March 31, 2014. It's the day before I go to Lisbon for a holiday with my partner Kate. Although I'm looking forward to the trip I'm not happy about dropping my present interest in Evelyn Waugh, even for a few days. I've just begun planning a new section of this website and several essays are crying out to be written and illustrated.
A sudden thought: did Evelyn ever travel to Lisbon? The indexes to the biographies written by Martin Stannard and Selina Hastings don't reveal any such thing. But when I open up Labels...
...the book Waugh wrote following the cruise he took with his wife in 1929, I find a map. The last of the Stella Polaris's 23 stops following its criss-crossings of the Mediterranean was LIsbon, after which the boat chugged north to Harwich in Essex. Bullseye!
Four pages of Labels deals with the one day stop-over at Lisbon, and I immediately spot their potential. Alas, Kate doesn't. She patiently accompanied me to the main locations of Evelyn Waugh's life when I first researched Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love back in 2006-7 but she has long since had enough of that project and of the words 'Evelyn' and 'Waugh'. I have to reassure her that our time in Portugal's capital will not be dominated by Waugh research, as I slip my copy of Labels into the bag that she has kindly packed for me. If I'm being two-faced then that's just the way it has to be sometimes. Ask anyone that actually gets things done!
The next day we fly from Edinburgh to Lisbon on a cheap easyJet ticket. Ha! - in my mind's eye, we travel to Lisbon on a luxury cruise ship called the Stella Polaris.
In what sort of cabin were the Evelyns? In one of great luxury, with a satinwood panelled sitting-room and their own bathroom. There were only four such suites on the ship. And the Evelyns were living in such style thanks to the generosity of She-Evelyn's sister, Alethea. More can be read of her role in the Evelyns' lives, and Waugh's Decline and Fall, here.
Our airbnb flat - hosted by an international journalist, a helpful and friendly guy - is on the fourth floor of a tile-clad block close to the centre of the city, and it has a balcony overlooking the River Tagus. I'm not sure where the Stella Polaris moored in 1929, but 200 yards in front of the ship in the photograph below - which was taken from our balcony - is an enormous square with one side open to the water.
Or as Waugh writes of Lisbon in Labels: 'The central feature is the lovely Praca do Commercio, a square open on its fourth side to the water's edge, with a fine equestrian statue in the middle.'
That's the statue made of brass (which has oxidised to a greenish hue) on the white stone plinth in the image below. The horse and its rider are looking towards the broad river, away from the city. I prefer the statue of what I take to be a goddess, atop an arch, with angels on either side of her, behind which, as Waugh writes: 'extends the Cidade Baixa, excellent eighteenth century streets, rectangularly planned.'
Immediately after describing LIsbon's central grid, Evelyn's account gets more personal. 'Before luncheon I drove out with two fellow passengers to the Convent dos Jeronymos de Belem, a fine sixteenth century building just outside the town on the coast road.'
On the face of it, Evelyn himself drove the vehicle. But of course he didn't, because he never could drive. On the face of it, he went without she-Evelyn. But I imagine she did accompany him, as she'd recovered from her sickness by this stage of the cruise. And if you're going to be in a glorious capital city for a single day, do you stay on the boat where you've already been for too long, or do you take in the new city's most celebrated sites? I think the latter. Perhaps Waugh doesn't mention his wife because, in Labels, written nearly a year after the cruise, the conceit is that he travels alone, and his fellow passengers Geoffrey and Juliet, who are a big part of the book from pages 29 to 116 (of 205), are effectively the Evelyns.
In Labels, Evelyn tells us that the monastery is a superb example of Arte Manuelina, the style of architecture evolved in Portugal at the time of its greatest commercial success. Most buildings of the style came to grief in the earthquake of 1755, the over-ornate structures being ill-suited to such an event. Indeed, Evelyn is rather dismissive of the 'slender pillars, all fretted and twisted, supporting vast stretches of flamboyant fan-tracery'.
