‘So what are your plans?’ said our gentle, civilised Airbnb host over a tray of tea and cake to welcome us into their perfect home. I outlined the highlights of our prospective three-day literary tour. ‘The Augustus John exhibition at the Salisbury museum; the Henry Lamb at Poole; Hardy’s cottage. And if we have time the Barley Mow on the Wimborne Road where Evelyn Waugh wrote Decline and Fall.’ ‘My word, you are a cultured couple,’ he said, half-humorously. ‘Oh, we’re so cultured it’s ridiculous,’ I said.
The Augustus John exhibition was wonderful. (So was Salisbury’s museum.) Michael Holroyd’s biography of John, then his pictures, were the spark which inspired Catriona to pick up a paintbrush and me to start looking at paintings. Every picture at Salisbury museum was familiar to us via art book reproductions. I was shocked, however, to see that the works that I had imagined to be small were huge and vice versa. Same with the Lambs. Of the 40 paintings on two floors I knew all but a few, but again was shocked by their size. His portrait of Waugh was three times larger than I thought it was. His Stanley Spenser and friends 20 times bigger.
Waugh sat for Lamb at Lamb’s Poole studio in 1928. At the time Waugh had taken a room at the Barley Mow pub on the Wimborne Road to finish his comic novel Untoward Incidents, named after the Duke of Wellington’s terse assessment of the annihilation of the Turkish fleet at Navarino. Chapman and Hall needed Waugh to pad out his virtuoso beginning to bring up the word count before publishing the funniest book in the world as Decline and Fall. Lamb spent boozy evenings with Waugh and their respective fiancées at the Barley Mow. Eating a pilgrims lunch there would make a seamless transition, we decided, from the painterly to the literary part of our tour.
Waugh often wrote in pubs. He wrote Brideshead Revisited at the Easton Court Hotel near Chagford in Devon, for example. At the Abingdon Arms in Buckley, Oxfordshire he wrote Rossetti, Vile Bodies and the travel book Remote People. The thriving Evelyn Waugh Society has put up a blue plaque and holds binges there. I imagined that at the Barley Mow, self-identifying Evelyn Waugh nuts on pilgrimages would be greeted by the landlord with a sly, highly civilised little smile. Perhaps their attention would be drawn to an old Windsor fireside chair or a brash little signature in the visitors’ book. If we were going to eat there we’d have to get a move on though. The pub closed at three and the hire car’s advanced brain calculated that we wouldn’t get there till 2.20. We hoped the kitchen would still be open.
The Barley Mow is old, thatched and sits in isolation on a country lane. Yet somehow it contrives to be characterless. There was one other car in the large car park. On lifting the latch and entering, we saw that apart from a table of four away at the far end bent silently over lunch, we were the only customers. Darting frenetically about behind his bar a chunky young male barman had already called time in his mind and was clearing up. ‘The kitchen’s closed’ was his greeting. He was so pissed off he couldn’t bring himself even to look at us; he said it to the wall. ‘Oh well,’ I said. ‘Two monster gin and tonics should fill the gap nicely.’
Because we weren’t leaving immediately, because we now had the temerity to order a drink, he violently smashed off the tonic caps and stabbed brutally at the lemon with his knife. ‘What gin?’ he said to the floor. ‘What do you have?’ asked Catriona. He indicated the gin section of the optics with a jerk of his square head. Having to go out the back and refill the ice bucket was enough to make him homicidal.
Was this all some kind of a joke? I wondered. Maybe the clock in the car was wrong. Ever ready to put myself in the wrong, and having had an earlier career as a barman, I remembered how cheesed off I used to be when customers came in and ordered drinks with ten minutes to go before I called time. To ingratiate ourselves, I said, ‘We’re on the Waugh trail.’ Presumably Waugh pilgrims arrive often after long journeys from distant places and might be forgiven for arriving at an inconvenient moment in a barman’s day. ‘War!’ he barked, swaying like a Druid-ical rocking-stone in his dumb apoplexy like Lumsden of Strathdrummond. ‘War! I don’t know anything about war!’ ‘Evelyn Waugh,’ I said gently. ‘He wrote Decline and Fall here. The funniest book in the world. Surely you’ve heard of it?’ ‘I’ve lived around here all my life and I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he barked. ‘£16.50.’