From the pulpit of this little magazine, Waugh was able to inveigh against modernism in the arts (“solemn drivel”) and poetry that failed to rhyme, scan or make sense. He inaugurated the Bad Sex prize, for seedy passages of erotica in fiction. He also jeered at venerable asses such as the poet Stephen Spender, who had never written a line anyone could remember. “You would have thought, by the law of averages, he would have written one such line, if only by accident.” Under Waugh’s editorship, which ended only with his demise, the Literary Review lost £120,000 annually. The debts were covered by the very forgiving and forbearing Attallah.
The diary was a theatre of the absurd which Waugh occasionally took on tour in a kind of performance journalism, most notably during the 1979 general election. This was part of his ‘oblique, crablike’ pursuit of Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal Party. Allegations that Thorpe had hired a hit man to dispose of his former lover Norman Scott had been cropping up since 1975, nowhere more persistently than in Private Eye. Thorpe had used his influence and the libel laws to avoid prosecution, and Waugh felt the press had been craven. In 1977 Andrew Newton, the comically incompetent hit man who had missed Scott but killed his dog, Rinka, was released from prison and started hawking his story round the papers. Thorpe, as anxious to deny his homosexuality as the charge of attempted murder, set out to square the press.
It’s an odd book, neither an outright anthology nor biography nor memoir, but something of all three, in which the author describes in detail all the events of Waugh’s career with which he was involved, especially as the proprietor of the persistently loss-making Literary Review, which Waugh edited. There’s too much space given to libel actions but we do get lots of his pieces, which remain subversive, funny and often to the point. He couldn’t survive now, and that, you know, reflects badly on us.
Naim Attallah says in his conclusion that Waugh was ‘a man who feared no one, whose wit was uniquely inventive and entertaining and the loss of whose genius is incalculable’. Hear, hear to that.
I never knew Waugh personally... and when I sat down to compile that anthology I was mindful thatI had no right to call him Bron, as his many friends did. Yet reading Naim Attallah’s new anthology, I wonder whether this was actually an asset. Attallah was a close friend of Waugh’s, and his boss and patron during Waugh’s long stint as editor of Literary Review. In a heartfelt foreword he calls Waugh his mentor, his hero and his idol. His affection and admiration is sincere, and often rather moving, but it doesn’t bode well for a book about a man who — in print, though not in person — could be spectacularly cruel... No matter. It would be very difficult to produce a bad or boring book about Auberon Waugh — and although Attallah sometimes threatens to have a jolly good go, Waugh rides to the rescue whenever the paean becomes too fulsome. Waugh was incredibly prolific (you could compile several books like this one and still not scratch the surface) and among these old favourites are many entertaining articles I’ve never seen before.
Despite all this, Waugh never ceased to love and idolise his father, and the snobbish persona he adopts in his writing is clearly based on Evelyn. More to the point, although his wounds caused him pain and infections for the rest of his life, he worked almost to the day of his death with prodigious energy, writing each week for several periodicals. Nor did he allow his suffering to affect his temper, but treated subordinates with courtesy and consideration, as their testimonies, printed by Attallah, bear out. The writer was detestable, but the man was not, and Attallah rightly celebrates him.