National Banana Day was in Evelyn's champagne year. What do I mean? Evelyn went bananas for champers in the summer of 1946.
In February, Waugh noted in his diary that he caught Vsevolode in his office and persuaded him to part with a case of sherry and two of burgundy. Vsevolode was a Russian who had married Lady Mary Lygon, one of the Madresfield siblings that Evelyn had become so chummy with in 1930. That's the married pair striding along in the photograph below left. Though Evelyn would have much preferred the photo below right, which emphasises his close relationship to Lady Mary (sometimes called Blondie or Maimie) and omits the Russian, whose dour presence in the life of his sparkling, blonde friend Evelyn grew to resent. Lament, even.
On March 18, 1946, Waugh noted with satisfaction that he had received an invitation to write a brochure for Vsevolode’s wine shop, Saccone and Speed, the author to be paid in bubbly. An earlier diary entry from July 1945 explains the reasoning behind this arrangement. Brideshead Revisted had been chosen as Book of the Month in the United States, meaning £10,000 straight away and a boost in sales over the next few years of about the same amount. Waugh had set his gross income and anything else he earned would be taxed at 80%. Hence the suggestion that Waugh be paid in glorious kind for this piece of writing.
The next diary entry reports that he'd been dining with Maimie and Vsevolode, the latter very excited at the prospect of introducing Evelyn to his boss. Waugh met the director the next day, discussed the proposed monograph and ordered an advance of champagne and other wines. That night he dined with a chum at White’s and they drank three bottles of champagne between them. Well, why not, because the deal was that Evelyn would earn a dozen bottles of champoo for every 1000 words he wrote. And as he could write 2000 words per day, he knew he would be washing his hair in the stuff fairly soon.
A week later Waugh wrote in his diary that he was working on his Saccone and Speed commission. By June 8 he was able to say that he was finished it as far as he could without further material. He noted that he was due 14 dozen bottles of fizz. Now I have a copy of Wine in Peace and War (they're available from Abebooks at about £40 each - the cost of two bottles of champagne these days) and reckon that the final word count was about 16,000 words, which makes 192 bottles of pop. Not bad for a month's desultory work.
I say desultory, because the writing is not inspired. If Saccone and Speed were expecting a chip off the old Brideshead block, then I reckon they would have been disappointed. There is little of Waugh's usual humour. It's mostly a worthy account of the drinks trade, during and after the war.
Why didn't Evelyn quote from his magnum opus? There's that lovely scene recording Charles Ryder's first journey to Brideshead where he and Sebastian drink a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey while eating strawberries and smoking Turkish cigars on a grassy knoll. Or the scene where Charles and Sebastian discover the cellar at Brideshead and sample its delights night after night. Let me quote, if I may:
'It was during those tranquil evenings with Sebastian that I first made a serious acquaintance with wine and sowed the seed of that rich harvest which was to be my stay in many barren years. We would sit, he and I, in the Painted Parlour with three bottles open on the table and three glasses before us: Sebastian had found a book on wine-tasting, and we followed its instructions in detail.'
And the book Charles and Sebastian were perusing? A signed copy of Wine in Peace and War by Evelyn Waugh, sent to Lady Marchmain by Prince Vsev?
You never know. Anyway, back to Brideshead:
Sebastian and Charles warm their glasses under a candle, painstakingly taste and then carefully drink the precious wine.
'Then we talked of it and nibbled Bath Oliver biscuits, and passed on to another wine; then back to the first, then on to another, until all three were in circulation and the order of glasses got confused, and we fell out over which was which, and we passed the glasses to and fro between us until there were six glasses, some of them with mixed wines in them which we had filled from the wrong bottle, till we were obliged to start again with three clean glasses each, and the bottles were empty and our praise of them wilder and more exotic.'
'"...It is a shy little wine like a gazelle."
"Like a leprechaun."
"Dappled, in a tapestry meadow."
"Like a flute by still water."
"...And this is a wise old wine."
"A prophet in a cave."
"...And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck."
"Like a swan."
"Like the last unicorn."
Still from 'Brideshead Revisited', Granada, 1981,
Charles and Sebastian leave the golden candle-light of the Painted parlour and go outside to sit on the edge of the fountain under starlight, cooling their hands in the water and listening to it streaming over the rocks.
