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Wood Working: Writer's short stature powered a biting wit that spared no one

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Journal
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River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Forty-seven years ago today, British author Evelyn Waugh died at his home in Combe Florey, Somerset. The photographer Cecil Beaton surmised that Waugh "died of snobbery."

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There's little doubt that Beaton knew what he was talking about.

And why: "His abiding complex and the source of much of his misery was that he was not six-foot tall, extremely handsome and a rich duke."

Right again, Cecil.

Waugh was about 5'4" and as he grew older his face became rather porcine. And he was born into the middle class, a fact he resented until death.

For all his snobbishness, he's still my favorite 20th century British author, who wrote comic novels like "Decline and Fall," tragic novels like "Brideshead Revisited" and kept a marvelous diary and a string of correspondences with friends that are a delight these many years later.

His biographers tell me that when he was just a kid, he walked across two London suburbs in order to post his father's correspondences in a classier neighborhood.

Not that the Waugh family was zip-code challenged.

Waugh's father was a prominent publisher, but that wasn't good enough for his son, who hobnobbed with royalty when a student at Oxford.

One of his friends was the erstwhile Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston.

Waugh made a career out of making fun of the young nobleman, a descendent of the Duke of Marlborough.

In his diary, Waugh writes that he had taken lunch at his club in London and found out that Randolph had recently had an operation for removal of a lung doctors feared was malignant.

It proved not, but prompted Waugh to write: "That's a testament to modern medicine. They removed the only thing in Randolph that is not malignant."

Waugh had no truck with the royal family, the House of Windsor, not because they were royal, but because they weren't royal enough. He preferred the Stuarts, like Charles II probably because despite his immorality he was a better horsemen and wittier.

Waugh reserved his bitterest bile for the Laborites, who succeeded in unseating Churchill after World War II.

The new prime minister, Clement Atlee invited all authors, composers, artistes to one of the great halls in London to share with them his socialist view of the arts in the future.

Waugh attended, wearing a gigantic 18th century ear horn fashioned of shiny leather.

Friends asked if he was having trouble with hearing and Waugh nodded his assent vigorously, the horn bobbing up and down in the crowd and attracting all manner of attention during the cocktail hour.

Then everyone sat down to dine. And Atlee stood up to talk. As he began to drone, Waugh very ceremoniously removed the ear horn and tossed it aside.

Years later, Waugh made a tour of the U.S. and stopped off at St. Paul, Minn., because of its Roman Catholic reputation and one of its residents, J.F. Powers, a young writer who was being touted as the best of America's Roman Catholic authors.

Jim Powers told me a few years before he died that he and his wife were very nervous about entertaining Waugh in their tiny apartment.

This was years before the craze for fine wine had struck the Saintly City and other flyover metropolises.

So Powers raced around town to find a suitable bottle to go with dinner his wife was preparing for the Great Man. Waugh was very impressed with the meal and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

In 1960, J.F. Powers won the National Book Award for "Morte D'Urban." He immediately moved to Ireland with his family.

Waugh found out about it and penned an invitation to come visit at Combe Flory, the town that he owned. "You can come and stay for a week....but no longer!"

So the Powers journeyed to England.

On the first night they sat down to an elaborate dinner with wines of ascending brilliance, etc., etc. Jim partook of the wine with enthusiasm.

Waugh glanced over and said, "Dear boy. You aren't drinking your ice water. I made a special trip into London to get you ice for your ice water. Isn't it true that the only liquid Americans drink is ice water?"

Embarrassed, J.F. Powers, the greatest American Roman Catholic author, drank the ice water.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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