Evelyn Waugh in his own Words

4. Monitor


In 1964 Waugh accepted an invitation to appear in one of the programmes in the BBC television series Monitor. This series presented arts programmes of considerable acclaim in the 60s, taking an unashamedly high view of culture and presenting viewers with information and explanation as well as entertainment. One of its famous presentations was a film on the life of the composer Sir Edward Elgar made by the young Ken Russell. Monitor was succeeded by the present arts series Omnibus, which until recent years maintained the same high standard.

In the last years of the series the general dumbing-down of British television reduced Omnibus (and its ITV equivalent The South Bank Show) to too frequent presentations of publicity interviews with such ephemera as pop stars in their early twenties and fashion gurus. Finally, in 2002 the BBC announced its final relinquishment of the values of civilised culture and reinforced its commitment to transient superficiality by axing the series. No cultural programme will remain on BBC1 and very little of cultural significance will be seen on BBC2; no doubt the unadmitted aim is to drive the small number of people who are interested in the civilised arts and who still watch TV to the new digital channel BBC4, which, however, seems to me to be too much of a haven for pseuds. I regret to have to add (in 2006) that recent experience of BBC4 has shown me that dumbing-down is in full swing there too. Its definition of culture extends far too widely for my taste, with the result that there are, for example, too many programmes that have as their theme exploration of pop musics of the past and passé revolutionary movements in politics.

As mentioned in the Introduction, Waugh’s interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard was very different from the others presented on this website. First of all, the interviewer is herself a novelist of some achievement. Secondly, Waugh had had some say in the structure of the programme, including the nature of the questions. Thirdly, the focus of attention was Waugh’s novels and opinions on Literature rather than his curmudgeonly character and unfashionable attitudes. As a result, Waugh appears to enjoy the interview and happily reveals his opinions at some length. The programme was broadcast on 16th February 1964.

I have placed a transcript of the whole interview here.

EW on Monitor 1

Excerpt 1

Waugh’s Estimate of his own Work

LISTEN to this extract.
mp3 file, 188KB long, lasting 48 seconds and taking under a minute to download.

Elizabeth Jane
But looking back on your work, does it please you, what you’ve done, or does any particular work please you? 
 EW Every book has something I’m ashamed of that I wouldn’t now write, there are gaucheries and redundancies and things of that kind, and also every book I think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t write that now’, it’s got a sort of fresh spirit in it that’s dead in me, you know. 
 EJH I mean, you do look at your books and read them again? 
 EW Constantly. 
 EJH And shriek with laughter? 
 EW Yes, I must admit - 
 EJH And rediscover things that are funny that you’ve forgotten? 
 EW I remember them pretty well, but I must say it causes me continual pleasure. Except for these awful moments when I come across the bad bits; the bad bits about the same number as the good, you know. 



Excerpt 2

The Trade of the Novelist

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mp3 file, 260KB long, lasting 66 seconds and taking about a minute to download.

 EJH Have you got a motive for writing? - I mean, is there anything that’s made you write rather than be anything else? 
 EW It’s just my trade. And of course the whole of English education when I was brought up was to produce prose writers, it was all we were taught, really. 
 EJH You said to me once something about feelings being very difficult to communicate in words. 
 EW Well, the feelings should be the reader’s, the customer’s. You tell him or her the facts and if it’s a properly told story they’ll quickly pick up what the feelings are. In my youth there was a tremendous blind alley a whole lot of good writers went down in which they tried to give what they called stream of consciousness, in which they gave what everyone was thinking and feeling apart from what they were saying or doing. The novelist deals with speech and action, and time sequence. It isn’t the novelist’s business to feed the reader with emotions. If your novel’s any good the reader should get emotions from it, perhaps not ones you intend but they should be there. 

Note :
Waugh himself explains stream of consciousness, and why he rejected it. The phrase was originally coined by the American psychologist William James (1842-1909) to characterise the quirkily linked and often illogical flow which is normal human mental activity. Among the famous authors who developed it as a technique in novels were Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and James Joyce (1882-1941).