"Ought we to be drunk every night?" Sebastian asked one morning.
"Yes, I think so."
"I think so too."'
In Wine in War and Peace, Waugh does manage to recount a similar tale from his experience. He tells us that in 1939, as a newly enlisted officer stationed at the Royal Marines barracks at Chatham, he found himself sitting next to a subaltern who shared his love of wine. At the end of dinner, the pair ordered a bottle of port which they greatly enjoyed. Noting that there was a more expensive Number 2 Port, they bought a bottle of that as well. Could they tell the difference? Evelyn thought not. But when his colleague reported on superiorities of 'roundness', 'bouquet' and 'vinosity', Evelyn had to concur. Then they fell into amicable dispute about which was which. Only to be informed by the Mess Corporal that there was no No. 2 Port available that evening and that they had been drinking two bottles from the same source.
A neat enough story, but it doesn't have the fulsome flavour and subtle aftertaste of an evening in the Painted Parlour with Charles and Sebastian.
Evelyn was in London for the first half of June. He was about to go away to Spain for a fortnight, a jaunt which would inspire the long short story Scott King's Modern Europe, but before that he enjoyed a stroll to see the Summer Show at the Royal Academy. Primarily, he went to see the paintings of Charles Spencelayh, who he'd been a fan of since the Thirties and who was the original behind his pen portrait of John Plant senior in Work Suspended. The extremely promising novel that Evelyn felt he had to abandon when the Second World War commenced.
Waugh wrote to Diana Cooper about the Spencelayhs. He said that he attended the show with a chum and would have bought one of the paintings for Diana if they'd not already been sold. Two of the three paintings were of the old man who featured often in Spencelayh's later work, with the familiar red bandana handkerchief. And one of those Evelyn would dearly have liked to buy:
'The masterpiece of nomenclature and symbolism is the old man seated with hands folded on calf bound Bible, look of earnest faith in his eyes, an oleograph of Christ behind his head, AN EMPTY BIRD CAGE. The title 'Not Alone'.'
I've traced a reproduction of a print made of the painting and placed it below. Ignore the auctioneer's stickers when matching it to Waugh's description.
Charles Spencelayh, Not Alone, 1946
Why Waugh's fascination for Spencelayh's paintings? For a start, I think Evelyn was beginning to identify with the old men depicted, their passion for Victoriana, their religious belief, their patriotism, and their consciousness of time passing. Though he was only 42, he wrote to Diana Cooper in April of 1946: '...every year I like fewer things more and more intensely'.
Simultaneously, he was capable of thinking the whole thing to be a joke. His capitalisation of the words 'AN EMPTY BIRD CAGE' suggests humour. The old man is not alone, because, although his budgie has died on him, Christ, with his promise of eternal life, was always present...
As for Laura, pregnant again, she was alone, or at least spending the summer of 1946 at Pixton, her family's home in Somerset. She and Evelyn's second son, James, was born on June 30, while Waugh was still enjoying his Spanish jaunt. When Evelyn got back to London on July 2 there was a telegram awaiting him saying, as he put it: 'Laura was delivered of a son'. On Wednesday, Evelyn ordered new clothes, lunched at the Beefsteak Club and dined with Brian Franks, owner of the Hyde Park Hotel. On Wednesday, he lunched with Maimie, no doubt talking of high jinks at Madresfield as they shared three (yes, three) bottles of fizz between the pair of them. On Thursday Evelyn lunched and dined in London with more chums, but on Saturday he bit the bullet and got a taxi to Pixton.
Waugh's diary tells us that he returned to the capital three days later, on Wednesday, July 10, for a month of London life. I'll add here a little map of Evelyn's London perambulations in July and early August of '46. The blue pins indicate, from left to right, the Hyde Park Hotel, where he had rooms; White's Club where he drank and gossiped; the premises of Saccone and Speed, the source of just some of the champagne he drank; and the Beefsteak Club, where he often lunched. What had he done to deserve such a lifestyle? Oh yeah, Brideshead.
First stop is White's, I think. Evelyn had meant to take his copy of the monthly magazine Horizon with him to Pixton and to write a response to champagne socialist Cyril Connolly's editorial, but had left it at his London club. The editorial is a two-page thing which concludes with this list.
