A BOOK SIGNING
As I stand in front of the premises of Topping and Company, a relatively new bookshop in the middle of St Andrews, Aloysius notices that there is a copy of Evelyn! in the shop window.
"What is that doing there?" he asks, "Some mistake, surely."
The bear is not feeling well disposed towards me. Possibly because he's spent the last hour or so in the boot of the car.
Inside, Aloysius has to come to terms with a pile of 40-odd copies of my book.
"What the hell is going on?" he asks.
Robert Topping, the owner of the shop, explains that once I have signed these books he will be sending some of them to his other bookshops in Bath and Ely. Ah, yes - St Andrews, with its ancient university where Robert and his wife both studied; Bath, in the West Country where Evelyn Waugh settled; and Ely, near that renowned seat of learning, Cambridge, my own alma mater: location, location, location.
Aloysius isn't impressed with my signing skills. He points out that each book takes an age to sign (I'm trying to talk sensibly to Robert at the same time as not ruining £400 worth of his stock) and that each signature looks different.
"Come on, Fatty," Alo says. "You can do better than that."
I go on signing books. One at a time. And Alo? He goes on trying to puncture my self-esteem. "One every two minutes," he sighs. "I'm promised all the excitement of a day in St Andrews and all I get is a slowly lowering pile on a table, a painfully burning pile in my backside."
Be that as it may, another book gets signed.
I notice my hand is shaking with the effort of concentration. Robert is telling me about the ethos of his shop, the love triangle that should exist between author, bookseller and reader. This comes on top of the warm welcome we received from the woman serving at the front of the shop, and the tea and coffee that another assistant has rustled up for us, something that is offered to all the shop's customers, I observe. What wonderful people! As for Aloysius...
"You're as fat as me already, and you'll soon be as fat as Evelyn Waugh was at the age of 57," says the bear. "And then you'll be in a right old pickle."
Alo's latest words hit home when I am in mid-signature.
"'Funkity Funk', that last one looks like," continues Alo. "Who wants to read a book by an author who goes by the moniker of Funkity Funk?"
I go on signing books. One. At. A. Time.
"That's thirty, only ten to go," Alo informs me. "And do you know what it looks like?"
"It looks like a class of primary school children have been invited along to this fine shop to do a book signing. Thirty children with variant personalities and markedly different hand-to-eye co-ordination."
I ask Alo to assess my most recent signature.
"Where's the C?" he asks.
"The C in McLaren. The C for clown."
Okay. Fine. I've had enough of this. The remaining books are going to be signed as Evelyn inscribed books for Anthony Powell and/or his wife Violet over the years. These books were up for sale at Bonham's in London last month and I've recorded their details which I have to hand. First up, is the copy of PRB, a short book about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that Waugh gave to Powell, a booklet that had been privately printed by Waugh's close friend and former lover, Alastair Graham.
'Robert Topping from Duncan McLaren', I write in the same sloping, but otherwise controlled manner that Waugh employed for his inscription, and place it with the other books I've signed.
Now I'm flowing. As was Evelyn. What a good idea it had been for him to give his Oxford chum a copy of PRB, because Tony Powell worked for a publisher, Duckworth. With the 100th anniversary of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's birth coming up in 1928, Waugh suggested that he might write a biography of the painter, and Powell was able to persuade Gerald Duckworth that this would be a good idea. When Rossetti came out, Evelyn sent Powell a copy from the Barley Mow, the Dorset pub he was living in while writing his first novel.
'Topping from Duncan, July 2015,' is what I write on the front free endpaper of the 32nd copy of Evelyn! I've switched from signing the title page to the endpaper, because that's what Evelyn did. You can see from the next inscription the ghost of the book's title 'DECLINE AND FALL', visible from the half-title page, just above the word 'Death'.
'For Tony who rescued the author from Worse than Death EW,' that says. By which Waugh meant that he had not been enjoying his career as a school teacher, even attempting suicide towards the end of his time at the Welsh school that he made famous in Decline and Fall.
