A magnificent collection of Waugh stories
BOOK REVIEW: Kiss Me, Chudleigh: The World According To Auberon Waugh, by William Cook.
Auberon Waugh had a clear idea for the role of journalists in a free society – and he was having none of that crusading, change the world, righting of wrongs nonsense.
“The role of journalists is to ridicule, humiliate and generally torment politicians, pour scorn on everything they do and laugh at them when they do it. We should never, never, never suggest new ways for them to spend money, or taxes they could increase, or new laws they could pass. There is nothing so ridiculous as the posture of journalists who see themselves as part of the sane and pragmatic decision making process.”
While he did not always stick to this creed, Waugh – who wrote elegant and often savagely funny columns for such venerable organs as the Spectator, the New Statesman, Private Eye, the Oldie, as well as editing the Literary Review – pretty much stuck to this role throughout his 40 year career.
This book - Kiss Me, Chudleigh: the World According to Auberon Waugh edited by William Cook - is a collection of some of Waugh’s less known works, and a magnificent piece to dip into if you appreciate good writing and wit which pokes some much needed borax at over-earnest bores, of all political persuasions.
Waugh belongs in that roistering and cavalier, if ill-defined, tradition of Tory Anarchists: a tradition which while it has a strong British element, one which includes Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, Peter Cook, Malcolm Muggeridge, could also be said to include such American luminaries as H L Mencken and, in our own times, P J O’Rourke.
Waugh accidentally machine gunned himself in the chest as a young soldier on Cyprus in the late 1950s, and was lucky to survive. The accident is the origin of the title of this collection: as he was lying on the road convinced he was dying, he looked up to see the worried face of his sergeant, whose name was Chudleigh.
Thinking back to the tale of the dying Admiral Nelson and his assistant Hardy, Waugh was unable to resist a final mordant joke, and managed to blurt out “Kiss me, Chudleigh.”
Waugh of course survived, but Chudleigh did not get the Nelsonian reference and apparently treated Waugh with some caution thereafter.
The accident took out his spleen, a lung, and damaged other organs, and he was often in pain throughout his life. A colleague, Ferdinand Mount, noted in his own recent memoirs that despite his pain Waugh “was a stranger to self pity. Or any other kind of pity.”
There are certainly times Waugh’s desire to deliver a judicious and witty riposte to the world’s earnest and bossy finger-waggers might make the more sensitive reader wince.
When the body of a pensioner was found in a Bradford city council tower block flat, after lying there decomposing for nearly four years, Waugh saw a positive side.
Amid a wave of nationwide, self consciously compassionate handwringing, Waugh paid tribute to the man’s neighbours and to the laziness of the welfare agencies who were meant to be checking up on the dead man.
“I think it is greatly to modern society’s credit that he lay unburdened by the local welfare busybodies for all that time, or even by convivial neighbours…. The best neighbour is the neighbour who leaves you alone unless asked for help, not the neighbour who is forever ringing the doorbell to ask if you are all right, and the council tenants of Southbridge Park Estate are a shining example to us all.”
He took on bigger and more articulate targets: after feminist academic Germaine Greer complained too many men view sexual intercourse as just “squirting jam into a doughnut,” Waugh was quick to put her right.
Doughnuts are not actually made that way, he informed Ms Greer through his column in Private Eye, going on to explain that first you lay the dough flat, put the jam in the middle and then wrap it around before deep frying the comestible.
“Germaine may the greatest expert in the world on the politics of human fertility, but she knows thing about making doughnuts. I wonder if this explains why she is still unmarried, and whether in fact she really understands how babies are made.”
Waugh also edited the Literary Review, a monthly magazine which championed good clear writing and refused to be cowed by the post modernist mumbo jumbo which was then – in the mid 1980s – running at full strength and insidiously ruining good writing and clear thinking.
Waugh declared his intention to produce a magazine for “intelligent, educated people who read books, rather than flatter the socially and intellectually insecure by claiming some deeper meaning for whatever is obscure, muddled, incomprehensible or frankly meaningless.”
In this he invented the Bad Sex Award, prompted in reaction to the near-compulsory graphic sex scene in almost all literary fiction. The annual award outlived him - Waugh died in 2001 - and is now eagerly awaited and reported around the world.
It is his most lasting journalistic legacy – but this collection of writing isn’t a bad one either.
For those who appreciate good writing and who delight in an elegantly phrased raspberry to the world’s over-earnest bores, Kiss Me Chudleigh is a masterful collection of a strange but brilliant journalist.