Sam Leith on Auberon Waugh and Rory Knight-Bruce

By
accident, I had two first editors, rather than one. I had just left
school, and I wrote to a number of magazines and newspapers asking
whether there were any openings for a gap-year student. The only reply
was from Auberon Waugh at Literary Review.

“We would love to have you here for as long as you are available.

Unfortunately we have no money of any description. Would you be prepared to work as a slave for no wages?”

Bron,
sharp in print, was exceptionally nice in person. Living rent-free in
London with relatives, I spent eight extremely happy months slaving at
LR.

This involved reading proofs, helping with commissioning,
running errands (one important duty was to scamper to Fortnum’s to buy
fruit cake when the Academy Club ran out), playing bridge in the office
on Wednesday afternoons and, when he decided to treat the staff, going
to lunch with Bron.

I returned from my first such lunch with my
18-year-old brain soused with claret and port and my eyes visibly
rotating. The then deputy editor, Lola Bubbosh, directed me to a sofa
to sleep it off. Bron himself slept off lunch in his own chair, his
snoring rising in crescendo until it became unbearably loud – at which
point he’d wake with a start and look around crossly to see who had
disturbed him. My eventual leaving present to him was a pillow,
stencilled with the magazine’s logo.

Bron’s genius was to charm
big-name writers into contributing for peanuts; but he had to pay
Julian Barnes in wine from his own cellar. There was visible pain on
his face as he’d lift the telephone with the words: “All right, Barnes.
We’re talking some serious claret…”

My other editor was Rory
Knight- Bruce, then running the Standard’s Londoner’s Diary. I earned
food-money during my time at LR by doing a shift a week at the trial
rate of £20. Mostly I sold him stories about Literary Review.

Rory
was energetic and scary, but he taught me valuable lessons. One was:
the editor is always right. As he rewrote one of my stories, I pointed
out a grammatical garble he’d introduced.

Pause. “Look, Leith,”
he spat, “if you want to be an academic, fuck off to Oxford. If you
want to be a journalist shut up and do what I say.”

He could also
be friendly. He said he’d put me up to the normal casual rate of £40
after I’d done enough shifts to prove my worth. “Rory,” I mumbled one
day. “I’ve done two dozen trial shifts. Can I have a rise?” “Nope,” he
said, with a kindly air. “But you must never be afraid to ask.”

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Daily Telegraph

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