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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 September 2016
In this engrossing composite biography of five generations of the Waugh family - made famous by the star among them, Evelyn - the author, number five in the chronology, casts an affectionate, humorous and perceptive eye on his immediate ancesters. From his unique and personal point of view - the insider's view - what strikes him as the most significant is the relationships within it of fathers and sons. Colourful and profound and life-shaping as these relationships are, he says, they essentially fail, as if the sins of the fathers in their role as parents are inevitably passed down to their sons. Perforce, he traces only one possible line through the family tree, the one that we are, for literary reasons, most interested in, but you can't help thinking, as you look at the tree, that there are many other lines in it which remain untraced. But he has more than enough material here, much of it based on a mass of family records, and he steers his way through it with an unerring eye for what is significant and interesting.

We begin with 'The Brute', a medical man; he was eccentric, thoughtlessly cruel, obsessive, embarrassing, when happy "facetious, sentimental, patronising, demonstrative and over-bearing." He's remembered largely for some medical instrument he invented. We pass on to Arthur, his eldest of five children, who plays a large part in this history; he spent most of his life working for Chapman and Hall, the publishers. Arthur went to Sherborne school and idealised it thereafter. Unlike all the other Waughs depicted here, Arthur was soft-hearted, a sentimentalist. He had two children by 'K', his wife, Alec and Evelyn. His chief sin was favouritism. He worshipped his eldest son, Alec, to an unhealthy degree, putting him on a pedestal, indulging him in everything. Compounding this, he was only ever lukewarm about his second son Evelyn, was wary of him, did not understand him. Evelyn, throughout his childhood, had to live with the idea that in the eyes of his parents - K was in on the act - he was in relation to his brother second-rate, something of an embarrassment. Arthur was deeply sentimental, and though he had many sound qualities and in many ways was an exemplary father, Evelyn never could forgive him this trait. In kicking against his sentimentality, Evelyn much surely have sharpened his debunking wit, a wit which he passed, in a sense, to his own son Bron. Alexander, the author of this book, doesn't attempt to assess the psychological impact of this favouritism on Evelyn, or indeed on Alec, wisely he leaves that up to the reader. It may have spurred Evelyn on to succeed; it may also have been at the root of his later depressions; it may explain something of his bitterness, his loathing for popular sentiment; we can only speculate.

Arthur wrote fiction, poetry and literary nonfiction, but his works are forgotten now. Alec took up the pen and famously, at the age of 17, wrote 'The Loom of Youth' which scandalised everyone by implying that public schools were rife with schoolboy romances and homosexuality. Sherborne was not amused and Arthur had to break his beloved links to it. Alec poured out potboilers thereafter, only one of which was a commercial success, 'An Island in the Sun'. He was also a hopeless father, producing three children by his faithful wife Joan, then absenting himself for most of the marriage, chasing other women - he was a womaniser to excess, it seems. Evelyn began is illustrious career in1928 with 'Decline and Fall'. He was the genius of the family and without him there would be no book about the Waughs. He had seven children, some of whom he considered 'backward' and treated them with a kind of jocular dismissiveness which seems cruel to modern sensibilities; one wonders whether such treatment had a lasting effect.

One of these children was Auberon, the eldest son, known as Bron, the author's father. Bron began his literary career with three novels, but he's best known for his excoriating and witty journalism. Journalism, even when collected in volumes as Bron's was, is by nature ephemeral and doesn't carry the kudos of novels and poetry; his star is on the wane. Where his son Alexander is full of stories about the foibles of his grandfathers and great-grandfather, he's much more circumspect about his father; perhaps this is to be expected given their closeness in terms of time and sentiment. Bron treated his children more gently than Evelyn his, it seems, but the old tension between father and son is there, following its long line.

