Armistice Day Roundup

–Perhaps in anticipation of today’s commemoration, this week’s Sunday Times reviewed a new book by Max Hastings. This is Soldiers: Great Stories of War and Peace. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

The anthology opens with biblical warriors (Joshua at the fall of Jericho) and Herodotus’s account of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae; it ends with Hastings’s report from the Falklands conflict, a Russian soldier recounting the dog-eat-dog conditions in his regiment fighting in Chechnya, and a female member of a US intelligence unit describing her discomfort with interrogating suspects in Iraq.

The sheer variety of voices for which Hastings has found room is impressive. An Englishman in 1429 vainly petitions Henry VI for relief because he was at the siege of Harfleur and was “there smitten with a spring bolt through the head, losing his one eye”; an Irishwoman who enlisted as a man in 1693 in order to pursue her husband tells her life story to Daniel Defoe; Evelyn Waugh gives a brilliantly funny, deadpan account of an army attempt to blow up a tree stump, which, thanks to the accidental use of 75lb of explosive rather than 7.5lb, sends an entire plantation of young trees soaring into the air; and Nicholas Tomalin paints an unforgettable pen portrait of a semi-deranged American general in 1966, leaning from a helicopter to shoot fleeing Viet Cong.

The Waugh story is taken from his collected letters (31 May 1942, pp. 160-61).

–The Guardian has posted an article anticipating a new book by Henry Eliot to be published later this month. This is entitled the Penguin Modern Classics Book and explains how that notable series grew out of the earlier success of the Penguin Classics series. The latter is covered in a 2018 book, also by Eliot. Here is an excerpt of the Guardian article by Killian Fox:

Some of Eliot’s favourite covers date back to the early 1960s, when the Modern Classics series was still finding its feet. From the outset, Penguin had relied on mostly typographical designs, but by the late 50s illustrations were becoming more common. As younger designers and illustrators were brought in, and given much greater graphic freedom, Penguin covers became increasingly bold and strange, to match the writing they advertised.

The colours of these covers were relatively restrained, says Eliot, “but within that quite muted, subtle framework, the art directors were commissioning these sometimes really shocking and startling original images from the illustrators of the day”. These included David Gentleman, Michael Ayrton and a young Quentin Blake, who was tasked with illustrating the novels of Evelyn Waugh. Blake, whose irreverent, scratchy style was already in place, captures Waugh’s mordant wit and keen sense of life’s absurdities…

One hopes the book also will give due recognition to the artistry of the psychedelic covers on the next generation of Waugh’s Penguins. These were designed by Peter Bentley but do not appear to have been included in the Penguin Modern Classics series. But then nor do the original Penguin editions of the individual war trilogy novels that are adorned by Quentin Blake covers.

— On the occasion of the reopening of nonessential travel between the US and UK, the Daily Mail asked Patricia Nicol to recommend some books describing transatlantic voyages. For the second time in a month, a book by Waugh appears in her resultant Daily Mail article. Here are her two concluding recommendations, both relating to ocean voyages:

There are unforgettable literary transatlantic sea passages, too. In Colm Tóibin’s heartrending 1950s-set Brooklyn, Eilis Lacey — pushed by her family to emigrate from rural Ireland — finds the trip aboard the ship there tortuous.

In the 1930s, Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, crosses from New York to London in absolute luxury — but that does not protect his wife, Celia, from horrendous seasickness. Celia being confined to her cabin pushes him into the company of Julia Flyte, with whom he begins a passionate but ultimately doomed love affair.

–Another allusion to Armistice Day also appears in the Sunday Times. This is the review of a play entitled “Into Battle” by Hugh Salmon. This deals with the generation of those who like the Grenfell brothers (Julian and Billy) were prepared by their upper class upbringings to revel in one sort of fight or another. Here’s an excerpt from the review by Libby Purves:

… its first act, starting in 1910, relates the Balliol feud at Oxford. [Julian] Grenfell and his even wilder brother Billy led a notorious Etonians-only dining-club called the Annandale. They were all frankly horrible: their exclusivity, vandalism and arrogance making our 1980s prime-ministerial Bullingdon set seem angels in comparison.

They regularly smashed furniture and musical instruments, hurled “waterfalls of crockery down staircases”, stocked up “throwing port” as well as the best stuff. They chased, ritually abused and bullied college “nonentities”, tormented mild scholars of their own age and terrorised dons.

They let rabbits loose in a closed quad to be killed by bulldogs. It was all glee and glassware: as Hilaire Belloc put it, teasing their friend Baring, “Like many of the upper class, he liked the sound of broken glass”

If one was temporarily sent down, as Billy was, family dignities and wealth saved him. Fines meant nothing — “I can pay”, says Billy with flat simplicity, “with money God-bothering plebs like you don’t have. I can do what I like.”

His particular enemy was Keith Rae, one of what Evelyn Waugh called the “intelligent men from Birmingham etc”. Rae was a serious, deeply religious undergraduate who ran a boys’ club for the local poor. At one stage the Etonians threw all his furniture, possessions and papers out of his bedroom window. For all their classical allusions and tailcoats, they were yobs.

The quote comes from Waugh’s biography of Ronald Knox, but it is actually a requote by Waugh from F.F. “Sligger” Urquhart, a fellow at Balliol College (Penguin, 2011, pp. 92-93). He may have contributed to the character of Mr Samgrass in Brideshead Revisited and that of Sillery in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Neither Waugh nor Urquhart in the quoted material mentions Keith Rae, although the review discusses a boys club he founded at Balliol. Here’s what it says on a WWI memorial website:

Born on 24 May 1889 in Birkenhead, Thomas Keith Hedley Rae was the youngest son of Edward Rae, a stockbroker, and his wife Margaret of Courthill, Devonshire Place, Birkenhead. He was educated privately because of ill health but went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1907 and took second class honours in History in 1912.

Birkenhead is part of the Liverpool conurbation. Rae was a 2nd Lt. when he was killed in action during a flame thrower attack at Hooge Crater (Belgium) on 30 July 1915. Thanks to Dave Lull for providing the source of the quote.

UPDATE (12 November 2021): The concluding paragraph was revised based on information provided by reader Dave Lull. Many thanks.

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