Sunday 20 January 2013

Put out More Flags - Waugh's killer combination

The title page of my lovely old edition
Put out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman & Hall : 1942) Between war being declared and things really hotting up, Britain went through a period of "phony war" where things didn't seem all that bad. Waugh takes his set of high society hang overs, led by the irrepressible Basil Seal, and shows their approach to this grand new folly. Driven by a sense of "what's-in-it-for-me", the jape of war has both comic and tragic effect.

At the risk of sounding like a 12-year old school girl, ohmygodohmygodohmygod! DBC Pierre emailed me yesterday. Subject line: Cowabunga. Apprently, "at the sweet end of a piss-up a friend brought your review of my book up on his phone." That's me he's talking about! He liked it. He said he'd raise a drink to me.

That's it. I'm done. I can stop this whole shebang now and die smiling.

What? You don't care who emailed me? It's Sunday morning and you want your weekly GBR review? Oh, OK then you demanding lot, here it is.

I went to the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. The first thing I saw when I walked through the door was an exhibition with a 5,000 year-old pot in it.
Five-freaking-thousand years old. Damn if that's not impressive. And this thing was elaborate. It blew my mind a little. All that time ago, someone made this, spent time on it, drank out of it, and there it was in front of me in a glass case.

A pot that had survived everything.
Whoever JAC Rupert was, he
bought this in '42
That’s how I feel about old books. Anything written in an entirely different circumstance to the one I’m reading it in. Words that someone wrote down a while ago, and there they are in front of me, surviving.
I say all this as it’s pertinent to Put out More Flags (I promise). You guys know I love a bit of Waugh. And so I was always going to love this too. The guy flaunted every aspect of his writing that I enjoy. It was satirical, slap-stick, absurd, flat-out funny, but with a heavy dose of poignancy as well. It was Wodehouse with purpose. And it was typically easy to tread. Waugh writes like he invented language, and knows exactly how it should be used.
So there was all that. Obviously. But there was something else as well. Put out More Flags was published in 1942. I know this because I was very kindly bought this old edition of it for my birthday, and it says 1942 right at the front. 1942 is a time that just plain fascinates me. In the grip of a war that has turned terrible. No idea if we’re going to win or not. Everything up for grabs.
And amongst it all, here’s Waugh with his cartoonish social set. A largely fictional upper class who are tripping from one aspect of the war to another. There’s truth in some of their reactions, albeit highly caricatured. And between the lines (which is where Waugh shines), there’s all this heavy heavy context of a war.
I know we won. And you know we won. But the words on these 70-odd year old pages had no idea. These words and the imagination that delivered them were entirely ignorant of how it would all play out.
The beautiful spine of my edition. Aren't
books great!
That was enough for me. I was sold. The painful contrast of Waugh’s humour with a deep pathos that’s just beneath the surface never stops fascinating me. I saw it first in A Handful of Dust (which was the 2011 GBRBOY by the way…). And here, it blew me away again.
In short, this guy has a killer combination. Funny as heck. A magical and distinct way with words. And the ability to sneak up on you and make you cry with a single phrase.
Now, I just need to figure out how he does it.
Why not 10 after a write up like that, I hear you cry? Honestly, because A Handful of Dust was my first Waugh blow out, and I guess it can never be quite as good as the first time.

Next week, I'm not quite sure as I'm currently trudging through a biggie.


Anonymous said...

Yay. Glad you like it!

Alex in Leeds said...

I just read and reviewed The Loved One by Waugh and it's equally as good. I'd have loved to have read it in an original hardback though!

Anonymous said...

You can't blame Basil for anything he does because inside he hasn't reached the age of reason, he's only six and a half. Life is fun at that age. You have such energy and appetite, but you don't empathise, and disasters happening to other people are downright hilarious... Basil is Peter Pan, but with sex drive. Ambrose is a bit sad tho, because he is grown-up.