This week’s edition of The Spectator carries a story by Nicholas Shakespeare about his involvement in the 1990 dispute between Auberon Waugh and Anthony Powell over Auberon’s negative review of Powell’s collected literary journalism (Miscellaneous Verdicts) in the Sunday Telegraph. According to Shakespeare:
Among insults, Waugh (who maintained that his piece was merely ‘jokey’) criticised Powell for his ‘abominable English’ and likened his famous novel sequence to ‘an early upmarket soap opera’ which had enjoyed a cult among expatriate Australians.
As a result of the publication Powell resigned from the Daily Telegraph after over 30 years as the lead book reviewer.
Shakespeare explains that contrary to some commentators, this incident was not part of a plot to force Powell’s resignation and allow his replacement by a younger reviewer. The paper had recently merged the books pages of the Daily and Sunday editions. Powell was already the lead reviewer in the Daily and editor Max Hastings recommended to Shakespeare (now in charge of both book pages) to make Auberon Waugh lead reviewer of the Sunday. The important Miscellaneous Verdicts review therefore fell to Auberon, but Shakespeare had no inkling of any animosity on Auberon’s part. And this despite the fact that he had recently made a a three-part film of Evelyn Waugh’s life for the BBC’s Arena series in which both Auberon and Powell appeared. Indeed, not mentioned by Shakespeare, if you read Auberon’s reviews of the last three novels in Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, they are perhaps mixed but are thoughtful and not overly negative. Two weeks before Auberon’s review of MV appeared (27 May), there was a quite positive interview of Powell in the Sunday Telegraph (13 May) by Hugh Massingberd and in the week following, another (and favorable) review (2 June) of MV by Hilary Spurling in the daily edition. Both were among Powell’s most ardent admirers. Shakespeare was on holiday in Morocco when the “shit hit the fan” (you must read the article to see why that cliché is funny in this case) and was left to sort things out when he returned, by which time Powell had already resigned. Here’s a link to the article.
Shakespeare also recounts how this incident has continued to haunt him long after all the major players have died. His name has appeared in the indices of two books–Powell’s own Journals published in the 1990s and the recent biography of Powell by Hilary Spurling–only to have been excised from the text relating to this incident without explanation, presumably due to legal censorship. He concludes:
I wrote to Powell to apologise, but received no reply. A propitiatory bust was commissioned of him which lurked for a while on a filing cabinet. In 1991, when the titles re-separated, I handed over the Sunday’s books coverage to Miriam Gross (a [Powell] fan), and the daily’s coverage to John Coldstream. Even so, I remained curious to know what manner of man it was who could dish out pastings for half a century and yet be so affected by adverse criticism. When his Journals were published, securing him, in John Carey’s words, ‘a reputation for vanity and pomposity’, it wasn’t merely my name that I found had vanished, but my curiosity too.