One of the most delicious paragraphs in modern literature begins thus, ‘In the week which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War,’ and ends, ‘Three rich women thought first and mainly of Basil Seal. They were his sister, his mother and his mistress.’ The novel is, of course, Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh. I re-read it during the (first) lockdown, to palliate more serious projects. There was a renewed assault on Proust – failed – and an attempt to read the whole of Gibbon, one of those works in progress which is progressing. Waugh is classed as a master of satire and light social comedy. Both are true: neither is adequate. The humour – this is a book which will make you laugh out loud – disguises profound social observation, tinged with concealed pessimism.
It is also remarkable that it ever appeared. The principal character, Basil Seal, is an adventurer, unscrupulous cuckolder and equally unscrupulous betrayer of friends: an out-and out rogue without a single moral molecule in his anatomy. To put it euphemistically, he is a total four-letter man. At the beginning of the War, Basil is trying to find interesting military employment, but there are problems. His CV is hardly soldier-like, and whenever he comes in contact with those who are trying to put the country on a more regimented footing, there is incomprehension on his part: horror on theirs.
In chronicling all this, Waugh makes fun of everything he describes. Basil’s brother-ln-law, Freddie Sothill, about to return to the yeomanry regiment in which he had once performed some desultory soldiering, has the entire staff of his great house, Malfrey, at sixes and sevens trying to locate his kit, and above all his pistol: ‘I can get court-martialled for this.’ It is eventually found, by a nursery-maid, in a toy-cupboard. There is a toy-cupboard quality to much of the war effort in those early days. The Ministry of Information is an especially fruitful subject for mickey-taking, but so are security arrangements, recruiting procedures: so is everything.
Admittedly, Waugh was describing what came to be known as ‘the Great Bore War’, those few months when British national life seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, before Hitler terrorised Europe and Churchill galvanised the nation. The British have been described as a warlike race but not a militaristic one. In 1940, German militarism almost won. By 1942, when the book was published, the tide was turning. Russia had not collapsed. We British were militarising after all and the Americans had come on board.
‘So we have won after all,’ was Churchill’s response to that news. Even so, it is a tribute to those in charge of such matters that both permission and rationed paper was made available for a book which pokes so much fun at officialdom. Someone in authority – not the sort of character one meets in Waugh’s pages – clearly had a sense of humour, reinforcing that most uncommon quality, common sense. In those bleak, rationed days, with the omni-present black-out, the bell constantly tolling in the casualty lists, the equally constant fear of the telegram – when it was clear that years of privation and the butcher’s bill of many a battlefield lay in front of us, whoever was in charge realised that people needed a laugh. Waugh provided it.