Two Essays: Orwell’s Comic Novels and Waugh’s Oxford

There are two well written and interesting essays this week relating to Waugh. The first is by Jonathan Clarke and appears in the quarterly City Journal. This is entitled “Orwell’s Humor” and relates mainly to his two 1930s comic novels Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939). These are frequently overlooked by Orwell readers since they have little to connect them to his major (and more popular) works. After a discussion of Aspidistra (probably the funnier of the two) Clarke writes:

Orwell’s exact contemporary, Evelyn Waugh (also born in 1903), succeeded as a comic novelist to an extent that Orwell did not, and the comparison is instructive. Waugh had several advantages over Orwell. He had been one of the “Bright Young Things” of postwar London and therefore had the social confidence of an insider. For Orwell, the pain of not having the right parents, of not having enough money, and of not performing the jeux d’esprit that only these two things permit, made impossible the light, bright, heartless tone that Waugh did so well. Waugh was also quite comfortable with his own sadism and turned it outward, while Orwell’s was mostly internalized as self-loathing. The fate of Tony Last in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the decent but feckless aristocrat captured and forced to read Dickens to an illiterate bush tyrant, is somehow funny; in Aspidistra, Gordon Comstock’s more prosaic suffering cuts deeper because we recognize it as Orwell’s own.

The second essay is by Daisy Dunn and seems directed to those critics who complained that the Brideshead connection to her recent interwar Oxford book was underdeveloped. This was entitled Not Far from Brideshead and is discussed in several earlier posts. Her essay is posted on The Oldie’s blog and concludes with this:

In some cases, the aftershocks of war were even magnified. In the 1920s, students were reminded repeatedly by their tutors and domestic staff of the courage and superiority of their predecessors who had served King and Country. Waugh’s portrait of the university was not unblemished – Anthony Blanche could attest to that – but the realities of postwar Oxford were in some ways underplayed.

Pansy Lamb’s words – there was ‘something baroque and magnificent on its last legs’ about 1920s society – wouldn’t have surprised Waugh or many other Oxonians by the end of that decade.

Writing in Cherwell in 1930, in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, a student journalist mourned the death of the postwar university and the arrival of an era he described, with clear vision, as ‘uninspiring’.

Looking around at the rather dour students, fun-loving Bowra asked, ‘Where are the aesthetes of yesteryear?’

The frivolities of the 1920s might have seemed vacuous – or even misplaced. But they gave a colourful veneer to a deeply scarred age. Something changed at the end of the ’20s.

The world of Brideshead, in all its contradictions, vanished so quickly that you could be forgiven for asking whether it had even existed at all.

Dunn’s book was published in the UK but is also available for sale in the US. Here’s a link to Amazon sellers. I don’t know whether there is a distribution to US bookstores.

Posted in A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, Fiction, Humo(u)r, Newspapers, Oxford | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mid-May Roundup

The Guardian, apparently in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the serialized publication of Waugh’s diaries, has posted a brief introduction by Chris Hall. Here’s an excerpt:

The year 1973 saw a big serialisation of the private diaries of Evelyn Waugh in the Observer Magazine, edited by Michael Davie. The edition of 1 April covered the period between ‘coming down from Oxford and getting secretly engaged in the winter of 1927’, which was ‘probably the unhappiest stretch of his life’ (‘Waugh on the bright young people’) […]

When the teacher Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall left his clothes on the beach and a note in a faked suicide bid, it had echoes of Waugh. After running out of money and losing a job, Waugh had gone ‘down to the sea, left his clothes and a valedictory quotation from Euripedes on the beach, and swum towards the horizon. He was stung by a jellyfish, however, and turned back.’ And so A Handful of Dust was nearly a handful of dust […]

Waugh was also sacked after just three months as a reporter on the Daily Express. On the upside, all this material fed into [Waugh’s novels] . Much to thank the jellyfish for.

The Press (Yorkshire) reports the opening of an exhibit at Castle Howard. Here are some highlights:

PERIOD dramas which put a North Yorkshire stately home on the map as a location for TV and film are being celebrated in a new exhibition. Castle Howard On Screen: from Brideshead to Bridgerton has been launched at the attraction, showcasing costumes from hit series with connections to the house and estate […]

Eleanor Brooke-Peat, curator of collections and archives, said: “In this brand-new exhibition, we are celebrating the many times that Castle Howard has appeared as a location on screen. “Displayed within a film set, the exhibition features a selection of beautiful costumes, worn in and inspired by some of these productions, from Brideshead Revisited to Netflix’s Bridgerton, and everything in between. “We hope that this exhibition gives our visitors a glimpse of what it is like to play host to film crews and movie stars, and how our on-screen appearances have helped to bring international fame to this small pocket of North Yorkshire.”

Abbi Olive, head of marketing, sales and programming, added: “Castle Howard has taken a leading role in many productions since Lady L in the 1960s.”The original Brideshead Revisited Granada TV series really put Castle Howard on the map as a location and had a huge impact. […] The income generated from filming companies using our site as a location has gone directly into the conservation and restoration of Castle Howard”…

The exhibition is now open and is included in a House ticket.  It runs until the end of October.

