LEAVING PIERS COURT
Evelyn never felt completely settled at Piers Court and went house hunting as early as 1946. But he felt distinctly unsettled by what he thought of as the Nancy Spain and Lord Noel Buxton invasion of June 21, 1955, and three days later he wrote to the estate agents Knight, Frank and Ruttle telling them he was sick of the district and wanted to move.
He added that he was in no hurry, expected to get £10,000 for the house, didn't want Piers Court advertised, and certainly didn't want sight-seers. Serious lunatics only were what he required.
The next day, Evelyn was still polishing his article about the invasion of his privacy for The Spectator. And when the magazine came out on July 9, reading it in print gave him intense pleasure. He'd turned the invaders from his door and sent them packing. Moreover, he'd ridiculed them in retrospect and from the seclusion of his own home. But he still wanted to move.
At the end of August, having begun a modest regime of drinking no alcohol until six o'clock in the evening, Evelyn and Teresa were driven by Laura to Postlip Hall near Winchcombe. In his diary, Waugh described it as a square, capacious Jacobean house beautifully secluded on the slope of a valley.
One of the attractions for Evelyn was the pre-Reformation private chapel that went with the house. Frustratingly, none of the keys he was given would unlock the chapel, which belonged to the diocese and was endowed for two Masses a year. Private grounds. Private chapel. Privacy, privacy, privacy. But Evelyn felt greatly agitated by the prospect of a move to Postlip Hall.
Why greatly agitated? Waugh put it like this: the choice was to live in discomfort in a depreciating house or to leave at huge disturbance and expense. I don't understand why living at Piers Court meant living in discomfort, but then everything is relative. Perhaps another reason for agitation was that there would still be nothing to stop Nancy Spain marching up to any new house and knocking on the door. After all, Beaverbrook's media empire would have no difficulty tracking Evelyn down, whichever stately pile he chose to live in.
I wonder if he was also worried about his ability to write at Piers Court. It was taking him a long time to write books these days. His last published book, Officers and Gentlemen, which came out in the summer of 1955, had been started in February 1953 and finished in November 1954.
Basically, when he was half-way through this novel, he experienced the prolonged breakdown that he would eventually write up as The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. His confidence had taken such a knock by the temporary loss of his reason - and the prolonged loss of his ability to work on his books - that he'd written on the front flap of the dustcover the following:
'Officers and Gentlemen completes Men at Arms. I thought at first that the story would run to three volumes. I find that two will do the trick. If I keep my faculties I hope to follow the fortunes of the characters through the whole of their war, but these first two books constitute a whole.'
That's a sadly apologetic statement for a 52-year-old to make. Waugh had all the basic information for another volume of (what would become) his war trilogy lodged in the personal diary that he'd kept in 1943, 1944 and 1945. So what was the problem?
Gilbert Pinfold was the problem. Firstly, Waugh may have feared he would have another breakdown which would permanently interfere with his ability to write at any scale. Secondly, he was taking an age to write The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Again he would write it in two 'halves'. A book that was begun in January 1955 wouldn't be finished until January 1957. Two years to write (admittedly very well) the relatively straightforward tale of his own breakdown. Just as it had taken him nearly two years to write the largely autobiographical Officers and Gentlemen. I don't suppose he thought it was the library or the food or the air at PIers Court that was interfering with his powers of concentration and composition. But maybe he thought he had nothing to lose by seeking a change of scene.
By the middle of September, 1955, various possible purchasers of Piers Court had come to light, among them a colonel and a Sir Anthony LIndsay-Hogg who Evelyn felt was both insane and rich. Apparently, Sir Anthony was frantic to see the house.
In the meantime, the news came that Postlip Hall had been sold, despite Evelyn having spent hours planning its decoration and Victorianisation. A few days later. Laura and Evelyn looked at a house near Calne which proved to be 'appalling'. Sir Anthony came to luncheon with his estate agent and Waugh thought he'd sold them the house. But he hadn't.
Things went quiet on the house front for several months (quiet on the writing front as well), until June 1956, when a Mrs Gadsden made an offer of £9,500 for Piers Court, which was accepted. This renewed the necessity for house hunting. First, a house named Bridon near Nutcombe, but that was to be condemned by the architect who inspected it. Next, a day was spent driving round Devon and Cornwall looking at potential homes. In Evelyn's opinion, one was just tolerable, the rest useless. Then a long trip to Radnorshire to see Pencraig House which Waugh described as '1860 domestic gothic and very attractive'. It wasn't served well by the estate agent, however, who couldn't tell Evelyn and Laura what land went with the house and which cottages.