Horizon, issue 78, June 1946
Waugh's response - much longer than the original article itself - did appear in the Catholic weekly Tablet on July 27 and I would guess that he got down to writing it as soon as he was back in London. Evelyn had written negatively about Cyril Connolly's work before. In 1939 he slaughtered Enemies of Promise and in 1945 he did the same to The Unquiet Grave. Both withering reviews were full of political argument (and personal put-downs). In this case, Waugh takes Connolly's ten principles of a healthy post-war state under a socialist government and runs rings round them. For instance, he says about no. 4 on Connolly's list:
'What is one to say to this? That air is not 'supplied' and that water is rarely free; that nothing is 'free' which requires the services of others and nothing is almost 'free' unless there is a depressed class who labour for almost nothing? That transport of all kinds has always, everywhere, been 'as near as possible' within the reach of all?'
After pointing out various naiveties, illogicalities and internal contradictions in connection with the rest of the list, Waugh finishes by saying, as if in sorrow: 'This plan is not the babbling of a secondary-school girl at a youth rally but the written words of the mature and respected leader of the English intellectuals.'
I've read that, in order to preserve his friendship with Evelyn, Connolly refused to read Waugh's piece in The Tablet. I don't suppose Cyril read Evelyn's book on wine either. If he had, perhaps he would have said about it: 'This dull toast to conspicuous alcohol consumption is not the work of some hungover Conservative candidate who has lost his deposit in the last election and intends to spend the next parliament drowning his sorrows, but the presumably considered words of our generation's most naturally gifted story-teller.'
In Waugh's put down of Connolly's ideal state, he mentions scornfully the artist 'Scottie' Wilson. As can be seen from a scan of the cover of that same June's Horizon, 'Scottie' was heavily featured therein.
Horizon, issue 78, June 1946
It would be a year or so before Waugh would put his feelings about 'Scottie' Wilson to comic effect at the beginning of The Loved One. But the seeds of the following exchange were sown in the summer of 1946. British expat Sir Francis Hinsley, long stranded in Hollywood, says to Dennis Barlow who has recently come there from Britain:
'Kierkegaard, Kafka, Connolly, Compton Burnet, Sartre, "Scottie" Wilson. Who are they? What do they want?"
'I've heard of some of them. They were being talked about in London at the time I left.'
'They talked of "Scottie" Wilson?'
'No, I don't think so. Not of him.'
'That's "Scottie" Wilson. Those drawings there. Do they make any sense to you?'
Sir Francis Hinsley's momentary animation subsided. He let fall his copy of 'Horizon' and gazed towards the patch of deepening shadow which had once been a pool.
I recall finding that exchange very funny when I first read it. Why? I think the incongruity of the humble name 'Scottie' in conjunction with such lofty ones as Kafka and Kierkegaard was what amused me. Anyway, now I can see the drawings in question, courtesy of my own copy of that particular edition of Horizon:
One immediately sees the problem that Evelyn would have had. "Abstraction! Modernism! Picasso!"
Perhaps the affection which I sense that Waugh also felt for 'Scottie' Wilson can be explained by the jaunty signature in the bottom right of the image. Or by the biographical outline (born in a poor, working class part of Glasgow) that the issue of Horizon gives. The following photograph of the artist wasn't taken until 1965, when 'Scottie' lived in London, but I think it gives clues as to his origins and rough charm:
Scottie Wilson outside his lodgings in Kilburn with his landlord and landlady, plus their dog, by Ida Kar, 1965.
I do not think Waugh's scorn of 'Scottie' is a class thing, though it may be partly that. Below is a photograph of Charles Spencelayh, at his own front doorstep, one that lays bare his middle class situation in life.
For sure Evelyn Waugh was drawn to the work of Charles Spencelayh despite the painter's class, not because of it.
Waugh may well have written the anti-Connolly piece on Sunday or Monday. He then wrote in his diary:
"Tuesday (July 16) a drunken day. Lunch at Beefsteak. Drinking in White's most of afternoon. Then to Beefsteak again where I got drunk with Kenneth Wagg and insulted R.A. Butler. Then to St James's for another bottle of champagne where I insulted Beverley Baxter. Was sick on retiring to bed.'
