Wednesday 13 June 2012

Waugh in Abyssinia

Evelyn Waugh's Waugh in Abyssinia is making me wish I were going to spend longer in Ethiopia this summer.

I recommend it very highly, if you like Waugh, which I very much hope you do. As a schoolboy a friend lent me but I never got round to reading Waugh's When the Going was Good, which Waugh said incorporated all he wanted to be read from his four travel books.

I am at the age when I read non-fiction for fun and fiction from duty, even though I know fiction, at its best, is more important, serious and truthful than non-fiction. I take this to the extent that, though I do not enjoy P.G. Wodehouse's fiction much, despite many attempts, I find his autobiography and a book of his essays screamingly funny.

It is odd to see from Waugh in Abyssinia how closely Scoop follows real life - as do so many novels, how does of all things Greenmantle. These novelists are so lazy! (I know they transmute it..) I shall be interested to see to what extent Waugh's Black Mischief's lunacy will turn out to be based on truth as reported in Waugh's Remote People, his 1931 book about his attendance at Haile Sellasie's coronation, which I am about to start. I suspect a lot was based on life. At Haile Sellasie's court, long after the war, Black Mischief was a book that was never to be mentioned.

Waugh in Abyssinia is a very good book indeed, drily funny, perceptive and written in beautiful sentences. It takes a pro-Mussolini line which may be why Waugh suppressed it and why Wilfred Thesiger hated Waugh. Making allowance for Evelyn Waugh's and his employer the Daily Mail's sympathy for the Italians, it should convince anyone who thinks colonialism on balance a Bad Thing that it did much good. Waugh, of course, rather persuasively blames liberalism for many of the world's wrongs and reading him I see for the first time how the amiable soft-hearted liberalism of mid- twentieth century England morphed into the unpleasant thing we now have in the Guardian. But Waugh is by no means a straightforward imperialist:

"The essence of the offence was that the Abyssinians, in spite of being by any possible standard an inferior race, persisted in behaving as superiors; it was not that they were hostile, but contemptuous. The white man, accustomed to other parts of Africa, was disgusted to find the first-class carriages on the railway usurped by local dignitaries; he found himself subject to officials and villainous-looking men at arms whose language he did not know, who showed him no sort of preference on account of his colour, and had not the smallest reluctance to using force on on him if he became truculent... The formidable dossier prepared by the Italians of outrages upon European dignity -- partly acts of mob-hooliganism but chiefly of violence by the police -- does not so much prove hostility as a sense of equality. They treated their visitors rather better than their own people, but not so much better as to make the country agreeable."

Waugh and Thesiger both deserved the title Charles Moore bestowed on Thesiger of 'a true conservative' but Thesiger greatly disliked Waugh. Waugh invited Thesiger to accompany him on a rather dangerous journey into the interior and Thesiger in his memoirs said they had they gone together he suspected only one of them would have returned. For all Waugh's deadly sense of humour I suppose Thesiger was much more likely to have returned.


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