–There are two comments on similarities between the governmental missteps that lead to the release of a murderous jihadist terrorist and Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall. Conservative columnist Charles Moore writes in the Daily Telegraph:
The deaths inside and outside Fishmongers’ Hall last Friday were tragic. Two good people, and one bad one they had tried to help, died. Others were badly injured. Yet when I read the extraordinary details of the events – the fact that the attacks were made at an anniversary celebration of a rehabilitation programme backed by Cambridge University, and that the killer, Usman Khan, was himself a star pupil of that programme; the fact that people who were themselves criminals joined in to disarm the murderer – the memory of a satire niggled at the back of my mind.
Eventually I identified it – it was “the Lucas-Dockery Experiments”. Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, is chiefly remembered for its comic scenes of a ghastly prep school and for its depiction of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club (whose later members included Boris Johnson and David Cameron), thinly disguised as the Bollinger Club. But the book also contains a witty dissection of a certain sort of do-goodery. For reasons that need not detain us here, the book’s anti-hero, Paul Pennyfeather, finds himself doing seven years’ penal servitude for traffic in prostitution.
The prison governor, Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, is an enlightened professor of sociology appointed by a Labour home secretary. He strongly disagrees with his conservative predecessor, Colonel MacAdder, who held to the view that “If you make prison bad enough, people’ll take jolly good care to keep out of it”. “So far as is possible,” says Sir Wilfred benignly, “I like the prisoners to carry on with their avocations in civilian life.” He is also keen on a “system of progressive stages” for rehabilitation, such as being allowed after a bit to write and receive letters, aided by “little innovations” such as a “Thought for the Day” which he pins up each morning.
Moore goes on to explain how Lucas-Dockery chooses a red-headed prisoner to prove his theories and gives him a carpentry set to ply his preferred trade while imprisoned. The column (which is headed by a clip from the recent BBC TV adaptation of the novel) continues:
Two days later, the God-intoxicated carpenter uses the saw presented to him by the authorities to cut off the head of the prison chaplain. After that, […] “Sir Wilfred concentrated his attention upon the statistics, and the life of the prison was equitably conducted under the Standing Orders.”
Evelyn Waugh specialised in black comedy – and the London Bridge incident was, as I say, tragedy. But there is a read-across from one to the other which makes the 90-year-old novel worth re-reading…
A UK-based blogger posting on Raedwald.com quotes much of the same text and comes to a similar conclusion.
–On the nondenominational religious website First Things, Joshua Hren posts an essay discussing the issues arising from the secularization of society. He illustrates his points with several quotations from Waugh’s 1953 novella Love Among the Ruins. His cites to the novella conclude with this:
Through Waugh’s artfulness, the Nativity has been “made strange” in Love Among the Ruins. […] Although the twenty-first-century West does not yet evince the extreme secularity of the dystopian society in Love Among the Ruins, Waugh helps us perceive how our own world, too, is unreal, and how in our day, too, the God who is Love has been relegated to the category of “historical and cultural preservation.” Waugh pairs Clara’s plastic joy with the tidings of comfort that break from the “machine” beside her. This juxtaposition brings Plastic to retch “unobtrusively” before he exits the surgery ward, baffled.
The novella is included in Waugh’s Complete Stories.
–Several websites have mentioned an incident involving Waugh and his hat. The earliest seems to have been on stuff.co.nz:
Evelyn Waugh once collected his hat from a cloakroom and found a note inside it, written by the attendant to identify the hat’s owner. It consisted of one word: “florid”.
The reference comes from Waugh’s 1962 short story “Basil Seal Rides Again”. Here’s the context:
A week or two ago [Basil] had had a disconcerting experience in this very hotel. It was a place he had frequented all his life, particularly in later years, and he was on cordial terms with the man who took the men’s hats in a den by the Piccadilly entrance. Basil was never given a numbered ticket and assumed he was known by name. Then a day came when he sat longer than usual over luncheon and found the man off duty. Lifting the counter he had penetrated the rows of pegs and retrieved his bowler and umbrella. In the ribbon of the hat he found a label, put there for identification. It bore the single pencilled word “Florid”…
The story is contained in Waugh’s Complete Stories and was the last fiction that he wrote. Whether it was based on an actual experience described elsewhere isn’t stated. The editor of the stories (Ann Pasternak Slater) notes, however, that Basil “is a delightful and wholly frivolous portrait of [Waugh] himself.”
–Andrew McGowan has posted on his weblog a response he made at a recent conference of the Society of Biblical Literature relating to reading at the table in Biblical times:
In Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited the narrator Charles Ryder describes a deeply unpleasant vacation period during his Oxford studies spent at home with his father, who had a habit – clearly an uncivil one in this setting – of reading at the table, silently of course. This habit was part of the father’s usual solitary life, and he persists in it as a sort of passive-aggressive response to his son’s presence. He reads, but not aloud; and Charles takes up a conflict of sorts by bringing his own book to dinner, to underline or contest his father’s rudeness.
“The dinner table was our battlefield. On the second evening I took my book with me to the dining-room. His mild and wandering eye fastened on it with sudden attention, and as we passed through the hall he surreptitiously left his own on a side table. When we sat down, he said plaintively: ‘I do think, Charles, you might talk to me. I’ve had a very exhausting day. I was looking forward to a little conversation.’”
With wry humor Waugh presents the modern view; reading is an alternative to sociability, not a form of it…
Evelyn Waugh’s anti-morality tale stands the test of time in this 2008 film version of the 1981 series of the 1945 book. This story of hedonism and homosexuality would barely raise an eyebrow today, but it’s easy to see how it caused such a fuss at the time – and informed generations of queer culture. Matthew Goode, Emma Thompson and Ben Whishaw star in this lavish retelling of the sexual awakening of a young artist.