FT Reviews Waugh Biography

Literary journalist Suzi Feay reviews Philip Eade’s biography in the latest edition of the Financial Times’ book pages. Feay recently moderated the Waugh panel at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival, which was sponsored by the FT. While recognizing, as have other reviewers, that much of the material in his book is well-known, she likes the way Eade presents it in a new light: 

Much of the material might be familiar, but the chief delight of this biography is the way it foregrounds Waugh’s own voice. He hates Norway: “The sun never sets, the bar never opens, and the whole country smells of kippers.” Wartime marine barracks prove surprisingly congenial: “good Georgian architecture, old silver and mahogany, vintage port . . . enough physical exercise to give one an appetite . . . no intellectual exercise except in attempting to convince the Protestant chaplain of the authenticity of Our Lord’s miracles.” 

She is also impressed by how Eade handles Waugh’s military career in the face of previous depictions of insubordination and lack of discipline:

…Eade is concerned to counter accusations of cowardice and incompetence during the evacuation of Crete, made first by historian Antony Beevor. Waugh’s company and his commanding officer Laycock apparently jumped the queue for the boats, leaving higher-priority troops behind to be captured. Eade explains that the debacle “owed far more to the complete breakdown in organisation than any supposed queue-barging by [Laycock’s] commandoes”. He mounts a spirited defence, although Laycock’s own comment about escaping in order to fight another day sounds weak and self-serving. Laycock conceded: “By the look on his face at the time, I gathered that Evelyn believed this to be a dishonourable thing to do.” 

She concludes her review with a reference to Waugh’s writing habits:

 “I long for your company at all times except one,” Waugh once wrote to Laura. “When I am working I must be alone.” Otherwise, he explained, he would “never be able to maintain the fervent preoccupation which is absolutely necessary to composition”. Eade shows just how hard-won his effortless brilliance really was.

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