• Flight for Life — The Flight of the Phoenix, Elleston Trevor (1964)
• A Goggle at Gogol — review of The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Granta 1998)
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)
If you want to know the difference between talent and genius, compare The Day of the Triffids (1951) with the book that obviously inspired it: The War of the Worlds (1897). John Wyndham (1903-69) had talent; H.G. Wells (1866-1946) had genius. But Wyndham had a lot of talent, all the same. And it’s powerfully displayed in The Day of the Triffids. However, although it’s his most famous book, it isn’t his best. I’m not sure what it is. Wyndham was an uneven writer, not very good at dialogue or characterization, and although he was born decades after Wells, in some ways his books have dated more.
And maybe he was better at short stories than novels. Either way, his big ideas were almost always good and so were the titles of his novels. There’s the humanity-hating submarine race in The Kraken Awakes (1953); the mysterious telepathic alien in Chocky (1968); the persecuted telepathic mutants in The Chrysalids (1955); and the world-threatening super-children in The Midwich Cuckoos (1955). In The Day of the Triffids there are really two big ideas: walking plants and worldwide blindness. In the chronology of the book, but not the narration, the walking plants comes first: they’re the triffids, three-legged, seven-feet tall and equipped with a deadly whip-sting. Once you’ve mentally pictured them, the triffids will never leave your head. I think they’re a clever, chlorophyllic adaptation of the giant three-legged Martian war-machines in War of the Worlds.
But how can the triffids get loose and wreak havoc on the human race as the Martian war-machines did? Triffids are blind and sense rather than see their targets, so they are no match for sighted humans. Obviously, then, Wyndham had to take sight away from humans to get triffids and humans battling for possession of the earth. He did it in rather contrived but still memorable fashion, recorded like this by the first-person narrator as he lies in a hospital bed with bandaged eyes after a triffid attack:
“The sky’s simply full of shooting stars,” [a nurse] said. “All bright green. They make people’s faces look frightfully ghastly. Everybody’s out there watching them, and sometimes it’s almost as light as day – only all the wrong colour. Every now and then there’s a big one so bright that it hurts to look at it. It’s a marvellous sight. They say there’s never been anything like it before. It’s a pity you can’t see it, isn’t it? (ch. 1, “The End Begins”)
In fact, it isn’t a pity: it saves his life. It’s soon apparent that the green light from the “shooting stars” has destroyed the sight of everyone who watched them. The narrator describes how he takes the bandages off his eyes and discovers that he’s one of the very few sighted people left in a blinded world: London becomes “The Groping City”, as the title of chapter 3 puts it. The blindness would have been bad enough, but the triffids now begin breaking loose from the farms on which they’re being kept. The green light of the meteor-storm, probably an optical weapon accidentally released by a military satellite, has created a world where chlorophyll is king. Triffids don’t need sight to slash and slay, so blinded humans now have a simple choice: stay in hiding or try to find food and risk being stung to death by one of the triffids invading London in search of prey.
In the second chapter, the narrator looks back to describe the origin and spread of the triffids, and how he came to receive that a sight-preserving dose of triffid-poison in his eyes. Those opening few chapters have scenes and images that have always stayed with me since I first read the book as a kid. There’s the wonder and beauty of the meteor-storm; the horror of sudden, near-universal blindness and the first spate of suicides; the strangeness and deadliness of the triffids; and so on. Here’s one of the memorable images Wyndham conjures with words:
Perhaps Umberto’s plane exploded, perhaps it just fell to pieces. Whatever it was, I am sure that when the fragments began their long, long fall towards the sea they left behind them something which looked at first like a white vapour.
It was not vapour. It was a cloud of seeds, floating, so infinitely light they were, even in the rarefied air. Millions of gossamer-slung triffid seeds, free now to drift wherever the winds of the world should take them… (ch. 2, “The Coming of the Triffids”)
The triffids have been created artificially and mysteriously behind the Iron Curtain and yield a highly valuable vegetable oil. But that raises questions that aren’t answered. Why did they need to walk? Why are they equipped with long and deadly stings? Why are they uncannily intelligent? And how do they nourish themselves once they mature and begin walking? Their tripodic roots can’t dig very deep when they’re at rest and although Wyndham describes how they pull pieces of flesh off the decaying bodies of people they’ve killed, he doesn’t describe their digestive systems.
These unanswered questions mean that The Day of the Triffids is sometimes more like magic realism than hard science fiction. Particularly when the triffids show signs of intelligence, coordination and even cunning. But none of that is apparent when the triffids begin to sprout all over the world after the seeds in that “white vapour” reach the ground. The growing triffids attract curiosity but not wonder or fear. And even when they begin walking and stinging, they seem easy to manage. Thanks to that valuable vegetable oil, they’re soon being farmed in huge numbers. Their whip-stings are deadly, of course, and if the stings are docked, they yield less oil. But sighted humans can kept triffids under control easily enough, despite an occasional unlucky accident and the triffids’ unsettling ability to communicate between themselves. They have a kind of intelligence even though they don’t have brains. The narrator is a botanist conducting research on triffids and suffers one of the unlucky accidents, when a triffid lashes at the wire-mesh mask covering his face and a few drops from the poison-sacs reach his eyes.
So he’s in hospital when the meteor-storm lights up skies all around the world for a couple of days. He and a few other fortunates can’t watch the storm for one reason or another, so they keep their sight and have to fight the triffids to have a future. Wyndham describes how bands of survivors come together in various ways and decide on different ways of fighting the triffids. And that’s when the quality of the writing and the power of the imagery take a turn for the worse. The opening few chapters of The Day of the Triffids have always stayed with me since that first reading. I’ve re-read the book several times since then, but on this latest re-reading I found I’d almost completely forgotten what happened in the second half of the book.
But I can recommend it highly all the same. It might not be Wyndham’s best, but the triffids and their menacing ways will be with you for life once Wyndham’s words have become pictures in your head. And more than pictures:
The evening was peaceful, almost the only sounds that broke it were the occasional rattlings of the triffids’ little sticks against their stems. Walter [a triffid-researcher] regarded them with his head slightly on one side. He removed his pipe.
