Let Evelyn Waugh back into Combe Florey churchyard

My father enjoyed playing up to his misanthropic reputation. But its consequences now are beyond a joke

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

Fifty years have passed since the death of my father, Evelyn Waugh. His remains, together with those of his wife Laura and daughter Margaret, are buried within a ha-ha which is now collapsing into the churchyard of St Peter and Paul, Combe Florey. My nephew, Alexander, and I hope that these graves could be incorporated in the churchyard as only a dilapidated wall separates them. But our efforts have been frustrated by bureaucratic obtuseness.

I wonder if the creakiness of the bureaucratic process has been created by the undeserved popular perception of my father as a monster. The portrait is based on his own diaries and my late brother Auberon’s wonderfully comic autobiography, Will This Do? The latter presents a quixotic version of the truth, containing among many other anecdotes a story about Evelyn devouring the wartime banana ration intended for his children. This, it’s true, had a reprise in my lifetime — transformed into caviar. One Christmas an American heiress, Mrs Cutting, had decided to adopt our needy English family and had sent a Christmas hamper which included a small pot of caviar. This my father consumed solo in front of his six beady-eyed children. Maybe it was a little greedy, but what fortitude! Most fathers would hide it to share with a significant other when the crowds had dispersed.

I want to mount his defence — but first I should perhaps review the case against. My first memory of my father was blissfully blowing a whistle as loud as I could outside his library window. I had just learnt to blow a whistle and was demonstrating my prowess. I was four years old, my father 51 and no doubt in the throes of writing Officers and Gentlemen, the second book of the Sword of Honour trilogy. Suddenly there he was, incarnate, behind me, fierce but silent and firm, and the whistle was gone. My father had carelessly chucked it under a black camel that lay beyond the green baize door. I was not impressed. Being only four years old I had not acquired the gentry status that would permit me to go through the door and retrieve it. For weeks, I would gaze tantalised from the servants’ side, not daring to approach the whistle nestled in the hind legs of the kneeling camel. In recognition of this early trauma, the camel was bequeathed to me and now my grandchildren ride it with scant respect for its awesome past.

The second item in the case against is not so much a memory as a photograph: myself sitting on top of a stone pillar glaring at my father, who gazes, beatific and adoring, at his youngest child. I have often wondered about that photograph. It now occurs to me that I was only obeying a strict family rule that none of us should ever smile in front of a camera. This was a rule made by my father but invariably broken by him in family photographs. And so our family portraits display a seraphic Evelyn surrounded by a very cross family. It was only in the last family photographic session of his life that those who had reached the age of 20 had started to sneak shifty smiles at the camera. But, in this last photograph, my brother James and I still glared. I believe that James, true unto death to his father’s prohibition, has never ceased to glower at a camera.

My experience of my father was entirely different from that of Auberon, who had to overcome our father’s reputation to find his own literary voice. This he did brilliantly by transferring our father’s talent for surrealist commentary and sharp wit from novels to journalism, an area in which Evelyn did not excel.

My primary impression of my father was of a gentle melancholic man whose chief pleasure lay in parodying his condition. He would wander round the house when too many children were present chanting…

Oh the hell of it
Oh the smell of it
Oh the hell of the family life.

And we would smile indulgently. When his friends died he would cheer feebly, because he felt doomed and he had outlasted them in the race of life. When Ian Fleming snuffed it, he even acted out his death-rattle during Christmas charades. How we laughed.

He never hit his children, the boys were not expected to call him ‘sir’ (a custom among my schoolfriends of that time which I found very incongruous), and he was tolerant of fibs as long as they were fantastical enough and not malicious. Once, inspired by reading Nada the Lily, I took the role of Umslopogaas, using my father’s best cork-topped walking stick as a knobkerrie to vanquish the furniture in the redundant servants’ parlour. The victory, if total, was brief. The battered walking stick was found and all fingers pointed at me.

An impromptu court was set up in a tatty glass shed at the back of the house, which my father had christened the Crystal Palace. He took the role of judge and was provided with a chair. I admitted using the walking stick but hotly denied doing anything violent with it. I made no mention of Umslopogaas and maintained that I had used it to act the French courtier. When asked what that might involve, I minced around in the grime of the Crystal Palace striking what I imagined to be courtier-like poses with the stick. I was absolved, I think on the grounds of chutzpah, and the court was adjourned.

