Christopher Hart

Heretic in the Pulpit

A Scribbler in Soho: A Celebration of Auberon Waugh

By

Quartet Books 341pp £20 order from our bookshop

Before beginning to write this review, I read that a lady in Portland, Oregon, has just exposed her bottom to a policeman in protest against a ‘men’s rights’ march. Even a connoisseur of human lunacy like Auberon Waugh might struggle to satirise the way the world is going nowadays, some eighteen years after his death. Besides, would any of the mainstream newspapers give him a column any more? He could be somewhat independent-minded, after all, in a way that nowadays terrifies the corporate media.

Naim Attallah’s ‘celebration’ of the great man, the funniest journalist of the postwar period, not to mention former editor of Literary Review, is also something of a love letter, an anthology combined with an outline biography, as well as a memoir of their friendship. If you want simply an anthology of Waugh’s finest pieces, there is already the superb Kiss Me, Chudleigh, edited by William Cook. And of course every literate and cultivated family in the country will have the complete Private Eye diaries of Auberon Waugh on their library shelves, alongside the Bible and Shakespeare. Nevertheless, A Scribbler in Soho is a worthy addition to any collection of Waviana, and includes some delightful reminiscences by close friends and colleagues.

It also features some choice excerpts from his Private Eye diaries, which remind you just how far we are now from their anarchic spirit in our own anxious, humourless and fanatical times. Way back in 1974, pondering Jan Morris’s gender switch, Waugh revealed that he himself had already had not one but two sex changes, from man to woman and then back again. ‘My reason for changing back was the ghastly boredom of women’s conversation after dinner.’

Always a keen traveller with a taste for the exotic, he sampled dog in Manila (‘They do not taste at all bad – the Filipinos are brilliant cooks’) and caused some upset in Australia by asking to eat a koala. (They said no.) He brooded upon the diminishing appetite among the middle classes for class warfare and warned them that if it were not recovered soon, ‘they will find their homes occupied by ferocious dwarves from the Midlands who will insist on keeping coal in their baths’. He also waged some long-running but sadly unsuccessful campaigns – for instance, to encourage the Arts Council to pay people not to write poetry.

A Scribbler in Soho also includes many of his finest ‘From the Pulpit’ pieces, which he wrote as editor of Literary Review, musing on the pitfalls of the writer’s life. He disliked both modern poetry and modern poets: ‘vain, empty, conceited, dishonest, dirty, often flea-ridden and infected by venereal disease, greedy, parasitical, drunken, untruthful, arrogant … all these repulsive qualities, and also irresistibly attractive to women’. Poets were at least banned from the private members’ club he set up, The Academy, the most brilliant and exclusive such institution in London, if not the civilised world.

For Waugh, the last real poet was Sir John Betjeman, who died in 1984; with him died more than a thousand years of English poetic tradition. ‘Like so many other Englishmen at this time of desolation, nursing their private grief, I wander around my rain-soaked acres killing adders,’ he wrote. And if people must keep writing novels, he warned, don’t expect anyone to want to read them and certainly don’t entertain ideas about making a living from it. One of his most intriguing suggestions was that any aspiring writer should really just concentrate on keeping a beautifully written, entertaining diary that might prove far more interesting a hundred years hence than anything else. Today, when almost no one keeps a diary anymore, or indeed commits anything to paper at all, this seems an even more promising idea, though will anyone actually still be reading a hundred years hence? Have you seen the film Idiocracy?

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.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter