Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952)

‘I’m what’s called a “conducting officer”. I take American journalists round fighter stations. But I shall find something else soon. The great thing is to get into uniform; then you can start moving yourself round. It’s a very exclusive war at present. Once you’re in, there’s every opportunity.’
(Lord Ian Kilbannock explaining to Guy the importance of getting on in a war, Men at Arms)

Men at Arms is the first in what developed into a trilogy of novels about the Second World War which Waugh named The Sword of Honour trilogy. It tells the story of devout Catholic, conservative, standoffish but honourable and frequently depressed fellow, Guy Crouchback:

Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young, now, in heart and step…

The novel starts with the outbreak of the Second World War and follows Guy’s long, clumsy and sometimes very funny progress through the military machine, with a world of details about the farcical bureaucratic aspects of army life.

But the book also includes, like a persistent background hum, Guy’s deep Catholic faith and his feel for the ‘old’ values of religion and an older traditional way of life embodied in the figure of Guy’s venerable father, Mr Crouchback.

And the book’s other understated but persistent theme is for Guy’s loneliness and isolation, his unhappiness, sometimes sinking as low as actual despair. For too long, the narrative tells us, Guy has inhabited a ‘dry, empty place’ of the soul.

The Crouchback family

How so? Well, Guy’s character is carefully constructed to evoke the same kind of pity and compassion he was seeking to evoke in Brideshead Revisited, the sense of the decline and fall of a once noble family, the sense of quietly heroic old buffers trying to keep up ancient values and dignity in a world gone to hell.

Guy’s father is over 70, a quiet, decent man of deep devout Catholic faith who has nobly weathered a series of setbacks. He is the representative of a family which can trace its lineage back to the time of Henry I. For centuries the Crouchback family have lived in a country estate named Broome, somewhere in north Devon. But the family suffered a) personal and b) financial setbacks.

On the personal front, Mr Crouchback’s wife gave him four children then died young, leaving him with a permanent sense of sadness. Worse was to come because, at the outbreak of the Great War, the eldest son and heir, Gervase, went straight from his Catholic private school, Downside, into the Irish Guards, where he managed to get himself killed on his first day in the trenches. Then the second son, Ivo, always a loner and oddball, when he was 26 went missing from home and was discovered months later, holed up in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was deliberately starving himself to death. He was brought home but the damage was done and he died soon after.

There was an only daughter, Angela, who married a non-Catholic, an ambitious chap who’s gone on to become a successful Conservative MP, Arthur Box-Bender.

And Guy himself. Guy also ‘married out’ of the family religion, marrying the beautiful non-Catholic socialite, Virginia. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune and settled in Kenya, running a farm beside a mountain lake where the flamingos rose at dawn first white then pink. Wow. But his wife pined and said she needed to go to England for a break and then, after 6 months or so, wrote to announce she was leaving him, for a mutual friend named Tommy Blackhouse.

‘Poor Guy, you did get in a mess, didn’t you? Money gone, me gone, all in one go. I suppose in the old days they’d have said I’d ruined you.’
‘They might.’

Now, Guy is a Catholic, his father is a Catholic, his sister is a Catholic and so they all take it for granted that, although he can get divorced according to the law of the land, he cannot be divorced in the eyes of God. In other words, he will never be able to remarry, never be able to have children, in particular a son. Therefore the family name is doomed to die out. This is the pessimistic scenario Waugh has engineered for his characters, one source of the sense of loss and mild depression which hangs over the figure of Guy Crouchback.

His non-Catholic brother-in-law Box-Bender is just the most prominent of their friends who think this is all nonsense: Guy should just remarry, have children, reclaim the home farm, revive the estate and the family name. Where’s the problem? When Guy meets up with his ex-wife again in London, she also is blissfully light-hearted about it all:

‘You never married again?’
‘How could I?’
‘Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life.’
‘Apart from my heart, Catholics can’t remarry, you know.’
‘Oh, that. You still keep to all that?’
‘More than ever.’

But Box-Bender, Virginia and all the rest of them are pagans, non-believers, not part of the clique, not part of sinn fein (Irish for ‘ourselves’), of the cosa nostra (Italian for ‘our thing’), of the special ones. They are not Catholics, and Catholicism, at least in Waugh’s hands, is not only a theological but a sociological marker, which sets the believer apart and, though he doesn’t overplay this, pretty obviously marks them as morally and spiritually superior to everyone else around him.

So much for a) the personal; as to b) the financial situation, in the aftermath of the First World War the estate became slowly too large and costly for Mr Crouchback to run. So he sold off the contents (attending the auction himself), let the house to a convent and retired to a hotel in Matchet, a nearby seaside resort.

However, it is important for Waugh and his characters that the ancient rituals do not completely die out and so ‘the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old’ and Guy’s father attends mass there once a year.

So, both financially and personally, the Crouchback family has fallen a long way and Guy is its embattled, lonely, often depressed last representative.

Guy is a loner

Guy’s Kenya period is underplayed, referred to only in a couple of sentences. Much more is made of the family’s Italian property, ‘Castello Crouchback’, on the idyllic Italian island of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, a property bought by Guy’s grandfather back in the time of Queen Victoria. In fact the novel opens with a historical passage describing the first arrival of those grandparents on a yachting holiday at the island and their decision to buy the run-down ruins.

You might have thought these opening passages would afford luxury descriptions of pre-war Italy, and they do, a bit, but what they’re really for is to establish a) the penumbra of sadness which hangs over Guy ever since his wife left him eight years earlier, and b) the way he can never really make friends. He’s always an outsider. The Italian villagers take to nearly all the other expats on the island, they are sympatico, but Guy is not simpatico.

He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico.

Guy is lonely. Inside him is a blankness, an emptiness he can’t put into words, his imagination a prey to mournful images:

Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.

It is against this complex family and personal background that the declaration of war comes on 3 September 1939 and (like many other men) Guy is hugely relieved to escape the frustrations and unhappiness of personal life, and make a clear and unambiguous commitment: to return to England to serve his king and country and fight against unambiguous evil.

Guy back in England

All the above is explained in a sort of prologue to the book. The main action of the novel opens with the declaration of war and Guy packing his stuff to return from his Italian island home to England to serve king and country.

Guy arrives in London hoping to find a role in the army straightaway. He goes to his club, Bellamy’s, every day. Everyone is in turmoil. Everyone has evacuated their families from their London places and sent them down to the country. Box-Bender is locking up his London place and moving in with two male friends. Guy embarks on a campaign to get himself into the army, buttonholing military friends and writing countless letters to ministries and old contacts. No joy.

So he goes to stay with his sister Angela at her home in Gloucestershire.

Box-Bender’s house was a small, gabled manor in a sophisticated village where half the cottages were equipped with baths and chintz.

In a typically comic/farcical detail, their hallway is stuffed with crates of ‘Hittite tablets’ evacuated from the British Museum.

Guy is impressed by Arthur and Angela’s son, Tony, young and keen, who’s already got himself a place in the army, lucky blighter. They gossip about all the local families, some who’ve left the country altogether (the Abercrombies have decamped to Jamaica) and about the numerous accidents resulting from the blackout. Scandalised reports of the crime wave prompted by the blackout, lots of muggings.

After staying the night Guy travels down to see his father at the pub, the Marine Arms, in Matchet, where he took rooms as a long-term resident after he relinquished the estate at Broome. Like everywhere in England it’s in a tizzy because of the war, packed with an unusual numbers of guests, some of the staff have been conscripted etc. In the dining room, his father introduces him to Tickeridge, a hairy old cove who’s a major in the Halberdiers. When Guy expresses a genuine wish to be in the army, Tickeridge says he’ll see what he can do. Ha! Contacts. It’s not what you know, or who you know – it’s who your father knows!

Guy joins the army

And so Guy finds himself one of a new cohort of officers in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, nicknamed the Apple Jacks and the Copper Heads, a fictional regiment which is going to be central to his career in the army and all three novels. His closest associate is a lightly eccentric fellow called Apthorpe.

Both being that much older, they find themselves referred to as ‘uncle’. Lots of detail of army protocol, an extension of the strict rules around correct dress which were drummed into him at school, then university. Regimental traditions. Pen portraits of the other new officers, namely de Souza, Sarum-Smith, Leonard and a slightly shifty chap called Trimmer.

Guy joins his regiment

Guy joins the Halberdiers at their peacetime barracks. There is basic training and squarebashing i.e. drill on parade grounds. There is a lot of fuss about dressing correctly for different functions at different times of day, for example, the officers have to dress appropriately, and immaculately, for dinner in the mess hall.

It is obvious to me, at any rate, how life in the army follows naturally from life at prep school, life at private school, life at Oxford or Cambridge, and then life in the kind of upper class country house which Waugh idealises. What they all have in common are servants who do all the drudgery, change bedding, do all laundry, clean shoes and boots and cook and bring drinks. Their country houses are full of servants, their junior boys fag for the seniors at private school, there are ‘scouts’ to clean their rooms at Oxford and waiters bring meals in hall dinners, but on the other side of the ledger, in return for all these privileges, it is expected that the beneficiary, the boy growing up in a country house, at private school or Oxford, and then an officer in a good regiment, will follow the rules and there are lots and lots of rules governing all aspects of behaviour, dress, speech and thought.

It is a world of huge privilege but also of tremendous constraints. There is often no legal punishment for breaking the rules, but the army has a wide variety of sanctions for chaps who do not behave like an officer and a gentleman, and the narrow society of London clubs which Guy moves in also has its sanctions, its ability to cut or snub anyone who behaves incorrectly.

Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook

We are introduced to the feared and renowned figure of Ben Ritchie-Hooke, who will become their brigadier. I don’t really understand the structure of the British army, but I think what is happening is that , now war has been declared, all regiments, which had been allowed to dwindle in peacetime, are being rapidly up to full strength, recently retired officers asked back in and new officers being recruited. This is the new intake of officers which Guy is part of. First they will be trained, then newly recruited and conscripted ordinary soldiers will arrive and be put in their charge. At some point the regiment will become fully operational and Ben Ritchie-Hook will come into full command.

Throughout the first part of this novel this process takes place, observed from Guy’s point of view, sometimes, confusing the reader, sometimes confusing even Guy who’s in the thick of it.

Anyway, Ritchie-Hook is an almost Monty Python level of a caricature of a senior army officer. He wears an eye patch and a black leather glove on one hand, having lost an eye and fingers and thumb in battle. A sharp line is drawn between the initial commander in chief of the barracks who oversees thorough but pedestrian training, and the terrific change in mood which takes place when Ritchie-Hook arrives and takes over. He is all about biffing the enemy.

For example, the initial rifle range practice consists of long boring afternoons loading your gun, lying down, firing at a distant target, and having the target monitor flag whether you got a hit, a bullseye etc. By contrast, under Ritchie-Hook the brigadier himself runs up and down the trench at the end of the range waving a stick with a tin hat on it above ground level and defies his men to hit it. Later they have to crawl on their hands and knees just under a barrage of live fire.

Ritchie-Hook is a wonderful comic creation and the trigger for a series of comic incidents. For example he first appears at a drinks party held by a senior officer where, through a series of verbal misunderstandings, he mistakes Guy for Apthorpe the fellah who was in Africa for years, gruffly dismissing the fact that one of his officers seems to have spent the 1930s in Italy, no good that, don’t like the sound of that – which of course refers to Guy who keeps very silent about the fact for the rest of the evening. Comedy of manners.

but he also allows Waugh to create the kind of war he wants, which is farce. If you read war books from the Great War you are left in no doubt that it was a tragedy of enormous scale. Anyone coming to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy expecting the same will be surprised. It is overwhelmingly concerned with the boring humdrum details of training and office politics (as officers jostle for promotion) and bureaucracy and pettifogging rules, interspersed with moments of ludicrous farce. Only at the very end are any guns fired in anger and then only a dozen or so and for a few pages, on a tiny night-time excursion onto a beach in Africa which is over half an hour after it began and achieves nothing.

Southsand prep school

The officers are sent to a place called Kut-al-Imara House at Southsand-on-sea. It is a preparatory school, vacated by staff and pupils so the army can take over. Its rooms are named after World War One battles and, as Guy explores it on arrival, he paints a very vivid picture of a certain kind of lower league school, redolent of embarrassment and shame.

He leant against a coil of antiquated iron pipes and was surprised to find them hot. They seemed to lack all power of radiation; a yard from them there was no sensible warmth. He could imagine a row of little boys struggling to sit on them, tight-trousered boys with adenoids and chilblains; or perhaps it was a privilege to sit there enjoyed only by prefects and the First Eleven. In its desolation he could see the whole school as it had been made familiar to him in many recent realistic novels; an enterprise neither progressive nor prosperous. The assistant masters changed often, he supposed, arriving with bluff, departing with bluster; half the boys were taken at surreptitiously reduced fees; none of them ever won a scholarship or passed into a reputable public school or returned for an Old Boys’ Day or ever thought of his years there with anything but loathing and shame. The History lessons were patriotic in design, turned to ridicule by the young masters. There was no school song at Kut-al-Imara House. All this Guy thought he snuffed in the air of the forsaken building.

It’s one more image which brings the reader up short and makes you realise just how much Waugh was writing for readers of his own class and not for the humble likes of you and I. And also one more example of the way this class obsesses about its prep and private schools. It’s a common observation that Waugh’s generation of writers – including George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden and many others – never really seem to have escaped the clothes, drill, mannerisms and world view inculcated by an English public school system which reached a kind of acme in their day.

And then the equally commonly commented-on fact that so many of the institutions of English public life – the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the quadrangles of the inns of court for lawyers, the quads and committee rooms of Westminster, the parade grounds and officers messes of the army – are a continuation of that ordered, regimented, elite, blinkered, narrow but highly effective view of life.

The characters frequently compare this or that army regulation to ‘school’, the narrator compares this or that situation to something similar at a public school. It comes as no surprise when a prep school moves into Malchett and hire old Mr Crouchback as a supply teacher, teaching, of course, not maths or geography or something useful, but, of course, Classics, ancient Greek to be precise. Apthorpe even takes Guy, one drunk night, in a taxi out to the location of his prep school Staplehurst, now, he discovers to his horror, demolished and a modern estate built over it. Sic transit…

Anyway, life at Southsand is the backdrop for Waugh giving a thousand and one little details of army life, starting with the typical ‘foul-up’ that Guy and his cohort of officers arrive at Southsand station an hour after the bus arranged to pick them up had left and having to make their own way by taxi. Bureaucratic cock-up typical of hundreds and hundreds more which Guy will become used to in army life.

There are comic incidents. At a guest night for the regiment the officers end up getting drunk and playing a game of rugby with a waste paper basket and when everyone piles onto Guy his knee is painfully wrenched. It swells up and so for weeks afterwards, he wears a bulky dressing, needs a cane to walk and is excused drill practice.

When his fellow older officer, Apthorpe also manages to injure his leg on a drunken night out, the two eldest new officers, who had both already gained the ambivalent nickname ‘uncle’, both appear limping and using canes, to general hilarity. The comedy is like that. Schoolboy comedy.

Similarly, Guy discovers he can’t actually see the targets at the firing range at the statutory 300 yard distance, thus discovering that he needs glasses, but on a whim, instead has a monocle made by a local optician, which solves his firing range problem but, of course, also contributes to making him a figure of fun.

Another little plot strand is the Italian restaurant kept by Mr Pelecci which they take to frequenting, chatty Mr Pelecci often sitting with them and chatting about the news. They don’t at first realise that he is a spy.

Catholic theology on Guy’s marriage

The officers are allowed out to explore the town. Guy and Apthorpe join the town yachting club, chiefly for its bar. He meets a Mr Goodall, Ambrose Goodall, who turns out to be a Catholic convert with a hobby of studying the old Catholic families of England. They have lunch and dine and go to the yacht club bar and it emerges that Goodall knows the history of Broome and Guy’s own family. And then, in the context of another family, in passing remarks that, theologically, it is no sin or crime for a man to have sex with his divorced wife as, in the eyes of God, she has never been separated from him. Although Virginia has been unfaithful, he hasn’t, and so the marriage is still, theologically speaking, valid.

Seduction of Virginia

This leads to disastrous episode where Guy tracks Virginia down in London. She is, typically for him and the circles they move in, staying at Claridge’s hotel. He moves into a room down the hall and she is initially delighted to bump into him, as she is delighted to bump into everyone, darling, during this beastly ghastly war. He invites her round for drinks and it is then that he puts his arm along the back of the sofa and makes an attempt to kiss her. Virginia thinks he’s being ridiculous. If you’re going to do it, do it properly, and puts down her drink and kisses him back.

But then she asks what’s brought this one and Guy makes the disastrous mistake of explaining the theological position i.e. she is still his wife in the eyes of God and it is still theologically permitted for him to have sex with her. This shocks and horrified her much more than if it were a casual attempt at sex and she stands up and moves to the fireplace expressing horror, at which point Guy really screws things up by venting 8 years of frustration and accusing her of being a tart. Then there is a big silence when they both react to what has happened and been said.

Virginia: ‘You take too much for granted.’
Guy: ‘That’s an absolutely awful expression,’ said Guy. ‘Only tarts use it.’
Virginia: ‘Isn’t that rather what you think I am?’
Guy: ‘Isn’t it rather what you are?’

Guy grovellingly apologises, more because it’s bad form and poor manners than untrue, and they sort of patch things up. But, later, leaving Claridge’s, the incident does have the positive effect that it seems to have laid a ghost. His true feelings for Virginia have come out and he feels some sense of closure. It is  14 February 1940.

Apthorpe

His fellow ‘new’ officer, Apthrope, is arguably the dominant figure of the novel. Indeed the three main sections the book is divided into each use a Latin word to describe the three stages of Apthorpe’s progression, namely: Apthorpe Gloriosus, Apthorpe Furibundus and Apthorpe Immolatus where gloriosus is self evident, furibundus means ‘frantic, frenzied, maddened’ and immolatus means ‘having been immolated or sacrificed’.

Apthorpe’s character fascinates Guy from the start, his comic obsessions and behaviour. Thus, when Apthorpe is promoted to rank of captain ahead of Guy, he insists Guy salute him, and asks him to ask all the other new officers to do so, too. This, apparently, was technically correct but not necessary and makes Apthorpe look like a pedantic fool; in fact his fellow officers play various games with the act of saluting or not saluting when Apthorpe expects it which drives the poor man into a frenzy.

A platoon of signallers are billeted with the Halberdiers and Apthorpe insists they conform to Halberdier discipline and procedure, which leads to a long and increasingly embittered feud with their commanding officer, Dunn, which eventually escalates up to commanding officer level. Although he has been promoted. Apthorpe is acquiring a reputation as an eccentric.

Apthorpe and the saga of the Thunder-Box

One of Apthorpe’s eccentricities has been carrying round an enormous amount of lumber and ‘kit’ and ‘gear’ with him which he insists was vital to his much-mentioned but obscure ‘time in Africa’. ‘Somewhere among these possessions lay something rare and mysterious which Apthorpe spoke of as his “Bush Thunder-box”.’

This develops into the book’s best-known comic sequence, the kind of extended comic digression which characterised the best of his 1930s comic novels, reminiscent of Basil Seal’s scams in Put Out More Flags. The thunder-box is a beautifully made Edwardian chemical toilet, a cube of solid wood, which opens to reveal a porcelain seat and bowl. But why? asks Guy: there are toilets just down the hallway. ‘The clap old chap,’ Apthrope confidently explains. ‘A chap can never be too careful.’ So Guy watches Apthorpe surreptitiously, one evening, when the other chaps are in the game room, haul this big box out of the general lumber room and drag it across the prep school playing fields into a little games storeroom hidden among the bushes. For a couple of days Apthorpse disappears for ten minutes at a time and only Guy knows where he’s going.

However, disaster strikes when one evening Apthorpe encounters fearsome Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke exiting the clump of bushes which conceal his secret. Both are forced to salute each other but very uneasily. Apthorpe tells Guy the terrible news but worse is to follow. Next day Apthorpe goes for his daily evacuation and is horrified to see a sign pinned on the little outhouse saying the place is out of bounds to everyone below the rank of brigadier.

Apthorpe anxiously discusses the situation with Guy and ropes him into moving the dread device. So one evening they sneak down to the outhouse and manhandle it some distance away to another hiding place, returning very satisfied with their work. A few evenings later Apthorpe makes his usual excuses and slips off and a few minutes later Guy hears a muffled explosion. He knows at once what it is, and sets off running across the playing fields and into the bushes. He discovers a dazed Apthorpe sprawled on his face a few yards from the thunder-box which is now a splintered smoking wreck. Ritchie-Hook, in one of his famous practical jokes, had rigged the thing with a small explosive device.

The sequence of events themselves are fairly funny, but what turns it into award-winning farce is the tremendous seriousness with which Apthorpe takes it all, and the completely straight-faced way Guy plays along with him.

Penkirk

The regiment is moved to Penkirk not far from Edinburgh in a camp of tents. A castle is nearby. Here Apthorpe’s eccentricities continue to flourish. It is here that he commences his long-running vendetta against the officer in the Signalling regiment.

It is here that the first division of commands is given and Guy is bitter to be given only a platoon while Apthorpe is promoted above him. Only later does a friendly superior explain this is because Apthorpe is actually fingered for promotion into purely administrative positions whereas the Brigadier doesn’t want anyone in command of actual fighting units who hasn’t started out with experience of commanding a platoon. That cheers him up a bit.

A new commander is assigned, one Hayter, who Guy comes to dislike. There is a great deal about relations between the new officers of his rank and the complex array of commanding officers who come and go as the regiment is restructured and reorganised.

There is a long sequence which Waugh cleverly arranges around the one hundred and forty-three questions in the Army Training Memorandum No. 31 War. April 1940 which all the officers receive and are ordered to complete.

On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, replacing the hapless Neville Chamberlain. It is worth lingering over what Waugh, or at least his character Guy, thinks of him:

Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.

He thinks he’ll be better than the other chap. But this is a novel and another character, Major Erskine, who, in the dim-witted nature of these characters is thought to be ‘brainy’ because he reads novels and is a bit scruffy, this Erskine is made to say, prophetically:

‘Churchill is about the only man who may save us from losing this war.’

The difference between history and novels is in novels opinions, ideas, perspectives are distributed among different characters for dramatic effect. Might be worth also quoting the place where Waugh gives his clearest explanation of Guy’s motive for fighting, for taking part in this war:

[Guy] was a good loser, but he did not believe his country would lose this war; each apparent defeat seemed strangely to sustain it. There was in Romance great virtue in unequal odds. There were in morals two requisites for a lawful war, a just cause and the chance of victory. The cause was now, past all question, just. The enemy was exorbitant. His actions in Austria and Bohemia had been defensible. There was even a shadow of plausibility in his quarrel with Poland. But now, however victorious, he was an outlaw. And the more victorious he was the more he drew to himself the enmity of the world and the punishment of God.

Note the complete absence of political analysis. Waugh doesn’t, for example declare his protagonist an enemy of fascism or Nazism (in fact, having lived in Italy for most of the 1930s, Guy has a relaxed attitude to the reality of Italian fascism on the ground). Certainly not in the way that English left-wing or liberal thinkers thought of Nazism as unambiguously evil and a threat to all notions of freedom. Guy just seems to think that in invading Poland, Nazi Germany has gone a bit too far. And then this phrase ‘the enmity of God.’ Is Waugh serious? Well, his character probably is. Guy is a devout and in many ways simple Catholic, with a simple sense of right and wrong.

The flap

All this is taking place in the spring and early summer of 1940 which saw, in the wider world of war, the Russian invasion of Finland and the German invasion of Norway, this latter prompting a badly organised and chaotic British attempt to land troops and hold the German advance. (Waugh’s earlier novel, Put Out More Flags, includes towards the end a passage describing the ill-fated involvement of one of the characters, Cedric Lyne, in this badly organised fiasco.) And then, of course, the evacuation of Dunkirk, 26 May to 4 June 1940.

All kinds of rumour reach our chaps and this is a useful social history aspect of the novel, what makes it more than history, that it doesn’t record what happened, but what educated people of the time thought was happening and was going to happen.

Aldershot

So they’re sent to Aldershot in Surrey, with some description of the surrounding sandy heathland. Apthorpe distinguishes himself again by, the second he’s put in charge when the commander in chief is briefly absent, causing a great panic when he claims he has reports of German paratroopers landing.

Maps of Calais are issued as if they’re going to be shipped across to fight there, the officers memorise them, discuss lines of defence and so on. Guy’s platoon is dominated by the impressive figure of Company Sergeant Major Rawkes. Guy leads his men on a training exercise on the big barren heathland, everyone gets lost, some men go absent without leave, no-one knows what is going on, rumours fly in all directions.

Tony

Guy receives two letters from his father, the first one (2 June 1940) lamenting that his nephew, Tony, appears to be missing presumed killed in France, the second one (12 June 1940) with the reassuring news that he is in fact a prisoner of war, but the doleful commentary that a) it was shameful that his regiment surrendered to the Germans, but they were ordered to and b) it is likely to be a long war and so a shame that such a fine fellow is going to spend the best years of his young manhood behind bars. He receives both letters on the day the Germans march into Paris, 14 June 1940.

The world has shifted on its axis. Nobody expected France to fall at all, and certainly not so quickly. Now Britain really is alone. Churchill gave his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940.

North Cornwall

The regiment is moved to Cornwall. Waugh details the boredom of hanging round not knowing what the future holds. There are wild rumours that the Germans are about to take Limerick in Ireland and the Halberdiers are about to be shipped over to defend it. Much studying maps of Limerick. Nothing happens. The officers have to cook up ways to keep the men entertained, lectures (Guy gives a well received one about wine making, knowledge he gained in Italy). Football. Evening games of bingo which, surprisingly, Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke recommends and calls ‘housey-housey’.

Extraneous figures came to add to the congestion. An odd, old captain like a cockatoo in the gaudy service-dress of a defunct regiment of Irish cavalry. He said he was the cipher officer and was roped in to lecture on ‘Court Life at St. Petersburg’.

Seen from Waugh’s perspective, army life is one surreal and farcical event after another. This is what makes the books so supremely readable and enjoyable, the tone of quiet humour which suffuses them, occasionally rising to moments of supreme farce.

South Cornwall

Then they are ordered to pack up everything and shunted on a series of trains across to the South Cornwall coast where they are ordered to guard several miles of heavily barbed wired beach. Top brass come for an inspection and one of the intelligence officers goes out of his way to emphasise the risk of fifth columnists, a concept and phrase which had only recently been coined, by General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

This leads to an incident when Guy has a touch of the Apthorpes and reacts with paranoia when two officers turn up at his HQ (a requisitioned hotel) claiming to be from A Company, the 5th Loamshires. Guy suspects them of being fifth columnists, is impressed by their accurate seeming papers and posh English accents, but nevertheless instructs the sergeant major to take over the bren gun next on the clifftop and cover the pair as they’re taken down for a dip in the sea by a soldier he deputes for the job. If they make one funny move, the sergeant major is to shoot them. The dismay of Sergeant Major Rawkes who had, until this moment, thought Guy wasn’t too bad, for an officer, is very funny.

Brook Park

They’re ordered to pack up yet again and entrain for Brook Park in Surrey. Here occurs an event which the sardonic and witty fellow officer, de Souza, nicknames ‘the Languishing of Leonard’. Early on we had met officer Leonard’s wife, Daisy, who is distinctly not the right class, who drops her aitches and speaks out of turn at dinners or drinks for the regimental officers. She has followed her man from base to base, taking hotel rooms and now announces that she is pregnant. She kicks up an immense fuss and wants Leonard seconded to a safe domestic posting so he can be with her. Very sheepishly Leonard falls in line with her demands, secures his posting, from which point onwards the Adjutant, or acting head of the regiment, requests that his name never be mentioned again. Shame.

Liverpool

Next thing they know they are given two days leave (Guy goes to visit his father and finds him, of course, knee deep in the classics text he’s teaching the little chaps at the evacuated prep school) before returning to barracks at which point the entire regiment is packed up and sent to Liverpool.

After the usual chaos, embarking, disembarking and so on, they finally set sail to the Bay of Biscay, are joined by a fleet and sail on to the coast of Africa, near Dakar, to be precise (capital of what is now Senegal).

Here the fleet moors and numerous high level meetings are held. Initially Brigadier Ritchie-Hook is excited because they are finally going to get to land and biff the enemy. But this turns to bitter frustration when the raid is called off. The ordinary soldiers celebrate but Guy is called to a meeting of senior officers, namely the Brigadier, Colonel Tickeridge and the ship’s captain.

The beach raid in Africa

Ritchie-Hooke is furious that the raid has been called off because naval intelligence has some aerial photos of the beaches which could be interpreted to indicate that they’re criss-crossed with wire. But in this little meeting he is gleeful because he and Tickeridge have persuaded the captain of the ship to let them send a tiny little landing party to ascertain whether this is true. And Guy is to lead it.

He is told to go and choose a dozen men who will be taken aboard a launch by a navy captain, shuttled ashore under cover of darkness, faces blacked, carrying minimal equipment. Their mission is to ascertain the existence or not of ‘wire’ and capture a souvenir, a coconut, say, as proof of their trip.

The atmosphere of tense excitement is beautifully conveyed. There’s a beautiful little description as Guy and his men wait in the hold for the little sally-port, or door low down in the side of the ship, to be opened so they can climb a short distance down a rope ladder into the launch:

The lights were all turned off in the hold before the sally-port was opened by one of the crew. It revealed a faintly lighter square and a steamy breath of the sea.

Well, to be brief, they chug onto the beach, slip over the side and wade through the warm water, tiptoe up the ashore and do, indeed, find wire, rows of wire amateurishly strung across it. Then sounds and someone starts firing and then lots of guns start firing. Guy blows his whistle for general retreat but one of his chaps goes haring forward into the darkness. The rest return to the boat unharmed and the sailor captaining it reports everyone present and correct but Guy knows he saw someone else and goes back to check.

Just as well he did, for he discovers one of his men crawling back through the dunes, wounded in the leg. Guy curses, runs forward, supports him arm over shoulder back to the launch, heaves him in and the launch turns and putters back to the ship. As he helps him Guy realises this disobedient man is none other than… Ben Ritchie-Hook. Not only that, but after he is manhandled into the launch he slips into Guy’s lap the object he’s been hugging close all this time. It is the severed head of an African soldier.

The ‘gruesome’ in Waugh

What to make of this? It is at the same time farcical, comic and gruesome. But readers will remember this is the sometimes puzzlingly extreme tone he takes in many of his books. It is as if part of his approach to humour is to occasionally crank it up to broad farce, and then sometimes to take farce way over the top into The Gruesome.

It’s easy to forget that in his very first novel, Decline and Fall, when the young innocent Paul Pennyfeather finds himself in prison, he discovers that the padre is none other than one of his teachers at the crappy private school he taught at in Wales, Prendergast, who has retrained as a chaplain, and how the prison governor with his fancy ideas, decides it is a good thing to try and reform one of their most notorious prisoners by allowing him to express himself in the carpentry shop – and how this prisoner takes the first opportunity to saw off the padre’s head.

Ritchie-Hooke later explains that the man raised his gun at him so Ritchie chucked a grenade which blew him to bits, one of the bits of which was the head (which he proceeded to ‘trim’ a bit). The beheading of the African is no more offensive than the decapitation of Prendergast i.e. a bit offensive against good taste and restraint. What definitely is offensive is the way Ritchie-Hook refers to the head as his ‘coconut’ and so does everyone else concerned during the incident’s repercussions.

The repercussions are that Ritchie-Hooke has gone too far this time and is recalled to London for a bollocking and possibly the end of his military career. Guy was only obeying direct orders but finds himself also condemned to have a black mark against him.

Freetown

Having abandoned the attack on Dakar the allied fleet sails on to Freetown, the port capital of Sierra Leone (a British colony which remained secure during the war). Damaged ships turn back. The two ships carrying the Halberdiers dock and they go ashore.

There is a new brigadier. He calls Guy in, tells him that during the journey he was promoted captain but that, in light of his involvement in the Dakar fiasco, he has been demoted again. He is to be recalled to London. He will be flown there along with Ritchie-Hooke as soon as the latter is fit enough to travel.

Here in Freetown he makes his second mistake. Apthorpe took the opportunity of leave to go up country. Now word comes back that he is ill. In fact he has been brought back by native bearers in a Victorian style ‘sheeted hammock’ and deposited in hospital.

The brigade major gives Guy permission to visit Apthorpe and recommends he take a bottle of whiskey along, it’s always a nice gesture, though strictly speaking advised against. Guy does so and has a long rambling encounter with Apthorpe who is genuinely ill. Guy slips the whiskey under his bedclothes. A nurse coming in smells it on their breath and says the doctor has forbidden it but Guy lies and says he just gave Apthorpe a nip from his flask.

During this interview Apthorpe, in his comically earnest and tragic way, entrusts Guy with a last wish, which is to ensure that he (Guy) hands over Apthorpe’s legendary pile of kit and equipment to his old friend ‘Chatty’ Corner (who we met earlier in the book when he attended one of the regimental drinks parties). Guy promises and leaves.

A few days later the brigade major calls him in to tell him that Althorpe is dead. Drank the whole bottle of whiskey in a day. Guy is shocked but then more shocked to learn that he is being blamed. The brigade major was the one who suggested the idea, but now holds him responsible.

(Throughout Apthorpe’s dying scenes there is another thread of Waugh’s irrepressible cheeky comedy, which is that Apthorpe solemnly assures him that when he told him, all the way back at the start of the book, that he had two aunts, he was, in fact, fibbing: he only has one. Guy accepts this deathbed confession with a straight face. But this misconception, that Apthorpe had two aunts who will grieve his loss, is then repeated by every other officer and official involved in the case, adding a wonderful thread of humour to counterpoint the rather grim fact of his actual death.

Again, as in the story of the decapitated African, grim death is inextricably intertwined with farce. It is a conscious policy.

So anyway, now Guy has two black marks against him. A flying boat lands in the harbour. It is to take him and Ritchie-Hook back to London and at this point the novel ends.

Cutaway ending

Except that, as Guy flies back to Blighty and an uncertain future, Waugh uses his characteristic technique of cutting away from the protagonist to have him and his plight be discussed by people at some distance from the action who, therefore, treat it with the levity and half attention we all give to gossip about people we half know or have vaguely heard of. It is a home counties version of the Alienation Effect. It is half humorous, half-despairing. It is the way human life is, never really understood, immediately transformed into gossip, all our lives, ultimately, dust. Sarum-Smith and de Souza attend the funeral of Apthorpe, laid to rest in the English cemetery in Freetown, and then remark on the fact that both of the oldest ‘new’ officers, the ones they nicknamed ‘uncle’, have left on the same day (one being buried, the other flying home under a cloud):

‘Both Uncles gone the same day.’
‘Funny, I was thinking the same. I rather preferred Crouchback on the whole.’
‘He seemed a nice enough fellow. I could never quite make him out. Pity he made an ass of himself.’
Already the Second Battalion of the Halberdiers spoke of Guy in the past tense. He had momentarily been of them; now he was an alien; someone in their long and varied past, but forgotten.

The old truth: life is intense tragedy to the person living it, but comedy to everyone else.


Waugh’s worldview

Snobbery

Only members of his class count. The narrator is scornful of anyone outside his circle and its very limited extension into the narrow circle of People Like Us.

The vulgar middle class

Throughout his works Waugh is snooty about people who make a living through trade, shopkeepers, merchants, and what you might call the lower professions, accountants and the like. Thinking about the professions, the very big gap in his oeuvre is the legal profession. If you think about Dickens, his works are full of lawyers and legal cases. None in Waugh. The central profession is, in the 1930s comedies, journalism and, in the novels from Put Out More Flags, the army.

The working classes

The working class is invisible except for servants, publicans, waiters and waitresses (in civilian life) and batmen, valets, servants and drivers (in the army). Oh and the actual soldiers, the common soldier, the private. Almost none of these are mentioned and none are named. When Guy takes his little troupe ashore at Dakar the sergeant has a name but none of the men. They are anonymous extras.

But what interests me is not Waugh’s snobbish, privileged, entitled elitism, as such. It’s more to do with the way that, operating within this closed, super-narrow, elite worldview – the upper class, private school and Oxbridge, country house and the-old-regiment kind of world, bolstered by the exclusiveness and elitism of his upper-class Catholic faith – enables his discourse, allows the texts to be written. A writer can’t write about the entire world; you have to pick a subject. Waugh isn’t trying to describe the great shambling chaos of the modern world. His bright, alert, highly regimented, policed and orderly world is the unshakeable foundation which allows him to create these comic, satirical and, occasionally, devastating fictions.

The elitism is as much a genre as a worldview, with its own customs and conventions. If, for the purpose of reading and enjoying his books, you accept this worldview, then the interest moves on from anatomising the worldview itself, to enjoying the way Waugh subverts, bends and occasionally breaks it.

Private schools and prep schools

Authors of his generation just can’t get away from memories of their childhood prep schools and boyhood private schools. They make endless comparisons to them, something reminds them of this or that at prep or public school, somehow prep schools are always cropping up as actual items: thus the location of training in Southsea is a requisitioned prep school and Mr Crouchback finds a private school evacuating to near his hotel and is invited to become a teacher, a Classics teacher, of course. I wasn’t at all surprised when (in the third book in the trilogy) de Souza tells Guy:

‘All army courses are like prep schools–all that welcoming of the new boys.’ (Unconditional Surrender, page 97)

It’s the first point of comparison for all these privately educated men.

Mental illness

I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in my reviews of Waugh’s novels, but a surprising number of them feature characters or passages dealing with mental illness or mental breakdown. Thus the nervous collapse of Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies, the teetering on the brink of shocked breakdown of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, the decline into depressed alcoholism of former High Society doyenne Angela Lyne in Put Out More Flags, the mental collapse of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, not one but two suicides in The Loved One. Several of his short stories are about homicidal lunatics (Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing and The Sympathetic Passenger).

In the trilogy Waugh continues his interest in several ways, at several levels. Guy’s elder brother, Ivo, has a complete collapse into psychosis and starves himself to death. Guy himself has been down enough to qualify as depressed and there are plenty of descriptions of his sense of hollowness, emptiness and futility:

He [was] himself destitute, possessed of nothing save a few dry grains of faith.

His brother-in-law, Box-Bender, frankly expects Guy to go mad at any moment, like his older brother, which doesn’t help. And then there’s something odd, ‘rum’, about the central figure, Apthorpe, mounting in eccentricity all the way through to his final collapse.

It feels like madness is constantly lurking just around the corner in any Waugh text. For the most part Waugh manages to keep the lid on it, contain it, and express it in socially acceptable form as a sense of the ludicrous or the farcical. But sometimes, pop! madness or despair emerge into the open.

Influence of film

1. As I’ve pointed out in other reviews, the film technique of quick cutting between scenes is something Waugh absorbed and used to great effect, most notably in an early novel like Vile Bodies but more subtly throughout all his fictions. He is still using it liberally throughout the trilogy, which often features sequences of 2 or 3-page scenes, moving quickly from one setting to another.

2. At moments, like so many of us, like so many characters in twentieth century fiction, Guy compares his behaviour to what people would do in a film and finds himself failing to live up to the Hollywood ideal of dashing masculinity.

3. And then, sometimes, he just takes the mickey out of movies, very amusingly:

Once Guy saw a film of the Rising of ’45. Prince Charles and his intimates stood on a mound of heather, making a sad little group, dressed as though for the Caledonian Ball, looking, indeed, precisely as though they were a party of despairing revellers mustered in the outer suburbs to meet a friend with a motor-car who had not turned up.

An awful moment came when the sun touched the horizon behind them. The Prince bowed his head, sheathed his claymore and said in rich Milwaukee accents: ‘I guess it’s all off, Mackingtosh.’

Influence of books

The comparing oneself with cultural ideals comes over more clearly in his comparisons with popular fiction. Early on in the book Guy recalls a story of derring-do he was read at prep school (naturally) during the Great War, and which inspired him and his friends with images of dashing heroism. The memory comes when the Brigadier addresses the men:

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘to-morrow you meet the men you will lead in battle.’

It was the old, potent spell, big magic. Those two phrases, ‘the officers who will command you…’, ‘the men you will lead…’ set the junior officers precisely in their place, in the heart of the battle. For Guy they set swinging all the chimes of his boyhood’s reading…

‘…”I’ve chosen your squadron for the task, Truslove.” “Thank you, sir. What are our chances of getting through?” “It can be done, Truslove, or I shouldn’t be sending you. If anyone can do it, you can. And I can tell you this, my boy, I’d give all my seniority and all these bits of ribbon on my chest to be with you. But my duty lies here with the Regiment. Good luck to you, my boy. You’ll need it”…’

The words came back to him from a summer Sunday evening at his preparatory school, in the headmaster’s drawing-room, the three top forms sitting about on the floor, some in a dream of home, others – Guy among them – spell-bound.

This passage explains much, about ideals and identity and the centrality of his bloody private school in both of them. But it also, on a comic level, gives rise to a recurring trope which is when Guy finds himself in a tight corner and wonders what this ‘Truslove’ character from his boyhood stories would have done in his place. Thus he refers, later on, to an officer volunteering for a mission ‘Truslove style’, and ironically nicknames the farcical episode on the beach of Dakar ‘Operation Truslove’.

It is a variation on the deep central issue I’ve mentioned above, of the way so many men – well, writers, anyway – of this generation, never escaped their public school manners, morals and essentially immature, schoolboy worldview.


Credit

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1952. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh (1947)

Nowadays it is not what you do that counts, but who informs against you.

Scott-King’s Modern Europe is a short, high spirited, at times farcically crude satire on the state of Britain and Europe just after the Second World War. I found it humorous and enjoyable all the way through and, as so often with Waugh, also packed with fascinating social and political history.

Waugh’s worldview

Born in 1903, Waugh had been to a good public school and Oxford, experiences which had trained him to be a snobbish, superior, social climber. In all the pre-war novels this attitude doesn’t come over as offensive because the aim of the novels is to mock, satirise, caricature and lampoon the pranks, foibles, eccentricities, cruelty and amorality of just these same upper classes.

However, the Second World War forced Waugh, like so many other people in the arts and the broader population, to really think about what they were fighting for. For a large part of the British population this crystallised into a determination that the country would never go back to the mass unemployment and poverty seen in the 1930s. The mood was captured in the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, which proposed widespread reforms to social welfare system in order to address the big five issues of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.’

So, well before the war ended the Labour Party made it known it proposed a programme of mass housebuilding, nationalising the medical profession to create a national health service, reforming and extending the state school system, and introducing comprehensive unemployment insurance and state pensions.

Sensible though these ideas might seem to you and me (and they were widely adopted in most other European countries at the time) someone like Waugh could only see the negative sides of these sweeping changes: beautiful countryside disappearing under horrible council estates; dictatorial state intervention into medicine and other professions; the promotion of ghastly grammar school types into the civil service and other professions; the triumph of the crude and common lower middle classes; all to be paid for by ruinously high taxes and, in particular, the introduction of death duties, designed by socialists to ensure the ‘redistribution of wealth’, meaning that old and venerable families, owners of the big estates and country houses so beloved of Waugh, would find themselves financially ruined and having to sell off their property in order to pay the new death tax.

So by mid-way through the war which he and his peers had so enthusiastically joined up to fight in (as described in Put Out More Flags and the Sword of Honour trilogy) Waugh and his peers could see which way the wind was blowing: in the direction of crushing the upper classes, the fox-hunting landed gentry and the high society party society he loved, and replacing it with a more meritocratic, grammar school-run, council housing and welfare state society, paid for by the ruination of everything he loved.

Brideshead Revisited

Thus, as he turned 40, Waugh hardened his heart against every aspect of the modern world and this finds its fullest expression in his longest novel, Brideshead Revisited, which amounts to a prolonged, often self-indulgent, over-written lament for the old ways. It is, in a way, a reprise of his first novel, Decline and Fall, but whereas that was written with all the carefree high spirits of youth, Brideshead is written in a grim mood of middle-aged melancholy. Brideshead is Decline and Fall without the lolz.

This trajectory of fall and collapse is clearly enacted in the main storylines:

  • the decline of Sebastian Flyte from high-spirited undergraduate in Oxford to wrecked alcoholic in North Africa
  • the long drawn-out decline of the Marchmain family through generations of infidelity (first Lord Marchmain’s and then Julia’s), symbolised by:
  • the death of old Marchmain and the inheritance of the estate by the eldest son who has married a ghastly middle-class (and barren, post-menopausal) woman
  • the way their pad in London, Marchmain House, one of the last grand old family houses in London (so the gloomy narrator tells us) is sold off to developers who tear it down to build yet another anonymous block of flats
  • and then The War and the way that their entire world of fine feelings, fine meals, fine wine and fine theological scruples is swept away in the vast deluge of the war in which the venerable old house is requisitioned by the army and treated appallingly, trees cut down, terrace badly damaged, interiors of all the rooms boarded over or desecrated, and all swarmed over by chavvy squaddies half-heartedly supervised by scruffy NCOs like the demon figure, Hooper, Hooper, the long-haired, unshaven, lackadaisical junior officer whose lack of backbone, discipline or morality comes to epitomise for the narrator the shabby new world which is taking over
  • and the other negative figure, the brash, confident Canadian careerist Rex Mottram, whose  admittedly impressive efficiency in dealing with the authorities, his loudmouth friends and political ambitions seemed to be going nowhere in peacetime but suddenly come into their own with the arrival of war

So in its outline and mood Brideshead is a surprisingly grim and downbeat novel – venerable old families decline and disintegrate to be replaced by the swarming mob of the new social welfare state. Nonetheless, there are many moments of humour and some passages recapturing Waugh’s old-style, high-spirited comedy.

