The Hated Middle Years. Evelyn Waugh and Getting Old

I’m re-watching the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited  for the umpteen thousandth time


When I first watched the programme when I was a teenager I got caught up in all the stuff about youth and beauty and love  but as I got older I realised that the book is about getting older (duh! – the main theme is pretty much there in the title).

The book is about a middle-aged man looking back at something that has been lost; specifically all that youth and beauty and love stuff, but also the languor that goes with it:

(“..but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse, that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it” Brideshead Revisited).

So far, so obvious.

But a peculiarity of the novel, and of Waugh himself,  is that being middle-aged and being old are interchangeable.   At the beginning of the novel, Charles Ryder says, “Here, at the age of thirty-nine I began to feel old”.

Thirty-nine is quite old, but thirty-nine-year-olds, much like twenty-nine-year-olds or forty or fifty or sixty-nine-year-olds, do tend to exaggerate a bit. The weight is felt more keenly on those birthdays,  but despite that, when I was thirty-nine I didn’t feel especially old, I just didn’t feel young anymore. And I certainly had no inclination to act ten years older than I actually was. Waugh, I think, did. Bizarrely – and I don’t know anyone else who has ever done this – he seemed to rush forward into old age – for him thirty-nine may as well be seventy-nine.  Desperate to get there; keen to settle into it; Waugh, more than anyone I can think of, really exaggerated the ageing process.

One of my favourite parts of the  TV adaptation are those scene where Charles returns home during the summer vacation, where he and his father fight a war the causes of which are to do with disappointment, money, time-wasting and control, but which is fought through oblique conversations and where situations develop for no other reason than that they can carry the full weight of unstated resentments.

In this section of the book Ryder describes his father as being in his late fifties but,  “to see him, one might put him at seventy, to hear him speak, at nearly eighty“.  Again, in this novel age is exaggerated upwards.  Everybody is older than they are.

When I finished watching this particular episode on TV. I picked up Philip Eade’s recent biography.  ‘Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited’, which I haven’t read yet. I read the preface, which opens by recounting part of this scene where Ryder and his father fight this unstated war of control and attrition


(From the prologue) “In one of the funniest scenes in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder’s father pretends to suppose that his son’s very English friend Jorkins is an American

‘Good evening, good evening. So nice of you to come all this way”

“Oh it wasn’t far,’ said Jorkins, who lived in Sussex Square.

“Science annihilates distance’ said my father disconcertingly. “You are over here on business?” (Preface xxiii)

Eade then goes on to say that Waugh himself would act like this:

A brilliant and extraordinarily clear writer, Evelyn Waugh could hardly have been easier to understand and enjoy on the page; yet the peculiar traits of his character were often harder to fathom, inclined as he was to fantasy, comic elaboration and mischievous disguise. If the imaginative flourishes in his letters were intended to entertain the recipients, the eccentric and sometimes frightening façades he adopted in person were more often designed as defences against the boredom and despair of everyday life”. (Preface xxiv)

I’m pretty sure that this premature embracing of old age was one of these facades that Waugh adopted. He himself, in his fifties, acted as if he was in his seventies. He had the extraordinary habit of carrying a hearing trumpet, like some mad old duffer. He also took to wearing the sort of Edwardian clothing that would have been the dress that those who were twenty years older than him would have worn when they themselves were young.

In Vile Bodies, the hotel where Adam Fenwick-Symes lives, The Shepheard’s Hotel, is a faded hotel that was fashionable during Edwardian times. In the same way that I am fascinated with the music, books and records from the decade I was born (the sixties) Waugh seemed to be fascinated by what was fashionable in the Edwardian during which decade he was born – but then, weirdly, he clung to it as if it was his own youth.

In my fifties, I still wear the Levis, DMs and Adidas Kick that I wore when I was younger. I’m sure that’s normal-ish behaviour. People often wear what they wore when they were younger (I am looking forward to 2035 and the sight of fifty-something men in skinny fit jeans). But Waugh, as he got older, did not wear the fashions of his youth; instead, he wore the fashions of the decade in which he was born.  Instead of Oxford bag,  he wore tartan capes and herringbone suits. In doing so made himself appear two decades older than he actually was.

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That scene between Charles and his father in Brideshead is Waugh writing two versions of himself . First, he is looking back to his time at Oxford and to when he was the love-struck undergraduate entering the gilded, strange and magical world of self-loathing aristos (Waugh used this ‘Alice In Wonderland device of entering a new world’ story structure a few times in his work. It’s also what really happened to him). But he wrote himself as an old man, and someone who was wilfully old before his time, someone who was eccentric difficult and controlling. I think that this was exactly the kind of man that Waugh was becoming in the nineteen-forties when Brideshead was published.

