RICHARD PLUNKET GREENE

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What is happening? I'm alive it seems. Oblivious to everything since March, 1978, I understand that I have been granted consciousness again, in the summer of 2020, in order to pay tribute to my one-time friend, Evelyn Waugh. Let me first breathe the sweet air from this Twenties fag deep down into my lungs, and open my eyes to the fast approaching earth. Castle Howard?… Located…. Nearest pub?… Got it… How to get from A to B or vice versa?… Mapped.

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I must have been told my car will be parked in the street close to the Crown and Cushion, because how else would I know that?

This pub is so like The Bell in Aston Clinton. Where Evelyn and I ate together because we couldn't stand the school meals. Where we drank together because that's how we got through the days. Where we sat together in a depressed huddle. Why depressed? Well, before my engagement to Liza we had so little money. Well, I had some, but poor Evelyn was always broke, because he would always immediately spend any money he did have on booze and the high life.

But the shining piece of modernity parked on the street in front is not my car. Next house along?

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There it is! The Dark Horse! A Frazer Nash Super Sports, registration PE 7378, chassis number 1071, engine number 4651, as originally supplied to me in December 1925, when Evelyn and I were teaching together at Aston Clinton. When I'd just been given permission to marry Elizabeth Russell and was suddenly in the money. When I was a young man of 24 and my life stretched in front of me like… like… How did Evelyn put it in
Brideshead?

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Courtesy of Robin Hildyard

'The langour of Youth - how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth - all save this come and go with us through life...These things are a part of life itself; but languor - the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse - that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.'

Yes, I associate the languor of youth with this motor car, whether or not I understand Evelyn anything like precisely. God, it is magnificent. Look at those aerodynamic lines. Headlamps to die for… mudguards… windscreen. Absolutely state of the 1920s!

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Courtesy of Robin Hildyard

Originally, the car had running boards as well. I wonder what happened to them. No matter, that was over ninety years ago, this is now. It's the car that Evelyn and I took to France in summer, 1926. Then we bought another car when we were over there. After which Evelyn took turns to ride passenger with me and with Liza. Those were the days. Those were the days of my life.

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My God, I have driven away from the Crown and Cushion without wetting my whistle. Fair enough, for that was not the meeting place, and I must remind myself of the shape that my life took before this extraordinary meeting actually happens. I am - or was - two years older than Evelyn. I met him at Oxford in 1924 when he was in his final year and I'd already gone down, though I was still living in Oxford. He became very friendly with my sister, Olivia, and he joined the Plunket Greene family on a holiday on Lundy Island over Easter, 1925. There were photos taken, one in particular is seared onto my memory. It features me on the left of the holiday group. With my sister standing next to me, talking to mother, and with my brother, David, standing next to her. And my darling Liza on the right side of the group looking over towards me, her boyfriend. Then there was Evelyn's Hertford friend, Terence, smoking, and Evelyn himself, sitting down in front of us all. What a picture! Full of my loved ones, mad Terence notwithstanding!

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Evelyn had been working for one term at Arnold House in Wales by then. Indeed, it was when saying goodbye to him before he travelled north to Arnold House for the first time that Liza and I decided to get married. It was nearly a year later before her parents agreed to the match, and by then Evelyn and I were working at the same school. At Aston Clinton, so much closer to Oxford than North Wales!

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This road I've turned onto is arrow-straight, passing through various folly-style gateways, clearly part of the Howard Estate. Let's quickly go through the gears cum years. After just one term living-dreaming-drinking together with Evelyn at Aston Clinton, I applied for a better teaching job at Lancing College, which took me to the south coast and the school where Evelyn had been educated. Of course, before leaving Aston Clinton, I fixed Evelyn up with his own transport: a motor-bike. With me gone it was even more important that Evelyn could get back and forth to the pubs and colleges of Oxford. In some ways, I wished I could have stayed on at Aston Clinton, playing with Evelyn and venturing every weekend either to Oxford or London with him. But I needed the better job to impress Liza's parents. Or at least I thought I did.