This multi-faceted story is assembled in the most entertaining way. The passages dealing with Evelyn's detestation of a schoolmaster called Crutwell, and the uses he made of it for comic effect in his books, are hilarious. The whole book is shot through with the Waughs' famous wit, and it's all told with great skill. Clearly Alexander as a writer is a credit to this famous family, and this is a great tribute to its most prominent members.
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on 13 September 2004
Evelyn Waugh is of course the hook that will draw readers into this exceptional 'Autobiography of a Family'. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that his overtowering genius dwarves the rest of the book. Beginning with Evelyn's grandfather 'The Brute' (who crushed a wasp on his wife's forehead with his whip, and made his son Arthur kiss a guncase in an effort to kindle a passion for shooting), and finishing with a letter from the author to his own son Bron, this book is totally engrossing. Alexander Waugh is the son of another Bron, the great and good, who will long be remembered for his journalism. Alexander shows in this book the same light touch, disguising deep research, that was displayed in his biography of God and 'Time'. He too is a talent to be reckoned with. This book is funny, erudite, and oddly moving - this may be an extraordinary family in terms of literary output (Arthur Waugh's descendants have published a staggering 180 books between them) but it is above all a family. Alexander Waugh shows a deep affection for his eccentric family, without ever appearing adulatory or incapable of observing faults as well as virtues.
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on 20 June 2010
To a non English public, the renown of the Waugh name is strictly confined to Evelyn. This book by Evelyn's grandson Alexander revealed to me a much richer picture and inheritance. Along with some very difficult family relationships handed down from father to son. A masterpiece in its kind is the author's capability of seamlessly blending each biography into the other ones, never for a moment causing the reader any confusion. Equally admirable is the author's restraint in relating personal details and impressions. Although the family's showpiece must necessarily be Evelyn, this book is not centred on his personality, but could be rather relabeled as Bron's revenge, thanks to the very sympathetic image that Alexander depicts of his own father, who managed to reverse an evil line of father-son relationships.

No doubt than the gift for writing still runs in the Waugh blood: a tradition well worth preserving.

A very enjoyable reading.
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on 13 June 2016
Great book. Takes a while to warm up and one approaches with suspicion yet another generation of Waugh scribes, but this latest has inherited the family trick of skewering all things pretentious. It's a celebration of wit which seems to begin with Evelyn and pass down the bloodline through Auberon to Alexander and to form the basis of the father/son relationships on the way. One is left with the feeling that although brutal honesty and cruelty are sometimes involved, there are worse ways to express affection than though humour and subversiveness and this is also a book of filial gratitude and love. Beautifully written, it's an honourable tribute to a remarkable family and a welcome reminder that the art of naughtiness is not quite dead.
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on 14 September 2007
Well, it's a bit of a laugh isn't it? This romp through five generations of Waughs: mad dog 'The Brute' Alexander, sad dog Arthur, young dogs Alex and Evelyn and the ever barking Auberon, till we come to the suspiciously sane present dog in the manger Alexander. Mind you, who am I to accuse a man who has named his son Auberon Augustus Ichabod Waugh of sanity?

The concept is a good one, there are precious few books on the relationships between fathers and sons, and I doubt it any others on those relationships over five generations of one family. And what material the dogs of Waugh provide. Almost half the book is devoted to the three way relationship between Arthur and his two sons Alex and Evelyn. This in itself is a worthy study, but Arthur and Alex seem to have been allotted their roles in order to prepare the stage for the main star Evelyn Waugh. The top dog is always good copy, but the time he is given centre stage does skew the book.

Our author Alexander is an amusing and illuminating writer, as long as he has some distance from his subject matter. Sadly, after making free with the many indiscretions of previous generations there is a sound of hatches being battened down and closet doors being doubly locked as the book reaches his father Auberon and his own place in the story. He only resumes embarrassing people with his letter to his own son at the end of the book.

This is clear, the Waughs are not a family for half measures, being equally generous with their loyalty and their hatred. Witness the hatred of the unfortunate C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, despised tutor to Evelyn at Oxford. This has been passed, baton-like down the generations to Auberon and Alexander. The author claims that it inspired his father to stand for the `Dog Lovers Party' in North Devon in the 1979 General Election. No mention is made of Auberon's real reason for standing, that it was part of his own ongoing chastisement of Jeremy Thorpe. Auberon's entertainment at the Liberal party's ex-leader's expense included publishing a gloating account of his trial `The Last Word'. Curiously this whole topic, which the author must have ample knowledge of, is absent from the book.

