FIRST TERM AT ASTON CLINTON
The photograph below was actually taken in Evelyn’s second term at Aston Clinton, as was the studio photo that heads the last page. But Evelyn’s dour look is particularly appropriate for the beginning of his first term, so here it sits.
Evelyn Waugh in February 1926, taken by an unknown photographer from Tring
The photo was originally a gift to Terence Greenidge who we’ll hear about at half term (Evelyn can’t wait.) But our Evelyn’s got to find his feet first.
A diary entry from 24 September, 1925, tells us that it was a dismal beginning of term. Richard’s car developed a problem with the wheel on the way and they arrived later than planned. They walked into dinner very late, Evelyn and Richard’s girlfriend, Elizabeth leading the way. They were met by an uninviting table, ‘a prodigious water ewer’ and ‘dead silence’.
Here is the scene that may have confronted Evelyn, though without children, masters or giant water pitcher:
Aston Clinton House School dining room. From an article by Diana Gulland in Records of Buckinghamshire, 2008, where the photo appears courtesy of Hilda Isabel Marriott.
Richard then entered the dining room, along with their fellow teacher who was known as the cavalry officer. Following a bad dinner the car was taken to be fixed and the party of three went to a local pub called The Bell and huddled over the fire there, feeling miserable. Elizabeth then drove back to London leaving Richard and Evelyn to a school full of dark and echoing corridors and a dreadful common room.
Evelyn was not looking forward to another term’s teaching, now was he? Still, at least he’d got The Bell, a pub that will crop up in Evelyn’s account of his Aston Clinton days even more often than ‘Mrs Roberts pub’ did in his Llanddulas days. The prospect of a wretched dinner and ewers of water at the school would often lose out to the option of pub grub and free-flowing ale.
On Friday, 25 September, Waugh wrote in his diary that the timetable wasn’t completed and that he was not being hard pushed. He ridiculed the headmaster’s speech to the boys, which he describes as having been given in an ‘unattractive and affected manner’. He wasn’t impressed with the boys either, who he reckoned were ‘incredibly ignorant’. In the evening, it was Richard’s turn to take prep. Evelyn bought beer from the Bell which they drank in Richard’s bedroom.
I think Evelyn’s time at Aston Clinton must have involved a fair amount of walking, if only because the park was so big and the Bell outside its perimeter. The Bell still exists today and is a superb old pub, with many public rooms, some of them wood-panelled. It’s marked on the map reproduced below (where the main road that descends from the top edge of the map meets the main west to east road) which appeared in the sale catalogue of the mansion and estate in 1923.
This map appears in the article ‘Aston Clinton House 1923-32’ by Diana Gulland, Records of Buckinghamshire, volume 48. The caption there reads: Plan of Lot 1. From 1923 sale Catalogue of mansion and estate. By courtesy of Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society.
If he kept to paths, Evelyn would have had two ways to get to the Bell from the school, which is the prominent grey splodge beside the label ‘Aston Clinton Park’. Either via the front drive, then turning left along the main east-west road. Or, maximising the time spent walking in the green park rather than on the grim road, taking the path that sweeps north before hitting London Road close to the Bell. The fact that Evelyn didn’t choose to drink in the Bell that second night but carted pints of beer back to the school so that Richard could have a drink with him says something about the camaraderie between the pair.
On Saturday, 26 September, Evelyn wrote that he was beginning to feel more at home in the ‘frightful’ school. He singled out the boy Westby as someone who was ‘diseased’ rather than ‘mad’. After a game of football with the boys he had a bath, from which he got some physical pleasure in the largely comfortless place. Richard took him to Tring where they dined with Claud Cockburn and Chinese Harry. Later, Richard and Evelyn drank beer together until late. They returned home via the ‘speech-room windows’.
Home by way of the speech-room windows? Would that be something to do with the ladder leaning against the building in one of those old photos on the last page on this site? I guess Evelyn meant that when coming back from the Bell, over the endless park, they chose a fairly direct route through the house to their rooms.
Claud Cockburn? He was a cousin of Evelyn’s who Waugh had got to know when they were both at Oxford. In autumn of 1925, Claud was at Keble College, in the fourth year of reading for a degree in Greats. His father had for many years been Chinese Secretary at the British Legation in Peking. ‘Chinese Harry’ had then retired to England but had been persuaded to take a diplomatic job in Hungary. Claud had then commuted between Budapest and Oxford for much of his time at university. But by autumn 1925, his father had retired again and his family were living in Tring, four miles from Aston Clinton. Evelyn and Richard often saw Claud either at his college in Oxford or at his family home. On Monday, September 28, Claud lent Evelyn a novel by Virginia Woolf which Evelyn didn’t want to believe had any merit. On the 30th Evelyn spent the afternoon playing rugby football with the boys and in the evening drank at the Bell with Claud.