–The website has posted a list of  “Ten Close Families in Literature.” One of the novels listed is Brideshead Revisited:

‘I had been there before; I knew all about it’. The ultimate novel of the golden family where all is not really as it should be, it is impossible to pick up Brideshead without being drawn into its dark, glittering circle, with Oxford and young men in cricket whites and all the English country house clichés, but at its heart, the dysfunction and fossilisation of the upper classes. Very few have done it as well. The Flyte family is slowly dying, its closeness and need to service the title and estate suffocating each family member in different ways.

Others include the Earnshaws and Lintons of Wuthering Heights and the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice.

–The New Zealand website has posted a brief essay on humor and what makes it work. This is by Joe Bennett. Here is an excerpt:

Humour is unflinching. It goes where it goes, and it scoffs at politeness.

“’I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir.” says a character in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. “That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.”

Humour mocks authority. People like Trump hate it because it tells the truth. The Trumps of this world can neither make a joke nor take one. Laughter bewilders them.

–The review of an Edinburgh art exhibition in The Scotsman makes an interesting connection with a Waugh novel:

Our own planet was not so long ago the centre of the universe. When Galileo opined it might be otherwise, he was threatened with torture by the Inquisition. Now it seems our solar system itself, though bigger than anything Galileo could see, is little more than a single atom. Calling out our hubris and at the same time enumerating some of its consequences seems to be the object of Katie Paterson’s remarkable work Requiem at the Ingleby Gallery, informed by her evident acquaintance with the latest scientific thinking. The Requiem is for the earth we know and love, though it is to be hoped that Paterson is pessimistic, not prophetic. Implicit in the work is the idea that the choice is ours.

Requiem is beautifully presented, although, like much contemporary art, a metaphor certainly, but not exactly a visual one, although certainly poetic. A glass jar sits on a pedestal in the middle of the tall, square, beautifully lit gallery space. A narrow shelf runs round the four walls and arrayed on it are 364 small glass jars, each containing a handful of dust. There are echoes here of Evelyn Waugh’s novel of futility, A Handful of Dust, of the funeral service, dust to dust and ashes to ashes, or beyond them, Ecclesiastes, “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” This theme is echoed in turn in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, whence Waugh took the title of his bleak novel. “There is shadow under this red rock/ (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),/ And I will show you something different from either/ Your shadow at morning striding behind you/ Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

–Finally, on the electronics technology website, there is a report about the ISE [Integrated Systems Europe] Expo later this year in Barcelona:

Is there anything new under the sun? For ISE, there’s a new location, certainly, in Barcelona, but whether or not this is reflected at the show in technology terms is a point of debate.

Worth is not always priced in novelty or youth, however, a fact that is certainly on my mind as I return to the digital signage trade after five years’ absence with grey hair, a new role and, as we all have, a simple need to do as Evelyn Waugh said and “Only connect.”

It was, of course, not Waugh, but E M Forster who made “Only connect” noteworthy when he used it as the epigraph for his novel Howards End. I do not recall Waugh ever commenting upon it.





Posted in A Handful of Dust, Anniversaries, Art, Photography & Sculpture, Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, Diaries, Internet, Newspapers | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mother’s Day Roundup

–Nicholas Lezard writing in the New Statesman calls on Basil Seal to explain why asparagus (now coming into season in northerly climates) is the most sexy vegetable:

… like all things sexy, it trembles on the edge of exploitation. In Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, we know Basil Seal is a wrong ’un before we get to his incestuous relationship with his sister because of these lines: “He rejoiced, always, in the spectacle of women at a disadvantage: thus he would watch, in the asparagus season, a dribble of melted butter on a woman’s chin, marring her beauty and making her ridiculous, while she would still talk and smile and turn her head, not knowing how she appeared to him.” That’s awful, but you can see where he’s coming from. The spectacle is almost pornographic, and I’m not sure about that “almost”.

[…] There’s no way round it: asparagus is posh, and as the makers of Downton Abbey, and indeed Evelyn Waugh before them, know, posh is sexy. Asparagus also makes your pee smell funny, as celebrated by Derek and Clive in one of their crueller songs. It becomes intimately involved with the body in a way nothing else does. (OK, beetroot too, but beetroot is yuck. Rhubarb also has its season, and is something this country does better than anyone else, but rhubarb is also yuck. Don’t write in.)

–Bloomsbury Academic has announced the publication of a new book later this year that may be of interest. This is entitled Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Mining the borderlands where history meets literature in Britain and Europe as well as America, this book shows how the imminence and outbreak of World War II ignited the imaginations of writers ranging from Ernest Hemingway, W.H. Auden, and James Joyce to Bertolt Brecht, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, and Irène Némirovsky.

Taking its cue from Percy Shelley’s dictum that great writers are to some extent created by the age in which they live, this book shows how much the politics and warfare of the years from 1939 to 1941 drove the literature of this period. Its novels, poems, and plays differ radically from histories of World War II because-besides being works of imagination– they are largely products of a particular stage in the author’s life as well as of a time at which no one knew how the war would end.

This is the first comprehensive study of the impact of the outbreak of the Second World War on the literary work of American, English, and European writers during its first years.

The book is written by Prof. Emeritus James A W Heffernan of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The chapters likely to be of most interest to our readers are these:

W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”
The Nazification of Romania in Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy
The Joke War in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags
War, Fire, and Sex in Henry Green’s Caught

As to how comprehensive it may be, that remains to be seen. Conspicuous by their absence from any mention in the announcement are writers such as Anthony Powell (The Valley of Bones, v.7 in Dance to the Music of Time), Graham Greene  (Ministry of Fear) and Cyril Connolly (Horizon magazine) and apparently there is nothing by any Russian writer.

