The past few days have been highlighted by a number of very pleasing reviews for Quartet’s latest volume, A Scribbler in Soho, an anthology of Auberon Waugh’s writings in Private Eye and the Literary Review, with a commentary edited by me.
It started in the Sunday Telegraph with a double page article by Christopher Howse which was more biography than review, remembering Bron at times as a colleague as he subedited Waugh’s column in the Sunday Telegraph during most of the nineties. But his main point was to endorse the real reason for our book’s publication: ‘He died a century ago, in 2001. In today’s climate of censoriousness, many things he wrote would not be published in a daily paper. Indeed, it is hard even to mention some of them. That is a bad thing…’
Howse ends his piece, having mentioned Bron’s love of jokes, as well as being struck by a remark Bron made to him ‘late in life that he hadn’t gone to bed sober for 25 years,’ with a paragraph which sums up the need to remember Bron’s significance: ‘Waugh’s friend Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote last week that the Spectator had a golden few years under Alexander Chancellor because everyone was so drunk all the time. I think it might have been a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Yet drinking, and making jokes, are political acts as much as anything Germaine Greer got up to. If they are not allowed, we’re losing our liberties. The political journalist Alan Watkins, no mean stylist himself, judged that Waugh’s great strength was “his complete absence of restraint and good taste”. I fear that cultural pressures may prevent him from having any emulator.’
Next was a review by John Carey in the Sunday Times. He takes a certain waspish view of my use of the third person, and objects to some of Bron’s opinions which he considered ‘unfit for mention in a celebration.’ He adds however: ‘Attallah might justifiably reply that his duty was to give an accurate account of his friend, and that prejudice was part of [Bron’s] make-up.’
After a long (and critical) list of Bron’s prejudices, Carey suggests that what the book really celebrates is courage and ends the review with ‘… [though] his wounds [Waugh had shot himself by accident during his National Service] caused him pain and infections for the rest of his life, he worked almost to the day of his death with prodigious energy, writing each week for several periodicals. Nor did he allow his suffering to affect his temper, but treated subordinates with courtesy and consideration, as their testimonials, printed by Attallah, bear out. The writer was detestable, but the man was not, and Attallah rightly celebrates him.’
Roger Lewis’s review in The Times gets straight to the point. Regretting that Waugh ‘is not a name that will mean much to the younger generation’, he goes on to suggest that if they did ‘they would ban Waugh instantly. Never can there have been a writer more likely to be pinioned and blackened by no-platforming, Twitter storms of disgust and opprobrium, social media persecution and snowflake heebie-jeebies.’
Calling the book ‘this wonderful anthology’, Lewis ends with a the wish to ‘give anything to get Bron back by necromantic means to pillory modern despotisms. He was tough without a gun. A stranger to embarrassment and good taste. The greatest paradox is that despite the imbecilities he witnessed, he always remained bright and cheerful, his prose growing in strength and character.’
Lewis Jones, writing in the Sunday Telegraph gives the book three stars calling it ‘affectionate and admiring’. Jones quotes from a typical Bron entry in his Private Eye Diaries from 1977 which we reproduced, which captures perfectly why Bron was such a master: ‘There is a photograph in today’s Daily Express of a plump, homely middle-aged woman in slacks and bedroom slippers sitting on a sofa. She is not topless or anything like that, but I find myself eyeing her appreciatively and wondering if we have not perhaps met somewhere before. Then I look at the caption and find myself reeling back in amazement: “A relaxed Mr Heath at his home”.’
And checking the book’s performance on Amazon over the weekend, I was delighted to see a reader’s review by one of their top 100 reviewers, Dr Barry Clayton. He wrote: ‘Waugh was a philosopher, an eccentric one. He had a genius for dividing his readers into two camps: the delighted and the infuriated. He was a master at starting an argument. Since he died no writer has replaced him. No one has his talent for turning mundane news into funny flights of fancy. He saw a world of bores and bullies and changed it into a bizarre and outrageous one… This [book] is the nearest thing to a fully-fledged biography.’
I created this book to honour the memory of a remarkable writer who was also my friend. How delightful to see such response in the media and the rush of copies moving out of bookshops with such speed that we are reprinting before the official launch of the title next week.