Thursday, 16 June 2011

Auberon Waugh: the genius who taught non-liberals to be thoroughly unashamed

“Two letters in the post cause intense irritation. The first is from the Central London branch of the National Union of Journalists, announcing it has increased my subscription to £88 a year. These greedy, self-important shits know they can demand any sum they choose in blackmail, since membership of the Union is now compulsory...

The second is a begging letter from Christ Church, Oxford, asking if I will contribute to a hideous new quad they are planning to build in St Aldate’s so that their new Comprehensive intake and lower-class research students can be accommodated in the comfort they expect… One problem with the lower classes, as they emerge from centuries of richly deserved obscurity, is that that they are greedy. Another problem, of course, is that they are ugly, boring, humourless and desperately conceited. Perhaps when they have built the new St Aldate’s quad I’ll go and set fire to it and see if I can roast a few.”

I doubt there’s anyone reading this who wouldn’t instantly recognise Auberon Waugh’s unique voice. It’s a mark of comic genius if what you write (a) makes people laugh out loud, and (b) couldn’t have been written by anyone else, even a parodist.  

Such a typical extract is also handy for sorting out the liberals from the men. First, a liberal won’t find it at all funny, and, second, won’t understand that the object of the attack aren’t so much the lower classes as the blisters who make extravagant claims on their behalf in the interests of social engineering.

Despite the fact that Waugh is one of my heroes, I’d put off writing about him in case I’d be disappointed when I reread his stuff (I have a number of his anthologies on my shelves). But then regular commenter Ex-KCS mentioned Kiss Me Chudleigh: The World According to Auberon Waugh, edited by William Cook, which was published in hardcover last year. It arrived last week. Due, one presumes, to inspired selection and some excellent background notes, Waugh’s writings appear even funnier than they did at the time.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Waugh’s contributions to the Spectator and Private Eye from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s helped keep me sane. I’m sure many others feel the same. During the Callaghan administration in particular, when this country really did reach rock bottom morally, politically and economically (well, until Labour came back to power, of course), Waugh’s blistering attacks on the forces of liberalism (amongst other things) acted as a bracing corrective to the madness of the era. His targets included the ubiquitous habit of sucking up to the working classes and the championing of their tawdry “culture” by members of the educated middle classes, the destruction of the education system by the awful Shirley Williams and her ilk, the malignant, ersatz “compassion” of our ruling liberal elite leading to the creation of a mass of largely undeserving victim groups (who’ve become the focus of liberals’ “concern” to the detriment of the indigenous white working class), and the enthusiastic support of the liberal Arts establishment for everything destructive, ugly and meaningless.

Of course, Waugh wasn’t the only writer to despise these fools and to abhor the damage they were doing to our lives – but he was the most effective because he simply refused to engage in arguments with the left on their own terms. They wanted what sounds to their ears like rational debate based on the statistics of deprivation. They wanted both sides to indulge in the posturing language of compassion. Their desire was to be accepted as caring individuals who simply wanted to do their best for those less fortunate than themselves. They wanted their opponents to meet them half-way by agreeing that our national life was a series of problems requiring an educated elite to figure out solutions leading to “social justice” (whatever that might be when it’s at home).

Waugh refused to believe their motives were as pure as they imagined them to be, and simply laughed in their faces. Their version of rational debate was so much prejudiced hot air, and their statistics were pure fantasy. Their compassion was a pretence, a mask for hatred and resentment. The great and the good used those less fortunate than themselves as a means of feeling morally superior to everyone else. Most of the so-called “problems” society faced were the fault of basic human nature, or entirely the product of liberal goody-goodies sticking their oar in where it wasn’t wanted or needed. Politicians and do-gooders generally suffered from the “power urge” - i.e. the need to interfere in other people’s lives in a self-important, self-serving manner.

In short, Waugh refused to play the game according to their rules. In response to their views, he would immediately – and maddeningly - adopt a position so extreme that it precluded the possibility of rational debate. Liberals love nothing more than a debate in which they can paint their opponents as morally deficient: Waugh saved them the trouble - and thereby denied them the pleasure.