Kate and I walk the two levels of the cloisters as I believe the Evelyns would have in 1929. On that occasion, the monastery was long out of use as such and was instead being used as an orphanage. The Evelyns' guide was a polite, English-speaking black boy. Waugh notes that it was playtime, the noise of the many running children was deafening, and he-Evelyn 'trembled for the security of those fragile pinnacles, the intricate fretwork of carved stone'.
Kate and I walk the cloisters with a few fellow tourists (the orphanage closed decades ago, the children who were so active in 1929 will now all be at rest, or very nearly so) and I'm reminded more of the look and feel of an Oxford College. Indeed, in Labels, when considering the cathedral at Granada, just three ports of call before Lisbon, Waugh wrote that it strongly reminded him of the chapel at Hertford College. Here at Jeronymos, it's possible to bring to mind the quad at Hertford, but perhaps it's the quad at All Souls College that is the closer parallel. Ah, World Heritage Sites - do they not meld into the one single human achievement called culture?
One side of the cloisters at Jeronymos adjoins an enormous church which reminds me (and may have reminded Evelyn) of Lancing College Chapel. And when Kate points out the doors that connect the cloisters to the church interior, so that several Portuguese sailors newly returned to Lisbon from their travels across the ocean, could simultaneously confess their sins to monks sitting here in the cloisters, I can't help thinking of Boy-Evelyn sitting in the church, confessing his sins to his older self, Oxford-Evelyn.
Kate points out that this doesn't work for her. For what sins would Boy-Evelyn have had to confess? She suggests that a confessional between He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn would work better. What does she mean? Well, wasn't She-Evelyn brought up a Catholic? Wouldn't confession be a ritual that was known to her, and either be feared or mocked by her adult self?
Was She-Evelyn a Catholic? I can't remember off-hand and I wasn't able to smuggle my Hastings or Stannard into my one small travelling bag. If she was, she didn't take her religion seriously when she was married to He-Evelyn. She was a party-goer, a bright young thing, the unhappy wife of an intense, ambitious, brilliant young author.
I speak of He-Evelyn at 25, not me at 56.
I suggest to Kate that on the day of their visit to the Convent, He-Evelyn may have had more to confess than She-Evelyn.
"What do you mean?"
"Earlier in the cruise, when She-Evelyn was so sick that she'd had to be taken off the Stella Polaris and transferred to the hospital in Port Said, He-Evelyn had got in touch with Alastair Graham, his old boyfriend, who joined him in Port Said for a few days exploring the seedy side of the port."
"Ten Hail Marys for Evelyn, Father!"
"And once She-Evelyn was better, and they'd resumed their cruise, they called in on Alastair where he worked in Athens. How pleased would the recuperating She-Evelyn have been to come face to face with the overt homosexual lifestyle of the English delegation in Athens?
"Too sick-making," says Kate, managing to put aside her liberal views in order to get into the mindset of pre-sexual liberation She-Ev.
But we don't banter for long. The cloisters of the monastery are in the end calming. Pretty soon I'm left feeling I should have been a monk. That is to say, spending my life creating illuminated manuscripts.
"What are you other than a monk, illuminating your very own Evelyn Waugh bible?" asks Kate.
Over lunch in the Bairro Alto part of the city, I try to read aloud the long single paragraph in Labels that deals with Evelyn's afternoon:
"'I spent the afternoon driving about the town. It has not yet recovered from its earthquake, and most of the chief churches are left in ruins. In one of them, now used as a museum, I saw some interesting Peruvian mummies.'"
I look up and say: "We could go there. He means the Convent of Carvo which is not far from where we are now."
"Peruvian mummies! No thanks."
"There is also a very rich Jesuit church, called Sao Roque, well worth a visit on account of its frescoed ceiling, in which an almost unique trick of perspective has been employed..."
"Is that near here?"
"OK, let's go."
Soon we are looking up a hill towards Sao Roque church. The earliest Jesuit Church in the Portuguese world and one of the first Jesuit churches anywhere. No doubt Evelyn told the Jesuit Father Mather about it when he travelled up the Amazon to stay at his humble abode a few years later.
