Waugh and Celebrations, or not, as the Case May Be

–The Guardian in an editorial recently addressed various proposals to celebrate (or gloat over) Brexit. These range from suggestions of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson that Big Ben be temporarily brought back into service to ring in their victory and Leave UK’s plan to have all church bells in the country ring out as happened on VE Day 1945 to Teresa May’s earlier proposal for a Festival 2022 on a grander scale, like the Festival of Britain in 1951. The article opens with a quote from Waugh on the latter event:

In his 1961 novel Unconditional Surrender, Evelyn Waugh gave a typically waspish verdict on the Festival of Britain, staged 10 years earlier. “To celebrate the opening of a happier decade,” he wrote, “the government decreed a Festival. Monstrous constructions appeared on the south bank of the Thames … but there was little popular exuberance among the straitened people.”

Given his Tory sympathies, and distaste for the egalitarian spirit that swept the country after the war, Waugh would have knocked anything that the Labour government of the time came up with. The festival, masterminded by Herbert Morrison, was in fact well-attended and a qualified success. It left a permanent legacy in the shape of the Royal Festival Hall. We will have to wait and see whether Festival 2022, conceived by Theresa May as a post-Brexit jamboree and modelled on the 1951 event, makes a similar mark…

After commenting on the various proposals, the Guardian’s editorial concludes:

…There is always something to be said for a party. In Noel Coward’s 1951 song, “Don’t Make Fun of the Fair”, the playwright and composer defended the Festival of Britain from the likes of Waugh: “Take a nip from your brandy flask,” went one verse, “Scream and caper and shout/Don’t give anyone time to ask/What the Hell it’s about.”

On this occasion though, the purpose – gloating – is all too obvious. After his election, Mr Johnson promised to be the prime minister of remain voters and well as of leave voters. If he’s serious about that, he will forget about the “bong” and the bells will stay silent.

A letter to the Guardian’s editor from Adam Pollock, Greenwich, London, explained that Coward was on the same side as Waugh regarding the Festival, contrary to the implication in the editorial:

In his 1951 revue number Don’t Make Fun of the Festival (Editorial, 16 January), Noel Coward was far from defending the Festival of Britain, but rather, like Evelyn Waugh, caustically attacking it. The song’s final lines are “We believe in the right to strike / But now we’ve bloody well got to like / our own darling Festival of Britain.”

–The Daily Mail’s gossip mongers have weighed in on the recent announcement that Castle Howard will sponsor a Brideshead Festival this June. Sebastian Shakespeare wonders whether this may engender a competition among stately homes for similar events. He writes that Castle Howard is stealing:

… a march on Althorp, Earl Spencer’s pile in Northamptonshire, and Cliveden, once the country seat of the 3rd Viscount Astor but now owned by property developer Ian Livingstone, which hold their own literary festivals later in the year.

‘I’d like to do a permanent literary festival here,’ Castle Howard’s chatelaine, Vicky Howard, former boss of publisher HarperCollins, tells me, emphasising that this year’s is currently a ‘one-off’. Vicky assures me there is no chance that she and Nick will trouser the takings from their Brideshead jamboree. ‘All the proceeds from the festival are going to the restoration of the house,’ she explains…

–While not rising to the level of a festival, the upcoming exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s photos at the National Portrait Gallery opening in March is described by Vogue Italia in somewhat the same terms. This is a celebration of the Bright Young People of the late 1920s:

Many of the leading cast would become well known: writers Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, composers William Walton and Constant Lambert, stage designers Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler. Others would remain in the shadows, having accomplished almost nothing other than their own self-creations, such as aesthete Brian Howard and Stephen Tennant, the famously orchidaceous scion of a fractured dynasty. Drink, drugs and burn-out on the eve of another world war would claim more, famously and tragically, the dazzling “it girls” Brenda Dean Paul and troubled “wild child” Lois Sturt, debutante of the year and “the brightest of the Bright Young Things”.

Their recording angel was Cecil Beaton, whose journey from middle-class suburban schoolboy to shining society ornament and star of Vogue revealed a social mobility unthinkable before the war, prefiguring the meritocracy of the 1960s. His dazzling photographs and incisive caricatures chronicled the original “Lost Generation”, lost in time.

The article goes on to describe some of the history of Beaton’s BYP photos to be displayed at the NPG. For example:

Beaton organised and directed a series of late summer tableaux en fête champêtre emulating the stylised, pastoral paintings of Lancret and Watteau and Fragonard. The group of rococo neo-Arcadians, here standing on a bridge, comprised Zita and Baby Jungman, Georgia Sitwell, Stephen Tennant, Beaton himself and, appearing the least comfortable in knee-britches and ruffled shirts, Rex Whistler and William Walton. The painted faces of the mock shepherds and shepherdesses was a triumph of artifice, the Bright Young Things in excelsis. Later that same day, they visited the great Bloomsbury figure, Lytton Strachey, who declared them “strange creatures – with just a few feathers where brains should be”.

Some of the resulting photos are displayed in the Vogue article. The exhibition opens on 12 March and runs through 7 June.

UPDATE (17 January 2020): A letter in the Guardian corrected a point made in the editorial and has been added to the post.

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