Evelyn Waugh, Brexiteer?

In an article in the “pro-market” website Reaction, Alastair Benn considers why more artists do not support Britain’s exit from the EU. When he reviews where today’s writers come out on this subject, Evelyn Waugh’s name comes up:

Although it might be true that opposition to Brexit has become a kind of idée fixe for the present-day cultural policy establishment, these things come and go. Fashions change. Some of the greatest English writers of the last century, those who make up the recognised canon, whose books are never out of print, are hardly hostile to a conservative world view. Take one of my favourite writers: Evelyn Waugh, whose later work becomes obsessed with social worlds that may appear quite alien to modern life. But then again, his early work is hardly conservative at all – brilliant satires engaging with the modern themes of technology, social change and with a strong anti-establishment ethic. Great writers resist easy classification.

An earlier article on this same topic by Simon Head in the New York Review of Books’ daily online edition took a more aggressive view of Waugh’s likely position:

Boris Johnson leads the cabinet faction agitating for a hard Brexit, a “clean break” from the EU, but he now has a serious rival for leadership of the party’s nationalist wing in Jacob Rees-Mogg, a deeply Euroskeptic member of parliament who outshone Johnson at the recent conference in Manchester. In their different ways, Johnson and Rees-Mogg both evoke the image of late-imperial Britain to which the aging membership of the Conservative Party feels drawn. So what would the great social geographer of the period, Evelyn Waugh, have made of  them? He would surely have spotted Johnson as a phony in a trice: his combination of bombast and faux bonhomie, his opportunism, his hack writing and intellectual sloppiness. Johnson makes a perfect fit for a villainous journalist toiling away for Lord Copper in Scoop. Waugh would surely have approved, however, of Rees-Mogg’s catholic dogmatism and his ample progeny. In his later years, Waugh complained that the Conservative Party hadn’t put the clock back five minutes; Rees-Mogg is someone who wants to put the clock back sixty years, at least.

Finally, in another battle over conservatism (or more specifically, conservation), Waugh’s name comes up in connection with a dispute between two aging rock stars over conserving a historic house in the west Kensington neighborhood. This is Tower House designed by Victorian architect William Burges. It belongs to Jimmy Page, guitarist for Led Zeppelin. He opposes improvements to the house next door by Simon Head, who was once lead singer for Take That and wants to expand his basement to include such amenities as a swimming pool. An article in The Times invokes Waugh and his friend John Betjeman as previous defenders of Tower House:

Page, who lives in Tower House, a grade I listed property that was previously owned by the poet John Betjeman and the actor Richard Harris, wrote that “it seems reasonable to expect the council to dismiss any application for subterranean development on a site so near to such an important ‘heritage asset’ as the Tower House”. He noted that the house, which was designed by William Burges, was “one of the most historic buildings in the borough” and that vibrations from building work next door would put his house and garden wall at risk. …“I believe the house was one of the first Victorian buildings in the country to be listed and was saved by John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh, who amongst others, campaigned against the threat of its demolition in the early sixties. Having protected the Tower House for over 40 years, I am now continuing the fight against a new threat to this precious and unique building.”

Page may somewhat overstate Waugh’s role in the preservation of Tower House. Betjeman was indeed for a short time its owner, having been left a two-year remainder on the lease by the previous owners in the hope that he would preserve the house by taking it over for his own use. According to A N Wilson, Betjeman felt he could not afford that burden, and the house was sold to actor Richard Harris in the hope that he would fulfill the owners’ wishes. Waugh comes into the story indirectly at best. Several years before he became owner of the house, the owners gave Betjeman a washstand from the house that had also been designed by Burges. When installation of this in Betjeman’s house proved impracticable, he made a gift of it to Evelyn Waugh. This then became the subject of a delusion in Waugh’s novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Waugh himself suffered similar delusions relating to what be believed was a piece he had remembered seeing that had gone missing when the washstand was delivered to his house. Whether Waugh was ever drawn into the later issue of the preservation of the house itself during Betjeman’s brief ownership is unclear.

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