A grumpy old man complaining about the modern world

But despite its gloom Brideshead can also be seen as beginning to include a new source of comedy, which is the pose of a grumpy-old-man complaining about all aspects of the modern world. As with grumpy old men in general, it’s not clear whether Waugh is genuinely vexed by elements of the modern world or playing up to the role of grumpy old man who can’t be doing with all these new-fangled gadgets and rules. There is an element of exaggeration for comic effect.

This new thread in his comedy is most obvious in the passage set in New York whither the narrator, Charles Ryder, has returned from a long trek through South America before boarding a transatlantic liner back to Blighty. He loathes American hotels and American service. He hates the way Americans, unbidden and uninvited, embark on long soliloquies about their lives on train journeys (‘Their matter passed clean through the mind, and out, leaving no mark, like the facts about themselves which fellow travellers distribute so freely in American railway trains’).

He loathes the way his New York hotel room is overheated but, if he opens the window to get relief, is assailed by the unceasing noise of New York’s streets. This growing dislike of America and Americans reflects the resentment of (some of) Waugh’s generation at the way American manners and idioms were infecting British culture at all levels, most obviously through the medium of the movies, the cinema, which he and his characters enjoyed in the 1930s but which came to symbolise the unstoppable rise of common, vulgar culture (he laments the modern townscape with its ‘close, homogeneous territory of housing estates and cinemas‘; the over-the-top party his wife arranges for him is, in a phrase obviously intended to convey contempt for shallow, meretricious glamour, ‘a cinema actor’s dream.’)

On this transatlantic liner all kinds of things vex the narrator, not least the impractical tackiness of the big ice swan containing caviar which his wife organises as the centrepiece of an overcrowded party. But his irritation with the modern world is maybe epitomised by the utterly trivial but symptomatic way that the ship claims to offer every convenience of the modern world and yet he can’t get a simple whiskey and soda without ice because all the soda water on the ship is iced, that’s the American way, sorry sir.

Scott-King’s Modern Europe

At just 50 pages in the Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh and 17,285 words long, Scott-King’s Modern Europe is longer than a short story but far short of being a novel. If anything it reads like a prose version for a screenplay for a particularly madcap Ealing Comedy.

The novella takes the thousand and one aspects of the horrible modern world which the grumpy old man described above detests, and plays them entirely for laughs, high spirited satirical laughs although (as always with Waugh) with an increasing sense of bite.

As to the plot, Scott-King is a dusty old failure of a dull-as-ditchwater classics teacher at some public school, Grantchester who the boys nickname ‘Scotty’ and the other teachers ignore. He has devoted his spare time to the fabulously pointless task of translating an epic poem by the unknown 17th century poet Bellorius into Spenserian stanzas (i.e. the stanza form used in the genuinely wonderful English epic poem The Faerie Queene by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser). The key thing about this fictional poet Bellorius is he is made to come from the utterly fictional nation of ‘Neutralia‘.

Once Scott-King has completed his opus he sends it off to a few literary magazines who politely rebuff him and there the matter lies until he receives an unexpected invitation. A smart envelope contains an invitation with an embossed coat of arms from ‘His Excellency Dr Bogdan Antonic, international secretary of the Committee, Simona University, Neutralia.’ Turns out it’s the tercentenary of the death of the great Bellorius and, to his surprise, Scotty-King discovers that he has been invited to attend an academic conference about Bellorius’s Great National Poet. Fortunately the little week-long break falls during the school vacation and so Scott-King accepts the invitation, secures permission from the headmaster, packs his bags and reports to the airport for to collect the ticket which has been bought for him.

Neutralia

You won’t be surprised to learn that just about everything which can possibly go wrong, does go wrong. For a start, where is ‘Neutralia’? Waugh cleverly blends aspects of central, eastern and south-eastern (Balkan) nations, but when he says that the current military ruler of the country, The Marshall, shrewdly kept Neutralia out of the Second World War (hence its name) the reader suspects there’s a strong element of Franco’s Spain. Its capital:

Simona, stands within sight of the Mediterranean on the foothills of the great massif which fills half the map of Neutralia.

The text describes Neutralia’s history in a kind of St Trinian’s, Ealing Comedy caricature:

For three hundred years since Bellorius’s death his country has suffered every conceivable ill the body politic is heir to. Dynastic wars, foreign invasion, disputed successions, revolting colonies, endemic syphilis, impoverished soil, masonic intrigues, revolutions, restorations, cabals, juntas, pronunciamentos, liberations, constitutions, coups d’etat, dictatorships, assassinations, agrarian reforms, popular elections, foreign intervention, repudiation of loans, inflations of currency, trades unions, massacres, arson, atheism, secret societies—make the list full, slip in as many personal foibles as you will, you will find all these in the last three centuries of Neutralian history. Out of it emerged the present republic of Neutralia, a typical modern state, governed by a single party, acclaiming a dominant Marshal, supporting a vast ill-paid bureaucracy whose work is tempered and humanized by corruption.

At the airport Scotty hates being treated as a ‘VIP’. He hates being strapped into his plane seat like a chicken  in an oven, he hates the safety demonstration the smooth and insincere air stewardesses give.

She was a neat, impersonal young woman, part midwife, part governess, part shop-walker, in manner.

Dripping with grumpy old man condescension. Anyway, Scott-King befriends another British academic flying out, Whitemaid, but soon discovers he knows next to nothing about Bellorius and is along for the freebie. There’s a pushy woman journalist, Miss Bombaum, another type who rubs the grumpy old man up the wrong way:

She did not look a lady; she did not even look quite respectable, but he could not reconcile her typewriter with the callings of actress or courtesan; nor for that matter the sharp little sexless face under the too feminine hat and the lavish style of hair-dressing. He came near the truth in suspecting her of being, what he had often heard of but never seen in the life, a female novelist.

When you read a paragraph like that you realise that Waugh has concocted the character of a fuddy-duddy old Classics master in order to give his narrative maximum scope for grumpiness and complaint. And you realise the enormous scope the pose of grumpiness gives you. If you stop trying to keep up with all the changes in the modern world and resign yourself to settling into a kind of permanent sulk against everything – well, it’s surprisingly easy, it’s very reassuring, and by turning the attitude up a little you can soon have friends and family laughing at your grouchy soliloquies.

Viewed from another angle, you can see how Scott-King is a middle-aged version of the naive young Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, only stumbling into a world with far more shadows and darkness. So that thought gives rise to the question: was the external world, the world situation, significantly gloomier in 1946 than it was when Decline and Fall was conceived, in around 1927? I.e. is Waugh’s grumpy aversion to the world of 1946 genuinely justified ? Or purely a result of growing old and resenting change? Discuss.

It’s a darker vision than the earlier books because, beneath under the various running jokes and the comic mishaps of the various characters, is a half serious description of life under a modern dictatorship. The Marshall speaks, and so all the newspapers and media of Neutralia echo his speeches, about ‘Revolution and Youth and Technical Progress and the National Genius’, and all the Neutralians have to parrot the Party line about the wisdom of the Marshall and his regime.

But the shabby reality that Scott-King encounters is poverty and starvation, fear and political manipulation. The host of the motley group of academics and hangers on from all over Europe who assemble for the so-called conference are hosted by Arturo Fe, doctor of Bellacita University. On the bus journey from the airport into the capital Dr Fe casually tells them that Neutralia has lovely food, it’s a shame only the very rich can afford it. Dr Fe explains that everyone who is anyone has to have at least five jobs to keep their heads above water. Thus Dr Fe is not only a scholar,

he is also a lawyer, a judge of the Lower Court. He edits the Historical Review. He has a high position in the Ministry of Rest and Culture, also at the Foreign Office and the Bureau of Enlightenment and Tourism. He speaks often on the radio about the international situation. He owns one-third share in the Sporting Club.

Among the other guests at the reception and gala dinner is the very funny comic figure of an ice blonde from Sweden named Svenginen.

He had taken notice of her in London where she had towered some six inches above the heads of the crowd.
‘I come,’ she said.
Dr Fe bowed. ‘Fe,’ he said.
‘Sveningen,’ she answered.
‘You are one of us? Of the Bellorius Association?’ asked Dr Fe.
‘I speak not English well. I come.’
Dr Fe tried her in Neutralian, French, Italian and German. She replied in her own remote Nordic tongue. Dr Fe raised hands and eyes in a pantomime of despair.
‘You speak much English. I speak little English. So we speak English, yes? I come.’
‘You come?’ said Dr Fe.
‘I come.’
‘We are honoured,’ said Dr Fe.

There is plenty more comedy. The Brits are introduced to a range of comic foreign types, for example, Engineer Garcia (yes, definitely Spain) who once worked for seven years with the firm Green, Gorridge and Wright Limited at Salford and is convinced all the guests must have heard of it and know Salford well, an assumption in which he is sadly disappointed.

But at the same time the sky slowly darkens and things start to unravel. At the night of the gala dinner both Scott-King and Whitemaid get plastered as a result of having travelled all day and had nothing to eat. A few days later they are taken to Bellorius’s home town and forced to be present at the unveiling of a statue of Bellorius which turns out to be the worst thing Scottie has ever seen.

More sinisterly, they are driven some distance out of town to a vast memorial to the war dead and told to lay a wreath in honour of the national poet while being photographed by a rank of photographers – only realising too late that the photos are used by the Neutralian press to show ‘foreign dignitaries’ laying wreaths at the tomb of the dead in the most recent Neutralian civil war.

Slowly they realise the entire conference is a sham and an elaborate public relations exercise in which they are being used by the regime to bolster its international credentials. Scottie enters the hotel drawing room to find the other guests (from numerous European countries) in a dark mood:

The cause of offence emerged through many words and the haze of tobacco smoke. In brief it was this: the Bellorius Association had been made dupes of the politicians.

When he meets Dr Bogdan Antonic, the International Secretary of the Bellorius Association, who invited him, he discovers him to be a very anxious man, a Croat not a Neutralian at all, worried that the authorities are closing in on him, convinced there are spies everywhere. As another Neutralian attending the gala dinner tells him:

‘There is jealousy and intrigue everywhere.’

Two of the delegates to the ‘conference’, a Swiss Professor and a Chinese, go for a little drive in a rented car and are kidnapped by partisans, left over from Neutralia’s civil war. Chances are the two foreigners will be murdered.

In a similar dark vein, as Scott-King’s stay progresses Dr Fe comes under increasing pressure to deliver positive results. He tells Scott-King that there is a plot against his (Dr Fe’s) life and, towards the end of the story, is rumoured to have displeased the Marshal and so ‘disappears’.

Catastrophe

Unfortunately, with the disappearance of Dr Fe go all arrangements for Scott-King’s hotel stay and, more importantly, his return flight. He goes from one government office to another with no joy, in a sample of the bureaucratic obstructionism of new, model post war dictatorships.

Worse is to come because when Scott-King visits the British Consul (the contemptuously named Horace Smudge) he discovers that, since he didn’t register his visit with the British government and does not have all the requisite visas, he is not officially in Neutralia and so the Consul can do nothing to help. Well, how long will it take to apply for a visa, Scottie asks. Ooh could be a long time, old boy; 3, 4 weeks.

But Scott-King only has £75, nowhere near enough to live in the hotel where he’s staying. The consul tells him they’ve already had one sticky case, man named Whitemaid who tries to evade the money-changing laws. Tut tut. Very sad.

Scott-King staggers out of the Consul’s office a broken man. Well, maybe he’ll just stay at the conference hotel till his money runs out and then…?

Scott-King has another, longer meeting with depressed Dr Antonic, supposed host of the Bellorius conference, who takes him to see his even more pessimistic wife in their shabby flat in a tower block whose lift has, in the classic style, broken down. There Scotty sees Neutralian life in all its despair and paranoia:

Do you think,’ he asked, ‘that in Neutralia Western Culture might be born again? That this country has been preserved by Destiny from the horrors of war so that it can become a beacon of hope for the world?’
‘No,’ said Scott-King.
‘Do you not?’ asked Dr Antonic anxiously. ‘Do you not? Neither do I.’

This is coming across as bleak, and it is, but various moments are also very funny. Black humour. But also because it is a return to the clipped and often heartless dialogue of his best comic novels such as Vile Bodies, the comedy of hopelessness.

Anyway, luckily for Scott-King that evening in the hotel restaurant he bumps into Miss Bombaum, the go-getting modern lady journalist, tells her his problem, and she reveals the existence of ‘the Underground’. This is on the model of the underground networks which smuggled Allied airmen out of occupied Europe (or, further back, of the Underground Railway which smuggled slaves out of the American South into the free North)

Bombaum she takes him to meet a man who takes him to meet another man, who turns out to be a ‘major’ in the police, leading the breaking of one of his own laws in an acme of the kind of corruption which flourishes in this kind of repressive state. The policeman agrees to smuggle him out of the country in exchange for all his money, he does it all the time.

In a comically brutal aside, the major also tells Scottie that he has a deal with the government to help ‘disappear’ inconvenient persons.

‘I also have a valued connexion with the Neutralian government. Troublesome fellows whom they want to disappear pass through my hands in large numbers.’

So that’s how later that night Scott-King finds himself travelling in a packed charabanc with six other escapees all dressed up as Ursuline nuns (!). They are taken to a warehouse down by the docks in the port of Santa Maria where he waits for over a week in very hot, very unhygienic conditions. He gives a comically exaggerated but still very pungent sense of post-war Europe, which for several years after the end of the war continued in a state of chaos, with huge numbers of displaced persons (DPs) travelling in all directions:

There were a detachment of Slovene royalists, a few Algerian nationals, the remnants of a Syrian anarchist association, ten patient Turkish prostitutes, four French Pétainist millionaires, a few Bulgarian terrorists, a half-dozen former Gestapo men, an Italian air-marshal and his suite, a Hungarian ballet, some Portuguese Trotskyites. The English-speaking group consisted chiefly of armed deserters from the American and British Armies of Liberation. They had huge sums of money distributed about the linings of their clothes, the reward of many months’ traffic round the docks of the central sea.

One day there’s a panic when it becomes clear that a new police chief has been appointed who isn’t as corrupt as the old one (yet) and is on his way to raid the warehouse. With the result that all the waiting evacuees are rounded up and loaded onto the one boat moored for them in the harbour, far more than it was ever designed for.

Scott-King is locked below decks with this gang of desperados with no food or drink for three very long days as the ship sails the hot Mediterranean. At last the ship docks, the hatches are opened and Scott-King and the others stagger into the dazzling Mediterranean sun. But where is he?

