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Nick Clegg should read Evelyn Waugh before writing his next manifesto

Waugh was as politically incorrect as it is possible to be

By on Thursday, 28 August 2014

Evelyn Waugh (PA)

Evelyn Waugh (PA)

A news item on Radio 4 at about 5.45 this Tuesday was about the Lib Dems’ proposal for their future Party manifesto that sex and relationship education classes should begin at the age of seven. An expert was interviewed who said that obviously “experts” would be in charge of these mixed classes, which would be “age appropriate” and would include the naming of body parts and the differences between girls and boys. The political response to social problems resulting from sexual license is always more and earlier “sex education”. It is often observed that this tends to increase the problems rather than reduce them, but that doesn’t change the entrenched views of our policy-makers.

Whenever I hear news snippets like this I am reminded of a brilliantly satiric – and prophetic – short story of Evelyn Waugh’s, written as long ago as 1952, called “Love among the Ruins.” More succinct and savage than “Brave New World”, it concerns a modern youth called Miles Plastic, who grows up in a society where euthanasia is taken for granted and where the state has taken over all the functions normally undertaken within the family. When Miles falls in love he and his partner quickly engage in sex which “had been part of the curriculum at every stage of his education, first in diagrams, then in demonstrations, then in application.” When she gets pregnant an abortion inevitably follows. Nick Clegg ought to read this story, though I fear he would fail to get its point.

Then I came across Fr Tim Finigan’s blog last year about Evelyn Waugh’s “Face to Face” interview with John Freeman in 1960. Never having watched this encounter before, I found it very revealing of the man who could write the mordant satire referred to above. Waugh smiled from time to time as he (briefly) explained a point, but only with his lips; his eyes remained cold, watchful, wary – indicative, as Freeman must have realised, of a gifted, complex and deeply private man who understood his own nature and failings and felt not the slightest desire to share this knowledge with the BBC.

Freeman was a model of patient, self-effacing and sensitive enquiry; a disembodied voice focused on his subject and unvaryingly courteous, even though Waugh refused to expand on any tentative avenues of enquiry. Asked whether he missed the life of the city (Waugh was then living at Combe Flory House in Somerset), he replied “I live in the country as I like to be alone”, indicating that further questions in this line would not be approved.

Waugh was as politically incorrect as it is possible to be. For the interview he smoked a large cigar; his childhood had been “idyllically happy”; his time at Oxford was characterised by “sloth”; in an attempt to earn money he had briefly become a prep school master – “the resort of the middle classes in those days”; he agreed to the interview because of “poverty” and his worst fault was “irritability”. There were no revelations, confessions, psychologising or the kind of celebrity chumminess that has characterised interviews in a later age. When Freeman tried to probe him on his conversion, Waugh refused to be drawn; he had realised that “Catholicism was Christianity” at the age of 16, had ignored religion for the next decade and reprimanded Freeman for suggesting that his faith might have brought him comfort or solace: “It isn’t a lucky dip”, he replied, adding in an aside that was not picked up on, that it was “the essence”.

Waugh converted in 1930. In 1949 he explained in an interview that his conversion followed his realization that life was “unintelligible and unendurable without God.” Doubtless, if Freeman had quoted this on “Face to Face” Waugh would have declined to expand. But it indicates much about the intellectual clarity and emotional intensity with which he looked at life.

After watching this interview and idling about with iPlayer, I then watched the Freeman interview with Bertrand Russell. What a contrast! Aged 87, he spoke in perfectly formed paragraphs and in measured, aristocratic tones. He was as lively, entertaining and forthcoming as Waugh was morose and monosyllabic. A famous sage in his time, Russell had stopped believing in God when, as a child, he could find no evidence for angels. He chuckled merrily at the memory of such an absurd possibility. Raised by his grandmother in the Victorian era, he felt it had been characterised by “a morbidly puritanical view of sex”.

If he had been alive to hear of the Lib Dems’ most recent proposal, I imagine he would have thoroughly approved. After all, there is no God, repression is always bad and children must learn to distinguish facts from superstition and bigotry, mustn’t they?

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