TLS has a review of the book by Daisy Dunn, Not Far from Brideshead.  The book is mentioned in several previous posts. The TLS review is by David Butterfield and concludes with this:

… And what of Brideshead Revisited in the book? We glimpse it occasionally. Murray married into the family who called Castle Howard their own. Bowra was contorted into the hapless Mr Samgrass of the novel. And there’s a vignette of John Betjeman clutching his teddy Archie (who sired Sebastian’s Aloysius). But Waugh himself rarely fell in with senior academics and sympathized little with the dynamic forces that make this book really hum. Perhaps the Wavian narrative now proves more restrictive than elucidatory – not just for Dunn but for most of us?

Bowra is perhaps the only “senior academic” with whom Waugh can be said to have fallen in. Waugh was a fairly frequent visitor at the Warden’s residence of Wadham College, and Bowra is noted in several visits to the Waugh homesteads.

The New Statesman and The Oxford Student also review the book, noting the  references to Brideshead in greater detail. The review in the New Statesman is by Leo Robson and is entitled: “Gilbert Murray: the Oxford don who made Greek chic: Daisy Dunn’s charismatic interwar history of Oxford illuminates the wide influence of the celebrated classicist and his circle.” Here’s a link. The review in The Oxford Student (a bimonthly print and daily online student paper) is by Kian Moghaddas and is available here.

— An article in Crisis Magazine, a religious journal, reconsiders Waugh’s 1962 Spectator article “Same Again, Please” in which he warned about a likely outcome of the Second Vatican Council. This is by retired professor of Gettysburg College, Robert Garnett, who writes:

Though Oxford educated and a distinguished man of letters, Waugh pretended to no particular knowledge of or expertise in the more abstruse items on the Council’s agenda. Liturgy, though—especially the Mass—was something every churchgoing Catholic knew something about. The argument of “The Same Again, Please” is populist, Waugh presenting himself as an ordinary parishioner in the pews, just as the essay’s title echoes a common phrase in English pubs. “I believe I am typical of that middle rank of the Church,” he confessed, “far from the leaders, much further from the saints.”

Most parishioners, Waugh suspected, had little interest in liturgical reform or greater involvement in the Mass. The clamor for reform and the vernacular came from the Catholic chattering class, not from the pews. “I think it highly doubtful whether the average churchgoer either needs or desires to have complete intellectual, verbal comprehension of all that is said,” Waugh observed. “He has come to worship, often dumbly and effectively. . . . When young theologians talk, as they do, of Holy Communion as “a social meal” they find little response in the hearts or minds of their less sophisticated brothers.”

After noting several aspects of liturgical reform addressed by Waugh, the Crisis article concludes:

…although Vatican II’s liturgical changes remain controversial, there can be no doubting their upshot. American (and British) Catholics have voted with their feet, leaving empty pews behind them [citing a recent study]…Unlike many, Waugh did not leave the Church, but neither did he live—nor would he have wanted to live—to see the full flowering of the Council’s reforms. On Easter Day 1966, after attending a nearby Latin Mass, he died suddenly at Combe Florey, his Somerset home. A Requiem Mass was celebrated in London’s Westminster Cathedral. It too, as Waugh would appreciate, was in Latin.

Waugh’s article is reprinted in EAR (p. 602).

–There is an offer on the internet of a new translation of A Handful of Dust. This is a Greek version (Μια χούφτα σκόνη) translated by Palmyra Ismiridou. The publication date is not provided in the internet listing but it is not yet listed on WorldCat which would suggest that it may be new. This is confirmed by a later newspaper announcement.

Posted in A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, Essays, Articles & Reviews, Newspapers, Oxford, Put Out More Flags, Translations | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christie’s Online Sale of Waugh Presentation Copies

Christie’s has issued a catalogue for the sale of several Waugh editions from the collection of William S Reese. Here’s the general description:

The themes of Part Three of The Private Collection of William S. Reese include fine art, Yale and Connecticut, St. Barts, American practical arts including drawing and penmanship manuals, carpentry and architecture, general Americana, bibliophily and book history, and first edition literature.

Highlights include an original drawing by Henri Matisse; first edition presentation copies by Evelyn Waugh, Flann O’Brien, James Thurber, and Wallace Stevens; an original miniature painting from the Bhagavata Purana, rare manuscripts and maps relating the St. Barts, autograph material by Saki, a comprehensive collection of works by Asher Benjamin; some of the earliest American carpentry guides and price-books; and a very handsome copy of John Gundry’s large folio Specimens of Penmanship.

Perhaps the choicest items being sold as a single lot are seven presentation copies to Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes. The guide price on those is $7000-9000. Equally exciting are three books presented to John and Penelope Betjeman. These are being sold separately and include one of the 50 copies of the Brideshead Revisited page proofs given as Christmas presents in 1944 as well as first editions of A Little Learning and Edmund Campion. Each item is individually described in the catalogue. The sale is scheduled for online auction between 19 May and 2 June. The items may be viewed from 20-26 May, 10a-5p at 40 Rockefeller Center, New York. Here’s a link.

