An introduction to Evelyn Waugh’s travel books
As soon as I set out on my own, things began to go slightly against me, Ninety-Two Days
In January 1932, Evelyn Waugh’s American publisher, John Farrar, wrote to a friend: “One very important literateur said to me the other day, ‘I think you have the most important of the young English writers in Evelyn Waugh, but my God, will you stop him writing travel books!”
The writer Waugh looked up to as a mentor, P.G. Wodehouse, expressed a similar concern in his review of A Handful of Dust. “What a snare this travelling business is to the young writer. He goes to some blasted jungle or other and imagines that everybody will be interested in it.”
On the face of it, Waugh didn’t think much of his travel books either. He found Remote People “very dull” and Robbery Under Law like “an interminable Times leader of 1880” (“People will say Waugh is done for; it is marriage and living in the country has done it”). Of Waugh in Abyssia he wrote: “if the book is boring its readers nearly as much as it is boring me to write it will create a record in low sales…” while A Tourist in Africa struck its author as “very poor stuff… hard going because I can only be funny when I am complaining about something.”
One reason he judged writing these books a bitter chore is that they were undertaken to earn money, usually after he had completed a novel, and to involve minimum expenditure on his part. If a hotel or a shipping line was willing to give Waugh advantageous terms he did not blush to commend them in print. Likewise could Waugh be hired as a propagandist for the appropriate Catholic or Conservative cause. In 1935 the pro-Mussolini Daily Mail employed him as a war correspondent to cover favourably the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Two years later he entered into a secret deal with Clive Pearson to write a book excoriating the corrupt and anti-clerical government of Mexico. For the price of £989 plus generous expenses, Waugh was happy to present a withering case against General Cárdenas who had confiscated the Pearson family’s oilfields.
Writers have to make a living, and it would be unfair to share in Waugh’s denigration of his own travel books on account of the circumstances of their commissioning. As he put it in Ninety-Two Days: “though most of us would not write except for money we would not write any differently for more money.” This is true especially of Waugh, who even as a hired hand rarely penned a dead sentence. His travel books, here collected for the first time, are valuable for a number of reasons. They show the raw matter of the novels which emerged out of them, notably Black Mischief, Scoop and A Handful of Dust. They constitute a thousand pages of that English prose which Graham Greene likened to the Mediterranean before the war: so clear you could see to the bottom. And where the material is thin – and sometimes it is so thin as to be transparent too – it has the effect of galvanising Waugh to reveal himself in ways that he achieved only indirectly in fiction.
It was Waugh’s firm belief that the novelist deals with action and dialogue. The travel-writer, on the other hand, has to endure menacing periods of inaction and silence. His greatest problem: how to fill these unforgiving moments and avoid the “stark horrors of boredom”. Waugh’s solution was to digress, and his digressions expose both the finest and the indefensible traits in his character. That is why if one wishes to discover Waugh’s creed in Waugh’s words, whether it be his opinions on politics, religion, architecture, journalism, novel-writing, or simply what constitutes his notion of Englishness, one has to turn to his travel writing.
In 1933, a group of naked Amazonian Indians who had never before seen a white man met a young Englishman in a red blanket, lame in both feet, and covered from head to toe in insect bites. Their thoughts are not recorded by the Englishman, who spoke no word of Kopinang, but it is hard to picture a more misleading ambassador of his race than the 30-year old Evelyn Waugh.
There was always a discrepancy between how Waugh saw himself and how the world perceived him. In his own eyes he was an innocent abroad. On the banks of the Murabang, he travelled under the preferred of all his guises, as an “amateur observer” in the mould of one of his fictional characters: a William Boot, say, or a Tony Last, who “had no very ambitious ideas about travel”, but who, cruelly abandoned by his wife, had escaped the savages of Mayfair to mingle with their remoter cousins in the jungles of British Guiana, where he hoped, like Colonel Fawcett, to discover a Lost City. “He had a clear picture of it in his mind. It was Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton…”
Waugh refers twice in the following pages to a film in his youth that may have suggested to him his role model. The film opens “superbly” with either Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton (Waugh’s memory is untypically fuzzy on this point), as a convalescent millionaire, arriving in a South American revolution and progressing placidly down the main street, bowing left and right, while a battle rages around him. “As the dead and wounded double up before him, he raises his hat in acknowledgement of what he takes to be their bows of welcome.”
