BRIAN HOWARD


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Nancy Mitford is upset. She does not like the fact that no-one has written a biography of Brian Howard yet. She does not count the hotch-potch that Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster put together for publication in 1968. Nancy had read that when she was alive. She has read it again this week and - while doing so - simply longed for a strong voice to give shape to Brian's extraordinary life. Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure. What kind of title was that, anyway?

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Cover: Brian Howard by John Panting in Bright Young People era

Nancy would have to write a biographical essay herself, here at Castle Howard. And she would start it off with the perspective of two of Brian's fellow pupils at Eton who had gone on to have extraordinary lives themselves. First, Harold Acton who had been, with Brian, co-leader of the art set there:

'His big brown eyes with their long curved lashes were brazen with self-assurance; already his personality seemed chiselled and polished, and his vocabulary was as ornate as his diction. Like myself he was half-American…Brian could be very old and very young at the same time and his mischievousness was far more than the ebullience of youth… Scarcely anyone was spared the shafts of his ridicule.'

Not everyone was charmed. This is what Anthony Powell had to say:
'I never like Howard, nor found his performances in poetry or painting of interest. He seemed to me the essence of that self-propagation for its own sake which has nothing whatever to do with creative ability….His self-confidence and sophistication were astonishing for a boy of that age.'

Tony also includes a physical description that echoes Harold's, but needs stating as its so well put:

'Tall, a dead white face, jet black wavy hair, full pouting lips, huge eyes that seemed by nature to have been heavily made-up, Howard had the air of a pierrot out of costume.'

Brian struggled to get into Oxford, and by the time he was at Christ Church with Harold Acton, the latter was leader of the aesthete set that included Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh, those two heroes of mine. Here is a drawing of Brian made by Mark Ogilvie-Grant who illustrated
Christmas Pudding for me and accompanied Robert to Mount Athos about which Robert wrote his first, brilliant book. Really, the Oxford Set consists of those I've just mentioned: Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Robert Byron and Mark Ogilvie-Grant. Though poor Mark is largely forgotten. Oh, and I have forgotten Henry Yorke who wrote so splendidly as Henry Green!

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Brian Howard by Mark Ogilvie-Grant, Cherwell, 1927.

In A Little Learning, Evelyn said this about Brian: 'At the age of 19 he had dash and insolence, a gift of invective and repartee far more brilliant than Robert’s, a kind of ferocity of elegance that belonged to the romantic era of a century before our own. Mad, bad and dangerous to know.'

Perhaps I've introduced Evelyn's own perspective too soon. Oh, there is so much to consider when writing in a biographical vein! But I must remember that it is
me that is putting this together. So I need to say that at this tender age I didn't know Brian, because women were not educated at Eton and only in rare cases at Oxford. I first described Brian to my brother Tom in a letter written in December, 1926, Which goes like this:

‘I’m sure you must have laughed at the thought of what my journey was like with B! I must try and tell you all about it.

‘First of all, hardly had you gone when he said in the tones of a
tragedie queene "Nancy there is something which I don’t quite know how to tell you about but which you must know," and turned his gaze on the ankles of the other young man in the corner. I also looked and perceived to my astonishment that this youth had multicoloured silk tassels hanging from the top of each of his spats. We giggled about this til the train left Paris and I’m afraid the young man must have noticed as he retired for a long time and returned minus tassels.

‘B and I had a delightful conversation all the way to Calais. But the real fun began when we arrived at Calais in a snowstorm. Brian looked out of the window and said 'Ah my hair will get all snowy.' He then drew a small Picasso out of one of his market bags, wrapped it in a pair of pyjamas (dirty) to keep it dry, and thus equipped we sallied forth into the snowstorm.

‘Brian was seriously afraid that we should founder at any moment and we walked about the deck until it got rather rough when I rushed into the ladies cabin and B sat on a little seat just outside. He was so sweet and sympathetic, luckily I wasn’t sick at all.

‘At Victoria, hearing Farve would probably meet me, B vanished instantly into the fog. My dear I’ve never enjoyed a journey so much and
laugh - well really I never stopped. B kept saying Why didn’t we meet in Paris and I must say I wish we had as he is such amazingly good company.'