But what do I mean by writing, 'For Topping who rescued me from Worse than Death. DMcL.'? What comes to mind is Waterstones. Though they have about a hundred branches up and down the country, they have a central ordering system and as a result have ordered only a handful of copies of my title, representing specific orders from customers. This is despite a promotional email that Aloysius (sometimes he is on my side) sent to every branch of the bookshop chain. The manager at Waterstones in Amsterdam wrote back saying: 'I think this is the best promotional e-mail I have ever seen.' Yet how many copies were ordered that day or the next by all Waterstones' branches as a result of this initiative? Two, according to my publisher. In other words the central ordering system is strict. Bureaucracy rules. The rule being to order books in a risk-free way, paying attention to what mainstream publishers are churning out and to authors' names that the public already recognise. Newsreaders, footballers, golfers.
Not the way that Topping of St Andrews operates. True, there are some golf books prominently displayed on bookshelves close to where I'm sitting. But with St Andrews being the home of golf and the Open due to take place here later this month, Robert would be insane not to have as many golf-related books in stock as possible. Putts I have missed by Tony Jacklin. Lee and Me by Tony Jacklin. Tony Jacklin's Inside Leg Measurement by Aloysius Flyte. I'm not saying these are actual books. I'm saying that if these books exist, Robert would be mad not to have them in stock.
Waugh signed a copy of his second novel, Vile Bodies, with the words: 'For Tony with deep respect from Evelyn'. This made sense as Duckworth was still publishing Waugh's non-fiction, even though it was Evelyn's own father's firm, Chapman and Hall, that was publishing the novels. 'Go to keep Tony sweet', is how I read that inscription. And it's at the back of my mind as I write 'For Robert with deep respect from Duncan.'
The inscription Waugh wrote on Remote People, his first book resulting from a visit to Africa, reads 'Tony, from his brother of the pen, Evelyn, Nov 3 1931.' This acknowledges that his friend had published his first novel Afternoon Men that year.
But note the signature. The 'E' is completely different from earlier inscriptions. And the 'y' in Evelyn is oddly constructed. True, Evelyn had by then been devastated by his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, deserting him. And it had been her presence in Dorset while Waugh was writing Decline and Fall which makes that book so deliciously light and sparkling. Most of Waugh's friends came down on He-Evelyn's side after the split. But Tony Powell liked She-Evelyn and remained friends with her all their lives.
Indeed, only a couple of travel books are inscribed to Powell for the next decade or so, perhaps suggesting a cooling in Waugh and Powell's relationship. However, Evelyn inscribed a copy of Black Mischief to Violet Pakenham, who Anthony Powell would marry a year or two later, hence it being in the collection that's just been sold at Bonham's.
'For Violetit with the deep admiration of her friend, Evelyn Waugh', that seems to say. But what's happening towards the end of the surname? That signature is more out of control than anything I've penned today. Nevertheless, I think I can rise to the occasion. 'For Robert with the deep admiration of his friend, Duncan McLaren', goes AWOL in and around the capital 'L' in my surname.
But when I reconsider what's going on in that long vertical line that hangs down from 'Waugh', I reconsider. I think it's an ambitious drawing. It starts with two deep, deliberate V shapes pointing left and proceeds to the bottom of the page. If you think of the whole vertical line as a face (male?) looking right, the Vs are eyebrow and eye. If you think of the line as a face (female) looking left, the Vs are a feature on top of a tall hat. Intriguing.
OK what next? No Handful of Dust for Tony. No Scoop. No Mr Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories. No Put Out More Flags. No Brideshead Revisited. The next book to be inscribed by Waugh for Powell is Scott King's Modern Europe, a minor work that came out in 1947. Times had really changed - Evelyn was using a biro!
I suspect the figure on the right is intended to be Evelyn Waugh. On the left? Presumably someone who was at dinner with Waugh and Powell and who was referred to as 'Bats'.
I guess he'd been drinking when he inscribed this book. If so, the backward looping 'y' in Evelyn would seem to have become second nature. Evelyn has successfully reinvented himself! Or at least his signature.
I have a go at updating the inscription and drawing. First, the easy bit. 'For Robert, the host of Alo, with deep respect, from Duncan'. Now for the drawing of the bear and me. I see that Evelyn has given himself a bulging forehead and no double chin. I can't compete with that. All I can do is make Alo look absolutely BATS, like an aunt out of a PG Wodehouse novel. Almost any old PG Wodehouse novel.