The world did not share this perception of him. In 1930 the explorer Wilfred Thesiger encountered Waugh at an embassy reception in Addis Abbaba, and, like many people, detested him on sight. Thesiger was about to set off on an expedition into the untamed Danikil country. Waugh was quite keen to head out in the same direction, but his personality militated against grasping the opportunity to attach himself to Thesiger’s party. Waugh, dressed in grey suede shoes, a floppy bow-tie and wide trousers, appeared to the seasoned traveller as a “little pip-squeak”. Thesiger thought him “flaccid and petulant”.
Once in Asmara, a place of only seven unattached white women among 60,000 men, a gallant Italian guide named Franchi was deluded by Waugh’s christian name into procuring a bunch of crimson roses and rushing in a state of “amorous excitement” to meet him at the airport. To find there a trousered and unshaven man of diminutive height must, accepts Waugh, have been “a hideous blow”.
Others who bumped into Waugh on his globe-trotting mistook him variously for his brother Alec, for a German bank clerk who had lately boxed the ears of his orderly, and for a sweetly-toned harmonium.
It is easy to mistake Waugh for who is he not, but who is he? And what drives him to refuge in what he calls “the still-remote regions of the earth”?
Waugh, the reader soon enough realises, is not of that band of travellers popularised by Hilaire Belloc and incarnated today in Patrick Leigh Fermor, lone and self-sufficient walkers who know where they are going as well as something of the culture through which it contents them to pass. He ridicules such an idealistic relationship between man and nature. “In the haversack on his back he carries a map and garlic sausage, a piece of bread, a sketch book, and a litre of wine. As he goes he sings songs in dog Latin…” Waugh’s own journeys tend to track the course of the racing tortoises he once encountered on Corfu: “The chief disability suffered by tortoises as racing animals is not their slowness so much as their confused sense of direction.”
The first line of Labels – “I did not really know where I was going” – describes the impulse behind most of Waugh’s travels.
As Selina Hastings, his most recent biographer, remarks: he cared very little where he went so long as it was away.
The nearest he comes to emulating Wilfred Thesiger is in Ninety-Two Days. The book describes one of remarkably few journeys he makes on his own, or without an English companion; an expedition by boat and on horseback through the northern Amazon that strips him bare.
“But why British Guiana?” he is asked of his destination.
“I was at difficulties to find an answer, except that I was going because I knew so little…”
Evelyn Waugh spent his first 12 years of adult life, as he put it, “intermittently on the move”. Several reasons explain his restlessness, but one constant remained his preferred method of transport. “It always seems odd to me that anyone, for any reason, should choose to travel by land when he can go by water.” Waugh made no bones about his susceptibility to comfort. A ship possessed obvious advantages over the aeroplane, which “belittles everything it discloses”. On the outward journey he could read about his destination; on the return journey, grind out the first chapter or two. In between, with minimum effort, he could investigate a few ports of call and select those he wanted to return to afterwards.
Above all, a ship provided a matchless opportunity to gather material.
Waugh’s attention was never much drawn to flora, fauna or wildlife; the South American jungle he found “endlessly monotonous”, and natural wonders such as sunset over Mount Etna caused him physically to recoil: “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.” His imagination was sparked chiefly by homo sapiens, with his eye sharpened on the discrepancy between what a man promises and what he delivers. “I soon found my fellow passengers and their behaviour in the different places we visited a far more absorbing study than the places themselves,” he writes in Labels. Thirty years later, stiffly perambulating the decks of the “Rhodesia Castle”, he has found little reason to change his mind. “As happier men watch birds, I watch men. They are less attractive but more various.” Unchanged, too, are his motives for leaving home. He has come abroad, he declares, “with the intention of eschewing ‘problems’ and of seeking only the diverting and the picturesque.”