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The Theatrical Garden Party with Brian Howard, 1929

Who is in the above picture, apart from Brian? I'm afraid I don't know. I feel I should, but I don't.

And here is another photo of Brian from the 1920s, at the zenith of his youthful good looks and high spirits, sitting between Olivia Plunket Greene and David Plunket Greene, making use of Olivia's make-up box.

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After Oxford, it seemed that Brian was all set to make his mark on the literary world. That didn't happen, I'm very sad to report. In 1928, Brian and Robert Byron teamed up on a book project called
Values, which Evelyn Waugh's father's firm expressed an interest in. But the project wasn't seen through and came to nothing.

Brian ended up partying for years in London, the highlight of which may have been the Bruno Hat hoax. Brian did the paintings, of which this is an example.

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The Adoration of the Magi by Bruno Hat, 1929

My sister Diana, hosted the exhibition, my brother Tom dressed up as the painter, and Evelyn wrote the catalogue essay. Such fun! Which I tried to echo in the climax of my second novel, Christmas Pudding.

During the 1930s, Brian hooked up with a series of men with whom he travelled around Europe. A German called Toni became his long-term boyfriend. Meanwhile Evelyn had been writing and publishing an average of a book a year from 1928:
Rossetti, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Labels, Remote People, Black Mischief, Ninety-two Days, A Handful of Dust, Edmund Campion, Mr Loveday's Little Outing, Scoop and Work Suspended. Work Suspended? Yes, in 1939 Evelyn stopped what he was doing in his library at Piers Court and went looking for war work.

While Evelyn was training to become a front-line officer, Brian had been separated from his German boyfriend and was working for MI5. Brian was based in London at a time when Evelyn was in and out of the capital city as well. And although Evelyn doesn't specifically mention Brian in letters or diaries of this time, he did meet him occasionally and did know
exactly what was going on in his life. Brian is portrayed as Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags, a devastating portrait, as you'll soon see.

The book follows a year in the life of its main characters, Basil Seal, partly based on Evelyn himself, and partly based on my first husband, Peter Rodd; Alastair and Sonia Trumpimngton, based on Evelyn and Laura's relationship while Evelyn was training with the Royal Marines; and Ambrose Silk, based on Brian, as a way of reflecting on how Evelyn's contemporaries at Oxford were getting on in the war effort.

I should say here that Evelyn wrote
Put Out More Flags while in a ship returning to Britain from the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and round the whole of Africa. He had found action with the Commandos, helping with the retreat at Crete. Evelyn had been his unit's intelligence officer, and as such he had seen a lot of young officers behave badly under pressure. His Commando unit's officers were from the educated elite of British society, and their behaviour had not been up to the standard that Evelyn had expected of them. And although it would be years before Evelyn got round to writing about Crete, and actual warfare, in Put Out More Flags he was writing about the phoney war of 1939, and cowardice was one of the themes that would find its way in.

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On page 42 of the first edition (the first of Evelyn's books not to be given attractive red and black snakeskin covers) we are introduced to Ambrose Silk. He was a contemporary of Basil Seal's at Oxford at a time of broad trousers and high-necked jumpers. Ambrose had eaten and drunk at the Spread Eagle at Thame when needing a break from Oxford itself. He had ridden ridiculously in the 'Christ Church Grind', which is exactly what Brian did when he arrived at Oxford and found Harold Acton securely in place at the head of the aesthete set. Nevertheless, Ambrose in due course became a martyr to Art, belonging hopelessly to the ivory tower. He was not respected as a writer by his friends who saw him as a survival from the Yellow Book. His very appearance, with
'the swagger and the flash of the young Disraeli', made him a conspicuous figure. Ambrose knew this and repeated the phrase ‘old adventurer’ with relish.

Already there can be no doubt. Ambrose equals Brian.

By page 50, the fortune of Ambrose at the end of the thirties is summarised.
'There has been his love for a long succession of louts.' Ambrose has become: 'A pansy. An old queen. A habit of dress, a tone of voice, an elegant humorous deportment that had been admired and imitated, a swift epicine felicity of wit, the art of dazzling and confusing those he despised - these had been his, and now they were the current exchange of comedians.'