Posted in A Little Learning, Auctions, Brideshead Revisited, Edmund Campion, Items for Sale | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Toffs Floribundi: Costume Drama, Oxford and Brexit

–On the occasion on the release of a new Downton Abbey film, The Times has devoted several articles to the costume drama as a genre. These begin with Robert Crampton defining the genre. From his perspective, a costume drama must have three ingredients:

Let’s establish our parameters. The genre could in theory encompass any production set at a time when people wore less comfortable clothes. There has to be a cut-off and I reckon it’s the Second World War. Thus, Brideshead is fine. But, say, Our Friends in the North is too recent. During wartime also doesn’t count: no Nazis allowed. And no Romans or Vikings either. Nor indeed anything from before the Stuarts. Prior to the 17th century the clothes and haircuts were crap and anyway most people were dead before they were 30. Or deformed.

Also, there has to be a hefty toff quotient. Not because they were the only ones with decent clobber (the clothes in Peaky Blinders are fab), but because you need baddies and in most British literature worth adapting, rich people are generally wrong ’uns. Pretty much every costume drama is a tale of an attractive protagonist from a humble background thwarted by the hierarchy of the age. Given social mobility is still so limited, we remain drawn to this storyline.

Also, sorry to be nationalistic but a costume drama needs to be British. Witness the recent failure of Julian Fellowes’s The Gilded Age. We all knew that in New York in 1880, if you made and spread around enough money, you were going to be allowed into “society”. In Britain, it’s never been quite that simple. [Emphasis supplied.]

He then starts with Upstairs, Downstairs as the first costume drama to qualify, and works his way to the 1981 Brideshead series:

… as we moved into the 1980s, Brideshead Revisited, had plenty [of all three ingredients]. I didn’t fancy Anthony Andrews or Jeremy Irons, seductive as their outfits were, but I watched them voraciously.

As did my whole generation, at an impressionable age. If anyone doubts the sociological impact of this apparently innocuous genre, they should know that Brideshead fashion, hairstyles and high-camp high Toryism swept the nation in the early Eighties. Bridgerton has boosted sales of croquet sets; Brideshead set the political tone for a whole decade. Margaret Thatcher had good reason to be grateful to Evelyn Waugh.

After Ed Potton explains why it helps if a few tears are jerked, Ben Dowell gets down to rating the top 21 costume dramas–11 TV series and 10 films. The first entry is devoted to

Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Anthony Andrews’s Lord Sebastian Flyte holding his teddy bear, Aloysius, is not the only lasting memory from Granada’s sumptuous adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s longest and probably best novel. The journey of Waugh’s alter ego Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) from callow Twenties Oxford undergraduate to world-weary wartime captain captivated the nation.
Bodice-ripper rating a firm 4. Never more than a few cricket pitches away from a powerful gay subtext.
Britbox, ITV Hub

Some of the other selections wander a bit off piste to, e.g., Russia, Italy and France, but the productions are English. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens dominate the sources, with multiple listings, and Andrew Davies would be the most prolific adaptor.

–One of Crampton’s elements for a successful costume drama (toffs) also provides the basis for a new book profiled in by Will Lloyd:

It was summer, 2019. People who read the FT were still unsure why Brexit happened, beyond knowing that whatever made it happen was not good. At that moment Simon Kuper appeared, and wrote an article that was so delicious, and so put-all-the-dots-together, it immediately went viral. What machine spat out Brexit? Oxford. Which wackily irresponsible creche raised Boris Johnson? Oxford. The reason Kuper provided was not good. An old story (unearned privilege; naughty toffs) that has always chilled Britain’s fretful not quite upper-middle classes. It was just what Remainers wanted to read. Finally, an explanation that satisfied all their priors.

Now the viral article is a short and typical non-fiction book. Chums: How A Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK. Kuper’s story is simple. One afternoon he flicked through some old Cherwells, where he had been a student journalist in the late Eighties, and realised that the names there were the same ones bothering the pages of the Times in the late 2010s. Gove, Cameron, and Johnson; Hunt, Hannan, and Rees-Mogg. He had covered them back then, and here they were again, running Britain into the ground by levering it out of the EU. “Though we didn’t realise it, we were witnessing British power in the making,” Kuper writes of his time at Oxford.

Waugh had little interest in politics as a student or later, although he did make an appearance at the Oxford Union at least once, shortly after his arrival. That institution was, according to Will Lloyd, the incubator of the Brexiteer Tories that Kuper writes about:

…Kuper does not think much of his Oxford Tory Brexiteers. Nevertheless, he is good on Boris. On the sad clown tensions; his “killer” cynicism; his studied Wooster-Waugh role-playing. Then again, no one left in London media should be in this game if they can’t file 1,000 classy words of Boris pop-psych at this point. As Kuper points out himself: “[Boris] possessed the political asset of being all too easy to write about.”

As for Boris, so for Brexit. So easy to write about, if your aim is to titillate rather than explain. Did Brexit happen because Michael Gove, David Cameron and Boris Johnson learned that “the rules didn’t apply to them” in Oxford in the Eighties, as Kuper suggests? Did Brexit happen, as Fintan O’Toole argued in Heroic Failure, because England’s toffs ‘n’ plebs still harbour a sickly yearning to hear the sound of trumpets on the plains of Omdurman? And did Brexit happen, as every half-drunk Etonian I’ve met since June 2016 has insisted to me, because Boris Johnson got into Pop, and David Cameron didn’t? In a century, these tropes may be of sociological interest to historians, but they will not have much explanatory power.