There are sketches by Spencelyah that could almost be of Evelyn in the summer of 1946. An Evelyn getting old before his time:
In fact, let's try that out in detail: Top half of above drawing: that's Evelyn drinking in White's most of afternoon after having lunched at the Beefsteak. Bottom left of above drawing: that's Evelyn at the Beefsteak again where he gets drunk with one friend and insults another. Bottom right: that's Evelyn back at White's for another bottle of champagne where he insults someone else. On returning to his suite of the rooms at the Hyde Park Hotel he is sick. It seems from pencil markings on the paper that 'His favourite', 'The dark horse' and 'Enough for one' were the titles under consideration by Spencelayh for his work in progress. How about: 'More than enough for one'? Or 'The drunken pig'? Or even: 'Doctor Jekyll at the Hyde Park Hotel'?
The next day (July 17) started off with Confession, reasonably enough. Then to lunch with Maimie at Hyde Park Hotel. In the afternoon Evelyn was at a very crowded cocktail party, full of royalty, with everyone too squashed to curtsey. After that, Waugh dined quietly at White's and read Osbert Sitwell's second volume of autobiography, The Scarlet Tree.
Contrast the heroic and conventionally handsome pose of the cover figure with that of 'Scottie' Wilson in front of his lodgings, three images up.
This would have been a book that Evelyn would be particularly keen to read. As we've seen, Waugh's chum, Osbert, lived in Reninshaw Hall, Derbyshire, one of the grandest country houses in the country, and his family had done so for generations. He was upper class through and through, and this was the second volume of his autobiographical sequence Left Hand, Right hand. The endpapers did a very literal job of reflecting this:
According to the dust-jacket of the first volume, the left hand represents what we inherit. The right what we make of ourselves. Well, Osbert was dealt a very strong left hand, it has to be said. Did he take it for granted? I suspect so. He probably thought the Sitwell name stopped him from being taken seriously in the literary world, for goodness sake. Oh, the problems of inherited wealth and talent!
Was Osbert's sexuality part of his inheritance too? I suspect there is nothing about it in the five volumes of his autobiography, but David Horner was his companion in life from the mid-1920s.
Osbert inscribed a copy of The Scarlet Tree to Evelyn and Laura, dated July 29, 1946. However, Evelyn may have been so keen to read what his influential friend had written that he bought his own copy in London. Or am I missing something?
Like the first volume, the book is illustrated with black and white reproductions of paintings that John Piper had made while at Reninshaw at Osbert's invitation. Significantly, Evelyn had bumped into John Piper when he was at Renishaw for a day in 1942 and had found him to be charming. As I've said elsewhere, talking to the painter and seeing him in action may have given rise to the scenes in Brideshead where Charles Ryder paints aspects of Brideshead Castle. Certainly, in 1945, when looking for an artist to illustrate a special edition of Brideshead, it was John Piper who Waugh approached. Apparently, Piper did some sketches but wasn't happy with them and the commission fell though.
This particular volume has no less than 13 pages of illustrations based on Piper paintings. But they're knocked into a cocked hat by the following one of Osbert's brotther, Sachie, looking like Stewie out of Family Guy (which might have been a more honest title for Osbert's autobiographical sequence):
Notice Brian sitting all innocent-seeming by Stewie's side.
No doubt, Evelyn had a few drinks while reading The Scarlet Tree. No doubt he got tanked up with his pals in between the interminable, self-indulgent chapters of Osbert's booky-wook. I wonder if - strictly on aesthetic grounds - Evelyn was sick again that night on retiring to bed at the Hyde Park Hotel.
The next day, July 18, Waugh tells us that he took Communion and called on Vsevolode to discuss his wine book and to receive two dozen bottles of Roederer 1928 from him. Cue a series of private parties in his rooms.
Courtesy of Charles Spencelayh, here might be Evelyn in his suite at the Hyde Park Hotel, inspecting one of the night's bottles.
Spencelayh has suggested the title: Seen Better Days, and added a vignette of a man looking into a mirror with a shaving brush in his hands. Well, Evelyn himself had seen better days. 1928 for a start. But 1945 had been a very successful year for him, after the tough war years, and perhaps he felt entitled to celebrate. Night after night. All summer long.
