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Lucky Alec

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‘Which would you rather be,’ asked Maurice Richardson, ‘a shit of genius or a chronic euphoric?’ The shit of genius was Evelyn Waugh, the chronic euphoric his elder brother Alec, who once wondered if he ‘was not too much in love with life, to have ever been completely in love with anyone’.

Alec Waugh had good reason to be cheerful. For ‘a very minor writer’ (his own estimation) he enjoyed a very rewarding career, which began ninety years ago with The Loom of Youth, the first novel to deal, albeit pretty gingerly, with homosexuality in public schools. This put him on the map. Forty years later, just as he was in danger of falling off it, he wrote another bestseller, Island in the Sun, which in one month earned him more than all his other books put together. Lucky Alec. And he was lucky in other respects too. Born in 1898, he survived both Passchendaele and, in uniform again, the fall of France, having meanwhile seen a lot of the world ‘when the going was good’.

He also emerged unscathed from an ill-advised first marriage which was annulled on the mortifying grounds of non-consummation (she was very young, he very inexperienced). His second marriage, to an Australian heiress called Joan Chirnside, produced three children but was semi-detached. Nomadic by nature, he was also by now a dedicated philanderer, committed to the chaise longue rather than the marriage bed. Fortunately for him, Joan was a homebody who set greater store by her children’s welfare than her husband’s fidelity. Even before the second war, which she and the children spent in Australia, they were more often apart than not. And once Alec acquired American residency, which he did for currency transfer reasons in 1949, they saw each other for at most three months of the year, leaving him free to indulge in the ‘extra-curricular romances’ which he said kept him young.

All of which was news to me until I read the remarkably frank serie

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‘Which would you rather be,’ asked Maurice Richardson, ‘a shit of genius or a chronic euphoric?’ The shit of genius was Evelyn Waugh, the chronic euphoric his elder brother Alec, who once wondered if he ‘was not too much in love with life, to have ever been completely in love with anyone’.