It also adds a unique tension to a novel about memory because as well as reimagining his past Waugh is also projecting himself forward twenty years. It’s normal for people to look back but not at the same time as they long to jump forward in time. Or to put it another way, Bridehead is a novel written by someone in their forties who simultaneously longs to be in their twenties and their seventies.


An aside: I love these scenes where Ryder return home in the TV adaptation because John Gielgud, who plays Ryder’s father, does that thing that Gielgud, at his best, perfected.

When you see him act it’s as if there is a tiny but important part of him, tucked away deep in some inner corner, which is watching the performance with a measured and wry bemusement. He acts as if has a slight distance on himself. It’s the total opposite of method acting and is about thought rather than instinct. In this scene Charles Ryder/Jeremy Irons knows that he is no match for his father/John Gielgud – and every aspect of that equation makes the scene fizz and crackle.

A Cleveland Cop Put Out A Hit On Sam The Barber’s Old Man

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I went to get my hair cut at Sam’s barbershop. I’d been there before and during my last visit Sam told me about his life. He was from Cleveland but moved here to LA when he was a boy because his dad had got into trouble. That’s as far as the story had got. Sam left me with a cliffhanger.

I reminded Sam of where we had got to. He picked up the story.

Sam’s dad was a gangster. Of Sicilian descent, he was connected to organised crime (Sam said he was related to Lucky Luciano). His dad was a violent man and he had used that violence to make money and to get what he wanted out of life. The police were always after him, but they could make nothing stick. Sam’s dad seemed almost untouchable, but then a Cleveland detective made it clear that whoever got rid of Sam’s dad would get a pass, that the police would leave them alone. The cop was offering up a real-world get out of jail card.
This was why Sam’s family fled west. Somewhen in the early 1950s, they packed up everything and moved to LA.

I asked Sam if his father was still involved in crime out here in California.

“He still got money from back-east – and I knew as a kid that you still didn’t mess with him. People were scared of him”.

I asked Sam if he liked Cleveland.

“I hate it. It’s a lousy place. People there either took what they wanted or you had your stuff taken from you. It’s a city full of bastards and losers”.

Sam went quiet for about a minute.

“My dad was a lousy sonofabitch. A real cruel bastard. He hurt people and he bullied everyone, including his family”.

What Sam told me next was horrific. Sam’s description of his dad made his father sound like a psychotic animal. Something sub-human. A monster. You don’t need to know the details. I don’t want to write them down.

“Not a model parent then” I joked, trying to drag the conversation away from the darkest corners.

Sam went with me “On my fifteenth birthday he gave me a carton of L&Ms and a quart of whisky and told me that today you smoke and you drink……. and you leave school.”

“Did you?”


Another silence.

After a while, Sam spoke again.

“He taught me to fight as well. He taught me that you fight to win. You use tricks, anything you can to stop the other person. Hit them from behind, scare them into submission and then hurt them bad. Whatever it took. I was a rough kid.”

Sam showed me a photo of himself from when he was about 20. He was handsome – greased back black hair and a razor-thin moustache.

“You were handsome.”

“Yeah. I was”.

“Once I started working as a barber I calmed down a lot”.

Sam concentrated on my hair. He asked me if I was happy with what he’d done so far. I was.
Out of nowhere Sam suddenly went on

“There are a lot of bastards in the world. When I was a young barber, in the late 50s, I’d cut the hair of all these guys that fought in the war. They’d tell me the stuff you never saw in the films. One guy, a tank driver told me about this German they captured. They tied him to the front of their tank and then just drove with him strapped on – all across France, through bushes and trees, through rivers, through those smashed in towns. They kept what was left of him on the front of the tank for as long as possible. You read the papers and you read about stuff but it’s always worse than what you read”.

Sam had finished cutting my hair. He cleaned up.

“Hey – did I show you this?”. He got a book from a bookcase he had in the shop. It was a collection of front covers from the LA Times going back well over 100 years, right back to the origins of the modern city. Do you want to borrow this – I trust you to bring it back”.

Sam’s shop is in a small building that stands alone between a parking lot and the road. Architecturally it is nondescript, little more than a box, form as function. LA is still a strange and alienating city full of empty spaces and nondescript functional buildings. Sam’s shop is one of the few places I’ve been inside where I’ve got to hear someone else talk about themselves.

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel at home in this world of parking lots and gangsters

The Chough by H.J. Massingham



The Chough is a spectacle for the eye in its iridescent black dress with green and purple reflections, the long scimiter-like coral bill and bright legs to match, flashing about the sombre basalt headlands of Cornwall, striding like a Rook among the surf-fretted rocks or darting along a stretch of level sand almost as quickly as a Sandpiper.

The movements are decidedly Daw-like, but the flight is more buoyant and effortless and the volatile nature of the bird  sends it careering down the precipices with half closed wings into the maw of the fanged rocks below to sweep with a lightening turn into some cave or hollow at the foot of those black towers of Plutonic stone.