As the photo below shows, Kate goes straight for it. I hang back to admire the white cobbles which Lisbon is almost entirely paved in. As it would certainly have been in 1929 when Evelyn was traipsing from taxi to religious building.
Inside Sao Roque, I allow my eyes to adjust to the lower light levels. I can see that the ceiling is flat, made of wooden boards, but that the image painted onto it gives the impression of relief. How does He-Evelyn put it?
'The plain vaulted roof is painted to represent elaborate architectural groining, with, between the false stone work, a series of frescoes conceived on quite different planes from their actual surface; a painting, as it were, of a painting. From all points of observation except one, the effect is barely intelligible; when, however, one stands in the centre of the floor, all the lines recede into their right places and an almost completely successful illusion is achieved.'
In the above image, almost exactly one half of the ceiling is visible.
I walk to the centre of the church and look vertically up. This is hard on the neck but I haven't come all this way, book in hand, just to baulk at a little bodily discomfort. What can I see? Well, I'm looking directly up at the face of an angel at the foot of the cross, the centrepoint of the whole ceiling...
The scene then opens out in all directions, taking in the last supper, the cruifixion, and transporting the eye from earthly pain to heavenly grace via a pillared dome. But am I getting the full impact? If I take a few steps away from the centre of the room, what I see does not significantly alter. So what was Evelyn on about? I wonder what Kate makes of it all.
Alas, Kate is not interested in straining her neck. Instead, having been to a Catholic school herself - though not as a practising Catholic - she is obsessed with the rituals of the church that she was excluded from. And with the Virgin Mary in particular.
"I've stained my nappy," says Kate, enigmatically. The statement becomes less enigmatic when one considers closely the Virgin's face. Because the tears running down it would seem to consist of milk. Our Lady has chosen to wipe away those tears with the material to hand. And so her cloth is indeed stained.
In the shop, Kate buys a six-inch version of the Virgin, known locally as Fatima. Disconcertingly it comes with a crown. That is, the shop assistant sticks the crown's pin deep into the Virgin's skull before presenting it to Kate for her approval. So it may be liquified brains that are coursing down the Virgin's cheeks. (How easy it is to write such sacrilegious stuff in this secular age.)
Still, I think Kate's fascination with the Virgin will make it easy to persuade her to travel to the hill on the other side of Lisbon's central grid of streets, to see the third of the three buildings that the Evelyns (or, to admit the possibility, just He-Evelyn) visited back in that May day of 1929. I quote her these words:
'At the top of a very high hill is the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Monte, much frequented by those who enjoy fine views, and also by women who wish to bear children, for in one of the side chapels is preserved an ancient stone seat which will cure the most stubborn case of barrenness, it is said, if the patient only sits on it for half a minute.'
The 28 tram takes us up the high hill in question, soon we are enjoying the view that Evelyn promised.
Is that the Stella Polaris, slipping off to Britain without us? Well, if so no matter. We can do what He-Evelyn does on at least one occasion in Labels. That is, let the boat go on with its itinerary and catch up with it again on a subsequent cruise.
The church itself looks intriguing from the outside, but is closed.
There is not much sign that it in itself is a tourist attraction these days. There is a homeless person's bed by the door, and I expect the church still opens for worship every day.
In front of the church, Kate finds a statue of the Virgin Mary to pray to. I assume that the Virgin's crown is securely pinned to her head but can't be sure as there are no tears flowing down her face.
Aren't the cobbles impressive? So many millions of cobbles providing pavements and plazas throughout this beautiful city.
The sight of Kate praying, whether seriously or not, reminds me of my unanswered question: was She-Evelyn a Catholic? I still can't remember, but I do recall that her best friend, Pansy Pakenham was, at least by the end of her life. Before embarking on their cruise in February 1929, the Evelyns spent Christmas 1928 with Pansy and her husband Henry Lamb. After Henry died in 1960, Pansy converted to Catholicism and moved to Rome where, apparently, she became an exceptionally conscientious guide at St Peter's, sitting out in all weathers on a bench outside the main entrance and guiding visitors to their targets. She also developed an ardent personal devotion to Pope John Paul II, and never missed witnessing his public appearances.
