Grab life by the barrel like Auberon Waugh
Or, a surrealist in tweed
It can be challenging to choose the same profession as your parent, especially if your parent is acclaimed as one of the best in the field. But you know what’s even more challenging? Accidentally shooting yourself in the chest nine times with a machine gun.
Auberon Waugh bore each of these indignities with good humour and charm, which underlines the stoic’s argument that it’s not what happens to you but rather how you respond.
“My first reaction to shooting myself in this way was not one of sorrow or despair so much as mild exhilaration,” he wrote of the misfire, which occurred during his military service as he shook the barrel of the Browning gun to find out why it wasn’t working. “The incident deprived me of a lung, a spleen, several ribs and a finger but nothing else.”
All our sentences should have buts like that one. Waugh recovered, more or less, and went on to a long career as a writer in what he termed the “vituperative arts.”
And what was it like to be the son of Evelyn Waugh, one of the century’s most acclaimed authors and a father who won no parenting prizes even by wartime British standards? Auberon wrote that “a lot of sons of famous fathers seem to be upset by the circumstance, even destroyed by it, but I don’t think they need be. People are interested to meet you when they would not be interested otherwise, and when they do meet you they already know something about you, so you don’t have to start from nothing in creating your own image.”
Consider the contortions of optimism required for a son to write this sentence about his father:
“He was frequently violent and aggressive even when in boisterous mood, it is true, but many cases of alleged cruelty which have been reported to me seem no more than a pathetic attempt to create humour and spread a little sunshine into the lives of vain, conceited and humourless men by inviting them to laugh at themselves and prove they are not quite as dreadful as they seem.”
This, for Auberon Waugh, was the point of it all: Creating humour and spreading a little sunshine, often by irritating dreadful people.
He wrote decades of columns and diaries to this end, ostensibly conservative but always surrealist. It is “the essence of good journalism that it should be read and thrown away,” he wrote, and was deeply suspicious of anyone attempting to build an empire.
He hated all politicians, arguing that “the urge to power is a personality disorder in its own right” and that “Of course they are mentally ill, or they would not feel this terrible urge to be important and boss other people around in the first place.” He trusted the instincts of the British people, though he also maintained that his ideal form of government was “a junta of Belgian ticket inspectors.”
His advice for his fellow writers was really his advice on life:
“Literature is a minority interest, like budgerigar breeding, catered for by minority magazines, kept alive by small groups of enthusiasts at ill-attended meetings in small libraries and halls. When its followers come to realise that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they may become politer, friendlier people and lead happier lives as a result.”
And his argument for the monarchy, in which he praised the “serious, conscientious German housewife, with her relentless common sense,” sprung from the same belief:
“By performing elaborate acts of self-abasement before these strange, humourless foreigners in our midst, we all learn to laugh at our ourselves as well as at each other and at our institutions.”
Auberon Waugh was able to laugh at himself immediately after shooting himself. Wounded and winded, he turned to his commanding officer and croaked, “Kiss me, Chudleigh,” an allusion to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s last-ish words at Trafalgar. (“Chudleigh did not spot the historical reference, and treated me with some caution thereafter,” Waugh recalled.)
In a more roundabout, tweedy, and conservative (in other words, British) way, Auberon Waugh lived his life by John Lewis’s dictum to make good trouble. Or as Waugh phrased it:
“There are countless horrible things happening all over the world and horrible people prospering, but we must never allow them to disturb our equanimity or deflect us from our sacred duty to sabotage and annoy them whenever possible.”
Quick quips; lightning
“Gravity is the joy of imbeciles.”
“The wrong sort of people are always in power because they would not be in power if they were not the wrong sort of people.”
— Jon Wynne-Tyson
“The English never smash in a face. They merely refrain from inviting it to dinner.”
— Margaret Hasley
Year of the Potato
In the last year of lockdown, have you ever felt:
Tired of cooking because didn’t you just make lunch and now they’re saying it’s dinner
Sick of looking at screens
Of course you have. And that’s why Let The Potato Rest is the Official GWQ Meme of the pandemic lockdown. This is a joke that grew out of a WikiHow article on how to microwave a baked potato. Imagine, for a moment, the set of circumstances that would lead a person to such an article. Then imagine that person reading the following step and having a flash of empathy:
“Let the potato rest for five minutes” became an all-purpose reaction to the universe, be it the demanding boss or the alarm clock. It’s simultaneously grandiose to refer to yourself in the third person and belittling to self-identify as a stem tuber. We are all potatoes now.
Well, spud, that was Get Wit Quick No. 88, your weekly elaborate act of self-abasement. Evelyn Waugh was featured back in No. 19. I remembered this line from Patricia Lockwood, GWQ No. 87: “White people, who had the political educations of potatoes—lumpy, unseasoned, and biased toward the Irish—were suddenly feeling compelled to speak out about injustice.” Auberon Waugh’s writings are nicely compiled in the book Kiss Me, Chudleigh. My writings were merely piled in the book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there is a tappable ♥️ below.