Toward the end of the article an unexpected Brideshead character makes an appearance. According to Lloyd:

Chums ends up baffled by Oxford. Kuper cannot see the point of the place in our supposed-to-be meritocratic age. Like Hooper walking through the Marchmain’s palatial house in Brideshead Revisited, Kuper is troubled. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense,” says Hooper, “one family in a place this size. What’s the use of it?”

Kuper doesn’t trust the house to clean itself up. Outside forces must intervene, before young over-valeted men with long faces — he raises the ominous spectre of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s nephew play-acting at the Union recently — get big ideas again. So make a use for it. Make it a postgraduate “Institute of Advanced Studies”, he says. Or go even more full FT: convert Oxford into a start-up hub, and make “even more money from corporate conferences and executive education”. He thinks this will make Britain a fairer place.

The Times also reviews Kuper’s book. This is by Hugo Rifkind who confesses that he is a Cambridge graduate. Here is an excerpt:

Kuper writes about the shock of Americans, such as the Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton, at the essential silliness of Oxford life in the 1960s. He also shares his own lingering shock that few of his peers seemed all that interested when the Berlin Wall came down. For him, though, the Cameron/Johnson generation epitomises the climax of “British unseriousness”. Or, as he puts it, unsheathing that knife again: “Bertie Wooster came back from the dead.”

Some of the Berties, though, wanted to be more than Berties. Kuper sees in the Oxford Tories the “shame of late birth”. He quotes the writer Rosa Ehrenreich, a Harvard graduate who arrived in Oxford in 1991 and said of the generation she found that “they were born to a poor island, still rigidly conscious of the glorious past, and told to adjust to the unglorious present and the grey future represented by Prime Minister John Major”. It was this that gave them that Brideshead and Bullingdon streak; a nostalgic longing for a status ebbing away.

While the review may not cite toffs by name, they would be understood implicitly as included in the “Brideshead and Bullingdon streak.”


Posted in Adaptations, Brideshead Revisited, Internet, Newspapers, Oxford | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

May Day Roundup

–The second part of Alexander Larman’s centenary recognition of Kingsley Amis has appeared in this month’s regular issue of The Critic. See previous post. He starts with an amusing description of Amis’s somewhat ramshackle acceptance of his Booker Prize for The Old Devils and then continues with this:

…In his centenary year, the man once regarded as the greatest comic novelist since Evelyn Waugh is now seen as little more than a joke himself, a Blimpish caricature of a bon viveur whose major books are little more than reactionary relics of a (thankfully) bygone age, and whose minor works are, at best, blessedly forgotten squibs and, at worst, vile indicators of personal failings that would, in our more enlightened era, have immediately led to Amis’s cancellation. (One can only imagine what Kingers would have had to say about the culture wars.) […]

But generally, Amis’s writing is now seen, even more than Waugh’s or his friend Philip Larkin’s, as the grim expression of a disordered mind. To admit to an affection, let alone an idolatry, for his works is to stand above the parapet and declare oneself a thoroughly wrong ’un. 

Well, I have been tarred and feathered for my literary views before, so another round of denunciation will make little difference now. Amis remains, along with Waugh, the finest comic novelist of the twentieth century — and yes before you say “what about Wodehouse”, Plum is essentially a timeless writer who removed himself from anything so dull as social concerns or normal life — and a memoirist, correspondent, critic and even poet of distinction, even brilliance.

–Alan Bennett has put together another collection of diaries. This one is entitled House Arrest: Pandemic Diaries.  It will be published in the UK early next month. Here’s an excerpt in the Guardian from the diaries for 7 May 2020:

Harriet Walter is doing Soldiering On and asked Nick [Hytner] how it was I “did posh so well”.  Short of a ready explanation he said (somewhat desperately) he thought it was because I had been a friend of Debo D [the late Duchess of Devonshire]. There is some truth in this in the sense that my awareness of upper-class tropes comes not from Debo but her sister Nancy, whose The Pursuit of Love I have known ever since I first discovered it in Majority 1931–1952– the omnibus edition of Hamish Hamilton publications, read when I was at Oxford. “Too many memoirs” would be another explanation (and “some Evelyn Waugh”).

Whether this volume includes writings other than the diaries is not clear from the Guardian’s excerpt or the listing. Nor is it clear whether it includes previously uncollected diaries from 2019 or before.

–Craig Brown in the Daily Mail considers the infelicitous language occasionally used by Media and Sport Minister, Nadine Dorries, such as “downstreaming” videos and building tennis “pitches.” She blames this on her dyslexia. Brown is reminded of similar expressions uttered by former deputy leader of the Labour Party John Prescott:

…Prescott is now remembered not for any legislation he introduced, or political battle he ever won, but for his butter-fingered way with words. As Evelyn Waugh once said of the poet Stephen Spender: ‘To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.’

Like Prescott, Nadine Dorries is in the habit of rounding on those who snigger at her failings; she condemns them as insensitive. But it’s never a two-way street: she demands sympathy from others, but is abusive herself.  ‘You think you’re sensitive, but you’re not,’ says Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. ‘Your sensitivity only works for things that other people do to you. Touchy and vain yes, but not sensitive.’

The Waugh quote re Spender is from a review appearing in EAR.

