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How Waugh declared war on Christmas
23:30 GMT, 17 December 2012
Not in the spirit: Evelyn Waugh was not a christmassy being
As Christmas approaches, with its relentless and dispiriting pressure to have fun, it might be well to remind ourselves of those few brave souls who have refused to toe the line.
Evelyn Waugh (pictured) was the least Christmassy of beings. ‘A poor Christmas Day . . .’ he wrote in his diary on December 25, 1919. ‘Like birthdays, Christmas gets duller and duller. Soon it will be merely a day when the shops are most inconveniently shut.’ He was 16 years old at the time.
Five years on, his Christmas cheer is still lacking. ‘Christmas Day always makes me feel a little sad,’ he writes on December 25, 1924.
And the following year proves little better: ‘Christmas . . . rather dreary.’
The following Christmas finds him on a railway journey in France, but with no corresponding increase in his happiness. ‘The journey from Calais to Marseilles was most disagreeable.
‘The carriage was crowded. A woman sat next to me with a little girl, which she fed with chocolate and cake and fruits every 20 minutes through the night,’ he wrote.
I think the funniest word in that entry is ‘which’: anyone who looked more kindly on children would have used ‘who’ or ‘whom’.
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Overrated: A far cry from those television advertisements showing parents and children delighting in one another's company, for Evelyn Waugh Christmas is always dispiriting
If anything, the following year finds things worse. ‘My eldest two children are here and a great bore,’ he writes to his friend Nancy Mitford. ‘The presence of my children affects me with deep weariness and depression,’ he confides to his diary on December 23, 1946. ‘I do not see them until luncheon, as I have my breakfast alone in the library, and they are, in fact, well trained to avoid my part of the house; but I am aware of them from the moment I wake.
‘Teresa has a mincing habit of speech and a pert, humourless style of wit; Bron is clumsy and dishevelled, sly, without intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual interest . . . I taught them the game of draughts for which they show no aptitude.’
The only thing he can find to look forward to is a hospital appointment. ‘The frost has broken and everything is now dripping and slushy and gusty.
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‘The prospect of Christmas appals me and I look forward to the operating theatre as a happy release.’
It is all a far cry from those television advertisements showing parents and children delighting in one another’s company, shouting with delight as presents are opened, and hugging around the Christmas tree.
For Evelyn Waugh, Christmas is always dispiriting.
‘A large luncheon where Teresa cut a wretched figure, mincing her words and rolling her eyes like a nun,’ he writes on Boxing Day 1947.
‘We drank a great deal and reached home in the dark to find Bron returned . . . I find the children particularly charmless.’
He continues: ‘I am attempting to give Bron some extra lessons. He is lazy, but not very stupid. Press cuttings pour in, mostly laudatory. I am annoyed to find myself continually described by people I have never set eyes on as bad-tempered.’
Young Bron grew up to be the funniest journalist of the 20th century, and also, I might add, one of the sweetest of men.
His recollections of his father remained surprisingly fond, largely because he found him so funny, even — or perhaps especially — when others would have considered his behaviour cruel.
‘Papa’s best practical joke was played in my first term at school, when I was still very nervous.
‘He told me he proposed to change his name to Stinkbottom. When he had done so, the headmaster would summon the school together and say: “Boys, the person you have hitherto called Waugh will in future be called Stinkbottom.”
‘School assembly was held every morning, and every morning I felt a slight tightening of the chest as Mr Dix came forward to make his morning announcements.’