Roundup: Oxford, Metro-Land and Commandos

The Times has a review of the recent book about Waugh and the Oxford-based Hypocrites Club, entitled Hellfire. See previous posts. This is reviewed by Daisy Dunn who opens with a well written summary of some of the book’s high points. Here are some excerpts of her assessment of the book:

…Does such a short-lived social club warrant a biography? While several of the Hypocrites went on to become very famous — Waugh, Anthony Powell and the Party Going novelist Henry Green for example — they hardly owed their success to their club membership alone. They wrote relatively little about it, not because it was secretive, but because, in all honesty, there was not very much to say. […] Fleming attempts to get round this by shifting quickly from the student club to the grown-up lives of the Hypocrites. He follows them into publishing houses and newspaper offices, into London parties and terraces, down aisles and back up them, and finally into the Second World War. […]

It seems inadvertent that, in drawing attention to the successes of the Hypocrites, Fleming also undermines them. His book illustrates brilliantly just how lazy and overindulged several of these characters were. Most went down from Oxford with no degree or secured a lousy third. […] Some of the Hypocrites were certainly ambitious. […] But it was almost as though these men grew too enervated in their darting passions to see anything through in their youth. They didn’t always amount to very much. […]

This is a pacey and colourful read and, with the exception of the occasional anachronism (it is bizarre to refer to Waugh wearing “an Andy Warhol shock blond wig” in 1924 when the artist wasn’t born until 1928), elegantly written. Whether or not you feel the book represents yet another indulgence of a group that never quite merited the attention may well depend on your tolerance for monocles and tweed.

Dunn herself recently wrote a book about interwar Oxford, but it dwelt on more elevated and serious academic circles. This is entitled Not Far From Brideshead and has been described in previous posts.

–An earlier edition of The Times mentions Waugh in a different context. This is in an unsigned leading article that marks the centenary of Marcel Proust’s death. It is written in the form of a page-long Proustian paragraph from which this excerpt has been taken. It describes his major work:

…which is about 15 times the length of an average novel, comprising the epic text of a writer whom Graham Greene considered “the greatest novelist of the 20th century” although Evelyn Waugh did call him “insane” and more recently Kazuo Ishiguro described his work as crushingly dull, presumably because the narrator is a pretentious snob given to micro-analysing a life in which nothing happens… 

The Times received the following letter in response to the aforesaid leading article:

Sir, For some very peculiar reason your leading article on the standing of Marcel Proust in this, the centennial of his death (Nov 11), cites Evelyn Waugh’s view of him as “insane”. What in fact he wrote to Nancy Mitford was: “I am reading Proust for the first time in English of course and am surprised to find him a mental defective. No one warned me of that. He has absolutely has no sense of time.” Proust suffered from all sorts of ailments, but dyschronometria wasn’t one of them. Waugh’s claim is not simply stupidly offensive but symptomatic of a certain provincial way with Proust. The Times seems to have opted for his company. Prof Christopher Prendergast King’s College, Cambridge

The letter was posted in the 12 November 2022 edition.

–Historian and TV presenter Dominic Sandbrook writing in the Financial Times has an article entitled “Revisiting Metro-land: is the future suburban?” In this he considers the centenary of the area to which “the Metropolitan Railway lured home buyers to a suburban paradise on London’s fringes.”  This mostly revolves around the works of John Betjeman who praised the area both in his books and poems and on TV. But Waugh (who was less enamored of the area) also gets a look-in:

Even at the time, critics found Metro-land laughably fake–a British equivalent of the Disney World residential communities that followed. As early as 1928 Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Decline and Fall featured an intolerably stuffy politician who is ennobled as Viscount Metroland. Six years later, the composer Constant Lambert mocked “the hideous faux bonhomie of the hiker, noisily wading his way through the petrol pumps of Metroland, singing obsolete sea chanties with the aid of the Week-End Book, imbibing chemically flavoured synthetic beer under the impression that he is tossing off a tankard of ‘jolly good ale'”

The Imaginative Conservative reposts a 2011 article by Daniel McCarthy entitled “Books That Make Us Human”. This includes:

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh – His first and by no means his best novel, but it captures so much of the human experience:  how it feels to be young, to be at once ambitious and fearful for one’s career, to suffer reversal and suddenly achieve one’s dreams. Possibility, uncertainty, love. You could give this to a Martian and he would begin to understand what these human beings are like.

–Finally, for those interested in the subject of the WWII SAS and Commando units as depicted in the ongoing BBC drama series SAS Rogue Heroes (featured in a recent post), the BBC has reposted an earlier three-episode documentary on the same subject. This is narrated by Ben Macintyre based on his same book that inspired the drama series. It is somewhat confusingly entitled SAS: Rogue Warriors and is available on BBC iPlayer through the end of November. A UK internet connection is required.

UPDATE: A letter to The Times regarding the Proust leading article was posted in the 12 November issue of the paper and was added to this roundup.

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