There are soldiers; there is barbed wire; there is a waiting lorry; there is a drive through a sandy landscape, more soldiers, more wire. All the time Scott-King is in a daze. He is first fully conscious in a tent, sitting stark naked while a man in khaki drill taps his knee with a ruler.
‘I say, Doc, I know this man.’ He looks up into a vaguely familiar face. ‘You are Mr Scott-King, aren’t you? What on earth are you doing with this bunch, sir?’
‘Lockwood! Good gracious, you used to be in my Greek set! Where am I?’
‘No. 64 Jewish Illicit Immigrants’ Camp, Palestine.’

Home sweet home

And then, as in so many Waugh the text cuts drastically and completely and we are back in the common room at Grantchester and so, after no doubt difficult diplomatic complications, is Scott-King.

There’s a joke that all the other teachers are swapping yarns about the adventures they had on their summer holidays which all, of course, pale into insignificance to the trauma of what Scott-King has been through but is too shy, or traumatised, to mention. And so everyone carries on thinking what a dull dog ‘Scottie’ is.

Later the headmaster asks him into his study and informs him there’ll be fewer students for the classics class than ever before. Parents are going off the subject. ‘They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?’

But Scott-King does blame them. He is determined to teach classics for as long as he possibly can. For him they represent humane values, civilisation and culture. And as to preparing boys for the modern world, well after what he’s seen of the modern world this summer, he declares:

‘It would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.’

Grumpy old man

Scott-King is made to be exactly the same age as Waugh when he wrote this lampoon, 43. He serves several ends. As a fusty classics teachers he is a kind of grumpy old man par excellence, for whom every aspect of the modern world is displeasing. His retired situation also allows him to be naive and simple, a fool abroad, in the time honoured manner of this kind of comic picaresque.

Lastly, Scott-King can be made, however improbably, into a champion of the very best of Western culture – if, that is, you accept the notion that the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome represent the best of Western culture – so that his stubborn refusal to relinquish teaching classics, his determination to hold out for these values of clarity and civilisation as long as he can, and his disgust at the idea that education is about fitting boys to the disgusting ‘modern world’, can be depicted as heroic.

The pleasure of the text

Maybe Waugh’s attitude is risible but it has the merit of being a coherent worldview. Easier to analyse and argue with a worldview which is, at least, coherent, even if you disagree with it.

But also, opinions don’t necessarily matter if their ultimate purpose is to give rise to comedy. An artist may pain the same thing over and over again until you are completely familiar with the subject – take Cézanne’s obsessive painting and repainting of Mont Sainte-Victoire: the point is not that it’s a mountain, the point is the experiments in light and shade and tone and, ultimately, the pleasure of painting itself, the joy of technique.

Something similar with Waugh. On one level you can take issue with his politics, his religion and his general worldview, revealed with increasing grumpiness as he got older. But on another level, you can simply enjoy the absurdity of the farce and, above all, the pleasure of his prose. Almost everything Waugh ever wrote is a joy to read:

The little Mediterranean seaport of Santa Maria lay very near the heart of Europe. An Athenian colony had thrived there in the days of Pericles and built a shrine to Poseidon; Carthaginian slaves had built the breakwater and deepened the basin; Romans had brought fresh water from the mountain springs; Dominican friars had raised the great church which gave the place its present name; the Habsburgs had laid out the elaborate little piazza; one of Napoleon’s marshals had made it his base and left a classical garden there. The footprints of all these gentler conquerors were still plain to see, but Scott-King saw nothing as, at dawn, he bowled over the cobbles to the water-front.


Credit

Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1947. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (1942)

‘[A uniform] is the best possible disguise for a man of intelligence. No one ever suspects a soldier of taking a serious interest in the war.’
(Colonel Plum to Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags, page 150)

Background

In his preface to the 1966 edition, Waugh tells us Put Out More Flags was the only book he wrote for pleasure and it shows. It isn’t exactly a comic masterpiece like Decline and Fall or Scoop, it isn’t a scandalous portrait of a generation like Vile Bodies, it isn’t scarred by a devastatingly bleak conclusion like Black Mischief or A Handful of Dust. Instead it is suffused by a warm, deep sense of English patriotism, embodied in a surprisingly buoyant good humour, occasionally rising to real laugh-out-loud comedy.

Waugh wrote Put Out More Flags on a troopship back from Crete after the island fell to the Nazis in 1941. He had been serving in the army for two years (experiences which would be transmuted into the wonderful Sword of Honour trilogy). Now, as the ship sailed slowly around the entire coast of Africa, he had time on his hands, so he took advantage of the enforced idleness and wrote all day every day,  completing the first draft in just a month.

Subject

The narrative covers the period of the Phoney War or what some humourists called the Bore War, between Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939 and the sudden German attack on France in June 1940, a long nine months during which we were technically at war but there was no direct attack on Britain. The narrative is divided into four simply named sections, Autumn, Winter, Spring, with a brief epilogue, Summer.

The return of Basil Seal

In part, Waugh wanted to find out what had happened to the characters he’d created in his previous novels. As Waugh himself puts it:

The characters about whom I had written in the previous decade came to life for me. I was anxious to know how they had been doing since I last heard of them, and I followed them with no preconceived plan, not knowing where I should find them from one page to the next.

The narrative opens with Basil Seal, the dashing scapegrace who was at the centre of Black Mischief, because Waugh obviously realised he could use Basil as an entry point to different aspects of English life.

1. Thus we hear for the first time about Basil’s extended family and in particular his sister, Barbara Sothill, who lives at a classic Waugh country house, Malfrey, beside a lovely village in a lovely part of the Midlands, somewhere. This allows Waugh to do lovely descriptions of the countryside and repeat the rather sentimentalised vision of the English country squire he had deployed in A Handful of Dust.

But the house now wears a mournful aspect: Barbara’s servants have mostly gone off to work in factories, and her husband, Freddy, has rejoined his reserve regiment. To her own surprise, Barbara has  become the billeting officer for her district, that’s to say she has responsibility for finding accommodation for evacuees from the nearest city (Birmingham) among the local villages. This is played for laughs as Barbara, previously a welcome sight to friends and neighbours, now becomes a scourge, the arrival of her car in the drive now the prelude to requests to the tremendous inconvenience of putting up ghastly working class families or children.

2. Basil’s mistress is Angela Lyne. In what develops into an interesting and moving storyline, we watch Angela hurry back from the South of France immediately after war is declared, back to a service flat in Mayfair and then… then something happens. She holes up in her bedroom and becomes addicted to listening to the news on the radio and… takes to drinking, takes to asking her maid for a drink early in the morning and then… takes to wearing dark glasses, at home, during the day, even with the curtains drawn. It’s a really interesting portrait of someone badly undermined by the declaration of war, someone thrown off their game, made ill by uncontrolled thoughts.

Insofar as Angela was once a luminary of London high society she is also a kind of entrée into that world, occasionally leaving her seclusion to attend a party given by the egregious Lady Metroland, no matter how peripherally, in every Waugh novel since Decline and Fall.

Also, Angela has a husband, Cedric Lyne. They’re in their later thirties now and it is very sympathetically handled, the way Cedric was initially upset when his wife began an affair with Basil, thinking it would all blow over, accepted it was going to last a bit longer, and only slowly realised Basil was in the fact the love of her life. They remain married because, well, the fuss my dear, of getting divorced. So disruptive. More importantly, being a ‘divorced woman’ would close society doors to her, and being in society is her life, and so she persuades Cedric not to divorce her but to continue living on at the family place in the country where he has poured the energy which should have gone into being the head of a happy family into, instead, collecting, importing and installing grottos from around southern Europe.

3. Thirdly there is Basil’s mother, the rather formidable Lady Seal, on first name terms with the Prime Minister, a type of the grand old lady of London society, who is endlessly fussing and fretting about her errant son.

Sir Joseph Mainwaring

Sir Joseph is a minor character who provides great amusement. He is an old friend of Basil’s mother. He enjoys her company but dreads the conversations they have to have about her scapegrace son’s future. As soon as war is declared Lady Seal conceives the ambition to get Basil into ‘a good regiment’. For people like her the war isn’t so much a thing to be fought and lost – or their assumption is simply that England, being in the right, will win – it is about having the right sort of war.

Thus she persuades a very reluctant Sir Joseph to invite Basil for lunch at his gentlemen’s club, the Travellers, with the aim of introducing him to the Lieutenant-Colonel of a (fictional) regiment, ‘the Bombardiers’ who, as Waugh goes on to say with typical bitchiness, is ‘-an officer whom Sir Joseph wrongly believed to have a liking for him’.

Basil’s luncheons at the Travellers’ with Sir Joseph Mainwaring had for years formed a series of monuments in his downward path. There had been the luncheons of his four major debt settlements, the luncheon of his political candidature, the luncheons of his two respectable professions, the luncheon of the threatened divorce of Angela Lyne, the Luncheon of the Stolen Emeralds, the Luncheon of the Knuckledusters, the Luncheon of Freddy’s Last Cheque – each would provide both theme and title for a work of popular fiction.

The lunch with the Lieutenant-Colonel is a predictable and amusing disaster, Basil turning up unshaven and unkempt, and making a disastrous impression. He follows this up with a visit to the L-C in his office which goes even worse, with the old boy almost choking with fury at Basil taking for granted that he will be quickly promoted and able to leave the boring old Bombardiers behind. He barely escapes the old boy’s office without a serious shouting-at.

So much for Sir Joseph. After this abortive attempt to help Basil, he settles down to become a bit character, pompous possessor of ‘a peppercorn lightness of soul, a deep unimpressionable frivolity’, occasionally wheeled on to give opinions and predictions about the war which are consistently and hilariously wide of the mark.

A theory of gossip

A word about gossip. Waugh loved gossip. If his novels weren’t enough of an indication, we have Waugh’s extensive letters and diaries which show what a tremendous party animal, socialiser, snob and social climber he was. From private school through Oxford and on into London’s society and literary circles, it was very important to Waugh to cultivate friends in the right places, be au courant with the young party set, and hobnob with the finest titles he could manage.

So far, so biographical. The point I want to make is the distinctive effect this has on his fiction. This is that no matter what happens to the main characters, Waugh always shows us its impact on ‘society’, on other people gossiping and commenting about them. There are always two levels: the level of the main events happening to the central protagonists; and then a fog of rumour and gossip about them.

In A Handful of Dust an entire extra layer is added to the narrative by the way Waugh describes not only the central tragedy of the accidental death of little John Andrew, but the way every step of Tony Last’s response is reported, repeated, commented on and analysed by outsiders, people not directly connected, people in London’s endless parties who get the facts wrong, twist the facts, and end up making Tony the bad guy in his divorce with Brenda in which, as we the readers see and know, he is utterly innocent.

Although the word ‘gossip’ sounds trivial, I think the way Waugh deploys it in most of his novels reflects a profound truth about human life. Gossip is, in fact, how most of us are perceived in society – not as the brave, clever, hard-working people we think ourselves to be, but as other people see us: the cranky one who’s always getting into arguments, the boring one who always sits in the corner, the scruffy one who always arrives late, who got drunk and did something embarrassing at the Christmas party, and so on.

Most of us live our lives very much for-ourselves and only occasionally overhear what other people really think about us. And when it happens, it is without exception profoundly disturbing to overhear friends or work colleagues everso casually dismissing you, reducing you to a few crude strokes of caricature, to the punchline to a few unrepresentative anecdotes. ‘But I’m more than that,’ you want to protest, ‘I am all these wonderful feelings and perceptions and thoughts and intuitions!’ Not to other people, you aren’t. To other people you’re the one who’s rubbish at telling jokes, gets drunk and argumentative at parties, and broke the office photocopier. A ridiculous caricature.

Lots of people rattle off John Donne’s quote about ‘No man is an island’, but it would be far more accurate to say no person can escape the comments, jokes, criticism, and behind-their-back sniggering of family, friends and work colleagues. No one.

Waugh’s fiction brilliantly conveys this sense that, despite our fondest illusions, we may like to think of ourselves as people-for-ourselves but can never escape mostly being people-for-others. The mistreatment of Tony Last in Handful of Dust, the way his behaviour is misrepresented and traduced by everyone else in the story, even his own servants, is probably the epitome of this vision of humans trapped in a web of other people’s commentary, but it is present in all Waugh’s novels – the notion that all human lives are lived on two levels: first, the actual events themselves and the feelings and motivations of the main actors; and then the limitless way all these fine feelings and high motivations are eclipsed by the superficial rush to judgement of hundreds of strangers who don’t the know the first thing about you but gleefully repeat the most malicious distortions of what you said or did.

Most of the time Waugh plays it for laughs but sometimes to bring out the intense bitterness his characters feel at society’s misunderstanding and judging them (as in Handful of Dust). That’s one it its strengths, as an approach to fiction, this deployment of ‘society’ as a kind of permanent chorus on the action, is that it can be either comic or tragic, as required. But it is always there. Not the fashionable ‘Other’ of sociology and literary theory, much worse: the others, the potentially endless ranks of people who don’t give a toss about you or, if they think about you at all, it’s as a monster, a bully, an oaf, or a fat figure of fun.

In the deftness with which he captures this often overlooked aspect of society, I think Waugh is more profoundly realistic than many more supposedly ‘serious’ novelists.

In this book this aspect of society is epitomised by the incident of Angela at the cinema. As mentioned above, the once supremely confident and renowned Mrs Angela Lyne undergoes a sort of breakdown, taking to her bed, obsessively listening to the radio news and drinking. Her only escape is now and then to totter down the road to the pictures.

One of the recurring characters, Peter Pastmaster, son of Lady Metroland, has a) joined the army b) decided he ought to get married so, in a comically frivolous way, is dating three of the most eligible young heiresses in London. One evening he’s taking one of them, Molly Meadowes, to the pictures and they come across Angela making a fuss because she can’t get the kind of ticket she wants, down at the front. As Peter and Molly push through the queue to get to her, Angela trips and sits down with a bump and the commissionaires are starting to make a fuss. So they pick her up, call a cab, and take her back to her flat, leaving her in the hands of her maid, Grainger.

And then – and this is the point in mentioning it – Waugh shows us how this fairly simple event gets quickly blown up by society gossip into a legend about a roaring drunk Angela getting into a fight with the commissionaire and cabby before being rescued by Peter. Nothing goes ungossiped about. Nobody can escape their life being pawed and prodded and simplified and ridiculed.

(There’s also something profoundly psychologically true in the way that the little escapade of helping drunk Mrs Lyne back to her flat brings Molly and Peter together. Molly thinks it’s sweet the way naive Peter doesn’t even realise Angela is drunk. And she is touched by his genuine chivalry and concern. And so she decides to marry him, a fact Peter proudly announces to his mother, Lady Metroland, later the same evening.)

Left wing intellectuals

So the book reintroduces us to a number of recurring characters from the previous novels, but there are also some new developments. One is a departure for Waugh, a comic description of left-wing bohemians. This is the social set revolving around the fiery painter Poppet Green. A bit like in Vile Bodies Waugh establishes the speech patterns or the recurring topics of conversation in Poppet’s circle so that he can drop snippets of their conversation into larger chapters; so he can cut away to brief dialogue between Poppet and comrades for a quick page before cutting away to something else, having established their tell-tale topics of conversation.