–The Jacobin magazine has a story by Anne Colamosca about foreign correspondent George Steer who scooped the story of the 1937 German bombing of Guernica in Spain:

…Steer and a small group of foreign journalists had rushed to Guernica after hearing that the historic town had been decimated on the afternoon of April 26 — a market day. Many other reporters filed their stories the following morning. But as Nicholas Rankin explains in his 2003 biography, Telegram from Guernica, Steer’s story broke the explosive news that it had been the German Luftwaffe, specifically the Condor Legion, that had almost completely destroyed Guernica. Steer’s story ran on the front pages of newspapers around the world — rightly seeing the attack as a “dress rehearsal” for the global war that would follow.

Steer had previously gained credibility as a co-respondent by reporting from Abyssinia:

George always wanted to be a newspaperman and did an apprenticeship with a South African paper before being hired by the Times at age twenty-five. He immediately flew to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and soon become a personal confidant of Emperor Haile Selassie. He would earn a reputation for his sheer obstinacy, intractability, and dark, relentless humor, explains Rankin in his excellent biography of Steer. “He was to the right of George Orwell but well to the left of his journalistic nemesis in Ethiopia, Evelyn Waugh.” (Waugh never failed to write in support of Mussolini in his articles for the Daily Mail.)

See previous post.

–Christopher Howse in the Daily Telegraph objects to UK Justice Secretary Dominic Raab’s reference to prisoners as “residents” or “clients.” This is in an article entitled “Prisoners aren’t ‘clients’, because words can never buck reality.” Here’s an excerpt:

It’s always the way with euphemisms. In Evelyn Waugh’s novella on the American way of death, an embalmer says to an orderly: “Will you tell Mr Joyboy that my Loved One is ready for posing? I think he should come now. He is firming.” Firming is really rigor mortis. And The Loved One, the dead person, gives the story its title. The more the phrase is repeated in the book, the weirder it seems.

I am sorry to say that loved ones have figured often in broadcasts during these pandemic years. No doubt it was meant kindly. But what of all those people who died and weren’t much loved? Waugh, of course, was fascinated by a Californian attempt to effect a cultural shift in attitudes to death. After all, he had called an earlier novel Vile Bodies, a reference to the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer, which is very plain in its language about the dead body that we commit “to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

Yet despite constant failures through the decades to change reality by changing the language describing it, we find more and more that organisations are getting at us via special vocabulary.

–Finally, the Guardian and other papers report the death of Gavin Millar (1938-2022). He was a noted director of TV and film dramas in the 1960-80s. His best work is considered by the Guardian to have been the direction of Dennis Potter’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland; this was entitled Dreamchild. He also directed Alan Bennett’s Intensive Care and one of the monologues in his Talking Heads.

He will be best remembered by our readers for his direction of the 1987 William Boyd adaptation of Waugh’s novel Scoop. This was produced by London Weekend Television for transmission on ITV.  It was a one-off production, not a series, and was not accorded the praise that was its due. This was particularly the case for some of the secondary parts such as Denholm Elliott who played Mr Salter and Michael Hordern who had the part of Uncle Theodore. Indeed, the scenes at Boot Magna were far the best of the adaptation, as they were also, for some readers, of the book. They alone were well worth the price of admission. A 1972 BBC multi-episode TV adaptation by Barry Took was even less successful.


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New Academic Studies (Updated)

–The article based on a previously mentioned lecture has now been published and posted on the internet. This is entitled “Narrating Difficult Histories: Interwar Border Crossing in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930) and Christopher Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit (1962)” and is written by Yuexi Wu. The lecture, which had a slightly broader topic, was described in a previous post linked above. Here is the abstract for the printed version:

The interwar border crossings in Vile Bodies (1930) and Down There on a Visit (1962) reveal difficult and often lost histories of violations of freedom of expression and persecutions of sexual minorities. Drawing on archival material, including literary manuscripts and historical British Government records, to shed new light on the two novels, this essay demonstrates how border controls in Europe attracted urgent attention in the shadow of war and how customs, at the forefront of national security, were consequently relied upon as an ever crucial institution responsible for protecting the nation states and their citizens from “undesirable aliens”. Waugh and Isherwood criticised the injustice and violence of the border control policies and practices that failed to balance the self-interest of the nation states and humanitarian concerns. Narrating the difficult histories of the shadow of the shadow and experimenting with comedy and satire to narrate violence, both writers themselves crossed borders.

The article is published in the journal English Studies (April 2022) and is available online at this link. Yuexi Wu is co-editor of the society’s journal, Evelyn Waugh Studies.

–The University of Ghent (Belgium) has posted on the internet a 215-page academic article submitted by Florian Deroo for a master’s degree in 2015-16. This is entitled: “‘Why Go Abroad? See England First.’ Colonialism and Modernity in the Travel Writing of the Webbs and Evelyn Waugh (1911-1931)”.  It consists of two parts: the first dealing with the writings of Sydney and Beatrice Webb about their travels in India and the second about Evelyn Waugh’s travels in Africa in 1930-31 as described in Remote People and Black Mischief. The article is written in English with Dutch summaries and is available at this link.

