It’s a shame that it took so long to get this gorgeously entertaining, witty, outlandish, shrewd, wise and bitchy book published in America. Kudos to Carroll & Graf and shame on the big publishing houses for missing the chance to introduce Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, to these shores. He has written some 15 books since 1960, including novels, nonfiction, collections of journalism and his famous Private Eye diaries, but “Will This Do?” is the book he was, literally, born to write.
Evelyn Waugh was not a monster to his six children, but he was monstrously indifferent. “The presence of my children,” he wrote in his diary in 1946, when Bron was 7, “affects me with deep weariness and depression.” Elsewhere: “My children weary me. I can only see them as defective adults: feckless, destructive, frivolous, sensual, humorless.” He took his meals in the library to avoid them, and as his brood increased, so did the length of his stays away from home. His best quality as a father seems to be that he never beat them. In the best tradition of British pedagogy, that was left to the severe schoolmasters with whom the children were interned and who taught them how to conjugate amo, amas, amat.
Waugh Sr. had to be cajoled into attending family christenings and graduation ceremonies and even weddings. After Auberon Waugh critically wounded himself while posted to Cyprus as an army officer--he managed to shoot himself with a Browning .300 machine gun--his father did not visit him in the hospital for three weeks after he returned to England. That appalling fact is not mentioned here in this autobiography but in Martin Stannard’s 1992 biography, “Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years, 1939-1966.” Father, Stannard writes, was “embarrassed” by the son’s misadventure.
Then there was the bananas episode. After the war, Britain’s Labor government, in one of socialism’s more benign experiments, decided to distribute a rare banana to every child in England. Three were duly delivered to the Waugh household. Papa, in full view of his salivating children, poured cream--also scarce--over them and ate them all: “From that moment, I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.” This act of paternal greed was all the more remarkable given Evelyn Waugh’s proud and public Catholicism. But in the end, "[t]he most terrifying aspect of Evelyn Waugh as a parent was that he reserved the right not just to deny affection to his children but to advertise an acute and unqualified dislike of them . . . an acknowledgment of his tragic inability to relax with them,” Auberon writes.
How strange and lovely, therefore, that Waugh fils’ tone toward his father throughout the book is one of tolerance, acceptance, understanding and--call it love. Auberon, despite his lapse from the church that his father revered (he calls the Roman Catholic church of Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock “Mickey Mouse”), might in a way be a betterChristian than his father ever was.
That’s a tough call, and one complicated by the book’s secondary theme, the education of a curmudgeon or, as he styles himself, a practitioner of the “vituperative arts.” The last section of “Will This Do?” might have been titled “The Libel Years” for all the time Waugh spends writing about being sued by people who were not amused. The preceding movements could be titled “Life With Father,” “Downside,” “The Army,” “Oxford” and “Grub Street.” He “went down” after only a year because his first novel, “The Foxglove Saga,” was coming out and he decided that “the role of a published novelist among the other undergraduates would be an odious one, requiring endless displays of modesty and self-effacement.” He made his own living--he is proud of having been financially independent from the age of 20--by writing for small publications, ranging from the Catholic Herald to the Daily Telegraph, Woman’s Own, the Daily Mirror and even Rupert Murdoch’s highbrow News of the World. He dabbled, by his own admission, at four more novels and now says he wishes he had spent more than six weeks writing them.
It was his father’s death, on Easter Sunday 1966, that led to his most enduring and respectable editorial perch, on the weekly Spectator. The editor asked him to write a review of the mostly sour obituaries of his father.
This gig, and his well-read column in Private Eye, brought him into his own and provided him with a bully pulpit for his vituperations. His biggest problem was “to find enough people I wished to be rude about.” A daunting challenge, but he seems to have managed.
The British publish the most lurid newspapers in the world, but they have libel laws far tougher than our own. Over there, you can pretty much sue for anything. They also have something called a Press Council, to which the aggrieved can take their complaints.
Waugh may be too tart for the sensitive American palate, but perhaps in the privacy of home, in which the political correctness police won’t hear you chortle, you might enjoy some of his piquant observations: “The truth about the poor, I suspect, is that although we must all approve of them wholeheartedly, we also find them irritating.” If this sounds snobbish, there is this, from a letter to his father, defending himself for writing for a tabloid: “More poisonous, illiterate rubbish appears each week in the ‘quality’ newspapers than in the two tabloids. It would be a worthy aim in life, I think, to try and bring the lower classes to their senses. The educated and upper classes are too deeply committed to wrongheadedness to make the attempt worthwhile.”
