Cancel Evelyn Waugh? We’d censor one of Britain’s sharpest critics (2024)

I try to ignore the so-called culture wars, trusting Telegraph readers to dismiss the censoriousness of those who would prevent us from seeing, or hearing, or reading things they deem offensive. We all know that times, attitudes and language change: even a few decades ago, writers, filmmakers or artists who wished to shock would do so in ways that seem mild today.

Equally, things that once were considered unshocking – notably concerning minorities, attitudes towards women and ideas of sexuality – are now judged by the self-declared authorities to be toooffensive.

I hope this is but a passing phase; if not, all sorts of insights will be lost to us. In the 1970s, an exemplary schoolmaster gave me a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall. I was 16 years old, read it in one sitting, and revelled in it: I was just grown-up enough not only to get the jokes, but to admire their darkness, Waugh’s flawless command of English and the mixture of subtlety and brazenness with which he obtained his comic effects. He was 24 when he wrote it and it is a young man’s book – but none the worse for that.

Yet were a 16-year-old, or indeed any student, to be taught the book today, they would doubtless be warned about what one reviewer on Amazon calls “a few dated racist descriptions” – “the N-word” is liberally used – or else the teacher could find themselves in trouble.

The novel still sells in huge numbers and one hopes its readers recognise it as satire. Its target is largely the only people one can safely ridicule today: the overprivileged, white upper-middle classes. The plot concerns a hapless Oxford undergraduate who by accident and through his own naivety ends up in prison, via a Welsh prep school staffed by sad*sts, paedophiles and charlatans. In the age of the misery memoir, such an establishment can certainly not be considered amusing. Indeed, any reader of Waugh’s contemporary George Orwell will know such places were not works of the imagination. Captain Grimes – the chief molester – was based on a schoolmaster with whom Waugh worked.

Most shocking in 1928, when the novel appeared, would have been a scene in which one boy’s mother arrives for his sports day with an “irreproachably dressed” black man who is not her husband. Today, no one could care less. However, when he meets the abominable Lady Circumference (whose son dies of wounds from an ill-directed starting pistol), he speaks of racial prejudice, remarking that what white people think best for the black man is to “beat him; put him in chains; load him with burdens”.

Waugh notes this provokes a “responsive glitter in Lady Circumference’s eye”. The vicar then says: “The mistake was ever giving them their freedom. They were far happier and better looked-after before.” No one can seriously believe Waugh ever held this view about slavery. It is obvious he is trying to show what a completely ghastly woman Lady Circumference was, and skewer the Church, too. Inevitably, in 2017, when the BBC made a typically unfunny adaptation of the book, these observations were clearly deemed too dangerous to include, in case anyone took them seriously, or thought the vicar was right.

They also omitted what I have always considered the most hilarious passage in the book, a diatribe by the atrocious headmaster of the school, Dr fa*gan, against the Welsh. Seldom has there been such a display of English bigotry, or has an Englishman sounded more pompous. He rants: “From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people. It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity. Their sons and daughters rarely mate with human-kind except their own blood relations…[they] are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing.” Funniest of all is when he says he has considered publishing on the subject, “but I was afraid it might make me unpopular in the village”.

People are shocking, and many novels reflect this. Waugh was a genius at presenting their horror. He must never be cancelled nor censored, because we need him to confront us with all that is worst in the world.

Cancel Evelyn Waugh? We’d censor one of Britain’s sharpest critics (2024)


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