The diary entries fall off from July 18, when he collected his champagne from Saccone and Speed, until he got back home again to Piers Court on August 8. But on his last day at the Hyde Park Hotel he wrote to Nancy Mitford. 'It is six weeks now I have been sitting about in hotels and clubs bored bored bored.' The next day he puts that more accurately in his diary: 'The last three weeks in London passed like three months in lassitude.'
Waugh states that from August 1, White's was closed, and he had people to drink champagne with him at the Hyde Park Hotel most evenings. Chiefly the same gang, and he mentions four individuals as follows:
One. David Stirling, a soldier who'd formed the SAS in 1943 and whose 'prodigies of courage become more legendary every day' according to a Waugh diary entry of August 1942.
Two. Randal Antrim, the 13th Earl of Antrim, a drinking buddy from White's, who Waugh describes as becoming formidably eccentric in a diary entry of September 1943. Apparently, 'Ran' sat in the main hall at White's making loud comments to himself about the members, 'How did that man get in? That man's got no neck. What's a gunsmith doing here?'
Three. Bridget Parsons. That's Lady Bridget Parsons, daughter of the 5th Earl of Rosse, who Evelyn's friend Hubert Duggan had an affair with. Apparently, Hubert also had an affair with Lady Mary Lygon and it was Hubert who converted to Catholicism on his death bed in 1943, aided and abetted by Evelyn, a scene which Waugh used in Brideshead when portraying Lord Marchmain's death.
Four. Christopher Sykes, an author who went on to become Evelyn Waugh's biographer. Strange that if he was at a number of champagne parties with Evelyn in the summer of 1946, he should have so little to say about the time. He does manage to record that Waugh went on a Spanish jaunt and got back to London on July 2, but then spoils his account by saying incorrectly that Evelyn's youngest son Septimus had just been born. And Sykes says nothing about Waugh's party month.
The diary entry written when Waugh got back to Piers Court on August 8th also tells two literary anecdotes. One, when Louise de Vilmorin, a French light novelist, attended a dinner at the Dorchester - at which Diana Cooper was also in attendance - and upset Evelyn with her absurd egocentricity. Two, when he was having tea with Frank Pakenham at the House of Lords. Evelyn, on being introduced to a Lord as a writer, was told by the elderly man: 'My younger brother wrote a book the other day which sold a million copies.' The younger brother was Somerset Maugham.
But I find most interesting what Waugh doesn't mention in his diary but does in the feisty letter he wrote to Nancy MItford the day before, on the last day of his stay at the Hyde Park Hotel. He wrote simply: 'Maimie was burgled last night and lost 48 bottles of Pol Roger.' I find it impossible not to connect this with the diary entry of 18 July, where he mentions calling on Vsevolode. 'Received two dozen Roederer 1928 from him'. Perhaps that 2 dozen bottles hadn't been enough, given the nightly parties Evelyn was hosting. So Evelyn sent SAS man David Stirling and reliable Christopher Sykes along to Maimie's place to replenish his stocks to the tune of another 4 dozen bottles. No wonder Sykes said nothing about the champagne parties.
On the map below I've added the location of Maimie's house (the turquoise pin) just down the road from the Hyde Park Hotel. I've also added Osbert Sitwell's address, the maroon pin just off the King's Road, near the bottom of the map. But Osbert didn't drink much and had no sense of humour, so I'm not saying it was him who stole Maimie's champagne. Nor was it Cyril Connolly, who would have been sleeping at Horizon's premises near the British Museum, just off the top edge of this map.
The bright green pin marks the premises of the bookshop, Heywood Hill. In Waugh's letter of August 7 to Nancy Mitford, he says of his time in London 'Without you at Heywood's Hill my days have been empty.' Nancy had worked at the bookshop for years but had moved to Paris in April of 1946. The bookshop had been of particular importance to Evelyn in 1943. He used to bump into Cyril Connolly and Osbert Sitwell there, as he specifically mentions in the diary entry for September 23, 1943.
Waugh would buy books and take them to his rooms at the Hyde Park Hotel. In particular, he was collecting lithographic books. His diary notes purchasing Owen Jones's Victorian Psalter, amongst others. It was in November of 1943 that he arranged for his valuable books to be sent from the Hyde Park Hotel to Piers Court, in case they got destroyed in the war. At the same time advocating that his son come to London. Books being more difficult to replace than children. (Yes, he actually wrote that, but with tongue in cheek.)
