THE LEGS HAVE IT




Twice Evelyn badly damaged a leg. I suspect this had repercussions for him in later life.

When he was teaching at Aston Clinton in the autumn term of 1925, aged 23, he fell out of a window while drunk. Feeling paranoid, he was escaping from friends through a window of the Clarendon Bar in Oxford. He fell awkwardly on his ankle, which later proved to be broken. It was put in a plaster and he had to lie on a sofa for a week or two, during which time he wrote his essay on the Pre-Raphaelites, his first published work.

The drunken fall was while finishing off
The Scarlet Woman with Terence Greenidge et al. (The film had mostly been shot in the summer of 1924.) The following still shows Evelyn's head in a wig and his right leg in a cast.

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The second accident took place nearly twenty years later, in early December 1943, when Evelyn had turned 40. He was making a parachute jump while training with the army. On landing he 'somehow sat on my left leg and limped off the training field'. He thought he'd just strained a muscle, but later in the day, the leg stiffened up. The doctor saw it and ordered it to be put in a splint. He had broken a bone in his shin, and his knee was painful. In a letter to Laura on 25 January, after several weeks in bed, he was able to say that his knee 'is practically well'. The day before, he'd written to his commanding officer asking for three months' leave on the grounds that, 'I have no longer the physical agility necessary for an operational officer in the kind of operations for which I have been trained'. He also mentioned that he had a novel in mind and that now was the time to write it. He was granted his leave and wrote Brideshead Revisited.

Two things have caused me to think about these accidents. First, I slipped and tore the quadriceps tendon above my knee in December, 2019, while walking in Drimmie Wood, an accident I'm still recovering from. Second, I came across a section in Harold Acton's
More Memoirs of an Aesthete which has given me pause for thought.

In March 1952, by this time aged 48, Evelyn had proposed to his old Oxford pal a trip to Capri or Palermo, islands off the coast of Italy. Evelyn flew to Naples, and Acton takes up the story:

'We had both injured our knees during the war, Evelyn on jumping from parachute, and rheumatism had invaded the vulnerable joint: he relied on a stick to support him. In order to see the churches near Via Tribunali it was necessary to walk, and he hobbled so painfully that I found myself hobbling in sympathy. Even so, he was a pertinacious sight-seer and I knew what was likely to interest him: the Surrealistic sculpture in the Sanservo Chapel, where the figures of Modesty and the dead Christ are visible under transparent marble veils and a man struggles out of a net, symbolical of sin.'

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Acton continues:

'Owing to his rheumatic knee, Palermo seemed more suitable than Capri, but after ten dismally rainy days
[on the island] we decided to cut our losses and returned to Naples…His knee hurt him so that he refused to walk. Everything conspired to vex him. I attributed his passing squalls to his state of health. With the Commandos during the war he had forced himself to be more robust than his physique. The epicurean had worn the mask of a stoic until he became one. But the strain of military life at high tension must have left a delayed action on his nerves. He told me he could not bear a garrulous person or a grinning face…'

The pair did manage some sight-seeing on Palermo. One day they stopped at the Cappuccino Convent where the dead friars used to be dried, dressed and placed upright in niches underneath the church. There are 8000 natural mummies there, though internment stopped in 1881.

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Here is Acton's report:

'The monk who showed us round rattled off a facetious commentary. Evelyn ordered him sharply to shut up. He spent a full hour examining the grisly relics with an expression close to rapture. According to my guide book ' the atmosphere of the catacombs is impregnated with a smell so offensive that it can't be wholesome', but Evelyn differed. He announced that his knee was cured and left his stick in the taxi. Whether it was due to the dryness of the air or to the emanations of the mummies, he felt so much better that he would recommend it in future to sufferers from rheumatism.'

If it was indeed a cure, it could only have been temporary. Evelyn's mobility continued to decline. Did he exercise less because of the pain in his knee? It's interesting to note Antony Powell's observations from November 1965, when Evelyn had turned 62. At a country wedding, Powell observed: '
He seemed at the same time portly, yet wasted. He walked in a very shaky manner.'

Evelyn left the queue to meet the newly-weds in order to locate whisky 'which you need at events like this'. He returned in order to ask Powell to check something out with him. In a room at the back of the house, Powell was shown a couple of carafes that contained a little liquid and which smelt to him of port residue. So Evelyn didn't get his whisky. Perhaps if he had, he would have been able to throw away his stick, roll back the years and party like it was 1925.

Powell lost touch with his friend until he was leaving the reception. He reports in Messengers of the Day, volume one of To Keep the Ball Rolling that there was a perceptible slope, though not a specially steep one, between the marquee and the higher level of the lawn by which the guests had to exit.

'We happened to leave the party at the same time as the Waughs. Laura Waugh went first, Waugh following, holding his daughter's arm for support. Suddenly, from sheer physical weakness, he could not manage the ascent. His daughter had to call for her mother to return and help. Together they got him up the ramp. This was the first time I grasped quite how bad was his state of health by this time.'

It's possible that it was Evelyn's bad knee that was holding him back. Or maybe it was his bad ankle. Go on, Evelyn, put one foot in front of the other, you can do it. Busted knee, broken ankle… Busted knee, broken ankle…

Evelyn Waugh in 1965 may have looked portly and wasted to someone who paced himself like Tony Powell did. But one thing Evelyn did not do is pace himself. He drank for Oxford, fiercely, and he fought for Britain, likewise.

So let's just summarise this little story before strolling on:

1925. Smashes one leg. Drink involved.
1943. Smashes the other. Army manoeuvre.
1953. Can only walk with the help of the smell of long-dead monks.
1965. Can't even walk with the aid of his own flesh and blood.

As for me, I'm the same age as Evelyn was when he died. Like Tony Powell, I have paced myself, I may even make a full recovery from my little slip in Drimmie Wood.

But if I don't, I'll feel like I'm in noble company.