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It was getting married to Liza that materially changed my life. First, I could buy a racing car.
This racing car. And pretty soon I owned Frazer Nash, the company, and was racing their cars. Evelyn married Evelyn Gardner and wrote Decline and Fall. Then that marriage went wrong and while in the middle of writing his second novel - and in palpable pain - Evelyn got in touch and he joined me for the Belfast TT in August, 1929. That was great fun. Even more fun was appearing in the long chapter towards the end of Vile Bodies. Well, it was Agatha Runcible that was the reserve driver of the Plunket Bowse. But the reserve driver in Belfast was me all right.

That was my last race (how time flies, especially for a racing car driver) and I disposed of my interest in Frazer Nash, having helped that company sort itself out. Liza and I were living in Holland Park soon after and Evelyn was itinerant, staying in one or other of the Guinness houses. But he often stayed at our place, for the odd night, and when we were out of town, and often enough we drank together as in the good old days. But we hardly saw each other after he converted to Rome (with the help of my mother and sister) and went to Africa in autumn, 1930. Soon Liza and I were running a market garden at Angmering-on-Sea, on the south coast, not that far from Lancing. I remember reading
Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust with amazement. The books were so funny and so worldly. Evelyn using his extravagance of character, his curiosity, his vulnerability, his tenacity, to great effect. I remember wondering if I'd ever see him again. Wondering if I was by then worthy of his company.

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Liza and I published two detective novels that we co-wrote. In 1932,
Where Ignorance is Bliss came out. And two years later, Eleven-thirty to Twelve. Evelyn read the manuscript of Where Ignorance is Bliss, and gave us encouragement in our literary endeavours. Is that true or did I just make it up? I should try not to speculate, but stick to what I know to be the truth. What's more, I published a book of my own, The Bandits, also in 1934. It didn't do well though. And as my thirties went on, I kind of gave up on any literary ambition I had. And so did Liza.

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I did see Evelyn again. But it was a strange meeting. This would have been in 1939. Randolph Churchill and his wife were also there, and the talk was predominantly of the coming war. We all know what Evelyn got up to in World War Two, thanks to
Sword of Honour. I served in the navy, on two ships, the Saltarello and the Prospect. Yes, I was all at sea for several years and Liza and I divorced in 1943. We had one son, Alexander. He married Mary Quant, who I recall taking for a spin at Brands Hatch. I may have given up on writing but I never gave up on my driving.

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OK. Down through the gears. A right turn, made dead easy by an obelisk-dominated roundabout. And we're slipping up through those gears cum years again…

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It was a shock reading Brideshead just after the war. My life had changed so much. Charles Ryder looking back on his youth of the 1920s, could have been me thinking of my time at Oxford. Indeed, there were several parallels between my life and the book. Charles Ryder making friends with a well-to-do family, paralleled Evelyn falling in love with we Plunket Greenes as well as the Lygons of Madresfield, though we had neither grand house nor fortune. In the second half of the book, Charles Ryder's first marriage falls apart and he pursues Julia. That could have been me too. After the war, in my early forties, I married for a second time. With Fifi I had another son, David. I then became an estate agent, moving to Barnstaple in North Devon where I continued sailing and driving. Occasionally, Evelyn came to mind, as when the war books appeared, and The Loved One. But I'd lost touch with him by then, and couldn't tell him how much I admired his writing and valued the memory of our friendship.

In 1964, Evelyn published his autobiography, and in
A Little Learning he generously remembered me. A paragraph about my being piratical in appearance and prone to passionate obsessions. Though I found it odd that Liza and I were cropped out of the Lundy Island picture. Had he intended that? Surely not. And then, so suddenly and sadly, he died in 1966, and that was such a blow to me, knowing that we'd never hook up again.

Ten years later, something magical happened. Evelyn's
Diaries were published in 1976, and at the age of 75 I was given the freshest and most wonderful part of my own life back. But I must save going into that until I get to the designated meeting place.

