Brideshead Benighted by Auberon Waugh (Little, Brown: $16.95)
Despite his best efforts, Auberon Waugh's nimble footwork on the contrary side of virtuous opinion stumbles occasionally and lands him with the angels. Whenever this happens, he spins about, bends over, twitches up his robe and moons us.
Take hanging. In his weekly column for the Spectator, a British weekly, at least, Waugh detests welfare, government philanthropy, labor unions and anybody who calls for social tolerance and equality. Unlike most of his fellow English who share these views, he also detests capital punishment and efforts to re-establish it. Lest you want to pat him, though, he writes:
"The working classes may enjoy hanging each other because it is the sort of thing they understand, but we should really not encourage them in case they hang one of us by mistake."
His trick is to reach a shakily plausible conclusion by means of outrageous premises; as with the anti-hanging argument, which he only gets to by abusing the workers. Or as with his denunciation of police brutality in the black areas of London.
First of all, he insists that British youth is universally thugish. Then he establishes that many policemen are young. Thus, without suspicion of softness or bleeding at the heart, he can call the police officers thugs.
Waugh is a social jester who wears the mask of Britain's tattered and embattled gentry. "Living as one does, or tends to do, in rather a large country mansion surrounded by its own meadows, lakes and wooded pleasure grounds. . . ." he writes gassily at the beginning of one of the columns collected in "Brideshead Benighted." This is theater, of course, and he has assigned himself the role of the comically outrageous snob. Being a Method performer, he more than half-convinces himself.
Waugh, the professional curmudgeon, is employed by what remains of his country's middle-brow press (the Spectator and also, at various times, the New Statesman and Private Eye) to play Class War. It is a game the English very much enjoy, but there are not very many good players left. Waugh is good, though rather solitary. Charging from the right, he rips down the barricades without managing to convince us that they really exist.
He is not a true conservative; rather, like the Private Eye writers who like to call themselves "Tory Anarchists," his passion is making violent mockery of reigning pretensions. Since much of Britain's postwar public life has been dominated by left or reformist arguments, these writers frequently set themselves up as right-wing yahoos. Margaret Thatcher's incumbency, Waugh admits, has taken some of the fun out of this.
Waugh treads as closely as possible to sheer nastiness; the object being to startle without quite falling in. Often, he falls in.
He objects to the attention given to black and Asian immigrants. When a report finds more crime among West Indians than East Indians, he writes that the real explanation is that the West Indians' bones are bigger; thus absorbing more strontium, with its tendency to irritate.
Of anti-rape organizations, he writes: "I can imagine it must be a highly disagreeable thing to be raped, one which might well have harmful long-term effects." On the other hand, he adds, he recently stubbed his big toe. "The pain was excruciating, lasted a long time, and might well have had deleterious long-term effects if I had been a more sensitive soul."
Waugh's contrary extremities are aimed, essentially, against the pious and the pompous; but too often, as in these examples, they catch the helpless. But when his aim is right, he can be both funny and telling.
This is mainly true, of course, if you are in England and if you ingest Waugh in the weekly doses in which he is dispensed. A little at a time, in other words, and closely related to whatever public controversy may be going on.
These two "ifs" seriously undermine "Brideshead Benighted," a collection of columns written over the last 10 years for the Spectator. The British Royal Family may exert a perennial fascination, but Waugh's complaint that the marriage of Charles and Di sets a bad educational example, because of the princess's poor school marks, is both long ago and far away. So are details of old press quarrels and libel suits. So is Waugh's irritation with one of Harold Wilson's Cabinet ministers, and with the beatific blandness of an editorial in the Times. These are empty dishes from very small meals.
Waugh, of course, points this out beforehand in his "Introduction and Guide." He calls this collection "warmed-up magazine articles," and explains that "the essence of journalism is that it should stimulate its readers for a moment, possibly open their minds to some alternative perception of events, and then be thrown away with all its clever conundrums, its prophecies and comminations in the great wastepaper basket of history."