MEN AT ARMS (1)

In June 1951, Evelyn left Piers Court and went to the Hotel Du Chateau in Chantilly on the River Oise in northern France. He went on his own. Or, rather, he took with him his war diaries with a view to begin what was to become the Sword of Honour trilogy. One day he read the diaries and the next he began writing. We know this because of letters he wrote to Laura (who didn't reply to his first missive so received a tetchy second one) and to Peters, his agent.

How Waugh began what was to become such an important book to him (he'd deliberately waited years since the end of the war to revisit the material, letting it slowly mature in his mind), was of some significance. He sites Guy Crouchback as living in Castello Crouchback in the Italian Riviera.

He had in mind Villa Altachiara at Portofino. The magnificent house, built by Laura's grandparents, where Evelyn first met Laura in 1933 (when he called her a white mouse), went on honeymoon with her in 1937 (at which point he was moved to write:
'Lovely day, lovely house, lovely wife, great happiness') and returned there alone in April,1950. This is one view from it:

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In the novel, Guy Crouchback talks of his own grandparents having come across the idyllic spot and building a house on the cliffs. In fact it was Laura's grandparents, who had the 40-room villa built in 1874 as a holiday home. (Their country pile was Pixton Park in Somerset, where Laura was brought up). Laura's grandfather was the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. The next owner, her uncle, was the fifth Earl, famous for financing the discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb, the richest burial site ever found. Ah well, it takes money to track down money. Below is the noble profile of the Herberts' Portofino holiday home.

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As for Portofino itself, on page 2 of
Men at Arms, Waugh writes of Santa Dulcina:

'Houses rose steeply from the quay; two buildings stood out from the ochre and white walls and rusty pantiles, the church, domed, with a voluted facade, and a castle of some kind comprising two bastions and what seemed a ruined watchtower. Behind the town for a short distance the hillside was terraced and planted, then above broke wildly into boulders and briar.'

Something like this then:

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There are many subtle allusions to Portofino and Altachiara in the opening pages of
Men at Arms. Most significantly, Guy went to Castello Crouchback and Santa Dulcina for his honeymoon (before inheriting the property when his older brother died).

On taking leave of the Castello in order to help the war effort, Guy visits the local church where lies the tomb of an English knight, Roger of Waybroke, who was killed on the way to the crusades. He is known locally as 'il Santo Inglese' and Guy runs his finger along the knight's sword, as locals do in tribute to the battles he fought on their behalf. Guy urges: 'Sir Roger pray for me and your endangered kingdom'.

In Portofino, the church is known locally as the Church of San Giorgio and there is a carving of St George killing the dragon on the bronze door. This is what the building looks like, no 'voluted facade' but then Waugh is trying not to give away the facts behind his fiction:

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Every year there is a procession in which two heavy crosses, one black and one white, are taken from the actual church, the procession ending up in the piazza down at the harbour where a bonfire made of tree trunks and old fishing boats takes place.

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This Feast of San Giorgio takes place on April 23, and Evelyn and Laura witnessed it as newly weds in 1937. Waugh's parents didn't understand why in late 1939, Evelyn, newly turned 36, was looking for a commission in the army. They couldn't realise how Waugh's visit to Portofino in 1937 had helped link Christ, Roman Catholicism, wife, property and wholesome European traditions together in his mind.

Waugh saw himself as defending the territory that had been lived in by his (or Laura's) English forbears. He would defend Portofino and Piers Court both. In doing so he was defending - from the fascist hordes - the Roman Catholic faith, centred in Italy, and his marriage, centred in Piers Court, Gloucestershire.

And surely it was the revisit in April 1950, at which time he wrote to Laura:
'The festa was gay and beautiful and holy and I thanked God and St George for you with a very full heart,' that inspired Waugh to finally get down to the serious business of writing up his war effort.

His 1950 letter to Laura goes on:
'The procession at Portofino was much more beautiful than the one we saw and the fireworks the best I've ever seen.'

Below is an image taken from a Youtube video posted after the Portofino procession of 2013. You can't really see the procession, which is centre foreground, down on the piazza, close to where the bonfire will be. The fireworks are going off from the patch glowing red to the right of the church tower.