Evelyn then becomes fanciful in his description, bringing to mind, through its classical allusion, the way Grimes is described in
Decline and Fall: 'Was it thus that the rich passions of Greece and Arabia and the Renaissance had worn themselves out? Did they simper when Leonardo passed and imitate with mincing grace the warriors of Sparta; was there a snigger across the sand outside the tents of Saladin?'

Evelyn goes on in the same high, arch style: '
Beddoes had died in solitude by his own hand; Wilde had been driven into the shadows, tipsy and garrulous, but, to the end, a figure of tragedy looming big in his own twilight. But Ambrose, thought Ambrose, what of him?'

Was Ambrose of the immortals then?

There follows a paragraph that muddies the waters, introducing motifs that are associated with Harold Acton rather than Brian Howard:

'It had been a primrose path in the days of Diaghilev; at Eton he had collected Lovat-Frazer rhyme sheets; at Oxford he had recited 'In Memoriam' through a megaphone to an accompaniment on combs and tissue paper; in Paris he had frequented Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein; he had written and published his first book there, a study of Mont Parnasse negroes that had been banned in England.'

It was Harold that was keen on the ballet of Diaghilev, and had met him in London. Harold that had met Gertrude Stein and Jean Cocteau in Paris, as is made clear from his
Memoirs of an Aesthete. And of course it was Harold that delivered the poetry and essays of TS Eliot by megaphone, something acknowledged in this print drawn by Evelyn Waugh in his first year at Oxford.

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Harold Acton by Evelyn Waugh, Isis, 1923

But it's quite an easy thing to
do that. Base a character on person A, but give them some of person B's ancillary attributes. Besides, influenced by Harold, Brian probably became interested in all these sophisticated, modernist artists while at Eton.

Evelyn then drops in an important plot development. Ambrose had gone to Germany, lived in a workman’s quarter, and got together with Hans. Cue this beautiful photo of Brian (right) with Hans real-life equivalent, Toni (left).

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Toni and Brian, 1930s, somewhere in Europe.

I'll come back to Brian and his lover later.

Still in part one, 'Autumn' (1939, of course), another 20 pages in, this is brilliantly observed and expressed:

'Ambrose lived in and for conversation; he rejoiced in the whole intricate art of it - the timing and striking the proper juxtaposition of narrative and comment, the bursts of spontaneous parody, the allusion one would recognise and one would not, the changes of alliance, the betrayals, the diplomatic revolutions, the waxing and waning of dictatorships that could happen in an hour’s session about a table. But could it happen? Was that, too, most exquisite and exacting of the arts, part of the buried world of Diaghilev?'

Ambrose leaves his younger left-wing comrades and is mocked by a couple of passing soldiers. He goes into the Ministry of Information where he comes across his publisher, Mr Bentley. Ambrose expresses his concern that he might be labelled as a left-wing intellectual, and that if the war goes the wrong way he might be in danger. In other words, Ambrose's essential cowardice is flagged.

Was this fair of Evelyn? Not exactly, though I met Brian a few days before or after the war broke out, and recall him saying: '
I'm very much afraid, my dear, that when it comes to cold steel I shall run away.'

In any case, Evelyn is unambiguous about Ambrose's moral courage. As he puts it at the end of Autumn:

'All war is nonsense, thought Ambrose. I don’t care about the war. It’s got nothing on me. But if, thought Ambrose, I was one of those people, if I were not a cosmopolitan Jewish pansy, if I were not all that the Nazis mean when they talk about ‘degenerates’, if I were not a single, sane individual, if I were part of a herd, one of these people, normal and responsible for the welfare of my herd, Gawd strike me pink, thought Ambrose, I wouldn’t sit around discussing what kind of war it was going to be. I’d make it my kind of war. I’d set about killing and stampeding the other herd as fast as I could.'

As 'Winter' begins, Ambrose gets a job at the Ministry of Information. He is the sole representative of Atheism in the religious department. Ambrose’s task was to represent to British and colonial atheists that the Nazis were agnostic with a strong tinge of religious superstition.

He does his best with this propaganda, but gets bored and starts associating with Mr Bentley. It is here that the
Ivory Tower is first discussed. That is, a literary magazine that would represent the value of freedom of speech just when it was under its biggest threat.