They worship the workers? “A chimpanzee can be trained to perform most of the functions of the ‘worker’ in a modern factory, and would probably perform them with better grace.”

They love modern architecture? “Another good policy to adopt towards architects is, if you meet anyone in a pub or at a party who says he is an architect, punch him in the face.” 

They love nothing better than creating a tsunami of new legislation? “Now that Parliament is at last in recess, we should surely ask ourselves if it would not be a good idea for it to stay adjourned… We all know how pitifully overworked these MPs are, and I should have thought two weeks a year was quite enough to keep existing laws up to date.” 

They’re convinced that criminals can be “cured” by showering them with love and understanding? “Perhaps the burglar’s girlfriend is even now sunning her limbs on the Costa Brava from the proceeds of this foul crime [some much-loved items had been stolen from Waugh’s London home while he slept upstairs]. I cordially hope she burns herself to a frazzle, contracts dysentery and is raped by ten Sun readers…”

They’re in an absolute tizz about the effects of city children inadvertently eating dog poo? “It provides a form of sustenance to urban toddlers which is free and non-fattening; although the ingestion of dog shit is thought to cause blindness, it is probably less dangerous than the wrapping paper, elastic bands and other substances they would otherwise be eating.” (Just imagine the reaction of your average Guardian reader coming across that!)

Those poor, darling, unemployed young people thrown on the scrapheap by Margaret Thatcher’s vicious, divisive economic policies? Waugh (correctly) blames Shirley Williams’s disastrous education policy. “For at least seven years I have been pointing out that a substantial proportion of young Britons – I would put it at a third overall, perhaps a quarter in the south and a half in the north – are completely unemployable. They not only lack the disciple necessary to acquire the most rudimentary skills, they also lack the necessary will to please. They are a lost generation, without even the resources to amuse themselves.” And that’s even more true today than it was back in 1983, well before a million Eastern Europeans flooded in to do the sustained work many Britons are evidently incapable of undertaking.

On and on it goes. Here he is on the causes of the homosexual serial killer Dennis Nielsen’s crimes: “Like so many social and emotional cripples, he drifted into left-wing politics and became branch organiser of the Civil Service Union, but even there his boring self-righteousness failed to secure the warmth and comradeship he sought.”

Half the world is starving? “I do not accept that estimate, and would put it at about three hundredths of one percent.” (And that was written in the year that Band Aid was born!)

Waugh said out loud the thoughts the rest of us tried to suppress, and in doing so gave us the courage to recognise that it isn’t abnormal to feel the way we do: it’s a damn sight more abnormal not to!

His attitude towards these pompous prats must have been as infuriating as their attitude to those of us who reject their poisonous nostrums. No wonder Polly Toynbee wrote such a hateful, mean-spirited obituary when Waugh died. She was everything he despised and laughed at.

But it isn’t all politics. Fish and insects inspire some truly original writing: for instance, ladybirds are “lovely pop art creatures” and, realising he doesn’t know the sex of a pet goldfish which has just died, he writes: “Do female goldfish have monthly troubles? Do lonely male goldfish experience nocturnal emissions and if so, how do they distinguish wet dreams from any other type of dream in the encircling wetness?”

Bizarrely, Waugh spent some 30 months in the early 1970s writing columns for – of all places – the New Statesman! Afterwards, in conjuring up his imagine of the typical reader he had been addressing, he proved just how acute was his understanding of the modern liberal mindset. He imagined her as a “taut, slightly embittered female schoolteacher, possibly in Coventry… She was a convinced atheist and a convinced progressive in sexual matters, although her experiences in that field had seldom been encouraging. In foreign affairs she was endlessly progressive but in home affairs subject to strange disciplinarian urges which might suddenly demand unspeakable punishments, not only for racists, rapists and male chauvinists, but also for litter louts, cigarette smokers and males generally. She approved of homosexuality and unmarried mothers, disapproved of drink and drugs, approved of education, disapproved of anyone excelling in it…”

That last phrase, about education, shows Waugh at his absolute best.Genius.

