Thursday 20 June 2019

The wittiest (and rudest) man of his generation

Biography: A Scribbler in Soho

Edited by Naim Attallah

Quartet, €22.95

Auberon Waugh established the Bad Sex Prize for 'pseudo-poetic biology' in fiction
Auberon Waugh established the Bad Sex Prize for 'pseudo-poetic biology' in fiction
A Scribbler in Soho

Lewis Jones

Auberon Waugh was probably the wittiest journalist of his generation (he died in 2001, aged 61) and, for all his personal amiability and courtesy, undoubtedly the rudest. His favoured mode was unbridled vituperation, leavened by brutal whimsy, and he invariably went too far.

During the miners' strike of 1984, he suggested that the police should offer a bounty of £50 for every miner's scalp, which would save on redundancy payments and give "the unemployed of Liverpool a chance to earn a little more beer money". And when an article he wrote about Islamic clothing and customs provoked a mob to burn down the British Council's library at Rawalpindi, he declared it "the proudest moment of my journalistic career".

A "Tory anarchist", he was not always predictable. He approved of the EU, for instance, and his ideal government was "a junta of Belgian ticket inspectors". He hated politicians, and felt that it was the duty of journalists "to ridicule, humiliate and generally torment" them. He was especially enthusiastic in his persecution of Jeremy Thorpe ("Jeremy, Jeremy, bang, bang, woof, woof"), and even stood against him in North Devon, as candidate of the Dog Lovers' Party, in the General Election of 1979.

In his youth, following family tradition, Waugh wrote novels, and later regretted not having taken more care over them. "It was not so much that I objected to cashing in on the name," he recalled, "as that I was not going to be allowed to get away with it." His great literary contribution, in the Private Eye 'Diaries', which he rightly saw as his finest achievement, lay in his gleeful confusion of reality and fantasy.

"There is a photograph in today's Daily Express," ran a typical entry, for January 13, 1977, "of a plump, homely middle-aged woman in slacks and bedroom slippers sitting on a sofa. She is not topless or anything like that, but I find myself eyeing her appreciatively and wondering if we have not perhaps met somewhere before. Then I look at the caption and find myself reeling back in amazement: 'A relaxed Mr Heath at his home'."

The Diaries have been collected in books, as have the 'Way of the World' columns he wrote for The Daily Telegraph in similar perversely fantastical vein - arguing, for example, for the beneficial effects of tobacco smoke on children. He wrote an autobiography, Will This Do? in 1992, and Kiss Me, Chudleigh (2010) is a superb anthology of his writing by William Cook. A new anthology-cum-biography, A Scribbler in Soho, edited by Naim Attallah, falls uncomfortably between the two.

In the 1980s, having acquired the Literary Review, Attallah appointed Waugh its editor, nobly shouldering its considerable losses, and also supporting the Academy, the club Waugh founded in the basement of its offices in Beak Street, Soho. In his contribution to this festschrift, Waugh's son Alexander observes that Attallah "counted Auberon Waugh as his closest male companion".

He clearly adored him, and Waugh repaid him with extravagant loyalty. When Attallah opened a shop called Aphrodisia in Mayfair's red light district, selling two new perfumes he had himself created ("For the woman whose nights of passion dissolve into clear mornings of tenderness and tranquillity, I bring Avant and Apres l'Amour"), Waugh pronounced them "indescribably delicious".

This is an affectionate and admiring book, but an odd one. Attallah sets the Soho scene with generous excerpts from Arthur Ransome's Bohemia in London (1907). At a "drinking-hall" in a corner of Leicester Square, one apparently might meet men who "are ready to talk with importance of their editorial duties on the Draper's Compendium or the Toyshop Times", while at the Moorish cafe, "sometimes, if you are lucky", you might find "a bohemian in emerald corduroy, lolling broadly on his chair and puffing at a porcelain pipe". There is a certain quaint and dusty charm to this, and even echoes of more recent times, but scant immediate relevance.

Moving rapidly onwards to the Soho of the 1950s, with its dives and drinking clubs, Attallah recalls his stint as a bouncer in a nightclub off Charing Cross Road, and the occasion of his hospitalisation by a drunken Scotsman. And he gives a somewhat incoherent account of Waugh's early career on Private Eye and The Spectator.

In 1970, Waugh was sacked from the latter by Nigel Lawson, for having altered the contents page so that the byline of George Gale read "Lunchtime O'Gale". Waugh sued for breach of contract, but before the case came to court Lawson had, by Waugh's account, himself been dismissed as editor, and replaced by Gale, who rehired Waugh to write a column. So when the case was eventually heard, "Lawson, as a sacked editor, had to defend himself for sacking me, who had since been re-employed, for insulting the man who had since re-employed me". Attallah devotes 24 pages to a selection of the Private Eye Diaries, which is not nearly enough, and 59 to various deservedly forgotten libel cases (including, bizarrely, one between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Spain), which is far too many.

There are warm recollections of the old Academy Club, a relaxed establishment with some eccentric rules, among them that "shoes must be worn", and that members who have "the misfortune of being sent to prison may take up the unused part of their membership upon release".

Poets were banned, as Waugh explained in one of the Literary Review editorials that take up nearly half of the book, because they were "vain, empty, conceited, dishonest, dirty, often flea-ridden and infected by venereal disease, greedy, parasitical, drunken, untruthful, arrogant... and also irresistibly attractive to women". His editorial policy, broadly, was to encourage "the intelligent reviewing of unpretentious books" and "the insensitive reviewing of pretentious ones".

He sometimes bewailed the difficulty of his role, and was frankly envious of those who "do not have to pose as editors of literary magazines or pretend to produce lists of the greatest contemporary Merseyside novelists at the drop of a hat".

"Like many people who work on literary magazines," he wrote, "I find myself consumed by a deep and burning hatred of books", and he deplored the new British Library, which he thought should be "blown up".

As ever, he found some solace in sexual matters: "For next month, Fiona Pitt-Kethley has suggested she might provide a round-up of recent spanking books. What editor could possibly refuse such an offer?" But there were limits, and he established the Bad Sex Prize, awarded annually for "pseudo-poetic biology" in fiction, which is still going strong.

When it was pointed out that an anthology of traditional poetry published by the Literary Review contained numerous misprints and errors, Waugh's defence was that they "rather add to its charm, challenging readers to stay on their toes and spot the mistakes". A Scribbler in Soho has its own charm, and merits a similar defence.

© Sunday Telegraph

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