Thursday, 5 November 2009

Waugh by other means

This month (the 17th) sees the seventieth anniversary of the birth of a minor English genius: Auberon Waugh (below). He was certainly one of the funniest writers I've ever come across. He might be described as a satirist who deployed touches of the surreal. However, his humour is impossible to pin down: his genius lay in not just being very funny but being very funny in a way that was really unique.

He died in 2001 and it's a shock to think he'd only be seventy this year. Being selfish, we've been deprived of many years of amusement. One of the written formats Waugh deployed most was the diary, making me think he would have been a masterful blogger (though using the words, 'Waugh' and 'blogger' in the same sentence does seem ridiculously incongruous).

But what we missed! I feel the pang almost physically. As well as lighting up these dark days, he would have been invaluable in making sense of the strange characters who currently govern and manage us.

He died relatively young because of wounds he incurred whilst doing National Service in Cyprus. Wikipedia contains a good description of what happened and Waugh's spirited response:
Annoyed by a fault in the machine gun on his armoured car which he drove frequently, he seized the end of the barrel and shook it, accidentally triggering the mechanism so that the gun fired several bullets through his chest. As a result of his injuries, he lost his spleen, one lung, several ribs, and a finger, and suffered from pain and recurring infections for the rest of his life. While lying on the ground waiting for an ambulance he said to his platoon sergeant, with his characteristic élan: "Kiss me Chudleigh". He later recalled, however, that "Chudleigh did not recognise the allusion and from then on treated me with extreme caution."

To memorialise the great man and to try to extend the consolation of his writing into our own day, I have decided to transcribe periodically a selection of Waugh's diary entries from the date on the calendar corresponding to that day's. If you enjoy these you may want to read his autobiography Will This Do? It's a small masterpiece of rather poignant humour, typical of what - stretching to find the apposite description - I'll venture to call his gentle savagery. Or savage gentility. Anyway, here's the first of an occasional series:
November 5th, 1978
Today I learn an entirely new word from the Sunday Telegraph Colour Supplement's serialisation of Sir Keith Simpson's memoirs. Sir Keith is England's top criminal pathologist, and the word he teaches me is adipocere, meaning a white, foul-smelling, glutinous substance given off by dead bodies as their fatty tissues degenerate about five weeks after death.
The problem is to find some use for this excellent word. It might be employed in a litererary context, to describe the "quickie" biographies which sometimes appear soon after a public person has died. Or it might refer to the general leak of revelations appearing after death, like Lord Boothby's claim that Churchill had a "cruel streak".
Boothby is certainly right, whatever one might think of his motives. On one occasion, staying at Chartwell as a boy, I saw the old brute deliberately sit down in an armchair which had a chicken in it and crush the unfortunate bird to death. There can be no excuse for this, as there were plenty of other chairs available.

Of course, we're too late for adipocere. Nevertheless, I expect Waugh's writing will last quite a while longer and I shall do what I can to help it along.


Bunny Smedley said...

Over the years I've owned three or four volumes of Auberon Waugh's writing - 'Will This Do?' and the Private Eye diaries - but literally every last one of them has been 'borrowed' by friends, apparently never to return. This is, clearly, tribute of a sort, albeit mildly tiresome.

Gaw said...

I think he's the only person in public life who I've missed following their death. Fathers and Sons is rather good - by his son, Alexander - containing some great and hilarious family anecdotes, moving too.