Alec Waugh had good reason to be cheerful. For ‘a very minor writer’ (his own estimation) he enjoyed a very rewarding career, which began ninety years ago with The Loom of Youth, the first novel to deal, albeit pretty gingerly, with homosexuality in public schools. This put him on the map. Forty years later, just as he was in danger of falling off it, he wrote another bestseller, Island in the Sun, which in one month earned him more than all his other books put together. Lucky Alec. And he was lucky in other respects too. Born in 1898, he survived both Passchendaele and, in uniform again, the fall of France, having meanwhile seen a lot of the world ‘when the going was good’. He also emerged unscathed from an ill-advised first marriage which was annulled on the mortifying grounds of non-consummation (she was very young, he very inexperienced). His second marriage, to an Australian heiress called Joan Chirnside, produced three children but was semi-detached. Nomadic by nature, he was also by now a dedicated philanderer, committed to the chaise longue rather than the marriage bed. Fortunately for him, Joan was a homebody who set greater store by her children’s welfare than her husband’s fidelity. Even before the second war, which she and the children spent in Australia, they were more often apart than not. And once Alec acquired American residency, which he did for currency transfer reasons in 1949, they saw each other for at most three months of the year, leaving him free to indulge in the ‘extra-curricular romances’ which he said kept him young. All of which was news to me until I read the remarkably frank series of memoirs Alec wrote during the last twenty years of his life. Remarkably frank? Yes, and not just about his amours. Here he describes an exchange between himself and his dying wife, to whose bedside he is hurrying:
I rang up Edrington [her house in Hampshire]. Joan answered the telephone. ‘So you’re just in time,’ she said. Her voice was firm. ‘I’ll be out in an hour and a quarter,’ I said. ‘An hour and a half.’ ‘My bus leaves at half-past,’ I said. ‘Too mean to take a taxi, I suppose.’ ‘Exactly.’
Alec was open about his ‘Scottish’ instincts. But in his defence I should point out that he was determined to pay his own way, if not his children’s. Joan’s wealth disconcerted him. When she proposed buying a Rolls-Royce, he talked her out of it on the grounds that writers and Rollses didn’t mix. She never really appreciated how much his work meant to him, regarding it as an eccentric private hobby. However, since he gave her what she most wanted, children, she was prepared to humour him. And if he couldn’t write under the same roof as his family, so be it. It was somehow typical of Alec that he should attribute his preference for working away from home to the abiding influence of boarding-school. He described himself when young as ‘the type of boy for whom the English public school system might have been invented’, an admission that anyone familiar with his books would endorse. No other modern writer that I know of – not even Simon Raven – took greater pleasure in masculine institutions. Of his election to the MCC he wrote, ‘It will be appreciated with what excitement, with what pride I read the announcement . . .’ And yet, as Raven was wont to say, a writer’s loyalty to his craft must always outweigh his loyalty to an institution. He has to tell the truth as he sees it, no matter how inconvenient. Hence The Loom of Youth, which, as Noel Annan noted, heralded ‘the age of Almamatricide’. Alec, who had left Sherborne under the proverbial cloud ‘no bigger than a boy’s hand’, was removed from the school’s Old Boy List because he had the temerity to state that such clouds were an integral feature of the public-school firmament. (All was later forgiven. Alec’s sons went to Sherborne, as did the manuscript of The Loom of Youth, together with all the papers relating to the novel’s scandalous impact.) Not that being struck off cramped Alec’s style unduly. True, he couldn’t play cricket for the Old Shirburnians, which he minded, but there were plenty of other sides who were only too pleased to have him, including J. C. Squire’s Invalids, the inspiration for Mr Hodge’s XI in A. G. Macdonell’s England, Their England. Alec appears in this as Bobby Southcott, the dapper young novelist who lays waste the village bowlers. Many years later a cricket-mad radio interviewer began by suggesting that this was his chief claim to fame. ‘With such modesty as I could assume,’ recalled Alec, ‘I said that I had myself written a few books. “Of course,” said the interviewer, “but England, Their England must come first.”’ In fact Alec could claim at least one other distinction which had nothing to do with writing – or cricket. In 1924 he gave probably the first recorded cocktail party in London, with potent daiquiris mixed by a member of the American Embassy. Soon he learnt to mix his own cocktails, becoming something of an expert on them, as indeed he became on wine. Drink agreed with him, but it remained his servant, not his master. For instance when at work on a book in, say, Nice, where he often stayed in the winter, he would lunch in his hotel room off something from the local deli, but with a bottle of Burgundy at his elbow, ‘drinking two-thirds of it, slowly, reflectively, thinking out my story, letting my characters talk to one another’. Later, the day’s work done, he would go to a café and watch the world go by over a single aperitif. Were he to order another, he explained, the temptation to eat out would be ‘irresistible’. This in turn would involve wine, with a liqueur to follow, thus ensuring that he would wake ‘not quite fresh’ the following morning. So, more often than not, he went to a cinema instead, supping frugally off what was left of his lunch and the remainder of the bottle. Alec acknowledged four exemplars: Compton Mackenzie, George Moore, Galsworthy and Maugham; and the greatest of these was Maugham. Like Maugham he had the priceless gift of narrative. Like Maugham he saw travel as a necessary stimulus. And like Maugham he was a good listener – so good that people thought he must cherish bores. It has even been suggested, admittedly on very flimsy evidence, that this was why he married Joan. If so, he gave as good as he got: ‘I had kept silent about my writing because I had not wanted to bore her but I had been less reticent about my golf. Day after day I described my rounds, hole by hole, stroke by stroke. She was so bored that she had very little impulse to play herself.’ How Evelyn Waugh would have sighed at a passage like that. His elder brother had greeted his birth with the comment, ‘Splendid. Now we shall have a wicket-keeper’ – a faulty appreciation, if ever there was one. Evelyn had no more interest in sport than did Alec in religion. That Alec should have devoted so many hours to watching and playing ball-games was to him incomprehensible. But it would be misleading to think of Alec as a ‘flannelled fool’. Thanks to his father, the publisher and man of letters Arthur Waugh, he was exposed to the English canon at an early age, reciting Shakespeare in the nursery. Poetry in particular meant a lot to him; in later life he would claim that ‘the days are few when I have not had a book of poetry in my hands for at least half an hour’. Had he lived to read it he would, I am sure, have applauded this passage from the memoirs of Alan Ross: ‘The development of a style in prose and poetry and the perfecting of a stroke at cricket or rackets have much in common. They are the result of a desire for excellence, for the gesture that contrives an exact equivalent, and which can be achieved only by self-discipline and practice.’ If Alec’s spiritual home was the pavilion at Lord’s, his most congenial temporal abode was the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where he was able to store just enough possessions to impose his personality upon whatever accommodation he took there – a suite if he was in funds, a one-room apartment if not. New York excited him, and not just because he got on so well with American women. Above all he liked the fact that the people he knew there took a genuine interest in his work. Which brings me back to his memoirs. ‘Never choose a novelist for your hero,’ he used to say, ‘because to make his life interesting you have to ignore the thing that defines him, his work.’ Well, Alec is the hero of his memoirs, which are mostly about what he did away from his desk. But no one reading them could doubt that he always put writing first. ‘I have been most alive,’ he wrote, ‘seated at a table in a hotel bedroom facing a solitary day.’ Perverse as it might seem to mention him in the same breath as Cyril Connolly, whose sloth was legendary, I think you could borrow what Auden said about Enemies of Promise and apply it to Alec: ‘[Y]ou really write about writing in the only way which is interesting to anyone except academics, as a real occupation like banking or fucking . . .’ He would have enjoyed that last comparison.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 16 © Michael Barber 2007


About the contributor

Michael Barber has written biographies of Anthony Powell and Simon Raven. Like Alec Waugh he enjoys ball games, but despite an alarming tendency to thin his sand shots has yet to copy Alec and build a practice bunker in the garden.

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