Being offensive is an easy thing to do and something most people are quite good at; doing it intelligently, though, is a literary achievement. Auberon Waugh was a master of this craft and excelled at finding the hornet’s nest where none existed before.
William Cook’s Kiss Me Chudleigh: The World According To Auberon Waugh was published by Coronet. While the book is classified as a biography, I hesitate to dump it on that pile without a rider; it is as much a biography as it is a literary guide to Waugh’s writing complete with explanations by Cook.
Waugh managed to offend most people with his writing and that usually within the first three sentences. Had they taken time to overcome their bigotry, prejudices, preconceptions, or whatever else bothered them, they would have found that there was actually no reason to be offended. He usually would make a preposterous proposition like scrapping free bus passes for older people and instead doubling their ticket prices to keep them at home. You might guess that such a statement in a country like Britain where everybody is busy being offended on someone else’s account sent people up in flames.
But Waugh didn’t end there, what would follow after the opener was an elegant and eloquent discourse explaining to the reader why he was absolutely right in what he proposed. He would pile up spurious arguments and ludicrous explanations until the whole thing would take on a weird logic of its own. At the end, you would be left wondering if someone had changed all the rules while you hadn’t been watching.
If you read his texts, you would gain the impression he hated everyone under thirty because they want to murder everyone older; he disliked old people and he found reasons to dislike any other age group as well. He could poke endless fun at ‘the lower orders’ describing them as shiftless and ignorant; he would poke just as mercilessly at the upper classes and the Royal Family and at all the creepy crawlies in between.
Looking at Auberon’s career makes you wonder if the rules have been changed, too. After he failed his first-year exams at Oxford, his father novelist Evelyn Waugh informed him that only two career options were available to him: spy or teacher. Failing the MI6, Auberon went to teach in a prep school. Fleeing the horrors of those brats, he ended up in Fleet Street and there with the Catholic Herald which offered him a column to write (to its immediate regret). His proposal that mourners should stop wearing black at funerals and instead sport colours was not greeted with applause; his idea that the mourners might express their betting chances on the deceased’s chances of ascending heaven by means of their colour coding didn’t make him any friends either.
His career took an even more bizarre turn when he joined first the Mirror to write picture captions on celebrities, then the Sun (where he should have pounded home a pro death sentence message), to become political correspondent with the Spectator (calling politicians ‘brutes, liars, and gourmandisers). He finally found his place with Private Eye where his column was named Auberon Waugh’s Diary. In this column, he freely mixed actual news with completely made up stories to abduct the reader into that weird world of changed rules of his. It was there that he described marrying Princess Margaret as the most gruelling job in the kingdom.
Polly Toynbee of the Guardian called him a few days after his death in 2001 ‘effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist’. Auberon would have been delighted by the fact that another columnist didn’t get the point. Auberon is reported to have answered to the question about what his life was all about: ‘Well, I suppose I have made a few intelligent people laugh.’