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.