All in all this is a good read, much relating to Alex and Evelyn is an extended schoolboy smirk. It is most successful when most open, and most disappointing when the author finds some un-Waughlike discretion in his soul.

Perhaps we shall have to wait for a fuller telling of the story of Auberon and Alexander Waugh. I have a feeling that another pen will be quivering at the paper before too long., that of Auberon Augustus Ichabod Waugh.
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on 30 October 2009
An engaging, rewarding read, offering an insight into priviledge and opportunity. This book will not disappoint, the Waugh family, a family of letters.
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on 3 January 2008
Alexander Waugh seems to have spent much of his life wrestling with the legacy of his father and grandfather. In Fathers and Sons he seems keen - if not desperate - to emulate their individuality, whilst clutching dear to their mould and worldview. This is an unconvincing pose, and the television documentary accompanying the book reveals a studied eccentricity more in keeping with scorned great-grandfather Arthur Waugh than with either of the two intervening and original wits.

Fathers and Sons is nevertheless an engaging, entertaining and illuminating read. Waugh's greatest achievement is in charting Evelyn Waugh's evolution from a frequently awkward and precocious social climbing aesthete who became a "voice of youth" with his debut novel to the somewhat reactionary caricature of later years.

Waugh is less sure in his handling of father Auberon. What emerges is more of a spirited character defence than any attempt to really understand the man or chart his development. As others have noted, it is unlikely that Waugh's young son will thank his father in years to come for either the excruciating lectures in Waugh-lore captured on screen or the toe-curling father to son letter with which the book concludes. Indeed, if young Auberon has an ounce of sense or originality, he would be wise to eschew doctrinal family reverence, form his own opinion on C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, Shirley Williams and others and refrain from 'extensively editing' his own Wikipedia entry.
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on 13 August 2007
The `Brute', Arthur, Alec and Evelyn, Auberon and Alexander: over one hundred years and five generations of Waughs.

There is no question that Arthur, Alec, Evelyn and Auberon were all very talented with the pen. It was expected that this book would explore the relationships between the generations, explaining why this talent flowed from father to son.
Did Arthur set out on a literary career because of his relationship with his father? Was it a reaction against his father's brutish insistence that he join the family medical practice? Or was it because that was his dream and no one was going to stop him living it? It appears that each Waugh is extremely determined to `do his own thing' and the relationship each has with his father reinforces this. Alec's close but possibly unhealthy relationship with the egregious Arthur encourages him to take up writing and follow in `papa's' footsteps. Alec, however, acknowledged that his younger brother Evelyn was a much better writer and certainly a more successful one. Arthur seems to have deliberately given his younger son less of himself and to have consciously fostered distance and bad feeling. Perhaps this relationship drove Eveyln towards writing to prove he could.

Evelyn's son Auberon failed as a novelist but became a gadfly of a journalist, having failed to obtain a position in one of the secret services. Was his father a direct influence or was he trading on the Waugh name? Possibly the best part of the book is the description of Auberon's wounding as an army officer in Cyprus. The `accident' has comedy worthy of one of his father's novels but the tragedy of his wounds and long recuperation is genuinely moving.

Does this book work? The feeling is that it doesn't. To present a study of the lives of any one of the main characters could, and should, take up an entire volume. To truly get inside the father-son relationship there needs a more analytical and unbiased approach. Alexander Waugh does not seem to know whether he is telling his family history, writing a multi-layered biography or trying to make a general point about father-son relationships. In the last mentioned task he fails totally. There is a passage where he attempts a quasi psychological analysis of such relationships in general with no evidence whatsoever, except that of his own family. Surely even he would have to admit that his forebears were so eccentric as not to provide reliable case studies. The open letter to his son at the end is toe-curling in its pretentiousness and possible embarrassment to young Auberon.

Alexander Waugh may be trying to stake his claim as the next Waugh genius but the evidence of this book is that his claim is not justified as yet. . His son may enjoy reading sanitised the antics of his forbears but we didn't.
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