“They’re talkative tonight,” he said. (ch. 2)
• Reds in the Head — review of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)
Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:
• Killer Chiller Thriller – Night Without End, Alistair MacLean (1959)
• Above and Below – The Archaeology of Underground Mines and Quarries in England, John Barnatt (Historic England 2019)
• Wannabe Wonder-Weaver – The Best of Robert Westall Volume One, Robert Westall (1993)
• All Glitter, No Glow – A.C. Swinburne: A Poet’s Life, Rikky Rooksby (Scolar Press 1997)
• Recycle, Repeat – Revival, Stephen King (2014)
• Gained in Translation – Cuentos de Averoigne: Todos los Cuentos de Averoigne de Clark Ashton Smith, traducción de Enric Navarro (Pickman’s Press 2019)
• Sean of the Head – Am I Evil? The Autobiography, Brian Tatler with John Tucker (2009; second edition 2017)
Posted at Overlord of the Über-Feral:
• Maximal Moz – Morrissey in Conversation: The Essential Interviews, ed. Paul A. Woods (Plexus 2016)
• Absence and Essence – Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
It’s very Mozzean that one of the most Mozzean things in this book is marginal. That is, it’s not in the interviews or anything Moz himself says: it’s in the mini-bios of the “Contributors” section at the end of the book. For example, Dave McCullough interviewed Moz for the long-defunct Sounds in 1983. And I thought it was a joke when McCullough’s mini-bio ended with “His current whereabouts are unknown.”
But it happened again for Shaun Philips, who interviewed Moz, again for Sounds, in 1988: “His
current whereabouts are unknown.” And again for Elissa Van Poznak, who interviewed Moz for The Face in 1984: “Her current whereabouts are unknown.” And that sentence is the last in the book, apart from the acknowledgements. What happened to these three journalists? They had lives and careers, friends and family. Their writing was once regularly read by many thousands or even millions of people. And then read again in this book. But “Their current whereabouts are unknown.” They’ve dropped out of sight, even maybe out of life, and the editor of the book, Paul A. Woods, hasn’t been able to find out what happened to them. Not even in this ultra-connected internet age.
That’s very Mozzean. You could even wonder whether they’ve succumbed to a belated form of the Curse of Moz, or the career-failure that strikes bands after Morrissey praises them or takes them on tour as support. Or you could wonder whether, like Morrissey himself for so long, they were struggling with depression and an urge-to-self-annihilation even as they achieved professional success. You’d certainly expect the first publication of this book in 2007 to have flushed them out. But it didn’t. Nor did the second publication in 2011. But perhaps the third publication did in 2016.
I don’t know and I’d rather not know. I like the Mozzeanism of three missing journalists. And I liked this book too. A lot. Obviously a lot of other people did too, or it wouldn’t have been printed three times. But I suspect it won’t be re-printed again. Why not? Coz of Moz on Muz. Guardian-readers were not pleased by Morrissey’s comments on Muslims and Muslim immigration after the Manchester bombing in 2017 or by his support for Brexit and the “far-right” For Britain party. You can get T-shirts now that say “Shut Up, Morrissey!” and there have been a string of anathemas and excommunications issued at Moz from woke bastions like the Quietus (where bad English goes to die). Guardian-readers feel deeply betrayed by Morrissey, who once said all the right things about economics, animal rights, vegetarianism, and the evilness of the Conservative and Republican parties – as you can read here.
But you’ll also read here about disturbing early signs – or sounds – that Moz wasn’t prepared to buzz with the hive-mind on everything. After he began his solo career in 1988 he released songs with titles like “The National Front Disco” and “Bengali in Platforms”, the latter of which opined “Life is hard enough when you belong here.” But there was enough ambiguity and authorial distance in the songs for him to deny plausibly that he was being racist or sympathizing with racism. And he still had a whole heap of good-will from the Smiths, so he survived the first campaign to cancel him and came back as strong as ever.
Well, the good-will has disappeared now. Moz has burned all his bridges to the Guardian and I don’t think there’s any chance of this book being re-re-re-printed. Indeed, I bet a lot of former fans have thrown out their copies or even ritually burned them. It’s their loss, because Morrissey is one of the wittiest, most interesting, and most intelligent interviewees who ever lived. As the back cover says of an earlier edition of Morrissey: In Conversation:
It’s proof, lest we forget, that in terms of great copy, Morrissey has rarely been anything other than interview gold. – Q magazine
But that quote itself needs trimming of its Guardianist fat: “It’s proof, lest we forget, that Morrissey has rarely been anything other than interview gold.” Moz himself is rarely guilty of saying more than he needs to. He’s both articulate and acute. It’s hard to believe that he came from a big working-class Irish family in Manchester and spent years on the dole after being shunted into a bad school by failing his eleven-plus. If he’d passed that selective exam he would have gone to a better school and most probably on to university. But I think university would have been bad for him. He probably wouldn’t have had a career in music and he certainly wouldn’t have become the Morrissey that millions of people either love or loathe.
But he would have become someone who habitually said “in terms of” and “prior to”. Alas, he does sometimes say “in terms of” in later interviews here, but it’s a minor blemish and I read everything in the book. Except – speak of “in terms of” and the windbag appears – Will Self’s “The King of Bedsit Angst Grows Up” from 1995. As usual with Self, I began losing the will to live half-a-paragraph in and gave up. If it had been a proper interview rather than Self blotivating on themes Mozzean, I might have persevered. But it wasn’t, so I didn’t.
Most of the other pieces were proper interviews, but either way I always persevered. You can read how Moz’s ideas and allegiances changed. And you can also see how Moz himself changed, because there are some good photos too. I bet some of the interviewers now regret their association with Morrissey and their appearance in this book, but that adds to its appeal for me. Moz has bitten the hands that typed about him and they’ll never forgive him for it. But they were warned:
Are you a bad man?