Certainly I was in awe of my father. This was less from fear than from a desire not to appear foolish in front of him. But in my teenage years I felt protective of him. He was fragile, like a beautiful piece of china. Being alone at home, I used to sigh frequently and despondently. Papa could not bear it and threatened to kick me if ever I sighed again. The day came when some of us were standing round the kitchen table and I let out a heavy sigh. ‘Right,’ said my father, ‘I am going to kick you.’ He waddled towards me and I ran away. He waddled on and I could not bear it. So I stopped and let him kick me. It was a gentle kick and not long after he was dead.

He was buried in the ha-ha that used to lie on his land, which has since been sold. This year Oxford University Press will start the mammoth task of publishing a scholastic edition of all my father’s writings. Equally important — for his family at least — is that we surmount whatever prejudice there may be against him, to see his earthly remains incorporated into the churchyard at Combe Florey, where we can visit them.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Septimus Waugh is a woodcarver, cabinet-maker and joiner.

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Show comments
  • Jack Cade

    Wonderful. Thanks.
    And perhaps we shall read more from you?

  • Fraser Bailey

    Such a wonderful family. Funnily enough I picked up a compendium of Auberon’s articles for the Spectator etc just yesterday. And his diaries would be my Desert Island Discs book – they are simply hilarious, not least the way in which he sees through the Kinnocks so early. ‘Will This Do’ is also very funny.

  • Father Todd Unctious

    Yet another member of the Waugh dynasty using their nepotism with the Speccie to pull rank over the ordinaries. Your dad, grandad, great grandad writing a decent book does not give you carte blanche to lord it over the ensuing generations. Show some humility.

    • Robert Lee

      Get a life, Unctious!

      • Father Todd Unctious

        Tug fewer forlocks Lee.

    • Brian Patrick Mitchell

      Show some humility, Unctious, and shut up.

    • Shut up Unctious. What a bore.

    • Jethro Asquith

      You are rather a bore.

    • turriseburnea

      Whereas, no doubt, you belong to a much more illustrious dynasty (but, please, don’t bother to inform us about it).

    • jennybloggs

      I cannot see that Septimus Waugh is, in an way, lording it over us. Personally I enjoyed this insight into Evelyn Waugh’s family life. If the topic doesn’t interest you then don’t read the article.

      • Father Todd Unctious

        Several members of his family work for the Speccie…….regardless of talent.

        • Don Kenner

          What an idiot you are. Reading is worth little without understanding. And who are the “we” that are so upset at EW’s parenting skills? The rubes? The proles? The masses? People like you exist to prove that the elderly EW was mostly correct.

  • Ken

    Having visited Combe Florey I had assumed that EW wanted to be buried in his own enclosure partly out of a sense of his importance and equally because as an RC he wished to be apart from the non-believers. Why can’t the enclosing wall be repaired? You don’t explain what the “bureaucratic obtuseness” is all about. He was a great writer and like many others was not a saint. He should be a matter of local pride.

    • Septimus Waugh

      He had no say in the matter coz he was dead. My mother chose to place him there because there was no space left in the churchyard and in her grief she wanted him to be close to a church, or so I believe

  • Robert Lee

    A very touching reflection! Thanks for posting it, Septimus. Gain solace in the fact that your father was absolutely spot on about the decline in the Catholic faith that would ensue after Vatican II and the abandonment of the Tridentine rite. How fortunate he was to pass in to eternity shortly after attending Latin Mass on Easter morn. Your dad is my hero and my idol and I will remember his passing 50 years ago this very Sunday when I attend Latin Mass this coming Easter morn. God bless you, Septimus.

    • Fr. David Hudgins

      “Decline in the Catholic faith…” “In 1900, there were 459 million Catholics in the world, 392 million of whom lived in Europe and North America. Christianity 100 years ago remained an overwhelmingly white, first world phenomenon. By 2000, there were 1.1 billion Catholics, with just 380 million in Europe and North America, and the rest, 720 million, in the global South. Africa alone went from 1.9 million Catholics in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, a growth rate of almost 7,000 percent. This is the most rapid and sweeping demographic transformation of Catholicism in its 2,000 year history.” Vatican II wasn’t so bad…

      • Father Todd Unctious

        World population was 1.6 billion in 1900 ,so Catholics were 28% of the World. Now we have 7.4 billion so Catholics are 15%.