–A literary criticism of Waugh’s fictional writings was published earlier this year in India. This is Evelyn Waugh Revisited by Ravi K Dhar. This description appears on the book’s back cover:

…In the maze of his prolific writings, the quintessential Waugh often escaped the critical scrutiny of critics and reviewers, who often charged him with being a bitter critic of modern Britain, without presenting an alternative moral vision or else that his novels play up an untenable nostalgia for the aristocratic values of the feudal past and a pre-occupation with thrusting his religion on others.

This book attempts to tear through the foggy veil of such critiques to revisit and redeem the real Waugh as represented in his creative works. The study argues that the claim of Evelyn Waugh to be recognised as a major twentieth century novelist in English literature rests on his creative use of comedy to convey his unique vision of life. The book highlights the centrality of the ubiquitous metaphor of the ever-revolving wheel of life to an understanding of his comic vision and art. The metaphor helps to define not just the division of this world into static, dynamic and religious characters, but also the weltanschauung that drives them to lead their lives in a particular way. Based on this, Waugh’s novels are amenable to classification into lesser and greater comedies. The book argues that while the lesser comedies play up the absurdity of belief in the Enlightenment philosophy of progress, the greater comedies present the grandeur of life in the spiritual resurrection of the central characters.

The 313 page book is available from in both paperback and Kindle editions. There is a link on the Amazon site to the book’s Introduction section. There are also detailed descriptions of Ravi Dhar’s other writings and academic credentials. He teaches at Guru Gobind Indraprastha University in New Delhi.

UPDATE (29 April 2022): The information about the publication and availability of the “Border Crossing” article was received shortly after the original notice was posted.

Posted in Academia, Evelyn Waugh, Evelyn Waugh Studies, Fiction, Remote People, Vile Bodies | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Nancy Spain, Yet Once Again

Duncan McLaren has added some interesting material to his discussion of the Summer 1955 attempts by Daily Express reporters Nancy Spain and Lord Noel-Buxton to gain entry to Waugh’s house Piers Court, near Dursley, Glos., to conduct an interview. This led to a series of letters in the press and ultimately to libel suits in which Waugh prevailed two years later with much publicity. In the course of all this P G Wodehouse wrote a poem about the affair entitled “The Visitors”. This was published in his autobiographical collection Over Seventy in October 1957 but may have appeared earlier in a journal such as Punch from which much of the collection is reportedly taken. There was also an earlier US edition of the autobiography under a different title and with different content where the poem may have first appeared.

Waugh was surely aware of the poem since he and Wodehouse were correspondents at the time. But I can find no reference to it in his letters or diaries nor in his biographies. I can’t think it could have escaped both his and his biographers’ attentions. It is quite memorable and very funny. Here is the final stanza:

Noel-Buxton and Nancy Spain, my lads,/Noel Buxton and Nancy Spain./They’ll walk right in with a cheerful grin/And when they are in, remain./I wouldn’t much care to be stung by bees/Or bitten, let’s say, by a Pekinese,/But far, far better are those than these./Noel-Buxton and Nancy Spain. 

Any readers who may have more information about the publication history of the poem or any communications between the two writers about it are invited to reply as provided below. The Waugh bibliography lists the book (B1176) but mentions no previous publication. The complete verse can be found on Duncan’s website at the end of the article entitled “Scoop Revisited”. Here’s a link.


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New Brideshead Adaptation “Shelved”

According to the entertainment news website IndieWire, Luca Guadagnino has confirmed in an interview that the planned TV series remake of Brideshead Revisited has been shelved. Here’s an excerpt from the story by Samantha Bergeson:

…director Guadagnino […] confirmed that his remake of 1980s drama series “Brideshead Revisited” is officially shelved. The series was set to star Andrew Garfield, Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, and Rooney Mara for BBC.

The story was also reported on the website which concluded: “The reason for the project’s discontinuation wasn’t provided but given the high-profile cast, scheduling could have been a problem.” 

There is no reported comment from BBC or HBO who were originally identified in the Daily Mail as the producers of the series. But then, so far as I am aware, they never issued any formal announcement of their plans either.

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Roundup: Book List and Bullingdon

–Charles Moore writing in the Daily Telegraph has a story entitled “Not even the Queen’s Jubilee is safe from BBC preaching: There are good writers all across the Commonwealth, but Auntie insists on telling us that it knows best”. He is referring to a BBC list of 70 books as recommended reading of books published during the period of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign (10 for each decade). Moore finds the list quite odd if only because he hasn’t heard of half of the listings. Here is his discussion of the first decade (1952-61)

Seven of them deal with issues of slavery, racism, immigration and empire. All important themes for fiction, but a bit obsessive in such concentration. Only one of the ten, A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S.Naipaul, could be described as famous.

Yet the decade in question was prodigious for British fiction. In those years – Ian Fleming’s James Bond burst upon the world in 1953 with Casino Royale and continued at the rate of one a year. Kingsley Amis’s debut, Lucky Jim, was the comic hit of the decade. Raymond Chandler (British, though living in the United States) produced The Long Goodbye. Graham Greene published Our Man in Havana.

It was an era of great fictional projects too. Evelyn Waugh wrote his Sword of Honour trilogy, which many see as the greatest English fiction to have emerged from the Second World War. It was in the 1950s that Anthony Powell brought out the early volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. Mary Renault got going on her novels of the ancient Greek world (including The King Must Die), which are nowadays recognised as classics of gay literature. It was a period of tremendous literary diversity. Sad to leave so much out.