A decade has passed since Waugh died at the age of 61.  A great shame for the great man, his friends, family and many admirers. But, truth be told, his work was done: he had helped a whole generation of conservatives and right-wingers not be ashamed of their views, and not to be afraid of pointing at every self-important, self-regarding member of our ruling liberal politico-media elite and shouting, at the top of our voices, that they’re wearing no clothes.

Many thanks, Mr Waugh. RIP.


  1. A great tribute to a true comic genius. I often find myself reflecting on the absurdities all around and trying to derive some Waugh-like comic value out of them. Knowing that here was at least one kindred spirit (and now I find there was another all the time) who would poke fun at the crushingly dull, creativity-stifling, reduce everything to a cylinder shape orthodoxies of the left in 1970s and 80's was a great comfort. We all know lefties cannot bear to be mocked, which is why the likes of the BBC and the then Fleet Street denied him an audience.

    His feud with some one called Nora Beloff was a particular delight. His articles at the time he was standing as the Dog Lover's Party candidate in Jeremy Thorpe's constituency still make me smile when I think of them. I wonder what he would have made of the age of the blogger. I think he would have been OK with your blog, would probably have approved of Guido but thought him a bit of an oik and been less impressed at the quality of commentary from the many great sages to which the internet age has given a voice. I am not sure his job was done. He was never well enough really to have got on top of Blair and the rest. Family apart, he would come fairly near the top of my list of people to whom I would have asked the good Lord to grant an extra ten years.
    Friday, June 17, 2011 - 07:36 PM

  2. Excellent post. I only came across Auberon Waugh once. It was in Paddington Station outside W&H Smith where he shot me a look of naked hatred. It worried me for days. Perhaps he thought I was "Grey" Gowrie. In certain lights, I do look as if I have a touch of the "tar-brush".

    Anyway, your post started me skimming through his memoir "Will this do?" and it is a very good read, indeed. I had forgotten how badly injured he had been in the Cyprus incident and how he suffered subsequently. [On his army training: " The only useful lesson I learned at Caterham concerned the resentment and hatred of large sections of the working class for such as myself. The price of privilege is eternal vigilance."]

    On a fellow undergraduate who had pulled himself up by his boot-straps from a slum in the Gorbals "who got himself into Oxford despite being made to eat black bread at home. I think he may have had to walk to school shoeless, with his clogs tied round his neck for fear of wearing them out." The good old Brits and their eternal class war.

    You and I have recently been discussing money so here is a final quote: " For many years I invested any spare cash I had in silver bullion and Maria Theresa thalers, having no trust in money, let alone in paper share certificates which required an act of faith that British workers would be prepared to go on working to make them profitable. Even now, my only investment is in cellars and cellars of wine, apart from some tax avoidance schemes, so that at least I shall have something to drink when the pound disappears from sight on the world's markets."

    Yes, together with Bernard Levin and Michael Wharton, he is much missed.[ But we still have Toby Young and his fascinating stories about his four children and his independent school in Acton so all is not lost.] Thank you, EX-KCS, for explaining why Waugh never appeared on the BBC.
    Saturday, June 18, 2011 - 10:26 AM

  3. The Spectator had a Marie-Antoinette quote last week, something to the effect of “Living? That is something one has servants for”. Auberon Waugh as a latter-day Marie-Antoinette?

    Didn’t get very far with that line of thought. Back to the real thing -- here he is, calling on British war heroes to undertake the hardest job in the country, he starts about seven minutes in:

    He had these marvellous flights of fancy but, for some reason, the item that sticks in my mind is his description of sitting by Lake Geneva nursing a cup of coffee he had just paid £4 for, at a time when that was about six times the median UK income. He found something majestic and cathartically satisfying in this ruthlessly exclusive experience.

    Apologies, but I must lever in here the latest George Orwell essay I have read, Notes on Nationalism, from October 1945,

    Orwell’s is a very special use of the word “nationalism” in this case. He doesn’t mean patriotism. He approves of patriotism. He doesn’t approve of nationalism, which he analyses under the following headings -- obsession, instability and indifference to reality. You get the idea. In Orwell’s sense, it’s not just an English Communist who is a nationalist, it’s not just a Zionist or an anti-Semite, but also a homophobe can be a nationalist and so can a climate change-o-phile.