In early July, Waugh made the observation in his diary that as he moved about Piers Court, inside and out, nothing annoyed him as it had before. In his mind, it was Mrs Gadsden's house, not his any more, so he didn't care if the stone crumbled and the taps dripped and the weeds smothered the flower beds. He would soon be away. Evelyn thought there was a meditation on death to be constructed along these lines.
After Teresa's coming-out ball, Laura, Teresa and Evelyn drove to see Combe Florey, in Somerset, which he described as cosy, sequestered and with great possibilities.
On July 16, the Waughs entertained Mrs Gadsden for lunch. The future owner of Piers Court was most accommodating, agreeing to take over cows and peasants, if required. However, she baulked at inheriting the statue of Rafael that was in the front garden at Piers Court.
Mrs G: "I don't want it."
EW: "I'm not selling it to you, I'm giving it away."
Mrs G: "It's a monstrosity."
EW: "Even the most cursory knowledge of western civilisation would suggest otherwise, Madame."
On 18 July, the Waughs saw for the second time a house called Ston Easton (below), which Evelyn thought most seductive. On July 31 a large party of children and friends went to Ston Easton. On this third occasion the house seemed 'rather more formidable and forbidding'.
On August 1, the Waughs went to Combe Florey (below) for a second time, taking Bron, Meg and Hatty along with them. To Evelyn's surprise the children seemed to prefer it to Ston Easton.
The next day another house presented itself as being for sale, an episcopal palace near Exeter. So, on August 8, the Waughs set out to see it. Waugh had received a letter from Meg that morning, passionately pleading for Evelyn to buy her Combe Florey. But when they picked her up at Exeter station and took her to Bishop's Court (below), she was soon wildly enthusiastic about that property and demanded that her father buy it instead.
On September 11, Waugh recorded that Bishop's Court had been sold for the full price asked of it and that the Batchelors, the existing owners of Combe Florey, had let it be known that they would accept £7,500 from Evelyn for their house. So that was decided, the Waughs were moving to Somerset, though the Batchelors would not vacate until the end of November.
The map below shows Piers Court (yellow pin) and the four other houses that are pictured on this page. It shows that Waugh was quite happy to remain in the south west of England and at a safe distance from the temptations (alcoholic excess) of London
In September, Laura and Evelyn went to dinner with Mrs Gadsden in her Cotswold cottage. They also went to Combe Florey where Colonel Batchelor hid from them. The map below shows PIers Court, top right, and Combe Florey, bottom left (it's close to Bishop's Lydeard). To get from one to the other, simply follow the M5 south and then go west from Taunton (just off the bottom edge of the map). Only of course the M5 wasn't built until the 1960s. I don't think Waugh would have liked living so close to such a main road, and the M5 passes within a few hundred yards of Piers Court. So in this way he was wise to move when he did. Maybe in other ways too.
In October, every day seemed to bring more need for negotiation. And there was still the business of moving furniture to arrange. The removal of library shelves revealed the deplorable condition of the walls behind them. Whether for that reason or another, Mrs Gadsden made a last minute attempt to knock £500 off the price of Piers Court, which Evelyn felt was very odd behaviour.
Packing Evelyn's library into boxes was an important job, one for which he called on his former butler, Ellwood, for assistance. Is that right or am I making it up? You must decide for yourself, as we help Evelyn bid farewell to his home of twenty years.
Evelyn had decided to get rid of some of his books, namely those written by Osbert Sitwell, Cyril Connolly, Moray McLaren, Peter Quennell and Cecil Beaton, together with odds and sods such as Lord Noel Buxton's nutty book about wading across the Thames at Westminster. This was to be Evelyn's last move and he didn't want these particular volumes to be in his library when an inventory would be made of it at his death. Ellwood was ordered to load a barrow with the books that Evelyn had placed in a pile in the hall and to wheel them to the front gate.
Evelyn walked with me (yes, I am Ellwood), talking without sentimentality about his time at Piers Court.
Eventually, I said: "Aren't you going to miss your grand house, sir?"
"Presently, my only regret is missing out on buying that lovely house at Exeter. It was very like my old school, Lancing, and I thought it was in the bag until I was outbid by a Public Body."
"What's the new house like?"
"A very dull, very private house of sandstone, hidden in a valley behind a wall. I can't tell you its name in case you go blabbing about it to Lord Noel-Buxton or Nancy fucking Spain. Had I some of my friends' money and energy I could make something of the new place. As it stands, it will be a suitable place to end my days. There is a lunatic asylum bang next door which will be valuable for several reasons."
