Michael Septimus Waugh: Eulogy

Alexander Waugh has kindly provided a copy of his eulogy delivered at yesterday’s requiem mass for his uncle, Septimus Waugh in Tiverton, Devon. This is posted in lieu of an obituary:

Septimus (known to many as ‘Seppo’) spent his last months bedridden and in certain knowledge of imminent death. Pilgrims to Halberton found him immobile yet cheerful, uncomplaining, stoic, humorous and loving – lifelong characteristics that he, with typical modestly, attributed at that time to the effects of palliative drugs. To the end his mind was occupied – listening with attention to his granddaughters’ accounts of their schooldays, reading a history of the formation of the welfare state, fixing what he perceived (not always correctly) to be other peoples’ problems, sending poignant valedictories to friends and family, reconciling with his Maker and arranging this, his funeral. ‘I have been entertained by receiving obituary letters that some have sent’, he wrote, ‘nothing like a bit of puff on one’s journey’.

In mid-July he sent me an email: ‘we have been discussing my funeral a bit though we have no clue when I will die, albeit weeks or months. Concerning eulogies it was thought that it would be good to have someone from the family and that you would be the ideal because of your silver tongue and our friendship through the years.’ I replied nervously: ‘It must feel very odd having the time, energy and inclination to prepare one’s own funeral. Of course I shall do anything that is asked of me and with much love in my heart. But would you not like to write something yourself? There is so much to say and all of it laudatory it will be impossible to whittle down the heroic and the wonderful into less than four hours. No eulogy should be saccharine so you will have to tell me a few of your faults to pepper the thing up a bit. I love you dearly and if you find it as hard as I do thinking of your faults, I shall entirely understand.’

Septimus bided his time before returning an unusual list, not of faults, but of four childhood actions of which he was ashamed:

1. When he was four years old he served as a red-Indian mascot to his older siblings as they pushed their brother James, dressed as a cowboy, into a wisteria.

2. He envied a steam powered rocket that James had been given for Christmas. ‘I wanted it’ he wrote, ‘but second best thing was to chase it into the shrubbery where it fell and smash it up with a rake.’

3. Aged eight he lost his temper with his mother in an altercation over a field mushroom and

4. At seventeen he attempted to bribe a border guard in Tanzania with a packet of cigarettes. ‘The officer’, he wrote ‘gave me a right royal tick off telling me that I was just an adolescent twit with misconceived imperialist ideas of what Africans were like and then having brought me down a peg he let me through with the 380 cigarettes.’

These minor transgressions were long since forgiven but it is interesting how they preyed on Septimus’s mind to the end. With hindsight each can be seen as a formative event. Of the African border incident Septimus wrote ‘it was then that I began to learn respect for my fellow man.’ The pushing of his brother into the wisteria turned him into an ardent and lifelong defender of the bullied against the bully. To quell his tantrum over the mushroom he was put in a bath of cold water from which he emerged reborn with such a peaceful and benevolent nature that never after lost its temper even when all about him were losing theirs. Atonement for smashing the rocket – destroying the very thing he loved – found artistic expression in the immortal effigies of George and the Dragon – not a scene of hatred between slayer and slayed as we are used to seeing it, but a benign love-in, finely and tenderly carved from a single block of chestnut. And was the destruction of James’s rocket not also connected to the song that he sang at so many annual family gatherings? ‘Where be that Blackbird to?’ with its curiously amended final line: ‘’Ee sees Oi and Oi sees ‘ee, with a girt big stick Oi’ll knock ‘ee down – Blackbird Oi loves ye!’

Septimus was born on 11 July 1950 at Pixton, the house of his maternal grandmother and was christened eight days later at St Stanislaus Catholic Church in Dulverton, where his carving of George and the Dragon is permanently displayed.

Evelyn Waugh’s attitude to his children has been crystallised in the public mind by an unfortunate remark committed to his diary: ‘My children weary me. I can only see them as defective adults: feckless, destructive, frivolous, sensual, humorless.’ Septimus remembered him wandering round the house chanting ‘Oh the hell of it, Oh the smell of it, Oh the hell of the family life’ but thought that typical of all fathers and remained ever loving and loyal to his memory. In 2016 he wrote in The Spectator ‘Certainly I was in awe of my father. This was less from fear than from a desire not to appear foolish in front of him. But in my teenage years I felt protective of him. He was fragile like a beautiful piece of china’. Unlike his brothers Septimus emerges from his father’s diaries and letters entirely unscathed. He is ‘dear little Septimus’, ‘Septimus whom God preserve’, ‘we have few pleasures to offer except the company of darling Septimus’, ‘Septimus is bright as a button’, ‘Septimus continues to give unusual delight’ etc, etc. To the indignation of his siblings he appeared also to be the favourite of their mother. So they taunted him by singing:

Why were you born so beautiful?

Why were you born so wise?

From his greenest years Septimus was blessed with a blithe, mischievous and independent spirit. He was only two years old when his father wrote:

“Spring is strangely affecting your brother Septimus. Yesterday he disappeared for three hours. Your Mother, Vera, Mrs Harper, both Mr Atwoods were in tears. Police, boy scouts, all the village were out searching for him. He was at last discovered singing outside a house two miles away. He was brought back in a coma from exhaustion. At dusk he was off again & caught by Vera opposite Lady Bowlby’s house striding among the buses & motor cars.”

