A little bit of misery does you good
Alexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons, featuring Evelyn, Auberon, a gay scandal and bananas, is better than any misery memoir.
As a genre, family memoirs tend to be either miserable or dull. Or both. Endless paperbacks, brimful of painful emoting, clog up bookshelves across the globe.
Even established writers, when staring at their personal histories, can turn on the waterworks, leaving the reader soaking and limp. When the late American writer, Moritz Thomsen, wrote about his own life, a reviewer at Spokesman Review declared: ‘He wrote… with such honesty, in the end, that just when you thought he had confessed everything, he would open a new vein and bleed some more.’ (1) Thomsen opened his book My Two Wars with the sentence: ‘This is a book about my involvement with two outrageous catastrophes – the Second World War and my father.’
Alexander Waugh’s memoir, Fathers and Sons, was published in Britain a few years ago, but it has just come out in America. Since it concentrates on the one-man outrageous catastrophe that was the great British novelist Evelyn Waugh, one might expect vast emoting: outpourings on Evelyn’s ‘lacking in love’ childhood, accounts of how he put out a cigarette on Olivia Plunkett-Greene’s bare arm, and dark discursions on his somewhat vicious attitude to his own children, for whom he ‘advertised an acute and unqualified dislike’.
Fortunately, though, Alexander Waugh (son of Auberon, grandson of Evelyn, and great-grandson of the bumptious patriarch Arthur) adopts a distinctly ‘Wavian’ attitude to inter-family relations. And by the close of the book, the reader is left in little doubt that had Evelyn Waugh enjoyed a blissful relationship with his father, then his acute sense of injustice, his loathing of sham and his tongue of neat acid would never have combined to unleash a torrent of the most brilliant satirical novels in the modern English language.
In childhood, Evelyn was largely irrelevant to his father, who was obsessively devoted to his other son, Alec. Evelyn’s mother, K, had wanted a girl, and when a boy was born she consoled herself, Alexander Waugh explains, ‘by giving the new baby an effeminate name, by fluffing up his hair and by dressing it… in the laces, bonnets, ribbons and frilly appurtenances of the dream-girl she had craved.’
Throughout his early years, Evelyn seemed ‘no more than an encumbrance in a corner.’ But his father’s engrossment in Alec quickly gave rise to a satirical indignation in Evelyn. When still a child, Evelyn went to see some family friends wearing a bowler hat. ‘“Eve, fancy you in a bowler”, they exclaimed. And he replied, “Yes, it belonged to father first; then it descended to Alec; now to me. In fact it has come down to me from generation to generation of them that hate me.”’ Throwing tantrums at his father, Evelyn was known to kick and scream with verve: ‘you brute, you beast, you hideous ass’, he would shout. At school, he employed various tactics in order to get attention: ‘My latest piece of hubris is to write a science essay in blank verse.’
Later Evelyn immortalised his father’s over-emotional absurdities in his fiction. His father’s fetish for young ladies and bicycles is rehearsed in the brilliantly vicious short story, Mr Loveday’s Little Outing. In Decline and Fall, he satirised his father, right down to his table habits, in the form of school master Mr Prendergast: ‘Mr Prendergast ate a grapefruit with some difficulty. “What a big orange!” he said when he had finished it. “They do things on a large scale here.”’
Decline and Fall, which Evelyn wrote after a series of false starts (including getting a third-class degree from Oxford, enduring a brief, miserable career as a schoolteacher and, just before writing Decline and Fall, a half-baked life as a trainee carpenter). Alexander Waugh notes that Evelyn ‘advised aspiring young novelists never to kill their characters’:
‘With a few exceptions he stuck to the rule himself, keeping his own alive, often moving them from book to book. It is odd, I think, that of the small handful of Evelyn Waugh characters that are murdered, two should have been recognisably based on his father. The manner of Mr Prendergast’s death must have been especially galling to Arthur: his head is sawn off by a madman who wants to be a carpenter.’
But Evelyn is not the undiluted focus of Alexander Waugh’s book. By concentrating on fathers and sons in the plural, Alexander resurrects, if not the reputation, then at least the allure of his great-uncle: Evelyn’s older brother, Alec Waugh. Alec – who at 19 years of age caused a great scandal with the publication of his first novel, The Loom of Youth, a thinly disguised portrait of his expulsion from Sherborne for a homosexual attachment – went on to produce novel after novel, for some 50 years, with less and less success each time. He was, writes Alexander, for the rest of his life ‘an eager and adroit womaniser, an erotomaniac’ and a figure of great amusement for his younger brother, who regularly ‘stalked’ Alec on his missions to seduce the ladies, shouting ‘Boo to Alec, the bald-headed lecher’ with a group of friends whenever it looked like his brother was about to get lucky.
Of course, Fathers and Sons has a lot to say about Alexander’s own father, too: the journalist and satirist Auberon Waugh. There’s really no space here to write the 3,000-word panegyric I would write (should anyone ever wish to print it) on the late, great Auberon, scourge of the humourless and deflator of the puffed-up. Auberon could dispose of society’s worthies with a swift rapier thrust of his pen. He once wrote: ‘I see nothing to choose between the National Front and the Race Relations Board. Both are a collection of bores and busybodies and both are harmful to the extent they are taken seriously.’
Of the Labour Party’s warped Seventies version of socialism, he said: ‘It must depart so far from its own sustaining rhetoric of liberty, equality, fraternity, prosperity and workers’ control as to create a psychotic society requiring mass imprisonment.’ The end result? Hello, Mr Brown. Auberon also mocked an earlier outing of press hysteria about young people’s diet, years before the sanctimonious celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was allowed on to our screens to tell us we’re feeding kids ‘shit’ and causing them to die off. As Alexander Waugh reminds us, Auberon imagined that British children eat: ‘Evening meal: 7 fish fingers; 3/4 pt tomato ketchup; 2 btles cherry-flavoured Panda pop; 9 digestive biscuits; frozen peas.’
Just as Evelyn had a difficult (to put it mildly) relationship with his father, so Auberon had a difficult relationship with Evelyn. Alexander recounts how Auberon, in his childhood, watched while his father greedily ate the family’s full quota of rationed bananas (three, because there was one for each child). There were also rows and disagreements and fallouts and various other hardships. It was formative experiences such as these, instances of petty cruelty or denial, Alexander Waugh suggests, that gave bite to the satirical sideswipes of the Waughs when they became fully-grown: first Evelyn, then Auberon, and now Alexander himself.
Fathers and Sons is a brilliant riposte to all those who can only see in the slights of childhood the misery of the grown-up. Childhood deprivation, Waugh makes clear, may have its uses.
Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.