EVELYN, ALASTAIR AND MRS GRAHAM
Following my virtual journey to the seat of the Graham family, I thought it was worth visiting Netherby Hall in the flesh. That's to say, exactly 90 years since Evelyn Waugh, Alastair Graham and Mrs Graham came here in 1926 on their way north to Scotland, I am following in their footsteps. And who is with me? Why, Mrs Graham and Alastair, of course.
What are they up to? It looks as if they both have the weight of the world pressing down on their shoulders. 'Mrs Graham' is the managing director of a company that employs hundreds of workers. 'Alastair' travels the globe in an effort to encourage sustainable economic development. But not today. Today they are supposed to be in character, God help me.
So let's start again. "Hey, I'm Evelyn Waugh. And I'm with Alastair! My chum from Oxford. And together we're going to find the grave of his Aunt Cynthia. His dear Aunt Cynthia."
Alastair was at Brasenose College in 1923, and he did no work whatsoever so the dons chucked him out. I was at Hertford in 1922, 1923 and 1924. I did as little work as possible and almost got a degree worth having. A third. But my father decided that wasn't, in fact, a degree worth having, and so wouldn't let me go up for a final term in order to matriculate. That's because he knew how much of his money I would spend on clothes and drink in the Michaelmas Term. What a mean man my father is/was!
Alastair is making jokes now about what a mean man his own father was when he was alive. He uses the word ARSEHOLE. But Alastair has a lot of time for his Aunt Cynthia. That is, until she died. And he has a lot of time for his Uncle Richard. Let's go through the details of Sir Richard's shabby little abode again. That is the house he'd chosen to live in instead of the fabulous Netherby Hall. Small and ugly and full of enormous oil portraits of stuffed badgers. It's redeeming feature being a most badgerly toilet.
Anyway, here we are in the graveyard attached to Kirkandrews-upon-Esk church, which is adjacent to Netherby Hall. To get here we had to cross over the little bridge from which Alastair, Mrs Graham and Evelyn watched eels back in 1926. Today we saw a kingfisher. Or at least Alastair and I saw it. Mrs Graham was in a strop and had gone on ahead.
It should be borne in mind that in A Little Learning, Evelyn Waugh says about Mrs Graham:
'The spectacle of idleness in youth (and Alastair and I were very idle) threw her into frenzies of indignation. "Why can't you boys get out of the house and do something? There's always something to be done about a place. When my husband went to stay anywhere, his first question was always what could he do to help. Why don't you cut wood? Why don't you clean the shrubberies? Why don't you take the roof off the potting-shed?" To all those appeals we remained unresponsive.'
You would have thought that today Mrs Graham would have been happy. After all we are out of the house. Alastair and I are actually doing something. Sort of.
Now we're all together in the graveyard, standing beside the stone that marks the grave of the 5th and 6th Baronets of Netherby Hall. We're here to find the grave of Cynthia Graham, wife of Richard - the 4th baronet. So why don't we spread out in order to do that? Let's face it, it must be here somewhere. Nobody will have moved it since Alastair and I were here in 1926.
OK we can't find it. What do we do now? Mrs Graham has an idea. She says why don't we give up and be on our way. This seems like an incredible thing to say. "Where would you rather be than in this ancient graveyard with your idiot son and your idiot son's ex-boyfriend?"
Mrs Graham: "I know you two are still close. I'm never sure just how close."
Me: "Yes, you want to keep an eye on that son of yours. He's got a roving eye and a tender spot for me."
Mrs Graham: "A tender spot?"
Alastair: "Come on you two. I want to find Auntie's grave. You won't find it in the lens of the camera."
Let's come out of character for a moment. It's actually my friends Kit Nicholson and John Wilson that I'm with today. I think that's appropriate as I've known these fine fellows since we met at university, forty-odd years ago. With them I associate both the languor of youth and an arrogant disregard of time. In other words, we shared two illusions that Alastair and Evelyn shared: that things don't have to be worked for, and that life - our young lives - will last forever. It follows that if life really is effortless and infinite, then everything is an upbeat joke. Oh, what a paradise it seems!
I want to tell my friends, now nearly sixty, as I am, about Evelyn Waugh's sense of heredity by the time he got to our age. In A Little Learning, which was published in 1964 when Evelyn Waugh was 61, he gives details of his eight great, great grandfathers. That's Alexander Waugh (clergyman and writer), John Symes (lawyer), William Morgan (mathematician and writer), Thomas Gosse (painter and writer), Thomas Raban (lawyer), Henry Cockburn (lawyer and writer) and Samuel Bishop (soldier). That's mostly writers and lawyers. Evelyn didn't put his great, great grandmothers in the family tree, because they didn't have professions as such. Yes, it was a man's world. Which is how Evelyn Waugh liked it. I'm not so sure I like it, being a feminist, which is maybe why I'm determined to find the grave of Alastair's Aunt Cynthia.
Suddenly Jessie Graham moves centre stage. Alastair's mother, being an American and the daughter of a cotton magnate, is high-tempered, possessive, jolly and erratic. It's all of these qualities that seem to be behind her words:
"Oh for God's sake, Alastair. It's your aunt we're looking for. Where the hell is she buried?"
Alastair thinks that she might be under one of the stone crosses. The one on the right. It's only a daft hunch of his, so that doesn't exactly help.
Indeed, I prove that Alastair is wrong by clearing some moss from the front of the base of the monument, to reveal...
...It's Alastair's uncle that's buried here. Sir Richard James Graham, 4th Baronet of Netherby Hall. He died in 1932, six years after the 'first' visit of Evelyn, Alastair and Mrs Graham to this graveyard.
"I wonder who inherited the enormous oil portraits of stuffed badgers," says Alastair.
"No, you do not wonder that," says Mrs Graham.
"I wonder who inherited his house's most badgerly toilet."
"You do not wonder that either."
Meanwhile, I have turned to the other stone cross and got to work on the moss there. First, I reveal 'In Loving Memory' on the top face of the base.
I move to the middle face. Again, the moss peels off fairly easily to reveal the stone underneath. Just as I now fully accept that someday my own flesh will peel away, fairly easily, to reveal the bones that lie underneath the surface.
'LADY CYNTHIA GRAHAM'
It's the correct grave!
So this is what Alastair and Evelyn looked down upon on Thursday August 5, 1926. I guess that no-one has looked down on this grave as intently since that day. Certainly not since the greedy green growth took over.
'LADY CYNTHIA GRAHAM
RICHARD JAMES GRAHAM BART.
I desist with the scraping at the above stage of reveal. When writing up this little adventure I regret that decision. However, there are clues to suggest that the words go on to say that Lady Cynthia died in February of 1926.
I guess that's it. Job done.
Last word to Mrs Graham. She's committed to memory passages from one of Evelyn and Alastair's favourite books, A Cypress Grove, which was written in 1623 by William Drummond of Hawthornden.
"Death is the sad estranger of acquaintance, the eternal divorcer of marriage, the ravisher of the children from their parents, the stealer of parents from their children, the interrer of fame, the sole cause of forgetfulness, by which the living talk of those gone away as of so many shadows, or fabulous Paladins."
I guess that quote would have been even more appropriate if it had mentioned nephews and aunties.
I have a hunch that it was Alastair who introduced A Cypress Grove to Evelyn, rather than vice versa. I have a hunch that Alastair, in his way, was quite an influence on those closest to him. How did Evelyn put it in A Little Learning?
'I could not have fallen under an influence better designed to encourage my natural frivolity, dilettantism and dissipation or to expose as vulgar and futile any promptings I may have felt to worldly ambition.'