A Poof in a Porker

The great literary scholar and expert psychoanalyst Dr Miriam B. Stimbers has detected castration, clitoridolatry and communal cannibalism in the novels of Jane Austen. I’m not so ambitious. I merely want to detect a poof in a porker’s poetry. Or rather, I want to detect a poof in the poetry of a peer closely associated with a porker.

The porker is Bill Bunter, the fat, lazy and greedy public schoolboy whose misadventures at Greyfriars School were chronicled, under the pseudonym Frank Richards, by the highly prolific Charles Hamilton (1876-1961). One of Bunter’s schoolfellows was the languid and apparently effete peer Lord Mauleverer, who contributed this poem to The Greyfriars Holiday Annual for 1928:

“The Song of the Slacker”, by Lord Mauleverer

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life was meant for toil and hustle;
It was meant for soothing slumbers,
Which relax both mind and muscle.

Life is lovely! Life is topping!
When you lie beneath the shade,
With the ginger-beer corks popping,
And a glorious spread arrayed.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to put off till to-morrow
Work that should be done today!

In the world’s broad field of battle
All wise soldiers take their ease;
And they lie asleep, like cattle,
Underneath the shady trees.

Trust no Future, trust no Present,
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
The only prospect nice and pleasant
Is that of “forty winks” in bed!

“Life is short!” the bards are bawling,
Let’s enjoy it while we may;
On our study sofas sprawling,
Sleeping sixteen hours a day!

Lives of slackers all remind us
We should also rest our limbs;
And, departing, leave behind us,
“Helpful Hints for Tired Tims!”

Helpful hints, at which another
Will, perhaps, just take a peep;
Some exhausted, born-tired brother––
They will send him off to sleep!

While the hustlers are pursuing
Outdoor sports, on land and lake;
Let us, then, be up and doing––
There are several beds to make. – The Greyfriars Holiday Annual for 1928 (1927), Howard Baker abridged edition 1971

I liked the poem when I first read it, but I didn’t spot the parody as soon as I should. It was unexpected, you see, but then it dawned on me that “The Song of the Slacker” must be a parody of a famous poem by the poof-poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936):


Wake: the silver dusk returning
Up the beach of darkness brims,
And the ship of sunrise burning
Strands upon the eastern rims.

Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.

Up, lad, up, ’tis late for lying;
Hear the drums of morning play;
Hark, the empty highways crying
“Who’ll beyond the hills away?”

Towns and countries woo together,
Forelands beacon, belfries call;
Never lad that trod on leather
Lived to feast his heart with all.

Up, lad: thews that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive;
Morns abed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.

Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;
Breath’s a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough to sleep. – A Shropshire Lad (1896), Poem IV

The meter of the two poems is the same, the period is right, and the sentiments of Housman’s call to energy and effort are turned neatly on their heads in Lord Mauleverer’s call to sleep and slackness. And it’s a clever parody, although it’s a little too long. I’m glad to have come across “The Song of the Slacker”, which the second-best parody of Housman I’ve read. Here’s the best:

What, still alive at twenty-two,
A clean, upstanding chap like you?
Sure, if your throat ’tis hard to slit,
Slit your girl’s, and swing for it.

Like enough, you won’t be glad,
When they come to hang you, lad:
But bacon’s not the only thing
That’s cured by hanging from a string.

So, when the spilt ink of the night
Spreads o’er the blotting-pad of light,
Lads whose job is still to do
Shall whet their knives, and think of you.

Hugh Kingsmill’s famous parody of A.E. Housman

Beauties and Beasts

Shardik, Richard Adams (1974)

Is it thirty years since I last read Shardik? No, it think it’s nearer forty. But as I read the book in March this year I began remembering small things before I came to them again. And I realized how deep the characters and story had sunk into my mind on those early readings long ago. Indeed, I felt that coming across the book again in a second-hand shop had been important-with-a-capital-I, as though I’d been meant to meet it again now.