More about the mysterious Claud later, but for now here’s The Bell (much bigger inside than it appears from the front), looking splendid in the late afternoon sun.
Evelyn’s first term at Aston Clinton was now well underway. Let’s get a detailed picture of how it panned out, week by week...
On Thursday the 1st of October, Evelyn taught the boys shooting in the morning. After lunch Richard drove Evelyn to London (the journey took an hour) and they went to the Plunket Greenes’ family home at Sumner Place. After tea Evelyn bought plaster casts for the ‘mad’ pupils who drew, and dined with his father at Underhill. Richard joined Evelyn and they drank beer and arrived home to Aston Clinton about 2am. A successful expedition I’d say, proving that it was possible both to teach for a morning at Aston Clinton and enjoy themselves in London for the rest of the day.
At the weekend, Alastair came to Aston Clinton and he and Evelyn spent time together, though it was made difficult by the presence of Harold Claire who drank too much even for them.
On Thursday the 8th, Richard took Evelyn to London again, though it seems the headmaster was reluctant to see them take off at lunchtime. There was a party at the Café Royal where Evelyn met Elizabeth Ponsonby for the first time. Red wine was consumed, making them feel unwell. Evelyn and Richard got back to Aston Clinton at 3am.
A quiet weekend with Elizabeth (who Richard had got engaged to about a year before, on the way back from dropping off Evelyn at Arnold House in north Wales). On Saturday evening the three of them went to see a Harold Lloyd film at a cinema in Aylesbury.
On Monday, Evelyn was driven by Richard to Oxford. They met some old friends at the New Reform Club. Then Claud turned up with some of his pals and they went on to drink at the Oxford Union Debating Society. They ended up drinking in someone’s rooms with Richard and Evelyn extending an invitation for the bright young things to come along to Aston Clinton on Thursday. But no-one did turn up from Oxford on Thursday which no doubt fuelled Evelyn’s regret at not living there any longer. Friday was a full school day with drawing and a game to take and boxing. By tea-time Richard and Evelyn, equally depressed, were sleeping at opposite ends of the sofa in the common room. At that point a party of Plunket Greenes turned up, and so, following afternoon school, dinner was taken at the George in Oxford. During the evening that followed a bottle of vodka was stolen.
And the weekend? Another quiet one, with Elizabeth in attendance. Evelyn noted that vodka gave one marvellous dreams but prevented one from sleeping.
Monday was a full day of dreary work. By lunch-time on Tuesday, Evelyn couldn’t stand it any longer and took the bus in to Oxford, which took two hours which he passed reading The Brothers Karamazov. In Oxford, he talked to a tailor about check trousers then met Harold Acton who told him about a party that was happening later. Evelyn’s dinner was paid for by Tom Driberg who he’d been to school with at Lancing. Michael Tandy then gave him 10 shillings in order to find Claud Cockburn via taxi. Evelyn failed in this task and at 9.30 ended up at the party in Christ Church college. Richard had turned up at the end of his long school day and together he and Evelyn drank a mixture of champagne, gin and absinthe. They went on somewhere else and Evelyn got into a fight. On the way home to Aston Clinton, Richard was sick and had to lie immobile at the side of the road, alternately dozing and vomiting for two hours while Evelyn sheltered as best he could. (Ah, Evelyn it would have been quicker to have got the bus home.) Eventually, Waugh and his legless chauffeur made it back to Aston Clinton, soaking wet, at 4am.
On Wednesday, Evelyn felt very tired but not as ill as he thought he would. He even played soccer in the afternoon. On Thursday he went to London to pawn his ring. He met his mother for tea then went to the Plunket Greene place. Richard’s car had to be repaired before they could get home. On Friday Evelyn was very tired and sad. His drawing class would not sketch well, the boys having neither taste nor skill nor humility, it seemed.
Elizabeth came for the weekend again, as did Alastair. Richard did Evelyn’s work for him so that Evelyn could spend Sunday with Alastair. But when Alastair returned to Barford on Sunday evening, Evelyn was again depressed, noting that he had burned his tongue with too much smoking.
On Monday and Tuesday Evelyn and Richard dined at the Bell because the food at the school was getting so bad. On Wednesday, Evelyn’s 22nd birthday, he tried to play football but had to stop because he felt so tired. Richard got the news that he had landed the job of music master at Lancing College AND that Elizabeth’s parents had dropped their objections to he and Elizabeth marrying. In Liza’s joy, she even kissed Evelyn on the way down the drive towards the Bell where Claud and two friend joined them for drinks. The kiss was platonic but Evelyn ended his entry for November 2 with this:
‘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.’
So what sort of month was October? Basically a month of teaching ‘mad’ boys; a month of camaraderie with Richard who took Evelyn to London sober, three times, and brought him back from Oxford drunk, twice. Above all, a month of chilling out at the Bell.