By summer 1946, Waugh had long since returned his books to Piers Court. But the Hyde Park Hotel remained a significant base for him. Here is what it looks like today, renamed as the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.
Not bad temporary lodgings, eh? And below is a typical bedroom from the luxury hotel.
Why am I going into these details? I'd like to get my head round one of Evelyn's champagne parties. I mean, I want to transport myself to the Hyde Park Hotel, early August evening, 1946.
I shouldn't be nervous, but I've caught sight of those literary heavyweights Osbert Sitwell and Cyril Connolly standing together, staring at me: tall, elegant owner of Renishaw on the left; short, bullish editor of Horizon on the right. Though, politically, for 'left' read 'right', and vice versa.
Cyril is famous for coming up with epigrams such as 'Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for a public and have no self.' Though 'Better to write for Renishaw and have no public than to write for a public and have no Renishaw', might have been Osbert's motto. Let's see if I can overhear them if I stand discreetly by the mantelpiece.
'"...It is a shy champagne like a gazelle."
"Like a leprechaun."
"Dappled, in a tapestry meadow."
"Like a flute by still water."
I almost add my own comment on the fizz, but manage to keep my mouth shut, my presence discreet.
"I believe congratulations are in order, Cyril."
"What do you mean?"
"Your latest discovery."
"You mean 'Scottie' Wilson?"
"The man's a genius! George Braque, Pablo Piccasso and now this extraordinary talent from the Gorbals. Of all places."
Cyril looks around nervously, and notes that our host is talking to David Stirling and Christopher Sykes. He confides to Osbert: "Evelyn doesn't care much for 'Scottie's work."
"Surely that's nonsense. When I'd read my copy of Horizon I had to look out the catalogue of Bruno Hat. You know, the spoof that the Guinnesses and Brian Howard were involved with back in 1929. I brought it along to show you tonight. Here is an extract from the essay that Evelyn wrote to go along with it:
"The painting of Bruno Hat presents a problem of very real importance. He is no Cezanne agonisedly tussling to reconcile the visual appearance of form with his own intuitional perception of it. Like Picasso, he creates it."
"Evelyn saying something positive about Picasso! He wouldn't do that today, even by way of a spoof," says Cyril. Spotting Evelyn's copy of June's Horizon on a coffee table, he opens it at one of the 'Scottie' Wilson illustrations.
Abstract? I can't help seeing the image as a view of Evelyn's champarty. That's Evelyn on the left of the soirée, wondering who he should insult/amuse next, with Osbert and Cyril on the right.
As I contemplate along these lines, Osbert continues to read from the Bruno Hat essay:
"Though the experienced eye can see at a glance that his work is entirely free of Picasso's influence, it is to that artist that we go so far as to compare him. Picasso is the greatest painter of our time for one reason: this reason is that he is the most inspired of all the creators of abstract pictures. Those experts who have seen Bruno Hat's work definitely accredit him with a similar power, developed, because of his youth only, to a less degree. The significance of this cannot be sufficiently stressed. It means, among other things, that Bruno Hat may lead the way in this century's European painting from Discovery to Tradition. Uninfluenced, virtually untaught, he is the first natural, lonely, spontaneous flower of the one considerable movement in painting to-day."
"Could almost be 'Scottie' Wilson that Evelyn was writing of," muses Cyril.
"Why don't I just try that out in the last paragraph of Evelyn's essay," says Osbert:
"Hitherto, good abstract painting has been the close preserve of its Hispano-Parisian discoverers. 'Scottie' Wilson is the first signal of the coming world movement towards the creation of Pure Form."
"The funny thing is that 'Scottie' is not a spoof," says Cyril.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Evelyn sidling up to Cyril and Osbert.
"Let me fill your glasses with the last of the Roederer," says Evelyn. "But don't worry, David and Chris are fetching some Pol Roger from Maimie."
I fancy a share of the last of the Roederer as well, so I slip in close.
"This is a wise old champagne," says Osbert.
"A prophet in a cave," agrees Cyril.