Maybe it wasn’t and maybe I hadn’t. But the opening chapters, in which the simple hunter Kelderek finds and helps to capture the giant bear Shardik, have been some of the most vivid and enjoyable literature I’ve ever read. Adams conjures the forest fire that drives Shardik, burned and near-dead, across the great river Telthearna; brings Kelderek and other characters to life with something like Dickensian vividness and depth; gives them a solid and scented world to inhabit; and evokes a genuine sense of matriarchal mystery and magic around the island of Quiso, where the Tuginda and her priestesses have awaited the return of Shardik for centuries. And Shardik himself is a huge and dangerous presence, slapping a leopard aside like a twig before he collapses and begins to die of his burns. He’s awesome even in his distress:

The bear was still lying among the scarlet trepsis, but already it looked less foul and wretched. Its great wounds had been dressed with some kind of yellow ointment. One girl was keeping the flies from its eyes and ears with a fan of fern-fronds, while another, with a jar of ointment, was working along its back and as much as she could reach of the flank on which it was lying. Two others had brought sand to cover patches of soiled ground which they had already cleaned and hoed with pointed sticks. The Tuginda was holding a soaked cloth to the bear’s mouth, as [Kelderek] himself had done, but was dipping it not in the pool but in a water-jar at her feet. The unhurried bearing of the girls contrasted strangely with the gashed and monstrous body of the creature they were tending. Kelderek watched them pause in their work, waiting as the bear stirred restlessly. Its mouth gaped open and one hind leg kicked weakly before coming to rest once more among the trepsis. – end of chapter 10 in Book I, “Ortelga”

If Shardik continued like that, I think it would be much better-known today. But it doesn’t. It turns not just grimmer, but less well-written and less psychologically plausible. The simple hunter Kelderek, friend of children and awestruck acolyte of Shardik, turns into a ruthless priest-king who cages his bear-god and oversees a trade in child-slaves to finance a war of attrition against the enemies of his tribe. And that small and impoverished tribe, from the half-forgotten river-island of Ortelga in the far north, has overthrown an empire by then. Shardik has given them victory, becoming a literal deus ex machina in a crucial early battle. Or perhaps that should be deus in machina:

Suddenly a snarling roar, louder even than the surrounding din of battle, filled the tunnel-like roadway under the trees. There followed a clanging and clattering of iron, sharp cracks of snapped wood, panic cries and a noise of dragging and scraping. Baltis’ voice shouted, “Let go, you fools!” Then again broke out the snarling, full of savagery and ferocious rage. Kelderek leapt to his feet.

The cage had broken loose and was rushing down the hill, swaying and jumping as the crude wheels ploughed ruts in the mud and struck against protruding stones. The roof had split apart and the bars were hanging outwards, some trailing along the ground, others lashing sideways like a giant’s flails. Shardik was standing upright, surrounded by long, white splinters of wood. Blood was running down one shoulder and he foamed at the mouth, beating the iron bars around him as Baltis’ hammers had never beaten them.

The point of a sharp, splintered stake had pierced his neck and as it swayed up and down, levering itself in the wound, he roared with pain and anger. Red-eyed, frothing and bloody, his head smashing through the flimsy lower branches of the trees overhanging the track, he rode down upon the battle like some beast-god of apocalypse. – Book I, ch. 22, “The Cage”

I don’t like that “splintered stake … levering itself in the wound.” It seems gratuitous. And that kind of thing doesn’t stop. Shardik suffers from beginning to end of the book and at times I felt as though he’d become little more than a punch-bag for the plot. Although many readers will come to this book as young fans of Watership Down (1972), I don’t think it’s a good book for children. There are cruelty and ruthlessness in Watership Down, but they don’t overwhelm the story as they come to do in Shardik. And the characters who suffer in Watership Down are rabbits; in Shardik, they’re children and a giant bear. There was one act of cruelty that struck me with horror when I read it as a teenager, because it suddenly and ruthlessly smashed the hope I had invested in a character.

