The “Swahili witch doctor”, installed in rooms “off the Edgware Road” by the War Ministry to cast spells on members of the Nazi high command, was no more than a fantasy in Evelyn Waugh’s bleakly comic Sword of Honour trilogy. Yet the last prosecution under the 1735 Witchcraft Act did in fact take place in 1944, amid a minor panic that the Scottish medium Helen Duncan had been revealing sensitive military information during seances. Churchill described the prosecution as “tomfoolery” (Duncan was later unmasked as a fraud, with a particular talent for the manufacture of “ectoplasm” from cheesecloth, egg whites and lavatory paper), though such esoteric precautions are understandable during wartime.
Dr Akonanga had moved office when Virginia Troy was searching for him in the novel Unconditional Surrender, and she learned that he had installed himself at new premises in Brook Street, a move up in social terms. That is where she found him at a time he was awaiting a shipment of scorpions which Waugh has scheduled for delivery at a later and unexpected point in the novel, Unconditional Surrender.
–Another allusion to Sword of Honour occurs in a review of a new book by Peter Hitchens entitled The Phoney Victory. In this Hitchens debunks the accepted British version usually given for the benefits flowing from their victory in WWII. The reviewer John Zmirak on the news website Stream.org associates Hitchens’ position with that taken by Waugh and Guy Crouchback in Waugh’s novel:
There isn’t space here to lay out how Hitchens does it, but he challenges the veracity of every one of [the usual] claims. In careful, melancholy, morally serious chapters, Hitchens exposes a very different war. One much more like the grim, ambiguous farce-cum-tragedy that Evelyn Waugh depicted in his brilliant Sword of Honour trilogy. Hitchens’ narrative does a much better job of explaining why if World War II was such a triumph for Britain, its inhabitants ended up feeling so miserable and diminished. Remember that Orwell based 1984 on the grim material conditions in (victorious!) Britain in 1948.
—National Public Radio (NPR) recently conducted a poll to determine what books made its listeners laugh. They explain their methodology in the introduction:
We took your votes (more than 7,000 of them!) and with the help of our panel of expert judges — people so cool and so hilarious I’m surprised they even talked to me — created this list of 100 reads designed to make you laugh out loud. […] As with all our reader polls, this is a curated list and not a straight-up popularity contest; you’ll see that the books are grouped into categories rather than ranked from one to 100.
With one exception, no writer could have more than one book on the list. Waugh makes it for The Loved One:
Personally, as a journalist, says Petra [Mayer, who wrote the article], I was hoping readers would vote in Evelyn Waugh’s wicked journalism satire Scoop— but no, you guys preferred The Loved One, his savage take on death, American style. Waugh had visited Hollywood in 1947, and while he had no truck with the big studios or their interest in his work, he found great inspiration in the famous Forest Lawn cemetery (Bette Davis is buried there!) and its team of morticians.
Waugh’s novella falls into the “Classic” category. Others in that group include Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford and the Jeeves and Wooster Series by P G Wodehouse.
–Finally, several papers are reporting the release next month of a theatrical film based on the TV series Downton Abbey. Many of the original cast will reappear in familiar roles and some additional settings have been added. According to a story in the Yorkshire Post, these include some settings with a Waugh connection:
The locations include Ampleforth College, the prestigious Catholic boarding school in the North York Moors which Fellowes attended. Thirsk and Ripon have been used for filming street scenes, although it’s not known which buildings will feature. […] Famous as the main location for two adaptations of the novel Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard is one of several stately homes to feature in the movie. It is likely that the house stands in for the stately home of friends of the Crawleys. The film hits cinemas on September 13.
Films made from successful TV series have a long history of disappointment. The 2008 movie of Brideshead is a notable example (the repeated useage of the Castle Howard setting did not save it) as are the two film attempts at Dad’s Army, two Dr Who duds, Absolutely Fabulous, The Singing Detective, etc. Waugh had little actual connection with Castle Howard or the family that lived there, but he did record a day trip in his Diaries during Holy Week in 1937 (p. 420) when he stayed at nearby Ampleforth College.