Evelyn waugh

Barbara Ker-Seymer – Bright Young Person in the shadows

English Modernism was graced by five daring and gifted women who were in many respects well in advance of their native male counterparts: Virginia Woolf and Anna Kavan in prose, Edith Sitwell in poetry, Elisabeth Lutyens in music and Barbara Hepworth in sculpture. Barbara Ker-Seymer is not remotely in this class. She took some attractive photo-portraits before the war in her studio above Asprey’s and that was it. After leaving St Paul’s Girls’ School, Barbara was soon drinking, drugging and dancing round town Not that Barbara cared. Though trained at the Chelsea School of Art, she had a deprecating attitude to her activity which was characteristic of English amateurism and

The power of prayerful washing-up

My days pass largely in a state of inanition. The fit and able-bodied express their sympathy, claiming it’s much the same for them. ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m sleeping all the time.’ ‘Oh, but so are we in this terrible heat!’ Meanwhile the young get browner and more beautiful every day while going on with their energetic lives as if affected by the heat scarcely at all. For instance, I look at the cheerful lads digging up our road, putting in fibre broadband in 40 degrees of heat. I want to run up to them and implore them, with the fervour of a dying man preaching to dying men, to enjoy

High life | 14 July 2016

The Spectator readers’ party was as always a swell affair, with long-time subscribers politely mingling with ne’er-do-wells like myself, the former having cakes and drinking tea, the latter desperately raiding the sainted editor’s office for Lagavulin whisky. But for once I was on my best behaviour, first out of respect for our readers, secondly because of the man I had personally invited to the party, Hannes Wessels, a Rhodesian-born 14th-generation African, whose book A Handful of Hard Men has me shaking with fury at our double standards where whites are concerned, and at the gauzy mythology of PC that has painted white Rhodesians as oppressors. Just as American race relations

A familiar life (revisited)

A Life Revisited, as the modest, almost nervous, title suggests, mainly concerns Evelyn Waugh’s life with comments on but no analysis of his books. There have been at least three major biographies already, as well as large volumes of diaries, letters and journalism and many slighter volumes. There is more to come. Waugh’s grandson, Alexander, who has defied current trends by writing a fine book on the males of the family, is editor-in-chief of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, with the first of 43 volumes coming out next year. He has also collected an unrivalled archive containing unpublished notes, letters and interviews, and commissioned this book for the 50th

When Oxford life resembled a great satirical novel

Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford friend Harold Acton, immortalised as Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, once bumped into the wife of John Beazley, a lecturer in ancient Greek pottery, while she was exercising their pet goose in Christ Church’s Tom Quad. Hopping over the bird, Acton intuitively doffed his hat. Here, Marie Beazley declared, was ‘a true gentleman’. Mrs Beazley was famous in academic circles for her unpredictable remarks. Over dinner with undergraduates she once announced: ‘My husband can make sparks fly from my loins.’ Her daughter married the poet Louis MacNeice, who made his own pithy observation of the dons of Oxford as ‘scraggy-necked baldheads in gown and hood looking like

The novels that became instant classics

In the world of books, a modern classic is an altogether more slippery thing than a classic: it must walk a line between freshness and durability; reflect the current age but hope to outlast it. For individual publishers, given many 20th-century writers are still in copyright, a modern classics list will necessarily be partial. However, few such partial lists are as complete as Penguin Modern Classics (PMCs), founded in 1961 four years after Penguin’s general editor A.S.B. Glover said: ‘We don’t want — without outstandingly good reasons — to start any new series such as “Modern Classics”.’ The outstandingly good reasons were lots of outstandingly good books that weren’t old

Granada’s Brideshead Revisited remains the sine qua non of mini-series

It is 40 years ago today since Granada’s masterly adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited first beamed into British homes. This 11-part serialisation of a book originally entitled A Household of the Faith soon gathered millions of faithful householders. The autumn of 1981 was an especially cold and wet one and it was still too soon in the Thatcher premiership for her patron saint, Francis of Assisi, to have worked his magic. So while ITV was not able to deliver harmony, truth, faith or hope, it certainly provided 659 minutes of romantic escapism. It began very soberly with the credits — a simple black screen announcing the first episode’s actors in stark white script — propelled only by Geoffrey Burgon’s majestic score. The opening scene —