For over half a year ‘little Septimus’ (six years old) was abandoned by his parents in Gloucestershire while they moved into Combe Florey. When he finally came to Somerset he was sent straight to St Joseph’s Catholic school in Taunton where he was caught spending money on sweets that was intended for bus fares. ‘God will punish you’ they said, ‘No he won’t because he’s nailed to a cross and can’t get down, and anyway I have confessed’. From St Josephs he was sent to Catholic boarding school near Shepton Mallett and put under the odious aegis of headmaster, F.H.R Dix, who had an arm crippled from caning boys too hard. His schooling ended at Downside at Stratton on the Fosse, where he joined a secret theological group at which a renegade monk furtively taught ‘God is Love’ through a curtain in the Chemistry Labs.

It was this same message (‘God is Love’) that seventeen-year-old Septimus surely brought to Tanzania where for two terms he gave 23-year old female students lessons in religious instruction. From that moment Africa was his passion. He toyed with going to SOAS on his return to England but settled instead for Oxford University where he read history, spent his money on what he called ‘frivolous things’ (a euphemism for drugs) wrote long letters to his moral tutor explaining why mending motorbikes was more important than writing history essays and served as Secretary to the Africa Society which sought to provide a support network for African students while simultaneously serving as a fishing pool for foreign agents seeking to recruit versatile spies. In true Waugh tradition he was awarded a third class degree.

His father died when he was still at school and his mother died the year after he left Oxford so by the end of 1973 Septimus found himself an orphan hippy co-owner of a house on the All Saints Road that was protected by a friendly group of Caribbean dissenters operating out of the nearby and notorious Mangrove Restaurant. It was at about this time that he started vaguely wondering about jobs. While making deleterious alterations to the foundations of his house and between puffs on ‘frivolous things’ he came up with the idea of lexicography. Although his interest in compiling dictionaries lasted but a few weeks, ‘Lexicographer’ was the profession registered in his passport for ten years. He had enjoyed acting in school plays and at Oxford had starred in ‘The Rhythm of Violence’, Lewis Nkosi’s controversial drama about apartheid in South Africa. He was Laertes in a moderately successful production of Hamlet at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Studio photographs, showing him dressed as a priest, convinced his naive nephews and nieces that he had taken holy orders. In 1974 he decided to audition for RADA and took voice projection lessons from the actor Simon Ward who insisted on conducting them in the raw on account of his needing to be in a play involving unselfconscious nudity. When RADA said ‘No’ Septimus happily settled for carpentry, that same exacting trade to which both Jesus and his father had been trained; but they gave up while he stuck at it.

Septimus had no ego and was not an ambitious man but took a justifiable pride in the many beautiful works he produced and, for which he invariably undercharged his clients. Inlaid tables, bookcases, porches, chairs, carved door frames, elaborate staircases all imaginatively designed, all finished to the highest standard. The finest among his works were perhaps his religious effigies: his carving of St George at St Stanislaus, Dulverton, of St Jude at the Sacred Heart Wimbledon, St Patrick at Our Lady and St Joseph’s in the Balls Pond Road and his truly magnificent crucifix at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Ilfracombe. It is comforting to feel that these extraordinary figures, whose hands were always copied from his own, will survive, maybe for thousands of years, as testimony not only to his art but to his modest, gentle and humorous spirit. In them we glimpse a gracious and original mind that was often preoccupied with God and religion. ‘I was a very devout little Catholic when I was at school because it was the air I breathed’ he said ‘and as I’m grown older I find it less easy to believe in any fixed faith though I will still, in times of anxiety, pray.’ He received last rites shortly before his death and requested a Catholic mass to be said at his funeral.

Septimus held strong political opinions but when confronted by those whose ideas were opposed to his own he listened attentively and respectfully and always responded affably. In this he was a true gentleman and a natural communicator. Though not perhaps a natural linguist he lately attained a considerable proficiency in Spanish in order to talk to Umberto and his granddaughters, but was frustrated when some of the words and phrases he had collected from recondite 16th century Spanish sources or from slangy Colombian tele-novellas, were incomprehensible to their ears. In youth he arrived at a house in France expressing dismay that his French had let him down at a railway station ‘What did you wish to say?’ they asked him. ‘Not much’ he answered, ‘just who am I and where am I going?’

At the centre of his world was of course Nicky whom he first met at the Catholic chaplaincy in Oxford when he was twenty-two and she seventeen. No one looking from the outside in could describe their union as anything but a ‘blissful marriage made in heaven’. Indeed, it was regarded by many as the perfect exemplar upon which all marriages should be modelled. Together they seemed ever in harmony, ever in accord, ever supportive of one another, ever loyal, ever radiating enjoyment and enthusiasm for all things: for gardening, for novel recipes, exotic foreign travel, football, opera, people, books, jokes, for life itself. Nicky’s loss is incalculable, but he is not entirely gone. His warm and nurturing spirit lives on in her and in their three children, Laura, Tom and Edmund, just as his benevolent and beamish light will continue twinkling from the heavens to support, encourage and guide the third generation that he loved so dearly: Brandon, Sid, Isaac, Lucia and Ana.

May Septimus’s glorious memory remain ever with us and may he rest in peace.

 

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