–The New Statesman has an article by Josiah Gogarty entitled “Only snobbery can stop Elon Musk: Class prejudice is the last weapon against tech titans.” Waugh makes a contribution:
…Then there’s the more squeamish side of elitism: class snobbery. This is not a popular cause. In The Great Gatsby, one of the most enduring depictions of the old-money/new-money showdown, its representative is the oafish Tom Buchanan, who attained “acute limited excellence” at Yale, then sagged into a racist, booze-soaked manhood. Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels portray, vividly and at length, how the snobbery of English aristocrats cauterises human decency. After David Melrose rapes his five-year-old son, the protagonist of the series, he reflects that “he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far”.
Brideshead Revisited takes the opposite approach. As Martin Amis wrote in 1981, it “squarely identifies egalitarianism as its foe and proceeds to rubbish it accordingly”. The narrator, drugged up, like Evelyn Waugh was, on Catholicism and old buildings, laments a modern world “safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet handshake, his grinning dentures”. But Waugh’s snobbery only amounts to a “failure of imagination”, says Amis, matched by the clichéd purple prose the novel is laden with.
Nevertheless, class prejudice can have paradoxically progressive effects. If, no matter how far you rise, you’re never allowed to forget your origins, you might retain some solidarity with the people you grew up with. A more liberal, meritocratic elite, which welcomes you as an old friend once you crack a certain tax bracket, is more effective at banishing class consciousness. Think of it as the White’s club model – wingback chairs reserved for the spawn of marauding Normans – versus the Soho House vision of overpriced cocktails for all. After Margaret Thatcher forced meritocracy down the Conservative Party’s throat, like a nanny wielding a spoon of cod-liver oil, Labour embraced social mobility too, and shied away from pitching itself in class-based terms…
–Spurred by the debut of a new series of the ITV costume drama Sanditon, The Sunday Times has compiled a list of the 36 best ever TV costume dramas. The 1981 ITV/Granada Brideshead Revisited series ranks number 2, behind BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.
–This week’s episode of BBC’s University Challenge included a series of bonus questions based on T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. One of these asked the team from Emmanuel College, Cambridge to identify the Evelyn Waugh novel which included a quote from the poem in its title. They guessed wrong and answered Decline and Fall but won the match anyway. The correct answer is A Handful of Dust which will be the subject of an internet Zoom discussion sponsored by the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco. This is scheduled for 7pm-815pm PDT on Wednesday 11 October. It appears to be open to non-members. Details are available here.
–Richard Dawkins in the Evening Standard cites several instances of objections made to humorous references to transgender issues that represent attempts to censor what he deems to be well within the realm of fair comment. Here’s an excerpt:
The Guardian (February 14, 2020) reported that police officers turned up at Harry Miller’s workplace to warn him about his allegedly “transphobic” tweets, such as the obviously satirical, “I was assigned Mammal at Birth, but my orientation is Fish. Don’t mis-species me.” One of them told Miller that he had not committed a crime, but his tweeting “was being recorded as a hate incident”.
Well, if Miller’s light-hearted satire is a hate incident, why not go after Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson, Private Eye’s royal romances of Sylvie Krin, the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, Lady Addle Remembers, Tom Lehrer, even the benign PG Wodehouse? Satire is satire. That’s what satirists do, they get good-natured laughs and perform a valuable service to society.
“Assigned Mammal at Birth” satirises the trans-speak evasion of the biological fact that our sex is determined at conception by an X or a Y sperm. What I didn’t know, and learned from [Helen] Joyce in our interview, is that small children are being taught, using a series of colourful little books and videos, that their “assigned” sex is just a doctor’s best guess, looking at them when they were born.
–Interviewed by Jake Kerridge last week in the Daily Telegraph, Irish novelist Anne Enright discussed her latest novel The Wren, The Wren:
To my mind, Enright’s eighth novel, The Wren, The Wren, is as starkly soulful and bleakly funny about human failings as The Gathering [her Booker Prize nominee], and would have made a worthy Booker contender. At its heart is an act of betrayal – feted poet Phil McDaragh leaving his wife and young daughters in the 1970s, the better to pursue his calling – and the enduring effect over several decades on his abandoned daughter Carmel and on Nell, the granddaughter he died without meeting.
Enright, 60, is fascinated by “the oddness of when people find their creativity rendered impossible by the fact of children, as if children stole some faculty just by existing or were some kind of affront. Evelyn Waugh wouldn’t have his children playing even in the same wing of the house when he was working – how weird is that?”
Where other novelists might have mimsily asked us to take Phil’s talent on trust, Enright has included several of the poems for which he sacrificed his family’s happiness. I found them as austerely beautiful as her prose: in one, the eponymous bird becomes “a panic/ of feathered air”. Had she been burning to publish poetry?