Ambrose is still worried about what communists do to you if you leave the Party. And he also has his doubts about his literary initiative. To finish off 'Winte'r, Evelyn gives us this ambitious (and facetious) paragraph:

‘There was no foundation here for an ivory tower, thought Ambrose, no cloud to garland its summit, and his thoughts began to soar lark-like into a tempera, fourteenth century sky; into a heaven of flat blank, blue and white clouds cross-hatched with gold leaf on their sunward edges; a vast altitude painted with shaving soap on a panel of lapis lazuli; he stood on a high sugary pinnacle, on a new Tower of Babel; like a muezzin calling his message to a world of domes and clouds; beneath him, between him and the absurd little figures bobbing and bending on their striped prayer mats, lay fathoms of clear air where doves sported with butterflies.'

Again Grimes is invoked. Again one asks oneself: Was Ambrose of the immortals? And if Ambrose was, then surely Brian was too.

'Spring' (of 1940) is where the plot of
Put Out More Flags takes off as far as Ambrose is concerned.

Basil Seal, fresh from wreaking havoc as a Billeting Officer in the West Country, vies for a position of influence in London, wants to impress his boss, perhaps by exposing a traitor.

Ambrose is talking to Mr Bentley at the Cafe Royal. That this establishment was a regular haunt of Brian's is captured by this 1942 cartoon by Osbert Lancaster, taken from Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster's book. That's Brian top left.

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In Evelyn's book, Ambrose is at the Café Royal too:

'Ambrose sat upright and poised, with one hand on the stem of his glass and one resting stylishly on the balustrade… His sleek black hair was not unduly long… His pale semitic face gave no hint of special care and yet it always embarrassed Mr Bentley somewhat to be seen with him in public.'

'Sitting there, gesticulating very slightly. As he talked, wagging his head very slightly, raising his voice occasionally in a suddenly stressed uncommon epithet or in a fragment of slang absurdly embedded in his precise and fine literary diction, giggling between words now and then as something which he had intended to say changed shape and became unexpectedly comic in the telling - Ambrose like this caused time to slip back to an earlier age than his own youth or Mr. Bentley's, when amid a more splendid décor of red plush and gilt caryatides fin-de-siècle young worshippers crowded to the tables of Oscar and Aubrey.'

Enter Basil. On the lookout for fascists.

Ambrose extols the virtues of an alternative culture:
“To the Chinese scholar the military hero was the lowest of human types, the subject for ribaldry. We must return to Chinese scholarship.'

This immediately has Basil's interest. He listens in. It especially had my interest too, as an interest in all things Chinese is something that I associate with Harold Acton. Harold lived most of the 1930s in China. But, as I said before, it is easy to add a supplementary characteristic to your main model when creating characters in fiction. I employ the technique all the time, darlings! Or at least I did.

"Chinese scholarship deals with taste and wisdom, not with the memorizing of facts. Their scholars were lonely men of few books and fewer pupils, content with a single cuncubine, a pine tree and the prospect of a stream. European culture has become conventual; we must make it cenobitic."

"Watch yourself, Ambrose," the gentle reader says at this point. "Please be very careful."

"Invasions swept over China; the Empire split up into warring kingdoms. The scholars lived their frugal and idyllic lives undisturbed, occasionally making exquisite private jokes which they wrote on leaves and floated downstream."

Basil asks if these scholars care if their empire is invaded.

“Not a hoot, my dear. Not a tinker’s hoot.”

“And you’re starting a paper to encourage this kind of scholarship?”

Oh God, the irons are all in the fire now. See them sizzling away.

A few pages later and Ambrose is showing Mr Bentley the proof sheets of the first issue of
Ivory Tower. This contains several essays, all written by Ambrose using a pseudonym. Each one is extremely and perversely controversial about the value of art to society. The issue concludes with 'Monument to a Spartan', a 50-page story that Ambrose had written two years before on separating from Hans, and which he puts his own name to. It describes Hans as Ambrose had loved him, in every mood; 'Hans immature, the provincial petit bourgeois youth floundering and groping in the gloom of Teutonic adolescence, unsuccessful in his examinations, uncritical of authority; Hans affectionate, sentimental, roughly sensual, guilty; above all, Hans guilty, haunted by the taboos of the forest; Hans credulous, giving his simple and generous acceptance to all the nonsense of Nazi leaders; Hans reverent to those absurd instructors who harangued the youth camps, resentful at the plots of Jews and the encirclement of his country; Hans loving his comrades, finding in deep tribal emotion an escape from the guilt of personal love. Hans singing with Hitler youth…' Alas, Hans's Storm Troop comrades discover that his friend is a Jew. They have resented this friend before because of what he represented - something personal and private. So the mob and the hunting pack fall on Hans's friendship.

