Matthew Parris

I miss Auberon Waugh. He’d know what to say about relentless women’s issues

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

Every now and then one suddenly misses somebody. I miss Bron, who died 17 years ago last month. There’s an Auberon Waugh-sized hole in British satirical journalism.

Listening to the radio last week — it was all about famous women, women in history, women’s suffrage, sexual harassment of women, equal pay for women at the BBC, women this and women that — I felt vaguely irritable. Not that I seriously disagreed with anything being said, or wished to rain on any suffragist’s parade, or have ever been remotely sympathetic to inappropriate male behaviour towards women … no, I’d place myself on the ‘politically correct’ side of the argument on every one of these issues.

So why the urge to switch off the Today programme? How can I put this? It was all getting a bit, well, relentless. I’ve never even propositioned a woman. I’m pretty sure I’d have been in favour of women’s suffrage. It’s doubtful I’m paid more than equivalent women for presenting Radio 4’s Great Lives, and in our choice of lives I know we do our best to see that women in history are represented, and that a decent quotient of women guests are invited on to the programme. So as a man I couldn’t help feeling a bit got at.

That’s unfair, of course. Laying it on thick is what effective campaigns do; they must pump out a broad-brush message even if it doesn’t apply to all their audience. Besides, pendulums that have swung too far one way must necessarily swing back a bit too far the other: heaven knows women’s issues have been under-represented for centuries — so was a week of over-representation on news programmes really so unfair?

No. My argument was tetchy and thin, and couldn’t be sustained. Yet I longed for somebody, some voice, to offer an impertinent but good-natured ‘steady-on’. It was then I thought of Bron.

I didn’t know Auberon Waugh at all well, though at different times we both wrote for this magazine and I used to see him at Private Eye lunches. He called me (one of his favourite invented words) ‘a homosexualist’: Bron had a lifelong antipathy towards people who turned a disposition into a cause. But one could never get indignant about his sallies, even though I disagreed with his conservative theology, his derision of the anti-smoking lobby, his instinctive and contrarian twitting of almost anything you could call socially progressive, and his snorting dis-regard towards Margaret Thatcher.

He was just so funny. And in truth you were never quite sure which of his many bêtes noires he seriously disliked, and which were really tongue-in-cheek poses. Through it all you got an abiding impression of good-natured lightheartedness, even kindness, combined with an irrepressible urge to poke people in the eye with a stick.

Bron didn’t kick people who were down, disliking (I remember) a censorious letter I composed (on Mrs Thatcher’s behalf) to a council tenant who was complaining about her house. Writing in this magazine, he said he had never met me but guessed I must be one of the insurgent, finger-wagging lower-middle classes who seemed to be popping up all over the place these days; and I almost certainly sported an unsatisfactory moustache.

So last week, grumping to myself about the barrage of women’s-issue stories in the media, I switched off Today, snuggled back into bed, and speculated upon how Waugh, were he alive today, would have satirised the passing alarum. His commentary would have been unlike that of any living right-wing parodist or satirist. I do not care for the bitter edge of our modern right’s answer to left-wing humour. It seems to me to swing too often between sourness and boorishness, and there’s something angry in it. Bron was none of those things. He teased; he caricatured; he giggled; he characterised his targets in terms so preposterous that the self-aware among them could see and share the joke.

Today, Bron would probably have founded a Men’s Survival Party, as he founded his Dog Lovers’ Party after the then Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe had been accused of involvement in the murder of a dog. The founding principle of the Men’s Survival Party would be the defence of the male sex against what Bron would have speculated was a secret feminist agenda first to humiliate, then to relegate men within society, then to turn us into vassals, and finally to eliminate our sex altogether.

Upon Sandi Toksvig’s setting up of the Women’s Equality Party, Bron would almost certainly have run Men’s Survival Party candidates at the last general election (as he ran his Dog Lovers’ Party against Jeremy Thorpe, receiving 79 votes). Warming to his theme, he would have pointed out that across much of the animal and insect kingdom the male is there for only two reasons: to impregnate the females, and to fight and kill inferior males so that the genetic stock of the species is continuously improved. He would have explained that with the godless techniques of IVF, artificial insemination and genetic engineering, there would soon be no need for actual men at all; and quoted as evidence of this mis-andrist plot to create a man-free world the radical American feminist Valerie Solanas: ‘The male function is to produce sperm. We now have sperm banks.’ He would easily have dismissed the objection that we all have perfectly pleasant and reasonable feminist friends who couldn’t possibly be involved in a conspiracy to wipe men from the planet. ‘They are, in Lenin’s sense, Useful Idiots,’ he would have explained. ‘Unaware of the feminist ultras’ secret agenda, they have become unwitting accomplices in a campaign that is more sinister than they know: nothing less than gendercide. They see the beginning but they do not see the end of the journey.’

Would the po-faced culture we now live in have tolerated Bron, or understood his delicate balance between seriousness and comedy? I cannot say. But there have been days recently when an Auberon Waugh in our midst could have turned scowls into smiles. How I miss him.

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