It is sixty-five years since Evelyn Waugh published his infamous memories of Oxford in Brideshead Revisited, yet the name “Waugh” still serves to conjure up distorted visions of our hometown, groaning with snobbish wasters and homosexual Catholic alcoholics. Evelyn Waugh, along with his often vitriolic journalist son Auberon, drew attention and outrage in countless publications, leading the family name to be used by tabloids as a yardstick for racism, bad temper and the turned-up-nose.
Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, has a different opinion on the man himself, on which he digresses at length over an English breakfast, percolating the smell of countryside bacon. “Evelyn Waugh,” he says impressively, “was fundamentally cool.”
It is surprising to hear this from a man who must have spent his entire life under the Waugh shadow, screeching “No I will bloody not!” at unfortunates who assumed he would follow the family’s literary trade and fending off genealogical criticism for his own non-fiction works. These being conceptually entitled God and Time, one would sympathise with Alexander’s outburst to journalists that they were “much more important than bloody Evelyn Waugh!” But for Alexander his intriguingly cool family proved irresistible subject matter, and almost against his will he started work on Fathers and Sons, a history of the dynasty published in 2004. It is clearly a pure reverence for history which has brought him to this work, rather than any perverse self-actualisation project to lay to rest haunting ancestral spirits.
He demands that everyone should have basic knowledge of their ancestors, even those who don’t have Wikipedia pages, and refers to Evelyn Waugh in third person almost exclusively rather than regarding him as a relative.
“Everybody is quite interesting,” allows Waugh, “but geniuses make themselves consciously interesting.”
He definitely relegates Evelyn to the realms of genius, and seems entirely drawn into the world of his grandfather, enthusing about the upcoming publication of all Evelyn’s correspondences in one scholarly spanking bumper pack. Alexander’s complex notions of what genius is are to be expected from a man who seems bred in order to defend these beings; not only his family, but Wittgenstein (the one-handed pianist, not the philosopher), of whom he has written an extremely successful biography.
Mozart and Freud are brought to the table. Genius is at heart “huge pressure of egocentricity coming from insecurity”, allied to “the fear of dying unrecognised”, and it is this urge, in dilute and untalented form, which is feeding today’s blogroll culture. Like the internet, but cleverer, the Waugh family left a paper trail so long, wide and intense that Alexander felt he couldn’t not write about it.
He describes his family home as a treasure trove of writings, which he sees as artefacts longing to be uncovered. The man is at heart an historian, not a writer, gabbling excitably as he describes a voyage to Ireland to meet one of Evelyn Waugh’s possible mistresses, ‘Baby’ Teresa Jungman, and how she, almost on her deathbed, melodramatically photocopied hundreds of letters between the two for Alexander to keep.
When I ask if they were full of raunchy indecency however, the writer’s eye for sensation is lacking. “No,” he says, “they were intensely passionate.” The Waugh world may not need any more dramatic flourishes than it already has, but you can rest assured Evelyn Waugh himself would never have put it so tamely.
It is the writing of the “things” that brings Alexander back into contact with the modern world, a harsh environment for novelists keen to use their talent to earn any money. His bugbear of the moment is illegal ebooks, and a “stinking place on the internet…I won’t give you the name so you can’t publish it” which has been giving away his books.
“J K Rowling is a total anomaly, a freak” to have a positive figure in her bank account, he says angrily; these are no mere gesture politics as he has stubbornly refused to write his next bestseller (rumoured to be on the life and times of the family of Freud) until illegal ebooking is tackled. At the same time, he is avoiding more TV work, despite his successful BBC realisation of Fathers and Sons which, dedicated to his son Bron, contained moments of paralysing emotional intensity.
“Quailing” if he meets someone in the butcher’s who saw his TV show, he describes his perfect situation as being “the person in the corner, who can talk as loud as they want and no one can hear you”. The image of a booming faux-aristocrat clinging on to the coat-tails of his ancestors’ outrageousness is shot to pieces. It is true, though, that however much Alexander Waugh tries to sanitise intimate family memories into polished dynastic history, his pedigree still gives him a slightly intimidating, though warm aura. His family is evidently the most important thing in his life, and I get to see some family interaction first hand as he dictates directions to his wife over the phone.
The Waughs of the future fascinate this historian as much as the Waughs of the past, and he admits that it is his secret wish for his son Bron to write the next chapter of Fathers and Sons in sixty years’ time.
But despite his dissociative instincts, his rhapsodies on “thinking outside the box” and his down-with-the-kids “fundamentally cool” approach to stuffy old Evelyn Waugh, little things like the persistently genteel English use of the word “bloody” and the demand for fresh black pudding give him away. His anger at the “boring little roundabouts” and “boring boring hills” he is describing into his iPhone cascades. “Boredom? I can’t stand it!” he bellows, Julia’s unimpressed catchphrase of Brideshead Revisited sounding naturally on the tongue of a 21st-century Waugh.