Let me take you to the Soho offices of Bountiful Books, for reasons that will soon become clear. Simon Cunningham had offered to publish my EVELYN! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love in hardback in September 2011, with an ebook to appear at the same time. He explained that an ebook could incorporate extra features and he wondered if I knew of anything that might suit. Perhaps it was because of the religious paraphernalia that surrounded Simon. Perhaps it was the presence of the cranberry and soda on the publisher’s desk. In any case, I suggested that The Scarlet Woman, the obscure but hilarious film that Evelyn Waugh was involved in when he was a young man, might fit the bill, because nobody seemed very sure who owned the rights to the singular creation. Especially as Terence Greenidge died with creditors rather than heirs.
“Excellent,” said Simon, “can you get your hands on a copy?”
“I can try.”
The publisher responded to this news by upping his cross and downing his drink.
I wrote to John Howard Wilson, secretary of the Evelyn Waugh Society and a professor of English at Lock Haven University. Finger on the Waugh pulse as ever, John told me that the original 35mm film had been turned into a VCR video which had then been converted into a DVD, but that there weren’t many copies in circulation. He gave me a list of email addresses of members of the Evelyn Waugh Society who might have the DVD, and wished me luck. Several members took the trouble to reply to my request, but it was only David Cliffe who admitted to owning a disc, which he kindly forwarded to me by first class post. In order to ensure that his rare gem didn’t go missing, I took another trip down from Scotland to Soho and bearded Simon in his literary den. He seemed much the same as ever.
I asked how things were going with the design of Evelyn! He told me that a crack team of designers were on the case. I asked him how the cover was looking. He replied: “Again that’s with the designers, but something for your consideration should be available within... a few days.”
“Oh good,” I said, hoping that religious imagery was not going to play too prominent a role in the book’s design.
“Have you got the DVD?” he asked.
“Yes, and now that I’ve watched it a few times I can tell you that it is WONDERFUL. Our ebook will be a collector’s piece in its own right.”
“That’s the idea; e for Evelyn.” After a second he added, “Er... what’s the story about?”
“The strapline of The Scarlet Woman is ‘An Ecclesiastical Romance’. Basically, the Pope plots to convert the British royal family to Roman Catholicism, the key to which is the sexual proclivities of the Prince of Wales.”
In my enthusiasm, I gushed: “Apparently, the idea for a film came from Terence Greenidge, when he and Evelyn were friends together at Oxford. Four individuals put up a few pounds each so that a cine-camera could be hired. The four were Evelyn Waugh, Terence Greenidge, his brother John Greenidge, and John Sutro, another Oxford chum.The film was made in July, 1924, just after his final year at Oxford. Though Waugh was so busy larking about that summer that it was September before he mentioned it in his diary.”
I showed Simon the relevant extract from Waugh’s Diaries, which he commenced to read aloud with the utmost deliberation, no doubt thinking of copyright fees that might come to pass. Indeed I sensed that, ever the alert publisher, he was performing a word count as he read.
In the diary entry made on 1 September, 1924, but dealing with the last week in July, Waugh wrote that he’d had a busy and expensive week filming. In retrospect he didn’t think that the £6 he spent on the film - plus the hire of clothes and taxi fares - was money well spent. However, he didn’t begrudge the £4 he spent on a meal with Elsa Lanchester as it turned out to be such a ‘jolly evening’. After the meal, it would seem that Terence Greenidge showed the footage that he’d already edited. Waugh was not impressed. To distract himself from the film’s defects, he fought with Elsa Lanchester over a £1 note which was torn to pieces in the process
As I sat down again, Simon took some more time to digest the words he’d just read...
“Hmm. Repeated talk of the poor quality of the film there,” he said finally. “I don’t like the sound of that very much.”
“Don’t worry, Simon. Evelyn and chums were obviously drunk that night, because right from the start it must have come across as a funny, high-spirited and enjoyably daft production to anybody with their wits about them. Watching it now, The Scarlet Woman strikes the viewer as being influenced by Monty Python, though of course it was made fifty years before that lot got into their stride.”
Simon nodded, inadvertently giving me an impression of Graham Chapman from the Python team, then nodded again, in more of a George Bernard Shaw way. Though I prefer the comic reference, as Waugh is a favourite of so many contemporary comedians: David Mitchell, Russell Kane, Stephen Fry, Alexi Sayle, Rik Mayall...
After signing a slip to acknowledge receipt of the DVD, Simon was distracted by something he heard through the window. He turned away from me to see what was going on.
“My God, Duncan,” he shouted.
“What is it?”
“Geoff Dyer and Jamie Byng... mucking about after a game of tennis in St James’s Park.”
“Hmm, so it is. What of it?”
“Promise me that if our book is a success you won’t go off playing tennis with the big boys of independent publishing. PROMISE ME, DUNCAN,” he said, shaking me by the shoulder.
“If there’s one thing I am, it is LOYAL, Simon. You’ve picked my book from the slush pile and I won’t be forgetting that compliment in a hurry.”
“Bless you, my son.”
As we parted, I felt there was something else that Simon wanted to say. Whatever it was, it went unsaid. Perhaps he just wanted to wish me luck at the Evelyn Waugh Conference at Downside, which was coming up in August. But I sensed that it might be more than that. Oh well, time would tell. We bade a fond adieu, and I left Simon to whatever private demons might be tormenting him.
As I left the building I remembered something that I wrote in my original letter to Simon when I sent in the manuscript of EVELYN! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love. And that’s this: ‘In the book, three sets of players – (1) the narrator in the present day, (2) Evelyn and his companions in their day, (3) the characters in Waugh’s work – come in and out of focus, ultimately to show how life feeds into art, and vice versa, both then and now.’ I realised that the same thing was happening again.