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But hang on a minute. There's something more complicated going on here. In June 1951, in a quiet hotel in Chantilly, France, Waugh laid down the beginning of what would become the first volume of a trilogy, Men at Arms. He felt a bond with Portofino, I understand that. However, he made Guy Crouchback be an exile living in Italy, a man whose wife had left him eight years before, in 1931, in not dissimilar circumstances to how Evelyn's own first wife had left him in 1929.

No Piers Court in
Men at Arms then? Well, yes, Piers Court is present, because Guy's sister Angela is married to Arthur Box-Bender. (With a name like that, you know Waugh is going to have fun with the character.) Once Guy has settled himself at Bellamy's Club in St James (effectively White's), sending out various letters in the hope of getting into the army as a trainee officer, he visits the Box-Benders in Gloucestershire. In doing so, Waugh directs the reader tantalisingly close to Piers Court. Guy's train only goes so far as Kemble, where he has to get a local train, or a bus from Stroud. But his nephew, Tony, turns up to give him a lift, and they drive until they have a view of Berkeley Vale and see the Severn shining below them.

Of course, Piers Court is in the Berkeley Vale and from high points one has a view of the Severn as the map below suggests. The red pin marks Piers Court, Stinchcombe, near Dursley. Stroud is a few miles north east, Kemble a few more due east:

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Box-Bender's house is described as a small gabled manor in a sophisticated village. (What - Stinkers sophisticated? That's not the impression Waugh gives in his diaries.) The drawing room and the dining room are blocked with wooden crates full of Hittite tablets shipped out for safe-keeping from the British Museum. (Of course, in reality, Piers Court was rented by nuns for the whole of the war.) The top floor of the house is shut. Box-Bender's reasoning being that if they were bombed they'd jump out of the windows. The Box-Benders are actually sleeping in their adjacent cottage and Guy is invited to bed down in the library, making use of the washroom under the stairs. All of that is quite easy to follow on a plan of Piers Court except the bathroom is not quite under the stairs. But I think Evelyn would have liked the idea of his protagonist sleeping in the library. Perhaps that was Evelyn's secret ambition, especially during school holidays after the War. To take his meals in the library at Piers Court and to sleep there to boot!

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Angela Box-Bender only has a girl from the village and a gardener's wife to help her. She invites her husband, brother and son to dinner in the little study that Box-Bender calls his 'business room'. After dinner, Guy and Tony smoke in the library. When Guy turns in, because of the blackout, he has to choose between airing the smoky room and having a light on to read with. He chooses air and lies awake wondering why his young nephew has been called up to fight, he who has so much to live for, while Guy, whose life is without value to himself, is kept out of the army.

So how is Evelyn positioning himself at the beginning of this novel, his most personal and layered statement since
Brideshead Revisited? The book is going to be about his war experience, his sense of honour, that goes without saying. In addition, he is implying a strong bond with Laura but does not wish to write about his relationship with her. He may have something to say about life at Piers Court though, because he is obsessed with the place.

Interesting that Angela Box-Bender hoped that it would be paintings from the Wallace Collection that would be sent to 'Piers Court' for safe-keeping, as that would have matched Waugh's own tastes. I suspect Evelyn made it Hittite tablets to further underline that the war effort was an attempt to save civilisation itself. The British empire and Roman Catholicism were carrying the torch of culture passed on from the Hittites of Asia Minor to the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Romans. The fact that these empires rose before the coming of Christ doesn't invalidate their contribution.

So let's take a look at a Hittite tablet from the British Museum. Cuneiform writing on mud. Not that easy to read unless you've got a very particular classical education.

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I'm no expert. But with Google's help I've come up with a translation:

'Dear Evelyn Waugh, I, King of the Hittites, hereby entrust you to protect the following sacred places from the marauding philistines of northern Europe: Lancing College on the South Downs; The Temple at Barford House; Christ Church College, Oxford; Campion Hall, Oxford; The Abingdon Arms, Beckley; The Vatican, Rome; Altachiara, Portofino; The Ritz, London; The Hyde Park Hotel, London... Well, you get the idea.'

I hope you too, dear reader, get the idea. Evelyn is going to war in order to save western civilisation, no less. Oh, and he just might get his first wife back. Certainly, he is going to have another go at writing about his relationship with She-Evelyn.

Let battle commence!

Actually, there is something that happens to Evelyn in September 1951 that I want to write about first. So let's put
Men at Arms on one side - as Evelyn may have had to - while Graham Greene pays him a most welcome visit.