Ambrose regards this as major work of art. Mr Bentley can see that, but is not so sure about all the controversial stuff in the essays.

Of course, Basil gets to see the proofs and, sitting together at the Café Royal, persuades Ambrose that his ending to 'Monument to a Spartan' is sentimental. If it is to be a piece of high art, let the essay leave off with Hans marching into Poland, still full of Nazi illusions. Poor, vain Ambrose agrees to make the changes.

A few pages on, Basil turns up at Ambrose's flat, the top floor of large Bloomsbury mansion.
'There were expensive continental editions of works on architecture, there were deep armchairs, an object like an ostrich egg sculptured by Brancusi.' Basil tells Ambrose that he is in deep trouble and about to be arrested, as indeed he is. Ambrose is scared. He must take the Irish passport that Basil is offering him and flee to Ireland. Basil generously agrees to take Ambrose's luxury flat on in his absence.

And so Ambrose finds himself in Ireland. He is supremely isolated, but he intends to write a book. In a single - and horrifyingly facetious - sentence which evokes a Chinese hermit-scholar, Evelyn writes… Wait, let me present this through the wartime edition of
Put Out More Flags that penguin issued in 1943 and reprinted in 1945:

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'In a soft green valley…

…where a stream ran through close-cropped, spongy pasture and the grass grew down below the stream’s edge and merged there with the water-weeds

…where a road ran between grass verges and tumbled walls, and the grass merged into moss which spread upwards and over the tumbled stones of the walls, outwards over the pocked metalling and deep ruts of the road

…where the ruins of a police barracks, built to command the road through the valley, burnt in the troubles, had once been white, then black and now were one green with the grass and the moss and the water-weed

…where the smoke of burned turf drifted down from the cabin chimneys and joined the mist that rose from the damp, green earth

…where the prints of ass and pig, goose and calf and horse mingled indifferently with those of barefoot children

…where the soft, resentful voices rose and fell in the smoky cabins merging with the music of the stream and the treading and shifting and munching of the beasts at pasture

…where mist and smoke never lifted and the sun never fell direct, and evening came slowly in infinite gradations of shadow

…where the priest came seldom because of the rough road and the long climb home to the head of the valley, and no one except the priest ever came from one month’s end to another

…there stood an inn which was frequented in by-gone days by fishermen.'


In this singularly situated inn, Ambrose prepares to write the book he knows he has in him.

'He spread foolscap paper on the dining room table and the soft, moist air settled on it and permeated it so that when, on the third day, he sat down to make a start, the ink spread and the lines ran together, leaving what might have been a brush stroke of indigo paint where there should have been a sentence of prose.'

Oh, dear. How Chinese.

'Ambrose laid down the pen and because the floor sloped where the house had settled, it rolled down the table, and down the floorboards and under the mahogany sideboard, and lay there among the napkin rings and small coins and corks and the sweepings of half century.'

Oh, dear; oh, dear. Irony upon irony; Evelyn, the true hermit-scholar is mocking poor Brian on a horrifying scale.

'And Ambrose wandered out into the mist and the twilight, stepping soundlessly on the soft, green turf.'

Oh, dear; oh, dear; oh, dear. Poor, poor Ambrose.

Portrait of a Failure,
Portrait of More Failure,
Put Out More Flags.


Perhaps it's not surprising that on reading this novel, Brian wrote to his boyfriend, Toni: '
PS Evelyn Waugh has made an absolutely vicious attack on me in his new novel Put Out More Flags. You come into it, too.'