Only inwardly. (“The Importance of Being Morrissey”, Jennifer Nine for Melody Maker, August 1997)
And here’s more from the man himself:
What else could you do [besides perform]?
Nothing. I’m entirely talentless… it was all a great big accident – I just came out of the wrong lift. (“Mr Smith: All Mouth and Trousers”, Dylan Jones for i-D magazine, October 1987)
What does your music do to your fans?
Well, they wear heavy overcoats and stare at broken lightbulbs. That’s the way it’s always been for me! (“Wilde Child”, Paul Morley for Blitz, April 1988)
“I often pass a mirror,” he confides, loving the attention he’s getting, “and I glance into it slightly, and I don’t really recognize myself at all. You can look into a mirror and wonder – where have I seen that person before? And then you remember. It was at a neighbour’s funeral, and it was the corpse.” (“Wilde Child”)
What was it like playing live again when you appeared in Wolverhampton in December ?
It was nice. I did enjoy it. It was nice to be fondled.
Was it good to be back on stage again?
No, it was just nice to be fondled. (“Playboy of the Western World”, Eleanor Levy, Q magazine, January 1989)
My perfect audience are skinheads in nail varnish. And I’m not trying to be funny, that really is the perfect audience for me. But I am incapable of racism, and the people who say I am racist are basically just the people who can’t stand the sight of my physical frame. I don’t think we should flatter them with our attention. (“Morrissey Comes Out (For a Drink)”, Stuart Maconie for New Musical Express, May 1991)
I would rather eat my own testicles than reform the Smiths – and that’s saying something for a vegetarian. (“The Last Temptation of Morrissey”, Paul Morley for Uncut, May 2006)
My best friend is myself. I look after myself very, very well. I can rely on myself never to let myself down. I’m the last person I want to see at night and the first in the morning. I am endlessly fascinating – at eight o’clock at night, at midnight, I’m fascinated. It’s a lifelong relationship and divorce will never come into it. That’s why, as I say, I feel privileged. And that is an honest reply. (“The man with the thorn in his side”, Lynn Barber for The Observer, September 2002)
Rymans, the stationers. To me it’s like a sweetshop. I go in there for hours, smelling the envelopes. As I grew up I used to love stationery and pens and booklets and binders. I can get incredibly erotic about blotting paper. So for me, going into Rymans is the most extreme sexual experience one could ever have. (“Morrissey Answers Twenty Questions”, Smash Hits Collection, 1985)
Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)
He isn’t mentioned in this book, but he haunts it like a semiotic spectre at a phantasmic feast. Yes, this is a very Ballardian book and I’m sure J.G. Ballard would have liked it. And perhaps been inspired by it to write one of his haunting stories about abandoned buildings or aircraft, about human artefacts slowly succumbing to nature and the elements and the ineluctable forces of entropy.
But Ballard’s omission isn’t surprising. There’s little room to mention anyone or anything here: apart from a brief foreword by the compiler Mathew (sic) Growcoot, there’s nothing but section headings, photographs and brief captions. I like the absence of words and the abundance of images. Abandoned buildings and artefacts are fertile not only for Ballardianism but also for bullshit. You can imagine what po-mo-ticians would make of the anomic alienation and transliminal alterities on display here.
As it is, the photographs are allowed to speak for themselves: silently, subtly, seductively. There’s everything from fairgrounds and theatres to jails and asylums, from rusting aircraft to sunken ships. The photographs are all variants on the single theme of abandonment, of what happens when bustle and busy-ness turn into quietness and contemplation. And the buildings and other artefacts do seem to be contemplating themselves or their own decay, like a Buddhist monk sinking slowly into deeper and deeper into meditation until he begins to merge into what surrounds him, becoming one with the world. But the power in the photos comes partly from what isn’t there: the human beings who created what nature is now reclaiming. That’s why the graffiti you can see in a few photos spoils the beauty of the abandonment. It’s ugly and intrusive, laying claim to structures that should now belong only to themselves and entropy.
They’re abandoned: human beings should be absent. The ab- of “abandoned” and the ab- of “absence” aren’t actually the same, but it’s appropriate that they seem to be. The ab- of “absence” is from the Latin preposition ab, meaning “from, away”. When a building or machine is abandoned, people have gone away. Something is subtracted and something else takes its place: an eeriness, a melancholy, a murmur of memento mori – “remember that you die”, that all things must pass. That eeriness comes in different flavours with different kinds of abandonment. The section headings run like this: “Abandoned Homes, Abandoned Recreation, Abandoned Rooms, Abandoned Journeys, Abandoned Society, Abandoned Industry”.
The photos of abandoned fairgrounds, theatres and stadiums – “Abandoned Recreation” – are in some ways the most powerful, because the absence is most present there. Crowds of people once filled these places with noise and activity – they laughed, cheered, applauded, had fun. Now paint is peeling off the colourful walls of a “Gym in a derelict school, Arctic circle.” Frost-whitened trees surround a stationary “Ferris Wheel, Chernobyl, Ukraine”. Shadows and slanting sunbeams fill an “Abandoned theatre near Berlin, Germany”.
No-one’s there: the crowds have gone. These places are abandoned to absence. But if the photos in “Abandoned Recreation” are in some ways the most powerful, they’re also in some ways the least powerful. Fairgrounds, gyms and theatres were regularly abandoned even when they were in use: the crowds would come and go, like tides filling a bay. It’s just that one day the crowds went and never came back. The private homes of other sections never had the same noise and activity, but they didn’t fill and empty like fairgrounds and theatres. People were always or almost always there, so their absence now is a stranger and sharper thing. Men, women and children did intimate, ordinary things there, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century. And now the thread is broken: the people are gone. No-one will ever sit in the sagging armchair or play the collapsed piano of a “Living area in industrial site, Austria”. No child will push the wheeled little horse in the “Nursery, Château de Moulbaix, Belgium” or look at the pictures on the walls.