The three writers (four if you count me) sip in silence, Osbert and Cyril wondering what their faux-genial host will say next. To put them at their ease, Evelyn spouts:
"Every September the buyers of the champagne firms purchase a variable quantity of the black and white grapes of the villages, lying along the banks of the Marne and the hills of Reims. Tradition and a lifetime of personal experience have taught each champagne maker what combinations will result in the blend characteristics they are after. The grape is pressed in the villages and the juice collected and repeatedly racked and fined; the necessary sugar is added and within six months the wine is strongly bottled and corked. It lies undisturbed for four years; then it is moved to another cellar where it stands head down, and is daily given a sharp shake and a quarter turn to the left, until the sediment has collected on the base of the cork. The sugar meanwhile has been entirely transformed into carbonic gas by natural fermentation and the wine is quite clear, sparkling and dry."
Osbert and Cyril both know how champagne is made. Neither chooses to interrupt their host or to comment on his treatise. At this stage of an evening one treads warily around Evelyn Waugh.
"Cyril. I have been reading your socialist manifesto. You believe light, heat - and, by extension, champagne - should be supplied free, like water and air. Have you seen my rejoinder in Tablet?"
"'Not yet, Evelyn."
"Tut! - it has been out for eight days. Well, let me tell you here and now that air is not 'supplied' and that water is rarely free. That nothing is 'free' which requires the services of others and nothing is almost 'free' unless there is a depressed class who labour for almost nothing. The basic question, I think, is free for whom? For everyone, or only for you and your left-leaning friends? Are you proposing the creation of a privileged class of yourself and "Scottie" Wilson and other artists, who should be warmed and illuminated by the rest of the community, whose tailors, doctors and wine sellers will delight to reduce their bills for the honour of serving them? If this is your suggestion I do not see how it differs from the wish to enjoy a large private fortune, as Osbert does."
"I mean free for all," says Cyril.
"Ah, then you are using 'free' in a very loose, modern way to mean the amenities should be distributed by the state without direct cash payment. In fact, of course, the price would not be lower, for the consumer would be purchasing these commodities indirectly, through taxation, with their cost enhanced by an increased service of middle men."
"What we need is a redistribution of wealth, and taxation achieves this," says Cyril.
"Osbert has a large house but he is not a rich man. He has no money as such. Any money he does have is needed for the purchase of champagne. Ah, here are David and Chris back already. Let us all refill our glasses."
That's fine by me.
"This is a necklace of pearls on a white neck," says Osbert.
"Like a swan," says Cyril.
'Like the last unicorn,' I'm thinking, briefly imagining Evelyn with an empty champagne bottle stuck to his forehead.
Cyril gulps greedily from his bubbly. Evelyn turns to Osbert, hands him a copy of The Scarlet Tree, and asks for it to be signed. The book comes back to Evelyn with 'To Evelyn and Laura, 27th July, 1946' written on it. Evelyn feigns bemusement: "You are ten days out of date, Osbert! And why have you written my wife's name? She is just delivered of a son. I fear her duties in the nursery will prevent her from giving your book the attention it most certainly deserves."
"Thank-you, Evelyn," says Osbert, who looks as submissive as Cyril remains following his own mauling. How is Evelyn able to dominate these strong individuals in this way? Because they both have an absolute admiration for Evelyn's writing and Waugh knows they do.
"By the way, Osbert," Evelyn continues, "Have you seen my review of The Scarlet Tree in Tablet? Actually, you won't have, it's not out until the 10th of this month. Well, I make a point of saying that when you left Eton, no-one foresaw a literary career for you. Your whole education seemed destined to turn you away from the arts. And yet, you - as well as your brother and sister - have grown up to be a remarkable artist. What would have happened if your talents had been nurtured in a professionally artistic and enlightened environment?"
"One does wonder," says Osbert, blinking as if still smarting at the hurt of a talent unrecognised.
The fact is, Waugh's review - of which the above is its main point - seems perverse. Following a privileged public school education, Evelyn and his brother turned out to be two of the major writers of the day. Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell, likewise. Evelyn even writes elsewhere that what his education at Lancing had prepared himself for, par excellence, was to be a writer. And half his chums at Oxford went on to write books that other Oxford chums published!
Oh, but I must content myself with listening and looking. Political thinking can wait.