Put Out More Flags is a brilliant book. But it is unkind about Brian. Three years later, Evelyn was at it again in Brideshead Revisited. There are just three scenes involving the character called Anthony Blanche. In the first scene, a page or so, during lunch in Sebastian's rooms, he is described like this:

'He was tall, slim, rather swarthy, with large saucy eyes. The rest of us wore rough tweed. He had on a smooth, chocolate brown suit with loud white stripes, suede shoes, a large bow-tie and he drew off yellow, wash-leather gloves as he came into the room; part Gallic, part Yankee, part, perhaps, Jew; wholly exotic.'

This description was only added in 1960, after Brian's death. The main thing Anthony Blanche does in his first scene is stutter. '
My dear, I couldn't get away before. I was lunching with my p-p-preposterous tutor. He thought it very odd my leaving when I did. I told him I had to change for f-f-footer.' And then he delivers lines from The Waste Land by megaphone from the college room's balcony. This is very Harold Acton, and, as a whole, Anthony Blanche is much more Harold than Brian, no matter what Evelyn was to claim later.

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Original over design by Peter Bentley. Overlaid by Duncan McLaren

Anthony Blanche's main role in his second scene, which goes on for several pages, is to point out the weaknesses of Sebastian's character.
"Tell me candidly, have you ever heard Sebastian say anything you have remembered for five minutes? You know, when I hear him talk, I am reminded of that in some ways nauseating picture of Bubbles. Conversation should be like juggling; up go the balls and the plates, up and over, in and out, good solid objects that glitter in the footlights and fall with a bang if you miss them. But when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then - phut! Vanished with nothing left at all, nothing.'"

That scene also discusses Anthony's wetting in the fountain called Mercury. Now ducking of unlucky Oxford men by their heartier fellows provides the opening scene in Decline and Fall, and it obviously meant a lot to Evelyn. But were Brian Howard or Harold Acton ever victims of such treatment? I would have thought that both would have been far too scary. Indeed, although Anthony Blanche is escorted into the fountain, he remains very much in control of the situation, keeping up the verbals and mocking the oiks.

Then in scene three, again over several pages, Anthony attacks the art of Charles Ryder. Talking of his early work, he recalls thinking:
“This is too English. I have the fancy of rather spicy things, you know, not for the shade of the cedar tree, the cucumber sandwich, the silver cram-jug. The English girl dressed in whatever English girls do wear for tennis - not that, not Jane Austen, not M-m-miss M-m-mitford."

How I love that Evelyn has referenced me in the middle of this speech! Anthony goes on to say:

“I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte Family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

Anthony Blanche has to have a wide frame of reference, and a lot of hard won insight into what he's dissecting. Characteristics of Harold, rather than Brian. Basically, Brian was only interested in himself, which is true of Ambrose Silk. While Harold Acton was an intellectual, curious about the culture and society. Which are main attributes of Anthony Blanche.

However, on reading
Brideshead, I must have seen Brian in Anthony Blanche because in my first year of writing to Evelyn, in a missive dated 22 December, 1944, I told him: 'So glad you’re nice about Brian this time too.'

Those letters that passed from me in Paris to Evelyn in England, and
vice versa, went on for the rest of his life. And every few years Brian, who had by now moved onto a new boyfriend, an American called Sam, got a mention from me. Some of these mentions are harsh, unnecessarily so, I now think, and I pray for the reader's forgiveness…

September, 1951, Me to Evelyn:
'Then all yesterday I had old Brian Howard on my hands. Pathetic. "You don’t know how difficult it is, my dear, to be an old cissy and keep your dignity."'

In replying to this, Evelyn said that he put those words into BH’s mouth in
Put Out More Flags, which I guess he did.

July, 1953, Me to Evelyn:
'I like it when people develop along their own lines, what is depressing is when, like Brian How., they are still girls together aged 50.'

November, 1954, Me to Evelyn: '
Did I tell you about Brian How.’s visit? He looks literally the most saintly figure imaginable. I think those sad old drunks like him and Prod often do become rather saintly. How strange. Like in your book.'

I was alluding to Sebastian in
Brideshead. Because there is s certain amount of Brian in Sebastian. That surfeit of English charm.

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Brian in the 1950s writing a travel article

December, 1955, Me to Evelyn:
'I saw Brian How.. Rich, but not long for this world I would guess. He has left all to Sam. What a lot of lower-class buggers are going to be the millionaires of the future. I suppose they’ll all marry and have 8 children like you say Lords do.'