But the sadness isn’t very strong in the nursery, because a nursery isn’t a permanent place. It’s akin to a theatre: abandonment is always natural there, because children grow up and leave. No, the sadness is strongest in places that were built to be in permanent use, like houses. Except that nothing is permanent. A nursery is used for a few years; a house might be used for decades or centuries. But in the end it will pass away, perhaps quickly, if it’s demolished, or slowly, if it’s abandoned. Demolition has its delights too, but abandonment is subtler and slyer. Its power follows a curve, first rising, then falling. The most powerful photos here have the least change in them, because they have been taken when the abandonment is most recent. Dust and shadows have taken over, but everything is still more-or-less intact.
When the abandonment is older and ceilings and floors have collapsed, as in the “Collapsed villa, Italy” and the “Collapsed palace, Italy”, there’s less power in the photographs. Or a different kind of power. Humans have been gone much longer and their absence is less poignant, less powerful. Their ghosts are fainter. And sometimes there are no ghosts, because something else has taken the place of humans. In the “Old overgrown glasshouse, Belgium” and the “Shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand”, it’s vegetation, green and growing. In the the “House full of sand, Kolmanskop, Namibia”, it’s sand, slanted and scalloped. Or perhaps you could say that here the ghosts themselves have become ghosts.
“Ghostly” is certainly the word for the photographs in this book. The ghostliness comes in different forms and flavours, as the photographs capture both what’s there and what isn’t. Or rather: they capture what’s there and your mind conjures what isn’t. Absence is essence. Abandoned is a Ballardian book of phantasmic photography and I think Ballard would have enjoyed it a lot.
If you thought the keyly committed core componency of Covid-19 was bad, please park your peepers on the Satan Bug dot dot dot:
In its final form, the Satan Bug is an extremely refined powder. I take a salt-spoon of this powder, go outside in the grounds of Mordon and turn the salt-spoon upside down. What happens? Every person in Mordon would be dead within an hour, the whole of Wiltshire would be an open tomb by dawn. In a week, ten days, all life would have ceased to exist in Britain. I mean all life. The Plague, the Black Death – was nothing compared with this. Long before the last man died in agony ships or planes or birds or just the waters of the North Sea would have carried the Satan Bug to Europe. We can conceive of no obstacle that can stop its eventual world-wide spread… The Lapp trapping in the far north of Sweden. The Chinese peasant tilling his rice-fields in the Yangtse valley. The cattle rancher on his station in the Australian outback, the shopper in Fifth Avenue, the primitive in Tierra del Fuego. Dead. All dead. Because I turned a salt-spoon upside down. Nothing, nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug.
Previously pre-posted (on Papyrocentric Performativity):
• God-Finger — a radical review of Alistair MacLean’s The Satan Bug (1962)…
Here’s an old essay of mine from the 1990s. It was deliberately written in a pompous and convoluted academic style, but I decided it was a bit too pompous and convoluted, and have toned it down accordingly. The subtitle is a reference to both Athanasius contra Mundum, “Athanasius against the world”, and “Sebastian contra mundum”, a section of Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited.
Total Waugh: Contra Immundum
Quoniam dicebant: Spiritum immundum habet.
Evangelium secundum Marcum, III, xxx.
Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.
Gospel According to Mark, 3:30.
A little over three decades ago Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) died on the lavatory from the cumulative effects of excessive drinking and drug-taking. If he is at this moment peering exophthalmicly down on the earth from the traditional Roman Catholic heaven he espoused in his lifetime, he would not be pleased by any comparison with the death of a rather more famous American: and yes, such a comparison would be most unjust. Waugh’s excesses were in “bromide and chloral and crème de menthe”;1 he did not eat hamburgers, nor did he wear satin jump-suits, nor was he a cretin who happened to have a pleasant negro-effect singing voice; and his point of departure for the hereafter was a country house in Somerset called Combe Florey. But his death was, like Elvis Presley’s, an undignified and more than faintly ludicrous one.
Death and the Mortician
And perhaps also a just one. Death in Evelyn Waugh’s novels very often takes undignified and ludicrous forms: in Decline and Fall, a prison chaplain is butchered with woodworking tools; in Black Mischief, the daughter of an English diplomat is served up to an ex-lover at a cannibal feast; in A Handful of Dust, an English lord of the manor finds a living death imprisoned by a jungle patriarch with a taste for readings from Dickens; in The Loved One, a semi-literate American mortuary cosmetician commits suicide by injecting herself with poison, and is disposed of in an animal crematorium. Waugh was a cruel man, a bully and a snob, and what happens to his characters very often reflects his character. Just as the works of the Marquis de Sade are partly wish-fulfilment fantasies of gross sexual power, so the works of Evelyn Waugh are partly wish-fulfilment fantasies of gross social power.
They are, for example, full of ironies and barbs and sniggers at social upstarts or outsiders. Trimmer, Beaver, and Atwater, the great triumvirate of Waughian Untermenschen,2 are detestable because they are not gentlemen and do not know how to behave when they try to be. Nor, of course, would the working classes: they however are not detestable, merely ludicrous, because they at least know their place.
Given that Waugh was a snob and a bully, that he was also a reactionary Roman Catholic is perhaps not surprising. Given that he was a very intelligent man, with an acute sense of the ridiculous, perhaps this is surprising. Waugh took very little seriously. He disliked and distrusted (temporal) authority and those who exercised it:
[M]any of the motives which make us sacrifice to toil the innocent enjoyment of leisure … are amongst the most ignoble — pride, avarice, emulation, vainglory and the appetite for power over others.3
and satirized it and them (he was certainly a conservative, but more in an aesthetic and economic sense than in a political). He disliked and distrusted modernism and modernists:
His strongest tastes were negative. He disliked plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.4
and satirized it and them with gusto. Perhaps he also disliked and distrusted himself, for he took himself as little seriously as he took almost everything else, and satirized himself mercilessly in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. He seemed to take only two things seriously: the English language, and the Roman Catholic Church.