I barely noticed the incident this time, because I knew it was coming and because I wasn’t captivated by Adams’ prose any more. He starts the book well, but his best here isn’t as good as his best in Watership Down. And his prose gets much less good after Book I. Plus, I could see his influences more clearly: classical myth and history, the Bible, Dickens. The book begins with these lines from Homer:

οἴκτιστον δὴ κεῖνο ἐμοῖς ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσι
πάντων, ὅσσ᾽ ἐμόγησα πόρους ἁλὸς ἐξερεείνων.

They’re not translated, but they mean:

It was the most pitiable sight of all I saw exploring the pathways of the sea. – Odyssey XII, 258

Homer’s influence hovers below the surface everywhere in Book I, sometimes bursting through in long and elaborate similes that don’t always work very well. But I think that something else that doesn’t always work very well is part of Adams’ linguistic cleverness rather than his clumsiness. Shardik is set in a fantasy universe with simple technology and some kind of magic. Like many writers before him and after, Adams creates new languages to go with his new world. The hunter Kelderek is nicknamed Zenzuata, meaning “Play-with-children”. Later he becomes Crendrik, the “Eye of God” and high-priest of Shardik, the “Power of God.” When he’s still a simple hunter he hears a song with the refrain “Senandril na kora, senandril na ro”; at another time he marvels at the beauty of a gold-and-purple bird called a kynat; at another he eats the ripe fruit of a tendriona on the island of Quiso, where the high-priestess is called the Tuginda and addressed with the honorific säiyett.

The strange names and words transport you from the here-and-now of reality to the elsewhere-and-elsewhen of fantasy. But what about Kabin, one of the cities of the Beklan Empire, and Deelguy, one of the lands bordering the Empire? Kabin echoes English “cabin” and Deelguy echoes English “deal” and “guy”. They don’t look or sound right (though perhaps Deelguy is meant to be pronounced “deel-goo-ee”). But that’s linguistic cleverness, I think. The paradox is that it’s not right if all the words and names of an invented language sound right to the ears of Anglophones. If they all sound right, that is, if they’re all exotic and alien, it means that they’ve been created with English in mind. So they’re a kind of un-English or anti-English, rather than something existing without any regard to English. In Shardik, it’s as though Kabin echoes English by chance, which is just what you might expect of a truly exotic and alien language. So that’s linguistic cleverness, I think.

And it’s also linguistically clever of Adams to invent an accent within the story for native speakers of Deelguy who are talking Beklan or Ortelgan. Here’s the slimy slave-trader Lalloc speaking to the chief villain of the story, the evil slave-trader Genshed: “I was in Kabin, Gensh, when the Ikats come north. Thought I had plonty of time to gotting back to Bekla, but left it too late – you ever know soldiers go so fost, Gensh, you ever know? Cot off, couldn’t gotting to Bekla […] no governor in Kabin – new governor, man called Mollo, been killed in Bekla, they were saying – the king kill him with his own honds – no one would take money to protect me.” (Book VI, ch. 51, “The Gap of Linsho”) The diminutive “Gensh” used by Lalloc is clever too. Genshed is a monster, but Lalloc thinks that the two of them are friends. His accent works as a kind of fantastic realism: yes, when someone from Deelguy spoke Beklan, he would speak in a strange way. And Adams captures that in English.

