Inspiring Older Readers
Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh
( Back in December 2015 we published a rather dismissive and tetchy review of this book [by me and which can be found here]. Regular guest reviewer, Alun Severn, has a very different take on the same book and so we also offer this alternative view. And alternative views are always good to have..... The Editor)
It’s been some years since I last read any Evelyn Waugh – and that was to struggle rather through the Sword of Honour trilogy, Waugh’s wartime opus which many consider his most serious work. I suppose it is, but then we don’t really read Waugh for seriousness. We want his unconscionable black humour, his biting satire – in short, that mixture of profound conservatism, political incorrectness, hauteur and cynicism that are all the reasons why we shouldn’t read Waugh and yet sometimes find him almost impossible to resist.
Where the early novels – I’m thinking particularly of Decline and Fall – can be almost as brittle and silly and fatuous as the milieu they lampoon, Put Out More Flags, his novel of the ‘phoney war’ period, is altogether better, despite it being somewhat overlooked between Brideshead and the Sword of Honour books. It is Waugh at the height of his powers, writing with greater economy than Brideshead and before post-war exhaustion and disillusionment had set in. The element of farce has been turned down a few notches, the humour is dryer and more cutting, and there is a new depth. And Waugh has a bad word for everyone – appeasers, aristocratic fascist sympathisers, bourgeois proletarians, revolutionary poets (Auden and Isherwood are mercilessly skewered), the boobies of the old guard: Waugh may be condemned for many things but his loathing was distributed on strong equality of opportunity lines.
In it we see Waugh’s gallery of reprobate characters – Basil Seal, his sister Barbara, his ruthless mother Margot, the old friend Ambrose Silk (who Basil will betray) – exhibiting about as much common human feeling as a bagful of angry snakes as they seek to adapt to the conditions of a war which will sweep aside a world previously cast in their image and shaped for their advantage. It is all done with such bleak gallows humour and such well-turned contempt that it is hugely enjoyable.
It has some marvellously deft touches. Angela Lyne, Basil’s mistress – temporarily forsaken by him for an enchanting female corporal in the War Office – is determinedly drinking herself into oblivion. Found almost unconscious in the hazily blue-lit foyer of a cinema in the blackout, news of her decline travels fast. (Her ‘friends’ concede she may be a drug addict but refuse to believe she may simply be an alcoholic because it lacks ‘style’.) When Basil eventually forces himself to go and see her, he finds her “up and dressed, but indefinably raffish in appearance; her make-up was haphazard and rather garish, like a later Utrillo.” There are numerous instances like this, where the novel isn’t just funny – it is sophisticatedly funny.
I don’t think Flags is on a par with, say, A Handful of Dust, which is probably Waugh’s strangest and richest novel, but I do think it turns his satire to greater purpose than is evident in some of the early novels.
And just a word about that late-70s cover design by Bentley/Farrell/Burnett because it has a story that is very much of its time.
It seems that David Pelham, Penguin’s art director at that period, wanted matching jackets for a new set of Waugh reprints. His plan was for art déco architectural features in soft pastel colours printed on a large stock of matt cream-coloured card that Penguin had bought but forgotten about. Bentley/Farrell/Burnett promptly ignored his detailed brief and produced these strange bastard offspring of late psychedelia.
Look closely: not only is the bemedalled soldier with the military moustache smoking on duty, he’s also wearing a flamboyant ring and aquamarine nail varnish. Waugh’s debauched young things of the Twenties are about to be engulfed, but – after their fashion – they are not going down without a fight.
I think it captures the tone of Flags rather brilliantly and as with many Penguin covers, it’s an instant time travel machine.