The 50s could be described as a series of gifts from Evelyn Waugh to Anthony Powell, first Helena (1950):
Powell was by this time writing 'A Dance to the Music of Time'. The first volume, A Question of Upbringing, was published in 1951, and it wasn't given to Evelyn by its author. At least the copy in Waugh's library at his death is not inscribed. Waugh read it though, after all the book drew on Powell's time at public school and Oxford in the 20s, topics that Waugh cared deeply about.
But Waugh was no longer writing about the first half of his life. He was reconsidering the Second World War as he'd experienced it. It took him a few years to get down to studying his war diary, but in 1952 Men At Arms appeared:
That says: 'For Tony, this mutable treasure house of technical inaccuracy, from Evelyn.'
In Powell's A Buyer's Market, also published in 1952, an uninscribed copy of which was in Waugh's library at his death, the author deals with the bright young things and the parties of 1929: Vile Bodies territory. Powell was a witness to the He-Evelyn, She-Evelyn, John Heygate love triangle, and if I ever get round to reading this novel I'll be looking out for connections between what Powell saw of Waugh's life and what he wrote about. After all, as Powell admits in his memoirs, the subsequent life of She-Evelyn and Heygate was reflected upon in Powell's pre-war novel, Agents and Patients, a book which also shows the marked impact of its author having read Decline and Fall. The characters based on the Heygates being called 'Maltravers' is just one indication of this.
If Powell's 1935 novel re-used a name from Waugh's first novel, Waugh returned the compliment in 1939 when he called an important character in Work Suspended, Atwater, the name of the protagonist in Powell's first novel, Afternoon Men. Waugh took the tribute further in Brideshead Revisited when he made Charles Ryder's room pre-Sebastian include some of the same things to be found in the room of the naive protagonist (in turn based on Paul Pennyfeather of Decline and Fall) in Agents and Patients. What complex, mutual admiration! The same sort of thing goes on between Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, with Decline and Fall being at the root of all goodwill.
But if Anthony Powell was getting into his stride as an author in the early fifties, Waugh - though only two years older - was losing energy. His next book was another minor work, written while he tried to recharge his batteries in order to carry on with what he hoped would be a war trilogy. It was illustrated by Evelyn himself and does have certain qualities that I admire. Love Among the Ruins (1953):
That is three signatures in a row where the 'Evelyn' is very similar. I assure you the 'Duncan' in the last three books I've signed is pretty consistent too. That is, 'For Toppy, the best I am able to do, from Duncan.' 'For Toppy, this mutable treasure house of technical inaccuracy, from Duncan.' 'For Toppy with great and growing admiration, from Duncan.'
One thing I have achieved in the last few minutes. I have got the bear to shut his mouth. Ever since I've made him look BATS he's been sulking in silence.
Waugh's next book was Officers and Gentlemen (1955), the second volume of his war story. The inscription reads, 'Tony, a murmur from the Refusal World, from Evelyn.'
1955 was also the year that the third volume in Powell's Dance was published. Powell did send Waugh an inscribed copy ('For Evelyn from Tony, with admiration and regard') as he would continue to do with subsequent volumes as long as Waugh lived. As a reward, Powell received a letter from Waugh saying that he'd read the book with great relish. Evelyn thought it better done than its predecessors and congratulated him warmly. Waugh went on to say that the plot seemed to be altogether denser and that he preferred the economy in comment. Otherwise, he was not quite sure how to define his admiration, other than to say that each volume in the series seemed like a great sustaining slice of Melton pie.
That's a very superior type of pork pie. Aloysius always has one in his picnic basket. That is, until it's safely packed away in his bread basket.
In 1957 Evelyn sent Tony a copy of his next book, the story of his own mid-life crisis, complete with hallucinations: The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957)
That 'y' from 1957 reverts to the 'y' in the Decline and Fall signature way back in 1928. Which suggests that you can take the glitch out of the signature. But you can't take the signature out of the glitch. Or something like that.
