A few years ago, I spent a week in County Galway at a country house hotel popular with fishermen during the high season, and with eccentrics in every other. I found myself in the company of a fragile lady novelist, an unladylike sculptor on the hunt for ‘famine artefacts’, and an ungentlemanly film-maker, drunkenly mourning the fact that his wife had run off to the Amazon jungle with a crackpot shaman who prospered on the moral failings of rich Americans. I bonded with the lady novelist over books and a mutual antipathy for another guest, a white Zimbabwean recently exiled to Belfast, who pursued us both, apparently in the hope of some sordid thrashing between the freezing sheets. As the Zimbabwean appeared to have an allergy to thought and silence, I took refuge in the library, reading, for the first time, Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags.
Preoccupied with the ‘Phoney War’, from declaration to the fall of France, or what Waugh described as the ‘Great Bore War’, Put Out More Flags was his sixth novel, and although it was a great success on first publication in 1942, it seems to be one of his few novels that people don’t know today. Waugh readers tend to fall into two camps, usually on either side of Brideshead Revisited (1945), with some reading only the ‘mature’ books, others sticking fiercely to the early comedies. Put Out More Flags is perhaps under-loved because it falls, both chronologically and stylistically, between these two recognizable periods in Waugh’s fiction.
Like Vile Bodies, the novel consists of a series of loosely linked episodes, following the lives of half a dozen characters but focusing on Ambrose Silk, a gay Jewish ‘aesthete’ writer, and Basil Seal, the irrepressible rake last seen innocently eating his girlfriend at a cannibal feast in Black Mischief (1932). It is Basil Seal, ‘wayward and graceless and grossly disappointing’, a man ‘whose unacco
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