The present writer inside the Bell, Aston Clinton, in May 2007, at which time the pub had for some reason changed its name to Duck Inn.
On Wednesday an loads of people descended on Aston Clinton from Oxford. Evelyn was well pleased with this. They drank a lot of beer at the Bell; dinner was amusing. More drinking was done, some of the party pranced about. Alas, no-one left any money behind and Evelyn and Richard were left to face a bill of some 8 or 9 pounds.
The present writer inside the Bell, Aston Clinton, in May 2007, imitating Evelyn Waugh when he realised that his chums from Oxford had just turned up for an evening’s revelry. NOT an imitation of Evelyn when he realised that those chums had left without paying for any of the vast amounts of food and drink they’d consumed.
A big Oxford day was planned for Saturday, November 7. First, Liza, Richard and Evelyn waited for Anthony Russell, Liza’s brother. They had been up since 7am and had been drinking cocktails before the finally got on their way at noon. In Oxford, Evelyn lunched with Tom Driberg, an old Lancing chum. He then went to Woodstock Road where he had agreed to act in Terence Greenidge’s film. Most of The Scarlet Woman had been shot in the summer of 1924, but a few scenes were needed to round things off. Indeed, I will make use of a few stills to illustrate what turned out to be quite a day.
How did filming with Terence go? The film’s director rounded up some of the people that Evelyn most despised The still below shows Evelyn approaching a pair of his fellow actors, Septimus Nixon, playing the bearded Father Macgrigor, and Arden Hilliard playing, Baptisto Illiardo, an Italian acolyte. Evelyn enters the scene at the trot, in character as the Dean of Balliol, though his white wig looks different to how it appeared in the scenes recorded the previous year, scenes featuring the stunning Elsa Lanchester. Behind Evelyn and in front of the distinctive front gable of a house, there is a road running from left to right. Woodstock Road? Perhaps someone reading this will be able to identify the precise Oxford locale and let me know.
Waugh wrote in his diary that after an hour he couldn’t stand it any longer. He got into a taxi - which was there to take part in a scene - and was driven away. To the rest of the group’s annoyance.
I’m not sure whether the above still from The Scarlet Woman is stock footage or if it was actually shot in Oxford in November 1925. (Could that be Woodstock Road?) Certainly, the photo illustrates what cars looked like in the Twenties. And, as any reader of The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh must realise, many of these harmless boxy looking vehicles were driven by drunks. It would have been a car like one of the above that Richard Plunket Greene lay beside - alternately puking up and blacking out - on the way back from Oxford high-jinks just a few weeks before.
Waugh wrote that Richard, LIza and he went shopping and soon became exhausted. They went to a tea party at Matthew Ponsonby’s rooms, which were dark and intense, though they would rather have been sleeping off their fatigue.
After that they went to the George. Waugh wrote that Robert Byron had brought to Oxford a ‘syndicate of homosexual businessmen’ - one of whom owned a ridiculous number of newspapers and wore platinum braces - who plied Evelyn with champagne cocktails.
Actually, the above is rather a splendid tableau. Evelyn, in the role of the decidedly queer Dean of Balliol, might be having his hand shaken by a homosexual businessman who owns 110 newspapers and is wearing platinum braces. In the middle of the composition, dressed as a Royal footman, is Sibbald Malcolm, one of Evelyn’s most despised Oxford peers. While the character sitting opposite Evelyn looks like George Dyer in a Francis Bacon painting. As, come to think of it, do the two guys behind him.
Evelyn’s diary entry continues by stating that ‘Chris’ arrived. Chris being Christopher Hollis, a Catholic who was friendly with Alastair Graham. A diary entry from September 20, 1925, recording that Alastair and Chris went to Mass together, ends with the exasperated statement that he did not realise Chris could be so tedious. And that Catholicism and the Colonies seemed to be stultifying bedfellows.
Back to November 7, 1925. Evelyn can’t remember why, but he refused to dine with the parties that had asked him to eat with them. Instead, he latched onto two of Claud Cockburn’s friends from Keble College and went for dinner with them in the Carlton Club.
After eating, Evelyn went back to the George. He met a group, containing Liza, which was looking for him in the Cornmarket. Taking evasive action, paranoid Evelyn went into the Clarendon Bar. Seeing that he’d been followed, he climbed out of a window, fell to the ground, and hurt his ankle.
Waugh limped down the road to Christ Church where Tom Driberg’s party was starting. There were lots of men he didn’t know. At some stage Evelyn was taken to see a Doctor Counsell, but after the consultation, which confirmed his ankle was broken, Evelyn returned to the party and drank a lot. He and Alastair slept at the house of Pat Gamble.