Waugh’s first travel book, like his last, takes the shape of a cruise undertaken to avoid the ghastliness of England in February. Aged 26, recently married to Evelyn Gardner and not yet sure of his profession – he still had aspirations to be an artist – he contemplated a voyage on a cargo boat around the Black Sea. “Would anyone like travel articles about that?” he asked his agent, A.D. Peters. “I shall be quite pleased to adapt my plans to editorial taste.” He informed him: “I am growing a moustache.”
Instead of the Black Sea, Peters negotiated free passages for Waugh and his wife aboard a Norwegian liner touring the Mediterranean, the expenses to be paid for by articles collected as book. Conceived in the spirit of Decline and Fall, his recently published first novel, Waugh looked forward to debunking the type of earnest rural travel writer he had grown up reading such as Hilaire Belloc, H.V. Morton and S.P.B. Mais. He planned to call the result The Quest of a Moustache.
The cruise had a romantic element, too. Waugh had not been able to find the time or money for a proper honeymoon. The voyage with his wife was intended to be a delayed celebration of their marriage as well as a chance for her to recuperate, the arctic English winter having given She-Evelyn, as she was known, a bad dose of German measles and flu.
The Waughs departure on 10 February 1929 was reported in the Daily Sketch. Waugh made it clear that he thought of his future as a draughtsman; he hoped to bring back enough sketches for an exhibition, “and, if it is successful, abandon writing for painting.”
Her voyage on the “Stella Polaris” so far from improving She-Evelyn’s health made it infinitely worse. Soon she was coughing up blood. Unaccustomed to women, still less to looking after them, Waugh found himself emotionally at sea. He wrote a post card to Pansy Lamb, his wife’s old flat-mate, saying by the time she received it She-Evelyn would be likely dead.
Few reading his playful account of the liner’s progress around the Mediterranean will guess the dreadful background. In the United States the book was published with the title A Bachelor Abroad and that is how its narrator appears, as a single, amused, generally sceptical observer who falls in with an English couple on their honeymoon. “The young man was small and pleasantly dressed and wore a slight, curly moustache; he was reading a particularly good detective story with apparent intelligence. His wife was huddled in a fur coat in the corner, clearly far from well.” Waugh names them Geoffrey (possibly after his wife’s brother-in-law) and Juliet (after her sister). “Every quarter of an hour or so they said to each other, ‘Are you quite sure you’re all right, darling?’ And replied, “perfectly, really I am. Are you my precious? But Juliet was far from being all right.”
At Port Said, She-Evelyn was taken by stretcher to the British Hospital looking “distressingly like a corpse”, and diagnosed with double pneumonia and pleurisy. There she remained a month. In a foreshadowing of his fictional alter ego Tony Last, Waugh visited her bedside and, puffing on his pipe, doggedly read to her P.G. Wodehouse, which, dipping in and out of fever, she had grave difficulty in understanding. Her incomprehension deepened with the arrival on the scene of Alastair Graham, with whom Waugh had had a homosexual liaison at Oxford (and to whom he intended to dedicate his Labeliad, as he now described the book). A few weeks later she felt well enough to visit Graham’s house in Athens, where it further alarmed her to observe Waugh’s delight in his friend’s effeminate behaviour, concluding in an outburst of high camp with Mark Ogilvie-Grant. “Their new habit is to talk Greek in a cockney accent.”
The honeymoon was over even as the “Stella Polaris” set course for London. The foghorn that sounds in the last paragraph, as the ship, nearing home, enters a sea-mist, was “a very dismal sound, premonitory, perhaps, of coming trouble…” The words were written just as Waugh learned that his wife had fallen in love with another man. He would never again be so playful.
Best of his travel books, Labels illustrates the bathyscope of Englishness within which Waugh habitually floats and which allows him, preferably while luncheoning from a Fortnum & Mason’s hamper, to ogle at passing oddities; in other words, at anything that nourishes his taste for the comic, the lunatic and the grotesque.
Nothing satisfies him more than to stumble through the dark vault of a Naples church in order to view a mummified corpse with its stomach slit open.
