Evelyn Waugh once described Downside as “that centre of sadism”. He used to visit the abbey to soak up the gloomy piety of the Easter Retreat – and he sent his son, the great journalist Auberon Waugh, there to be educated by the Benedictine monks in 1952. It wasn’t an act of kindness.
Auberon Waugh loathed the school and the headmaster in particular. “He beat me savagely throughout three years, sometimes twice a week, and although none of my elaborate schemes to kill him ever came to anything, I took my revenge in various subtle ways,” he wrote.
Waugh detested the school prefects, too. “It would be absurd to pretend that all prefects at my school were hypocrites, sodomites or criminal psychopaths,” he recalled. “But enough of them seemed to have tendencies in one or more of those directions to put me on my guard against anyone who retained the uniform and the mannerisms of a public-school prefect in later life.”
Auberon Waugh fought back with journalism of a sort: he edited the Rook, a “libellous and obscene parody” of Downside’s official magazine, the Raven.
As you can tell, I am having another Waugh Week. These have cropped up regularly since I was taught A Handful of Dust by Neil McLaughlan, the charismatic and brilliant teacher who is now headmaster of Westminster Cathedral Choir School (a school which is experiencing its second spring, I gather). This Waugh Week, it’s Kiss Me, Chudleigh – a hilarious collection of Auberon Waugh’s journalism edited by William Cook – that has me hooked again.
It’s their humour, you see, which keeps drawing me back to the Waughs. That and a personal connection: not only was I educated by the same Downside monks but – whisper it – I was also, some 50 years after Auberon Waugh, the editor of the Rook (not to mention writing for The Catholic Herald and the Telegraph, as Waugh did for many years).
A sad admission, however: my Rook was not particularly libellous or obscene. Though it mocked the school for accepting girls (“Nuns to arrive at monastery in September”), it wasn’t nearly as rude as Waugh’s edition. My headmasters, Dom Antony Sutch and Dom Leo Maidlow Davis, never used to beat me. And the prefects – of which I was one – were a different breed altogether. I didn’t hate the school at all.
Perhaps this was a symptom of the time. Waugh said, years after leaving Downside, that public schoolboys had become “incredibly wet and pious”. Better than criminally psychopathic, I suppose.
But we shouldn’t take his recollections too seriously. Dom Antony once asked “Bron” why he despised Downside so much. Waugh muttered something about “poetic licence” and asked how soon it would be before one of the monks took the name Perignon.
In April this year I wrote about my granny’s punch bowl. It had been presented to my great-great grandfather W H Merk – who was a spy on the North-West Frontier during the British Raj – by “the surviving brothers of Major Henry Macdonald. Killed at Michni, near Peshawer, March 1873”.
Well, I have found a wonderful book by Merk at the British Library. And it includes a passage explaining Macdonald’s death: a man called Bahram Khan instigated the “ruffianly murder”. His mind had “lost its balance by long indulgence in charas [hashish] and opium”. He evaded all attempts at capture, but in 1879 his retainers “who had actually cut down Major Macdonald” were captured at Dakka and “met with their well-deserved, though long-delayed, fate in Peshawar”. That fate, I suspect, would have made a beating from a Benedictine headmaster seem rather tame.
Will Heaven is assistant comment editor of the Daily Telegraph