Christmas Roundup

–In The Times newspaper AN Wilson has written a seasonal essay entitled “How I stopped being a Christmas snob.” He begins with an explanation how he had become one:

When a young man in my twenties, I devoured a biography of Evelyn Waugh by his friend Christopher Sykes. One of the details that caught my fancy was Waugh’s acceptance of a Christmas lunch — sorry, luncheon — chez Sykes in which he specified that there should be no Christmassy food, no tree, no holly, no streamers. This “sophisticated” attitude to all the paraphernalia of Christmas was one which I maintained for much of my adult life. Well, tried to. Of course, I did not, like Waugh, actually force my family and friends to eschew mistletoe, Christmas cards covering every shelf and surface, mince pies and the like. But as the Christmas lights went up, seemingly earlier and earlier each year, and as the Bing Crosby jingles blared from every loudspeaker, I cringed and longed — simply ached — for January.

Funny thing, growing older. I have found, as I enter what must surely be the final furlong, my attitude to Christmas has changed fundamentally…

–The Financial Times has an article entitled “The mysteries of Christmas shine in the National Gallery’s paintings.” This is written by Jackie Wullschläger and begins with a quotation from Evelyn Waugh:

“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all? . . . I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.” “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.” Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

About a third of the paintings in the National Gallery depict Christian subjects, and most need unpacking for today’s audiences. But the “lovely idea” of the Nativity and Adoration is instantly comprehensible — indeed, it is through paintings that the narrative was codified and its details became familiar. The Gospels do not mention how many Magi visited or describe Joseph; it is painters who lastingly formulated the trio of kings, made one of them black and cast Joseph as old, bearded, awkward and impotent — the comic turn. Whatever you believe, how this iconography unfolded is a wonderful story in itself, and the National Gallery through centuries of wildly imaginative Christmas paintings is beautifully able to tell it…

The New European posts an article by Will Self that is headed with a drawing of Scrooge to give it a “Dickensian Christmas” flavor. The article is entitled “Jacob Rees-Mogg, the fake” and is inspired by a recollection of Self’s nearly coming to blows with Rees-Mogg several years ago after they had appeared on an episode of BBC Newsnight. Physical contact was avoided when Rees-Mogg fled the studio. As Self catalogues Rees-Mogg’s social misdemaenors, Waugh comes into the discussion:

…Jacob Rees-Mogg’s own fervent Catholicism – a religious faith that, with its conservative ethics, amplifies his own stentorian moral position – only derives from his grandmother, Beatrice, an Irish-American actress. Having myself at one time been married into a posh Catholic family with Somerset links (my first wife’s great-aunt is Jacob Rees-Mogg’s godmother), I know a little bit about not only the subtleties of upper-class status, but also that curious Catholic subset of them.

My ex-wife’s family owe their Catholicism not to being Reformation recusants – but are rather so-called Farm Street Catholics: posh Anglicans who converted in the first few decades of the 20th century. The ultimate parvenu associated with this group is Evelyn Waugh, whose Brideshead Revisited depicts the starry aristocratic Catholic realm he – in common with Rees-Mogg – would have liked as his birthright. (Waugh, who was a publisher’s son from north London, was such a precocious snob that in childhood he used to walk up the road from the family home in Golders Green, so that his letters would receive the tonier Hampstead postmark.)

It’s this aspect of Catholicism: a sort of upper-middle-class bypass operation, whereby the patient is sutured directly to the likes of the Duke of Norfolk and other aristocratic recusant families, that so shapes Jacob Rees-Mogg’s imposture…

–Finally, Frank McNally writing in the Irish Times is reminded by the recent sale of Piers Court that Waugh once seriously searched for a house in Ireland. This was shortly after the war when he feared the suburbanization of Dursley threatened his tranquility at Piers Court. Here’s an excerpt:

…like other rich English conservatives after the second World War, Waugh found the new Labour-ruled Britain, and the modern world in general, uncongenial.

He had in 1930 converted to Catholicism. He was now flush with funds thanks to Brideshead. And romanticising Ireland’s beauty and tradition – an infatuation from which he would soon recover – he decided to move here, subject to finding accommodation of the grandeur to which he was accustomed.

Waugh came close to buying Gormanston Castle in Meath: a “fine, solid, grim” property as he called it. He was undeterred by its “countless bedrooms, many uninhabitable”. And when expressing unease at the thought of being a “nouveau riche invader” of a home that had been in the same family for centuries, he was reassured about that too. Referring to one of the many Viscount Gormanstons who had owned the castle, a local member of staff commented: “Ach, his lordship never came to this place but to kill somebody.” But a desire for privacy was one of Waugh’s priorities in fleeing England. Combined with natural snobbery, this ensured that when, on a ship home, he read an evening newspaper report about plans for a Butlins Holiday Camp at Gormanston, he promptly lost any desire to live there. The castle became a religious-run boarding school instead. Waugh continued his search elsewhere.

He considered a place in Carlow too. But eventually, neither Ireland’s big houses nor its brand of Catholicism met the standard required. Indeed, if a 1952 letter Nancy Mitford is accurate, his narrow escape from Irish property ownership only strengthened his faith.

“Among the countless blessings I thank God for,” he wrote, “my failure to find a house in Ireland comes first. Unless one is mad or fox-hunting there is nothing to draw one. The houses, except for half-a-dozen famous ones, are very shoddy [and] none of them have servants’ bedrooms because at the time they were built Irish servants slept on the bedroom floor. The peasants are malevolent. All their smiles are false as Hell. Their priests are very suitable for them but not for foreigners. No coal at all. Awful incompetence everywhere. No native capable of doing the simplest job properly.”

Another reason Waugh gave up on the move here was because he didn’t want it thought that he was fleeing his Labour enemies. But if he returned to face that fight, he was soon forced to flee intrusions on his privacy….

McNally goes on to describe the familiar story of the invasion of Piers Court by Daily Express reporters.

Best wishes to our readers for the holidays.

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