We generally know we’re in that milieu because Poppet and all her friends talk endlessly about communism, and the proletariat, and Russia, are very quick to throw the accusation of ‘fascist’ about (how nothing changes in the ‘progressive’ mind) but above all, how they obsess about the two noted communist poets and best friends, Parsnip and Pimpernell. This pair and their fierce and urgent poetry are seen as the ne plus ultra of the proletarian pose in the arts, literature, specifically poetry.

It helps if you know that Parsnip and Pimpernell are Waugh’s (very effective) comic nicknames for the poet W.H. Auden and his best friend, the playwright Christopher Isherwood. For the entire decade of the 1930s Auden’s thrillingly modern poetry had dominated the world of literature, capturing everything, describing everything, making all political issues more burning and urgent with his brilliantly modern tone of voice and imagery of factories and cars and planes and skyscrapers.

However, just as his reputation was at its height, and just as the political world they had described so well finally reached the crisis they had predicted for so long, with the outbreak of war against international fascism…that’s the moment when Auden and Isherwood, in real life, decided to leave England and emigrate to America (in January 1939). And so, in this fictionalised caricature of events, the great debate which rages among Poppet Green and her friends, is whether Parsnip and Pimpernell were right to abandon their country in its time of need… or did they do the right thing, by staying loyal to their muses and their ART?

The name of the poet Parsnip, casually mentioned, reopened the great Parsnip-Pimpernell controversy which was torturing Poppet Green and her friends. It was a problem which, not unlike the Schleswig-Holstein question of the preceding century, seemed to admit of no logical solution for, in simple terms, the postulates were self-contradictory. Parsnip and Pimpernell, as friends and collaborators, were inseparable; on that all agreed. But Parsnip’s art flourished best in England, even an embattled England, while Pimpernell’s needed the peaceful and fecund soil of the United States. The complementary qualities which, many believed, made them together equal to one poet, now threatened the dissolution of partnership.

In the five novels and four travel books up to this point, Waugh had shown himself a master of depicting the English upper classes partying in Mayfair or at home in their delightful country houses. Describing the rougher, avowedly left-wing and ‘radical’ world of bohemia and the arts is a notable departure of milieu but one he brings off very well. Poppet and her creatures’ endless internecine bickering over ideology and the ‘correct’ line to take is very funny in itself and shows the reader just how little changes in the harshly judgemental and accusatory progressive mindset.

Ambrose Silk

A doyen, a leading figure in this world, although older than many of the others and not as politically engaged as the young firebrands, is the gay, Jewish aesthete Ambrose Silk. The novel contains a number of new characters, but Silk is the one, standout, major new character. He is a great creation and joins Basil as the other major protagonist of the story.

For Ambrose has depths. He is unhappy. He feels like a man out of time. He is an aesthete. He should have been born in the age of Oscar (Wilde) and Aubrey (Beardsley). He goes along with the fashionable political chatter of Poppet Green and her salon of fashionable communists, but feels alienated from them.

But then, he feels alienated from everyone. When he finds himself in the kind of fashionable society party he feels just as ill at ease. He gets a comedy job at the Ministry of Information, in the religious department of all places, and, as an atheist Jew, feels out of place among his caricature Catholic, Anglican and nonconformist colleagues.

And Ambrose is clinically paranoid, a prey to fluttery ‘persecution mania’ (p.174). Just as Waugh shows us Sir Joseph Mainwaring on a number of social occasions making wildly inaccurate predictions about international affairs (for example, that Italy is biding its time before allying with Britain and France), so Waugh shows us a series of scenes in which Ambrose anxiously asks the people he’s with whether they think that, if the Nazis win and invade Britain, they’ll come for Jews like him? And ‘communists’ like him? And intellectuals like him? And homosexuals like him?

On all these occasions Waugh goes deep into Ambrose’s thoughts, giving us almost stream of consciousness depictions of his anxiety and alienation, something he rarely does. Most of his characters just act and talk and we see them only from outside. This dwelling on Ambrose’s inner world is most unusual. It sounds like this:

The party left the restaurant and stood in an untidy group on the pavement, unable to make up their minds who was going with whom, in what direction, for what purpose. Ambrose bade them good-bye and hurried away, with his absurd, light step and his heavy heart. Two soldiers outside a public-house made rude noises as he passed. ‘I’ll tell your sergeant-major of you,’ he said gaily, almost gallantly, and flounced down the street. I should like to be one of them, he thought. I should like to go with them and drink beer and make rude noises at passing aesthetes. What does world revolution hold in store for me? Will it make me any nearer them? Shall I walk differently, speak differently, be less bored with Poppet Green and her friends? Here is the war, offering a new deal for everyone; I alone bear the weight of my singularity.

Ambrose’s magazine

Out of this swirl of emotions and worries, Ambrose conceives the idea of publishing a literary magazine. But isn’t this the worst possible timing, people ask, just as a war is breaking out? No darling, Ambrose explains, it is exactly the right time for a magazine which will preserve all that is best in our civilisation. So he persuades the niche and not very successful publishers of his previous books to back him, being Rampole and Bentley. His magazine will breathe the same rarefied atmosphere as the famous Yellow Book and will be called the Ivory Tower.

There is comedy in the way, over the next few weeks, it becomes clear that almost all the articles in the magazine will be written by Basil himself. His publisher says this will spark criticism, he needs to think up some noms de plums to give the sense of a variety of contributors and so he comes up with some ludicrous names:

Ambrose rather let himself go on names. ‘Hucklebury Squib’, ‘Bartholomew Grass’, ‘Tom Barebones-Abraham’.

Above all, Basil realises the magazine will give him an outlet to express his great, romantic (homosexual) love for a good-looking German boy he met and had an affair with only last year, a youth named Hans. He quickly pens a 50-page hymn to the young man’s virility and good looks and vitality. Tragically, although Hans was a keen member of the Nazi Brownshirts, when it was discovered that he was (like Ambrose) Jewish he was swiftly arrest, disgraced and taken away to a concentration camp,  while Ambrose was forced to flee Germany in fear of his life (shades of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin memoirs).

The memoir will, Ambrose breathlessly tells his friends, be titled ‘Monument to a Spartan’ and he shows his friend Basil a copy.

Basil’s scams

Back to Basil for a moment. In the winter section, having signally failed to join the army he goes to Malfrey to stay with his sister. She’s grateful for the company and they soon fall back into the nicknames and games rough and tumble they shared as small children.

The Connollys

Basil gets involved with his sister’s role as evacuating officer and soon discovers there is one particular set of orphaned kids from Birmingham who no-one will touch, the Connolly children:

There was Doris, ripely pubescent, aged by her own varied accounts anything from ten years to eighteen. An early and ingenious attempt to have her certified as an adult was frustrated by an inspecting doctor who put her at about fifteen. Doris had dark, black bobbed hair, a large mouth and dark pig’s eyes. There was something of the Esquimaux about her head, but her colouring was ruddy and her manner more vivacious than is common among that respectable race. Her figure was stocky, her bust prodigious, and her gait, derived from the cinematograph, was designed to be alluring.

Micky, her junior by the length of a rather stiff sentence for house-breaking, was of lighter build; a scrawny, scowling little boy; a child of few words and those, for the most part, foul.

Marlene was presumed to be a year younger. But for Micky’s violent denials she might have been taken for his twin. She was the offspring of unusually prolonged coincident periods of liberty in the lives of her parents which the sociologist must deplore, for Marlene was simple. An appeal to have her certified imbecile was disallowed by the same inspecting doctor, who expressed an opinion that country life might work wonders with the child.

There the three had stood, on the eve of the war, in Malfrey Parish Hall, one leering, one lowering, and one drooling, as unprepossessing a family as could be found in the kingdom.

It should be added that Marlene pees and poos everywhere, indiscriminately. Well, to cut a long story short, after some attempts at trying to park these delinquents with decent folk, Basil has a brainwave. Potential hosts take against them so quickly and totally that one of them offers him money to take them back. Bingo! He realises they are a money-making proposition. And so Basil gets hold of Barbara’s address book and embarks on a campaign of parking the revolting children with the sweetest, nicest, kindest people he can find – almost all of whom ring up within a few days, sometimes a few hours, begging to have them taken off their hands. How much? asks Basil, and start to turn a tidy profit.

What makes it that much more realistic and funny is that flirtatious Doris takes a massive shine to Basil and wants to follow him everywhere and be with him all the time. Basil is a rascal and they soon come to an understanding, namely he is nice to Doris provided she controls her horrible siblings and then obeys orders to play up the second he’s left them with an innocent family.

Meanwhile, as a kind of side order, Basil comes across a nubile recently married young woman whose husband has gone off to join his regiment, is all sad and lonely and so… being the charmer he is, starts an affair with her.

The Ministry of Information and the Ambrose scam

From time to time he travels up to London and hangs around the Ministry of Information, located in Senate House, Bloomsbury (where George Orwell worked, where John Wyndham worked, where half London’s unemployed writers hung around hoping to get a gig, and where Ambrose Silk incongruously gets a job in the Religious Department).

A fluent liar he bluffs his way past security telling them he works for (the non-existent) M.I.13. Utterly at random he is distracted by a very good-looking young woman and follows her down corridors and into the office of one Colonel Plum. He resolves to get a job here, purely and solely to see if he can seduce Susie the sexy secretary, but to do so he finds himself having an impromptu interview with the Colonel in charge of this little unit.

In this absurd interview, Colonel Plum makes it clear he needs to track down and, ideally arrest, enemies of the state. Basil reflects on Poppet Green and her circle of left-wing bohemians, and quickly ad libs:

‘I know some very dangerous communists,’ said Basil.
‘I wonder if they’re on our files. We’ll look in a minute. We aren’t doing much about communists at the moment. The politicians are shy of them for some reason. But we keep an eye on them, on the side, of course. I can’t pay you much for communists.’

What the colonel can pay for is fascists, does Basil know any fascists, he’ll make him a captain in the Marines if he can hand over some fascists? Basil thinks again and has a characteristic brainwave. Ambrose and his essay about beautiful German youth, Hans, a member of the Hitler Youth! Basil tells the colonel he may be onto something, he’ll report back in a few days.

Basil goes his ways, which involve dropping into the office of the Ivory Tower. There are some proofs of the first edition lying around and also a passport, from an Irish priest of all things, a Father Flanagan, S.J., Professor of Dublin University. He wants to visit the Maginot Line in his capacity of correspondent for some Catholic paper and, in the usual chaotic way of the ministry, his application along with his passport have found their way to the religious department of the Ministry of Information, where Ambrose pretends to work. On a whim, Basil nicks it, like he steals so many other random bits and bobs, never knowing when they’ll come in handy or he can flog them for a little cash in hand.

Anyway, he rifles through the proofs and rereads Ambroise’s stirring essay about Hans again. When Ambrose returns to the office, Basil tells him it’s a masterpiece, except for the ending, the bit where the hero is dragged off kicking and screaming to a Nazi concentration camp. Reads like pure propaganda, Basil says, the worst kind of yellow press melodrama, ruins the artistic integrity of the whole.

Ambrose, permanently nervous and paranoid, takes Basil at his word and cuts the final pages of his memoir thus, unintentionally, converting it into a hymn to Nazi youth. A few days later, once it’s printed, Basil triumphantly re-enters Colonel Plum’s office and throws on his desk a copy of Ivory Tower open at the Nazi essay.

The Colonel is delighted, all the more so since the magazine is so obviously a hotbed of Nazi sympathisers, this Hucklebury Squib, Bartholomew Grass and Tom Barebones-Abraham, yes he’s going to arrest the lot of them!

Only as he overhears the Colonel phoning up the police and Special Branch to plan a dawn raid on the magazine’s offices does it dawn on Basil, for the first time, that he might have overdone it a little. It is worth remembering that Basil is prepared to betray one of his closest ‘friends’ and a number of other utterly innocent people (the publishers Rampole and Bentley) purely so that he can get the promised job of captain in Marines and maybe sleep with Susie, ideally both. Basil is charming, funny, and utterly amoral which sounds funny but boils down to the fact that he is a scumbag.

Waugh milks the unfolding disaster for all the comedy he can. Officials interview Mr Bentley, the younger of the two publishers and, seeing the way the land lies, he agrees to co-operate fully and, in a funny scene, proceeds to give detailed descriptions of the magazine’s other contributors, Hucklebury Squib, Bartholomew Grass and Tom Barebones-Abraham, people we know to be utterly fictional but the cops don’t.

In a comic scene written in a deliberately arch knowing style, Waugh describes the arrest of the older partner in the publishing firm, Mr Rampole, his bewilderment at the accusations, his trial, conviction and sending to prison, Brixton Prison to be precise, up the road from me as I write, where, with typically Waughian whimsy, he turns out to be quite comfortable, discovers a taste for reading light literature and gains face, especially with the prison padre, from personally knowing several of the authors. ‘He was happier than he could remember ever having been.’ Waugh likes throwing his characters in prison; remember how half the cast of Decline and Fall end up in chokey and the way Paul Pennyfeather, also, rather enjoys its solitude, the lack of distractions, the luxury of reading all day long. Waugh’s vision of prison makes it sound like a cross between a monastery and a rarefied college library.

So what about Ambrose Silk, the man Basil has told Colonel Plum is at the centre of this dangerous Nazi conspiracy? Basil doesn’t let him be arrested like the publishers but has another brainwave / elaborate scam up his sleeve.

Remember the passport of the Irish priest he pinched in Ambrose’s office? Turns out to be a vital prop or peg for the plot because. For late the night of the arrests Basil bursts into Ambrose’s flat and tells the half-awake wretch that the authorities are coming to arrest him (Ambrose doesn’t need much persuading and doesn’t put up any resistance because, as has been amply emphasised throughout the book, he is a quivering jelly of paranoid fear that ‘they’ are out to get him). Basil persuades him his best course of action is to flee to Ireland in the guise of this Jesuit priest, Father Flanagan and he has brought along ‘a clerical collar, a black clerical vest ornamented with a double line of jet buttons, and an Irish passport’. He hustles Ambrose out of his flat, down the stairs and they are at Euston station waiting for the train to Holyhead in 15 minutes.

‘But what about my flat and my things?’ wails Ambrose at which point Basil has another, simple brainwave. ‘I’ll move in,’ he tells Ambrose,’ and look after everything for you.’ ‘Oh you are so kind,’ smiles Ambrose, in a moment which exemplifies Waugh’s technique of comic and malicious irony. So Ambrose keeps his hat pulled low over his head and tells the rosary beads Basil has provided and catches the train to Holyhead and the ferry to Ireland and then travels as far west as he can in order to escape the pursuing ‘authorities’ In the event he finds a room in a remote village on the west coast, settles in with his minimal belongings and finally finds himself with the peace and time on his hands to write the Great Book he’s been meditating for so long. He, also, rather like Rampole, has found an unexpected peace amid the beautiful Irish scenery.

