If I were a trendy left-wing homosexualist, or an old age pensioner, or a half-Jew, or a young novelist, or a Negro, or an Anglican archbishop, or Harold Evans, or even the editor of an Arts Council-backed literary magazine, I suppose I would find some sections of this often amusing book offensive. Actually, more than offensive. I think I would want to do something pretty unpleasant to A. Waugh.
But what? Go around London ‘whingeing’ about the awfulness of what he’d done to me? No good at all. He would hear about it from one of his six friends and then fit me up in his column as some kind of snivelling, narcissistic bore. Write a letter to Private Eye? Same result, but slightly worse. My letter would be captioned ‘Boo Hoo’ or ‘Tell mummy all about it’. Track the rotter down and throttle him? He would probably respect me for this, since there is a streak of violence in him too, but where would be the lasting gain? Ten years in Pentonville contemplating the Sorrowful Mysteries – and all for arranging the removal from this world of one who doesn’t anyway much like it here. No, let him live.
But still, what do you do if you’re a bachelor, or James Goldsmith, or a lesbian, or Welsh, or a good-looking nun, or Peter Parker, or a social worker, or a cat? You could always (well, not the cat) try taking Waugh to court. But who would want to stand up in the Old Bailey and declare himself not ‘the silliest man in England’? And who would wish to be measured and perhaps caressed by court officials in order to establish that in no strict legal sense can he be thought of as a ‘dwarf’ or ‘slimy’ or ‘smooth-bottomed’? All this, with no guarantee that you would win. How do you prove that you are not ignorant, lazy, opportunistic, pseudish, boring, and so on? Or – harder still – not ‘vile’, ‘odious’, ‘nauseating’, ‘ignoble’, ‘gruesome’, ‘rat-like’ or ‘a wreck of a human being’. The answer is: you don’t, and shouldn’t try.
Once or twice, Waugh has overlooked some small chink in his legal armour, but litigants have invariably been made to rue their zeal. I don’t remember what it was Waugh said – a dozen or so years ago – about Nora Beloff, but what seems clear is that by challenging him in the courts, Ms Beloff played into the hands of her tormentor:
4 March 1977
I had hoped I would be asked to be best man at Nora Beloff’s wedding today, since I imagine it was I who supplied a large part of the bride’s dowry. It makes me happy to think that the £3000 I gave her in libel damages a few years ago might have helped her find such a suitable husband as Clifford Makins, the well-known journalist.
Perhaps I had better explain myself. Like Nora, I had been a political correspondent for years, when, tantalised by the unavailability of my opposite number on the Observer, I decided to make a joke about her. As it turned out, whether from incompetence or over-excitement, I made an allegation about her personal life of such a foul and loathsome nature that even now I blush to the roots of my remaining hair when I think about it.
For 56 long summers, Nora has resisted the advances of the coarser sex. Nothing will ever be the same again. Even as I write, I imagine that Clifford Makins is exploring the unimaginable delights of her body, never sweeter than when first sampled.
Waugh goes on to advise Makins on bridal-chamber strategy: he should treat his new wife as if she were a new car. ‘Keep her steady on the straight, watch out for warning lights on the ignition and lubrication dials and when you reckon she’s run in, give her all you’ve got.’
Most of Waugh’s routine ploys are on display here: the ingenuous parade of chumminess, the arch self-deprecation, the mock-antique diction that evokes a politer world than – he suggests – can be easily envisaged by those he’s being impolite to: in short, the apology that bites more nastily than the original offence. And then, to cap it all, the bravura sociological wind-up: the bride as motor-car etc. It is brilliantly done, in its dastardly way, and again there is no possible comeback that will not further humiliate his victim. As for the world at large: a wave of apoplexy round at the offices of Spare Rib Waugh would view as the sweetest of returns of his ‘modest endeavours’ in the cause of gentlemanly poise.
