This week was winter solstice in Australia and, in connection with that time of darkness and depression, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article about suicide. The article, by David Astle, opened with this:
Evelyn Waugh walked down to the beach with “thoughts full of death”. He took off his clothes and entered the water. The novelist, in his early 20s, was determined to drown. Or semi-determined. As he’d later write, “I cannot tell you how much real despair and act of will, how much play-acting, prompted the excursion”.
Astle goes on to note that suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia for people under 40. After a discussion about a festival in Sydney, coinciding with the solstice, that aims to reduce those numbers by cheering people up, Astle closes with another reference to Waugh:
So what happened to Waugh? His saviours were jellyfish. “The placid waters were full of the creatures”, stinging the swimmer into a deeper awareness. He surfaced from his fugue to head back for shore. For want of towel he used his shirt, got dressed, and “climbed the sharp hill that led to all the years ahead”. …Winter Solstice, a ritual for any street or town, is a time to make time for those nearby who may be privately drowning, an evening to ground us all.
The quotes are from Waugh’s autobiography A Little Learning, recently released in the Complete Works collection. Waugh also wrote a fictional version of the incident in Decline and Fall where he describes the faux suicide of Captain Grimes.
Grimes shows up in another story in the dailies. The Guardian reviews a new critique of the public school system. This is in a book entitled Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain by Robert Verkaik:
Public schools are steeped in an oppressive culture of hierarchy and domination – the now obsolete practice of “fagging”, whereby senior pupils used younger ones as servants, persists in attenuated form in the prefect system – but the pay-off is substantial. As Evelyn Waugh’s Grimes puts it in Decline and Fall: “One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.”
Finally, in The Times, another book review deals with the historic watershed year 0f 1948. This is Crucible: 13 Months that Forged our World by Jonathan Fenby. The review by Gerald de Groot opens with this:
“China is probably the most unrestful spot in the world at present.” So wrote George Marshall, the American secretary of state, in January 1948. One wonders how he came to that conclusion given the ubiquity of problems back then. While China was embroiled in civil war, India was erupting in ethnic violence, Jews and Palestinians were fighting on the West Bank, Korea was splitting in two, France was brutally restoring imperialism in Madagascar and Vietnam, and the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin.
The world seemed to be heading for apocalypse. “I am quite simply frightened,” Nancy Mitford told her friend Evelyn Waugh. “I wake up in the night sometimes in a cold sweat. Thank goodness for having no children. I can take a pill and say goodbye.”
The quote is from Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh, 2 March 1948, p. 92. Her fright was caused by fear of an imminent Russian invasion while she was living in France.