“The little girl thrust her face into the aperture and inhaled deeply and greedily. She called on me to do the same.
“‘Smell good,’ she said. ‘Nice.’”
Unlike more curious writers, Waugh travels to have his biases confirmed, choosing destinations where his prejudices are most likely to be annoyed. “When we go abroad we take our opinions with us; it is useless to pretend, as many writers do, that they arrive with minds wholly innocent of other experience; are born anew into each new world…” In this sense the world becomes Waugh’s oyster. The more he samples it, the more closely it grows to resemble the image that he supposed Africa held for the Romans, a novelty but also a distorting mirror in which familiar objects are reflected “in perverse and threatening forms”. The tension in his prose suggests a need to keep vigilant at each step.
Wherever he goes, Waugh adopts the air of a detached and confident narrator for whom England is the touchstone and all that departs from it a source of puzzled fascination. (“It takes some time to overcome the English habit of pocketing change unchecked”). This touchstone is his most cumbersome baggage. He is not absolutely joking when he writes: “It is just worth considering the possibility that there may be something valuable behind the indefensible and inexplicable assumption of superiority by the Anglo-Saxon race.” He is deadly serious in his opinion that England is the appropriate custodian of the Holy Places.
For the most part, though, he is hilarious. Unawed by advance publicity, he runs down sacred cows with the eagerness of his driver to Nazareth: “he never smiled except at the corners, or when, as we swept through a village, some little child, its mother wailing her alarm, darted in front of us. Then he would stamp on the accelerator and lean forward eagerly in his seat.”
And so he finds Paris: “very much like High Wycombe indefinitely extended.”
The Casino in Monte Carlo: “like Paddington Station in the first weeks of August.”
The sphinx: “an ill-proportioned composition of inconsiderable aesthetic appeal,” with an expression reminiscent of Aleister Crowley.
The Acropolis: “a Stilton cheese into which port has been poured.”
Haggia Sophia: “somewhat resembles Earl’s Court Exhibition.”
Cape Town: “a hideous city that reminded me of Glasgow.”
And so on, the impression being conveyed that the real Africa (or Mexico, or Guiana) is somewhere else and, frankly, the Africans can keep it; not that too many natives cross Waugh’s path.
“Of the Abyssinians we saw very little except as grave, rather stolid figures at the official receptions.”
“In Kenya it is easy to forget that one is in Africa.”
“One does not see many Africans in Salisbury; fewer it seemed than in London.”
Waugh registers foreigners only when they trespass into his culture; either by misspelling his language, as in the case of his guide in Cairo, or by pronouncing it incorrectly.
“Chief, do you want to see this boy’s arse?” asks a man in the Amazon, offering him a horse.
“I misunderstood him and so no, somewhat sharply.”
It doesn’t cross his mind to learn the language of a country. Martha Gellhorn, prior to travelling through Turkey, taught herself the expression: “Fuck off, I’m old enough to be your grandmother”. This is a step too far for Waugh. “I had learned an Arabic phrase which sounded like Ana barradar. I don’t know what it meant, but I had used it once or twice in Cairo with fair success.”
The foreigners who guarantee Waugh’s attention are not the natives, but transposed figures like himself, middle-class ex-patriates who present him with a chance to display his peerless ear for dialogue. He is on top form in a mock English tavern in Ndola, plunged back among displaced and dilapidated countrymen, in altercation with a misanthropic philosopher and a barman who asks him if he knows Ed Stanley of Alderly. Or among a group of 30 Americans whom he encounters at Sakkara in a subterranean tunnel called the Serapeum, which the guide explained was the burial place of sacred bulls.
“Oh ladies and gentlemen I longed to declaim, dear ladies and gentlemen, fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must for ever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Surely the laugh, ladies and gentlemen, is on us.”
The absconscion of She-Evelyn with a “ramshackle oaf” named John Heygate was a shock from which Waugh never recovered and had two immediate consequences. It determined his profession; and it precipitated his conversion to Catholicism. On 29 September 1930 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, his only godparent the charwoman on duty.
