Winter Solstice Roundup

–This letter appeared in a recent issue of The Times newspaper:

Sir, The late Duchess of Devonshire showed me a book given to her by the Roman Catholic Evelyn Waugh, having an inscription by him along the lines of “nothing in this volume should disturb your Protestant sensibilities.” (Letters, passim) The lettering on the spine gave the name of the novel. I think it was Brideshead Revisited. It was not till quite a lot later the Duchess discovered that all the pages were completely blank.
Barry Joyce

Wirksworth, Derbyshire

Your editor sent the following email to Mr Barry Joyce in Derbyshire:

Dear Mr Joyce. You may be interested to know that the blank book sent to Deborah Mitford was bound and labelled as “The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox” (1959). This is described in a contemporaneous letter from Deborah to her sister Nancy reproduced in “The Mitfords: Letters Between Sisters” (Ed. Charlotte Mosley, p. 319).  If you would like to see her letter please let me know and I will make a copy and send it.

Waugh did in fact send a copy of the first edition of “Brideshead Revisited “to Deborah and her husband.  This was the specially bound page proof sent to 50 friends as Christmas presents in December 1944. When she died in 2016, that copy was sold at auction for £52,500.

Sincerely, Jeff Manley

I was unable to find the blank-page Knox biography in Sotheby’s 2016 auction sale catalogue.

–An article in the Daily Telegraph is entitled “Britain is turning twee–and is the worse for it” and is written by Madeline Grant. After describing several examples of excess tweeism, the article concludes:

Perhaps the biggest canary in the coal mine was the dominance of The Great British Bake Off, awash with tea-and-bunting kitsch. I knew the twee epidemic was real when an acquaintance, a music journalist, who no doubt spent the Noughties snorting God-knows-what off God-knows-where at the Groucho Club, raved about rushing home to watch Bake Off. If the ex-rockers are packing it all in for a Viennese Whirl, there really is no hope. Worship at the altar of cake, lay your sacrificial cream puffs at the hallowed feet of the Virgin Mary Berry. All must surrender to the twee! Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lard! There’s even a Bake Off: The Musical in the offing. To paraphrase Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a line of Cath Kidston bunting throttling the human neck – forever.

The slow march of cultural cringe is turning jokey self-deprecation into self-parody. Irony, savage wit and darkness have always been key to the British sensibility; from the novels of Evelyn Waugh to the impotent rage of Basil Fawlty. Yet these edges are increasingly being sanded down in favour of a Disneyfied version of national identity. Sadly, the twee-ification of Britain looks unstoppable.

The Spectator has a review of the recent (and recently mentioned here) book Hellfire by David Fleming. The review is by the editor of Waugh’s letters, Mark Amory. After a discussion of the Oxford chapters, in which he focuses on how Harold Acton was responsible for organizing the Hypocrites Club into something more interesting than a rowdy drinking venue, the review concludes:

After this, Hellfire becomes a little more serious – and more about Waugh. Families, and the second world war, feature, while drink and ill-health catch up with some of the group. But Fleming writes just as adroitly as the gaiety recedes. He is fortunate to have such a subtle observer as Anthony Powell popping up and recording shrewd comments in a stream of novels and diaries. Indeed, the whole book reads rather like a Powell novel, with unexpected meetings and reversals. If the centre cannot quite hold, it is a constant pleasure.

–The Financial Times has a story by Ella Risbridger, author of fiction, cookery books and poetry anthologies, and entitled “Our eternal obsession with literary property.” This opens with the example of the recent auction of Waugh’s home Piers Court. Here’s an excerpt:

There are many reasons why a person might want to hang on to a stately home for the everlasting rent of £5 a week. But it takes a certain kind of person to explain that — far from being just about the money — it’s about the art. The current residents of Evelyn Waugh’s former home Piers Court, paying £250 a year, claim to be the author’s “superfans”, friends of the family and, in some senses, curators of his legacy. That Piers Court “takes a lot of living up to”, as Waugh wrote in his diary, seems undeniable: eight bedrooms, six bathrooms and a £3.16mn price tag. Prospective buyers had to bid sight unseen, since the sitting tenants paying their peppercorn rent refused any viewings before the auction. And yet it’s hard to ignore that the tenants have a point. If it was all about the money, the rest of us wouldn’t care. Bankruptcies, sitting tenancies and disputes are always part of the real estate equation. But we care about the Piers Court sale because Waugh lived there. Literary houses are a hot ticket. The Financial Times listed five notable properties this summer, including Hogarth House — home of Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press — and a 1920s mansion, complete with pool house, on the site of Mark Twain’s country pile. Even the childhood homes of authors such as Dorothy Sayers are of interest, selling for a genteel £2.35mn…

–A recent issue of the Evening Standard carried a story entitled “Pemba: the secret island the It-crowd don’t want to know about.” After a discussion of the attractions of Pemba that make it preferable to neighboring Zanzibar, the article closes with this:

Woven into the island’s cultural tapestry, along with an abhorrent slave trade history and spice trade, are certain traditions. Both Pemba and Zanzibar have long been centres for so-called voodoo rituals and continue to draw in those seeking alternative healing for physical or mental affliction, or a transcendent form of enlightenment that Western culture is unable to offer. On visiting the island in the 1930s, British writer Evelyn Waugh affirmed the island’s role as the centre of this practice, detailing in his travel book Remote People (1931) that Pemba drew in budding “witch doctors” from as far as the Great Lakes of central Africa and even Haiti to finesse their skills. Today, many islanders still seek the advice of both medics and more alternative doctors when they are unwell or faced with a threat, though tourists are rarely offered a window into this world.

These traditions, along with the signature waft of cloves, Sultan lore, ethereal pools of light dotting ancient forests and boulder-strewn beaches lends Pemba its air of mystery and enchantment. A land of mangrove swamps, deserted beaches and magic.



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