What wine critic in America would be bold enough to compare a terrible wine with “a dead chrysanthemum on the grave of a still-born West Indian baby”? That grim simile, written for Tina Brown’s Tatler, earned him a summons to the Press Council. He is fearless and, better still, gleeful, in his outrages. He tells his Private Eye readers that he is off to Japan with the objective of settling the disputed question of whether Japanese have pubic hair. He telephones the Cyprus airport, in the middle of a fierce firefight with an angry faction of Egyptians, to demand his lost luggage. The dialogue is straight out of an Evelyn Waugh comic novel:
“Please, sir, can you get off the line, we have an emergency here.”
“No, I wish to find out what has happened to my luggage.”
“But sir, they are shooting. Bullets are flying everywhere. People are being killed.”
“That’s all very well, but I have to go out to dinner this evening and I do not even have a change of shirt. Have you heard from KLM?”
Elsewhere, we find him traveling to Senegal to deliver, per instructions, a speech in French on breast-feeding (at the time, he was writing a regular column for a British medical magazine). After considerable labor, he arrives only to find that he is expected to speak on press freedom. “There was no way even to describe the misunderstanding, since ‘la liberte de la Presse’ bears no resemblance to ‘le nourrisson naturel des bebes.’ ”
Most of the time, Waugh’s wit is a pleasure. Occasionally, it cloys, such as when he is delivering one of his context free, drive-by invectives. Kenneth Tynan, the late drama critic, who wrote enduring prose, is merely “wretched.” Vroom. Harold Evans, former editor of the London Sunday Times, founding editor of Conde Nast Traveler, president of Random House and now editorial director of the dread Mort Zuckerman’s press empire, is dismissed as a “midget, north-country journalist.” Vroom. (One suspects that something is going on here, inasmuch as Waugh spends several pages drooling over Evans’ wife, Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker.) Anthony Powell, author of the highly regarded “A Dance to the Music of Time” books, is “an inferior artist.” Vroom. It went over my (admittedly low) head as to why former Private Eye editor Christopher Booker made himself “ridiculous, being filmed on television talking seriously about architecture with the Prince of Wales,” but maybe you had to be there.
Waugh is nothing if not self-critical and ruthlessly honest. He admits that he persecuted Cyril Connolly--a “horrible old man"--because Connolly failed to take an interest in him when Waugh was just starting out, unlike his father’s other friends, among them Graham Greene, John Betjeman and Harold Acton (the model for the character of Anthony Blanche in “Brideshead Revisited”).
It takes guts to own up to this kind of self-serving pettiness. Here and there he calls himself a coward or incompetent and allows that, as a child, he was a monster, though that doesn’t let Papa off the hook entirely. Toward the end of the book, he writes, “Looking back over my career, and at all the people I have insulted, I am mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist.” In some quarters, this line was undoubtedly greeted with a chorus of “Hear, hear.”
Waugh is mellower now, if still prickly; content without being smug; possessed of a fine wife, children, his father’s grand country home, Combe Florey, literary success and an enviable wine cellar full of vintages that would not put anyone in mind of the funereal chrysanthemum. He has had, for all the bumps, including the self-machine-gunning in Cyprus from which he still suffers pain, a good life.
A famous father can be a mixed blessing. He writes--as any parent knows--that “a child hopes for parents who will be inconspicuous.” When “The Foxglove Saga” came out--with glowing blurbs on the jacket from Greene and Betjeman--it received a savage review from a man who at the time was his boss on the staff of Queen magazine: “One of the most heartless and disagreeable books I have ever read. Only a son of the literary establishment would have got this book published with so much publicity. . . . It is a poor system that produces this. . . . In my opinion, Betjeman and Greene should have known better.”
Reflecting on it, Waugh notes that "[m]y own attitude to the innumerable injustices of life has always been a philosophical one, especially when they have tended to operate in my favor. A player in life’s poker game can use only the cards he is dealt. It is not the sign of a clever or compassionate player who is dealt three kings if he trades them in for a jack.”
When his father died, Auberon Waugh felt, in addition to grief, a sense of release: “The strain of living two lives, one on my own, and the other through his eyes, was greatly relieved by his sudden death. Perhaps nobody is completely grown-up until both his parents are dead.” When his eccentric mother died seven years later, he felt it again: "[I]t now occurs to me that perhaps one of the kindest things we parents can do for our children is to die reasonably young.” If Evelyn Waugh’s death provided his son with his manumission, “Will This Do?” provides him with a confirming second, not that one seems to be needed.