Waugh’s conversion, about which he never entertained the smallest humour or doubt, sprang from his clear conviction of the truth of the Catholic faith. She-Evelyn believed he had the tendency in him always to become a Catholic, whatever her behaviour. This is quite possible. He descended from a line of clergymen. Already in Labels he had revealed a religious temperament, in the rapture he felt before certain tombs and churches. At any rate, after his wife’s desertion life became to Waugh “unintelligible and unendurable without God”; in the words of his fellow convert Graham Greene “he needed to cling to something solid and strong and unchanging”.
Unaltered for 2,000 years, the Church was a safe, well-constructed raft onto which he could pile his anguish as well as all his frustrated romanticism. He clung to it with total submission; “this little island of order and sweetness in an ocean of rank barbarity,” as he wrote of a convent in Kampala. His religious faith now underpinned his journeys and confirmed the course of his reverence. Never again would he laugh at the troglodytic inclinations of the Holy Family.
Displaced, humiliated, rudderless, Waugh in the aftermath of his conversion scratched about for another foreign adventure. This time he travelled not merely to escape the English winter; like Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, he was going away “because it seemed to be the conduct expected of a husband in his circumstances, because the associations of Hetton were for a time poisoned for him, because he wanted to live for a few months away from people who would know him or Brenda, in places where there was no expectation of meeting her or Beaver…”
In the autumn of 1930 he set sail for Addis Ababa to report for The Times on the coronation of Haile Selassie. The package-tourist who laughed at fellow passengers in Labels graduates in Remote People to a foreign correspondent pricking the pomposity of baroquely dressed diplomats. In his accuracy of aim he has something in common with his German driver, who keeps a rifle ready across the wheel so that he can inflict “slight wounds on the passing farmers at point blank range.” Notorious among his targets are the head of the British Legation, Sir Sydney Barton, a blunt Ulster Protestant who had served in China (where he earned the nickname “Gunboat Barton” after despatching the cable: “Trouble at Weihaiwei. Send two cruisers”); and Barton’s daughter Esmé, parodied in Black Mischief as the promiscuous Prudence Courteney, who crashes in the jungle eventually to be served up to her unsuspecting lover in an aromatic stew. (Unreported by Waugh goes Esmé’s revenge. Five years later, he returned to Addis Ababa and was sitting in Le Perroquet, one of the city’s two cinema nightclubs, when a young woman marched up his table, paused, and hurled her champagne into his face).
Remote People shares obvious similarities with its African sequel, Waugh in Abyssinia , in which Waugh casts himself as a hopeless war correspondent mocking the antics of other journalists. Both books are shot through with delicious set-pieces, but what is noticeable is the creeping vein of seriousness. Travel has begun to sweat out his politics, a brand of Conservatism that finds repugnant any rocking of his boat and results, with each succeeding journey abroad, in what George Orwell considered Waugh’s disadvantage as a writer: his “holding false (indefensible) opinions.” Nowhere are these more blatant than in his views on Mussolini. Practically unique among English journalists, Waugh champions the Fascist leader for his ambitions to conquer Abyssinia. In Rome he interviews him off the record and is impressed: Mussolini is exactly the kind of Holy Emperor the modern world needs, a benign civiliser who might bring to a race of homicidal naked cannibals the consolations of Mother Rome.
Waugh’s inflexible version of Catholicism is every bit as buoyant as the pride he takes in his Englishness. From Remote People on, his journeys assume the character of pilgrimages (The Holy Places), of penances (Ninety-Two Days), and of proselytising missions (Robbery Under Law). In 1938, following the annulment of his first marriage, he visits Mexico for two months with his new wife Laura. “Let me…warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions.” Once again his political attitude is coloured by his religious sensibilities, but this time at a cost to his art.
“I can only be funny when I am complaining about something.”