Elizabeth Jane Howard on Monitor

Excerpt 3

Characterisation in Novels

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mp3 file, 601KB long, lasting 153 seconds and taking perhaps three minutes to download.

 EJH You speak in Work Suspended of ‘the hide-and-seek with one’s own personality which redeems vice of its tedium’; does that apply to writing too, do you think? 
 EW Oh no, no, that was used, if you remember, purely of going to a brothel in Tangier - in Fez. 
 EJH I thought of this because you said something about a novelist only inventing very few characters, and I wondered whether they were aspects of oneself, in a sense, however much translated, and therefore there was a full stop to how much of this one could do because one can’t see very much of oneself. 
 EW What I think is true is, there are only a very limited number of characters in the world, certainly only a very limited number that one man can cope with. And in the greatest novelists you find the same characters turning up again with different names. Plus there are very few faces in the world, very few stories in the world. 
 EJH What would you advise young novelists to do about that? 
 EW Well, the great thing is ‘Never kill your characters’. That’s where someone like P.G.Wodehouse has been so brilliant. He has a limited number of characters, and he’s now, what, over eighty and still producing work as clever and fresh as he was doing sixty years ago.  
 EJH They come in handy, they go on. 
 EW Because he knows his scope - never kills them off. And there’s the awful temptation that a novelist has when he gets towards the last chapter, of thinking, ‘Well, finished with them, off with their heads’ - kill them off, throw one over a precipice, have a motor-car accident, do anything - just get rid of them. Then he finds, he writes his next novel, he can’t think of anybody else to write about, so he has to produce these same people with different names and different circumstances. 
 EJH Well, your early work has a great deal of killing off and violence, hasn’t it? 
 EW Constantly killed them. Madness. 
 EJH (Why did you do this?) 
 EW Tony Powell’s been so clever, you see. In his last series of books he’s got hold of one set of characters and he’s kept them all going. He adds to them occasionally. That’s why he’s got this rich - I suppose they call it a field in Cambridge. 
 EJH Yes, but did you kill your people simply because you wanted to be shot of the lot really, or because you had some - you wanted to show up some kind of injustice - 
 EW No, no, I just wanted to end the story. Everyone ends up by death, therefore the natural end to a story about any individual character is his death, or her death. 

Notes :
a) Work Suspended is a fragment of an intended full-size novel which Waugh started in 1939 but was forced to suspend with the onset of war and his military career. He never returned to it but thought well enough of the first two chapters, all he had completed, to publish them as they stood in 1942. The work indicates something of a departure for Waugh : the story is not riproaringly farcical, humour is gentle, and the novel bids fair to be a realistic account, though many characters are promisingly off-centre. The published extract is certainly a splendid beginning so that it is a great pity that he never felt sufficiently re-attuned to complete it.
b) Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881–1975) was one of the great comic novelists of the 20th century and a writer whom Waugh much admired. He is perhaps best known for the novels which feature Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, though he wrote much more.
c) Anthony Powell (1905-2000), a younger contemporary of Waugh’s at Oxford and a friend, was already in 1964 well into his great novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time - the seventh book in the twelve-volume series (The Valley of Bones) was published in that year. Powell was another of the few contemporary writers whom Waugh admired.
d) Waugh had a life-long aversion to English Literature as a university and school discipline (though one of his daughters studied it). In particular he abominated the socially-oriented criticism and minute examinations of authorial intentions characteristic of Cambridge scholars led by Dr F.R. Leavis (1895–1978). What he would say of Oxford literary criticism today hardly bears contemplation.



Excerpt 4

Real People in Waugh’s Novels

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mp3 file, 165KB long, lasting 42 seconds and taking about a minute to download.

 EJH Do you find people principally pathetic or absurd, would you say? ...
 EW I’m not as soft as that, you know, no, I’m afraid not. I like them to be funny. But I don’t regard the characters in my books as being my own circle of friends particularly, although I’ve sometimes drawn characters from them ... It’s always true that a writer has to modify truth to make it plausible. If one wrote down really what had happened to one’s acquaintances, everyone would say, ‘It’s too extravagantly absurd. Some of these things might have happened to one person once, they couldn’t all have happened to the same person in a few months.’ 


EW on Monitor 2

Excerpt 5

Inter-War Literature

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mp3 file, 495KB long, lasting 126 seconds and taking over two minutes to download.

 EJH When you were a young writer, were writers trying to shock their public? 
 EW The matter shocked them awfully, really, whatever you wrote. When I began writing it was a great period of shock and - it was the time of Joynson-Hicks, you know - and things that would now seem quite innocent were thought to be obscene. I don’t mean shocking in that sense, but there was a much more sinister influence which was to try and reduce prose style to gibberish. And it didn’t work with prose. What Mr Cyril Connolly has called The Breakthrough was in fact the break-up. In painting, architecture and poetry, in which the common man has a certain feeling of awe so he’s prepared to be bamboozled - they accepted what was offered. But when it came to prose the English common man knows what prose is, he talks it all the time himself and he wasn’t going to be taken in. And there were a lot of Americans, headed by one called Gertrude Stein, who wrote absolute gibberish. Then they hired a poor dotty Irishman called James Joyce, if you’ve heard about him - he was thought to be a great influence in my youth - 
 EJH Was he, yes. 
 EW - and he wrote absolute rot, you know. He began writing quite well and you can see him going mad as he wrote, and his last books - only fit to be set for examinations at Cambridge. 
 EJH He didn’t always write gibberish, did he? 
 EW No, you could watch him going mad sentence by sentence. If you read Ulysses, it’s perfectly sane for a little bit, and then it goes madder and madder - but that was before the Americans hired him. And then they hired him to write Finnegan’s Wake, which is gibberish. 
 EJH Mm. 
 EW Gertrude Stein happened to be a clever and amusing old gal. She was no booby to meet, and - I wasn’t one for going to salons very much, in fact I never went to her house in Paris; one heard about her house in Paris, and certainly all the most intelligent people did meet there - and then when she started putting pen to paper - gibberish. 
 EJH Mm.

Notes :
a) William Joynson-Hicks (1865-1932, created Viscount Brentford in 1929) was Home Secretary in the Conservative government of 1924-29. He conducted vigorous campaigns against what he considered pornography and obscenity, and also against the Communist party.
b) Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), a friend of Waugh’s, was a critic rather than a creative writer, despite some desperate attempts to be otherwise. From 1940 to 1950 he was the influential editor of the arts magazine Horizon.
c) Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and James Joyce were leading figures of the modernist movement in Literature. Both of them lived mainly in Paris between the wars. Joyce’s reputation is secure; Stein’s has receded.



Excerpt 6

Old Age and Death

LISTEN to this extract.
mp3 file, 139KB long, lasting 35 seconds and taking less than a minute to download.

 EJH Have your fears changed at all? 
 EW Don’t think I’m frightened of things much. I’m frightened of old age, but that I can’t escape. 
 EJH You’re frightened of old age? 
 EW I dread four score and ten. 
 EJH Why? 
 EW The boredom of it, and being really old and really impotent and really poor, and a real bore. And nothing to do. Perhaps that’s why I rather hope war breaks out in the near future; then someone will kindly drop a bomb on me and I shall be all right.  

Note :
Within just over two years Waugh was dead. He suffered a massive and fatal heart attack in circumstances which would be considered outrageous in one of his own novels. It was Easter Sunday; he had been cheered by going to Mass in Latin (a rare treat by 1966); and he collapsed in the lavatory at home so that it was difficult for his sons and others to get in and see what was wrong with him. Graham Greene used to put it about that Waugh had collapsed head first into the lavatory bowl and drowned there, but neither the coroner nor his family could remember this striking detail.