The bizarre art of Scottie Wilson deserves to be better known

On eBay I have an alert set for ‘Scottie Wilson’. Nine times out of ten, it’s a diamanté Scottie dog from the jewellers Butler & Wilson. Once in a while, it’s a gem. Scottie Wilson didn’t think much of journalists. Art critics were ‘just jugglers — dodgers’. The sort of people who went to art shows — his or anybody else’s — could be counted on to go about ‘blabbing a lot of stupid muck. A lot of blah blah. They get paid for it too!’ Which makes it tricky to write about Scottie (always Scottie, never Wilson). You just know he’d light a cigarette and scowl. I came late

Letters | 7 December 2017

The Carlile report Sir: The Bishop of Bath and Wells tells us (Letters, 2 December) that nobody is holding up publication of the Carlile report into the Church of England’s hole-in-corner kangaroo condemnation of the late George Bell. Is it then just accidental that the church is still making excuses for not publishing it, and presumably for fiddling about with it, more than eight weeks after receiving it on 7 October? The church was swift to condemn George Bell on paltry evidence. It was swifter still to denounce those who stood up for him, falsely accusing them of attacking Bell’s accuser. Yet it is miserably slow to accept just criticism

Of his time

Great novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they all share is a status of half-belonging. If they had no foot in the world at all, they could hardly understand it; if they completely belonged, they could hardly understand what was distinctive. One of the pleasures of this excellent biography is fully appreciating the peculiar, liminal, not-quite-successful position Powell wrote from, and described with great exactness. In half a dozen social and professional milieux, he was a tolerated, perhaps useful minor presence, like a spare man at dinner. From the standpoint of a rather failed editor, screenwriter, soldier, socialite, he stood by and watched the world. In

All’s fair in love and Waugh

I was reminded of Wild West films from boyhood. Then, the beleaguered garrison scanned the horizon; would the US cavalry arrive in time to save them from being scalped? (John Wayne always did.) Now, one was hoping for relief, not from the Injuns, but in the form of an Indian summer. This is of especial interest to those who have a tendresse for Somerset cricket. Its paladins usually have a charmingly amateur quality. As Cardus wrote of an earlier cricketing vintage: ‘[They are] children of the sun and wind and grass. Nature fashioned them rather than artifice.’ Somerset needs a match or two in order to gain points and avoid

Rumbles in the jungle

A CIA agent, a naive young filmmaker, a dilettante heir and a lost Mayan temple form the basis of Ned Beauman’s latest, and arguably most impressive, novel. Two rival expeditions set off from the United States to the jungles of Honduras to find the temple — one with the intention of using it as a location in which to film an absurd comedy, the other determined to disassemble it and take it back to New York. The two sides clash, each refusing to give way. The weeks roll into years; and life around the temple, populated with a disparate and distinct array of characters, steadily deteriorates into greater savagery. Meanwhile,

Torn between envy and contempt

Arriving at boarding school with the wrong shoes and a teddy bear in his suitcase, the hero of Elizabeth Day’s fourth novel is the latest in a long literary line of suburban lost boys sucked into the intoxicating orbit of a wealthy friend. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Patricia Highsmith, Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst and Gillian Flynn have all done it before and we know the story never ends well. Day drops references to them all into her book, like olives into an increasingly dirty martini. We know from the outset that a crime has been committed. We first meet Martin Gilmour in a police interview room, the day after