In Robbery Under Law, he disregards his reader’s patience and commits the solecism of becoming dull. “The worst sufferings I can boast were from bed-bugs in luxury hotels and a film producer at luncheon.” Waugh at his most serious is not necessarily Waugh at his best. Denied the comfort of an Anglo-Saxon kicking-horse (he couldn’t very well choose his new wife, still less his benefactor Clive Pearson), he picks an unworthy opponent in the form of his guidebook’s author. Sparring with the absent T. Philip Terry, of whose religious attitudes he furiously disapproves, Waugh’s focus blurs. One moment Mexico is a “little republic”, the next a “huge country”. From his visit in the same year, Graham Greene produced his best novel. Waugh produces a partisan history lesson. Even to the reader who remains unaware that this is a book commissioned by the Pearson family, Waugh’s questions smack of someone in receipt of a brown paper bag. In the same way that the living room in Puebla springs open, at the touch of a button, to the concealed cell of the Mother Superior, everything leads back to his Catholicism.
Waugh’s uncritical homage recalls the Mexican peasants at Guadalupe before the image of the Virgin: “men who remained apparently interminably in their knees with their arms stretched out on either side of them…rapt, their lips moving, their eyes fixed open on the picture.”
In this posture, more or less, Waugh expresses his regard for the Empress Helena, a kind old lady possibly born in Colchester, who as Empress Dowager made a journey to Jerusalem from which, he tells us earnestly, “spring all relics of the true cross”.
Alone of Waugh’s early travel books, Robbery Under Law finds no place in his 1946 anthology of travel-writing, When The Going Was Good. And yet it contains some of the clearest definitions he ever made about his shifting personas.
On Waugh the restless explorer:
“I believe that man is by nature an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth; that his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives…”
On Waugh the foreign correspondent:
“His trade is to observe record and interpret…his hope is to notice things which the better experienced accept as commonplace and to convey to a distant public some idea of the aspect and feel of a place which hitherto has been merely a geographical or political term…”
On Waugh without God:
“Given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity…we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace.”
He presents the profoundly unpeaceful Mexican situation as a cautionary tale in which a once great civilisation – greater than the Unites States at the turn of the twentieth-century – has succumbed, within the space of a single generation, to barbarism. In Mexico’s fate, he sees a morality play and a warning. Civilisation is under constant assault, he reminds us, and barbarism, in this instance characterised by Communism, never finally defeated. On the eve of the Second World War, he suggests that what is happening in Mexico, now every year becoming hungrier, wickeder, more hopeless, could happen soon to us all.
“The jungle is closing in and the graves of the pioneers are lost in the undergrowth; the people are shrinking back to the river banks and railheads; they are being starved in the mountains and shot in back yards, dying without God.”
There is a particular sadness about Waugh’s post-war travel writings that is only partly explained by the fulfilment of his prediction. Visiting Israel with Christopher Sykes to research The Holy Places, he has no pride in England as he had in 1935. Everything is monotonous. Tourism and politics have laid waste everywhere. And so he turns back, his eyes goggled on the past. Where as a young man he sought remote people, now he seeks remote epochs; Italy at the time of Augustus Hare; Jerusalem at the time of Helena; anywhere, in fact, before the advent of the wireless, “the canvasses of Mr Francis Bacon”, and interior decorators.
“I will tell you what I have learned in the forest, where time is different,” Tony Last raves to the planter Mr Todd in his delirium. “There is no City. Mrs Beaver has covered it with chromium plating and converted it into flats.”
A Tourist in Africa, exposes Waugh as a testy and rheumatic convalescent in the manner of his character Gilbert Pinfold, shunning the modern world for showy ruins, and stumbling around Genoa with an antiquated 1875 guidebook in the company of Diana Cooper, whom he presents to the reader as Mrs Stitch, the suggestion hard to resist that he rather prefers his fictional creation.
Aboard the “Rhodesia Castle” he behaves like a pompous dug-out who insists on wearing a dinner-jacket and complains loudly, at every opportunity, about the background music. As on the “Stella Polaris” years before, he is accosted by a woman who mistakes him for his brother. His loyalest reader (whom he pictures as female) could mistake him for a package tourist of exactly the sort he derided for spoiling the civilised world.