Like the rest of the Corvine race, the Chough is temperamentally sportive and enjoys idling about in the air, sailing briskly half-way up the giddy heights with up-curled tips of the primaries and in a Lapwing delirium of joy twisting and curving in a series of fantastic diagrams and then tumbling downwards like a raven.

The rock-face with a pair of Choughs disporting in its shadows relaxes its grimness.


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

The Rock-Dove by H.J. Massingham



The Rock-Dove (or Rock-Pigeon, White-backed Dove, Doo or Rockier)

“The Rock-Dove is another species which is a maritime dweller but whose racial and structural affinities are of the land. But it is not so exclusively littoral as the Rock-Pipit, darting inland on swift and rhythmic wing to feed on grain and seeds about the farm-house or in the pastures. Here it commingles with its domesticated descendants, the wild original of them all.

It has a dreadful influence over these tame pigeons, breeding with them so that their young desert the ways of men and revert, even in colour,  to the wild in their later descendants.  It can infect even adult birds with the poison of liberty, and these throw off their ornamentalisms , break with their acquired habits, swing off to a sea-life and indulge in promiscuous gallantries on the farm-house roof no-more.

They become complete outcasts, shunning the human form and oblivious of the benefits of parasitism which man has showered upon them. They become liable to being struck down by Peregrine Falcons and shot by their former protectors, while they are exposed to the full rigours of the northern winter and to every hazard of a free existence. Yet these birds never return to the human fold.

Consequently, you can never be sure whether the birds you see are renegade  fly-aways or the genuinely primitive ” Blue Rock.”  If you see a male pigeon strutting and cooing before his fair one on a rock-ledge half-way up the perilous cliff up, you think – “The parent of these birds trod the farmyard as the stage for this identical scene.”

As like as not, you will be wrong, for this kind of wooing is an inherited memory of the wild in the tame. When a party of birds springs out from the cliff-head and circles low over the sea, rejoicing in the sun and waves whose strength has entered their buoyant flight, and racing pace, you will deny that such grace and command could ever emerge out of a dovecot. You may err again, for it is astonishing how speedily the rebels slough off their civilization.

The true Rock-Dove is a bird of the north and west, nesting abundantly in the Hebrides, the Orkneys and Shetlands and among the rocky Scottish islands. Except for its plentiful colonies along the Welsh coast on Flamborough Head and in parts of Ireland, it is an uncommon bird, with wide gaps between its breeding stations, many of which are now deserted.

The pairs make a rude nest of twigs, grasses, ling or seaweed usually on the higher ledge of a cavern, for like the shag, the Rock-Dove is a troglodyte. Two pure white glossy eggs are laid and the young are fed in the universal pigeon-fashion.


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.


Canada Goose or Cravat Goose by H.J. Massingham.

Canada Goose


“The Canada Goose is native to the American Continent, migrating from Alaska down the Yukon and so to its winter quarters on the Gulf of Mexico. It is possible that a few of the winter Hebridean birds are storm-deflected strays, though it would surely take a tornado rather than a gale to turn a wild goose from its self-appointed course.

But these geese have been  acclimatised to England as a domestic or ornamental bird since the eighteenth century.

Many of these birds have broken from their polite servitude, and these pioneers have formed and maintained so genuinely a free-living race of wild geese that they have positively added a new species to the British list.

The birds are less nocturnal then the Barnacles, and feed on cultivated land. The succulent mere-grass is a favourite diet. The cry is as wild, deep and resonant as the Brents’, and less shrill than the Barnacles’. Wild geese are said to “honk,” but that is what motor-cars do, not geese. “Homg, hong” is a truer onomatopœism, and the Canada Geese I have heard at Holkham, on the North Norfolk coast, honged their way between sand and sky”.

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.


The White-Tailed Eagle by H.J. Massingham

The White Tailed Eagle


“The home of the White-Tailed Eagle is among the more tremendous of natural bastions against the unwearied sea, and on some veteran pinnacle outposted in the surge it loves to survey a boundlessness of sea and air, heraldically opening its mighty wings as the Cormorants  do on rocky islets or, impatient of this ultimate foothold on the earth, with slow and ponderous winnowing it sails vastly into space, climbing sunwards with flight-plumes that let shafts of light between them, their tips upcurled, their motion still. Spirally mounts the lord of the air until to us he dwindles to a little bird.

Not so royal is his land temper, though less furtive and ignoble than the Golden Eagle’s, the White-Tailed Eagle with loud and ludicrous yelps will allow itself to be bundled off the territory  of some puny, arrogant Rock-Dove, while the smaller Gulls can make it sue piteously for respite from their teasings in the air”

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

The Barnacle Goose by H.J. Massingham.

The Barnacle Goose


“Why retain this fantastic title for the second member of our Black Goose tribe?

