In 1933, a group of naked Amazonian Indians who had never before seen a white man encountered a young traveller from North London wrapped in a red blanket, lame in both feet, and covered from head to toe in insect bites. Their thoughts are not recorded by the Englishman, who spoke no word of Kopinang, but it is hard to picture a more improbable ambassador of his race than 30-year old Evelyn Waugh, recently named by Time magazine the 97th “most read female author in college classes”.
Time’s confusion over Waugh’s identity is not the first. Once in Asmara, a place of only seven unattached white women among 60,000 men, a gallant Italian guide named Franchi was deluded by Waugh’s christian name into procuring a bunch of crimson roses and rushing in a state of “amorous excitement” to meet him at the airport. To find there a trousered and unshaven male of diminutive height must, Waugh accepts, have been “a hideous blow”. Others who bumped into him on his globe-trotting mistook Waugh, variously, for his brother Alec; a German bank clerk who had lately boxed the ears of his orderly; and a sweetly tuned harmonium.
There was always a discrepancy between how the world saw Evelyn Waugh and how he saw himself. In his own eyes, he was an innocent abroad, an “amateur observer” in the mould of one of his fictional characters: a William Boot or a Tony Last, who “had no very ambitious ideas about travel”, but who, cruelly abandoned by his wife, sought to escape the savages of Mayfair to mingle with their cousins in the jungles of British Guiana, where he hoped, like Colonel Fawcett, to discover a Lost City.
The world did not share this perception. In 1930, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger encountered Waugh at a reception in Addis Ababa, and detested him on sight. Waugh, dressed in a floppy bow-tie and wide trousers, appeared to the seasoned traveller a “little pip-squeak”.
It is easy to mistake Waugh for who he was not, but who was he? 50 years after his death, the question becomes no easier to answer.
About his death, there was something characteristic, said his fellow convert, Graham Greene, whom I interviewed in 1986 for an Arena trilogy on Waugh. On the one hand, Waugh died on Easter Sunday, which brought to mind his strong Catholic faith; and then he died on the lavatory, in one version reaching up to pull the chain, which reminded Greene of Apthorpe’s “Thunder-box” in Men at Arms, the antiquated field latrine in the shape of a plain square box which had exploded under him, as the Catholic Church had detonated beneath Waugh in the form of the Second Vatican Council. In Greene’s opinion, Waugh “needed to cling to something solid and strong and unchanging”. Catholicism was that raft, essentially unaltered for 2,000 years. Rome’s attempt to modernise Waugh’s creed sank him.
For two years, I interviewed Waugh’s surviving friends and family. The budget was small – these were the days before Yentobian self-remuneration. I was paid £500 per programme, with no surplus to commission actors. My producer Adam Low and I hit on the penny-pinching device of asking the contributors to read aloud passages from Waugh’s novels – dedicated to them in the cases of Harold Acton (Decline and Fall), Diana Mosley (Vile Bodies), and Dorothy Lygon (Black Mischief). A measure forced on us from necessity struck television gold. We had not taken into account that Waugh’s generation grew up reading aloud. Even as Harold Acton re-enacted the Bollinger Club smashing up Scone College chapel, he was performing as his own character – but also as Waugh, whose best man he had been. When Dorothy Lygon read about Basil Seal unsuspectingly eating his girlfriend in an aromatic stew, she was back at her family home of Madresfield, the moated manor-house overlooking the Malvern Hills where Waugh had written Black Mischief, and on which he based his most vulnerable and popular work, Brideshead Revisited.
Once a week for 50 years my grandmother played bridge at Madresfield. Sometimes she’d take me. As a boy, I wandered unsupervised along dark panelled corridors while the ladies settled down to stakes of a few pennies a 100. I would go into the library, and gaze at the frescoes in the chapel, where the angel was modelled on Dorothy’s nanny; or out into the garden to get lost in its maze, pausing at the sundial with its inscription: “That day is wasted on which we have not laughed.”