Revenge, therefore, is out, so we might as well content ourselves with pondering the Waugh phenomenon from an ampler, more forgiving point of view. And the first thing to be said, albeit with a heavy heart, is that he is one of the funniest columnists we have.His caricature vision of a once-gracious England swamped by mass-educated second-raters does animate some wonderfully comic moments: and so too does his self-caricature – the hard-up squire protecting his acres and his time-worn prejudices against the steadily encroaching hordes of perverts and barbarians.
There are still, perhaps, a hundred thousand intelligent people left in England, Waugh would say: he can tell the exact figure by checking the sales of books by John Betjeman and P.G. Wodehouse, or by the turn-out for a West End revival of The Pirates of Penzance. And, out of town, there are still a few pockets of decency and calm; there are still a few country churches where the priest uses the word ‘God’ more often than the word ‘community’:
Afterwards we gather in the beautiful, magnolia-clad home of a Dorset farmer and writer. The guests are all distinguished by their beauty, their birth or their artistic ability. After a luncheon of delicious food we wave off the radiant couple to their honeymoon and repair to Taunton School for a special performance of the Messiah.
On such days as this one realises that England still survives. Beneath the notice of television or colour-supplements there exists a whole world of quiet, intelligent people going about their daily lives pretty well as they have always done, untroubled by trade-unionists or transistor radios or comprehensive schools.
Here is the intact but threatened centre of Waugh’s world. Elsewhere the land is dark – with darkies, trade-unionists, media charlatans and ‘the power maniacs and social cripples of political life’. At his best, Waugh sounds as if he really is pierced by a hatred that is pure and painful, yet stoically transfigured into jest:
The Sunday Times does not reach Somerset any more – I suspect it is taken off the train at Reading and trampled underfoot by militant ‘workers’ enraged by the way it apes their awkward mannerisms and strange habits of speech. Mysteriously, its colour magazine continues to arrive – plangent, oily, full of bad advice on how to arrange one’s main reception rooms.
In the Co-operative Agricole de Lauragais, to which I belong, the battery system has been refined. We have developed a featherless chicken, which saves the labour of plucking it. It lays shell-less eggs contained in a membraneous tissue, slightly reminiscent of plastic. Many modern housewives go mad at the extra effort involved in breaking eggs. These birds are unable to stand up, which is sensible as they have nowhere to go.
And then there is his response to the National Health Council’s advertisements warning parents not to over-feed their ‘disgusting, football-like, toothless children’. The gastronome, wine-expert Waugh gives us his version of the British teenager’s daily diet – a diet which, as he says, ‘contains everything a growing child needs’. Breakfast, elevenses and lunch consist of vast quantities of Twix, Mars and Crunchie bars, packets of fish fingers, crisps and Coca-Cola Spangles, bottles galore of Fanta, brown sauce and peppermint-flavoured milk – and more, much more. As the day progresses, the diet picks up in inventiveness and bulk and, by bedtime, climaxes in a final bout of random, crazed ingestion. We join it shortly after lunch, with Meal Four of the Day:
Afternoon subsistence: 2lb Super-Bazooka chocolate flavour bubblegum cubes; 1 tin condensed milk; 2 small btles strawberry-flavoured Lip-Gloss.
Evening meal: 7 fish fingers; ¾ pt tomato ketchup; 1 tin fruit salad; 2 bottles cherry-flavoured Panda pop; 9 digestive biscuits; frozen peas.
TV snacks: 17 Mars bars; 2 pkts Birdseye cake mix; 1 pkt raspberry jelly cubes; 1 old rubber balloon; 3 cigarette ends; 2 oz (approx) dog shit; 1 can Pepsi-Cola; 1 elastic band.
I particularly like that single can of Pepsi-Cola – a small, late-night stab at ‘cutting down’ that will be familiar to all main-line gluttons.