Actually, that's too glib. Close inspection reveals that the 'y' in the above inscription is indeed backward looping. Can I then be sure that the early signatures were all conventionally forward looping? As well as Tony's Rossetti, the Decline and Fall that Evelyn gave Osbert Sitwell in 1928 and the Christmas card that he sent out in 1929 all suggest so. It's well known that Waugh changed his sexual orientation in the mid-twenties, after two or three affairs with men. But I haven't seen it written before that his signature didn't consistently swing in an unconventional way until much later than that!
Evelyn's copy of the fourth volume in Powell's 'Dance', At Lady Molly's was inscribed 'Evelyn from Tony, October 1957'. Waugh wrote to Powell, thanking him for the book, saying he'd been looking forward to it like seven days leave and had read it without interruption. By this time the Waughs had moved from Gloucestershire to Somerset where the Powells had settled a few years before. At the end of his letter Waugh asks if there was any chance of Tony and Violet coming to visit as he sat at home all day reading Knoxiana.
Yes, Evelyn was writing a biography of a dead priest and in 1959 The Life of Reverend Ronald Knox dutifully appeared. Essential reading for none but diehard Catholics. But still of interest, as is everything that was penned by Waugh.
It's a coincidence that Evelyn signed the copy of his Knox book on October 8, because that's the day that Robert has invited me to come along to the bookshop again and to give a talk. Correction, that's the night Jeanette Winterson will be here. My talk is on the 7th of October. This I will be delighted to do, I even have a novel idea for the format. But first things first, I've got a book signing to finish...
In 1960 Powell sent Waugh a copy of Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, inscribed 'Evelyn from Tony, As I was saying... June 1960'. Waugh reviewed it in the Spectator. Evelyn begins his review by saying that he has few reasons to desire longevity, but one of them was the hope that he be spared to see the completion of the fine sequence of books that were collectively called 'A Dance to the Music of Time'. It's a long review which ends with Evelyn ambitiously trying to define Powell's position by contrasting it with that of Graham Greene. (Greene being a close friend of Waugh's since the mid-forties when they both had substantial success with 'Catholic' novels.) Greene's characters never know anyone, observed Evelyn. They lead intense solitary lives which admit of the odd professional acquaintance and lover. But there are no ramifications of friendship, no social familiarity. Whereas Powell sees human society as the essential environment of the individual. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone's path crosses and recrosses everyone else's.
By this time, Evelyn and Laura saw Tony and Violet regularly, and this is reflected in the last two books that Waugh inscribed for Powell. Unconditional Surrender from 1961 is signed, 'For Tony and Violet, with love from Evelyn, October 1961.'
In 1962, Evelyn received a copy of The KIndly Ones, the sixth book in the series, inscribed: 'Evelyn from Tony, Homages de l'auteur, May 1962'. Tribute to the author? That's a kindly touch.
While thanking Powell for the book, and expressing his admiration for it, Waugh did take a swipe at its publishers, Heinemann. Three styles of title page in what should be a uniform set, he bemoaned. And the bindings were already wearing, the spine of A Question of Upbringing being illegible. Waugh added that he was particularly looking forward to the war books that were to come, given that the Dance had reached 1939. Powell wrote back saying that he agreed that Heinemann's production was loathsome and suggested that he'd reached the halfway mark in the series (an accurate assessment, it turned out) and that the next three books would deal with the war years. In other words, just as Evelyn had signed off his war trilogy, Tony was embarking on a war trilogy of his own, set within the still grander structure of 'A Dance to the Music of Time'.
By 1964 Waugh had managed to write the first volume of his autobiography, A Little Learning. Not a long book, but it took the failing author ages before he could sign it off.
The Valley of Bones, the seventh book in the Dance, was inscribed 'Evelyn from Tony, March 1964'. Waugh acknowledged it 'with keen admiration' in a short letter. But even though it was about the war, he didn't write a review as he had done for the previous two volumes. I suspect Evelyn was running out of steam.
