Talent Trickledown

Reading & Writing


Talent Trickledown is what happens when you have a giant at the top of the family dynasty whose abilities are genetically passed on in dwindling amounts, so you start with Ernest Hemingway and end up with Mariel and her modelling, or with Pablo Picasso, down to Paloma and her fragrance.

To be fair, it can’t be easy living up to legends, and the Hemingway family in particular was littered with self-inflicted tragedies. And very occasionally you get children of equal or greater talent, so the excellent Lily Allen from Keith Allen, and smart director Jason Reitman from Ivan Reitman.

Imagine being part of a literary dynasty; the pressure to achieve must be unbearable. Alec Waugh was the younger brother of Evelyn, uncle to Auberon, and so, towering above them both was a man whose innovative satirical writing came to symbolise an era (furthermore, grandfather was also an author and publisher).

In 1917 Alec wrote ‘The Look of Youth’, based on his schooldays at Sherbourne, and his implication of its homoerotic stratum led to him becoming the only former pupil to be expelled from the old boys’ society. The book sold well, although Alec was a POW in France by this time. He continued to travel through the warmer climes throughout his life, marrying a wealthy Australian who made his lotus-eating lifestyle possible. He was described as ‘the poor man’s Somerset Maughan’, and as the author of over fifty books, is proof that output has little to do with inspiration. About him, Auberon said dismissively that he ‘wrote many books, each worse than the last.’ As he aged, his literary subjects reduced themselves to discursions on alcohol and his family. There was, however, a successful film version of one of his novels, ‘Island In The Sun’, which created the unlikely Harry Belafonte hit.

Meanwhile, nephew Auberon nearly managed to blow himself to bits during his national service, losing a lung, his spleen, some ribs and a finger. He tackled five novels in his early career and then gave up, fearing comparisons with his father. They’re nicely written and often very funny, but rather pointless and divorced from the real world. In his writing, Auberon had something of the old man’s spikiness, but with far less discipline. His best book was ‘Another Voice – An Alternative Anatomy Of Britain’, and his collected diaries are still fun to dip into.

Becoming a newspaper columnist suited his talents better, and his political writing for the Spectator constitutes some of his finest work, but it was his scabrous Private Eye diary that brought him fame, and his attacks on the Labour government, especially against education secretary Shirley Williams, were appropriately splenetic. His main mode was one of complaint but this meagre skill, coupled to a life of privilege, doesn’t make for a very appealing picture now.

Unexpectedly, it was Evelyn’s daughter, Kate Waugh, who bested them both as a novelist, by combining a sharp wit with powerful stories in books like ‘Kate’s House’ and ‘Mother’s Footsteps’.

The excellent novel ‘Mr Toppit’ by Charles Elton takes a fictional look at what happens to the decades-long legacy left by the writer of a beloved children’s book. Famously Christopher Robin and the model for Peter Pan both had lives that took less-than-desirable turns. I imagine JK Rowling’s heirs will have all that pain to come, unless she continues to write sequels, prequels and equals until she’s a hundred, in which case they won’t have to worry abut money for several centuries.

2 comments on “Talent Trickledown”

  1. snowy says:

    This idea of talent being inheritable is perhaps straying nto Lamarckism, but that’s a chat for another day.

    Bron Waugh was not the brightest stain to escape the blanket; as is anyone who decides to deal with a jammed gun by looking down the loud end and j-j-jiggling it a bit.

    [Junior Officers in Armoured regiments aren’t meant to touch anything bang-y, their role is to stick out of the top of the vehicle, look obvious and notify the crew of the direction of any incoming fire. In a similar fashion to the function performed by a canary down a mine.]

    Ms Allen can’t sing, can’t write and her work is so mediocre that it fails even to be accidentally amusing, er-um, just like her Dad. ……….Ok,Ok, perhaps you are right.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    J.S. Bach and his family were also just such a family. Although several of his children did very well on their own and helped reshape the course of music. The so called London Bach, John Christen Bach, greatly influenced the quite young W.A. Mozart, while that sparkling composer was in London.

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