NATIONAL BANANA DAY
In Auberon Waugh's autobiography, Will This Do? published in 1991 when he (Evelyn's second child) was 52, Bron recounts the story of when the first consignment of bananas reached Britain after the War. The Labour government had decreed that each child should have the treat of tasting a banana. Unfortunately for the Waugh children, Evelyn thought otherwise. He had the bananas that had been allocated to his three oldest children placed on his plate, and ate them in front of his disgruntled brood. Why did he do this? Was it personal greed as Auberon suggests? I think the answer is contained in a British Pathé newsreel.
Auberon Waugh wrote his autobiography before Google, and may have decided it was too much trouble to look up when National Banana Day actually was. Nowadays, that sort of research is a piece of cake. On January 3, 1946, a British Pathé newsreel called 'YES, WE HAVE SOME BANANAS', shows the first consignment of bananas arriving at Avonmouth docks, designated for the children of southwest England.
Now, in a letter to Nancy Mitford of October 1946, Evelyn stated that it was his routine to go to the cinema in nearby Dursley four times a week. I've little doubt that he saw the newsreel in question and that it stimulated his imagination. If so, he would have watched intrigued as a schoolgirl handed the first bunch of bananas to the Lord Mayor of Bristol. The Lord Mayor then asks the girl if she would like a banana.
"Splendid, splendid," he says. "That's splendid, splendid."
Soon she, together with a few young chums, are happily munching away, some of them no doubt experiencing the taste of this exotic fruit for the first time in their lives.
"Isn't it lovely?" says the older girl.
Then the Lord Mayor takes a banana and prepares to bite into it himself.
"They're of the finest quality," he says, looking at his banana. "And very nice too," he adds, looking up at the camera which cuts away from him just as he's about to eat his banana. So this imagery went into Evelyn's imagination and I wouldn't be surprised if it pushed Evelyn's buttons in respect of something.
As far back as his schooldays at Lancing, Evelyn had been thinking and writing about 'generations', as his father had before him. His father's pre-WW1 generation, his brother's WW1 generation (though Alec was only five years older than Evelyn) and his own post-WW1 generation, who were destined, in 17-year-old Evelyn's eyes, to be clear-sighted, hard, analytic and unsympathetic. Above all they would have a very full sense of humour, though they would not be a happy generation.
Now, in the aftermath of WW2, he no doubt saw his own generation as the War generation and his children as one of several post-WW2 generations. Who deserved to eat the bananas? The clear-sighted, hard, analytic, unsympathetic, funny but ultimately unhappy post-WW1 generation that had evolved into the WW2 generation? Or those that had yet to prove themselves on the battlefield or anywhere else?
In Will This Do? we're told that in the dining room at Piers Court, Evelyn sat at the end of the table with his back to the natural light, while Laura sat at the other end of the table so that she could look out of the window towards the field where she kept a small herd of dairy cows.
Below is a diagram of the ground floor at Piers Court. It tries to capture Evelyn realising that he has thought of something that may amuse the rest of the family. And if not amuse them, then himself:
Actually, that diagram is necessary but not sufficient; more needs to be said.
Bron tells his readers that Laura came home one day (presumably in January 1946) with the three bananas. PIcture Teresa, Bron and Margaret, the three oldest Waugh children, sitting around the table. Imagine their horror when Evelyn asked for all three bananas to be put on his own plate. As the grown-up Auberon writes: '...and before the anguished eyes of his children, he poured on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and ate all three.'
Let's slow things down at this point with the aid of still images from The Scarlet Woman, that odd film from 1924/25 which features a 20/21-year-old Evelyn hamming it up. Why? Because I think National Banana Day is partly about acting.
I see Evelyn starting to eat the first banana. As he does so, he turns to Teresa, his first born and says to her:
''You were born on the first of March, 1938. I wrote to my literary agent the day after saying that your mother's baby was born and that the labour only lasted for 9 hours. I told him that you were huge and loud and that no-one had had the insolence to suggest you looked like me."
Teresa looks at the face of her father and doesn't know what to think. Not a clue.
Licking his lips, Evelyn moves on to the next banana and to his boy, Bron.
"You were born on November 17, 1939, a few months after the outbreak of war. I was here while your mother was heavily pregnant with you at Pixton. At 9 in the morning your mother's sister rang up to tell me that Laura’s baby had started. When I arrived there, soon after luncheon, your mother had had morphine and was cheerful and in practically no pain. However, she grew worse and the local doctor summoned help to induce you. You were born shortly before midnight."
Bron deeply feels the loss of his banana and would dearly like to stare out his father. But no way can he do that.
Two bananas down, one to go. Evelyn turns to his third-born, three-and-a-half-year-old Margaret:
"You, my dear Pig, were born on June 10, 1942, when I was busy fighting for our country's future. About ten days after the birth I recall writing to your mother, apologising for not having written sooner. My excuse, AND A POOR ONE, was that there was nowhere at Matlock to sit and write, and that by the end of the day my eyes were so dazzled from scrutinising photos that all I had in mind to do was to sit in the twilight drinking beer."
Margaret chuckles into her father's face which grins back hugely. If I remember rightly, later in the year in a letter to Nancy Mitford, Waugh describes his daughter Margaret as being beneath the age of reason.
I expect that at this point Evelyn excused his children from the table and that the older ones left the room slightly hungrier than when they'd entered it and just a little more in awe of their father.
Now let's see. If the bananas had arrived at Bristol on Jan 3, what day did Evelyn sit down with his offspring to eat their bananas? Not sure, but he did comment in his diary that he would be having his meals in the library until January the 10th, when the children would be leaving for Pixton.
On Jan 3 itself, Evelyn wrote to Diana Cooper telling her that he had his two eldest children at home. He told her that he abhorred their company as he could only think of them as defective adults, hated their physical limitations, and found their jokes flat and monotonous. According to Evelyn, Teresa had a precocious taste for theology which promised well for a career as an Abbess. The boy was mindless and obsessed with social success. Evelyn's plan was to put him into a regiment later, but that meanwhile the boy was off to boarding school at the end of the month. And did that please Evelyn, master of Piers Court? It would appear so.
On Jan 5, Evelyn wrote to Nancy Mitford repeating that his two eldest children were at home and a great bore. Teresa alternating between strict theology and utter silence. The boy living for pleasure though thought to be a great wit by his contemporaries. Evelyn remarked sadly that he had tried him drunk and that he had tried him sober. Presumably, Evelyn was referring to his own states of inebriation. If he was eating all the bananas I can't think there would be much alcohol going spare. Which brings me onto my next essay.