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That's weird. I've parked the car, but now I've got a bird's eye view again. Don't remember being able to do that when I was behind the wheel first time around. Let's fly or float or whatever it is I'm doing east, until I have a good view of the house.

"I have been here before," I said; I had been here before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools' parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer."

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'It was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a lifetime, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.'

I need to keep drifting east, I seem to remember. What is it I'm looking out for again? A temple. In fact, the Temple of the Four Winds. And there it is.

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Oh my God, I've landed again. That was even stranger than the first time. Anyway, here I am. But where? And why is the place deserted? Oh my God, am I the first to arrive?

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If so, that's fine. I have The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh with me. Not that I need to quote them directly. I know them for 1925, inside out. I had a new car at the beginning of that August. Evelyn described it as very shabby and noisy but quite fast. I suppose that was fair comment.

By the middle of August, Evelyn heard that he'd got the job at Aston Clinton. That Friday night, me and Elizabeth and Olivia and Alastair had a jolly meal together. Evelyn was in a funny mood, I recall, a bit withdrawn. As if securing the job had sealed his fate. Neither Alastair nor Olivia, both of whom loved him dearly, thought he should be within a hundred miles of a schoolroom. Nor did Evelyn. But he needed the money.

At the beginning of September, I remember driving Liza and Evelyn to Yarmouth, which Evelyn thought a horrible place. I had a lovely time amongst the sloops and brigantines and trawlers. Unfortunately, boats, like cars, left Evelyn cold. Amazing that we got on so well really!

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On Thursday, 24 September, accompanied by Liza in her car, we drove to Aston Clinton for the beginning of term. The car was affected by 'wheel wobble', which Evelyn referred to as 'woggle', and we arrived very late for dinner. Evelyn wrote in his diary how we sat down in silence in front of a prodigious ewer of water. After a poor dinner, we took my car to have its wheel mended and the three of us sat huddled over the fire in the Bell. Evelyn wrote that all three of us were deeply depressed. If that's true, it was because Evelyn's mood so affected those around him. When Evelyn was down, the world sank to its knees in sympathy. Elizabeth then drove back to London leaving us to return to the cavernous school, which I saw afresh through Evelyn's eyes. A house full of echoing and unlit passages leading to a single, horrible common room.

Then term started. '
Taught lunatics. Played rugby football. Drank at Bell.' Is what Evelyn wrote in his diary. 'Taught the poor mad boys and played football with them.' But actually we had a very active social life as well. I would fetch Evelyn's cousin, Claud Cockburn, from Tring. Alastair would drive down from Barford. My brother and Elizabeth were within easy travel from London. And Oxford wasn't far away either. We drank every night. We were up late on Thursdays, when we would shoot down to London for the evening, as we had an easy teaching day on Friday. And the weekends were, of course, our own.

In its way, it was Heaven. I did not appreciate this at the time, as half my mind was full of anxiety as to whether Liza and I would ever be able to get married and whether my clapped out car would get us from point A to B without breaking down. But time has soothed my nerves. We were in Heaven that autumn. To adapt
Brideshead: 'The autumn term at Aston Clinton passed quickly and sweetly - perhaps too sweetly; I was drowning in honey, stingless.'

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I remember that first Thursday when I drove us down to London after school. We went to my mother's place. Olivia had gone to Eton for the day, so Evelyn and I talked to mother and Liza before Evelyn went shopping on his own for plaster casts for 'the mad boys' to draw. He had dinner with his father and I drove to Hampstead to drink beer with them. Evelyn and his father had eaten partridges shot by the author, Samuel Hoare. An excuse for Evelyn to describe the shooting lessons he'd given the mad boys that morning. The wind gauge had been registering a hurricane, but even once they'd put the guard up over the foresight, the boys had failed to hit the targets. Of course, Evelyn made it all seem hilarious, but his tone-deaf father expressed his bafflement. We got back to the school at 2am, according to Evelyn's diary.

