Exploding Scotland

In a post on the website Catholicism.org, Dr Robert Hickson offers another in his series of annotated Evelyn Waugh passages. In this case he posts a copy of Waugh’s 1942 letter to his wife about the demolition of Lord Glasgow’s tree by Waugh’s Commando unit. See previous posts. The letter contains Dr Hickson’s bracketed explanations and highlighted passages to help Americans and those lacking military experience to understand the humor. Unfortunately, in this case this information rather spoils the humor by interfering with the flow of Waugh’s text. The information might better have been put in footnotes and the textual emphasis dispensed with to allow the text to speak for itself.

Dr Hickson goes to some length to explain the background of several people mentioned in the letter but offers no hint of the identity of “Miss Cowles”, mentioned at the beginning of the letter. This is probably Virginia Cowles [1910-1983] cited a few pages earlier and identified by the editor as “American journalist, married Aidan Crawley in 1945.” Letters, p. 154, n.9. She met Waugh again a few years later on his trips to the USA, but what she may have been doing in Scotland in 1942 remains a mystery. She was probably on assignment as a war correspondent (for which she received an OBE after the war). Why she should want to be “Colonel in chief of the commando” must have been a private joke between her and Waugh.

Another Scottish explosion during WWII and mentioned by Waugh goes unmentioned by Dr Hickson. This occurs in Officers and Gentlemen and is from a passage that is noted in another context in yesterday’s post. That story may even have been loosely inspired by Lord Glasgow’s desire to have his tree demolished. When Guy and Tommy Blackhouse visit the Laird of Mugg (referred to in the novel as “Mugg”) upon their arrival on the island, he repeatedly seeks their help in providing to him some explosives from their military stores. He needs these to carry out a project he has planned to remove some large rocks that are blocking the beach adjacent to a hotel on his property. This passage actually rivals in its humor the letter cited by Dr Hickson.

The theme of Mugg’s interest in explosives continues through to the end of the “Happy Warriors” section. ¬†Guy is sent on another visit to Mugg, who reiterates his abiding interest in exlosives as a means of improving his property and points out the beach that is covered with granite boulders, apparently the result of an earlier demolition effort gone wrong. The Army does not comply with Mugg’s request for more explosives. When they embark for the Middle East, however, they must leave some of their sappers’ supplies behind. These are temporarily unguarded while a group of the sappers (also left behind) are off on a useless excercise. Before the remaining sappers return, “Mugg crept out to pilfer [their] stores” (O&G, Penguin, 1977, p. 105). In the original novel, that is where the story of the Laird and the explosives ends. But in compiling the one-volume recension of Sword of Honour, and apparently for avoidance of doubt, Waugh added this line: “The great explosion which killed Mugg and his niece was attributed to enemy action” (SoH, Penguin, 2001, p, 313).

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