I can understand, and am very grateful for, his attitude to the former; his attitude to the latter once puzzled me. The Roman Catholic Church is not now, and never has been, a humane or intellectually respectable institution. I would call it and many of the things it teaches at best grotesque and at worst evil. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, one of its chief propaganda weapons, was perhaps in herself a worthy, even a saintly person. She believed, however, that it is infinitely preferable for human beings to be born and starve to death than for them to be aborted or prevented by contraception.
Perhaps this sort of thinking came easily to a mind trained, as young Roman Catholic minds were before the Second Vatican Council, in the doctrine that eternal damnation can be yours for the price of a small mortal sin. The death-camps of the Nazis, overseen by a hierarchy of which a startlingly high proportion were brought up as Roman Catholics,5 endured some dozen years; Hell, the death-camp of the Roman Catholic God, endures for ever. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches this doctrine of infinite punishment for finite transgression with other uncouth absurdities; many, in some countries most, of its professed adherents no longer apply its teachings in everyday life; in time it will succumb to the decadence that is already rooted in it (and that is now in full, glorious flower in the Church of England).
But it was not decadent for most of Waugh’s life, and Waugh seemed to accept all of its traditional doctrines fully. He converted in 1930; in 1935, he wrote a biography of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion6 in which one learns a great deal about the cruelties practised by the youthful Church of England on those who refused to renounce Roman Catholicism, the age-old faith of these islands. During the period covered by the book, the St. Bartholomew’s massacre took place in Paris.7 This is noted in passing
He [William Cecil, chief adviser to Elizabeth I] had not foreseen the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, which had broken the supremacy of the Huguenots …8
The supremacy of the Huguenots was “broken” by the murder, with great savagery, of thousands of men, women, and children. On hearing the news, the deeply pious King of Spain, Philip II, was seen to smile for the first time in years, and the Pope, Pius V, ordered a medal struck in celebratory commemoration.9 Waugh mentions none of this, and none of the semi-genocidal activities of the Spanish army in the Netherlands over the period.
The concept of double-think is perhaps useful in explaining these omissions. In 1984, Orwell wrote
“It [the Newspeak word “blackwhite”] means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white … This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought … known in Newspeak as doublethink“.10
A further example of doublethink would perhaps be to believe that the persecution of Roman Catholics by Protestants proves that Protestantism is wrong, while the persecution of Protestants by Roman Catholics proves that Roman Catholicism is right. Orwell, who recognized the Roman Catholic Church for what it was, almost certainly drew on the psychology of the religious as well as the political believer in formulating the concept. It is not, however, the only or even a necessary means of explaining Waugh’s apparently irrational religious beliefs. It may not be, as I shall try to demonstrate, the true means.
The first step I made towards discovering what possibly were Waugh’s true motives for becoming a Roman Catholic was not a literal one. On holiday in the Seychelles last year, I was re-reading his collected journalism and came upon a passage, a notice from the Oxford university paper Isis, that had not caught my attention before:
LOST, LOST, O LOST: Mr Evelyn Waugh regrets to announce he has lost a walking-stick made of oak, preposterously short with a metal band around it. It is a thing of no possible value to anyone but himself; for him it is an incalculable loss. If it should fall into the hands of any kindly or honest man or woman, will he or she bring it to the Isis office, and what so poor man as Mr Waugh is can do, shall not be lacking.11
For some reason, on this occasion, my attention was caught — and held. I read the passage through several times, not quite sure why I did so. I was conscious of only one strong impression, which was that in spite of its jocular air the notice seemed to indicate a very strong desire on Waugh’s part to be re-united with his stick. The stick is mentioned again in Anthony Powell’s Oxford memoirs, The Infants of Spring:
Evelyn Waugh … was excluded from [the Hypocrites’ Club12 at this period for having smashed up a good deal of the Club’s furniture with the heavy stick he always carried [London, 1976, pg. 154; my emphasis]
Why was a stick heavy enough to smash pre-war furniture “always carried” by its owner? Unless he was joking about his own lack of height, why should Waugh describe a stick that was “preposterously short” as a walking-stick? And what was the significance of the metal band?
One possible, absurd answer is that the stick was a magic wand or talisman. The term immediately conjures up laughable Tinkerbellesque or Enid-Blytonian associations. If one tries to purge one’s mind of these and take the term in an austere, occultic sense, it has to be admitted that the equation “stick = magic wand” answers all the questions raised by the Isis notice and extract from Anthony Powell’s autobiography. Nonetheless, it remains absurd. What possible connexion could there have been between Evelyn Waugh and the Black (or even the White) Arts? None, surely? A passage from his part-autobiography, A Little Learning (1964), proves that this is not so. Waugh is describing his life immediately after Oxford:
I also wrote some pages of a novel I had begun … it was named The Temple At Thatch and concerned an undergraduate who inherited a property of which nothing was left except an eighteenth-century classical folly where he set up house and, I think, practised black magic.13
This slight doubt about the plot is not found in a letter he wrote in 1925, shortly before beginning the novel:
I am going to write a little novel … “The Temple At Thatch” … about madness and magic.14
Waugh did what he had written he would. He sent the manuscript for comment to Harold Acton (1904-94), a friend whose aesthetic judgment he trusted. Acton was not enthusiastic and Waugh “took the exercise book in which the chapters were written and consigned it to the furnace of the school boiler.”15 The school was in north Wales, at Llanddulas, where Waugh was working as an assistant master and where, from his own words, his first attempt at a novel seems to have been drawing on the experience of his days at Oxford. A great deal has been written, by Waugh himself, by his contemporaries, by his later commentators, about those days, but some important evidence is gone for ever. Waugh kept a diary during his time at Oxford, but part of it is no longer available to us:
I have been living very intensely the last three weeks. For the past fortnight I have been nearly insane … My diary for the period is destroyed … I may perhaps one day … tell you of some of the things that have happened. It will make strange reading in the biography.16
Christopher Sykes’s biography of Waugh describes his going through an “extreme homosexual phase [at Oxford] … unrestrained, emotionally and physically”.17 Were entries pertaining to this period what prompted Waugh to destroy the diary? Quite probably yes — in part. But there may have been something more, something that would later provide material for his first novel: some kind of involvement in the occult.