However, he puts words into the mouth of another character that are clumsy rather than clever: “the resources of this splendid establishment” (used of an inn); “riparian witch-doctor” (used of Kelderek); “bruin-boys [who] burst on an astonished world” (used of the followers of Shardik); “bear-bemused river-boys” (ditto); “some nice, lonely place with no propinquitous walls or boulders”; and so on. Those are the words of Elleroth, Ban of Sarkid, a “dandified” aristocrat who is secretly working against Kelderek and the Ortelgans. He’s an important character, central to the plot, so it’s a pity that, in part, he’s also a cliché out of old-fashioned boys’ literature. He’s a fop who’s also a fighter and whose languid, drawling irony covers serious purpose and emotion. It’s as though an Old Etonian or Harrovian has suddenly appeared. The way he’s presented is out of place in the fantasy universe of Shardik: “propinquitous” would work in one of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea stories. But it doesn’t work here as dialogue.

Another aspect of Elleroth’s character does work. Before he appears, we’ve seen Shardik through the eyes of his devoted followers, who swear “by the Bear” and see him triumph over all doubt and lead the Ortelgans to victory. After Elleroth appears, we suddenly see Shardik and his cult through the eyes of someone who despises “the bear” and his followers. To Elleroth, the Ortelgans are ursine swine. Later still, the perspective shifts in another way. The final chapters of the book are partly in the form of home-bound letters by an ambassador from Zakalon, a hitherto unknown land where they swear “by the Cat”. What is that about? What cult is practised in Zakalon? We never learn, but the glimpse of something beyond the story increases the power and reality of Shardik’s world.

And Shardik is, despite its frequent clumsiness, a powerful book. Sometimes its power is beautiful, sometimes it’s horrific, and new readers will remember both the beauty and the horror as I did in all the time that has passed since my last readings. Forty years on, I’m glad to have met it again, read it again, and re-acquainted myself with its power and its beauty. It isn’t as good as Watership Down, but it’s better than The Plague Dogs. And not many books are as good as Watership Down.

Elsewhere other-accessible…

Sward and Sorcery – a review of Watership Down (1972)
Paw is Less – a review of The Plague Dogs (1977)

Scribal Waugh Fare

Because I thought I’d accidentally deleted it, for years I’ve been thinking fondly about a little essay I’d once written comparing errors by scribes in the ancient world with typos in printed copies of Evelyn Waugh’s books. Then I dug up an old CD with back-up copies of various files on it. And it turned out, first, that I hadn’t deleted the little essay and, second, that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. Here it is anyway, following the essay that originally accompanied it.

The Purloined Letter

The writer and musician Alexander Waugh was once looking through a bound collection of Alastair Graham’s letters to his grandfather Evelyn Waugh.[1] Graham had been Evelyn’s first great love at Oxford, but the letters were not at all diverting and Waugh petit fils had reached a point of tedium at which any interruption was welcome when an interruption fortunately arrived: the collection fell apart revealing that the following words had been concealed along its spine:


The words, which mean “Nothing is true but beauty”, were probably taken from the French romantic Alfred de Musset (1810-57),[2] and they are interesting not only for the light they shed on Waugh’s æsthetic attitudes in his youth but also for the way in which they were uncovered: the collection fell apart because a letter had been forcibly removed from it.

Why this should have been done is probably now an unanswerable question, but not beyond all conjecture. Graham was a central model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), and “Nothing is true but beauty” might be taken as the principle that guides Charles Ryder early in the novel. This is why he falls in love with Sebastian, who is “entrancing, with that epicene beauty which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.”[3] But the entrancing, epicene Sebastian hints at another famous French saying when he concludes one of his letters to Charles like this: “Love, or what you will. S.”[4]

The valediction may conflate the two great rules of the occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), which appear in Waugh’s short-story “Out of Depth” (1930) when Dr Kakophilos,[5] a black magician based on Crowley, confronts the story’s lapsed Catholic protagonist, Rip Van Winkle:

“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.’”

“I see.”

The famous French saying underlying Crowley’s first law is Rabelais’s Fay Ce Que Vouldras, or “Do What Thou Wilt”, which was written over the entrance to the Abbey of Thélème in Rabelais’s novel Gargantua (1532).[6] It is not an invitation to unbridled hedonism in either Rabelais or Crowley,[7] but it might nevertheless be read as justifying the “silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and […] naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins”[8] of Ryder’s first term at Oxford.