    Anyway, under indifference to reality, Orwell says: “Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied. In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek boiled hundreds of Communists alive, and yet within ten years he had become one of the heroes of the Left. The realignment of world politics had brought him into the anti-Fascist camp, and so it was felt that the boiling of the Communists ‘didn't count’, or perhaps had not happened”.

    You can almost hear Auberon Waugh making that up, can’t you, boiling hundreds of Communists alive, ...

    Orwell believes that nationalism in his sense is on the wane but nevertheless “the fact does remain that the nationalistic habit of thought is widespread, so much so that various large and pressing problems -- India, Poland, Palestine, the Spanish civil war, the Moscow trials, the American Negroes, the Russo-German Pact or what have you -- cannot be, or at least never are, discussed upon a reasonable level. The Eltons and Pritts and Coughlins, each of them simply an enormous mouth bellowing the same lie over and over again ...”. Obviously that list needs to be updated after 66 years, “the Blairs and Browns and Ballses, each of them simply an enormous mouth bellowing the same lie over and over again” ...

  4. And that’s Waugh’s contribution in the end, I think, to point out repeatedly that politicians are mad, megalomaniac liars, they have to be to want to do the job, it’s self-selecting, and we should never forget it. We do. Or at least I do. The political news of the past week has been shattering. But only shattering for an idiot like me who still falls occasionally into the trap of believing politicians, of listening to that enormous mouth bellowing the same lie over and over again. Orwell didn’t make that mistake. And Waugh was warning us not to.

    And he was a patriot. He would have agreed, I think, when Orwell said: “Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory ... Many people were undisguisedly pleased when Singapore fell or when the British were driven out of Greece, and there was a remarkable unwillingness to believe in good news, e.g. el Alamein, or the number of German planes shot down in the Battle of Britain. English left-wing intellectuals did not, of course, actually want the Germans or Japanese to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated, and wanted to feel that the final victory would be due to Russia, or perhaps America, and not to Britain. In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong ... The reason for the rise and spread of nationalism is far too big a question to be raised here. It is enough to say that, in the forms in which it appears among English intellectuals, it is a distorted reflection of the frightful battles actually happening in the external world, and that its worst follies have been made possible by the break-down of patriotism and religious belief. If one follows up this train of thought, one is in danger of being led into a species of Conservatism, or into political quietism. It can be plausibly argued, for instance -- it is even possibly true -- that patriotism is an inoculation against nationalism, that monarchy is a guard against dictatorship, and that organised religion is a guard against superstition” -- John Pilger, eat your heart out.
    Saturday, June 18, 2011 - 02:19 PM

  5. DM, thank you for that snippet about the Guardian – very heartening! As for your TV clip, I think Hislop was devastated by Waugh jumping ship when it was announced he’d be taking over. Always sounds bitter about Waugh, and no wonder – I read the Eye occasionally these days, but it became non-essential reading after Waugh left. Orwell stuff great, as always, especially the “patriotism is an inoculation against nationalism, that monarchy is a guard against dictatorship, and that organised religion is a guard against superstition” quote. No one has ever seen into the heart of Britain’s left-wing intelligensia as Orwell did, although Nick Cohen does a great job in “What’s Left?”. Someone should start a column where they quote something seemingly fresh about Britain from a modern commentator and place it next to the original Orwell quote saying the same thing, or attacking the view being expressed.

    One thing I could never figure out about him, SDG, was – and how oikish is this? – how much money did he earn from journalism, and how much did he rely on income from his father’s estate? Private Eye and the Spectator can’t have paid much and neither would he have made much (if anything) from editing the Literary Review. Did the Telegraph end up paying him a small fortune as a star columnist? He had an awfully large house and family to maintain.