It is derived from the old bestiary legend that geese were hatched of ship-barnacles, a legend fervidly credited by he wise men of old. It is a pity that men have been so slow to recognise the natural wonders of wild animal life that they have frequently invented an insane make-believe about it.

The Barnacle differs from the Brent only in comparative degrees. It is less maritime but even more northerly, It gaggles southwards in autumn down the west coast from the Hebrides to Cornwall rather than the east, but in much poorer numbers upon such celebrated goose-stations as the Dee Estuary and the Solway.

Its habits are more nocturnal than the Brent’s and the flights are probably higher above the earth. This is partly gathered from what happened the year before the War when eighteen Barnacles, winging north to their lonely homes, were struck by lightening over the Solway and shot to earth without having been seen before the gods smote them.

Their Valkyrie cry as they go their airways is not quite so grand and sonorous as that of the Brent, is on higher note and more percussive. It is of the Barnacle the saying goes – “There’s bad luck coming when the hell hounds are on the hunt,” and the mighty din of a gaggle in full cry often suggests an excited yelping”.


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.



The Peregrine Falcon by H.J. Massingham.

Peregrine Falcon .

“The Peregrine is justly described as one of the noble reptorial species, partly because of its lightning power of flight, its dauntless courage, and its total lack of the meaner habits of feeding which characterise the Buzzard, the Sparrow-Hawk and even the Golden Eagle.

This bird will never stalk the shrubberies like a conspirator, nor feed on carrion. It takes its prey in full flight and with a swoop like a thunderbolt. In repose, it will perch like a heraldic figure upon the most prominent bluff, investing the whole landscape about it with dignity and unregardful of the so often hapless consequences to itself

It will take a whole valley with a cleave of its wings.”


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.


The Brent Goose by H.J. Massingham

The Brent Goose

“How unaccountable is the attribute of dull-wittedness we ascribe to the goose! I should call the wild goose the most thinking biped of any shore-bird that exists, with the possible exception of the Raven and the Grey Crow. Even the domestic goose is no moron, though his civilized decadence in comparison with his wild brethren is almost as painful as the caustic caricature of the wild boar in the farmyard pig.

Anthony Collett has described the semi-responsive emotions of these petty officials of the home-pastures when a skein of wild geese passes trumpeting over them. They lift their bristling necks, pose amazed at the articulate sky, flap their wings like the birds in Dürer’s Melancholia, too impotent to lift their earth-born robustness and fall to gobbling the meadow-grass again.

The farmyard goose is the self important Bumble of the steading, with the itch for minor tyranny common to the breed, but he is certainly no fool. But the wild geese, as they drive apocalyptically through the upper darkness, clanging to the wild-eyed stars – they seem the flying angels of noble freedom, a freedom the race of men has lost”.

(You can read more about Massingham’s book Birds of the Seashore here )


Birds of the Seashore by H.J. Massingham

Birds of the Seashore by H.j. Massingham

I picked up this book in a Cambridge charity shop years ago.  What I like about the book is Massingham’s eccentric but poetic descriptions of the birds, for example, this is how he describes the Spoonbill:

“Its companions on the flats are usually Herons, but Gulls will often persecute it for,  it appears,  its very mystery and unearthliness, as though offended like a vulgar mob by the radiance and purity of its shining dress”

…and this passage is included in his description of the the Red-Necked Phalarope:

“…they are so lamentably indifferent to the human prescence and ease of approach that both they and their cousins, the Grey Phalaropes, are frequently stoned to death. The cry is a faint pleeping”.


It is as though Massingham is describing the quirks of wayward children, rather than birds, and there is some charm in this eccentricity. Unfortunately, this charm  may go hand in hand with some dodgy politics.

H.J. Massingham (1888 – 1952) wrote mainly about rural subjects and agriculture. After being educated at Westminster and Oxford he became a journalist, he knocked about a bit with DH Lawrence, and by the 1930s he was writing extensively and almost exclusively on rural matters.

The ruralist revival of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Massingham was part,  was often mixed up in some of the more eccentric far-right politics of the age – especially in its emotional and reactionary belief in ‘the soil’ as the basis of society.  The best-known figure who represents this tendency was Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka The Otter, who was a fascist sympathizer and supporter of Mosley. Another key figure in this revival was Rolf Gardiner a champion of morris dancing, a proselytizer for organic farming, a fan of naturalism and someone who had way too much time for Nazi theories on race and soil.

Massingham, even though he was part of that world, wasn’t a fascist and he objected to the pro-German tendencies amongst elements within the rural revival movement. He does seem to have been, however, a tiny bit bonkers and perhaps his reactionary politics does cast a slight shadow over his often charming and funny anthropomorphic descriptions of birds. Massingham, like a few other reactionaries (and fascist fellow travellers),  went on to play a part in the creation of the Soil Association – where we find the origins of modern organic farming and post-war green politics.