Some of this gravely sinful naughtiness was Waugh’s in reality as well as Ryder’s in fiction, and if Ryder’s naughtiness included dabbling in the occult, perhaps Waugh’s did too. If he was initiated at the country house of his lost novel The Temple at Thatch,[9] perhaps this explains why so many references to the occult are attached to the Flyte family who own the country house at Brideshead. They range from Lady Marchmain’s alleged sanguinivorous “witchcraft” in Book One[10] through Julia’s “magic ring” and “fawning monster” in Book Two[11] to the “wand” Julia wields against Charles on a night of “full and high” moon in Book Three.[12] But one of the references was cut from the revised edition of the novel published in 1960. In the older edition (which is still issued in the United States), Anthony Blanche, who has “practised black art” at Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema “in Cefalù”,[13] says of the Flytes that they are “a subject for the poet — for the poet of the future who is also a psycho-analyst — and perhaps a diabolist too.”[14]

Poet, psycho-analyst, and diabolist are all gone in the revised edition, but Blanche’s insistent warnings against the Flytes’ charm are left untouched: “I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight.”[15] Someone as interested in etymology as Waugh almost certainly knew that “charm” was once a supernatural term: it meant a spell cast to control or influence and came from the Latin carmen, meaning “song”. Such echoes of ancient meaning are also apparent in, for example, the names Cordelia and Julia. Cordelia is the exemplar of unselfish Christian love in Brideshead, and her name probably comes from the Latin cor, meaning “heart”; Julia is the exemplar of ultimately sterile beauty and sexual attractiveness, and her name comes from the Julius family of ancient Rome, who were said to be descended from Venus, the goddess of beauty and sex.

The name “Marchmain”, on the other hand, seems much harder to analyze, although it echoes mortmain, literally meaning “dead hand”,[16] and may hint at the impending loss of Brideshead by the Flytes, none of whom has any true heirs. However, its first syllable is also an anagram of “charm” — m-ar-ch <-> ch-ar-m — and “Charmmain” is very like the French charmant, or “charming”. So the Flytes are charming, and perhaps Waugh is hinting that the originals on whom he based them were charming in more senses than one. If so, perhaps that explains why a letter from the original Sebastian is missing from a collection of letters that occultly proclaimed “Nothing is true but beauty”.

However, the phrase also sheds light on Brideshead Revisited itself. Charles Ryder discovered first Sebastian’s beauty and then Julia’s and thought he had discovered truth too. In the end he, like Waugh, concluded that he was wrong. The “beaten-copper lamp” Ryder finds burning anew in the untouched art nouveau Catholic chapel of an otherwise ruined Brideshead is of “deplorable design”, but its pure light, “shining in darkness, uncomprehended”,[17] is beautiful because it is the light of truth.

2. Scribal Waugh Fare

The avant-garde self-publicist Will Self once described the Book of Revelation as “an insemination of older, more primal verities into an as yet fresh dough of syncretism”.[18] One can see what he means, but Evelyn Waugh’s pastiche of Revelation in Decline and Fall (1928) is still much funnier. The novel’s protagonist Paul Pennyfeather is in prison talking with a religious maniac, who describes a vision he has had:

No words can describe the splendour of it. It was all crimson and wet like blood. I saw the whole prison as if it were carved of ruby… And then as I watched all the ruby became soft and wet, like a great sponge soaked in wine, and it was dripping and melting into a great lake of scarlet. […] I sometimes dream of a great red tunnel like the throat of a beast and men running down it […] and the breath of the beast is like the blast of a furnace. D’you ever feel like that?”

I’m afraid not,” said Paul. “Have they given you an interesting library book?”

