Evelyn Waugh, Brexit and Prendergast’s Wig (More)

A new magazine based in London and called The Fence has published its first issue which is declared a “Brexit Special”. It describes itself as featuring: “Haunting insights, ridiculous conceits, pulsating fiction and just straight up lies: The Fence is a bi-monthly magazine locked in on life in London.” One of the articles is by Saoirse Mulvey and is entitled “Evelyn Waugh, A Fictive Seer”. It opens with a quote from Sir Ambrose Abercrombie in The Loved One: “You never find an Englishman among the under-dogs — except in England of course.” This position is then described as emanating

from a familiar plane of the British psyche; despairing, embarrassed and freighted with delusions of its own grandeur, the post-war Brit reacts to his new predicament by mythologising former glories, and harking back to a rapidly departing past with an uneasy admixture of ironic nostalgia and barking self-pity. Some diseases of the soul are terminal. Others linger. Looking out on to an England still in fear of Tomorrow, looking back always to an ever-appreciating stock of Yesterdays, it’s hard not to look at the current government and infer that Abercrombie’s diagnosis belongs to the second class of things.

The article goes on to describe the present government’s Brexit strategy as less a Shakespearean tragedy than “a mottled rehashing of the careless over-reach depicted in Waugh’s less subtle works.” Among these is one from another novel, Decline and Fall in which Mr Prendergast:

 feels forced to continue wearing a wig, long after his students detect it as a ludicrous fake, [explains]:

‘I knew from the start that it was a mistake but once they had seen it, it was too late to go back. They make all sorts of jokes about it.’

‘Brexit is our wig’ came the droll assessment [in a letter to the Financial Times by], Mr Geoff Scargill. ‘After months of talks and posturing about independence we can see that we are thin on top. Everyone abroad knows it and is making jokes about us. But it is too late to go back’. [See earlier post.]

After noting that several leaders of the Tory party’s Brexit campaign are Waugh fans, the story hones on one of these, Jacob Rees-Mogg “who may as well have been summoned into being through a black mass held over Waugh’s collected works.” After elaborating on this point with several allusions to Waugh’s work, this discussion concludes:

Like in Waugh’s work, a fundamental complacency toward the vulnerable becomes, in practice, indistinguishable from nihilism. Those who suffer most from [Rees-Mogg’s] policies just need to know that he has a funny name, face and voice. His racial scaremongering, environmental catastrophism and sincere desire to uncouple millions from the protections of the welfare state, all become shrouded in a protective layer of pantomime ridiculousness that casts him not as the reptile he is, but just one more rogue in Waugh’s gallery of colourful bastards. Social reformer William Beveridge once told Waugh he took pleasure in life from ‘trying to leave the world a better place than I found it’. ‘I get mine spreading alarm and despondency’ replied Waugh, ‘and I get more satisfaction than you do’. The risk of The Tories’ Prendergast Wig is that it is the same class of despondent alarm, using the performative absurdities of its architects, to draw only the sort of laughter which begets bitter complacency.

This quote is taken from the 1953 autobiography (Born to Believe) by Waugh’s friend Frank Pakenham who invited both Beveridge and Waugh to a meal in 1942. The article could be read as suggesting that Waugh lived in what is now Rees-Mogg’s Parliamentary constituency of North-East Somerset, but Waugh’s home in Combe Florey is in the Taunton Deane constituency. Their MP is Rebecca Pow who, according to her Wikipedia entry, is also a Tory but who declared in favor of Remain in the 2016 referendum. It should also be noted that the constituency was Liberal Democrat before her election in 2015, which may explain her position on the EU. The article is well-written as these things go and the excerpts above do not do it full justice. It can be read in its entirety at this link.



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