J.K. Rowling’s schizophrenic politics

On the face of it, there is nothing complicated about the politics of Harry Potter, who made his first appearance in The Philosopher’s Stone 20 years ago. Like his creator J.K. Rowling, who once gave £1 million to the Labour party, he is a left-wing paternalist in the Bloomsbury tradition — the love child of John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He feels a protective duty towards the common man (‘muggles’ in the lexicon of the novels) and a loathing for suburban, lower-middle-class Tories like the Dursleys, his Daily Mail-reading foster parents. The arch-villain of the saga is Voldemort, a charismatic Übermensch who believes in purity and strength and in

Oh! What a lovely Waugh

Jack Whitehall could have been perfectly awful as Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall (BBC1, Fridays). He has spent most of his career comically playing up to a common person’s idea of what a posh person looks like: the stand-up who went to the same public school (Marlborough) as Kate Middleton; JP, the Jack-Wills-wearing yah character from Fresh Meat, who went to Stowe; Alfie, the impeccably upper-middle-class, Mumford & Sons-loving history teacher, in Bad Education. But Evelyn Waugh’s class humour is more sophisticatedly snobbish than that, written for a more discerning audience in the days — sigh — when even semi-educated people knew the order of precedence between a duke,

Big skies and frozen wastes

We know our way around Raymond Carver’s blue-collar cityscapes and Updike’s urban angst and despair. Rick Bass opens a window onto a wilder America — the far reaches of Montana, Alabama, Texas, Missouri… But to say his stories are about rural life would be like saying Moby-Dick is about whaling. Lauded by American critics and freighted with prizes, Bass is scarcely known in Britain. Praise to Pushkin Press for introducing us to an astonishing literary voice. Life in Bass’s world is often challenging: his people live close to the land; they fish, shoot birds, hunt elk, moose and deer to stock the larder. But while forests, prairies, rivers and lakes

Piety and wit

During the second world war, while one brother was editing Punch as a national institution (‘Working with him was a little like helping to edit the Journal of Hellenic Studies,’ said a colleague), and another brother, given to asking questions like ‘Which way does a clock go round?’, was breaking codes at Bletchley (as an interlude to piecing together fragments of the Greek low-life mime writer Herodas), Ronald Knox was translating the Bible. He did this at Aldenham Park, where he lived as a weekend guest who stayed for ten years, thanks to the hospitality of Lord Acton (whose grandfather was the historian) and more particularly Daphne, Lady Acton (whose

We’re all snobs really

D.J. Taylor’s clever dissection of snobs is really two books in one. Scattered throughout are entertaining, delicious (initially), solemnly related nuggets of hardcore snobbery. He writes brilliantly, for example, about the diarist and National Trust employee James Lees-Milne, who liked a world that knew its place (ideally beneath him). Lees-Milne was steeped so far in snobbery that he couldn’t bear the vulgarity of calling a garage a garage and so called his the ‘motor-house’. Either the absurdity of this makes you snort with laughter or it doesn’t. It does me, though I have to say the cumulative effect of a zillion snobberies is nauseating. You find yourself thinking, ‘My God,

Wild life | 8 December 2016

 Kenya I realised I had fallen from grace when we were dropped from the Queen’s birthday party guest list at the British High Commission in Nairobi. I wondered what offence I had caused to the recently arrived plenipotentiary. I worried that it was because one evening, while jogging in the diplomatic suburb of Muthaiga, I had passed him going at a slack pace and barked, ‘Giddy up!’ I have always been so fond of our British HCs. I picture them to be like Waugh’s ambassador to Azania, Sir Samson, less engrossed with unfolding revolutions outside than with playing with his rubber dinosaur at bath time, which he sat on ‘and

Oh, what a lovely Waugh!

Fifty years have passed since the death of my father, Evelyn Waugh. His remains, together with those of his wife Laura and daughter Margaret, are buried within a ha-ha which is now collapsing into the churchyard of St Peter and Paul, Combe Florey. My nephew, Alexander, and I hope that these graves could be incorporated in the churchyard as only a dilapidated wall separates them. But our efforts have been frustrated by bureaucratic obtuseness. I wonder if the creakiness of the bureaucratic process has been created by the undeserved popular perception of my father as a monster. The portrait is based on his own diaries and my late brother Auberon’s