Lady Almina’s Secret,” said the lion of the Lord’s elect. “Pretty soft stuff, old-fashioned too. But I keep reading the Bible. There’s a lot of killing in that.”[19]

However, the Book of Revelation isn’t always as crazy as it seems:

4:2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. 3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and […] a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

Rainbows that look like emeralds are crazy but priests surrounding an emerald throne are not, and the traditional image may be nothing more than a mistake by a scribe taking dictation: Greek hiereis, “priests”, was pronounced much like Greek iris, “rainbow”.[20].

When scribes were copying texts by eye rather than ear, they made other kinds of mistake, as in Romans 6:5, where two ninth-century codexes[21] have , hama, “together” against a more general , alla, “but”: two lambdas, , are easily mistaken for a mu, M. And perhaps, in the words of Peter Simple, it is a triumph of the rich human past over the tinpot scientific present[22] that more than a thousand years later, despite all advances in the manufacture of books, one can find the same kind of mistake in the Penguin edition of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945):

We went across the hall to the small drawing-room where luncheon parties used to assemble, and sat on either side of the fireplace. Julia seemed to reflect some of the crimson and gold of the walls and lose some of her warmness.[23]

If the earth is struck by an asteroid and the few copies of Brideshead that survive are in the Penguin edition, the scholars of some future resurrected civilization should be able to reconstruct the “wanness” of the manuscript (even without the assistance of an earlier line that runs “in the gloom of that room she looked like a ghost”).

Those are what are technically known as errors of permutation; elsewhere in Waugh one can match the New Testament’s errors of omission. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, for example, the egenêthemen êpioi or “we were mild” of later manuscripts seems to be a haplography for the egenêthemen nêpioi or “we were children” of earlier ones.[24] Many centuries later, in the Penguin edition of Helena (1950), we can find this:

Carpicius looked at him without the least awe. Two forms of pride were here irreconcilably opposed; two pigs stood face to face.[25]

Those scholars of our putative post-apocalyptic future should be able to reconstruct the original “prigs”.


1. The collection is called Litteræ Wellensis.

2. De Musset continued “rien n’est vrai sans beauté”, “[and] nothing is true without beauty”, but the original phrase seems to have been used first by the classicist Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), who continued “le vrai seul est aimable”, “[and] truth alone is lovable”.

3. Op. cit., Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 1, pg. 33 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

4. Op. cit., Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 3, pg. 71 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

5. Greek for “Lover of Evil”.

6. Book I, ch. LVII. Thélème is from the Greek thelema, meaning “will”.

7. Rabelais amplified it thus: parce que gens liberes, bien nez, bien instruictz, conversans en compaignies honnestes, ont par nature un instinct et aguillon, qui tousjours les poulse à faictz vertueux et retire de vice, lequel ilz nommoient honneur: “because free people, well-born, well-taught, living in honest company, have by nature a sharp instinct and spur, which prompts them always towards virtue and away from vice, and which they name honor.”

8. Op. cit., Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2, pg. 46 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

9. See ‘Adam and Evelyn: “The Balance”, The Temple at Thatch, and 666 at http://www.lhup.edu/~jwilson3/Newsletter_33.2.htm.

10. Ch. 1, pg. 56 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

11. Ch. 2, pg. 56 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

12. Ch. 3, pg. 277 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

13. Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2, pg. 47 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

14. Book I, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

15. Book III, “A Twitch Upon The Thread”, ch. 2, pg. 260 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

16. Referring to land held under impersonal or institutional control by the Church.

17. “In fragments and whispers we get news of other saints in the prison camps of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, of cruelty and degradation more savage than anything in Tudor England, of the same, pure light shining in darkness, uncomprehended”. Introduction to Edmund Campion (1935): the reference is to John v,1: And the light shineth in darkness: and the darkness did not comprehend it. (Authorized Version and Douay).

18. From Self’s introduction, pg. xii, to Revelation, Authorized Version, published in a single book by Canongate, Edinburgh, 1998.