I should mention that there was an odd exchange about the Powells between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn. In 1962, after a trip to London (Nancy lived in Paris), she wrote to Evelyn that they would have enjoyed themselves more without Violet. And asked him 'do you think Tony suffers?'. Waugh replied that he felt Tony Powell suffered frightfully from all human contact. And that the presence of Violet was no more painful to him than anyone else, such as Nancy or Evelyn. An odd thing to say about someone whose work was concerned with a constant stream of meetings. People incessantly interacting with each other.
An anecdote comes to mind. It concerns the last occasion the two writers met. Anthony Powell tells the story in Messengers of Day, the second volume of his autobiography To Keep the Ball Rolling, which was published in 1978, 12 years after Evelyn's death. The anecdote is a shuffle - barely a shuffle - to the music of time.
In November, 1965, at a country wedding, Waugh and Powell found themselves in the same queue to greet the bride and bridegroom. Waugh didn't look well. He had long been fat but now seemed wasted as well as portly. He walked in a very shaky manner. Straight away, Evelyn asked Tony if he thought there would be any whisky to drink. (That was what Evelyn reckoned was required at an affair of this kind.) Getting no definitive answer from Powell, Waugh left the queue and had a look round the house. When he came back, the queue hadn't reached the bride and groom, and Waugh told Powell he'd found a couple of decanters but that his sense of smell wasn't sufficiently good any more to tell if either contained whisky. Evelyn asked Tony to accompany him back into the house where Powell immediately summed up the situation. In a scullery were two near-empty decanters of port that had been put out of the way for the party... It feels a bit like a Charles and Sebastian scene in Brideshead, where Sebastian has become a dipso. And just as one feels sorry for the once-golden boy in the novel, here one feels sorry for the golden boy's much diminished creator.
Waugh and Powell returned to the queue and the wedding went on. The main part of the reception was taking place in a marquee, to reach which a ramp had been placed, leading down to the tent from the higher level of the upper lawn. The slope, though perceptible, was not a steep one. Tony and Violet happened to leave the party at the same time as the Waughs. (Evelyn was accompanied by Laura and an unnamed daughter - probably Margaret, his favourite). Laura went first, followed by Evelyn holding his daughter's arm for support. Suddenly, from sheer physical weakness, Evelyn could not manage the ascent. His daughter had to call for Laura to return and help. Together, they got him up the ramp. And in observing this Tony realised how bad Evelyn's state of health was.
At the top of the slope, Evelyn and his entourage paused. Evelyn smiled as Tony and Violet passed, making a faint gesture of his hand to say goodbye. Waugh died five months later.
At least that's what Powell recounts. My own theory is that Evelyn was mistaking Tony for a waiter and that the faint movement of the hand (the hand that had written Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited, let's remember; the hand that had inscribed thousands of books with wit and warmth) had been Evelyn ordering himself another drink. He hadn't found any whisky in the house but surely he had found champagne aplenty in the marquee. It was a wedding after all. So lighten up, Tony. And fetch your squiffy old pal a glass of bubbly for the road.
OK, I've signed the last book in the pile. I've written 'For Evelyn, with love from Duncan'. And what's more I can prove it:
1) If anyone wants to come along to the talk at 8pm on October the 7th they'll be most welcome. Details of the event will no doubt be posted on the Topping website shortly.
2) Thanks to Jeff Manley for making available to me the notes he'd made of the Powell inscriptions that were in Evelyn Waugh's library, now held at the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas.
3) Thanks to Bonham's for making available on their website photographs of Waugh's inscriptions in the books he gave Anthony Powell.
4) When did Waugh's signature change so that the 'y' in Evelyn and the 'g' in Waugh were backward looping? The signatures of Decline and Fall are forward looping. That was in 1928. Ditto his 1929 Xmas card. Ditto his Vile Bodies signature in January 1930. Ditto his signing of Labels in September 1930. But, as we've seen, the signature in Remote People in November 1931 is in mode B. As is the signature in the special edition of 250 large paper copies of Black Mischief published in 1932. Did Evelyn reinvent his signature in connection with joining the Catholic Church or going to Africa, both of which happened in autumn 1930? A little more research is required. Watch this space.
5) Fancy a signed copy of Evelyn!? Maybe even one signed on July 3, 2015? If so, get in touch with the best new bookshop in Britain. While stocks last.