Critic and novelist D J Taylor has written a book inspired by William Thackeray entitled The New Book of Snobs, to be published later this month. An excerpt appears in the Daily Mail. This deals mostly with Taylor’s account of his own family’s snobbery. But it opens with this reference to Evelyn Waugh:
As a teenager growing up in the unfashionable North London suburb of Golders Green, the celebrated writer Evelyn Waugh refused ever to post letters from the NW11 postcode in which his family lived. Instead he would walk a few hundred yards down the road to nearby Hampstead and put them in a postbox there. That way his friends might be deceived into thinking that he resided in the far more prestigious environs of London NW3. As this suggests, the author of Brideshead Revisited, the much-loved novel in which social climber Charles Ryder finds himself beguiled by the aristocratic Flyte family, was himself a colossal snob. And in this he was far from alone.
The Hampstead post code story has become a part of the Apocrypha Waviana, but just where it originates never seems to be cited. In some versions, Waugh trudges up the hill for a nearly a quarter mile to achieve delivery with the more fashionable postmark from the box outside the Bull & Bush pub (Hastings, Evelyn Waugh, p. 104, and Google Maps), rather than a few hundred yards down the street, as Taylor describes it. The NW11 post code for Golders Green and NW3 for Hampstead were adopted in 1919. Prior to that, the Waugh house at 145 North End Road was in the “Hampstead NW” or “London NW” post code, which seemed to have been used interchangeably. Most of Waugh’s letters written from that address are headed “145 North End Road, NW11” (Letters, pp. 1-50). He does send a letter to his Lancing friend Tom Driberg that is headed “At 145 North End Road, Hampstead,” but it doesn’t bear the coveted NW3 post code. Moreover, it was written in September 1930 when Waugh was, as Driberg would have known, only in temporary residence with his parents after the break-up of his marriage, and Driberg would also have known the details of his home’s location, given their long-standing friendship since public school days. Somewhere, there may be a letter from Waugh postmarked or addressed from London or Hampstead NW3, but, if so, it has not surfaced in his published correspondence.
There are, however, other indicia of Waugh’s snobbery in the Driberg letter. He closes with the sentence: “I missed you at Renishaw by only a few days.” This is a reference to his visit to the Sitwell’s family estate, and Waugh seems to have wanted Driberg both to know that he had been invited and, possibly, that he knew the Sitwells well enough to have been told by them about Driberg’s own invitation (unless he already knew that from Driberg himself). It would be difficult to make the case that Waugh was not a snob, perhaps even a colossal one. But the walk up the hill to the NW3 postbox may be a reverse snobbish myth.