Wild honey in the wilderness
That the extremity of this period may have taken in more than homosexuality is suggested by another letter Waugh wrote at the time to Dudley Carew, an old friend from Lancing, in which he said
St. John has been eating wild honey in the wilderness. I do not yet know how things are going to end. They are nearing some sort of finality. One day I will tell you things to surprise you and sell an edition of the biography if faithfully recorded.
St. John’s “eating wild honey” is a playful reference to Waugh’s less well-known second Christian name and to John the Baptist, of whom the New Testament says this: “John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4; see also Mark 1:6). It is also, very likely, a reference to homosexual activity. However, the remaining lines are not so easy to interpret as references to this. How can sexual indulgence be regarded as “nearing some kind of finality”? On the assumption that St. John’s “wild honey” refers to the pleasures of non-penetrative activities like fellatio and mutual masturbation, these words may refer to an impending decision as to whether or not to indulge in full homosexual intercourse, and yet they seem rather hyperbolic to bear this interpretation — particularly in the light of what follows. Why should Dudley Carew, a contemporary and great admirer of Waugh at Lancing, be surprised by Waugh’s participation in homosexual activity? Because Waugh had not, like so many others, indulged in it at Lancing?
If so, why should the circumstances of Waugh’s participation at Oxford help to sell the biography Carew had long intended to write? That many young men were homosexually active for a period was taken for granted by those of Waugh’s or Carew’s public-school background; that those same young men should make public admission of this fact in later life was certainly not. Homosexual practice was illegal at the time, and would remain so for decades; by the vast majority of those forming the market for Waugh’s putative biography, it would have been regarded as sordid and shameful, as Waugh himself must surely have recognized.
Mass appeal madness
Yet the strains evident in the interpretation of these words as references to homosexuality disappear when one assumes that they refer instead to participation in the occult. Among the book-reading public of the day, and of many days to come, the occult was very popular: the novelist Dennis Wheatley enjoyed enormous success with books like The Devil Rides Out (1934), in which a black mass is celebrated near Stonehenge and there is a euphemistic but unambiguous description of black magicians pissing into a chalice containing pieces of holy wafer.
Such things were sordid, certainly, but also fascinating, and one could easily imagine a biography containing details of Waugh’s undergraduate dabbling in the occult provoking great interest. The dabbling need not be taken seriously, nor would it be an admission of participation in anything illegal: it would seem perversely sophisticated, rather than simply perverse. Given the hedonistic cynicism he was cultivating, if Waugh was aware of and being invited to join in occult practice at Oxford, he might very well have expressed himself in the words given above.
The assumption that he did see some participation in the occult bears exegetic fruit not only here, then, but also in the plot of The Temple At Thatch, in his destruction of his diary, and even in his concern at the loss of a heavy stick. It may also be usefully applied to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, which can now be seen as a reaction to, or even a flight from, memories of his involvement, which may have been a far more frightening or intense experience than he had anticipated. That he chose to enter the Roman Catholic church rather than resume the practice of Anglicanism, in which he was born and brought up, adds weight to this reading. A reaction against a mildly affecting involvement in the occult might send one into a mild faith but defecting Satanists, like defecting communists, seem more naturally to become Roman Catholics than to become Anglicans. It must be remembered, of course, particularly in the case of an imaginative and aesthetically sensitive person like Waugh, that to be affected by an experience is not necessarily to have been a direct participant in it.
Straight to Thel’
Evidence for Waugh’s involvement in the occult nonetheless remains. More can be added to what has already been presented: the most direct (and least known) available to date is perhaps best approached through a more famous work. In Brideshead Revisited, the flamboyant, stuttering, homosexual aesthete Anthony Blanche is described as having “practised black art in Cefalù”.18 Cefalù, a small town in Sicily, is a shorthand for Aleister Crowley’s infamous Abbey of Thelema, which was based nearby. Later in the novel, the narrator’s lover Sebastian Flyte signs off a letter with the phrase “Love or what you will”, which is a hidden reference to two famous dicta of Crowley’s — as we shall shortly see.
Elsewhere, Waugh referred to Crowley directly. In A Little Learning he speaks of his election as secretary to the Hypocrites’ Club12 and continues:
My predecessor in the office, Loveday, had left the university suddenly to study black magic. He died in mysterious circumstances in Alistair [sic] Crowley’s community and his widow, naming herself “Tiger Woman”, figured for some time in the popular press, where she made “disclosures” of the goings-on at Cefalu [sic].”19
Later he speaks of the hostess of many of the parties he attended in London after leaving Oxford:
There was Mary Butts, a genial, voluptuous lady of the avant-garde who wrote short stories and at the time consorted with a man who had been in Alistair Crowley’s black-magical circle at Cefalu.19
It is possible that his acquaintance with Crowley was not entirely third-hand, as we can see from examination of a short story called “A Step Off The Map” that he wrote in 1933. Waugh’s short stories are not particularly good, for the most part, and “Out of Depth”, as “A Step Off…” was later renamed, does not stand out even amongst them for its literary merit. It is however of extraordinary interest from the point of view of this article, for it describes a dinner party encounter had by a lapsed American Catholic with a man called Jagger (later renamed Kakophilos, Greek for “lover of evil”)20 who is unmistakably based on Crowley: “an elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits … a little crimson smirking mouth”. The American, who is named Rip after Rip van Winkle, is introduced to the bald man, who quotes the two most famous dicta of Crowley’s new religion of Thelema (Greek θέλημα, meaning “will”):
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said Dr Kakophilos, in a thin Cockney voice.
“There is no need to reply. If you wish to, it is correct to say, Love is the Law, Love under will.'”
