August, 2011. It was very exciting to be at Downside School for the Evelyn Waugh Conference, for at least four reasons. First, the weather was so fine that the conference papers were to be presented outdoors. Second, the gardens at Downside, Somerset, are remarkably similar to those at Underhill, Golders Green. Third, the distant relation of Evelyn’s old mentor, Harold Acton - Harold Acton the Third - was to chair the sessions, which he would no doubt do with panache. And, fourth, it was now only two months until EVELYN! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love was due out, though I still hadn’t seen a professionally designed cover for the book. Oh well, I was going to distract myself for a couple of days. I was going to immerse myself in all things Wavian.
To kick us off we heard from a gentle man who was at Heath Mount preparatory school in Hampstead, as was Evelyn Waugh, THOUGH NOT AT THE SAME TIME. I made no notes. Nor did Acton the Third. Nor did the American academics who were sitting on either side of me. In their case, possibly because the lecture had been given in an upper-class English drawl. One up to Mother England, I was thinking.
The second lecture focussed on Sherborne, the public school that Evelyn Waugh didn’t attend because his brother, Alec, wrote The Loom of Youth about it, where what was looming was adolescent homosexual experience. This lecture, which made some fascinating points about Evelyn Waugh’s traumatic World War Two experience in Crete and his subsequent visit to Sherborne as an umpire for a day of war games, was also delivered with a ripe English plum in the mouth. As the Downside Abbey clock struck 11 o’clock, it was just possible that half the 40-strong audience - the Americans and Europeans - had not yet been able to understand a single word of the papers. The Spanish delegate had been reduced to sketching portraits of the speakers. Two up to the old country.
A Texan academic was next. Standing, he eschewed eye contact with the audience. Choosing to bark away to the bushes in mid-West tones, he pretty well eschewed voice contact also. Things were going badly from a UK point of view this time around, until Harold the Third pointed out that the slide on display - which was supposed to be of a house that Evelyn Waugh considered buying but did not buy - was not in fact the house in question. Not that it mattered, as the house was hidden behind a wealth of extraneous vegetation. Apparently it was the best picture that the speaker could download from the web to his laptop. And I have to say, I warmed to this Yank’s nerve.
Four talks in the morning; four in the afternoon. It was an uncompromising schedule. FIrst up, after lunch, was an academic straight off the plane from Turkey. She had lost her paper in transit but was willing and able to talk at random about H.G Wells and Evelyn Waugh. Did she make an effective connection between these two 20th Century giants of English Lit? She did not. But then that kind of exercise is not easy. Try Evelyn Waugh and D.H. Lawrence. Or Waugh and Joyce. Compare and contrast the authors of The Loved One and The Grapes of Wrath, for goodness sake. On the one hand it is, in fact, very, very easy. On the other, it’s dispiriting and pointless.
Suddenly it was my turn to perform, and I was taken off guard. Harold Acton suggested I introduce myself by saying something about the book in my pocket. Of course! It was a proof copy of Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love, which, I proudly announced, would be published by Bountiful Books in hardback, and as an ebook, at the end of September. Then I read the endorsements that were printed on the back, one from Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, and one from John Howard Wilson, head of the Evelyn Waugh society, both of whom were sitting in the garden at Downside, perhaps regretting the fulsome generosity of their words. But this was no time for reserve, either British or American, and I knew that reading the words of affirmation had been the right thing to do. This is what Alexander Waugh wrote to me by way of endorsement: ‘I think your book is absolutely brilliant, breezy, very funny, original, erudite, beautifully written, fascinating in every detail, moving, generous, charming and thoroughly deserving of a good publisher... It is written with magnificent zest and is, among so much else, a wonderful advertisement for Waugh.'
“Well said, Alexander, and please accept these beautiful roses as a token of my appreciation.”
The first half of my presentation that day was about Alastair Graham. I introduced him in a few paragraphs, displaying photos taken at Barford House, where Alastair and Evelyn spent much quality time in the early 1920s. Some of the photos were blown up from tiny originals that Alexander had generously leant me. Others were taken in 2006. The photos of the temple at the bottom of the garden at Barford House, past and present, are stunning. I know they are. The photos that Alastair took of Evelyn Waugh and Evelyn Gardner together, just before their wedding in 1928, will double the number of photographs of ‘the Evelyns’ that are in print. They too are stunning. While showing the pictures I was conscious of someone getting up from the audience and helping themselves to a drink from the trestle bar behind me.
I told the audience about Alastair Graham’s post-Waugh life. How he ended up living in Newquay, and became a buddy of Dylan Thomas. Again, someone went to the bar. It was Ginger, the confrere who had been drinking heavily over lunch in the refectory. And when he resumed his seat he interrupted my talk by complimenting me on how I had fundamentally changed his view of Sebastian and Brideshead. I thanked him for his intervention and tried to move things forward. But that did not prove an easy thing to do. Ginger had become fixated on Sebastian-cum-Alastair and we had to listen to him formulating his new perspective. That is, we had to listen to him in between watching him knock back wine like Horace.
The second half of my talk was about John Heygate, the man who helped destroy Evelyn’s first marriage by having an affair with she-Evelyn. Again I have photos that have been generously donated, in this case by Richard Heygate, John’s son. Again I read a scene from the book. And this time I was positively heckled. Ginger thought that I was openly taking Evelyn Gardner’s side against Evelyn Waugh.
“He was a wonderful man, but she used him right from the start.”
How many sides are there to a love triangle? Quite a few, and one needs to keep an open mind to get the full picture. While, it seemed to me, my heckler’s mind was closing fast thanks to the alcohol that was soaking it.
“She were a right bitch!”
Harold Acton III did his best to intercede on my behalf, but it was not an easy situation for any of us. I was wondering, not for the first time, what the wise old American academics were making of the day’s proceedings at Downside.
Harold suggested that Ginger stop drinking as we all had a big day coming up. A coach was going to take us to Combe Florey, where Evelyn lived for the last decade of his life. There was also a trip planned to Mells, where Evelyn used to spend time with fellow Catholics. Suddenly, Ginger’s whole mood changed. He told us that he’d never even heard of Evelyn Waugh and that he wanted to go straight home to Barford... No, Barnsley... No, Barnstable... No, Barrow-in-Furness.
“Make up your mind, where do you live, Ginger?” asked a wag.
“I don’t know. And if I did I wouldn’t tell you, evil wan trash!”
“Oh, Ginger, Ginger, what are we going to do with you?” asked Harold, kindly. Ah well, I thought, at least the rest of us would have something to talk about when we crept from our rooms later on and assembled Ginger-free in the bar.
Indeed, I couldn’t help imagining a fragment of the bonhomie:
“A splash of Ginger in your Campari, Duncan?”
“No, I don’t think so, Harold, I’ll have soda like everyone else!”
Actually, the conference worked on many levels and I’ve written it up in more detail elsewhere. But for now lets get back to The Scarlet Woman, this time introducing she-who-must-be-fallen-for.