The Bolthole and the Beast

Both the Financial Times and the Guardian have stories this weekend based on Waugh’s writngs. They are also mentioned prominently in two Australian papers.

Writing in the FT, Janan Ganesh sees what may be the passing of the middle class longing for a rural bolthole in the form of a country residence. The tradition now disappearing was fostered, according to Ganesh, in Waugh’s writings:

…one vestige of [the aristocracy’s] old cultural sway remains and it is what Evelyn Waugh called the “cult” of the country house. To own one, even a small one, is to play the squire. … The cult is strongest in this country but it touches America, that insatiable market for Downton Abbey or whichever colour-by-numbers costume drama the Brits are peddling this year.

The tradition is less prevalent in Europe where the aristocracy’s sway was weakened by decades of war and revolution. But even in the English speaking worlds, Ganesh sees the lure of the country house or cottage as diminishing:

In 1987, “inner city” meant poor. In 2017, it means the most coveted parts of the realm. I sense little of Waugh’s cult in friends my age, even those with the cash to indulge it, even those with families who could use the roaming space. Their priority is the best first home they can afford. … Forgive the urban chauvinism but, having fought for a toehold in a great cosmopolis, it seems perverse to flee to the opposite environment at regular intervals.

But the day of the country house’s attraction for the city dweller has not entirely withered away, if an article in the Guardian is anything to go by. This is an excerpt from a recent book by Phyllis Richardson entitled The House of Fiction which contains descriptions of  houses that appear in English literature:

Howards End, Manderley, Brideshead – some fictional houses are as unforgettable as the characters who inhabit them. They can provide a sense of identity, as in the novels of Walter Scott, which were set in a time when a man was distinguished by the land and house from which he got his name. They can convey ideas of personality, as Charles Dickens’s living spaces reflect the quirks of his characters. They can offer us symbols of social status, as with Jane Austen’s Pemberley, or some tangible link to the past, as so ardently forged by writers such as Evelyn Waugh.

Several examples of descriptions taken from Richardson’s book are provided from writers extending from Laurence Sterne to Alan Hollinghurst. To be fair, not all of these are country houses, unless one counts Hampstead or “Metroland” as the country.

Another Guardian article by Ian Jack takes up Waugh’s theme of journalism in his 1938 novel Scoop. Jack begins by recalling his own early days as a journalist at the Scottish branch of the Express which once seemed to be epitomized in Waugh’s “Daily Beast.” That role today is played by the Daily Mail which has been described in a recent novel. This is entitled, not very subtly, The Beast and is written by Alexander Starritt who has worked for the Daily Mail:

As the title suggests, the book makes no bones about its literary heritage and unashamedly tips its hat to the work of Michael Frayn as well as Waugh. Its comedy is darker than either, but arguably (Scoop, after all, was published in 1938) that bleakness reflects our darker age. Certainly, its subject more urgently demands our attention…What Starritt gets vividly right, in a way I think no other fiction has managed, is the editing process that is so central to the success of any popular paper – and which through techniques of presentation has far more influence on the paper’s emotional, social and political register than all its writing staff put together. “The very belly of the Beast”, is how he describes the production department…

What follows in the Guardian article is a description by Jack about how the editorial process on a successful modern tabloid works. It is not a pretty picture.

Finally, Waugh is mentioned in two articles in the Australian press. In an opinion article by Ian Warden published in The Age on the ever-fraught issue of nationality in Australian politics, there is this analogy:

…when it comes to notions of nationality, there is Evelyn Waugh’s neat notion that it is beyond certification and is something to do with one’s stage of life. His insight that we are all American at puberty is profound, and spot on. Everything about America and the rash, loud, confused, spotty, hormone-powered, know-it-all, energetic-but-ignorant way it and its presidents behave is deeply pubescent.

And in the Spectator’s Australian edition, Karl Schmude is reminded of Waugh in a speech at the Christopher Dawson Centre in Hobart named for the Australian man of letters or independent scholar best known perhaps for having written The Making of Europe:

Evelyn Waugh once described his father as a “man of letters,” and noted that this category was “now almost extinct,” like that of the maiden aunt.

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