Rip does not take Kakophilos or his dicta seriously, but finds himself unable to resist the force of his personality and becomes involved in an occult experiment that projects him five hundred years into the future, to a London in which “[g]reat flats of mud, submerged at high water, stretched to his feet over the Strand”. Europe has reverted to barbarism; Rip is treated almost as a pet by the savages inhabiting the ruins of London, and is eventually presented to a party of black African anthropologists for study at a coastal military base. He finds only one sane and familiar thing in this new world: a Roman Catholic mass conducted in Latin by a black priest at the base. Somehow he returns to the Twentieth Century. The story ends with him speaking with another Roman Catholic priest in most curious fashion, considering that his involvement in the time-hop had been quite involuntary:
“Father,” said Rip, “I want to make a confession… I have experimented in black art…”21
The story is not well-known. According to Martin Stannard’s study of Waugh’s life to 1939,22 it is now out of print. It was substantially revised for inclusion in Waugh’s short story collection Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (Chapman and Hall, 1936) and “Waugh did not include it in Penguin Books’ Work Suspended and Other Stories (Harmondsworth, 1947)”.23 Did its autobiographical elements become embarrassing to him as time passed? Margot Metroland and Alastair Trumpington, characters from his early romans à clef, appear in the story, and though Rip is named from the time-travelling Rip Van Winkle, is it entirely fanciful to see a resemblance between this harsh and somewhat violent monosyllable and that of Waugh’s own surname?
Missing from the collection
Perhaps not. But on more prosaic grounds his neglect of the story is not inexplicable: it is not very good, and seems to have been written partly as emotional catharsis following the break-up of his first marriage — “a period of considerable anxiety”.23 However, this latter fact may point again towards autobiography. Perhaps Waugh found this period of anxiety bringing to mind a similar one at Oxford, and perhaps the story drew on relevant memories.
The link between Oxford and Crowley has already been presented in the extract from Brideshead Revisited. The exegesis of this extract is, however, incomplete. Anthony Blanche was based, by Waugh’s own admission, on Harold Acton,24 to whom, as has already been described, Waugh sent his first novel for comment. We are now in a position to see rather more in this fact. Was Waugh interested merely in Acton’s aesthetic judgment, or also, and perhaps more importantly, in Acton’s occult expertise? Was Waugh’s introduction to the “black art” made through Acton? Was Acton’s unenthusiastic response to The Temple At Thatch based less on the book’s artistic demerits than on the fact that it revealed too much, was too indiscreet?
An obvious way of trying to answer such a question would be to consult the letter in which Acton passed judgment on The Temple at Thatch. Part of this read: “Too English for my exotic taste. Too much nid-nodding over port. It should be printed in a few elegant copies for the friends who love you.” Or so Waugh gave the world to believe. The letter itself cannot contradict him, for it seems to be no longer extant. Christopher Sykes, discussing it in his biography of Waugh, suggests that Acton’s judgment was “a hard blow and it may be significant that, though Evelyn kept all his letters from Harold Acton, this particular letter is missing from the collection.”25 Significant certainly, but precisely how? Is it likely that Acton had participated with Waugh in occultic practice, and so should be consulted by Waugh on a literary fruit of this? Evidence that strengthens the case for the participation of them both is found in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation, a polybiography that presents a far more detailed picture of the Oxford of Waugh’s day than any book devoted specifically to Waugh:
Emlyn Williams [an Oxford contemporary of Waugh’s] … records that lurid gossip was circulating about the Hypocrites, such as ‘they’re supposed to eat new-born babies cooked in wine.’26
Acton was the leading light of the Hypocrites, Waugh a prominent acolyte. Yet there is, I feel, no need to assume that this gossip is literally true, for it is typical of the hyperbole associated with such aspects of the occult as worship of the devil, whether serious or pretended. It is in fact reminiscent of the gossip that circulated two hundred years before about Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club, another group of hedonistic, dissolute, and aristocratic young men.
Imputing the occult
In those days, however, when non-attendance at church, let alone religious heterodoxy, was regarded as shocking and devilish, the gossip was likely to be have been excited by rather less than its equivalent in Waugh’s day. The Hypocrites would have had to do rather more to excite the gossip of their day, and so it was likely to contain more truth, without, of course, necessarily being entirely true. One may dabble in the occult without worshipping the devil, and one may worship the devil without eating new-born babies cooked in wine. But if one is rumoured to have done the last in a period in which the occult was attracting increasing participation, the likelihood of one’s having done the first is not negligible.
I believe that I have by now established that the imputation of some involvement in the occult to the reactionary Roman Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh is not so ludicrous as it might at first have appeared. This involvement nonetheless remains speculatory, and that it may have extended to the point of participation in satanic ritual or devil-worship can only be more so. And yet if it is, for the sake of argument, taken as a donnée of Waugh’s experience, much light is cast on aspects of his adult character, and certain remarks made both by him and by his acquaintances assume new significance.
As his brother-in-law Auberon Herbert recognised and said, Evelyn Waugh could be “an awful shit”. Waugh recognised this himself, and would claim, on being taxed with the gulf between his behaviour and the demands of his religion, that if he had not been a Roman Catholic he would have been far worse. The phrase he chose was “scarcely human”. Roman Catholicism was for him a defence against the malevolence he knew to be within himself. Cyril Connolly had made a similar observation. In an article he prepared on Waugh but never published, he said that
Waugh’s Catholicism was a force that saved him from … this “demon of destructiveness” … “which might otherwise have destroyed him”.27
The metaphor chosen here need not be seen as of particular significance, and yet it occurs elsewhere in reaction to Waugh’s behaviour. At one period, Waugh made strenuous efforts to persuade John Betjeman to become a Catholic, warning him again and again of the literal damnation that awaited him if he remained extra Ecclesiam, or “outside” the One True Church. Betjeman’s wife Penelope told Waugh that his propagandizing had affected her husband badly: “[he] thinks you are the devil and wakes up in the middle of the night and raves”.28 Again a jocular comment, but again it uses a diabolic metaphor. Such metaphors are not exhausted. There is a curious passage in Christopher Sykes’ biography describing how
Evelyn had long been an admirer of Hilaire Belloc [and] asked Duff [Cooper, husband of Diana] if he would introduce him to the great man … When the appointed day came around, Evelyn arrived neatly dressed, in a state of perfect sobriety, and on his best behaviour … [After the lunch was over and Waugh had left for an urgent appointment,] Duff asked Belloc what he thought of his brilliant young friend.
