Auberon Waugh

Following on from my post this week on the great Sir Ludovic Kennedy, I wanted to share with you a piece I wrote for the Literary Review, in 2001, on the death of my good friend Auberon Waugh.

After the death of Bron in 2001, I borrowed his usual space at the ‘pulpit’ and penned the following piece for the Literary Review readers. For those who still miss him, as I do, here is a reminder of what sort of man he was – and why his loss is irreplaceable.

I never imagined a time when I would, just for once, be taking Auberon Waugh’s place in the pulpit. His death on 17th January is still hard to accept. He leaves a gap on the London literary scene that no one else can fill. At the Literary Review, we view his departure with special grief. A unique voice has fallen silent.

I have a clear memory of the day he came with Victoria Glendinning to talk to me about establishing the Academy Club in the basement at 51 Beak Street. A venue was badly needed, he said, where impoverished writers could congregate in relative peace and enjoy a drink and a snack at affordable prices. I also remember his delight when we managed to get a drinks licence, and the celebration that followed. He held impromptu court in the Club, surrounded by a cluster of bright young women, and sparkled in response to their undivided attention.

His love of life was contagious. In his company one felt that material things and difficulties scarcely mattered and that the capacity to overcome the elements was the key to leading a full and fruitful existence. His health was precarious, ever since he lost a lung in an accident while doing his national service. Yet he always lived without concern for this hindrance. He drank and smoked and championed the drink and tobacco industries without the least regard for whatever harm their products might inflict on the body. The argument for him was about freedom of personal choice. His old-time philosophy held that hard living enhanced the quality of life and that the desire for longevity could exact a price too high to be acceptable.

To pay proper tribute to Bron is a hard challenge because of his many facets. As a journalist and satirist he was without equal in his generation. His prose was by no means contrived and it had a universal appeal that went across political boundaries. His wit was never-failing in its capacity to amuse, enthral and scandalise. He was an entertainer who used words as an art from and utilised his ingenuity to the full in expressing any opinion. His Private Eye diaries remain a testimony to this matchless craftsmanship.

The news of Bron’s death rallied both friends and foes to pay him tribute. Past quarrels and rancour were put aside to acknowledge the immense contribution he had made to the literary world. Even the Sun newspaper, so often the target of Bron’s acerbic pen, was magnanimous in its leader column and showed genuine grief. The solitary exceptions occurred in the obituary notices in the Guardian. An unforgiving piece from Polly Toynbee was only to be expected, but it was Geoffrey Wheatcroft who made the unkindest cut of all when he claimed, in a burst of spite and pomposity, that the Literary Review ‘was not so much bad as pointless’ (despite himself being an occasional contributor). In the circumstances, Mr Wheatcroft merely showed himself up as a midget in comparison with the man he was writing about.

No one can talk about Bron today without mentioning the Literary Review. It became an integral part of his life. Bron was its inspiration and its driving force. He worked tirelessly to get additional backers for the magazine when my own resources became depleted after supporting it for over twenty years. We were united in our commitment to maintaining the magazine. Occasional tension is not unusual in a relationship between proprietor and editor, but during the years of Bron’s editorship there was never a word said in anger on either side. On the contrary, we worked in perfect harmony, each recognising and respecting the role of the other. Our friendship was the culmination of that relationship.

About three months ago, when a vacancy existed for a business manager, Bron came to me to enquire whether I would agree to having Robert Posner back. Robert had worked at the magazine many years before and had run the Academy Club. He was very popular, but his unorthodox style and free spirit caused ripples in some quarters. Nevertheless, Bron and I retained a soft spot for him and had toyed with the idea of his return. When the day finally came, Bron was so excited he practically skipped with joy as he left my office. Nothing could better describe the spirit of the man I knew.

Only days before he died he telephoned me, frail and depressed in the sense that he was bored. He was quite unused to inactivity. First he asked me how I was. He knew I was battling with some financial problems and endeavouring to marshal them in a positive, constructive way. He wanted reassurance that I was coping. It was typical of him to think first of others when so very ill himself. He ended the conversation by saying I should feel free to dispense with his services if that would help. I almost wept on the phone as I retorted that the suggestion amounted to sacrilege and would never be entertained, that we loved him dearly and awaited his recovery and return to the fold. I had been aware for some time that Bron’s health was failing, but refused to accept it, hiding the knowledge deep inside. I went on hoping for some miraculous recovery to set back the clock and reinstate him in all his physical and intellectual vigour.

But the good Lord in his infinite wisdom had other ideas. I guess he wanted Bron close by. The great task of managing the Universe needed some cheering up, and with his wry, sharp wit, who better than Bron to keep Him happy.