Evelyn stopped and looked towards me. Or rather towards the old house that he'd first known almost twenty years before. He'd been a newly married man, still young when he arrived here. Now he was the father of six children, one of whom was a grown woman. And Evelyn himself now seemed like an old man.
But Evelyn was still speaking so I endeavoured not to lose the thread of his words, which, if I recalled correctly, was the handiness of the asylum.
"First, for me if I get another go of barminess."
"Surely not, sir."
"Second, in providing indefatigable gardeners at slave wages."
"Prewitt will sorely miss his job here."
"Third, in providing a husband for Harriet."
I knew that was a joke. But I also knew my place, so I didn't laugh.
We hadn't walked much further before Evelyn was subject to a panic attack. He thought he may have put a book by Graham Greene or Nancy Mitford or Anthony Powell in the wrong pile. He bid me search the barrow for suchlike literary gems...
I read out the authors names as I rifled about. "Peter Quennell, Peter Quennell, Peter Quennell, Cecil Beaton, Cyril Connolly, Peter Quennell, Peter Quennell, Peter Quennell, Ev..."
I stopped and picked up the Penguin.
"Decline and Fall by one Evelyn Waugh," I announced, taken aback.
"Yes, that's right, I'm not hanging on to those paperbacks. But seeing its cover against the lawn has given me an idea. Follow me, Ellwood. About turn."
So I followed Evelyn, keeping up with him as I'd not overfilled the barrow. Having said that, Laughter in the Next Room did keep sliding onto the grass, and three times I had to stop in order to pick it up. "Sit well, Sitwell... Sit well, Sitwell..." I kept saying to the barrowload of books in front of me. And that seemed to do the trick.
"He writes the books in a small study at Renishaw. I've often said that he should requisition a drawing room to write in. It helps to be able to look up from your work and take in a wider view. Having said that, neither the view of royalty I have, or the view out of the library window, has been helping my muse of late... I'm tired Ellwood. I hope that what I'm tired of is this house and not life itself."
"I don't think I can manage those steps with the barrow, sir."
"Good point, Ellwood. We'll go the other way."
So we went back round the front of the house and up the west side, by way of the walled garden. I lost a couple of Quennells from the barrow en route, but I didn't think that anyone was going to notice. And I was sure no-one would care even if they did notice.
Suddenly the master shouted: "Don't ask Prewitt, Laura. How would he know which books to take with us and which to dump?"
I'm just out of the above shot, a few metres behind the boy, James, who, when he passed me, silently picked up Westminster Wader by Lord Noel-Buxton and flung it over the garden wall, high as it is.
Waugh went on barking at Laura: "Tell Prewitt he looks ridiculous in that hat. And tell him to get his bloody hair cut, the sight of all these greying locks is driving me barmy. I don't want to end up in the Combe Florey madhouse before even having stepped inside our new house as its master."
After a few seconds Evelyn turned round and said to me: "Damn. You didn't hear that house name, did you, Ellwood?"
"No, sir. And there's no reason to think Lord Noel-Buxton heard it either."
I'm pretty sure Evelyn didn't catch Laura's response to his earlier remark, the one that she muttered to Prewitt, but I did:
"God, how his books bore me."
Luckily, Evelyn's books have never bored me and I was happy to lay the Penguin paperbacks out on the lawn as directed by Evelyn. It turned out that there were three copies of Decline and Fall in the barrow. One published as early as 1938 and the most recent in 1953.
"Notice anything about them, Ellwood?"
What could I say? That cover art hadn't changed much in fifteen years?
"The Penguin has got slimmer over the years just as I've got fatter."
Evelyn bid me take all the Penguins from the barrow and place them in date order on the croquet lawn. I started to do this, beginning with Decline and Fall, moving onto Vile Bodies, then Black Mischief."
"No, no, Ellwood. The interest here is in the date of publication. Piers Court is the context and all these books appeared during my ownership of this house."
So I consulted the publishing information at the front of each book, jigged things around, and came up with this:
"Now tell me the dates."
I had to get down on one knee and open each book before announcing a figure, from left to right, top row first:
"1938, 1938, 1940, 1940, 1948..."
"Ah yes, the war put Allen Lane's plans on hold for a few years."
"To make the working class literate. What a funny little creature on the cover of that Scoop. Demob happy, shall we say. Give it here, please... Blast the cover's come loose."
