Journalism is essentially a transient trade, offering at most a fleeting fame. Probably the best-known journalist of the second half of the 20th century, Bernard Levin, still awaits a biography, as indeed does my nominee for the title of runner-up, Auberon Waugh. True, Bron Waugh wrote a not very successful autobiography, Will This Do?, a decade or so before he died - but no one has since come forward to commemorate his extraordinary, Stakhanovite output over 40 years.
William Cook, however, has done the next best thing: he has produced a collection of his subject's writings. In offering a flavour of Bron's character and personality, Cook seems to me to do pretty well, though there is one sizeable gap, in that nowhere is there the slightest hint of the Indian-summer romance that, over a period of nearly 20 years, Bron conducted with Susan Crosland, widow of Tony Crosland, Jim Callaghan's first foreign secretary and the author of The Future of Socialism. Maybe Cook, whose last book was a study of Morecambe and Wise, does not appear to regard that aspect of things as important. My own belief, however, remains that this relationship had a perceptible impact, softening the more Gothic corners of Bron's former attitude and outlook.
My professional connection with him long pre-dated all this. A year before Francis Hope, for whom the First Person column in the New Statesman had been founded, was killed in the Paris air crash of March 1974, I offered Bron the chance of sharing the slot with him. After Francis died, Bron still wrote fortnightly (alternating with James Fenton) and struck up weekly only once Fenton had taken himself off to Cambodia. In all, Bron wrote 100 columns over the next two and a half years. They caused probably more outrage and uproar than any other regular feature in the paper, but though occasionally I had to remonstrate with him, I never repented of the decision I had made in recruiting him.
Leafing through the various pieces from Bron's NS period that Cook reproduces here, I cannot help feeling that we constantly owed more to him than he owed to us. (He was, as I remember it, paid £40 a column and we lost him when a newly embedded editor at the Spectator, Alexander Chancellor, offered him £60.) As Cook comments about Waugh: "Writing against the grain suited him" and "this unlikely alliance [meaning the partnership between the New Statesman and him] produced some of his finest (yet least familiar) writing".
He was a born polemicist, but his onslaughts were generally redeemed by a vein of self-mockery. An example of this can be found in the title of this book, borrowed from the instruction he gave his platoon sergeant (Nelson-style) after he had nearly killed himself by accidentally pumping six machine-gun bullets into his chest while doing his National Service in Cyprus. Bron was always at his best when trying to see the funny side of life - which is why I had particular difficulty with the rather solemn "lead paragraphs" that he used to write for his Way of the World column in the Daily Telegraph. Almost 50 of them are included in one of the longest chapters in this book - and I have to say that their blend of archness and crusty pomposity leaves me quite cold.
Cook makes some odd judgements of his own. Bron was always a rapier rather than a bludgeon man, so the comparison with Dr Johnson offered here cannot help seeming peculiarly inapt (a far happier analogy would be to liken his work to that of Swift, or even Pepys). The diary format suited him very well and I regard his column in Private Eye as representing some of the most entertaining writing he ever did. Its uncanny mixture of pure fantasy and not wholly improbable invention struck a chord with the public, if not always with its victims. At least one of them, Nora Beloff of the Observer, insisted on bringing a libel action over a clearly absurd allegation that she had slept with every single member of Harold Wilson's cabinet - and "no impropriety occurred". I still marvel that we were spared any similar attempted revenges at the New Statesman, and can only assume that it owed far more to good luck than to prudent editorial management.
Kiss Me, Chudleigh: the World According to Auberon Waugh
Auberon Waugh, edited by William Cook
Coronet, 384pp, £19.99
Anthony Howard was editor of the New Statesman from 1972-78