19. Part three, chapter iii.

20. Compare the initial vowels of the English derivates “hierarchy” and “iris”.

21. Augiensis and Boernerianus: see http://www.earlham.edu/~seidti/iam/permutation.html

22. The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Briston, 1980, “1962: Glory”, pg. 60.

23. Op. cit., Book II, “Brideshead Deserted”, ch. 3, pg. 200 of the 1984 Penguin paperback.

24. Haplography is writing once what should be written twice: an original  (egenêthemen nêpioi), meaning “we were children”, may have lost a nu, N, and became  (egenêthemen êpioi), “we were mild”. Alternatively, it may have gained a nu in an error known as dittography, or writing twice what should be written once.

25. Op. cit., ch. 8, “Constantine’s Great Treat”, pp. 107-8 of the 1963 Penguin paperback.


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 come 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, triffids 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)

Elsewhere other-accessible

Reds in the Head — review of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)

Oh My Guardian #8

“When it comes to Harry Potter, JK Rowling just can’t leave it alone. This is not necessarily a bad thing – fans have got to see Harry and friends all grown-up in the Cursed Child plays – but she’s also managed to muddy the waters by her constant rejigging of the original narrative furniture.” — Fantastic Beasts isn’t racist, but JK Rowling should stop tweaking the source material, Hannah Flint, The Guardian, 28ix2018.

Oh My Guardian #7 — the previous entry in this award-winning series
Reds under the Thread more on mixed metaphors… in terms of The Guardian
All posts interrogating issues around the Guardian-reading community and its affiliates

Straight to Thel’

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.

Condemning Catholicism

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).

Orwell explains

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.

Preposterously short

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.'”

“I see.”

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”?


1. Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, ch. 2

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).

3. Evelyn Waugh, “Sloth” in The Seven Deadly Sins, ed. Raymond Mortimer, London, 1962. Reprinted in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Donat Gallagher, London, 1983 (pg. 572).

4. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, ch. 1., “A Portrait of the Artist in Middle Age”

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.

6. Edmund Campion: Scholar, Priest, Hero, and Martyr, re-published by Oxford University Press, 1980.

7. Campion was born in 1540 and executed in 1581: the massacre took place on the 24th of August, 1572.

8. op. cit., pg. 96

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.

11. The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, pg. 18

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).

14. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, pg. 87

15. A Little Learning, pg. 228

16. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Amory, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980, pg. 12

17. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, pg. 78

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.

19. pg. 180; pg. 211

20. From κακός, “evil”, + ϕίλος, “loving”.

21. The extracts are taken from the revised version of the story, which was re-printed in The Fifth Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, ed. Michael Parry, Mayflower, 1976.

22. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939, JM Dent & Sons, London, 1986.

23. Both references to pg. 345 of The Early Years.

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.

25. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, pg. 99

26. The Brideshead Generation, pg. 79

27. ibid., pg. 377

28. idid., pg. 395

29. op. cit., pg. 181

30. Introduction, pg. x

31. op. cit., ch. 1, pg. 18

32. ch. viii, pg. 187

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #63

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Bullets and ButterfliesMad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

Jaundiced on GeorgeGeorge Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

Crabsody in ViewRSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Cats’ Ice

Cats are of divers colours, but for the most part griseld, like to congealed ise, which cometh from the condition of her meat: her head is like unto the head of a Lion, except in her sharp ears: her flesh is soft and smooth: her eyes glister above measure, especially when a man cometh to see them on the suddain, and in the night they can hardly be endured, for their flaming aspect. Wherefore Democritus describing the Persian Smaragde saith that it is not transparent, but filleth the eye with pleasant brightness, such as is in the eyes of Panthers and Cats, for they cast forth beams in the shadow and darkness, but in sunshine they have no such clearness, and thereof Alexander Aphrodise giveth this reason, both for the sight of Cats and Bats, that they have by nature a most sharpe spirit of seeing. — Edward Topsell, Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1658).