Lucky Alec

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‘Which would you rather be,’ asked Maurice Richardson, ‘a shit of genius or a chronic euphoric?’ The shit of genius was Evelyn Waugh, the chronic euphoric his elder brother Alec, who once wondered if he ‘was not too much in love with life, to have ever been completely in love with anyone’.

Alec Waugh had good reason to be cheerful. For ‘a very minor writer’ (his own estimation) he enjoyed a very rewarding career, which began ninety years ago with The Loom of Youth, the first novel to deal, albeit pretty gingerly, with homosexuality in public schools. This put him on the map. Forty years later, just as he was in danger of falling off it, he wrote another bestseller, Island in the Sun, which in one month earned him more than all his other books put together. Lucky Alec. And he was lucky in other respects too. Born in 1898, he survived both Passchendaele and, in uniform again, the fall of France, having meanwhile seen a lot of the world ‘when the going was good’.

He also emerged unscathed from an ill-advised first marriage which was annulled on the mortifying grounds of non-consummation (she was very young, he very inexperienced). His second marriage, to an Australian heiress called Joan Chirnside, produced three children but was semi-detached. Nomadic by nature, he was also by now a dedicated philanderer, committed to the chaise longue rather than the marriage bed. Fortunately for him, Joan was a homebody who set greater store by her children’s welfare than her husband’s fidelity. Even before the second war, which she and the children spent in Australia, they were more often apart than not. And once Alec acquired American residency, which he did for currency transfer reasons in 1949, they saw each other for at most three months of the year, leaving him free to indulge in the ‘extra-curricular romances’ which he said kept him young.

All of which was news to me until I read the remarkably frank serie

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About the contributor

Michael Barber has written biographies of Anthony Powell and Simon Raven. Like Alec Waugh he enjoys ball games, but despite an alarming tendency to thin his sand shots has yet to copy Alec and build a practice bunker in the garden.

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