We couldn't do without our London trips. So the next Thursday I drove us up to town again, despite Crawford (the Head) trying to stop us. First, we went to Evelyn's parents house for lunch, where Liza joined us. We split up that day, Evelyn to get his haircut and me to learn that I'd inherited £100! Determined to celebrate in style, I tracked Evelyn down to the Spanish Restaurant in Swallow Street where he and my mother and sister were eating dinner, and left a telephone message that I was at the Café Royal. Evelyn had been drinking absinthe in the afternoon, with John Sutro at Betty Holmes's Club, but that didn't stop him from getting stuck into the red wine with his usual gusto. When the Café Royal closed, we went to Manson Place. My brother David turned up later, seeming to be very drunk, noticeably worse than us. Home at about 3a.m., on this occasion, after a refreshing and FAST drive on empty roads. The next day we felt weary, but Crawford ordained a half-holiday, so that justified everything.

The Thursday after that, Evelyn and I decided to host a dinner at the Bell, having tested the water at Oxford on Monday evening. Lots of people said they would come, but no-one did turn up and the dinner was a disaster. My brother and Liza's brother came from London, but no-one came from Oxford. Evelyn was funny, but not as funny as he would have been if we'd gone to London. And, of course, it had still been exhausting. The next day, by tea time, Evelyn and I were both asleep at opposite ends of the sofa in the common room. A Rolls Royce belonging to my brother David's
beau turned up, laden with people we knew, and we went to Oxford for the evening.

After that, things got out of control, rather. We were drinking a lot of vodka which, according to Evelyn, accounted for the marvellous dreams he was having. On Tuesday, October 20, Evelyn cracked. I was busy with school, but he had the afternoon off and took the bus into Oxford. That took two hours, but he had
The Brothers Karazmazov to keep his mind occupied. I went in as soon as I could, and caught up with Evelyn. He told me about our friend who, while drunk at the wheel, had had another motor accident, killing or at any rate seriously injuring a child. That set me drinking to forget the conversation we'd just had. First champagne, as much as we could get our hands on. Later, we went to a party at 69 the High and drank large quantities of an oblivious-making mixture put together by the host, which consisted of champagne, gin and absinthe. By then we were raging drunk. Evelyn fought someone, which was hilarious. He declared it a pathetic party. I drove us off but had to stop the car just outside Thame. I was sick as a dog and lay at the side of the road, alternately dozing and vomiting for hours. I had to keep reminding myself that I hadn't run anyone over. No child had died under my wheels! Evelyn states in his diary that he 'sheltered as best he could under the broken hood of the car'. I wonder what he meant by that, given that he didn't know the bonnet from the boot. I do remember Evelyn sitting up against the tyre, alternately dozing and vomiting, just as I was. I remember him looking something like this next image, only a lot less alert:

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That picture is deceptive in another way. The car I was driving was still the dilapidated GN, built by Godfrey and Nash. It was a cyclecar with vee-twin engine, a predecessor of the cars built by Frazer Nash from 1924. But it's appropriate enough because of the hood being tied on with a strap.

A nightwatchman passed by. At least Evelyn thought he was a nightwatchman. "Nightwatchman, watch the night," he called after him. "Nightwatchman, watch the night," he kept saying.

We were
terribly tired the next day. Evelyn was all right, as he had soccer all afternoon. How did he get through the morning? The same way as I did, I expect, fobbing the mad boys off with rote learning.

Evelyn records that my car then broke down three times in a week, starting with the chain snapping. Then the miracle happened. Liza's parents gave us permission to get married and I immediately became rich. I bought a new suit and a bottle of white rum to go with it. Liza stayed at the Bell under the supposed chaperonage of a friend called Julia, and we were all jubilant and drunk and making love and happy. In our ecstasy, Liza even kissed Evelyn. Well, why not, we all loved each other. And Evelyn commemorated the kiss in his diary:

"Say I'm weary, say I'm sad
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm getting old - but add
Liza kissed me."

