325. Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

Many, many years ago I worked on a commercial freighter for a couple of months as a supernumerary deckhand. Which is to say I was a useless pair of hands that tried not to put my head in the way of a swinging derrick.

One of the real Able Seamen was a weather-worn Scot from the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.  The sort of guy who had salt water rather than blood in his veins. When he was in port he was permanently drunk and disorderly, but once we put to sea he was sober and serious. He loved and feared the sea in equal measure.

His sole recreation when at sea was to read, and re-read, and re-read again a single book: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

There are a few books that I re-read, because the re-reading rewards with new insights and appreciation.

And there is one book that I return to constantly: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. But I only allow myself the pleasure once a year, and that time is now.

Waugh was by all accounts, including his own and those of his children, a not very nice person in person. His world view was crankily reactionary, even for his own time. But the man can write. From biting satire to eruptive humour to crunching sadness and terror, his devotion to his writing overwhelms the facade of certainty. And he created some of the greatest comic devices I have had the pleasure to trip over, from the thunder box in the Sword of Honour trilogy, to Ned Ryder in Brideshead. I am in awe of Waugh.

I find that, as the LittleDavys grow to independence, I turn to the book more and more for inspiration in my parenting style. Such as here, when a young Charles Ryder has returned home after his first year at university, having spent all his allowance and facing a dull summer without funds in the company of his father Ned:

‘One of the problems of the vacation is money, father.’

‘Oh, I shouldn’t worry about a thing like that at your age.’

‘You see, I’ve run rather short.’

‘Yes?’ said my father without any sound of interest.

‘In fact I don’t quite know how I’m going to get through the next two months.’

‘Well, I’m the worst person to come to for advice. I’ve never been “short” as you so painfully call it. And yet what else could you say? Hard up? Penurious? Distressed? Embarrassed? Stony-broke?’ (snuffle). ‘On the rocks? In Queer Street? Let us say you are in Queer Street and leave it at that.’

‘Then what do you suggest my doing?’

‘Your cousin Melchior was imprudent with his investments and got into a very queer street. He went to Australia.’

I had not seen my father so gleeful since he found two pages of second-century papyrus between the leaves of a Lombardic breviary.


About Ned Davy

By hokey, the big fella’s tipped into his 50s. A rangy loose forward in his prime, good with the ball in hand, but rarely up with the play any more.
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3 Responses to 325. Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

  1. Deborah says:

    I’m not so fond of the somewhat treacly-middle-aged-man-angsty Bridgeshead Revisited as you are, but even so, I enjoyed the TV series very much. We rewatched it with our eldest daughter a couple of years ago. As the final credits rolled, her father turned to her and said, “Well, what do you think of that?”

    She thought for a moment and said, “Don’t be Catholic.”

    “That’s all you’ve got to say?” he said.

    She thought for a moment more and said, “Really, really, really don’t be Catholic.”

    • Ned Davy says:

      I protest! (Not the Catholic thing, because I think Waugh really did believe that part of the point of becoming a Catholic was that it was hard and difficult and unnatural, which fit into his reactionary rejection of anything that had happened after the 15th century. But that’s a whole other topic.)

      No, it’s the treacly-middle-aged-man-angsty accusation. (I might say that as a treacly middle aged man, it’s true. But I hope not angsty.)

      In his preface to the 1959 edition Waugh apologises that the “book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language”, which he blames on it being written during the privations of 1943 and 1944. Also remember that he was not having a good war. He had volunteered early with dreams of glory in battle, and had found that the Army could not provide them, because he was middle-aged and not physically adept and certainly not a leader of men. That is much of the wistful regret that infuses the whole structure of the novel, I think.

      More than that, always more than all his flaws, he can write. How he can write. How I envy him his ability to write. More about that on Sunday.

  2. Pingback: 329. How To Eat | Ned Davy and The Order of The Black Heart

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