BOOK LAUNCH (2)
May 8, 2015. God, I've been asking for this! Here I am at the only book launch that is ever going to take place for Evelyn! Who is here? Me. Who else? Just me (and Kate taking photos). Nightmare scenario.
Well, no, the nightmare scenario would have been me sitting here in the garden of the Meiklour Arms without the book. But Harbour and the Finns have done their job and, voila, the book itself has arrived in the UK, including the ten copies that have turned up on our doorstep. Of course, the existence of the published book gives me huge pleasure that is trickling down to the core of me even as I sit here sipping beer with my partner. But there is still the nightmare scenario to come to terms with.
How did the nightmare unfold? It began with me putting out what I thought was an obviously spoof invitation. I listed seven A-list comedians (five of whom significantly admire the writing of Evelyn Waugh) and seven pubs that EW had a genuine connection with. And I declared that a book launch would be happening simultaneously in each pub, hosted by the seven comics.
A friend of my father's in Canada believed it. Several of my friends believed it. Even my agent believed it. And so I realised I was onto something. True, an editor at Intelligent Life wrote to me asking for a proof copy and doubting that I really had persuaded Russell Brand to turn up at the Fair View Inn in Lllandullas, a working class pub in north Wales where Evelyn had regularly got drunk back in 1925. However, the original invite had gone out to very few media people and had no doubt sunk without trace in the majority of their Inboxes. I reckoned that I could get away with considering it a dummy run.
So I put out a second invite. This time I gave out the same info about the comedians and the pubs but only claimed that one of the comedians would be appearing at one of the pubs on May 12. And that invitees who registered an interest would be told about the location - and the comedian - the day before the event.
I got a good response to this. A couple of editors from regional papers requested proof copies of the book, which might lead to reviews. Two employees at The Bookseller asked for a book, so at least that organisation of record now knows about the existence of Evelyn!. One of the editors of the scholarly Waugh edition that is coming out next year took the opportunity of telling me he'd be citing my work in his introduction to the novel he's editing. And the features editor at a men's magazine suggested I write an article for them called 'How to Drink LIke Evelyn Waugh'. All good stuff.
However, a few broadsheet journalists made it clear via Twitter or email that they were interested in coming to the book launch if it was at the Bull and Bush in London. And columnists from a couple of tabloids did the same. Having raised people's expectations, how was I to let them down lightly? I supposed I could just lie to them (via Sebastian, my make-believe publicist) and say that David MItchell of Peep Show fame was the comedian and that he would be appearing with me at the Fair View Inn, Llandullas. I don't think any of the metropolitan media folk concerned would go out and buy a return ticket to North Wales. But then they might do.
I even went so far as to look up these comedians rates. It would cost in the region of £50,000 to hire Stephen Fry for a night. Russell Kane is a bit cheaper. And so, I noticed, is David MItchell. But needless to say my publisher and I will not be spending the required £20,000 on hiring his services, no matter how witty he is on BBC quiz shows.
Actually, I did contact David Mitchell's agents shortly after the book was written to ask if he'd forward an email to his client. Knowing that David was a big fan of Decline and Fall, I wanted to know if he'd be willing to read my manuscript and perhaps provide me with a quote I could use on publication. Cloud cuckoo land. The agent told me he would not be forwarding my email. David was far too busy and the agent - quite reasonably - saw it as part of his job to make sure his client's time was not wasted. It's worth bearing in mind that when you're famous, literally millions of people want a piece of you.
Eventually, I managed to get a quote for the back of the book, one which I'm more than happy with:
Back to letting people's expectations down lightly. Sitting here trying to make a half-decent fist of this book launch...
I still can't get over the book's production values. The section of black and white plates has come out great. A different kind of paper has been used throughout than was employed in the proof. The card cover has been given a gloss coat which helps contextualise the fake stains on the cover (it is not an old book; it makes reference to one). The front and back flaps are f-f-flipping brilliant and would surely satisfy even the aesthetic sensibility of a Harold Acton or Anthony B-B-Blanche.
"It's my book," says Kate.
"True enough. That one is."
"They're all mine. Each one has printed on page 5: 'To Kathryn Clayton. In homage and affection."
