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04/05/2015
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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Evelyn Waugh's comic novel Decline and Fall. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

Decline and Fall

I once read a good chunk of Decline and Fall in a rudimentary gothic lavatory in a declining stately home in the middle of Ireland in the 1960s. It was hanging from a nail which had been bashed into a damp wall. The chain from the nail was crudely hooked into the book (a hardback) and when I opened it, the first thing I saw was the extremely neat handwriting of the author and it read "What genius I had then. Evelyn." It transpired he'd been a guest at this great house and one of his presents had been put on jankers.

When I was at Oxford in the late 50s it was probably the last time that the parts of Decline and Fall touched, though lightly, on social realism. Peck Quad at Christ Church was still viscount-led and stories of competing for the number of parties in London, attended by their Lordships and Honourables and hangers-on, were relayed to all of us in the university gossip columns. But I'd read it before then, before I knew anything about Oxford or indeed Evelyn Waugh, and thought it was wonderful. It was the time when I was reading Dickens, and Decline and Fall - immediately followed by others that I gobbled up - seemed to me, in one sense, to be Dickens on speed, unbuttoned and modern.

After the programme David Bradshaw of Worcester College told me that he and others were putting together 44 volumes of the complete Waugh works and letters and diaries. I remember reading the diaries when they came out and thinking that he had written them with almost as much care as the novels, and private though they were claimed to be, they had always been intended for publication - to amuse, to take revenge, to muse.

There was the great John Freeman interview of course, when, if I remember correctly, he said that neither praise nor blame was the best he could hope for as a writer.

And I'm delighted that my children are now taking him up.

After the programme I thought that I had been too bumptious. The problem that I had was that, although it's a short novel, the plot is fairly complex and the number of characters is very large for the time allotted. The only adaptation of Waugh on the screen that I've seen that worked was Brideshead Revisited and that's because they gave it so much screen time. Subsequent screenwriters seem to have thought that because the novels were quite short they could make quite short films. Not true at all. Waugh needs length to breathe on the screen.

Ann Pasternak Slater, whose first appearance on the programme it was, said that she had been requested not to bring in any notes, including quotations. All of us regretted that that message had got to her because it's not what we usually say. No notes (if possible), yes, because we try to run a conversation and not mini-lectures. But quotations we love. Still, even without notes, she dug up some gems.

Off then into a meeting with Tom Morris about a programme we're going to do on a father and son combination who won a Nobel Prize and with whom I share a name, and then into the streets of London, this time with a hat. I was walking along Piccadilly the other week and it was pouring down and I was getting soaked, and there was a shop with the most enticing of all signs in the window - Sale. It was also full of hats. I bought one. A trilby, I think it is. Dark blue. It reminded me of my grandfather's hat. It also reminded me of characters in movies in the 40s and 50s and early 60s. Mostly gangsters, I suppose, or Humphrey Bogart. Anyway, it's a character changer is a hat. It's also a life saver. After lunch, walking in St James's Park and seeing what seemed to be an infestation of pigeons, I was minding my own business when the wing of a large duck (not quite a Canada goose but getting there) banged against my head as it took short-sighted flight from the pond to the nearby lawn. Had I not had on my three-day-old hat I could have had quite a bump. So this thing has already proved its usefulness twice.

And then back up through Regent Street - so crowded that I had to walk on the street itself because the pavements were seething with shoppers this February Thursday afternoon. London's a-bubble.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by John Thompson

    on 23 Feb 2013 16:29

    Not all of us can be dynamic,that is hold onto the wheel for dear life.This signifiesWaugh wrote this in his pre-Catholic,hedonistic phase,when he was rooting around for values and order in a chaotic world.Despite the profligate variety of characters in D&F.Waugh’s main concern was the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me…He thought psychology was a fake term,stream-of-consciousness rubbish.Hence as you said his early interest in Joyce followed by his scorn of the later Joyce.He also attacks modernism in architecture,prison reform,and in psychoanalysis. He is influenced by Hemingway’s use of writing about drunks in The Sun Also Rises.His greatest influences are Firbank and pre-1st World War Woodhouse.Dialogue from Firbank conducts the novel.In all Waugh’s novels the hero is an innocent caught up in and done down by the machinations of a wicked world.Butthe nature of the world changes.We are in a morality-free world.Waugh objected to D&F being described as social satire,impossible in a society with no acceptable norms of behaviour,attitude and belief.But your speaker spoke of looking for permanence in a world he perceives as impermanent.His satire comes from the ‘latent desire for certainty’,soon to drive him to become a Catholic convert.The Great Wheel spins and sorts out the ‘dynamic’ from the ‘static’.This is a politically incorrect novel with no sense of who’s right and who’s wrong,bad men land on their feet,the hero worships the moneyed elite,involved in yahoo behaviours like breaking windows,debagging innocent students,white slave-trading etc.If you’re flung off the wheel you’re dead.

    Waugh’s morality comes from his style,with the title reflecting an Augustinian Catholicism,an Apollonian style that is detached from the series of Dionysian events. A kind of atheistic humanism prevails.Waugh made clear it wasn’t the writer’s job tofeel(he decried Dickens-whom he loved-at his most sentimental),it was the reader’s job.Waugh’s narration is usually neutral behind a mask of impersonal reporting.This is a satirist’s tactic,a pure statement:the novelist organizes a social report around a young man’s adventures in society,presented as more sympathetically than his milieu.But its follies are not criticized.The report on a situation Waugh can’t interpret,his feeling towards its meaninglessness,one of half-fascinated,half-indulgent horror. Waugh never goes beyond the external accuracy of observation,brilliant realism,with
    the odd twist with a vernacular word to deflate the Augustan style.We need to remember Eliot’s Wasteland prefigured his conversion to Anglicanism.Everything is fortuitious, people rise and fall.Paul Pennyfeather moves like an innocent in a world of immortals,Margot,Dr Fagan,Captain Grimes,Philbrick,Mr Prendergast,all indestructible as the forces of nature that,in comic terms ,they represent.To the dynamic,all is forgiven;the concept of forgiveness is irrelevant:they triumphantly are.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by The_Doctor

    on 23 Feb 2013 15:35

    Given that this is the 50th Aniversary year of Dr Who and the considerable academic interest in the show - could you consider an IOT about this subject?

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by pbr

    on 22 Feb 2013 15:12

    Their have been several other father/son combinations to win the Nobel Prize including Niels & Aage Bohr and JJ Thomson and GP Thomson. The Braggs, however, are the only ones to win the prize at the same time, in 1915, for their joint work.

    Then there is also the unique (?) combination of joint husband and wife Nobel Laureates Marie & Pierre Curie and their daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric who were also joint winners some years later.

    No doubt others can enlarge on these various familial Nobel links.

    Many thanks for the ever fascinating IOT series of programmes and emails.

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