Then on 4th of November, we had another go at a party. This time people came down from Oxford. We drank a good deal at the Bell and pranced about. Later, when everyone had gone, Evelyn and I discovered that no-one had left any money and that we were left with an enormous bill. Well, I knew I would have to pay it, which was fine really. But having money takes a bit of getting used to.

Friday 6th of November. Back to Oxford. A day of heavy drinking. Evelyn was acting in
The Scarlet Woman, part of the time, finishing off the film for Terence Greenidge. Drinking champagne cocktails, we got separated. Liza and others spotted Evelyn and pursued him. But Evelyn, behaving very oddly by his own admission, got paranoid, and, to avoid them, took refuge in the Clarendon Bar. Liza and co. followed him in there, so Evelyn climbed out of a window and fell heavily on his ankle, breaking it.

What with Evelyn being indisposed, we tried to cut back on our drinking, but didn't entirely succeed. Evelyn notes that, a few days later, he and I drank masses of brandy to Liza's health. A few days after that, he drank masses of rum, though I wasn't there. Evelyn kept drinking until I got back late at night in a none too sympathetic mood.

At the end of November I went to London to talk to Frazer Nash about my 'dark horse' the very beautiful steed that I have at my disposal today. I was able to buy it in part exchange for the GN. Not sure how I got away with that, as my old car was such a wreck. Indeed, in 1928, after I'd bought the company, I was shown a letter of complaint from the motor dealer who had ended up with the GN, describing it as totally worn out and barely running.

Ah well, out with the bloody old, in with the brand new.

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Evelyn notes in his diary that my new motor car employed most of my time. That, and preparations for the wedding. Evelyn bought some trousers for himself in Aylesbury and I bought him a waistcoat which he very fulsomely thanked me for. My new car broke down, would you believe. But it was going again by the 23rd of December, the day that Liza and I got married. Evelyn was best man - who else? He and I drank at lunchtime and were a tad late at the church. But all was well, and Evelyn was given money to tip various servants, which he did rather indiscriminately. Liza and I drove away in the Frazer Nash - this Frazer Nash - and Evelyn went on to party with the other guests.

Let my happiness burn through the decades that separate that winter day of 1925 with this summer day in 2020.

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Is that it? Is that what happened? I remember reading Evelyn's diary in 1976 and it all coming back to me through his pithy, vivid sentences, his jokes and his melancholia. Could we possibly have drunk as much as he says we did? I suppose it is possible.

Oh, Evelyn. We were so happy, in retrospect. So why did we have to drink so much?

There is a Housman verse that Evelyn knew by heart. He'd had a handsome copy of that book, which he'd paid a fortune to be specially bound, only he'd had to sell it in his second year at Oxford. But it was still a favourite of his, and he could recite some of the verses.

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This time it's me reciting them to Evelyn, fabulous friend of my youth:

"Say, lad, have you things to do?
Quick then, while your day’s at prime
Quick, and if ’tis work for two,
Here am I, lad: now’s your time.

"Send me now, and I shall go;
Call me, I shall hear you call;
Use me ere they lay me low
Where a man’s no use at all;

"Ere the wholesome flesh decay,
And the willing nerve be numb,
And the lips lack breath to say,
‘No, my lad, I cannot come.’"



The next essay in this section is this. (God help you.)





Many thanks to Robin Hildyard, who provided the images of Richard Plunket Greene's car and whose research of RPG's life is contained in two articles in Chain Gang Gazette, issues 134 (December, 2004) and 135 (April, 2005). This essay draws heavily on these articles.

Robin also provided the headshot of RPG which begins the essay. It is taken from the magazine
Light Car, July 1928, which contains illustrations of some of the drivers in the then forthcoming 200-Mile Race at Brooklands.

The second volume of
Personal Writings, 1922-1929, Volume 31 of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, may be published in the near future. I hope so as it should have a few things to add to the above story.