Last Saturday marked the 15th anniversary of the death of my friend Auberon Waugh. Even now, a day rarely passes when I don’t remember or think about him and his unique qualities. The Daily Mail asked me to write about him at the time, and here is what I wrote. In his memory, I reprint it below:
Auberon Waugh, the writer, satirist and son of Brideshead Revisited author Evelyn Waugh, died on Tuesday night at his home in Somerset. Wine-loving Waugh, 61, was a workaholic whose acerbic views were variously described as scathing, rude, sexist and snobbish – as well as brutally provocative. He was never afraid if his views offended and would relish making personal attacks on his many enemies. Yet his irrepressible sense of humour and one-man crusade against ‘powerfreaks, busybodies’ and the forces of political correctness endeared him to a huge following of readers. He married Lady Teresa, daughter of the sixth Earl of Onslow in 1961 and they had four children, Sophia, Alexander, Daisy and Nathaniel. Yesterday, Lady Teresa said: ‘He had been unwell for quite a long time with a bad heart. It’s hard to sum up someone so wonderful, but I’ve been hanging around for 40 years so that says something.’
Without ‘Bron’ life can never be the same. The world of letters has lost a gentle giant who will always be remembered for his puckish humour, brilliant journalism, his loyalty to his friends and, above all, his devotion to his family. No father could have doted more on his offspring than Bron did. Before he and I were even acquainted he wrote me out of the blue extolling the qualities of his daughter, Sophia. He said she was both clever and beautiful and, having just graduated from university, was looking for a post in publishing. Could I, he continued, consider interviewing her for a possible job at Quartet, my publishing firm.
This was in the early eighties, when Quartet had the reputation for being a refuge for well-connected girls of exquisite demeanour, who made it into the gossip columns and, after serving their apprenticeships in the practicalities of publishing, went on to achieve even more meaningful heights in the worlds of journalism and literature. Much taken by the tone of the letter I willingly obliged. Of course, Sophia was employed and proved worthy of her father’s praise and confidence.
Bron’s admiration and support for his children was a far cry from the difficult relationship he had with his father, Evelyn Waugh. ‘My children weary me,’ the great novelist said of his offspring when Bron was a seven-year-old. ‘I can only see them as defective adults: feckless, destructive, frivolous, sensual, humourless… I do not see them until luncheon, as I have my breakfast alone in the library, and they are, in fact, well trained to avoid my part of the house.’
Bron used to talk of his father’s undisguised glee at the prospect of getting rid of his children to school as each holiday drew to a close. And how, just after the war, when the first consignment of bananas reached Britain and the government decided that every child in the country should be allowed one, his mother came home with three. ‘All three bananas were put on my father’s plate,’ Bron wrote later, ‘and before the anguished eyes of his children, he poured on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and ate all three.’
Yet Bron hugely admired his father and inherited from him much of his wit, erudition and, above all, his ability to write. So my first serious encounter with Bron came when I offered him the editorship of my magazine, the Literary Review, as Emma Soames, the editor, was planning to join Vogue. To my delight, Bron accepted. He also made it a stipulation that he should receive only a minimal salary to lessen my financial burden as proprietor. Hard as it is to believe, his salary remained the same 15 years on as it had at the beginning. He always insisted that any increases due to him should be passed to junior members of staff to help them cope with the hardships of a badly paid first job.
At the Literary Review he took on bright young things, fresh from university, who were keen to work in the shadow of the ‘great man’ himself. Endearingly, he referred to them as ‘slaves’ until the point came when they had proved themselves and went on to the payroll. From then on they would argue with, provoke and tease their mentor, for he had the ability to create an ambience where good humour and hilarity combined with the pursuit of excellence and rigorous standards. Despite being someone who was so accomplished and so revered by his peers, Bron remained humble and unpretentious in himself.
His pen was often acerbic and the campaigns he pursued against those he felt had wronged him, even in his early youth, were a hallmark of his public persona. Nevertheless, he was kind, hospitable and generous and would back causes for the hell of it. His contrariness was designed to provoke controversy, but there was no malice in his pronouncements. His readers, even the most puritanical, allowed him a measure of tolerance that few others enjoyed. For he was the epitome of British humour, with all its sense of irony and absurdity.
His famous diaries in the satirical magazine Private Eye are masterpieces of comic observation that will endure for decades to come. His perception of human frailties and the decadence of our age was unique. His partnership with the late cartoonist Willie Rushton will be remembered and celebrated as a milestone of innovatory humour that, like opera, presented a colourful and loud view of life.
Even when he fired six bullets from a faulty machine gun into his chest at point blank range while on National Service – an incident that led to 12 operations, the removal of a lung, and nine months in hospital – he joked about it as he lay on the ground. ‘Kiss me, Chudleigh,’ he said to the melodramatic Corporal who attended him. Chudleigh didn’t understand the historical reference and treated him with caution thereafter.
Bron’s ability to shock and entertain are part of our English culture and its long traditions of satire. His love of life, his indulgence in those things supposed to be bad for our health – smoking and drinking in particular – and his love of the opposite sex are but a few of the traits that endeared him to all those who had the privilege of knowing him. They were part of his response to those in power who would dearly like to control aspects of our lives. My relationship with Bron could not have been better for our circumstances. We saw each other from time to time, exchanged conversation at cocktail parties and were always available to each other when the occasion arose.
I could never pretend that I necessarily moved in the same circles, nor that I had the capacity to socialise, as he loved to do. But we shared common interests. We both loved women, appreciated a good glass of fine claret, enjoyed good food and were committed to maintaining the Literary Review, come what may. We both cared about the quality of life, as distinct from its duration, and could be classed as bon viveurs par excellence.
His memoirs were called Will This Do? – the question every journalist asks himself when submitting an article and the one, he said, with which we may all eventually face our Maker. And in Bron’s case, it certainly will. With Bron I felt true comradeship, and if love means a fusion of the spirits and a caring that never wavers in its warmth and intensity, it follows that I must have loved Bron most dearly.