Septimus Waugh: Reminiscence

The Tablet’s latest issue has a reminiscence of the late Septimus Waugh. This appears in the “Word from the Cloister” column and is based on an interview of Jimmy Burns, journalist and member of The Tablet’s board. He was a friend of Septimus, and his father Tom Burns was a friend of Evelyn Waugh as well as (for a brief period) his publisher. The column is appropriately headed “Fathers and sons”. As explained in the article, Tom Burns:

was the driving force behind Waugh’s biography of Edmund Campion, published in 1936. When the Spanish Civil War broke out later that year, “My father and Waugh both supported Franco,” Jimmy says. “Waugh’s sister-in-law Gabriel Herbert, one of my father’s girlfriends prior to his marriage, drove an ambulance and raised funds for the nationalist cause.”

Tom Burns worked for Longmans, Green, which also published Waugh in Abyssinia. Waugh blamed Burns for the punnish title of that book which he himself disliked. As the article explains, both Burns and Waugh applied to work for the MoI at the beginning of WWII. Waugh was rejected and went into the army while Burns was accepted and sent to Spain where he met the woman who was to become his wife and Jimmy’s mother. Jimmy notes that relations became rather frayed after this marriage:

“Of my father’s young Castilian bride, Waugh wrote in his diary in February 1946: ‘swarthy, squat, Japanese appearance’. My mother, hardly surprisingly, thought Waugh was racist, a snob, and a misogynist, a sentiment that was compounded when Waugh, invited shortly after to dinner at my parents’ house, complained about the smell of garlic coming from the kitchen and made fun of the young Spanish maid who served at the table.”

The article goes on to compare Jimmy’s recollections of his own less fraught friendship with Waugh’s youngest son. This sometimes involved shared holidays, including one in Spain as recently as 2019 that Jimmy fondly recalls:

“Over a magnificent paella we recalled Evelyn’s connection with Spain long before we were born.” Waugh visited Catalonia for the first time in 1929 during a stopover on his Mediterranean cruise trip before the breakdown of his first marriage. He was impressed by the various examples of Gaudí’s works, not least the Sagrada Familia. “It seems certain to me that it will always remain a ruin, and very dangerous, unless the towers are removed before they fall,” Waugh wrote. As the sun went down, Septimus and Jimmy shared memories of their fathers, “aware of how much we owed them but also of what differentiated us from them,” as Jimmy tactfully puts it.

After mentioning several of Septimus’s better known wooden carvings, the article concludes:

“I will miss dear Sepo hugely,” Jimmy tells us. “Que en Paz Descanses, querido amigo!”


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