I don’t know where Patrick Gamble’s house was, nor where Matthew Ponsonby’s rooms were, but I’ve marked most of the places mentioned by Evelyn in his long diary entry for November 7th on the map below. Why have I bothered? Well, Waugh’s movements that day were so self-indulgent/destructive (and painstakingly recorded) that I don’t suppose they’ll ever be repeated.
The doctor’s premises on Broad Street is the only site not on a north-south axis on the map below. The other blue tacks, from north to south, indicate:
1) Woodstock Road
2) and 3) The George Bar and the Carlton Club on the corner of George Street and Cornmarket.
5) Clarendon Bar
6) Christ Church College
Waugh’s diary entry, begun on Friday 6 November, but dealing largely with Saturday 7th, goes on to summarise his activities on Sunday the 8th. Apparently, it was a dismal day. Richard saw friends. Alastair went to Mass. Evelyn and Liza drove about in taxis. At 3 o’clock Evelyn had to act for Terence Greenidge again, which was even worse than the Saturday because it was colder.
I’m showing another still from The Scarlet Woman below, as what I take to be a cast on Waugh’s ankle suggests that this scene was shot on the Sunday. But more than that, it’s just another great tableau: the threat of the matches, the mingling of Evelyn’s wig with smoke, the collapsed figures with a variety of lost expressions, so suggest the morning after the shenanigans before.
On Sunday night, Richard drove Liza, Anthony and Evelyn to London. For the next three days, Evelyn remained on a sofa at Underhill studying the Pre-Raphaelites. By Tuesday the sofa also contained Frederick Leighton’s Solitude and an enlarged photograph of the Grand Canal. By the time Liza turned up on Thursday lunchtime, Evelyn felt able to write in his diary that he wanted to write a book about the Pre-Raphaelites.
By Friday 13th the sofa at Golders Green has been replaced by the sofa at Aston Clinton. Though Evelyn was tempted away from it on Sunday for another outing to Oxford. He and Richard drank masses of brandy to Liza’s health.
A slow start to the second half of the Christmas term. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday Evelyn wrote the single word ‘Nothing’ in his diary. Missing the Pre-Raphaelites or still recovering from the Oxford debacle? Both, perhaps.
On Saturday, with LIza and Richard staying at an empty house near Tring, Evelyn dined with Alastair and Claud at the Bell, drinking much rum. On Sunday, Everyn accidentally missed Alastair and Claud by joining Liza and Richard. They sat in front of the fire in a billiard room and talked about waistcoats.
Again ‘nothing’ happened on the Wednesday and Friday. On Saturday, Evelyn had all his meals at the Bell because he felt so depressed. He phoned up Alastair who was out in Oxford. On Sunday, Evelyn consumed celery soup, rum and vodka at the Bell, then went to call on Chinese Harry. But he too was out.
The word ‘ice’ dominates the diary entries for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday the headmaster’s daughters, the Crawford girls, invited Evelyn, Richard and Liza to tea. The drawing room was enormous and there was nudity on the roof and a ‘prodigious’ fire. Prodigious water in ewers and baths and now prodigious fire - Aston Clinton House obviously had its elemental qualities. As for nudity on the roof, would that be the Italianate ceiling in the Ball Room at Aston Clinton House, as seen here in the Rothschilds’ time?
Ball Room, Aston Clinton House. From 1923 Sale Catalogue of Mansion and Estate. By courtesy of Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society. From an article by Diana Gulland in Records of Buckinghamshire, 2008.
After the tea, and perhaps in deliberate contrast, Liza, Richard and Evelyn drank loads of ‘poor cocktails’ at the Bell. I’d like to think that if they’d given the Crawford girls a bit longer then they could have enjoyed loads of good cocktails poured out of prodigious Ming vases in the Ball Room.
Unusually, for this period, Evelyn made no diary entry for the weekend. But the next Monday he commented that there were only two days left in the term, which Evelyn was glad of. He was tired of the term even though some of the boys were charming. He’d been rehearsing The Tempest with them, though they acted abominably.
I wonder if Evelyn was able to show the boys evidence of his own fine acting in The Scarlet Woman: ‘There you are boys, there’s acting for you. I may have had the world’s worst hangover, I may have broken my ankle following the previous day’s filming, but there I am delivering my lines as if I believed them.’
I wonder if Evelyn was able to show the boys how the final words of Shakespeare’s peerless play should be read. That is, from the heart:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd spires, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn colleges, the great Oxford itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a Bell behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
That’s how Shakespeare left his play, give or take a few nouns, but I can’t see Evelyn Waugh leaving it at that.
“Listen boys. We are such things as dreams are made of, sure enough, and our little life is rounded with a sleep, truly. Now off you go and I’ll see you again next term when we’ve all woken up from the excesses of the holidays.”
“What excesses will that be, Sir?”
“Don’t ask, Westby, just go. All of you, disappear!”