We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Monday, January 25, 2016
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“UNEARTHLY LANDSCAPES – New Zealand’s Early Cemeteries, Churchyards and Urupa” by Stephen Deed (Otago University Press, $NZ50)
As I have remarked before on this blog [look up the post Let’s Talk of Worms and Graves and Epitaphs], I have a longstanding interest in graveyards – or “cemeteries” if you wish to be more polite – and have always considered visiting them one of the most interesting things one can do when one is in a foreign city. Where else but in an old graveyard can one reflect so readily, not only on the passage of time, but also on the changing of fashions in the way the dead are honoured, on the inevitability of death and on other weighty and interesting matters? And what a pleasure it always is to look at what people once considered appropriate epitaphs and appropriate monumental decoration, and to see the birth and death dates of the interred corpses. If you are of an historical bent, reflections on both longevity and the instance of child mortality will soon arise. A graveyard (particularly a large one) is both a park and a history text spread before you. And usually such a peaceful place, too.
So it was with great engagement that I read Stephen Deed’s Unearthly Landscapes – New Zealand’s early cemeteries, churchyards and urupa. How reassuring to find at least another human being who shares my offbeat interest!
A bit over 200 pages long (exclusive of notes, bibliography and index) and presented in horizontal page shape to accommodate its many illustrations, Unearthly Landscapes devotes its second chapter to pre-European and early-European-era Maori funerary customs. It returns to Maori themes in Chapter 4. But Deed is mainly concerned with Pakeha graveyards and other burial places in New Zealand since the beginning of (post-1840) European settlement.
As with all books that are so lavishly illustrated, I (like, I suspect, most potential readers) first had an orgy of examining the pictures rather than the text – from the twin monumental angels at Koputaroa that face the title page to the ancient (1860s) photo of Auckland’s Symonds Street cemetery, which was removed in the 1960s when a motorway was pushed through; from the ostentatious Lanarch family tomb in North Dunedin (it looks like a ruddy cathedral) to the obelisks and family vaults of European city cemeteries; from the painted whakamaumaharatanga [monument made from the prow of a canoe] of atua to the more modest memorials outside tribal palisades; from the Chinese graves in Naseby cemetery to the 1863 image of Lambton Quay in Wellington, with the Bolton Street Cemetery looming above it; from the weird mortuary chapel outside Nelson’s Wakapuaka cemetery to the equally weird Underwood family vault (with its weeping and its triumphant angels) in Karori cemetery; and – yes – all those shots of decaying wooden headstones as opposed to sturdier stones ones, and of the unsightly picket fences that used to be built around individual graves, and of inopportunely-planted graveyard trees that grew to smash their way through concrete graves, and, alas, of the destructive work of time and vandals.
Of course skimming the book’s images in this way also led me to linger over the various “break-ins” to the text. There are the two pages on colonial diseases and hence the high rate of infant mortality – illustrated with an image of the (1860s) Wallace family tombstone, where the simultaneous deaths of five Wallace children (of scarlet fever) are recorded. Naturally there are break-ins about death by drowning – the “New Zealand death” – in rivers or on sea journeys. A two-page spread shows the urupa (monument) to the chief Honiana Te Puna in Petone as it looked 140 years ago and as it looks today. Another gives an account of the controversial Fenian “funeral” held at Hokitika Cemetery in 1868. It was really a political demonstration by Irish nationalists, and incurred the wrath of local Orangemen and British imperialists. And there is also that alluring break-in about shelter provided for mourners and other visitors at some graveyards, some of them looking more like bandstands than places of mourning.
So much for my first, superficial encounters with this book.
But it is quite misleading to see Unearthly Landscapes only in terms of its fascinating images and its break-ins. Stephen Deed follows an orderly progression in his nine chapters. First, the influence of British and European cemeteries upon colonial designs. Then an account of pre-Pakeha urupa (burial grounds) and the tapu that protected them. Then early missionary churchyards and memorials. Then the way Maori burial customs changed under Pakeha impact. Then the changing shape of Pakeha cemeteries as further immigration led to a more diverse Pakeha population. Then the various controversies over how and where people should be buried. Then the later nineteenth century cemeteries and their social role. Then (in many respects the most interesting chapter in the book) an account of the chosen locations of cemeteries and the materials of which their monuments were made. And finally, in open advocacy, a chapter on the importance of cemeteries as historical sites.
Over his eight well-researched chapters, Stephen Deed follows a number of weighty theses and ideas.
One has to do with the role of religion in the nineteenth century New Zealand cemetery. As Deed notes:
“The New Zealand cemetery was shaped not just by environment, but by the religious beliefs and ethnic composition of the society that developed here. Nearly all nineteenth century cemeteries were divided into sectarian divisions that mirrored the diverse origins and religious affiliations of the colonists: the frequent controversies over the issue of consecration and the provision of burial grounds highlighted the religious fractures present in colonial society. More than just places to bury the dead, cemeteries acted as forums for the expression of the political, racial and religious identities of the living too.” (Introduction, pp.10-11)
There are in the text frequent references to the segregated nature of cemeteries, sometimes with Anglicans assuming their denomination to be the colonial “norm” and with Catholics, Presbyterians, “dissenters’ (i.e. non-Anglican English Protestants) and Jews allocated some small portions of the general burial ground. Often enough there were controversies about this. Even in that most Anglican of settlements, Christchurch, members of the provincial council sometimes registered protest at what they saw as a breach of egalitarianism among the dead (see Chapter 3, p.72). Only in 1872 was the first truly non-denominational urban cemetery opened, this being the Northern Cemetery of Dunedin, which had originally been planned as a multi-denominational ground. (Chapter 8, p.158)
Another frequent theme relates to the difficulty of maintaining cemeteries when much of the nineteenth century settler population was rural and living in remote places:
“For settlers busy clearing land and building housing and roads, cemeteries were not always their first concern. The question of providing or preparing a suitable piece of land was often not considered until the need to bury someone arose…. Lack of a cemetery was one of the reasons for the creation of family cemeteries, or individual graves, in the early days of settlement. Another reason was isolation; even if there was a cemetery in the district or province, it might be too far away to make burial there practicable….” (Chapter 3, p.62)
The first Pakeha cemeteries had been imitations of English churchyards, with mission stations building graveyards around their chapels or churches. But where there were no chapels or churches, or where a rural locality was made up of many [Christian] faiths, rural cemeteries (as outlined at Chapter 7 pp.141 ff.) tended to become what Stephen Deed calls “utilitarian” with their general lack of neat layout or elaborate monuments. There was also the phenomenon of special purpose burial places – war cemeteries after the 1860s New Zealand Wars; cemeteries specifically to cater for those who died during Dunedin and Coromandel gold rushes; and the “quarantine” graveyard in cases of diseased migrants, such as that on Somes Island (Chapter 7, p.145).
It is when he gets to the physical locations of graveyards, and the materials of which they were made, that Deed is at his most informative. He notes the growing popularity of hillsides as sites for nineteenth century cemeteries (Chapter 8, p.153), not only because they allowed for drainage, but because they also gave the dead prominence over the community. [I think of this same concept whenever I drive past the hillside graveyard on the holy mountain outside Ngaruawahia]. Naturally he dwells on the materials of which gravestones and monuments were made. But he also discusses how, for Victorians, the trees and bushes planted in cemeteries were more than foliage and shade:
“Many plantings had recognised symbolic significance…. Annually flowering species symbolised life after death and, on a more practical note, they required little maintenance. Ivy, which invoked immortality and friendship, was another favourite. In the nineteenth century, the weeping willow was popularly associated with death and mourning, although it was ridiculed by some as a modern and sentimental invention. Holly trees and yews, which had a far longer pedigree, would have been familiar to the settlers and were planted in many colonial churchyards and cemeteries…. Popular evergreens such as the cedar and cypress have been associated with death and immortality since antiquity.” (Chapter 8, p.166)
As for the epitaphs, they often emphasised:
“the role of the cemetery as a place of public self-improvement, inscriptions set forth examples of patience under suffering and loss, of religious resignation and celebrated worldly success….. Epitaphs and inscriptions also encouraged reflection on the transitory nature of life on Earth, and the need to prepare for the life to come.” (Chapter 8, p.180)
Deed launches into his last chapter by noting :
“The landscapes of our historic cemeteries are made up of a complex collection of components: monuments and headstones, fences, railings, gates, chapels, cottages, plantings, paths and roads. A wide range of materials was employed in the construction of these features: marble, sandstone, wood and iron. This variety makes each cemetery individual, and is one of their chief charms. However, this complexity is also a point of vulnerability, making cemeteries difficult places to maintain and protect. Although old cemeteries are intended as eternal resting places where the dead are memorialised in perpetuity, these environments are incredibly fragile, and have not always been able to resist change and ultimate destruction.” (end of Chapter 8, p.188)
The last sentence leads into Chapter 9 where Deed outlines how few, if any, other heritage sites capture generational changes in the community as well as cemeteries do. But there are now many threats to our old historic cemeteries. There is urban development, when motorways are pushed through graves and when city real estate becomes more valuable. There is the problem of natural decay. There are problems over the ownership of cemeteries and the responsibility for maintaining them, and controversies over how fully cemeteries should be funded out of rates. Deed is an advocate for the idea of more old cemeteries being given the protection of being deemed historic places (under the New Zealand Historic Places Trust). In an age where cremation has become the majority form of disposing of the dead, cemeteries are often undervalued – and sometimes suffer the wilful damage of vandalism. But Deed points out that cemeteries remain archives, in stone, for genealogists and historians:
“The information contained in the cemetery can be applied to various scales of historical research: from the study of an individual or family, to a town or district, a city or region, or the nation as a whole. Cemeteries, as Thomas Hannon argues, are particularly valuable in regional and local studies, as they ‘provide intact significant portions of the cultural-historical record needed by the researcher who is attempting to get at the roots of the characteristics of a region.’ Hannon’s studies are based on American cemeteries, which can vary greatly from region to region – hence his favouring regional studies. Though New Zealand’s historical cemeteries are more homogenous, they still reflect the demographic, social and economic transitions that regions have passed through…” (Chapter 9, p.212)
The advocacy is understandable and timely.
I do not think it is only twilight idlers such as I who have a taste for cemeteries. They are wonderful places on many levels, and worth cherishing.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
The “SWORD OF HONOUR” trilogy (sometimes called the “Crouchback” trilogy) by Evelyn Waugh – comprising “MEN AT ARMS” (first published 1952); “OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN” (first published 1955); and “UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER” (first published 1961 - retitled “The End of Battle” in America)
Cecil Day Lewis, as a left-winger, was probably somebody of whom Evelyn Waugh would not have approved. But in his brief poem “Where Are The War Poets?”, Day Lewis wrote four lines expressing a British view of the Second World War that could well have been the epigraph to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy: “it is the logic of our times,/ no subject for immortal verse- / that we who lived by honest dreams / defend the bad against the worse.”
Under the farcical bits and the satire and the accounts of campaigns that come close to being straight reportage, Sword of Honour is essentially a view of the Second World War as “defending the bad against the worse”. Britain is corrupt, run by cads and bounders, its army has too many string-pullers who are praised for non-existent heroics, there are con-men everywhere, there are fashionable young men who promote Communism at the expense of Britain’s best interests – and yet the blasted war still has to be fought, because what Hitler offers is infinitely worse. And in fighting against what is infinitely worse, one can attain a degree of honour and even act with a sort of chivalry.
I must admit to a very ambiguous attitude towards the novels of Evelyn Waugh (1903-66). I enjoyed, in an uncomplicated way, all his early farcical stuff, written between the late 1920s and the early 1940s. Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and Put Out More Flags. The pick of early Waugh remain A Handful of Dust (1934), with its strong tinge of melancholy tempering the farce; and Scoop (1938), which is still the gold standard for what satires on the media should be. But I’m much less positive about the later Waugh. This has nothing to do with Waugh’s Catholicism (he had already converted to Catholicism before he wrote most of his early satirical stuff). Nor has it anything to do with what hostile critics perceived to be his snobbery. Rather, it has to do with what I see as an unsuccessful straining after high seriousness. Brideshead Revisited (1945) has its moments, but Waugh seems to have intended it as his masterpiece – a consciously “serious” novel after all the meaningful foolery; and for me it just doesn’t come off. I am half in agreement with the view that it confuses religious experience with the comforts of living among wealthy aristocrats. This view was frequently expressed by non-religious and left-wing critics, so it is worth pointing out that the first negative reviews the immensely popular Brideshead Revisited received were published in church newspapers, which said that the faith expressed in the novel came close to being a disguised materialism. Waugh, they implied, seemed to be saying that you are nearer to God if you say your prayers from a prie-Dieu in a stately home.
Given this, then, I was reluctant to read Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. Indeed, its three volumes have sat unread on my shelves for many years and I roused myself to read them for the first time in the summer holidays just past. Sword of Honour first appeared as the three separate novels Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961). The gap between the appearance of the second and third volumes is explained by the fact that Waugh had had a nervous breakdown at that time (partly exacerbated by his heavy drinking), about which he wrote in his novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). Only after all three novels had been published separately did they acquire the title Sword of Honour and get published together – and before that happened, Waugh made some excisions and emendations to the text. But I have read the three books in first editions, as they were originally presented to the public, and it is upon them that my comments are based.
To dispose of the basic stuff first – the three novels recount, in the third-person, the experiences of Guy Crouchback in the British Army in the Second World War.
At the opening of Men at Arms, it is 1939, war has just broken out, and Guy is 35 years old. He has sorrows in his life. He is the last surviving heir to a minor aristocratic English Catholic family, but he has been divorced for eight years from his frivolous socialite wife Virginia, and he has no son to succeed him. Guy has never been a soldier, but after a lot of wangling, he joins the [fictitious] Halberdiers regiment as an officer-in-training. Being older then all his fellow trainee officers, he soon acquires the nickname “Uncle”. In the second volume of the series, the basic mechanism of the trilogy’s narrative is revealed when we are told “There should be a drug for soldiers, Guy thought, to put them asleep until they were needed.” (Officers and Gentlemen Book One, Chapter 6). In effect this is the “Hurry up! Hurry up! WAIT!” view of the army, where officers as well as men have brief spasms of active service surrounded by long periods of tedium, idleness and training. Thus, in Men at Arms, Guy goes through his training and gets accustomed to regimental life. Keeping “plot”, as such, going in this first volume is the flamboyant trainee officer Apthorpe, apparently swashbuckling and confident and claiming African war experience when he is in reality a shyster, confidence trickster and fantasist. His schemes and adventures counterpoint Crouchback’s and our slow-dawning understanding that war will be a serious business. After much idling and slacking by the trainee officers, there enters a new commander, the old-school Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, who knocks some ginger into them. But it is all a big build-up to a great letdown, for when the regiment eventually goes into action, in 1940, it is as part of a farcical and unsuccessful attempt to help the Free French wrest Dakar from Vichy.
As the second volume Officers and Gentlemen begins, the reality of war is still sinking in. (The opening pages have a description of the Blitz as if its flames are an aesthetic experience rendered by Turner). Guy is sent for Commando training to the Scottish Isle of Mugg. In 1941, Guy and his company are eventually shipped to Alexandria. Waugh indulges in some heavy irony at the expense of fashionable people and army officers in Alexandria who are completely complacent about the loss of Greece and who imagine that Crete will easily be held. One remarks: “Everything in Crete is under control. The navy broke up the sea landing and sunk the lot. The enemy only hold two pockets and the New Zealanders have got them completely contained. Reinforcements are rolling in every night for the counter-attack” (Officers and Gentlemen Book Two, Chapter 4). Just a few pages later, the utter shambles that was the British and Commonwealth defence of Crete is revealed. Guy and the Halberdiers are among the last sent to the defence of the island, and their role rapidly comes to be the rear-guard protecting the massive (and shambolic) retreat and evacuation. There is the odd sardonic comment, especially about officers pushing their way to the fore to be evacuated, but it is notable that the events of Officers and Gentlemen set in Crete are not comic ones. Real and nasty war is being reported here in almost documentary detail. The character of Major Hound (nicknamed “Fido”) comes to the fore in these passages. Hound is essentially a pitiable old Colonel Blimp type who is completely lost without any orders to follow, and represents the end of the line for a certain sort of British officer. For New Zealand readers, it is interesting that New Zealanders are frequently mentioned in Waugh’s narrative, usually in complimentary terms as soldiers who are more willing then others to put up a fight. By the time Guy is evacuated and gets back to Alexandria, his heroic view of the war is severely dented. He loses his temporary rank of captain and is unwillingly posted back to England. Like Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen ends with a sense of ironic deflation, but there is nothing comic or farcical about the irony this time.
As it appeared six years after Officers and Gentlemen, the final volume Unconditional Surrender begins with Waugh considerately providing a four-page synopsis of the plot so far. (Obviously this was one of the things that were dropped when the trilogy was later printed as one fat volume). Guy is back in England for what he sees as two wasted years (1941-43). He has grown to be 39 and is officially too old to be sent again on active service overseas, so he spends much of his time training younger officers and men. It is at this time that his father dies. Despite his age, Guy is sent by the Halberdiers to train with commandos as a parachutist. In 1944, he is sent to Croatia as a liaison officer with the Yugoslav partisans who are still fighting the retreating Germans. Guy observes the partisans being infiltrated and taken over by Russian Communists. Some of the English officers (Frank de Souza and Cattermole – both of them based on real people) are either members of the Communist Party or fellow travellers. Guy observes, but cannot do anything to avert, deals that are made compromising real liberation and selling out the exiled government (in London) of the Yugoslav king. He notes the start of a persecution of the church as Communist power increases. Indeed in Croatia, what with the sham displays put on by partisan leaders to impress visiting Allied missions, Guy sees more subversion than real liberation. If the endings of Men at Arms and Officers and Gentlemen were ironical in terms of, respectively, farce and tragedy, then the irony that ends Unconditional Surrender is despairing. There is a thoroughly dispiriting finale to the narrative proper when a kindly act Guy performs for two Jewish refugees leads to their death at the hands of the partisans. The implication is that, in Yugoslavia, a new totalitarian regime is being established as the German and collaborationist one is being driven out.
In its original (1961) form, Unconditional Surrender has a brief epilogue set post-war where, in the very last paragraph, Waugh makes an unconvincing nod towards a conventional happy ending for Guy. This final paragraph was one of the things Waugh amended when the three novels were gathered into their final form. Guy’s future remains bleak to the end.
All “plot summaries”, like the one I have just given, are reductionist and miss out much of what drives any novel along. It’s important to note, for example, that a recurring subplot concerns Guy’s relationship with his ex-wife Virginia. She has been married twice since her marriage to Guy, her second husband being one Tommy Blackhouse, who for part of the trilogy is Guy Crouchback’s commanding officer, with all the social embarrassments that necessarily ensue. At one point, believing (as a Catholic) that in the eyes of God, Virginia is still his wife, Guy attempts unsuccessfully to seduce her to produce his desired heir. For most of the trilogy, Virginia has the surname of her third husband and is Mrs Troy, but she is in the process of divorcing Mr Troy. A slimy character called Trimmer sets out to seduce her and leaves her pregnant. How Virginia resolves this problem (the details are fairly sordid), and what impact it has on Guy Crouchback’s life, form a major part of the second half of Unconditional Surrender.
Trimmer, a bounder, cad and liar, is another recurring character in the novels, falsely lauded for courageous actions in battle, which he did not perform, and set up by wartime propaganda as a morale-boosting hero. Through him, Waugh blasts the whole cult of personality and the lies that propaganda creates in wartime. The cynical and opportunist liaison journalist Ian Kilbannock, speaking of the commandos, says “Delightful fellows, heroes too, but the Wrong Period. Last war stuff, Guy. Went out with Rupert Brooke” (Officers and Gentlemen Book One, Chapter 10). Yet later Kilbannock is to the fore in fabricating Trimmer’s heroism for public consumption.
More sinister, though, even if as farcical in places, is one Ludovic, a fellow officer who regards himself as something of a writer. It is strongly implied (without being directly stated) that Ludovic is personally and deliberately responsible for the deaths of some British soldiers in the scramble that is the evacuation of Crete. Ludovic suspects that Guy Crouchback knows this. As a result, when he is in a position of power, he makes sure that Guy is sent somewhere dangerous (Croatia) in the hopes of getting rid of him. Ludovic later flourishes writing pieces for the arty magazine “Survival”, and produces a widely-discussed avant-garde novel. This is Waugh taking a poke at the leftist bent of publications such as “Penguin New Writing” and “Horizon”, and the fatuities of the literary intelligentsia.
Most devastating of all is the very minor character of Ivo Claire, whom Guy at first reckons to be a chivalrous gentleman-officer like himself. The gradual revelation that Ivo Claire too is opportunistic and self-promoting punctures Guy Crouchback’s worldview as much as the ending of each of the three novels do.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One way of discussing the Sword of Honour trilogy is to relate it to Evelyn Waugh’s own life. Much of it is thinly-disguised autobiography. Whole books have been written (I haven’t read them) comparing in minute detail Guy Crouchback’s war service with Evelyn Waugh’s. Briefly, Waugh – like Guy – was in his mid-thirties when the war broke out. Even though he was on the old side for military service, he managed to get a commission and served as an officer from 1939 to 1944. He never rose to a rank higher than acting captain. Like Guy, he had commando training, took part in the raid on Dakar, was in the evacuation force helping stragglers off Crete (where he was commended for bravery) and, after two years training recruits (in which time he wrote Brideshead Revisited), was parachuted into Yugoslavia to help the partisans. Additionally, his father died during the war, just as Guy Crouchback’s father does.
Yet the novel is a novel and Guy Crouchback is not Evelyn Waugh, even if he shares many of the author’s values. Waugh had indeed been divorced, before he converted to Catholicism, but he remarried happily enough (despite some sexual dalliances) and had a family. There was no real-life parallel to Guy’s relationship with his ex-wife Virginia. The novels have no equivalent to Waugh’s wartime friendship with Randolph Churchill, the prime minister’s silly and bibulous son, who was with Waugh in his time in Yugoslavia. Perhaps more important, though he married into the minor aristocracy and mingled with the tone-iest people, Waugh was middle-class by birth. He may have admired the old Catholic aristocracy, but unlike Guy he was not born to it. In some respects, then, Guy is Waugh’s idealised view of himself.
Stepping away from autobiography, what are the novels saying?
In some sense, they are about the legitimacy of patriotism in time of war, and its subversion by a new set of values. At first Guy is alienated from the silly social whirl of London club life where “there were many familiar faces but no friends.” (Men at Arms Prologue). He is seeking a purpose. Although he has never served in the forces, the outbreak of war immediately tells him that his country needs him. In the Halberdiers regiment “he had been experiencing something he had missed in boyhood, a happy adolescence.” And “he loved the whole Corps deeply and tenderly” (Men at Arms Book One, Chapter 1). When the new brigadier tells the young officers of their real duties, we are told:
“At these words Guy’s shame left him and pride flowed back. He ceased for the time being to be the lonely and ineffective man – the man he so often thought he saw in himself, past his first youth, cuckold, wastrel, prig – who had washed and shaved and dressed at Claridge’s, lunched at Bellamy’s and caught the afternoon train; he was one with his regiment, with all their historic feats of arms behind him, with great opportunities to come. He felt from head to foot a physical tingling and bristling as though charged with a galvanic current.” (Men at Arms Book Two, Chapter 1)
Not only has serving in a just war given him a purpose and the possibility of personal redemption, but he sees it in terms of chivalry and honour. As a Catholic, he wears a holy medal given to him by his father. The contrast of two swords provides the trilogy with its dominant symbol. Guy is living in Italy when war breaks out. In Men at Arms, he at once goes to a local church and swears his loyalty to his country and professes his chivalrous attitudes on the graven sword of the statue of an old English warrior-saint. But two novels later, the first chapter of Unconditional Surrender narrates Guy’s refusal to be impressed by the sword of honour, on display in Westminster Abbey, which the King of England is officially presenting to the city of Stalingrad. For Guy, who joined up when Hitler and Stalin were allies, the honest and chivalrous aims of the war have been corrupted by Britain’s alliance with one totalitarian state against another.
Guy’s father clearly represents the old attitudes of courtesy and charity that are spurned in this new sort of war. Old Mr Crouchback is retired but is forced to make ends met by teaching the junior forms at a private school. He lives in a shabby private hotel. The hotel’s grasping owners are hoping that their permanent residents will be forced out by billeting officers, so that they can charge more for transient guests. They cannot understand the natural charity of Mr Crouchback, who voluntarily gives up his room for somebody in need. As the hotelier says: “He’s a deep one, and no mistake. I never have understood him, not properly. Somehow his mind seems to work different than your and mine.” (Officers and Gentlemen Book One, Chapter 4). Old Crouchback’s mind is “different” only because it works by values that are concerned with the traditional idea of charity and not concerned with making a profit. Book Two of Unconditional Surrender is called “Fin de Ligne” as it clearly is the end of the family line when old Crouchback dies (his funeral is described in great detail in Book Two, Chapter 3) and Guy has no heir. In these symbolic ways, effects of the war in England represent the end of a patriotic and chivalrous ideal.
As Waugh tells it, many things caused true patriotism to decay. One major enemy was on the Left. The entry of the Soviet Union into the war, as England’s ally, makes Guy Crouchback’s mood very black indeed. He hears of this new alliance when he is stationed near the Mediterranean and:
“It was just such a sunny, breezy Mediterranean day two years before when he read of the Russo-German alliance, when a decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason, when the Enemy was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off, the modern age in arms.” (Officers and Gentlemen Book Two, Chapter 7)
In 1939, there was a clear-cut conflict between a totalitarian power and democracies. Now, in mid-1941, the morality of the war becomes very muddled indeed. No wonder Guy’s Blimpish Uncle Peregrine is confused and forgets who the enemy is supposed to be, remarking:
“Shocking news from the eastern front. The Bolshevists are advancing again. Germans don’t seem able to stop them. I’d sooner see the Japanese in Europe – at least they have a king and some sort of religion. If one can believe the papers we are actually helping the Bolshevists. It’s a mad world, my masters.” (Unconditional Surrender Book Two, Chapter 6)
Prior to Operation Barbarossa, Guy is already aware of the presence of bright young middle-class English Communists in key positions. Thus he speaks of:
“Hazardous Offensive Operations Headquarters, that bizarre product of total war that was to proliferate through five acres of valuable London property, engrossing the simple high staff officers of all the Services with experts, charlatans, plain lunatics and every unemployed member of the British Communist Party – HOO HQ, at this stage of its history, occupied three flats in a supposedly luxurious modern block.” (Officers and Gentlemen Book One, Chapter 5) [emphasis added]
As Waugh was writing in the 1950s, those who disliked his conservatism could dismiss these ideas as right-wing paranoia, or a snobby form of McCarthyism. But Waugh’s perception was accurate. It took most of the 1950s for Britain to understand that its spy service was riddled with smooth upper-middle-class Soviet agents. Even before Waugh began his trilogy, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had already defected to the Soviet Union (in 1951). Kim Philby was under suspicion, but didn’t defect until 1963; and the revelation that John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt were also Soviet agents came out even later. Waugh has his fictitious character Cattermole deliberately falsifying reports about Communist partisans in Yugoslavia, and consciously assisting the sidelining of the Yugoslav government in exile. Cattermole is based on another member of the Cambridge spy circle, the Communist James Klugmann, whom Waugh knew (and disliked) in Yugoslavia. (Geoff Andrew’s biography of Klugmann, The Shadow Man, was published in 2015). Inasmuch as British wartime policy concerning Yugoslavia was directed by information supplied by MI6, it was directed by Kim Philby. Score one for Waugh who, by the time he wrote his trilogy, would have had the added amusement of seeing the Yugoslav Communist Tito now being denounced as a traitor and heretic by the Moscow faithful.
Yet it is not only on the extreme Left that Waugh sees the decay and corruption of British values and wartime aims. He is suspicious of the growing American cultural influence, seen in the novelty of “American parcels” coming from English kids who have been evacuated to the USA. The character of “Loot” (Lieutenant) Padfield represents the superficiality of American journalism as he rushes around praising and “boosting” anything that seems to the Allies’ advantage, no matter how inane. In Officers and Gentlemen (Book Two, Chapter 6) there is the grotesque scene where the manufactured “hero” Trimmer fronts up with three American journalists whom Waugh unsubtly calls Bum, Scab and Joe. Of course England has amoral bounders of its own in this novel, and is perfectly capable of corrupting herself. But when Waugh disposes of Virginia from the novel, he takes a rhetorical whack at the promiscuous heroines of inter-war novels by having a character quoting from Aldous Huxley, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Huxley was English, but the predominance of such novels was American.
Quite apart from the trilogy’s political views, there are other things that annoyed many readers when it first appeared. Generally, and despite Guy Crouchback’s high aspirations, the view of war is very unheroic and has no room for “their finest hour” rhetoric. Satirical shafts are shot at sacred cows. The early phases of Men at Arms, set during the “phoney war”, depict well-connected young men scrambling to find themselves comfy berths for the duration, where they can sit out the war far from the firing line. When Churchill becomes prime minister, we are told:
“Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and Lloyd George.” (Men at Arms Book Two, Chapter 8)
The awful Trimmer refers to the “epic” of Dunkirk thus:
“You mustn’t mind old Ivor. He and I are great pals and chaff each other a bit. Did you spot his M.C.? Do you know how he got it? At Dunkirk, for shooting three territorials who were trying to swamp his boat. Great chap old Ivor.” (Officers and Gentlemen Book One, Chapter 6)
There is also a well-earned crack at a much loved, but fatuous, BBC wartime commentator. Speaking of a new National Service man, Waugh remarks “His ‘braininess’ was not oppressive. The imputation derived chiefly from the facts that he read Mr. J.B.Priestley’s novels, and was strangely dishevelled in appearance.” (Men at Arms Book Two, Chapter 7).
Then there is the matter of Guy Crouchback’s Catholicism, and his sense of alienation from much of society because of his religion. More than once, plot contrivances (wherein Guy remains a mere lieutenant – sometimes acting captain – while scoundrels gain promotion) have Guy suspected of treason because of his religion. In Alexandria, he goes to confession to an Alsatian priest who is suspected of working for the enemy. In Croatia, Communist partisans watch him closely as he takes communion, to ensure he is not passing on information to Yugoslav royalists.
At the funeral of Guy’s father, Guy’s inane brother-in-law Arthur Box-Bender, trying to make a compliment, says to the officiating priest something that would be anathema to any Catholic:
“I’m not a member of your persuasion but I’m bound to say your Cardinal Hinsley did a wonderful job of work on the wireless. You could see he was an Englishman first and a Christian second; that is more than you can say of one or two of our bishops.” (Unconditional Surrender Book Two, Chapter 3)
His religion helps make Crouchback an outsider, even when he is most at home in military service.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
All of this says what the novel is about, and records accurately Waugh’s own ideas. But what is a fair judgment on it?
With reluctance, I have to say that reading the Sword of Honour trilogy has not altered my view of the later Waugh. While his earlier satirical novels tackle serious subjects, Sword of Honour finds him still straining after seriousness in the sections where he is not being outright funny. The tone is very uncertain.
There are many passages of pure farce – in Men at Arms the silly shenanigans as officers younger than Guy take to calling him “Uncle” and play out their mess rituals and games with a degree of infantilism signalled by fact that they are, for some time, quartered in an old school. The first novel has the pure bedroom farce of Crouchback, on leave in London, attempting to seduce his ex-wife while the ‘phone keeps ringing and interrupting him whenever he reaches the crucial point. The sections of Officers and Gentlemen concerning the Isle of Mugg seem to have wandered out of a Compton Mackenzie novel, what with the laird who wants to borrow army explosives to blow things up and the eccentric civilian professor who wants to train soldiers to survive on limpets and sea weed and the crazy Scottish Nationalist girl scattering pamphlets about the benefits of a Hitler victory. In Unconditional Surrender there is the long and farcical conversation between Virginia and Uncle Peregrine, where the old buffer is completely at cross purposes with the experienced minx as he fails to understand why she is suddenly amorous towards members of his family.
Admittedly the farce sometimes takes on a bitter, satirical edge, as in the depiction (in Officers and Gentlemen) of the society hostess Mrs Stitch in Alexandria [based on the bitchy Lady Diana Cooper], who does genuinely know all the army gossip, but uses it to punish or “cut” people. Just as often, though, farce strays into in-joke. In Men at Arms, the shyster Apthorpe’s portable lavatory – the object of many farcical manoeuvres – is called “Connolly’s Chemical Closet”, with Waugh repeating the sort of joke against his sometime friend Cyril Connolly which he had deployed in Put Out More Flags (where a horrible family of unruly evacuee children are called the Connollys). Indeed the text has too many in-jokes to record here.
Of course comedy and tragedy can mix. Of course serious novels can have “comic relief”. But the effect is still very jarring when Waugh switches from this sort of thing to the documentary seriousness of accounts of rifle practice and parachute training and the military disaster on Crete.
I also find myself not wholly convinced by the character of Crouchback himself. Patriotism, honour, even a sort of chivalry, are virtues that can be defended rationally, but Crouchback’s conception of them is so out of synch with the 20th century that it is hard to believe anyone began the Second World War holding to such views. (Certainly Evelyn Waugh didn’t – his reportage on Mexico and on the Abyssinian War show somebody already disabused of a romantic view of conflict and war). Perhaps this is where Waugh’s idealisation of himself comes in. He (a middle-class chap) volunteered from patriotic motives – but in Guy he fantasises about what the even more exalted motives of a right-thinking minor Catholic aristocrat might have been. Guy becomes an ideal against which the deceptions and self-interest of others in wartime are measured. It need hardly be said that Guy Crouchback in no way represents the views of his English co-religionists. Most English Catholics (predominantly middle-class and working-class) joined up for the same reasons anybody else did – mainly seeing the war against Hitler as an unpleasant necessity.
On top of this, and for all the activity in which he is involved, Guy comes across as mentally somehow passive, and more often put upon than initiating activities or relationships. In the midst of other people, he is a sad sack and mental recluse. There is only one point in the whole trilogy where I find him expressing something like joy, and that is when he takes his first parachute jump, which is related thus:
“He experienced rapture, something as near as his earthbound soul could reach to a foretaste of paradise….. The aeroplane seemed as far distant as will, at the moment of death, the spinning earth. As though he had cast the constraining bonds of flesh and muscle and nerve, he found himself floating free; the harness that had irked him in the narrow, dusky, resounding carriage now almost imperceptibly supported him. He was a free spirit in an element as fresh as on the day of its creation.” (Unconditional Surrender Book Two Chapter 5)
Floating free in the air unencumbered by other human beings. Seeing everything sub specie aeternitatis and without intrusive trivialities. It is an interesting idealisation, but hardly a credible character.
Sensible Footnote: For the record, it is possible to find on-line intelligent and detailed theological analyses of Sword of Honour, which show the extent to which the sequence reflects Christian virtues, including the unfashionable virtue of sacrifice, which is at odds in Guy Crouchback’s soul with his tendency to sloth and comfort.
Foolish Footnote: Sword of Honour has been spared being made into a feature film, but Wikipedia informs me that it has twice been made into serials by British television – once in 1967 with Edward Woodward as Guy Crouchback; and again in 2001 with Daniel Craig (later the most lugubrious of James Bonds) in the lead role. As I have seen neither of these two serials, you will be spared my pompous comments on them.
Oddity Footnote: There is a scene in Men at Arms where a brigadier addresses young officers thus: “When the tables have been cleared there will be a game of Housey-housey, here. For the benefit of the young officers I should explain that it is what civilians, I believe, call Bingo.” [Men at Arms Book Two, Chapter 1]. As a New Zealander, I am intrigued by this, because it implies that Housey (or Housie) was the name given to the game by the English upper classes and military, while mere proles called it Bingo. New Zealanders of my generation will know that, by all classes of New Zealander, the game (most often played in church halls) was always known as Housie. The term Bingo began to be deployed here only after new groups of English immigrants arrived in the 1960s. It may be another case of the great New Zealand unwashed adopting the habits of English toffs rather than of the English masses – like making the public school game of rugby our national sport rather than real football.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
IN HIGH DUDGEON WITH A LOT OF HARRUMPHING
Gentle reader, I am going to harrumph. And not only am I going to harrumph, but I am going to say “Pshaw!” And not only am I going to say “Pshaw!” but I am going to add “Oh fie!” and end with a loud “Bah, humbug!”
It happened thus.
For three days I was shepherding my two eldest grandchildren, visiting from England, around the city of Wellington. We visited such wondrous places as Somes Island and the Karori nature reserve, which has now been poncily renamed “Zealandia”, where my 12-year-old granddaughter had ample opportunity to indulge her favourite hobby – photographing birds in their native habitat. We visited Cuba Mall, where my 14-year-old grandson had ample opportunity to follow his strongest interests by lingering long in one boutique specialising in geeky comics and another specialising in computer games. And of course we went to Te Papa and saw Peter Jackson’s gargantuan mythologisation of New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli. And we saw one suitable stage play.
Nice place, Wellington, despite its “daylong driving cloud”. Please do remember that it is an Aucklander who is writing this.
But then the fateful moment came when my digestion was quite ruined and my equanimity lost. No, it was not the so-called “National Portrait Gallery” with its undistinguished daubs. Nor was it the tour of Weta Workshops, more to my grandchildren’s taste than mine.
It happened when we stepped into the modest Wellington Museum, which concentrates on the history of the port and mariners and shipping and the like. We watched the vivid and wrenching black-and-white film of the sinking of the “Wahine”, rendered more immediate to my grandchildren by my telling them that their great-uncle (my elder brother) was one of the young army officers who had the awful task of gathering up bodies that were washed up on the Eastbourne side of the harbour. We looked at interesting items about immigrants of formers times and the toil of watersiders.
Then, alas, we went up to a line of illustrated placards each of which purported to give a significant Wellington event for each year of the 20th century.
One of them told the untruthful and completely fanciful story of Gordon Coates, Minister of Works, telling a group of unemployed workers in 1932 that they should go to the Basin Reserve and “eat grass”. Doubtless some political opponents spread this fabricated story at the time, but it was and is pure moonshine.
Granted the placard attempts to cover its arse by referring to this as Coates’ “alleged” comment, but as it has no basis at all in historical fact, why bother repeating it at all?
To compound matters, this singularly inept placard was headed “Shades of Marie Antoinette”, comparing Coates’ “alleged” response to the fiction that Queen Marie Antoinette said of starving Parisian who had no bread “Let them eat cake”. This particular historical lie has been debunked innumerable times. (The fable of the cruel queen who said “Let them eat cake” had been in circulation for decades before Marie Antoinette was even born, and was first associated with her by a political pamphleteer about 50 years after her death.) Once again, the placard does a little arse-covering by stating that the queen was “said to have” made the fictitious reply. And once again I ask – why bother perpetuating what is known to be a fiction?
I assume that an institution like the Wellington Museum employs people to research and write the captions to their exhibits. In this case, the untruthful story about Coates and the untruthful story about Marie Antoinette led to mention of the riots by unemployed people that took place in both Wellington and Auckland. But why lead into such an important historical set of events by telling what is completely unhistorical? That way lies mythology rather than history.
It annoys me to see popular fictions posing as information.
So harrumph, “Pshaw!” “Oh fie!” and a dozen “Bah, humbugs!”