And then we come to January, 1958. Evelyn wrote to me: '
Have you seen that old Brian Howard has kicked the bucket? You will mourn him more than me. I must admit he dazzled me rather 25 years ago [1933] but, though I hadn’t set eyes on him for 15 years or more [1943, he implies], I went rather in terror of him in late years. I was always afraid that he would suddenly rush at me in some public place and hit me and there would be painful publicity. ‘Middle-aged novelist assaulted in West End hotel.’'

All that means, is that subconsciously Evelyn knew he had been cruel to Brian in
Put Out More Flags. Brilliant, but cruel.

And then in March, of 1958, Evelyn wrote to Earl Baldwin:
'I used to known Brian well - a dazzling young man to my innocent eyes. In later life he became very dangerous - constantly attacking people with his fists in public places - so I kept clear of him. He was consumptive but the immediate cause of his death was a broken heart. His boyfriend gassed himself in his house. There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names - that was 2/3 Brian and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man.'

Having made something of a study of this, I have correct Evelyn. Ambrose Silk may indeed be 2/3 Brian and 1/3 Harold, but for Anthony Blanche the fractions are surely reversed.

Evelyn had to correct himself in a postcard that he sent to Earl Baldwin on 3 May.
'I learn that I misinformed you about the circumstances of Brian Howard's death. His American boyfriend died suddenly but naturally in his bath. Brian poisoned himself some days later.'

The real story is very upsetting. On 12 January, 1958, Brian wrote to a friend saying:
'This place consists of a house and a sort of cottage. The cottage roof is being re-built, The bathroom in it is very small, and the hot water comes by means of a geyser worked by a gas which has no smell. Yesterday morning, early, the workman removed the exhaust pipe which takes away the used and poisonous gas. Sam went in to have a bath, shut the door, and was found dead two hours later. He had taken the dogs for a walk, and written his mother a happy letter. The same morning. There is nothing more to say.'

The reason that upsets me so, is because of a coincidence. When Basil Seal goes to Ambrose's Bloomsbury flat towards the end of
Put Out More Flags, he observes as follows: 'It is true that the bath was served only by a gas-burning apparatus which at the best gave a niggardly trickle of warm water and, at the worst, exploded in a cloud of poisonous vapours, but apparatus of this kind is the hall mark of the higher intellectuals all over the world. Ambrose’s bedroom compensated for the dangers and discomforts of the bathroom.' After Ambrose agrees to flee and offers the flat to Basil, Ambrose apologises for the bathroom in these terms: “I’m afraid the geyser is rather a bore.”

That is such a sad coincidence. Oh, but I'm referring to an early edition of POMF. I wonder if it went through Brian's mind in the four days that separated the death of his boyfriend and his own suicide. Perhaps Evelyn made a change when he reworked his novels later. Let me consult a post-1960 reprint…

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Cover design by Peter Bentley.

No, it's a book that remained as it was originally written. But then if you were a pure artist, and luck had gifted you such an ironic coincidence, cruel though it was, you wouldn't refuse the gift.

I would have refused the gift. But not Evelyn, the Chinese scholar who could write in complete isolation. How did Ambrose put it again? '
The scholars lived their frugal and idyllic lives undisturbed, occasionally making exquisite private jokes which they wrote on leaves and floated downstream.' Evelyn floated off a few exquisite jokes to me in my time, and for that I'll be eternally grateful.

OK, so where are we? Castle Howard, March, 2020. I don't think Brian is going to be joining us for the Festival. Sometimes, death really does come as the end.

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Spoof cover designed by Duncan McLaren's idea of Nancy Mitford. Based on the sixties Penguin version of A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene.

Next up is
Henry Yorke. No drop in quality there then.





Acknowledgemeents

1) I've quoted extensively from
Put Out More Flags. I hope the copyright holder can bear with this as it shows Evelyn Waugh's talent from a particular angle.

2) Nancy Mitford may think that
Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure is a hotch-potch but it still contains fascinating info about Brian Howard that's not available elsewhere. Alas, the reprint with an introduction by D.J. Taylor is also now a rare book.

3) One might conclude that Brian Howard would have made a good TV performer. Perhaps an erudite chat-show host. Unfortunately, there wasn't much telly around until a few years after his death.