The last Lady Beauchamp was a sparky Dane called Mona who liked to pedal up the avenue on a tricycle while listening to a yellow radio – “given to me by Givenchy!” – clamped to its handlebars. It was owing to her long association with my grandmother that Mona allowed me to film here. Against the backdrop of the Staircase Hall, with its black ebony steps and barley-sugar banisters of rock crystal, Graham Greene read out in his guttural voice the wrenching farewell between Charles Ryder and Julia: ”Here in the shadow, in the corner of a stair, a minute to say goodbye…”
Not until the programmes were broadcast did a home-movie turn up from the bowels of Madresfield, depicting Mona’s disgraced father-in-law, Earl Beauchamp, after he returned from exile following his banishment for homosexuality. I took the colour footage to play to his surviving daughters, Dorothy and Sibell. They sat side by side in Sibell’s small cottage and watched themselves younger by half a century, and their father with barely another few months to live, enjoying their last summer at “Mad” in 1938.
With rapture, Sibell looked at herself in a blue dress, holding a black chow, entering the maze. “Father planted it from a design in Boy’s Own,” she said. “In the First World War, we gave a lot of wounded soldiers a jolly afternoon out. We led them to the centre of the maze and then ran away.” She tried not to smile. “It was awful.”
Waugh was entranced by their world. “He was very round and fat and we liked him instantly because he had our sense of humour.” In the evenings, he selected books from the library and read aloud to shrieks of laughter. Two favourites were the memoirs of an Arctic explorer – “who got frostbite and his nose came away in his hand” –and a novel set in India which included the line, “The East has got me, Granger, but thank God I’m still a pukka sahib.” Catholicism grabbed Waugh in a similar way.
Brideshead takes its name from Bridzor, near the Catholic chapel of Wardour in Dorset where Waugh often worshipped. His first wife Evelyn Gardner, or “She-Evelyn”, told me that she thought Waugh would always have become a Catholic. It was her elopement with a “ramshackle oaf” called Heygate, on the first anniversary of their marriage, which precipitated Waugh’s reception into the Catholic Church on 29 September 1930, his only godparent being the charwoman on duty.
She-Evelyn had been introduced to Waugh by his best friend at Lancing, Dudley Carew, who in late life went on to marry my other grandmother. When he died, Carew left me his Lancing diary, annotated by the 17-year-old Waugh. On the final page, Waugh pencilled down his rules for good writing:
“1. Avoid long conversations on general subjects. This is a mistake many people make. General conversations may only be allowed when they show character.
“2. Don’t be slack about grammar and do quote accurately if you must quote.
“3. For God’s sake don’t hold up the Wandering Jew as a literary or aesthetic show.
“4. Don’t put down thoughts at such length, directly suggest – be subtle. Leave something to us readers.
“5. Keep cutting out. Motto for artists of all sorts. Prune unessentials.”
It remained Waugh’s inflexible belief that the novelist deals with action and dialogue. The travel-writer, on the other hand, has to endure menacing periods of inaction and silence, galvanising Waugh to reveal himself in ways that he achieved only indirectly in fiction. That is why if you wish to discover Waugh’s creed in Waugh’s words, you need to turn to his travel books. They constitute a thousand pages of that English prose which Graham Greene likened to the Mediterranean before the war: so clear you could see to the bottom.
“I can only be funny when I am complaining about something.”
Unlike more curious writers, Waugh travels to have his biases confirmed, choosing destinations where his prejudices are most likely to be annoyed. The tension in his prose suggests a need to keep vigilant at each step. Wherever he goes, Waugh adopts the air of a detached and confident narrator for whom England is the touchstone, and all that departs from it a source of puzzled fascination (“It takes some time to overcome the English habit of pocketing change unchecked”). Unawed by advance publicity, he runs down sacred cows with the eagerness of his driver to Nazareth: “he never smiled except at the corners, or when, as we swept through a village, some little child, its mother wailing her alarm, darted in front of us. Then he would stamp on the accelerator and lean forward eagerly in his seat.” And so he finds Paris: “very much like High Wycombe indefinitely extended.” Cape Town: “a hideous city that reminded me of Glasgow.”
Waugh registers foreigners only when they trespass into his culture; either by misspelling his language, or by pronouncing it incorrectly.
“Chief, do you want to see this boy’s arse?” asks a man in the Amazon, offering him a horse.
“I misunderstood him and said no, somewhat sharply.”
Waugh will always have his critics who mishear him, mistaking the posture of the bigoted, reactionary snob for the whole man. But his demons were real, and in expressing them he rarely penned a dead sentence. His consummate prose is, for many people’s money, possibly the best of the twentieth century.
I asked Greene how he had felt on that Easter Sunday in 1966.
He said, “I felt as if my commanding officer had died.”