Roundup: Changing of the Guard

–The main story of the week is of course the fall of Boris Johnson. Veteran journalist Max Hastings writing in The Times brings a Waugh character into his assessment of Johnson’s career:

Herein, I suggest, lay much of the extraordinary success of Boris Johnson. He is a stranger to truth who has sooner or later betrayed every man, woman and cause with which he associates. He nonetheless became leader of our country, won two critical popular votes, and has retained his office for three years.

In holiday mood before the world suddenly got serious, a host of voters decided it would be fun to have a prime minister who was fun. He has been uncommonly lucky in his enemies, starting with Jeremy Corbyn.

Since 2019 he has transformed the Conservatives into the Johnson Party, evicting some of its most respected personalities, headed by Ken Clarke, and elevating a gallery of grotesques of whom Liz Truss, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries are only the foremost.

He has broken every rule of decency, and made no attempt to pursue a coherent policy agenda beyond Brexit. Matthew Parris was generous enough to mention here that I had proposed to him a comparison of the prime minister with Evelyn Waugh’s immortal scoundrel Captain Grimes who, left alone with a bottle and a revolver after being exposed in some ghastly crime, drank the whisky and rejected the “honourable way out”. Yesterday, Johnson was still attempting to do the same.

–Another British journalist Toby Young writes in the internet newsletter The Daily Sceptic of his own shifting assessment of Boris’s career from the time they met at Oxford to the recent events. Here’s an excerpt about the happier days at the beginning:

“I’d been to enough Union debates […] to know just how mercilessly the crowd could punish those who came before them unprepared. That was particularly true of freshmen, who were expected to have mastered all the arcane procedural rules, some of them dating back to the Union’s founding in 1823. But Boris’s chaotic, scatter-brained approach had the opposite effect. […] His lack of preparedness seemed less like evidence of his own shortcomings as a debater and more a way of sending up all the other speakers, as well as the pomposity of the proceedings. You got the sense that he could easily have delivered a highly effective speech if he’d wanted to, but was too clever and sophisticated—and honest—to enter into such a silly charade. To do what the other debaters were doing, and pretend he believed what was coming out of his mouth, would have been patronising. Everyone else was taking the audience for fools, but not him. He was openly insincere and, in being so, somehow seemed more authentic than everyone else.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. A few years before arriving at Oxford I had watched the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novel, and had been expecting to meet the modern-day equivalents of Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche: larger-than-life, devil-may-care aristocrats delivering bon mots in between sips of champagne and spoonfuls of caviar. But the reality was very different: warm beer, stale sandwiches and second-hand opinions. Lots of spotty students, all as gauche as me. Less like an Oscar Wilde play than a Mike Leigh film.

In Boris, though, it was as if I’d finally encountered the ‘real’ Oxford, the Platonic ideal. While the rest of us were works-in-progress, vainly trying on different personae, Boris was the finished article. He was an instantly recognizable character from the comic tradition in English letters: a pantomime toff. He was Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night demanding more cakes and ale, Bertie Wooster trying to pass himself off as Eustace H. Plimsoll when appearing in court after overdoing it on Boat Race night. Yet at the same time fizzing with vim and vinegar—“bursting with spunk,” as he once put it, explaining why he needs so many different female partners. He was a cross between Hugh Grant and a silverback gorilla.”…

–An article in the National Catholic Register discusses what is described as the businesslike aspect of the Roman Catholic Church as exemplified in the actions of its clergy. The discussion is based on the writings of Ronald Knox as further elucidated in those of Evelyn Waugh:

…The Catholic priest, Knox explained, “goes about his work with the briskness, the matter of factness, of a shopkeeper or an operating surgeon.” An outside observer “is favorably impressed with the convictions of men and women who can thus hold commerce with the other world without inhuman deportment.”

Knox’s close friend, the convert novelist Evelyn Waugh, saw the same thing. Most people know him mainly as the author of the novel Brideshead Revisited. (Performed in an excellent TV series by Granada Television and in a wretched movie made by people who apparently didn’t like the story’s religion, which is the whole point.)

Though a novelist, he wasn’t romantic about beauty. He valued it, of course, but when he went to Mass he saw it as an action, a thing to be done, by the priest in his role and the layman in his. As a novelist, who saw his work as a craft, he saw worship the same way.

The point is further elaborated in the article which is available at this link.

–Jonkers Rare Books in Henley-on-Thames has listed the latest in what seems a run of Waugh presentation copies to John Betjeman and his wife Penelope. Recent offerings from other dealers have included a first edition of Decline and Fall and a Brideshead pre-publication limited edition. The Jonkers offering is a copy of Waugh’s final book and first volume of his unfinished autobiography A Little Learning (1964). Here’s the description:

First edition. Grey boards lettered in silver, in original dustwrapper. Inscribed by Waugh for John and Penelope Betjeman on the front free endpaper, “For John & Penelope, with love from Evelyn, 10th Sept 1964”. With an annotation in Betjeman’s hand to p. 192, indicating that Waugh’s “friend of my heart” who he calls “Hamish Lennox” is in fact “Alistair Graham”. A very good copy in a very good dustwrapper.

An exceptional association copy, uniting two of the most prominent British authors of the twentieth century.
Waugh and Betjeman met at Oxford, and Waugh remained friends and correspondents with him and his wife Penelope. Penelope was very much Waugh’s muse when he wrote Helena (1950), and Waugh confided in a 1945 letter to Betjeman, “I am writing her life under the disguise of St Helena’s”. When Betjeman wrote of his enjoyment of the novel on publication five years later, Waugh replied, “It is you & six or seven others whom I seek to please in writing”.

The initial volume of Waugh’s autobiography documenting his youth and education. His death two years after this publication meant that his autobiography was never completed.

The price is £5,000. Here’s a link.

–Michael Lindsay-Hogg is best known in this parish as the original director of the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. He has become a celebrity as a result of the recent Peter Jackson production of an extended documentary (entitled “Get Back“) on the Beatles’ film Let It Be. Lindsay-Hogg was also the director of that. See previous posts. He was recently interviewed at some length by the New York Times. Near the beginning, this brief summary of his career appears:

So would he like to talk about his time with the Beatles?

“That was a small part of a long career,” he said in the sitting room of his three-bedroom Civil War-era house in Hudson, N.Y.

He had a point. In the so-called Swinging London of the 1960s, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg made a name for himself as a creator of the music video, directing promotional films, as they were then called, for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who a decade and a half before MTV. In the early 1980s, he was again a trailblazer, as the co-director of “Brideshead Revisited,” an 11-hour adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel that was a forerunner of prestige television dramas like “The Sopranos.” He is also a Tony-nominated stage director, painter and author. Oh, and Orson Welles may very well be his biological father.

It’s almost too much to get through. No wonder he had a request, delivered in a deadpan voice: “Please make the entire article about my painting.” But eventually, over the course of three interviews, we got around to John, Paul, George and Ringo.



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