"I suppose so, but..."
"And it's not about Evelyn Waugh. It's about me: Kathryn Burbridge Clayton."
Is the book about Kate? Well, let's see what the papers say.
In the Daily Mail, Roger Lewis is very kind to Evelyn!, if not so kind to Evelyn himself. He starts by saying that biographers are a sad, mad bunch and goes on to admit he's one himself, having spent decades writing about Anthony Burgess to many people's dismay. Kate crops up early in his review when she's quoted as pointing out to me that Waugh was 'a bore, a creep and a snob'.
Later in the review, Lewis comes back to her. Indeed, I'll share a paragraph or two with Kate:
"Getting a bit squiffy, McLaren starts talking to his girlfriend Kate in the lispy stutter of Anthony Blanche. He behaves in a similar goofy way in the Royal George, Appledore, the Abingdon Arms, Beckley, and the Easton Court Hotel, Chagford — all venues where Waugh went ‘to live quietly and cheaply’ and crank out his 1,000 words-a-day for his books.
"Is this a biography or a pub crawl? You wouldn’t find Sir Michael Holroyd or Dame Hermione Lee behaving in this manner, which is why their books in comparison with McLaren’s are bloody dull. While he ‘eats a mouthful of juicy pie’, McLaren tells Kate about Waugh’s first wife, Evelyn Gardner, known as She-Evelyn. The marriage broke down quickly, in 1929, because not only was Waugh ‘the shortest man in England’ (5 ft 7 in — a midget by willowy upper-class standards), he was also very bad at sex.
'"All this fuss about sleeping together . . . I’d sooner go to my dentist any day,' said She-Evelyn to He-Evelyn."
I look up at Kate and ask: "Does anything come to mind about that quote?"
"She-Evelyn didn't say the sex and the dentist thing about He-Evelyn. It's in a scene that He-Evelyn himself wrote. Nina says the words to Adam in Vile Bodies."
I aim to prove this, at least to myself, by getting out my treasured old copy of Vile Bodies. There we are. Top of page:
Kate comes back at me: "But your whole argument is that Waugh was using his experience in his books. So effectively She-Evelyn did say that to him."
"She probably said to a woman friend: 'Sex with Evelyn? I'd rather go to the osteopath,' or some such variation."
"Sex mit Evelyn Waugh, nein danket," shouts Kate in the direction of a stranger that has just got out of a car.
Why in German? Well, it's the second language of John Heygate. That might be the reason.
I want to tell Kate that Roger Lewis ends his review in the Mail by asking rhetorically whether the world needs another book on Waugh. Yes, he answers, when the book is 'as original and entertaining as this one'. But Kate has rather taken the wind out of my sails, so I quietly move onto the review in the Telegraph.
I love the fact that the other book given a prominent review in this paper is by Magnus MIlls, whose novels I read with such pleasure. I also love the fact that the books published by Random House, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury and the other publishers, put together, don't get as much space as that devoted to a certain Harbour Book, either in the Daily Mail or the Sunday Telegraph. I guess I want to think that the editors of mainstream publishing houses were wrong about the commercial prospects of Evelyn!
I read aloud from Miranda Seymour's review: "Footsteps (1985), Richard Holmes's celebrated literary journey in the steps of Shelley, forms Duncan McLaren's model for a lively, quirky - and sometimes perkily infuriating - book that seeks out the man through the places he inhabited.
"Travelling about the country with his trusty girlfriend, Kate (acting as a mouthpiece through whom to present handy morsels of information), McLaren explores the little pubs in which Waugh frolicked with boyfriends, honeymooned with his first wife and wrote his early novels.
"Taking tea at the Ritz (a favourite haunt of Waugh's once he'd hit the big time), or peeping into the last grand foyer of a Hill Street house (the location for Margot Beste-Chetwynde's splendid reincarnation as Lady Metroland in Vile Bodies), McLaren brings the past to life with flamboyant ease. Squeezing Waugh-logues into accounts of lengthy motorway journeys with Kate, he can flounder."
"Sex with Evelyn?" says Kate, perkily. "I'd rather be stuck with a flat tyre on the hard shoulder of the M25."
"What are you up to?"