Evelyn went on: "There's an H. G. Wood inscription. I suppose I must have gone into a cottage in Stinchcombe and picked up the fellow's book. See it gets back to him will you, Ellwood. Or to the Wood who saved Septimus from the cows. What was his name?"
"Yes, Eddie Wood."
After a contemplative silence I got back down on one knee to go on with the dates: "1951, 1951..."
"It was in that year that ten titles of mine were published simultaneously by Lane. The ones that aren't here being The Loved One, When the Going was Good and Brideshead. That put me in the same bracket as DH Lawrence , HG Wells and Bernard Shaw, apparently. The only difference being I was alive to enjoy the royalties. Only I don't feel so alive now."
"You're only 53."
"How old are you, Ellwood?"
I stood up and told him: "57."
"No sign of rheumatism at 57. Fit as a flea. Well, I dare say you have led an easier life than I have."
"I've worked long hours in my time, sir. But I've not done such long drinking hours as your good self."
"D'you think that's it? I put it down to the war. I put it down to the basic training, the boredom, the parachute accident and the plane crash. But, most of all, I put it down to Randolph Churchill - drinking and arguing with that damned ass."
Again I left it for a few seconds before going down on one knee and finishing off the dates.
"...1953, 1953, 1954."
"I've done all right out of Penguin. They've paid your wages, Ellwood."
"I suspect 1954 was the year you laid me off, sir."
"Ah yes, it was complicated. Money coming in all right. But with six children to educate and the rising cost of champagne... Well, something had to give. You can take the Penguins home with you, if you like."
"Thank-you, sir. I will use them to teach my children how to read."
"And if I believe that I'm a donkey. Eh, Ellwood?"
He bid me put the Penguins in a circle and to display the books of Moray McLaren and Osbert Sitwell in the same way. By the time I'd done that, he'd brought a book or two of his own from the house and stood them in a line. The wind promptly blew two of them over.
"Look at that lawn," said Evelyn. "Prewitt knows we'll never play another game of croquet on it, yet still he spends hours cutting it and aerating it."
"Mrs Gadesden will get the benefit next summer."
"Exactly. But she won't get another £500 out of me."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing. There goes Helena. My best book. Down on its face on the cold damp earth as we all will be one day."
I made a move towards the blue Chapman and Hall that I thought he meant, but Evelyn stayed my hand.
"Let it lie where it's fallen."
"But it looks like rain."
"Let the books get wet. Indeed they are bound to get a good soaking on the trip to Combe Florey."
It turned out that Evelyn's new plan was for me to reload the barrow and wheel it to his new house. I asked him how far it was and he told me eighty miles. He asked me how long it would take me to complete said journey and I told him: "It depends."
"Depends on what?"
"Depends if I meet Nancy Spain on the way. She'd probably be only too happy to give me a lift in her sports car."
I tried to raise Evelyn's spirits with this and other jokes. However, melancholy seemed to have a firm grip on his soul.
A big part of the dust-jacket of one of Osbert's books blew towards us and landed a yard away.
"That's the volume," said Evelyn, "that includes an appendix which consists solely of a letter from me to Osbert."
I knew the letter. It's the one where Evelyn describes meeting Osbert's father. They were standing on the terrace at Renishaw one summer in the 1920s, enjoying a pre-dinner drink and the beauty of the sunset. In the valley below nestled a mining village, teeming with miners and their families. Osbert's father turned towards Evelyn and said, squinting towards the golden hills beyond the valley: "You see," he said, "there is no-one between us and the Locker-Lampsons."
I reminded Evelyn of the last line, which made him smile. Or perhaps it was his own present day thoughts that amused him, because after a moment he said, in a way that was typical both of his paranoia and his sense of humour: "You see, there is no-one between us and Lord Noel-Buxton."
Evelyn decided it was time for champagne, even though it wasn't yet six o'clock.
When we both had a glass of bubbly in our hands and had toasted the Waugh family's future at Combe Florey, he said: "Now tell me, Ellwood, where have you been working for the last couple of months?"
The answer seemed to take him by surprise: "17a Canonbury Square, Islington."
Two bottles of bubbly later, Evelyn was the life and soul of a family party and I was on my way.
How long would it take me to get to Combe Florey? This time it was me asking the question. The answer very much depended on whether I went straight there or took a detour. Canonbury Square (for a Twenties party)? Aston Clinton (for a pint at the Bell)? Barford House (for a binge with Alastair)?
I didn't know. All I knew was that Evelyn's world was my oyster.