And thus Basil takes over Ambrose’s luxurious flat which is a far more fitting scene for his seduction of Susie, which proceeds like a dream, especially after he wangles her a promotion at the Ministry, and soon she has moved in with him, the latest in a long line of conquests. In a typical detail which is both funny and heartless, Basil sets Susie to work with needle and silk and embroidery scissors, unpicking the As from the monograms on Ambrose’s crêpe-de-chine underclothes and substituting in their place a letter B for Basil.

Schoolboy japes

The book’s two highpoints are Basil’s scams, the Connolly scam in part one, and the Ambrose scam at the end of part three. From my descriptions you can see how both are really schoolboy japes, species of practical joke. they rank up there with the premise of Scoop, i.e the mistaken identity of William Boot, or the practical joke which launches his entire novel-writing career, the debagging and dunking in a college fountain of Paul Pennyfeather, for which it is Pennyfeather and not the hooligans who assaulted him who are punished. Waugh’s world is one where innocence is always abused and honour is traduced (as poor Tony Last is traduced in Handful of Dust). Clever people play practical jokes on dim people, and Fate plays practical jokes on everyone.

The war

Oh, the Second World War, that one? Well there is comedy or satire in the way that almost all the characters think about the Second World War as an opportunity and worry about whether they will have ‘a good war.’ (An example of a ‘good war’ is that of Rex Mottram, summarised in Brideshead Revisited: ‘His life, so far as he made it known, began in the war, where he had got a good M.C. serving with the Canadians and had ended as A.D.C. to a popular general’. That’s the way to do it: win a medal and get promoted.)

In a brisk, business-like way the older characters remembers friends or brothers or cousins who did damn well in the First War and worry about getting themselves or their sons into the new one as quickly as possible, but only in a ‘good’ regiment, of course, old boy.

Hence Basil’s half-hearted attempts to wangle a commission in the Bombardiers, and the more effective efforts of younger characters lie Peter Pastmaster and Alastair Trumpington to join ‘special forces’.

Sad Angela is visited in her London flat be her sad husband, Cedric, bringing their little boy Nigel.  He’s been allowed out of boarding school to come and see his Daddy. Daddy takes him shopping and buys him a model bomber which the other chaps at his school will think ‘absolutely ripping’. It is a sad interview between two utterly estranged people.

We then follow Cedric as he rejoins his regiment and is dispatched on the ill-equipped and ill-organised British expedition to Norway, which had been invaded by the Germans in April 1940. The narrative gives two extended passages describing Cedric’s experiences: first in the chaotic night-time loading of ships in British port, in which Cedric struggles against a welter of contradictory orders and timings (i.e. symbolic of the generally shambolic nature of the British campaign); and then a very long passage  right at the end of the book describing actual fighting in Norway, where Cedric is ordered to liaise between British units which have become split up by the German advance.

This scene is not remotely funny, but a kind of quintessence of Waugh’s bitter sense of futility. Two things are notable: in terms of content Cedric is dispatched to run across open ground to find A company and tell them to withdraw in the face of the German advance. Waugh is careful to tell us the A company have, in fact, already realised this and packed up and withdrawn; which is to say that Cedric’s brave run across country to their last know position is absolutely unnecessary. Second thing is that, in a very Waugh kind of way, his brave run through a hail of bullets is not described in itself, but through the dialogue of the Colonel and adjutant who watch him through binoculars i.e. the event is commentated on, viewed from a distance, detached, bleakly distant, alienated.

And then Cedric takes a bullet through the head and dies instantly.

Epilogue: tying up loose ends

At which point the narrative cuts away, as so many Waugh narratives cut, exit, leaving a scene briskly and brutally, the more devastating the event, the more brutal the cut.

The last short section is titled Epilogue: Summer. Waugh conveys the calamitous fall of France in June 1940 through the idiotic eyes of Sir Joseph Mainwaring, a useless fuddy-duddy from the old times. The Chamberlain government falls on a vote of confidence and is replaced by the government of national unity led by Churchill (10 May).

I haven’t mentioned at all two second string characters who recur throughout the novel, Alistair and Sonia Trumpington. You might remember Basil finding himself round this couple’s apartment at the start and end of Black Mischief. Here they are revived to form a comic commentary on the main action, with the comic conceit that, after Alistair has joined his regiment, Sonia ups sticks and follows him round the country as he is regularly posted, as soldiers are, to barracks all round the UK. Here, in the final paragraphs his regiment comes to rest on the south coast, tasked with coastal defence, mining the beaches, setting up rolls of barbed wire and machine gun emplacements. And in the evenings, when he has liberty, Alistair spends a few fleeting hours with his loving Sonia who is now pregnant. Ominous times to become pregnant.

But Alistair shares his boyish excitement that Peter Pastmaster and some of the other chaps are setting up new, small, mobile units to be called ‘commandos’. They carry knives and knuckledusters and rope-souled silent shoes and are parachuted behind enemy lines to assassinate VIPs and cause mayhem. He is everso excited!

Basil marries the newly widowed Angela. The jaded, sophistiqué tone of their conversation reprises all those dialogues from Vile Bodies a decade earlier.

‘I shall be a terrible husband.’
‘Yes, darling, don’t I know it.’

Brief mention of Ambrose, holed up in a tiny village on the far west coast of Ireland. It is not enough. He feels the urge to wander in his Jewish soul. Maybe Waugh is setting him up to reappear in a sequel.

We see Rampole in his prison cell, ‘happier than he could remember ever having been.’

Peter Pastmaster is at Bratt’s (Waugh’s ubiquitous fictional gentleman’s club) drawing up a list of officers to join his new unit. They include Basil, ‘a tough nut’.

Cut back to Basil telling Angela he’s going to join a new unit. It will be a lovely new ‘racket’ for the spring. Pulling the wool over old Colonel Plum’s eyes at the Ministry of Information was fun at the time, but:

‘Besides, you know, that racket was all very well in the winter, when there wasn’t any real war. It won’t do now. There’s only one serious occupation for a chap now, that’s killing Germans. I have an idea I shall rather enjoy it.’

The final word is given to Lady Seal, lunching with Sir Joseph. When she mentions Basil’s name his heart, as always sinks. Only this time it is not to beg yet another favour; it is to inform him that Basil has joined a new unit, all by himself, under his own steam. For once Sir Joseph smiles with genuine happiness. For once he says something unarguably true:

‘There’s a new spirit abroad,’ he said. ‘I see it on every side.’

So despite a hundred pages satirising, mocking and ridiculing the English social and military establishment, the novel ends on a resoundingly, if somewhat unexpectedly, patriotic note.

Summary

In Waugh’s oeuvre, it’s easy to overlook Putting Out More Flags because it doesn’t have the defined central protagonist and unified action of most of the other novels. But it does contain some of the best comic scenes in all the pre-war books and in the figure of Basil Seal his most monstrous trickster.  Alongside other more interesting themes, namely the semi-serious, paranoid self-pity of Ambrose Silk and the darker story of Angela Lyne’s strange descent into drunken loneliness, themes which give it a deeper, richer flavour.

If someone who’d never read him asked you to recommend a Waugh novel, I think I’d recommend this or Scoop, probably Scoop because it is more timeless in its satire on the press in general and foreign correspondents in particular, but Put Out More Flags runs it a close second for ripe comedy laced with evocative period observations, for the standout characters of Basil the Rascal and Ambrose the Sensitive Victim, but also for that thread of despair and futility which is always glinting at the edge of any Waugh story.


Credit

Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1938. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

‘We must return to the Present,’ Ambrose said prophetically.
‘Oh dear,’ said Mr Bentley. ‘Why?’

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

‘Besides, you see, I’m a public school man. That means everything. There’s a blessed equity in the English social system,’ said Grimes, ‘that ensures the public school man against starvation. One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.’
(Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall)

This was Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, after a little runup of student and young mannish articles. His preface to the 1961 edition of Vile Bodies tells us it was well reviewed but only sold a few thousand copies. It was Vile Bodies published 2 years later, in 1930, which made his name and shot him into the bestseller league.

Maybe it was because, despite its modish aspects, Decline and Fall is basically a very traditional narrative. It recounts the picaresque adventures of an innocent young man, Paul Pennyfeather, abroad in a naughty world.

Paul is a cipher, a narrative device whose purpose is to lead us through a succession of scenes and incidents conceived solely for their humorous effect, the humour ranging from broad farce, slapstick and caricature, to satire of contemporary mores and, from time to time, hints of something a bit darker. This kind of narrative goes back through his immediate predecessor Aldous Huxley, to Dickens in the 19th century, Tom Jones or Candide in the 18th, Don Quixote in the 17th, and back past them to classical forebears, while also looking forward to the hapless adventures of naive young men in the novels of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Howard Jacobson.

The whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather… because, as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.

Part one – disgrace and public schoolteacher

Oxford

The narrative opens at the fictional Scone College Oxford where Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, witness innocent hapless Paul Pennyfeather being debagged (having his trousers pulled off) by the drunken members of Bollinger Club (obviously a reference to the real-life Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members) led by the raffish Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and featuring the loud Lumsden of Strathdrummond.

Pennyfeather is a mild and harmless student of Divinity and had just returned from a characteristically high-minded meeting of the League of Nations Union, Oxford branch. On the fateful night he is set upon, has his trousers pulled off and is chucked in the fountain. He is last seen running trouserless across the main quad. Next morning he is summoned by the Dean and flabbergasted to be told he is being sent down i.e. expelled. The comedy is in the way the drunken aristocrats who attacked him get off scot-free. No one thinks of blaming them, not even Paul himself. Thus the world as it is.

Paul returns to stay with his guardian (he is an orphan, symbol of his abandonment and forlorn status) in London, his hopes of a decent career in tatters. He traipses round employment agencies, including one (‘Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents’) which finds iffy graduates jobs at dodgy private schools. Despite a comic absence of any of the qualities required (fluent in German, excellent at music and good at games) the agency puts Paul forward for the job and the desperate school accepts.

Llanabba Castle

Thus he finds himself catching a train to remotest north Wales where he arrives at the grandly named Llanabba Castle, an impressive building stuffed with Victorian crenellations and battlements. (It may be worth noting that this, like so much in Waugh’s books, is closely based on his own experiences. Unemployed after leaving Oxford in 1923, the young, unknown and unpublished Waugh took a job at a prep school in remotest Wales in January 1925. He was, as you can imagine, completely miserable and quit 6 months later.)

At Llanabba Castle, as you would totally expect, he meets a ripe cast of eccentrics. It’s very much St Trinians 20 years avant la lettre.

Thus the head is an obvious rogue, Dr Augustus Fagan PhD. He has two daughters, Florence and Diana, who the boys nickname Flossie and Dingy. There’s a slightly sinister butler, who improbably calls himself Sir Solomon ‘Solly’ Philbrick. Only a few other teachers are named, namely Mr Prendergast,  a weak and vacillating man who constantly thinks about leaving to become a vicar, whose most notable feature is his ill-fitting wig which the boys ceaselessly taunt him about; and Captain Grimes, a leery, rambuctious man with wooden leg and a liking for the local pub.

Obviously there are several chapters filled with comic incidents, especially Paul’s abrupt introduction to the rough and tumble of teaching i.e. the boys ragging him, playing tricks, him slowly realising how pointless it is to try and teach them anything. Once a week he has to take young Peter Beste-Chetwynde to the local church and supervise him playing the organ, which neither of them know the first thing about.

There are a number of storylines or themes. Paul discovers that everyone wants to tell him the story of their lives, he’s that kind of person, a passive listener. The most florid example is Philbrick who tells him a long cock and bull story about being an experienced burglar and criminal which goes on for pages and pages. Later Paul discovers that he’s spun equally as extensive and detailed yarns to Prendergast and Grimes except with completely different content.

Grimes finds himself manoeuvred into a position where he is going out with, and then expected to marry, Dingy, which fills him with comic unhappiness. As often as he can, he takes Paul down the local pub, run by a Mrs Roberts, to bemoan the latest blow to his fortunes. He is, he laments, constantly landing ‘in the soup.’

Sports Day

The big set piece – rather as in the St Trinians films – is the annual sports day. It is, of course, a fiasco. There are no running tracks laid out (the boys are told to run to a clump of trees at the edge of the ground and back), the marquee keeps falling down, a local company delivers ‘hurdles’ which turn out to be 5 foot tall metal railings with lethal spikes along the top, and so on.

It’s an opportunity to meet the some of the parents who all have comic names, for example Mr and Mrs Clutterbuck, the Earl of Circumference whose son, little Lord Tangent is at the school, the local Vicar, Colonel Sidebotham and the Hope-Brownes. A mangy looking peevish local brass band shambles up. It’s a comic version of an Agatha Christie village fete.

By far the most impressive parent is Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde whose son Peter Paul has got to know and like on their pointless weekly trips to the organ loft. She arrives in ‘an enormous limousine of dove-grey and silver’. She is to become the dominating presence of the narrative, certainly dominating and guiding Paul’s destiny.

The door opened, and from the cushions within emerged a tall young man in a clinging dove-grey overcoat. After him, like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées, came Mrs Beste-Chetwynde—two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds, and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Buda-Pest.

Not only is she magnificent but she has brought her boyfriend, Chokey, who is an impeccably dressed, stylish black man. Some modern readers may struggle to get past the fact that several of the other characters refer to him using the n word. But it seemed to me an obvious reference to the extreme fashionability among a certain type of upper class bohemian woman of taking a cool black lover, as exemplified by the rich society heiress Nancy Cunard who, in 1928, began an affair with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician who was working in Paris. Chokey drops out of the narrative later, but makes a great impression in his beautiful suit, accompanying the stunning Margot.

(It’s initially a peripheral event among the general mayhem that Prendergast fires the starting pistol (an actual service revolver lent to him by Philbrick) into the ground as ordered, but in doing so grazes little Lord Tangent’s foot, his ankle in fact. Later we learn that the foot becomes infected and has to be amputated. One of 3 or 4 harsh and bleak snippets or details away to the side of the main narrative, which hint at a darker world.)

After the fiasco of the sports day, attention shifts to Captain Grimes and his reluctant marriage to Dingy, much to the disgust of her father, Dr Fagan. He’s doing it because he needs to get on and the marriage will, he hopes, bring him a part share in the business.

There is, however, a catch, which Grimes points out to Paul. He’s already married! To an Irishwoman, who shortly afterwards begins to make enquiries about him. Miserably unhappy in his new marriage, Grimes one day stages his own suicide, leaving all his clothes on the beach, in the style of John Stonehouse and Reggie Perrin.

(It may be worth noting the striking fact that this mode of suicide was based on Waugh’s own. In the summer of 1925 he quit his job at a Welsh prep school, believing he had secured a post as assistant to the noted author, C. K. Moncrieff, at the same time enthusiastically sending off the manuscript of his first novel to a friend from Oxford. But the post with Moncrieff fell through and the friend from Oxford savaged his novel, and the twin blows were enough to make him suicidal. He records that he went down to a nearby beach, left a farewell note with his clothes and walked out into the cold waves. However, in the best comic tradition, an attack by jellyfish made him reconsider his plan of action and he returned quickly to the shore.)

Part two – Margot

Mrs Beste-Chetwynde had taken rather a fancy to Paul at the sports day and now asks him (via a letter to her son, Peter) to come and visit her at her house, King’s Thursday, in Hampshire, over the upcoming East holidays.