An even odder omission is The Lord of The Rings (1955). J.R.R.Tolkien’s construction of an entire mythical world has sold more than 150 million copies. Perhaps the selectors saw his trilogy as children’s books, which they exclude. If so, they were mistaken, although of course many children love Tolkien.

He finds similar omissions in other decades and concludes:

As so often in current culture, I fear that we, the reading or would-be reading public, are being preached to about what somebody thinks would be good for us rather than encouraged to read what we would actually enjoy…

–A more nuanced view appears in The Critic. This is by Alexander Larman who eschews charges of wokery in favor of considering the selections (or lack thereof) on the merits. He notes obvious omissions (“One whistles for Waugh or Wodehouse, both of whom produced work in the past 70 years  although alas, little of it their best  let alone Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Edward St Aubyn”) and concludes with this:

…it is hard not to feel that this carefully curated selection feels like a missed opportunity, with box-ticking winning out over great writing. Genuine imaginative art that stirs spirits and moves hearts has lost out to the inclusion of a novel that just happens to have originated from New Zealand. Ranking books as if they were horses is never a brilliant idea. But this uninspiring, Gradgrindish assortment still feels like the least inspiring selection in recent memory. First Prince Andrew, and now this: what a disappointing 2022 the Queen is having.

–Another Telegraph reporter, Allison Pearson, thought she could make a more useful list with the help of the paper’s readers. So she did just that. Her list (posted 21 April 2022) includes Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender for 1961 (“greatest fiction to come out of the Second World War”). Also on the list are books from Waugh’s contemporaries Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana) 1957 and Anthony Powell (Dance to the Music of Time–all 12) 1970. Nothing from Nancy Mitford, however.

–The Daily Mail has added another review of Daisy Dunn’s book Not Far From Brideshead. See previous posts. This is by Kathryn Hughes who begins with a discussion of frequently mentioned links to Waugh’s novel and then continues:

Dunn’s particular interest is the way in which the spirit of inter-war Oxford, for good and for ill, was shaped by the classical syllabus. Her unlikely hero is Maurice Bowra, the clever, closeted classics scholar who is the obvious person to become the next Regius Professor of Greek, at the time the most prestigious academic role in the country. The problem is that not only is his scholarship a bit old-hat, but Bowra was also gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime.

News of his social adventures in anything-goes Berlin meant that it was E. W. Dodds, an obscure Irishman from Birmingham University, who got the job. To say that Oxford was upset is putting it mildly. Dodds, a genuinely clever man, found himself sent to Coventry. People walked out of rooms when he came in, and some dons refused to let their undergraduates go to his lectures. Bowra congratulated Dodds through clenched teeth and went out of his way to make his life as unpleasant as possible. Sharp-eyed Waugh, meanwhile, was taking notes. He put Bowra into Brideshead as Samgrass, an Oxford academic who is a social climber and a bit of a bore. Bowra recognised himself and claimed to be flattered.

This might all sound parochial, but as Daisy Dunn shows, there was something greater at stake. Hitler and his henchmen were busy building the Third Reich along what they fondly imagined were Ancient Greek lines. They particularly admired the Spartan practice of killing off weak children and invalids – a kind of rough-and- ready eugenics. Other, home-grown fascists such as Oswald Mosley went out of their way to win Oxford over to their cause.

–Emily Hill in The Spectator describes her experience with the purchase a few years ago of her “part-buy, part-rent, one-bedroom eco-home.” Until recently she bemoaned her misfortune in being stuck with an unfashionable, cramped dwelling where she sweltered in the summer heat and couldn’t open the windows. More recently, she has reassessed her situation as her own fuel bill increases have proven considerably less burdensome than those of her acquaintances in their more commodious, conventional structures. She can now take a more nuanced and ironic view of her situation:

Anyone who has a father who read Evelyn Waugh novels for parenting guidance will have been raised, like me, in a culture of lukewarm baths used by two previous occupants. The thermostat in our draughty house was positioned right next to the hearth so the heating went off if it was cold enough to light a fire.

–Harry Mount, editor of The Oldie, writing in the Daily Telegraph’s “Comment” section, defends Oxford’s Bullingdon Club from its OTT portrayals in recent dramas. These include Laura Wade’s play and film from 2010 (Posh) and 2014 (The Riot Club) and, more recently, the Netflix series Anatomy of a Scandal. As he explains, these works unfairly describe a fairly minor and relatively harmless institution and exaggerate its importance in Oxford social life and national politics. The article concludes with this:

You could write another series about how Presidents of the Oxford Union debating society have dominated post-war politics, too. They include Michael Foot, Ted Heath, Anthony Crosland, Tony Benn, Jeremy Thorpe, William Rees-Mogg, Michael Heseltine, William Hague, Michael Gove and one Boris Johnson. The Oxford Union has been a much more fertile cradle for politicians than the Bullingdon. But it doesn’t have the same lethally attractive cocktail of class, privilege and white-faced tailcoats.

So we can only expect more lazy crime dramas about the club. If only modern writers borrowed from the only author who ever got the Bullingdon right: Evelyn Waugh, who mocked it as the Bollinger Club in Decline and Fall (1928). Waugh wrote that Bollinger members included “epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates”.

Waugh took the truth of the Bullingdon Club and made it funny. Anatomy of a Scandal turns it into a series of wicked, lazy falsehoods.


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