        • turriseburnea


    • Sanctimony

      What a touching and heartfelt tribute… and I’m not being sarcastic…

      However, I must point out that the Blessed Evelyn Waugh died in the lavatory after a Mass said (I believe) by Father Martin D’Arcy SJ at his home in Somerset.

      I gather that Mr Waugh was straining hugely to expel a ginormous feculence when all the effort caused his sedentary heart to succumb to an overpowering cardiac infarction which sadly had to be witnessed by his wife and many of his children.

      However, Father D’Arcy was on hand to minister the last rites, in the form of Extreme Unction, as Waugh lay trouserless in his khazi at Combe Florey…. we must thank the Almighty for small mercies.

      • Robert Lee

        I would gladly suffer the ignominy of leaving this earthly life trouserless in my own throne room, only to be so well prepared to meet my Heavenly Father sitting upon his throne in the next world.

        • Sanctimony

          However high a man sits, he still sits on his own a**e... Montaigne

  • Teacher

    At least your father is in good company in being adored by his fans and treated contemptibly by those in authority – look at Oscar Wilde, for instance. Jumped up nobodies cannot stand that writers will always be their superiors.

    • Brian Jones

      I suppose by your definition I’m a nobody , after all I only ever worked for a living and never wrote a book but I can assure you that no-one , writer or teacher, is superior to me and my circle of friends.

      • Teacher

        Gosh no. I wasn’t talking about you or your friends at all. I was using hyperbole to underline the irony of the those denying Evelyn Waugh his place in the churchyard. They should be celebrating his God given talent, surely? Elsewhere, the church has been happy to celebrate Literature, for example, poetry, in Poet’s Corner in the Abbey.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          John Betjamen at St Enodoc. Sassoon at Mells. Laurie Lee in Slad.

          • Sanctimony

            Thomas Jefferson at Monticello…

      • crymo

        I am.

  • Vanya Burbonoff

    Your pops wrote some good books, some were so good I read’em again and again, I think I did Put Out More Flags four times ….. Money talks and bullshit walks as they say here in US. I say go on https://www.kickstarter.com/ fundraising site which is “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects, a home for film, music, art, theater, games, comics, design, photography” and raise some major money, Im good for a hundred bucks right now … then buy out the whole church and like 30 acres round it and sink the money in …. fix the ha-ha, lay out a park around it and a put up a roman style amphitheater where us reading types can gather in the summer and read aloud and re-enact you father’s works or some variation thereof …. and thanks for the article

    • Robert Lee

      Great idea, I’d be in for a C-note too!

  • Jacobi

    Your father, Evelyn Waugh, was a profound Catholic writer. Like many such, he was also prophetic. He dealt with the one of the current great crises in current secular and of course Catholic society, namely, the question indissolubly of Marriage.

    In Brideshead Re-Visited, ( and I have read many other of his novels by the way ), he demonstrated this through Julia. She chose, knowingly, what I’ll call a sinful life, trusting in the mercy of Christ, rather than a life of sin, fixed and committed from which it is near impossible to extract oneself, even if the consequences are known and understood, knowing that Charles would later understand.

    It is a pity more don’t read his works today. But they will. His grave will be recognised in future whether without the ha ha or not!

    • crymo

      My god. it’s like a voice from the 1930s.

  • Steve Challenger

    Sorry for the ignorance, but what is a “ha-ha”?

    • Father Todd Unctious

      A hidden ditch used by toffs so as not to break up their marvelous views fro stately homes.

    • Frank Marker

      I presume when you unexpectantly come across one on a country ramble you exclaim “Ha-ha!”

    • Sanctimony

      It’s a gardening feature in Victorian, and later, gardens which prevented livestock getting into one’s garden…. a deep, grassy ditch.. now know as a wah, wah by latter day Sloanes who consider it an essential feature in any rural property when downsizing from Fulham….

    • commenteer

      Ha-has actually began in the 18th century (an early one can be seen at Stowe), and were intended to create an impression of an unbroken vista of parkland, keeping livestock away from anywhere near the house by the use of a ditch rather than a fence. A sort of infinity pool for parkland, as it were.
      The word itself is a joke, as it was, and is, perfectly possible to fall into the ditch by mistake.

  • F4 Phantomsby

    To those with an interest in Waugh family history, I would recommend Alexander Waugh’s “Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family”. The television series made from it, which can be found on YouTube, has enjoyable contributions from Septimus Waugh.

  • crymo

    Septimus Waugh writes very well.