I'm about to tell Kate this when she gets to her feet and moves again to the portico in front of Nossa Senhora do Monte, where she sits down on a stone step.
I recall Waugh's words: 'In one of the side chapels is preserved an ancient stone seat which will cure the most stubborn case of barrenness, it is said, if the patient only sits on it for half a minute.'
If Kate sits there for thirty-seconds will she become pregnant with ideas for her forthcoming MFA show? I doubt if anything more womb-orientated would work for a woman in her sixties, however wonderfully young she is at heart.
She looks serious though. Perhaps she's thinking of She-Evelyn's future as it would have seemed to her back in May 1929. She-Evelyn had just endured a traumatic cruise with her husband who she must have known by this time was not right for her. There was no warmth between them. The last thing She-Evelyn would have been wanting in May 1929 was to become pregnant with the child of He-Evelyn. I bet She-Evelyn, if she really did accompany He-Evelyn that day, made damn sure she didn't sit on that special stone seat for the full thirty seconds. Though I can imagine the subsequent exchange.
"How was that for you, darling?"
"So pregnant-making, Evelyn."
"Will it be a boy, do you think?"
"And a girl, darling. Twins! I can feel two new Evelyns growing inside me as we speak."
And we walk away hand in hand, making comparisons between the first floor flats we see as we descend Rua Senhora do Monte and the first floor flat in Canonbury Square that we will be returning to very soon.
The next day, our last in Lisbon, we have to put up with grey skies. Kate asks where I'm going.
"Can't you work it out?"
"To see the Peruvian mummies?"
And so, alone, I take the 28 tram back to Bairro Alto. As I'm strolling in the ruins of the ex-convent - without Kate to focus my thoughts on her and She-Evelyn, without her voice to distract my thoughts towards custard tarts and unexplored tram routes - a number of perspectives come to mind.
First, that when Evelyn Waugh visited Lisbon, he chose to visit religious sites of architectural interest. The ex-monastery; the Jesuit church; the church on a hill; and my present location. One, two, three, four Roman Catholic sites. And, after a brief geographical and historical introduction to the city, nothing else. There is no discussion of Portuguese food. No description of the city's infrastructure. No mention of the Castelo de Sao Jorge, or the Santa Justa Lift, or any of the secular aspects of Lisbon life. It makes me realise how hooked Evelyn may already have been on Catholicism by spring 1929, though it wasn't until more than a year later, September 1930, that he did convert to Rome.
Second, I must bear in mind Alastair Graham's conversion to Catholicism in September 1924. Alastair and He-Evelyn were inseparable at this time and Evelyn was with Alastair as he made his conversion. I mustn't make too much of this though as it was in July of that year that Evelyn was contributing the storyline to Terence Greenidge's film, The Scarlet Woman. And, as we've seen, the utterly irreverent plot to this was the Pope's plan to convert England to Catholicism via a homosexual plot involving the heir to the British throne. Evelyn was a long way from taking Catholicism seriously in summer 1924, and also when the final scenes of The Scarlet Woman were shot at the end of his first term teaching at Aston Clinton, in November 1925.
Third, it surprises me that when he got back to England at the start of June, 1929, he embarked on Vile Bodies rather than write up his travel book, the raw material for which would have been fresh on his mind, and, I now realise, extraordinarily vivid. I suspect this may have been down to negotiations with his publishers. Chapman and Hall, who brought out Decline and Fall in September 1928, may have suggested that a follow-up novel was urgently needed. While Duckworths - who'd published Rossetti in April 1928, and who Waugh would go on to write several esoteric books of non-fiction for - were perhaps in less of a rush for finished product.
OK, I've wandered around the ruins of the Carmo Convent for long enough, impressive Gothic church as it obviously was before the 1755 earthquake. Now to go inside to see the part of it that still has a roof and which now functions as a museum. Just as it did in the time of the Evelyns.
That - see below - is pretty impressive. Small blue tiles made into six scenes representing Christ's crucifixion, taking the viewer's eye from mid-room to the high vaulted ceiling of this chamber and back again.