Waugh’s funniest jokes, it seems to me, are his snob-jokes, full of delighted mimicry and ludicrous exaggeration – although these have got less funny under Thatcher (indeed, part of the reason for Waugh’s falling-off in recent years has been his peculiar unwillingness to taunt our middle-class, strong-woman, philistine prime minister, although she embodies so many of the ‘new purposefulness’ qualities he most despises). His least funny are to do with sex. Presumably, this is because his snobbism is a steady, ingrained attitude of mind, whereas his sex-talk issues from a spirit that is troubled and confused.
Certainly, when it comes to speaking for the ‘coarser sex’, Waugh’s manner often falters. Sex is one of his obsessive themes and if he can catch out some public figure in a ‘Ugandan’ folly, he will pursue the matter without mercy. But his self-portrayal in this area is blurred, not to say a trifle shifty. A member of what he calls the dwindling minority of heterosexualists, he is nonetheless ageing, unattractive and unlucky when it comes to coping with the fancies of his flesh. This he confesses jokingly, but the joke doesn’t always cleanse itself of pathos. Waugh is fascinated by massage parlours and prostitutes. He makes frequent, mysterious trips to the Far East. For several weeks he ran a tedious ‘investigation’ into whether or not Japanese women have pubic hair. Indeed, pubic hair crops up, so to speak, quite often in his column. The trouble is that I don’t think Waugh means to come across as seedy and rain-coated when he speaks about these matters.
Now and then he is seized by what seems to be a genuinely disabling lust for some television beauty, or for a pop star whose picture he keeps seeing in the Underground, or for one or another well-born young filly on the Tatler scene. But he is always the bystander: ‘The young women are beautiful or lithe, gold bracelets jingling on their sun-kissed limbs as they dance to the baffling music.’ More than once, the whole thing gets too much for him: ‘I think I will go to Wimbledon to find a young girl to rub myself against.’ On topless beaches, he is reduced to slack-jawed banalities about how complete nudity removes the mystery, the sense of challenge, and so on. He says this twice and then lashes himself for becoming a bore on the subject. It would be a hard woman who did not read all this as a (possibly quite urgent) cry for help.
But then hard – brainy or strong-minded – women frighten and disgust him; as do homosexuals (although he retains a schoolboy interest in their goings-on – sufficient for him to be thoroughly entranced by the downfall of J. Thorpe). Time and again, he permits himself effortful, unfunny paragraphs about the danger of women turning into men, and vice versa. Of career women, as he quaintly calls them, he is delighted to discover that ‘the strain on a woman’s brain is related to a change in hormone function which produces extra facial and body hair, higher sex drive, aggressiveness and deepening voice.’ And on the subject of strong-woman actress Glenda Jackson, he is almost wrenched out of control:
I watched Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. Hideous woman, dreadful film. One can’t really blame Tchaikovsky for preferring boys. Anybody might become a homosexualist who had once seen Glenda Jackson naked.
Since she has been kind enough to show it to us, I must remark that she has a most unusual configuration to her pubic hair. It seems to grow in a narrow tuft, like the hairstyle of the Last of the Mohicans. I wonder if Ms Jackson has any Red Indian blood. If so, it might explain why there are no more Mohicans.
To be fair, Waugh gets so straightforwardly excited here that he almost hits top form; even so, the image one retains is of a flushed, irascible voyeur.
And this image should both stir our compassion for the man and provide some comfort for those who persist in wishing him a lifetime of unease. Neutrals, however, will have to agree that there are more laborious ways of reliving the past decade than by browsing through Waugh’s dotty chronicles. It’s a parochial account, of course – with Tom Driberg’s Memorial Lavatory Appeal getting as much space as the Sadat-Begin love-match, and with Norman Scott’s dog Rinka emerging as by far the noblest martyr of the age – and there is a marked decline in energy and bite throughout the last fifty or so pages. But then it’s a Private Eye production – more tired now than emotional and still unable to appease that old dormitory itch. Every other fortnight, though, just about funny enough to keep the parishioners in line.