Magazine article The Spectator

The Spoils of Waugh

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spoils of Waugh

Article excerpt

Those of us who have been cashing in on the centenary of Evelyn Waugh's birth, which falls on 28 October, have had a good year. Stephen Fry has won acclaim for his direction of the film based on Waugh's Vile Bodies, renamed - on orders from the marketing men, I guess - Bright Young Things. Michael Johnston has attracted attention by writing an unauthorised sequel to Brideshead Revisited, which at the behest of the Waugh estate will be available only on the Internet.

My own account of adventures with Waugh in Abyssinia during Mussolini's war in 1935 has sold more copies than I would expect any book of mine to sell. Nicholas Rankin, who has written a book about George Steer, the underrated correspondent of the Times in Abyssinia with us, and later the first to report the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, has had a success. Strangest of all, Warner Brothers felt it could do sufficiently without Waugh's central theme which is, to quote his own words, 'the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters'. 'If God can be said to exist in my version,' boasts Andrew Davies, who is writing the script, 'he would be the villain.' Hamlet without the ghost, indeed, but there arc no flies on Warner Bros, who know well enough that what sets cash tills ringing is not a film's merit or its faithfulness to the original author but the amount of publicity it can generate in advance. They'll pack the cinemas to see Waugh traduced.

But it's well to be clear about one thing as this centenary draws near. Long after some of us have feasted off the Waugh harvest, have gone to dust and are forgotten, his books will be read and admired. He saw human nature with alarming clarity and wrote of it with total honesty. Some will tell you that A Handful of Dust, written after the break-up of his first marriage, is Waugh's best novel; others prefer Scoop. I rate highly Put Out More Flags, which emerged unobtrusively in 1942 at a low point in the second world war. For it encapsulates the end of the 'phoney' war, Dunkirk and all that, and the slow national awakening to reality. To win, we would have to gird our loins, train anew and then somehow break into fortress Europe. In the final pages Waugh shows even Basil Seal in a heroic light. All the usual suspects are moving towards their duties. There's a new spirit abroad,' says silly old Sir Joseph Mainwaring. 'I see it on every side.' 'And, poor booby,' declares Waugh in his last line, 'he was bang right.' A bit of our history. Decline and Fall, his first novel, is a classic; so is his third novel Black Mischief, though it would be condemned as racist by some today.

In those days Waugh, whose style of living was expensive, sought to travel overseas buttressed by three sources of revenue. A newspaper paid his fares and basics, a publisher contracted to buy a travel book, and eventually a novel took shape. …

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