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Nicholas Parsons vs Auberon Waugh

How Parsons won a battle of wits

Artillery Row

Nicholas Parsons will be remembered for his half-century chairing Radio 4’s Just a Minute and for a seventy-year career on radio and television that stretches back to Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh via “and now, live from Norwich” Sale of the Century.

But the entertaining straight man should also be fondly remembered in a small seaside town in the East Neuk of Fife. To the trivia question (which I’ve just made up), “what is the common link between the philosopher of On Liberty, the inventor of radio, the architect of the Somme Offensive, the creator of Peter Pan, the author of the Jungle Book and the late Nicholas Parsons?” there can be only one answer.

It was November 1988. Other stuff was happening elsewhere – 20,000 Poles had just flooded on to the streets of Gdansk to cheer Margaret Thatcher’s walkabout in what was still a Communist country. But in St Andrews, a more immediate (by which I mean parochial) matter was occupying the minds of the university’s 5,000 students, of which I was one.

Every three years we had the opportunity – enshrined in a Victorian act of parliament – to elect the Lord Rector. The tasks for this recipient of student approval included chairing the university’s decision-making body, the Court, and to be a conduit between student and academic priorities. Great men (and one woman) of distinction had held the role before. This time, Glenda Jackson was up for it. Her team was getting organised. We needed to find an alternative. And fast.

I made a bolt for Soho where I tracked down my journalist-hero, Auberon Waugh (“son of …”). An agreeable lunch followed into which no food intruded, and the deal was done. Against Glenda, the leading actress and Labour activist, “Waugh!” would be our cry.

I did not know that a fellow student debater, Andrew Burnett, was also on a mission and was at that very moment persuading Nicholas Parsons to affix breast-plate and tilting-flange for the joust ahead.

In the opening week, the Vote Glenda momentum appeared to falter. Posters bearing the genial visage of Auberon Waugh in round glasses and a homburg went-up in the windows of supportive undergraduates. We were getting confident. But then came the hustings.

Jackson absented herself because of her activist/acting commitments. Likewise, my man broke the news to me that he was away having a pressing matter attended to in Bangkok. This could well have been the case, except that he was cheerfully assuring me about his detention in Thailand from the telephone on his office desk in Soho.

Waugh was away having a pressing matter attended to in Bangkok.

Parsons, however, pitched-up to the hustings. There was no reason for him to do so. St Andrews was effectively a two-day round rail trip from London, there was no certainty of him winning the election, and if he did so, being Rector was an unpaid three-year commitment. It was almost as if he really wanted the role.

By polling day, I was getting desperate. Glenda Jackson’s no show had done for her chances. Parsons’s campaign was in top gear. He was out and about meeting undergraduates and, seemingly, enjoying doing so. He had persuaded his friends Willie Rushton, Tim Rice, Barry Cryer et al to provide quotes saying what a top chap he was. Personable, polite, charming, the same off air as on.

By contrast, my posters were either coming down or getting vandalised: the slogan “Auberon Waugh – Our Voice in the National Press” being widely defaced to “Our Voice in the National Front.”

A follow-up flyer I had designed featuring Red Army troops opening fire with the invocation “Declare Waugh on November 11th” was condemned as in poor taste given the date of polling day. The student newspaper was keen to print my retraction and explanation about how Waugh would be atoning for disrespecting our glorious dead.

Digging my man deeper, I pretended that Waugh would be arriving in St Andrews on polling day to hear from the students and solicit their support. I coated the town with posters with this promise above a photo of the great columnist superimposed into the quadrangle of the divinity school. I calculated that by the time voters realised he was not actually coming to meet and to greet, the ballot papers would have been cast and I could pretend that he had definitely enjoyed his visit and was only sorry he didn’t get to meet everyone.

When I telephoned through the result, Waugh took his defeat well, thanking me for my sterlingly fruitless efforts. Glenda Jackson had made him uncomfortable ever since her nude scene in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. I sensed that her defeat and his failure to win was exactly the combination for which he had been angling. A case of claret and some back numbers of the Literary Review were duly dispatched to me.

Glenda Jackson had made Waugh uncomfortable ever since her nude scene in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers.

Parsons proved to be the worthy winner. For his Rectorial installation, he emerged from the back of a parked lorry, driving a car backwards out of it at speed before performing handbrake turns in the middle of the street, at one stage getting competitively close to some spectators from the vegetarian cafe.

Eloquence was the theme of his address. He digressed mid-way from his tightly-argued discourse to recite Bananarama: “Bop bop shoo be doo wah. Bop bop shoo be doo wah. He was really saying something. Really saying something.”

Some past rectors had treated the role as an honour, rather than a responsibility. After delivering their address, they scarcely troubled St Andrews again. But Nicholas Parsons was one of those that made the effort. In his first year alone, he was up in the far-flung university town every month, chairing the Court and meeting students whom he treated with courtesy and consideration.

In no other ranking would he feature alongside John Stuart Mill, Guglielmo Marconi, Field Marshal Haig, J.M. Barrie or Rudyard Kipling. But he was as good a Lord Rector of St Andrews as any of them.

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