In the next room there are more tiles reaching to the top of the chamber. But hang on a minute, I'm missing something...
Yes, that must be the Peruvian mummies that He-Evelyn saw fit to mention in his book when he came to write it up nearly a year after the event. Preserved in identical glass cases, presented on twin wooden tables
Interestingly, they've been placed in a room full of books. Perhaps the juxtaposition of body and book stimulated Evelyn's imagination. As for me, I can't help seeing the mummies as the Evelyns. But as soon as I say that I realise that the bodies serve as symbols for anyone and everyone. Which must include Kate and me.
First, I see Kate in the corpse below, sitting on the stone step up at Nossa Senhora do Monte. And then in the same image I see myself as I was sitting in the cloister at the Convent dos Jeronymos de Belem.
Perhaps Evelyn saw himself and/or She-Evelyn in the figure. Indeed, in all humility, how could he not have done so.
In this strange room of books and decay, I take out my copy of Labels and turn to the penultimate paragraph, in which the Stella Polaris has been reduced to a dead slow progress through fog, its fog-horn sounding dolefully every thirty seconds:
'I woke up several times in the night to hear the horn again sounding through the wet night air. It was a very dismal sound, premonitory, perhaps, of coming trouble, for Fortune is the least capricious of deities, and arranges things on the just and rigid system that no one shall be very happy for very long.'
I'd assumed that Waugh had ended his book like this, knowing that within a month of returning to London after the cruise, She-Evelyn had committed adultery and the Evelyns' marriage was in ruins. But now I realise that He-Evelyn may have been referring to something more fundamental: the inevitability of his own and his loved one's death.
I put the book away and get out my camera once again. I flick through the day before's pictures until I arrive at the one below. I didn't think I would be using it in this public context, sacrilegious (that word again) as I wrongly thought Kate's pose to be. But now I see her gesture in a different light. Her own father died a few months ago and I wouldn't be altogether surprised if Kate converts to Catholicism over the next year or so, bringing her closer to the Virgin Mary and the succour that Our Lady clearly has the capacity to bring her.
And whether Kate converts from atheism or not, maybe I will.
Convert to Roman Catholicism? Moi? I would imagine the priest put in charge of my spiritual journey would take some convincing that I wasn't doing it just to follow in the footsteps of Evelyn Waugh.
Speaking of which, I must remember that in the relevant paragraph, Waugh mentions the Peruvian mummies before he discusses the ceiling at Sao Roque. Perhaps it's only after looking at death square in the face, that seeing a death-defying religious scene would really make sense. So when Waugh writes: 'From all points of observation except one, the effect is barely intelligible.' Perhaps he means that from all points of observation except belief, the effect is barely intelligible.
In other words, the image below, which you see by standing in the middle of the floor in Sao Roque, straining the tendons in your neck to the max, rolling your eyes until they's almost popping out of your head...
... only comes together if you truly believe.
No, I just don't get it.
Not yet, anyway.
1) I say above that four of Labels 200-odd pages are concerned with Lisbon. That includes two half pages, so a more accurate figure would be three.
2) When, in 1946, Waugh republished his five pre-WW2 travel books as a single volume, When the Going was Good, the Portuguese section of Labels was reduced to two lines. Here they are in full: 'In Sao Roque at Lisbon I reflected: It is only since the discovery of photography that perspective has ceased to be an art.' For my own purposes, I would like to shorten that to a single line: 'In Sao Roque I rediscovered religion.'
3) By going back to Waugh's original text and investigating it - with the help of an easyJet ticket and a digital camera - it feels like I have dug some dead thing out of the dirt of oblivion only to find it teaming with life.
4) If you, dear reader, have a loved one who insists on taking a break in warmer climes, and you don't want to be torn entirely away from your inner life, which is full, then remember that Labels contains 22 more stops waiting to be revisited, including such gems as Naples, Nazareth, Cairo, Crete, Istanbul, Athens and Barcelona. Do let me know how you get on (pictures, please). If you could leave Port Said to me, I'd be most grateful.