John Summers


Interview with Evelyn Waugh

John Summers interviewed Evelyn Waugh in 1965 for the Sunday Telegraph, and the encounter was fictionalised in Edge of Violence, where Waugh appeared under the name Jocelyn Gould. In the mid-1990s John returned to his notes for this article (published in an unknown magazine, probably Country Quest) under the headline ‘Proud to be Welsh’:

He was that most English of all writers, quintessence of the manorial country house, the dinner parties, and the thé dansants.

But given half a chance writer Evelyn Waugh was ever eager to recount his proudly Welsh descent.

“I’m descended from a Morgan of Glamorgan and believe it or not during one period of heavy drinking whilst on one of me periodic peregrinations to Town, otherwise known as The Smoke, that is, London, whilst purchasing my railway ticket at Paddington station very late at night, I inadvertently, if I can make you to believe, actually required the railway ticket booking office clerk to remit to me an actual railway ticket for my return journey to South Wales.

“Whereas I should have said my return journey to South Molton in the Westcountry where, in fact, I intended my return journey to take me, returning, that is, home.

“I awoke in a railway carriage that had pulled in to the platform at Cardiff railway station at dawn, I awoke from some sort of reverie, one induced by what some might term a fulsome dinner and its aftermath, and rapidly made my way to another train going in the opposite direction.

“But could this have been all the result of an unconscious instinct – to return to my ancestral roots?

“Anyhow, the motto upon my Welsh ancestor’s shield was something like Darro Fy Mwall which apparently means Sharpen My Axe!

“This was because sometime in history after he and his followers hewed down about 1,000 Saxons trying to invade Wales from across its borders, when his fellow Welsh began to celebrate their victory my doughty ancestor only brandished his bloody axe – ‘Sharpen My Axe! wanting to go on to do more.”

This descendant of Morgan of Glamorgan. I met not long before he died, at his great country house Coombe Florey in Somerset, where his son and literary successor Auberon Waugh now lives.

At the Somerset village I had asked directions of the villagers. “Oh, Mr Wow! You go up-along, m’dear , up-along to find Mr Wow!”

Mr Wow was how he was known locally, the best the Somerset accent could make of Mr Waugh.

Up the red cinder drive to the mansion, and the balding peacock advanced to meet me on his red feet and with a terrible sqwawk.

Mr Waugh I found pacing his magnificent library with its shelves lined with so many edition of his books like Brideshead Revisited and Scoop and Put Out More Flags.

He indicated the large and luxurious carpet at his feet. “I call this the Beaverbrook Carpet since I bought it out of the libel damages I got from Beaverbrook Newspapers and the Daily Express the last time a London journalist came down here uninvited and tried to interview me.”

And even now Mr Wow! was very annoyed indeed.

Because a national newspaper had put a headline last week over its newspaper story about him and his latest pronouncements about the state of English religious life, the headline ‘Holy Waugh’.

“Holy Waugh!” repeated Mr Waugh, exasperated. “I started my very first job in Wales – as a prep school teacher.

“It was pretty terrible in that school from a teacher’s point of view. That was in a private school near Llandudno.

“We used to take the boys on picnics to Snowdon and Cader Idris.

“But my Welsh ties go back further than that. My ancestor Morgan of Glamorgan, situated near Bridgend, had a large estate called Cadwgan Fawr and another one near it called Llancaiach Fawr. He was the one who got the family motto – in Welsh – Sharpen My Axe.”

Mr Wow! poured us gin and proffered large Romeo and Juliet cigars.

His name had always provided amusing moments for him like when he went as a foreign correspondent to Africa and sent ahead of himself the telegram Evelyn Waugh British Writer Arriving Tomorrow – and was greeted when he arrived by his perplexed fellow journalists who were all bearing bouquets for the lady they thought he must be.

Later on he was referred to in a British national newspaper as “the Welsh writer Ernlyn Waugh”. And ever after that in some sort of revenge he always referred to the poet Dylan Thomas, whose work only bewildered him, as Dillwyn Thomas.

Evelyn Waugh now brandished an imaginary pen and said: “Like my friend Hillaire Belloc, I have to keep on writing because my children are crying out for pearls and champagne.”

Mr Wow! paced his expensive carpet.

“In fact I have just realised the copyright in all my books in order to leave the money to the Save the Children Fund.” His eyes dropped below the gold rims of his specs for a moment. “I mean my own children, of course...”