‘He is possessed,’ replied Belloc.
How, Duff often asked, how, except by supernatural means, did Belloc know?29
On its own, any of these references might be unimportant: together I believe they offer good support for the claims of this article, not least for what some will call the most extravagant of these. Involvement in certain forms of the occult is known to be dangerous, and whether one accepts a literal or a psychological interpretation of them, the realities of demonic possession cannot be dismissed. Evelyn Waugh may have participated in satanic ritual at Oxford and been possessed by a “demon” in one or another sense for the rest of his life. The supernaturalism he espoused as a Roman Catholic may have pre-dated his conversion and been based on terrifyingly personal experience.
He described possession once in his novels, in Helena (1950), a literary treatment of the story of St Helena, the discoverer of the true cross. The novel is set between the third and fourth centuries A.D. and makes use of “certain wilful, obvious anachronisms which are introduced as a literary device”.30 They do not, it has to be said, meet this end very successfully, either in such passages as
“What a spread!” said Princess Helena, when she had guzzled. “What a blow-out!”31
or in an extremely interesting scene in which Waugh describes the Emperor Constantine and his wife Fausta witnessing a prophecy made by a young African witch who has been possessed by a devil:
Music, unheard to the watchers, was sounding in the girl’s heart, drumming from beyond the pyramids, wailing in the bistro where the jazz disc spun. She had stepped off the causeway of time and place into trackless swamp. [She begins to speak:] “Zivio! Viva! Arriba! Heil!” … 32
Writing in 1950 of a ceremony taking place in the Fourth Century AD, Waugh draws on imagery from the 1920s and ’30s. He re-uses themes — blacks, travel in time, swamp — that, as we have seen, he had first used in 1933 in “Out of Depth”. Is the link between such incongruencies, the ultra-modern and the ultra-primitive, to be found in the occult, encountered by Waugh both in England and in Africa during his extensive travels there in the early 1930s?
Darkness and the macabre
Anyone answering this question in the negative must still, surely, see the need for an explanation of the way such things occurred not once in Waugh’s work but twice, separated by more than a decade and a World War, and of the way they find echoes not only in the remainder of his fiction but also in his correspondence, his life, and the reaction of his friends and acquaintances to his personality. Waugh has long been recognised as a complex and tormented man whose work is full of darkness and the macabre. I would suggest that the true extent of his complexity and torment and the true roots of his obsessions have never been recognised. Does Waugh deserve a place among the greatest writers in English in this or any other century? Undoubtedly. What were the obsessions and influences that prompted him to that place? This is a question that I have tried to answer fully for the first time here. Time may never tell, but I believe that at the very least I have shown that the full truth about Waugh’s life and religious beliefs may still wait to be confirmed. Waugh as occult practitioner. Waugh as worshipper of the devil. Waugh possessed. Implausible things? Impossible things? Or, as Waugh himself may have predicted, no more than “things to surprise”?
2. In Men at Arms, A Handful of Dust, and Work Suspended respectively. If Hooper and Mulcaster from Brideshead Revisited and Corker from Scoop are added to the list, the ergative suffix “-er” can be seen to be of great importance in Waugh’s nomenclature of contempt. The first person narrator of Brideshead, Charles Ryder, is perhaps shielded by his patrician “y”, perhaps reflects Waugh’s anxieties about his own social status: he was once described to his face by Duff Cooper, the husband of Waugh’s longest-lasting and most aristocratic correspondent Diana Cooper, as a “common little man … who happens to have written one or two moderately amusing novels” (Philip Zeigler, Diana Cooper, Hamish Hamilton, 1980, pg. 266).
5. Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler (who based the organization of the S.S. on that of the Jesuits), Heydrich and Eichmann, inter alios. This over-representation of Catholics was found also among the smaller cogs of the Nazi machine. It is true that Catholics tended not to vote for the Nazis in elections but then communists tended not to vote for the Nazis either: I don’t think anyone could regard this latter fact as rehabilitating Stalinism.
9. Pius V was canonized in 1712. Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes, himself a Catholic, commented of one passage in Waugh’s treatment of Pius: “This is to evade by rhetoric the fact that Pius V was a persecutor who went to extremes considered shocking even by the standards of his time, and that he never seems to have scrupled to support his principles by the use of atrocity.” (Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Penguin, London, 1977, pg. 208.)
10. Taken from the appendix to 1984. In formulating the concept of doublethink, Orwell was perhaps thinking of precept 13 in Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (1548): “That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” Loyola founded the Jesuits, the “intellectual shock-troops” of the Roman Catholic church.
12. The Hypocrites’ Club was “notorious not only for drunkenness but for flamboyance of dress and manner which was in some cases patently homosexual”. Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning, W.J. Mackay & Co., Chatham, Kent, 1964, pg. 179.
13. ibid., pg. 223. Waugh’s eldest son Auberon Augustus would later write in his memoirs (Will This Do?, Century, London, 1991) of a schoolfellow called “Brenninkmeyer who shopped me for trying to hold a Black Mass in the chemistry laboratory” (ch. 4, pg. 69).
18. Brideshead Revisited, ch. 2, pg. 47 of the 1984 Penguin paperback. The extract is taken from a description of Anthony Blanche’s travels and experiences that falls in a section called ET IN ARCADIA EGO. The occult associations of this Latin tag are well-documented: see, for example, Baignet, Leigh and Lincoln, The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail, Jonathon Cape, 1982.
24. “There is an aesthetic bugger [= homosexual] who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names… 2/3 Brian [Howard] 1/3 Harold Acton”, Waugh wrote in a letter of 14 March, 1958 to the Earl Baldwin (The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, pg. 506). In his discussion of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Christopher Sykes argues convincingly that the proportions are reversed in this particular character. Brian Howard (1905-58) was a flamboyantly homosexual Old Etonian poet whom Waugh had first known at Oxford.
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