8 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 38

A tribute to the greatest writer

in English of the 20th century

Rummaging through a pile of old books in a fierce attempt to impose order on one tiny corner of the house, I pulled out a tattered volume, 58 years old. 'produced in complete conformity with the authorised economy standards'. The Flexiback spine was missing. The rest of the binding, by Kitcat Ltd, though stained a hideous shade of vomit green, was still in place. One page was loose, but otherwise the text, set by Tonbridge Printers, was complete and remarkably free from misprints. But of course in those days printers' readers were former private-school masters sacked for pederasty, or unfrocked vicars caught fumbling the choirboys — men of education, sometimes of scholarship, who took their duties seriously. This well-thumbed book is a first edition (1945) of Brideshead Revisited, and I reread it as my contribution to the Evelyn Waugh centenary. What a delight!

The book came my way early in my first term at Oxford in 1946, via my Magdalen fellow undergraduate Ken Tynan. He was a year ahead of me and already a big cheese, endlessly talked and written about. His weakness was that he had extravagant tastes but no more cash than anyone else. So he needed to be affable to a number of nonentities like myself in order to borrow small sums of money from them as and when needed. I, being prudent, always had cash available. On the other hand, I insisted on getting something back before advancing more, so Tynan would repay me in kind: a bottle of vintage port cadged from an admiring don, a tie from Hall Bros no longer considered smart, or a new novel, like this one, stolen from the Times Book Club. It was accompanied by advice, with which Tynan was generous: 'Read this book, Paul, instead of spending your whole time in the Radcliffe. To hell with mediaeval charters! Learn about the world, work up an appetite for living, you blind mole-like swot. Oxford is about voluptuous self-indulgence, the essence of true education, not collecting academic fag-ends' — and so forth, with much fashionable stammering, shaking of long locks and flashing of the cuffs of his plum-coloured suit.

Tynan was right in a sense; the novel is the best book about the delicious possibilities of undergraduate life ever written, and will always be read for this reason. But Waugh wrote it as an exercise in despairing nostalgia. Shinn Lovat had kicked him out of the Commandos, telling him he was so unpopular with the men that they would shoot him in the back the first day in action. As a regimental officer he was unemployable, so Brendan Bracken (the original of Rex Mottram) arranged for him to be given extended leave, which he spent in Chagford in Devon, Bracken saying, 'It's ridiculous you should be playing at soldiers when you could be writing a marvellous tale to cheer us all up.' Waugh took five months, February to June 1944. to recall the extravagant upper-class life between the wars, believing it was then gone for ever in the newly dawning proletarian world of envy and squalor. Little did he foresee that within 60 years the world would be drowning in the deadly sins of universal affluence which would make the behaviour of the Flyte family mere peccadilloes.

At the time, however, the Oxford portrayed in Brideshead seemed as impossible of attainment as the banquettes of the Café Royal to a couple of starving Bisto Kids shivering outside. Where Sebastian served plovers' eggs at his magic luncheon, we had to be content with a horrible thing called snoek, or whale-meat, which, however our chef served it, smelled fishy. Dried egg, scrambled, had a taste of unforgettable turpitude. When Cousin Jasper came to see Charles Ryder to give advice he 'ate a very heavy meal of honey-buns, anchovytoast, and Fuller's walnut cake'. We had to queue for at least an hour at the shop the other end of Oxford to get any cake whatever. Jasper laid down: 'Go to a London tailor: you get a better cut and longer credit.' We could not get any credit anywhere, and the wretched 'tweed coat and flannel trousers', which Jasper vetoed, were precious garments costing a whole year's clothing coupons. As for Jasper's warnings against wickedness, would that any had been on offer! He said that Charles had gone 'straight hook, line and sinker into the very worst set in the University'. If only such a set had existed in our day! I remember thinking along these lines when, standing by Magdalen deer park with Professor Ryle, he pointed out to me the dapper figure of A.J. Ayer mincing through the college. 'There goes poor Freddy. Might have been a great philosopher. Ruined by sex: How I longed to be ruined by sex. As for Anthony Blanche, 'a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville', I think the girls there in my day would have opened their beefy arms to him, iniquity in any shape, form or sex being in short supply. Not until Jimmy Goldsmith ran away from Eton to join us at Magdalen with £6,000 in cash in his pocket, and Aspers opened up his gambling hell at 167 Walton Street, did things begin to perk up. The two marvellous scenes in which Cousin Jasper appears illustrate the strength of the book — its sheer economy of words. They are two of the most memorable and powerful passages in modern English literature, yet each occupies less than a page. Thereafter Jasper disappears but, by a kind of alchemy that! call the literary Transmigration of Souls, he reappeared some years later as the Widmerpool of 'Uncle Tony' Powell. Brideshead moves at a cracking pace, covering a vast area of ground and scores of sharply drawn events in little more than 300 smallish pages. I think there is no novel in existence that has more to teach a writer on how to handle narrative or present character in a few telling words — sometimes just one word. Colonel Fender, the agent at Brideshead, is 'pouchy'. There is the 'midget' nobleman who shows them the sights of Venice. Brenda Champion, Rex's discarded mistress who 'made' him in society, does not appear at all, but her cold eyes behind her dark glasses stick in the reader's mind. The Sudanese consular porter who takes Charles to Sebastian's house in the native quarter of Fez makes himself unforgettable in exactly 23 words. And, incidentally, the description of Old Fez is a masterpiece in a dozen lines, exactly as I remember it in 1951.

There are many such visual enchantments. Waugh was a writer who had once aspired to be an artist and who saw with an intensely sharp eye; one, moreover, much influenced by the cinema of the Twenties at its miraculous best with brilliant vignettes superimposed in quick succession. Thus we get a glorious sketch of churchgoing Oxford on a Sunday morning; of Venice in the dappled sunlight; of the empty philistine splendours of the Queen Mary; of a baroque fountain and a homosexual den; a silent Paris restaurant devoted to haute cuisine at its most serious, and a chattering private view; a bal negre party; a Mayfair lunch at Sybil Colefax's or Nancy Cunard's; two scintillating glimpses of the 1926 General Strike; an evening with the Cliveden set; the return of the exiled and disgraced Earl Beauchamp to his ancestral home — real places and events snatched by Waugh from history and made immortal fiction in a few lines, often of genius, always of a glorious talent reminding me of Kipling at his best. While Henry James or Proust would take a dozen pages, and fudge, mudge and smudge, Waugh took one and made it diamond-sharp. The greatest writer in English of the 20th century.