More than anything, Waugh’s last travel book underlines the pitfalls of the freebie. When he starts to dispense unlikely expressions of kindness and gratitude, he generates the suspicion that he has gone soft in the bonce. Staying in Salisbury at Government House, he is driven to admiring the garden “which had been the particular contribution of the governor’s wife.” No longer is his eye alert to discrepancies, least of all his own. “I am both ignorant and blasé about tropical fauna,” he announces with just a trace of pride. And on the next page: “The successive belts of vegetation are a joy to the botanist.” Cape Town, which he had once disparaged as reminding him of Glasgow, is now “the decent old city”.
A Tourist in Africa is so thin that, according to Hastings, Waugh half-heartedly suggested to his publisher he insert adverbs before all adjectives to pad it out. Instead, he stuffs it with feeble digests of guide-books scanned while on board ship. “The chief hotel stands near the railway station. Luggage is carried there through a tunnel under the traffic, which during the day is thick and fast.” He gets as near to writing dead prose as at any time in his career. In the past he would have changed by a single word the energy of the following sentence; now he lets it pass, as if he has slumped into the sort of travel-writer he scorned as he embarked on his first cruise. “There is plenty to delight the mere sight-seer.”
Just when one thinks Waugh is done for he comes closest to discovering his Lost City. On March 18, 1959, moments before sunset, he arrives at the remarkable stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe. As is his habit, he tries to appropriate them; he pictures the African landscape round about as having the aspect of “Devon parkland” while parts of the temple suggest to him “Cotswold buttresses”. But all of a sudden metaphor and simile fail him. No one, he realises, has the bluest clue about what went on at this site. A dense jungle has overgrown it; any attempt to explain its purpose, even the original shape, must remain conjectural. For the first time in three decades of travelling, of ogling, of raising his Anglo-Saxon eyebrow, Waugh is forced to admit: “…‘the Temple’ at Zimbabwe leaves the visitor from Europe without any comparison.” It is the moment when, transcending his rampant subjectivity and ethno-centrism, he becomes a proper traveller.
The experience releases him into a rare flight of ecstasy. Next day he proceeds to the Serima Mission and there visits a little school of art, “one of the most exhilarating places in Africa.” The sight of two master craftsmen in their mid-twenties, and their series of intricate ochre-carvings, has a tremendous uplifting effect as if, here in the middle of nowhere, he has stumbled on the dream Tony Last had of Hetton. “Quite soon,” writes Waugh, “there will be at Serima one of the most beautiful and original churches of the modern world.” The visit stimulates him to analyse the spiritual dimension of his own profession, which he describes elsewhere in terms of a craftsman putting an experience into shape and communicable form exactly as a carpenter does. At the Serima Mission, Waugh is reinforced in his belief that “Art is the catechism and prayer in visible form”; and the artist someone who has no concern with the future, but who deals in “the tangible gifts of the past and the present.”
In this transcendent mood he makes an eloquent summary of the consolations of the writer. Still in Rhodesia, Waugh climbs a modest hill called “the View of the World” and there on its summit, faced by an unbroken horizon, he is moved to contrast the achievement of the politician with that of the artist: “the one talking about generations yet unborn, the other engrossed in the technical problems of the task at hand; the one fading into a mist of disappointment and controversy, the other leaving behind a few objects of permanent value that were not there before him and would not have been there but for him.”
Waugh’s remarks are a modest reminder of the experiences he has amassed in thirty years of travel, and put into shape in this volume. Without them we would have no William Boot; no Prudence Courteney; no Mr Todd reading Dickens to Tony Last, as Waugh once read P.G. Wodehouse to his wife.
But implicit in his observations from “the View of the World” is a caution. He closes his last travel book with a warning no less dismal or premonitory than the foghorn that sounds at the end of Labels: “Cruelty and injustice are endemic everywhere.” Today, as a British national – the badge that once guaranteed him access to the world – Waugh would not be allowed to cross the border into Zimbabwe, the country that was renamed after its ruins.
In 1942, Evelyn Waugh was in a Nissen hut on a Scottish moor. “All I asked in that horrible camp was freedom to travel. That, I should like to claim, is what I fought for…” A century after his birth, it must be fought for again.