makes American journalism seem paralyzed by gentility, and the jaunty undertones of self-mockery and unseriousness that run through the Spectator, Britain's leading political and literary journal, are products of a decadent civilization that I find irresistible.

Those were precisely the two magazines in which Bron Waugh took wing, bitter, witty, jaunty, and seriously unserious. In 1975 Alexander Chancellor became the editor of the Spectator and took Waugh out to lunch to ask his advice. (It included the advice to hire me, who had just been fired from my last job in book publishing. I never knew this until Chancellor told me the day after Bron died. I mention it now not out of solipsism but because I am one of many people with reason to be grateful to Bron.) Then Bron started writing a dazzling weekly column for The Spectator, "Another Voice." A collection of these columns was published in 1986 with the subtitle "An Alternative Anatomy of Britain," and "alternative" was almost an understatement.

His Spectator columns were dashing, slashing, and sometimes startlingly offensive. He could be very wounding, and although it would be silly to rebuke him for "going too far" (one might as well accuse Shakespeare of iambic pentameters), there was something equally silly about the pretense that it was all a game and nobody should mind. But his Private Eye "Diary" was more than offensive or even funny; it was an extraordinary and surreal satire, looking at "real" life through a prism of fantasy and exaggeration and near craziness in a way that (however much the idea would have displeased Bron) was almost Nabokovian or postmodern.

All his journalism, parodic or straight, reflected the world from a unique angle. So he would congratulate the Khmer Rouge on its "policy of executing the wives of politicians in the previous regime, as well as the politicians themselves,"and commend the same practice to England. That was in 1975, in Private Eye. Three years ago, when all of America was in a pother about the "besmirching" that had taken place in the Oval Office, Bron gave his simple verdict, in an op-ed column, that "Bill Clinton's sexual recklessness is [his] only likeable characteristic"(in the year of Rich and Rodham, I'm not sure that seems such a bad judgment). He was completely distinctive, contrarian, unpredictable, outside any party label. Bron was called a snob, and since he mocked the lower classes with all their horrible tastes and habits, it would be a waste of time defending him on the charge. All the same, I think that he was less a snob than a class warrior, or a doughty battler in the culture wars. If he had had a motto, it might have been "The Class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie"—not Auberon Alexander Waugh but John Maynard Keynes in 1925.

His enemies never grasped just how idiosyncratic he was. When he was young he had played the ultra-reactionary, or high Tory, and "played" was the word. But that simply didn't describe him later. What Bron wrote of his father was true of himself: he was "far closer to the Manchester School anarchists than to the Conservative right wing." He was indeed less of a traditionalist or imperialist than a radical or ultra-libertarian, hating all forms of state intervention at home and abroad. As long ago as 1938 Evelyn Waugh dismissed "the distinctions of Left and Right which are now becom-ing as meaningless and mischievous as the circus colours of the Byzantine Empire," and this view was also exemplified by Bron. Polly Toynbee, in her screech against "reactionary ... do-nothing conservatism ... idle unwillingness to engage with any politician's attempt to make life better for anyone else," failed to see that his frivolity was serious. Bron shared Samuel Johnson's view that most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things; except that in the twentieth century too many schemes of improvement weren't laughable at all but led to the deaths of innocent millions.

At heart Bron hated every kind of overweening authority, from schoolmasters to sergeants major to politicians, from totalitarianism to militarism to the bossy Fabian managerialism that tells us how to live our lives. At home he railed against the police, and he loathed "punishment freaks," especially those who supported the death penalty. Abroad he was a "pacificist," fiercely critical of the Falklands and Gulf Wars and contemptuous of the campaign two years ago to bomb Serbia back into the Stone Age. The leftist journalist Neil Clark has written in the New Statesman of the exhilaration he and some colleagues felt, cooped up in Budapest in the spring of 1999 as the B-52s roared overhead toward Belgrade, when they read Waugh's denunciations of the whole enterprise, which called the bombing an "atrocity"supported by "lying propaganda,"and suggested that Tony Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, should be arrested as war criminals. Perry Anderson, of the New Left Review, could have been thinking of Bron Waugh when he wrote, "The most devastating criticisms of the expansion of NATO and the war in the Balkans often came from the Right."

As I have suggested, his relationship with his father was central to Bron's life, but this was no ordinary case either of filial love or of Oedipal reaction. One of the first things by Bron I can remember reading was in The Spectator in May of 1966, shortly after Evelyn's death. It was a bitter attack on those who had sneered at his father, an astonishingly poised performance for a twenty-six-year-old, and an early demonstration of Bron's gift for vituperation: "fatuously uninformed judgments ... the jackals snarling and whining ..."

For years afterward Bron kept up this role of his father's champion. But then a slow, perceptible change began. Ten years after Evelyn died, his Diaries was published, and Bron reviewed it. He was obviously irritated by the "monotonous succession of unrelated episodes of drunkenness and sodomy," as well as by the social ambition and the self-loathing. Between the lines—as I suspected then, and see more clearly than ever now—he was coming to terms with his real feelings about his father. In the earlier parts of his father's diaries, Bron wrote, "there is also discernible ... (it cannot be denied) a certain crude snobbery." Later Evelyn was "a family man, albeit a reluctant one."

His children make various short appearances, nearly always in some opprobrious context, but it would need an exceptionally astute reader to divine the true extent of the burden they were on him ... Growing children are seldom very elegant, amusing or smart, and I think it was this vulgarity he resented most. It is not a usual thing for a man to decide against his own children for snobbish reasons, but it was an undeniably awkward aspect of the parent-child relationship in his case that he was liable to decide against any of his children at any moment on these grounds, and frequently did so [emphasis added].

It is quite true that the Diaries and the Letters and the successive biographies of Evelyn Waugh are peppered with the hidden injuries of class. At his father's death Bron claimed disingenuously that "he never wrote in terms of anything except the greatest affection about the kind of intelligent, educated professional background from which he came." We later learned that Arthur Waugh, that kindly, unsophisticated, embarrassing old publisher, was bitterly upset by the way his son Evelyn came to look down on his parents.

Then, in 1980, Evelyn Waugh's Letters was published. This is a superb book, often wise and delightful as well as funny. Waugh was perhaps the last great English author who was a great letter writer. But then one notices the tone in which Waugh wrote to and about his family: the patronizing, bullying letters to Laura, his sweet-natured but dowdy wife, and the endless litany of complaints about his children. Evelyn reported on "a day of supreme self-sacrifice," taking Bron out in London—St. Paul's Cathedral, lunch at a hotel, "vast quantities of toys" bought at Harrods, tea with a friend. When they went home, Bron told his grandmother it was "a bit dull." "So that is the last time for some years I inconvenience myself for my children," Evelyn told Laura. "You might rub that in to him." The poor child was five. It was at about this time that Evelyn told an American magazine with icy jocosity that he saw his children "once a day for ten, I hope, awe-inspiring minutes." Then when Bron was six, his father said with more chilling humor that he had behaved well at Christmas, "so I have sent him to a boarding school for a reward."

Even then, and even where Bron was concerned, the letters are redeemed by wit. Waugh told Nancy Mitford how the nine-year-old Bron had written from school that it was hard to be nice to one other boy: "He is most disagreeable. Very weak and all the boys & masters hate him." And so, said his father, "I have written a tremendous homily on the nature of the English gentleman who always protects the weaker & unpopular. Can't say I ever noticed it much myself." But still the wit is wintry.

In the letters written after Bron reached Downside, the Benedictine abbey where he went to school in his teens, tension begins to crackle off the page. At sixteen Bron asked whether he could leave. Surprisingly, Evelyn expressed sympathy with "your restlessness with school life." He wrote, "I felt as you do at your age, asked my father to remove me, was resentful at the time when he refused. Now I am grateful to him." He gave Bron good advice against messing up his life "because you lack the will-power and self-control to make a success of the next eighteen months" (not that willpower and self-control were Evelyn's strong points). And he wrote words that would make anyone smile who knew Bron later: "You have a sense of humour and a good gift of self expression. On the other hand you are singularly imprudent and you have a defective sense of honour. These bad qualities can lead to disaster."

There is much common sense in these letters: "Growing up is a disagreeable process for most men. You have to grow up somewhere. Downside seems to me the best place, but I am always open to other suggestions." There is some self-awareness: "In the hope of understanding you better I have been reading the diaries I kept at your age. I am appalled at what an odious prig I was." But love? Even the subscription to the letters has a mocking distance. Writing to Margaret, undisguisedly his favorite child, he signed, "All love Papa"; writing to Bron, he signed, "Your affec. papa E Waugh."

Welcoming Bron home "from the torrid & treacherous island of Cyprus" for what proved many months in the hospital, Evelyn wrote coolly, "I wish I could come and greet you but I have a longstanding and very tedious engagement," and "tedious" was always the operative word for Evelyn. In his 1966 article Bron had claimed that Evelyn's last ten years "were probably the most mellow and tranquil of his life." This was more defiant denial—and quite impossible to sustain as the Diaries, the Letters, and the biographies appeared. All made it clear that Waugh was choleric and unstable for most of his life, and that the ten years before his death, at sixty-two, were a misery. His habitual boredom, acedia, and even torment were made much worse by a shocking physical deterioration, agonies with his teeth, and rage at the changes in the Catholic Church brought on by the Second Vatican Council. Nor was he much enlivened by his children as they grew up, and his references to Bron after his career as a writer had begun are sarcastic and unenthusiastic (his first novel "has had an undeserved but gratifying success").

Then, ten years ago, Bron published his autobiography, Will This Do?, and came clean. His father, although a source of wonderful humor and fantasy when he chose to be, had been a monster, not so much of cruelty and oppression as of rejection, withholding all signs of love. Whatever else he was, it was not "affec." It wasn't just that Evelyn found his children's company "irksome," and that he dispatched them wickedly young to what Bron called "pretty hellish" schools, where "we were miserable to be leaving the comforts of home and of our own company." Bron claimed sarcastically that "the most welcome aspect of him, as a parent, was his lack of interest in his children." But what sense of loss lay behind his irony?

When the autobiography was published, one story became famous, and was even rather unconvincingly dramatized on television. Returning from the army, Evelyn dined with his family, who had acquired some bananas, a desperately rare and sought-after delicacy in England at the time. Little Bron watched as his father took the boy's banana as well as his own and slowly ate it. At the launch party for Will This Do? Julian Barnes brought a banana and ceremoniously presented it to Bron. We all laughed. Later I wondered how funny it really was, and whether a banana was Bron's Rosebud, a symbol of his lost childhood.

Genius and sanctity do not thrive except from suffering, Evelyn Waugh once wrote. In a peculiar and minor mode, Bron was sometimes touched by genius, though he was not a saint. His verbal brutality, his hounding of his enemies, his love of practical jokes, all had a mildly psychopathic side, one more inheritance from his father. He conducted endless vendettas, whose origins are mostly too boring to explain. When he was engaged in a feud with Jeremy Thorpe, the sometime leader of the Liberal Party, who was acquitted on charges of conspiring to murder a troublesome former boyfriend, I said I could almost sympathize with Thorpe after he had been well-nigh persecuted by the boy. Bron replied, "Oh, but one spends one's life persecuting people."

Once rebuked by a friend for behavior awful in a self-proclaimed Christian, Evelyn Waugh had replied that he would be much worse if he weren't a Christian. Bron shrewdly said that this was untrue, and that without his obsessive religious faith, his father would have been less strictly charitable but a much nicer man to know. Undoubtedly a nicer man to know than his father, Bron gradually shed his Catholicism. In his autobiography he said that he had been able to stop going to church only when the Church had become unrecognizable as the one his father had joined, but this, too, was a trifle disingenuous. He simply had done what many intelligent, educated people of strong religious upbringing do, and quietly become an agnostic.

Then again, maybe there really was a connection between his loss of faith and his feelings toward his father. In his autobiography he owned up, and made clear, albeit in oblique language, the misery he had suffered as a boy from rejection by the father he idolized. Bron was himself—will you be surprised to learn?—a deeply affectionate father. He never sent his children away to school.

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Geoffrey WheatcroftGeoffrey Wheatcroft has written for The Atlantic on subjects as diverse as Margaret Thatcher and Salman Rushdie, the Republic of Ireland and the island of Antigua, and has been affiliated over the years with some of England's best-known publications. In the late 1970s he was a columnist for The Spectator, and also its literary editor. In the following years he was first the editor of the "Londoner's Diary" in the Evening Standard and then that newspaper's opera critic. He is currently a columnist for the Daily Express. In the interstices of regular employment he has written many freelance articles and published two books—The Randlords (1985), a study of South African mining magnates, and Absent Friends (1989), a collection of biographical sketches. His new book, The Controversy of Zion, about the history of Zionism, was published in September, 1996, by Addison-Wesley. He is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian.

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