"Just repeating myself. It's what you like to do, isn't it? Waugh, Waugh, Waugh, Waugh, Waugh."
MIranda Seymour finds my book beguiling, flamboyant, comic and original, and she adds that the pictures are wonderful. But what pleasure can I take from that when insults are flying about my head from so close to home?
Oh, well, onward and upward. A third review is by Marcus Field in The Independent. I didn't catch it in the paper itself but have printed out a copy from the online site, which I feel I'm entitled to read aloud at my one and only book launch.
"McLaren is accompanied by his girlfriend, Kate, who plays Dr Watson to his Holmes. They go "Evelyning" around Oxford, site of so many key events in Waugh's life and work, and drink at the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, a favourite meeting place for Waugh and his lover, Alastair Graham, the model for Brideshead's Sebastian Flyte.
"Most fully they explore the biggest trauma of Waugh's life, his failed marriage to Evelyn Gardner, She-Evelyn to Waugh's He-Evelyn. Kate and McLaren attempt to inhabit the characters by recreating their meetings at the Ritz, and even by calling each other Evelyn during imagined dialogue over He-Evelyn's sexual inadequacy."
"Sex with Evelyn? I'd rather have a drink at the Meiklour Arms. These days."
A glimmer of affection there. I take a good old swill of my drink. It - the drink or the glimmer - encourages me to turn towards the Literary Review. Alexander Waugh alerted me to its existence with a congratulatory email. My publisher located a printed copy of the latest issue, scanned the pages and forwarded them as an attachment. Most of the long review deals with an academic tome about Waugh's Second World War experience and reputation. That costs £70. So, interesting as it looks, no-one but academics attached to university libraries will be reading it. Eventually the reviewer, Philip Eade, gets round to saying:
"For lighter relief, Waugh enthusiasts might turn to Duncan McLaren’s contrastingly madcap Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love, a work of unexpected authority and revelation as well as great charm, which will make seasoned Waugh scholars sit up and see things they wish they had spotted themselves. Distancing himself from both purveyors of academic criticism and traditional stand-well-back biographers, McLaren declares: ‘Every time I get close enough to Evelyn, I intend to shake hands with the man. I want to see his owl-like eyes staring back into mine; I want to feel his hot, whisky-laden breath on my face.’ Visiting various haunts from Waugh’s early life, he expounds breezily yet with considerable insight and originality on the complex ways on which he mined his own experiences for almost everything that he wrote. Much of the text comprises conversations with McLaren’s perceptive partner, Kate, in various pubs where Waugh wrote, their exchanges punctuated every so often by McLaren remarking what thirsty work all the Waugh talk is – then ordering another round. On the page, as in the pub, McLaren is good company: funny, irreverent and more than slightly crazy."
"What thirsty work all this Waugh talk is," I say, looking up and across at Kate. "Shall we have another drink?"
"God, I'm freezing. Let's go inside and eat."
"I'll join you in a minute, darling. There's a passage I want to read from Decline and Fall.
"Oh come on, you've read that a hundred times. They do a marvellous range of starters here."
"I'll be with you in a minute."
As Kate scoots off, I carefully set up one last picture:
And then I read. Not aloud this time, but to the centre of my being:
'Later, thinking things over as he ate peacefully, one by one, the oysters that had been provided as a "relish" for his supper, Paul knew that Grimes was not dead. Lord Tangent was dead; Mr Prenderghast was dead; the time would even come for Paul Pennyfeather; but Grimes, Paul at last realised, was of the immortals. He was a life force. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at some time, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb.'
There. That's what would have been read simultaneously by Alexie Sayle at the Bull and Bush, Stephen Fry at the Crown, Russell Brand at the Fair View Inn, Russell Kane at the Bell, Eddie Izzard at the Barley Mow, David MItchell at the Abingdon Arms and Rik Mayall at the Royal George.
The point being 'life force'. And you know what? I think such a multi-talented launch would have been almost as enjoyable as sex with Evelyn.
Would we have to ask Alastair about that? I don't think so. I for one have myself had a very satisfactory, long-term intimate relationship with U-know-who. Such an imaginative lover.
Thanks, dear reader, for attending the real life launch of U-know-what.