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

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.

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