Margot’s house is the pretext for some broad satire of contemporary life, namely the fashion for the new, modernist, Continental architecture of the Bauhaus mode. Several pages are devoted to describing the traditional splendour of King’s Thursday, its Tudor brickwork and original wood carvings and panelling etc. We are told that when it is put up for sale, a national campaign is launched by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to save it for the nation. Then, with comic brutality, we are told that Mrs Beste-Chetwynde buys it and has it completely demolished.

She has it rebuilt in the modern style by fierce and unforgiving Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, a Hungarian modernist architect of advanced opinions. His advanced opinions are described in detail, rotating around the idea that houses are machines for living in and would ideally be inhabited by machines. He is very disappointed by humans and their failure to be more like machines.

The utterly up-to-date modernist masterpiece he constructs for Margot becomes a running joke throughout Paul’s extended stay there, the narrative dotted with casually comic references to the luminous ceiling in Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s study, the india-rubber fungi in the recessed conservatory, to the little drawing-room whose floor was a large kaleidoscope set in motion by an electric button.

There are references to the glass floor and the pneumatic rubber furniture and the porcelain ceiling and the leather-hung walls. To the lift which carries passengers to the top of the great pyramidical tower from which they can look down on the roofs and domes of glass and aluminium ‘which glittered like Chanel diamonds in the afternoon sun’ (p.142). There’s a tank of octopuses. The study is shaped like a cylinder (p.133).

Here Paul is taken by young Peter Beste-Chetwynde in a chauffeur-driven car and spends wonderful, idle weeks of what turns into a permanent house party, a more brittle, glass and steel version of the weekend house parties which feature in the early novels of Aldous Huxley only more chaotic, the young people ‘faster’, with racier slang. The guests have names like the Honourable Miles Maltravers MP and Lord Parakeet, with pride of place going to the slightly older Sir Humphrey Maltravers, the Minister of Transportation who wanly wants to marry Margot. In fact all the men want to marry Margot. But as the arrive, have hi jinks and cocktails, play tennis, go for walks, pine for Margot and eventually leave, Paul remains a fixture and slowly becomes aware that she has taken a shine to him.

In fact she manages to manoeuvre Paul into proposing to her and she accepts. That night, in a scene which was presumably daring for 1928 (remember some of D.H. Lawrence’s novels were banned for obscenity) Margot slips into the darkness of Paul’s guest bedroom, lets her silk pyjamas fall to the floor and climbs into bed with him, just to check that she isn’t making a mistake.

At one point Paul is surprised to discover his old friend from Oxford, Arthur Potts, arriving at King’s Thursday to enquire the whereabouts of Captain Grimes. As far as Paul knows Grimes is dead, but he’s struck by Potts’s role as some kind of official snoop.

The looming marriage promises to transform Paul’s life. He is going to be rich. He writes to Dr Fagan quitting his job at Llanabba Castle.

The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd

All this is very entertaining in a lazy social comedy kind of way, but the plot sharpens up a bit when we hear that Margot is involved in a commercial enterprise, The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd, which was founded by her father. Margot and Paul head to London to finalise arrangement for their marriage i.e. sending invitations to all the Bright Young Things and a lot of shopping.

In among this Margot takes Paul along with her to an ‘audition’ carried out in a bizarrely furnished sports room, where she interviews a series of young women for work in her entertainment venues in South America. Paul is puzzled by the way the ones with the least experience get the gig. They are all quite rough, working class girls.

Paul is surprised to discover Arthur Potts hanging round outside the interview venue, as if he’s spying on things.

With only days to go, Margot asks Paul to do her a little favour and fly to Marseilles to sort out the passports and visas for Margot’s girls to catch their ships to South America. Being the unquestioning cipher and innocent abroad that he us, Paul proceeds to do this, excited at flying to the South of France and staying in a swish hotel, though there is momentarily a sense of menace when he finds himself taken by taxi later the same night into an increasingly dark, dingy and threatening slum quarter of Marseilles. He is eventually so scared that he runs away and back towards the well lit streets, but not before the reader has gotten a pretty shrewd idea that these English girls are being shipped into prostitution.

Next day Paul shuttles between French passport and visa offices to clear the girls’ way to travel abroad, not understanding the officials’ nods and winks and innuendos, although the reader does. Then he flies back to London just days before the date set for the wedding.

Paul is enjoying a is surprised at the squalid slum they seem to be staying in and then the nods and winks and innuendoes of the French officials he has to speak to and pay small bribes to ensure their passage.

Back in London he is having a boozy lunch with his best man-to-be, Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, (the same bounder who debagged him right at the start of the story, but all’s fair in love and war, old man) when there’s a tap on his shoulder and Inspector Bruce of Scotland Yard arrests him.

Part three – prison

Paul is convicted of white slaving and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Margot’s name is never mentioned during the trial and Paul doesn’t mention the fact that he was simply carrying out instructions for his fiancée who, he now realises, made her money from running what they used to call the white slave trade and we nowadays call people trafficking. In fact the reverse; the pompous judge goes out of his way to contrast Margot’s spotless reputation with Paul’s implied depravity.

Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s name was not mentioned, though the judge in passing sentence remarked that ‘no one could be ignorant of the callous insolence with which, on the very eve of arrest for this most infamous of crimes, the accused had been preparing to join his name with one honoured in his country’s history, and to drag down to his own pitiable depths of depravity a lady of beauty, rank and stainless reputation.’

This is a complete comic inversion of the truth, structurally identical to the way the titled yobbos who debagged Paul at Oxford got off scot free while his life was ruined.

Paul is shipped off to Blackstone Prison as Prisoner D.4.12. Here, in the best tradition of comic novels, he meets many of the characters we know from earlier in the book, namely Philbrick, who’s got the cushy job of meeting new convicts, delousing them and handing out a uniform covered in arrows. And when the chaplain visits Paul in his cell, he turns out to be none other than weedy Mr Prendergast, still full of doubt and uncertainty, still wearing a terrible wig, and ragged by the prisoners even worse than he was by the boys.

Satire

The prison is the setting for multiple strands of comedy and satire. There is a great deal of fun at the expense of the newish governor of the prison who is an academic, Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, a sociologist, whose fatuous attempts to treat the prisoners as sensitive individuals is epitomised by his belief that:

I came to the conclusion many years ago that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.

Thus Sir Lucas insists that all the prisoners take part in an Arts and Crafts class he’s set up for them to express their creativity but where, in fact, one or two prisoners each week take advantage of the sharp tools to try and commit suicide. He sets up a bookbinding class which fails because many of the prisoners eat the paste, claiming it’s better than the prison porridge.

Sir Lucas is prey to all kinds of fashionable fads like his plan to introduce artificial sunlight into prisons. He also wants to hire a permanent psychoanalyst and his interviews with the prisoners are continually pushing psychoanalytical ideas (‘Would you say you are an introvert or an extrovert?’) which confuse both the prisoners and the strict disciplinarian Chief Warder. He is, in other words, a broad caricature of the well-meaning, high-minded liberal whose pampered upbringing means he has no understanding at all of the institution and people he has been set to manage. The dynamic between his wispy ideas and the hard-knuckled approach is identical to the dynamic between the governor of Slade Prison and Mr Mckay in the TV series Porridge.

The extended satire comes to a gruesome climax when the governor, in thrall to his faddish beliefs about psychoanalysis and frustrated creative urges, lets a man who is clearly a religious psychopath attend carpentry class in order ‘to express himself’. With utter predictability, at the first opportunity, the psychopath uses the carpentry tools to attack Mr Prendergast the chaplain, who he is convinced is the antichrist, and saw his head off! Like the incident of little Lord Tangent being shot in the foot and dying of blood poisoning, only on a much bigger scale, this incident takes farce and ‘humour’ to the limit.

The good news for the prisoners is the incident quite dampens Sir Wilfred’s faddish ideas and the prison returns to being run by the Chief Warden, who is much more of a stickler for rules and regulations. The prisoners like him. They know where they are and what to expect. Everyone is very happy.

There’s a minor thread satirising public school (every novel written by someone who went to public school has to criticise public school, it’s part of the contract). There’s comedy in the way that Paul, like all arrivals at Blackstone, has to undergo 4 weeks of solitary confinement but how, when the 4 weeks are up and he goes to see the governor, he surprises both him and the Chief Warden by asking if he can continue being in solitary. He finds it peaceful and thoughtful. After all:

anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying. (p.188)

Egdon Heath and Captain Grimes

After a few months, Paul is transferred to the Convict Settlement at Egdon Heath, where the prisoners spend the day hacking rocks in a quarry. Here he meets none other than Captain Grimes. After faking his own death, he travelled incognito to London and was hoping to start a new life away from his two wives, but he was caught, charged, convicted and sentenced to 3 years for bigamy.

On the train to Egdon a warder charitably shows him the day’s paper which happens to contain a big photo of Margot and the news that Peter has inherited the title of Earl of Pastmaster. While we were at King’s Thursday Peter somehow morphed in a few weeks from being a schoolboy to becoming the self-possessed young man who claimed to have set Paul and Margot up (though, as we know, Margot had her own motives in ‘hiring’ Paul to do her bidding). Now he is an Earl. He has aged far more than the time described in the novel, but then it is a panto.

Paul settles in to life at Egdon but soon becomes aware that a guardian angel is looking after him: unaccountably nice food is sent to his cell, the prison trusty offers, instead of greasy tomes from the library brand new books sent from London. The guardian angel is, very clearly, Margot, who feels frightfully guilty at how things turned out for him.

Then the Great Lady herself comes to visit, mainly to complain that her acquaintances are cutting her and she feels she is growing old and to tell Paul that she is going to marry Maltravers (who has now been promoted to Home Secretary) she hopes he doesn’t mind and she sweeps out, leaving Paul stunned but no longer surprised. Nothing surprises him.

Meanwhile Grimes gets restless. He can’t stand being locked up (unlike Paul who rather likes the solitude and lack of distraction). One foggy day in the quarry Grimes creates a distraction, then manages to leap astride a warder’s horse and gallop off into the gloom. He escapes. His hat is found in the centre of the great Egdon Marsh and he is reported dead, but Paul realises Grimes is too much of a life force to ever be extinguished.

Paul’s escape

Then Paul escapes. It is impresario-ed by Margot, with the details managed by her now very capable son, the ever-more mature Peter. Peter arranges for his stepfather, Sir Humphrey, who is now the Home Secretary, to sign a form permitting Paul to be taken to a clinic to have his appendix removed.

(Sir Humphrey has been made a lord and taken the name Lord Metroland, which makes Margot Margot Metroland. We learn that none of this has stopped Margot taking a younger lover, Alisdair.)

Paul protests to the warder taking him to the clinic that he’s already had his appendix out, but the warder gives him a broad wink and more or less tells him it’s a scam. Paul will be taken to a clinic on the South Coast where he will apparently ‘die’ under the knife. Death certificates will be signed to terminate his legal existence. Then the man with no legal existence will be rowed out to Margot’s yacht, waiting anchored off the coast, and sail civilisedly round France, into the Med and be conveyed to Margot’s luxury villa on Corfu.

Which is exactly what happens, the comic element being played up by the fact that the clinic he is sent to is run by none other than our old friend Dr Fagan, who’s packed up the teaching lark and sold Llanabba Castle. And by the presence of young Peter and Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington to oversee it all, not least handling the comically drunk surgeon, who is so plastered they easily persuade him the patient has died under the knife, with the result that he bursts into drunken tears and signs the death certificate before passing out.

Corfu

The scene cuts to Corfu. Life is very civilised in Margot’s villa. Who should he meet but Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, spouting his metallic modernist opinions. He delivers a speech which might sort of be the serious point of the novel – or a semi-serious meditation on life provided for readers who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s to the effect that there are two kinds of people, the static and the dynamic. Paul is static and ought to sit in the stalls watching life. Margot is dynamic and loves throwing herself onto the whirling fairground ride of life, screaming her head off. Silenus naturally gravitates to the centre of the spinning wheel of life where, for a master such as himself, there is stability. Paul should never have got involved with dynamic people.

Epilogue

The book ends with a very satisfactory completion of the circle, when Paul, comically disguised with a moustache, returns to Oxford, gains readmission to his old college and resumes his studies in divinity.  After a bit of thought he retains the surname Pennyfeather but takes another first name and tells everyone he is the other guy’s cousin.

There is some broad comedy in the way he discovers that ‘Paul Pennyfeather’ has, in his brief absence (of, we are startled to discover, only a little over a year) become a legend at Scone College, various college worthies telling him about the legendary figure’s madcap escapades, all of which Paul knows to be utterly fictitious. Fictions within a fiction. Comic quirkiness and character are added when Waugh gives us details of some of the early Christian heresies Paul is now happily studying.

The story really does come full circle when, one quiet and studious evening, Paul hears a loud commotion in the quad outside and realises it’s the Bollinger Club again. Soon afterwards his door crashes open and it is none other than Peter Beste-Chetwynde who is now a student at Paul’s college and has been getting plastered with the other aristocrats. He drunkenly reels off all the adventures they’ve had in the past year, which serves as a useful summary of the story, told by a drunken student, a clever and funny device. Peter reels out and quiet Paul returns to his study of the Ebionite heresy.

Very neat, very stylish, very satisfying.

Descriptions

So much for the plot. This young man’s first novel also contains all kinds of verbal and stylistic pleasures. Here are a couple from Paul’s time at King’s Thursday.

Paul had noticed nothing in the room except Mrs Beste-Chetwynde; he now saw that there was a young man sitting beside her, with very fair hair and large glasses, behind which his eyes lay like slim fish in an aquarium; they woke from their slumber, flashed iridescent in the light, and darted towards little Beste-Chetwynde.

And:

As the last of the guests departed Mrs Beste-Chetwynde reappeared from her little bout of veronal, fresh and exquisite as a seventeenth-century lyric. The meadow of green glass seemed to burst into flower under her feet as she passed from the lift to the cocktail table.

Characters and tones

Waugh is excellent at mimicry, at ventriloquism, at doing various voices. There’s the raffish, disreputable voice of Captain Grimes always wanting to go off down the pub; the Germanic mechanical tone of Professor Silenus; or the impressive capture of Peter Beste-Chetwynde’s drunken dialogue right at the very end. There’s the elaborate Welsh locutions of the Llanabba brass band and the chilled drawl of Chokey, the extremely smooth black man.

Waugh particularly relishes music hall cockney, which I find particularly enjoyable to read in my mind’s ear, or out loud. Here’s a warder at Egdon reassuring Margot, when she comes to visit, that she can say what she likes without fear of being reported:

‘Don’t mind me, mum, if you wants to talk personal,’ said the warder kindly. ‘I only has to stop conspiracy. Nothing I hears ever goes any further, and I hears a good deal, I can tell you. They carry on awful, some of the women, what with crying and fainting and hysterics generally. Why, one of them,’ he said with relish, ‘had an epileptic fit not long ago.’ (p.194)

‘He said with relish’ :). Waugh is always looking for the comic detail, the foible which reveals people as the rogues and rascals that, deep down, they all are.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

%d bloggers like this: