[Pinfold] had never voted in a parliamentary election, maintaining an idiosyncratic toryism which was quite unrepresented in the political parties of his time and was regarded by his neighbours as being almost as sinister as socialism.
The character of this “toryism” (note Waugh’s disdainful omission of the capital) has been all too frequently misunderstood. In particular, since 2016 Waugh has been claimed and blamed, respectively, by Brexiteering revanchists and Remoaning repiners. It is true that most of the dominant political figures of the present Atlantic ascendancy resemble patchily entertaining post-Wavian tribute acts. But Waugh is not this state of affair’s Founding Father, rather its Jeremiah.
Since 2016 Waugh has been claimed and blamed, respectively, by Brexiteering revanchists and Remoaning repiners. – Minoo Dinshaw
Waugh’s first two novels, Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930), preserve a delightfully airborne distance from political doings even as they reveal the filth of political fundraising (Margot Metroland’s string of Argentinian brothels), the lack of political talent (in the inhumanly pompous Viscount Metroland) and the interchangeability of political personnel (in the colourless Prime Ministers of Vile Bodies, clearly based upon Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay Macdonald). Vile Bodies even invites its main characters into Number Ten, though tellingly they do not notice as much.
By Black Mischief (1932), the stage was set for a more substantial study. Much had altered in Waugh’s personal circumstances (as the second half of Vile Bodies already indicates). He was now a divorced man and a Catholic convert, embittered, prone to savage attacks of unrequited love, yet, in all likelihood, unable to marry in good conscience while his unfaithful first wife lived. But he was also a huge commercial star, and an apprentice no longer. The first fruit of this situation was Basil Seal.
Basil is not Waugh’s most beloved or widely remembered protagonist despite his dominating two of Waugh’s best novels, Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags (1942) – as well as his last story, and one of his best, Basil Seal Rides Again (1963). This is probably because of Basil’s outrageously mercurial characteristics: the Basil of each work is quite different, tangibly in his outer approach to the world and profoundly in his inner life (always an attribute which Waugh consistently and disingenuously denied his characters possessed).
In Black Mischief, Basil is described – justifiably so – as “a bore”. He inflicts information upon those he encounters as a bully inflicts pain. He has a high regard for his abilities. With superficial charisma his only true resource, he enters an unfamiliar landscape and imposes patronising, anachronistic schemes that leave it in chaos. In Black Mischief Waugh crystallised a British tradition that, if it certainly did not begin with, yet culminated in Sir Anthony Eden, Tony Blair and David Cameron. The later Basil, to whom we will return, incarnates a quite different apex predator of the political veldt.
Waugh’s two most famous novels, Scoop (1938) and Brideshead Revisited (1945) have such distinct reputations that, without actually reading them, it might be assumed that they originated from different hands. Yet both anatomise precisely the same category, the odious philistine of monstrous ability who seeks, usually successfully, to purchase power. In Scoop we are presented with the media magnate Lord Copper, whose potency is so dreadful that elemental mistakes must be transmuted, to appease him, into realities. Rupert Murdoch, semi-guilty, scarcely cognisant of his empire’s wrongs, and all the stronger for them, comes instantly to mind, of course.
The attentive reader will locate today our country, its plight, its chief minister and its bluffed, fashion and issues driven, fake-it-till-you-make-it culture. – Minoo Dinshaw
The specimen in Brideshead is even more startlingly easy to identify. Rex Mottram, the Canadian tycoon, acquires Julia Flyte as a possession along with her faith. His confessor has particular difficulty instructing this all too willing convert, who “doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.” Rex “had once attended a royal wedding in Madrid, and wanted something of the kind for himself”; with similar inexactitude he enquires how many cardinals can be procured for the occasion.
Rex lacks “the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety”; at any impediment (including a prior marriage) he barks “What d’you want me to do? Who should I see?”. But for all his “depths of confusion”, his “semi-imbecile” interior condition, in the world he appears frighteningly omnipotent, able to capture and contrive anything he desires, including his marriage to Julia. Only the niceties of colonial boundaries appear to separate Rex from the present commander-in-chief of the United States.
Brideshead was a full-blooded wartime production; though great (and unjustly maligned) it is too often allowed to eclipse its predecessor of the phoney war, Put Out More Flags. It is in this novel and this Basil that the attentive reader will locate today our country, its plight, its chief minister and its bluffed, fashion and issues driven, fake-it-till-you-make-it culture. The mature Basil is far better company than his namesake in Black Mischief – a pure cynic, a conscious fraud, a satirist of genuinely gifted if usually criminal capacities. He has emerged from a family context of alarmingly emotional and competitive intensity. In his private life he can be simultaneously thoughtless and tender. His is the perfect eye’s view upon a landscape of state-run chaos, dystopic disaster and vapid pretension, and who can doubt that our own Prime Minister, his memoirs once emerged, will prove of similar calibre?
Minoo Dinshaw is a writer, historian and contributor to the Catholic Herald. He is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman.
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