Good Reading : March 2010
MARCH 2010 ı goodreading 51 Ryder's father. Arthur kept Evelyn and his friends enthralled with his readings of Dickens and Shakespeare and his favourite poets. In the autobiography A Little Learning Evelyn wrote of how his father's love of English prose and verse 'saturated my young mind, so that I never thought of English Literature as a school subject ... but as a source of natural joy'. The account of Waugh's happy childhood in A Little Learning belies the common view that he was deeply ashamed of his middle-class, suburban upbringing. He paints a delightful picture of the pleasures of life at Underhill, the family home on the edge of Hampstead Heath. He felt lucky to be at a day school and not to be sent away to board: 'it was a world of privacy and love very unlike the bleak dor mitories to which most boys of my age and kind were condemned'. He viewed Hampstead as something like an eighteenth-century pleasure garden. He loved the thrice-yearly fair, with its aromas of 'orangepeel, sweat, beer, coconut, trampled grass, horses' and the rowdy crowd of 'costers' from the East End of London, kitted out in pearl-buttoned caps and suits. Feared by some, they were creatures of fascination to the young boy who saw in them a 'kind of Pentecostal exuberance which communicated nothing but goodwill'. It did not seem to matter that father was forever preoccupied with Alec's triumphant exploits down in Dorset on the playing fields of Sherborne. At the centre of this small boy's 'paradisal' world were 'two adored deities': his mother and his nurse, Lucy. Mother was associated with 'earthy wash-leather gloves and baskets of globe artichokes and black and red cur rants'. Lucy was a devout Christian, 'strictly chapel', who loved him unconditionally and was 'never cross or neglectful'. Equally adored was a trio of maiden aunts who lived at Midsomer Norton in Somerset.When visiting in the summer holidays, Evelyn nosed around their house. It was stuffed with Victoriana: cabinets of curiosities, fans, snuff boxes, nuts, old coins and medals.The smell of gas, fruit, oil and leather.The aunts' life was like something out of the previous century, locked in aspic. A whirl of church bazaars, private theatricals, picnics and games, 'the place captivated my imagination as my true home never did'. 'Save for a few pale shadows'-- as, for example, when he almost choked to death on the yolk of a hard-boiled egg -- Evelyn's childhood was bathed, he claimed, in 'an even glow of pure happiness'. Like nearly all literary recollections of times past, A Little Learning offers up the image of childhood as a paradise lost, an Eden from which the author has been expelled, a secret garden glimpsed through a door in the wall, an alternative world like the one into which the child tumbles in one of Evelyn's favourite books, Alice in Wonderland. This theme of exile and exclusion from Arcadia would preoccupy him throughout his life and his work. He always felt as if he did not quite belong.That was what fired his imagination and his comic vision. Whether writing about a deranged provincial boarding school, or the exploits of London's Bright Young Things, or the old Anglo-Catholic aristocracy, he was always the outsider looking in. His sense of displacement from his own family was there from the start, despite all the genuine memories of a happy and stable early childhood. In later years he was never close to his parents and his brother. With Alec away at boarding school, he was drawn to other families.When Evelyn was six he watched three children, two girls and a boy his own age, playing in a nearby street. He befriended the family. In his autobiography he calls them the Rolands. They were actually called Fleming and they became the first of his substitute families, and remained so for more than a decade. The children built themselves a fort and for med a gang called The Pistol Troop. They endured tests of courage, walking barefoot through stinging nettles, climbing dangerously high trees and signing their names in blood. Evelyn threw himself into these boisterous games. He was as physically brave as a young boy as he would be when a traveller and a soldier in later years. The children also devised their own magazine and put on amateur dramatics, writing and acting in their own short plays. The magazine, containing one of Evelyn's first stories, was typed and handsomely bound. So began his lifelong obsession with fine bindings.Whenever he finished writing a novel, he had the manuscript expensively bound, and most of his works were produced in not only a mass-market printing but also a beautiful hand-bound limited edition for presentation to friends. Mrs Fleming thought that Evelyn was an only child, until she was put right by one of her own children: 'Oh, but he isn't, he has a brother at school whom he hates.' He did not hate Alec. Rather, he accepted with seeming equanimity that the five years that separated him from his brother made 'in childhood, a complete bar rier'. Having no sister, he was drawn to female friends and held girls in high regard. After an appendix operation at the age of nine, he spent time convalescing with a family called Talbot who lived near the Thames Estuary. He was drawn to their stuff -- a banjo, old photograph albums, a phonograph, china vases and great coats -- but it was the family that really captured his affections: 'the household was extraordinarily Dickensian, an old new world to me. I was very happy there, so happy that I neglected to write home and received a letter of rebuke from my father ... I retur ned home and this glimpse of another world was occluded.' From this time on, he would always be drawn to glimpsed other worlds and large, seemingly happy families. The Talbots were not rich or grand. Far from it: the money they received for Evelyn's board and lodging was used to release fur niture from the local pawnshop.The father, an unemployed old sailor, was mildly drunk every night, but he was a jolly drunk. He built the children a makeshift tree house. It was there that Evelyn and the eldest Talbot girl, Muriel, exposed their private parts to each other. Despite the idealisation of other families, the impression persists of Evelyn as a happy boy in the 'lustrum between pram and prep school', collecting microscopes and air-guns, squirrelling away 'coins, stamps, fossils, butterflies, beetles, seaweed, wild flowers'. Like most boys he went through obsessive phases, one year with his chemistry set, another with magic tricks. He was drawn to dexterity, observing the local chemist melting wax to seal paper packages and the Hampstead shopkeepers He always felt as if he did not quite belong. That was what fired his imagination and his comic vision.