"What do you think of this?" Evelyn asks, pointing to a drawing that's lying on a table.
"What is it?" asks Cyril, cautiously.
"It's a Spencelayh sketch that Diana Cooper has given me."
"HIdeous and reactionary," says Osbert, with a show of spirit.
"Not my favourite, either," says Cyril, dryly.
Evelyn receives his friends' opinions with seeming equanimity. "Well, have you noticed my most recent creation, gentlemen?" he says, directing their attention to a canvas that is standing on the mantelpiece, leaning against the wall, much as his painting 'BOGUS' did seventeen years earlier in the Canonbury Square flat that he shared with She-Evelyn.
Together, in silence, the four of us drink in Evelyn's handiwork:
I get the impression that 42-year-old Evelyn is still resentful of the fact that Cyril stole Richard Pares away from him at university; resentful of the fact that Osbert is planning to write five volumes of autobiography without saying a single word about his own sexuality; resentful that most of his famous friends went to top public schools while he would always be, in his own eyes, a lowly Lancing man.
Osbert excuses himself and heads towards the loo. Now Evelyn's rooms at the Hyde Park Hotel contain as many toilets as the whole of Renishaw Hall in these days - one - and both Evelyn and Cyril - regular guests of the Sitwells - are all too aware of this.
Upon hearing the sound of flushing water, Evelyn knocks on the door and says urgently: "Osbert! Should the handle fail to return to the horizontal when the flow of water ceases, please give it a sharp shake and a quarter turn to the left until it succeeds."
"Will do, Evelyn," says the flustered but firm voice of a man that knows the vital importance of a fully functioning water closet.
Upon hearing the turning on of a tap, Evelyn knocks again and says fiercely: "Left hand, right hand, Osbert. Just like in the lavatories at Eton."
And when the tap has been turned off, implying the taking up of a plump white towel, Evelyn pipes up once more: "Left hand, right hand, Osbert. Prove that there are some things you can do without the help of your father."
While waiting for Osbert to rejoin them, Evelyn takes his copy of Horizon from Cyril's champagne-sticky fingers and turns yet again to the section of reproductions of 'Scottie' Wilson's work.
"This is one I grudgingly admire, Cyril. You, me and Osbert enjoying ourselves at the Hyde Park Hotel."
Cyril, who still hasn't recovered from the most cutting of Evelyn's jibes, babbles. "That's clearly you on the right, Evelyn, in complete command of the situation. And I suppose that's Osbert in the lavatory on the left."
"Ha! And next to the water closet that's you and Osbert holding hands in my dressing room."
What a party! The fizz is in danger of going to my head. I'll finish, if I may, by predicting Evelyn's next diary entry:
'Tuesday a drunken day. Lunch at Beefsteak. Drinking in White's most of afternoon. Then to my own champagne party where I insulted Sitwell Sitwell and Boots. Was sick on retiring to bed.'
Back at Piers Court, what did Evelyn do with the empty champagne bottles? A year or two down the line, he got his children to take part in a game of his own devising on the croquet lawn.
That's Evelyn's oldest child, Teresa, taking a punt at 'Ten Green Bottles'. When it came to her coming-of-age in 1956, Evelyn sent a note from Piers Court to his pal Brian Franks, the proprietor of the Hyde Park Hotel, requesting non-vintage champagne for all eighteen of the party except himself. Vintage Evelyn.
I've read that the empty champagne bottles were upended and made into a path at Piers Court. When I was there in January 2006, I drew a map which includes the croquet lawn, a path to the Gothic edifice, and a beech hedge-lined pathway between the secret garden and the croquet lawn. But no champagne path, damn my dim and unobservant eyes.
Still, I had a good time that day, almost as good a time as I had at Ev's party. I think I'll end by quoting from 'Ubu Dance Party', by the Canadian band Pere Ubu:
"I w-a-l-k-e-d down the primrose path.
I s-t-r-o-l-l-e-d along the garden walk ."
Well, no, I think I'll end with this. A photo of me in front of my computer late at night, summer 2014, just about to finish off the last of my daily alcohol allowance. A fairly generous one, it has to be said.
"This is a wise old champagne."
Thanks to Andrew Brown for the scan of a signed copy of Wine in Peace and War.
Several images on this page are reproduced without permission but with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.