    The only reason I thought his work was done, Ex-KCS, was that Blair and his entourage were a sort of real-life Auberon Waugh’s Diary and Michael Wharton-era Way of the World rolled into one. The way they looked, the things they said, the things they did – they moved beyond parody. How could Waugh have successfully lampooned these farcical figures for long? He’d have had much more fun with Cameron/Clegg/Osbourne, I reckon – goofy young toffs hopelessly out of their depth.
    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 11:47 AM

  6. Evelyn Waugh's estate amounted to £16,000 and Auberon Waugh received a disability pension from the MoD of around £300 pa so draw your own conclusions.
    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 04:12 PM

  7. Crikey! So where did the money come from??? Mind you, this sort of thing always puzzles me - I can't figure out where all the people packing out the many restaurants in Chiswick earn the money to pay for it all, especially as expense accounts barely exist any longer and we're all supposed to be poor. And all the chi-chi delicatessens and specialist chocolate shops and bespoke butchers and whatnot, and they are forever having fantastically expensive things done to their houses. Homosexual and lesbian couples, I understand - two incomes, no kids - but how the rest manage it? They can't all be investment bankers and top-flight lawyers (and dentists and doctors these days). All very puzzling.
    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 05:09 PM

  8. Scott: "So where did the money come from?"

    I have tried and failed to find out how much Auberon was paid for the serialisation of Evelyn's diaries.

    But i did come across this, in Auberon's Telegraph obit, :

    He [Auberon Waugh] and his wife entertained generously at their house in Somerset, at a holiday home in Languedoc and at their flat in Hammersmith (bought with the proceeds of an ornate Victorian wash-stand, by the Puginesque designer William Burges, which Sir John Betjeman had given Evelyn Waugh as a 50th birthday present). Teresa's cooking complemented Bron's excellent cellar.

    Mark Steyn has just seen fit to reproduce his obituary of Michael Wharton, :

    In 1991, Harold Pinter, who is a real person and not a fictional character, decided to oppose the grotesque half-millennial celebrations of Columbus’ discovery – whoops, “discovery” – of the Americas by launching a group called “Five Hundred Years Of Resistance”. Immediately, Stretchford’s Aztec community, descendants of settlers who’d crossed the Atlantic in stone boats in the Dark Ages and settled in the West Midlands of England, announced their support for Pinter’s campaign. Their leader, a 43-year old 25th-year sociology student at Nerdley University, offered the playwright the high honor of being the principal sacrifice on their anti-Columbus step-pyramid, assuming their grant from Nerdley Arts came through.

    The difficulties for a satirist -- whether Wharton, Waugh or Steyn -- are pointed up in Steyn's January 2006 piece:

    "... most of Wharton’s cast of characters were in place by the early Sixties, and he had the melancholy satisfaction of spending the next 40 years watching the real world remorselessly close the gap with satiric invention. The “go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon” eventually acquired a “partner”, Dr Mantissa Shout, but the gay Bishop of New Hampshire’s explanation to the Episcopal Synod that sex with his own long-term partner was “sacramental” must have had Simple fearing for the future of satire. Decades ago, Wharton invented a pliable media-friendly “moderate” Conservative of no fixed beliefs – Jeremy Cardhouse, leader of the Tories for Progress Group – only to see him at the very end of his long life triumphantly anointed as head of the apparently real British Conservative Party under the name “David Cameron”.

    Too late to fear for "the future of satire".

    Cut to Steyn's Happy Warrior piece on US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) from two days ago, . The US is a deeply indebted nation borrowing money at the rate of 200 million dollars an hour. And Whitehall is a town in Montreal:

    The Whitehall border crossing sees fewer than five cars a day. So, naturally, the Washington spendaholics announced it would be getting an $8.5 million stimulus upgrade, the better to serve those 30 vehicles a week. Simultaneously, Ottawa noticed the crossing was attracting fewer than five cars a day. So they announced its closure. You can’t get more stimulating than an $8.5 million border crossing to nowhere. And surely there too is a poignant image of the West at twilight: an exit facility, but with nothing on the other side.

    Don't get smug. While the US concentrates on defending its northern border against dangerous Canadians, we in the similarly indebted and mentally unstable UK attempt to protect our borders with ePassports, which rely on a technology reported by the Telegraph -- in the news section and not Way of the World -- to be incapable of distinguishing between Osama bin Laden and Winona Ryder,

    The "West at twilight", satiremurderers no longer fit even to shave at a Victorian washstand.
    Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 10:34 AM