Media families: 6. The Waughs

Evelyn Waugh (novelist) begat Auberon (journalist), who begat Alexander (critic) and Daisy (journalist). Their cousin is Claudia FitzHerbert (journalist)
Click to follow
The Independent Online
More than one month into this weekly series, one realises that several important questions have been left dangling in thin air. What significance are we attributing or implying to the fact that media workers are related? Are we talking nepotism here? Is this an argument for nature, nurture or neither? Is this a series about bitter rivalries, the picking- up of gauntlets, the passing on of very particular DNA or (in Martin Amis's description of what being the novelist son of a novelist father was not like) merely taking over the family pub?

Pure nepotism, to grasp the prickliest nettle first, it obviously is not. The most incredible connections in the world may provide a job in a bank or the reins of a great business, or even a seat in the Cabinet, but will not coax a readable stream of words from a reluctant pen. The successful journalist father may with shocking ease arrange his child's first lucky break, but the break has to be seized and built upon.

The main gift that a journalist parent bequeaths to the would-be journalist child is the sense of possibility: that great achievement may be within reach. And that is not limited to journalism: it is true of racing drivers, cricketers, politicians.

To succeed in any such field of endeavour may seem from the outside to be a chance in a million. But the Lawsons, the Nicolsons, the Johnsons and the Waughs have all watched their fathers do really well. Their fathers, they know, are fallible and mortal. If the father can do it, there seems every reason why the son or daughter should be able to do it, too.

So they do it: seize the lucky break, outface the sneerers, and make their own career. Yet for some obscure reason, they never quite come up to the mark.

The Waugh family illustrates the point perfectly. Evelyn was the greatest British comic novelist of the century, who also did enough journalism to write the still unbettered novel of journalism, Scoop!. Auberon, his eldest son, inherited the literary gift, and had particular anarchic qualities of temperament of his own, as his father recognised. "You have a sense of humour and a good gift of self-expression," he wrote to him when Auberon was in his teens. "On the other hand, you are singularly imprudent and you have a defective sense of honour. These bad qualities can lead to disaster."

At first, Auberon attempted to tread directly in Evelyn's footsteps, writing five novels. Then he gave up fiction, complaining that the novels weren't getting any better and weren't selling any more, and became a journalist full-time. Passing in turn through The Telegraph, The Mirror, The Times, The Spectator, the New Statesman, Private Eye, the Catholic Herald, the Evening Standard, until returning home (as it were) to the Telegraph titles, he became Britain's most waspish, misanthropic, reactionary, reckless, prolific and (very often) amusing columnist. However, such an intentionally nasty old man gets far more indulgent praise than he deserves, so let's leave it at that.

Already we have dropped one steep step of achievement. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, his colleague at The Telegraph, has called him "the greatest journalist of his generation", but even if that were true, it's not the same as greatest novelist. The Waughs are going down in the world.

And down. In the younger generation, we have Auberon's daughter, Daisy, freelancer; his son, Alexander, erstwhile opera critic of the Evening Standard; and niece (and Evelyn's granddaughter), Claudia FitzHerbert, weekly columnist in (where else?) The Daily Telegraph. All three earn their keep, and compare quite creditably with the run of London journalists. Daisy and Claudia both have distinctive voices. But the greatest anything? Not by a long chalk.