Evelyn Waugh: traveller, observer, hater

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Evelyn Waugh: traveller, observer, hater

Evelyn Waugh marries Laura Herbert 17 April 1937 (PA)

Following the inspiring example of DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh shifts the centre of travel-writing from the external world to his own complex character. His books — Labels (1930) on the Mediterranean, Ninety-Two Days (1934) on British Guiana, Remote People (1931) and Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) on Africa — contain spontaneous revelations of his own feelings and thoughts. He has no desire to live in the Mediterranean, and is horrified by Guiana and Abyssinia. But he gets both emotional and intellectual satisfaction from his travels and suffers vicariously for his readers. He defines himself in relation to the landscape and people, and shows the response of an extraordinary personality to the spirit of the place. 

Waugh disparaged his first travel book, Labels, as “a collection of occasional essays bundled together for money and publicity.” But he compensates for the loose structure of the work, based on his circuitous route around Mediterranean ports between Lisbon and Haifa, by his persona, style and wit. In contrast to the dry facts in Baedeker and other guide books, Waugh provides satirical impressions and recounts his outrageous experiences with wild exaggeration. He paradoxically portrays himself as snobbish and arrogant, yet foolish and humble, as well as persecuted and panic-stricken when he gets lost and swindled. He dutifully noses around for local colour, visits houses of ill fame without confiding salacious details and caustically deflates the reputations of esteemed resorts.

Waugh begins Labels with two terrestrial chapters on Paris and Monte Carlo. He finally boards the Norwegian cruise ship Stella Polaris (North Star) for a free ride, in return for a puff in his book that he dutifully supplies in a single propagandistic paragraph. But he slips in sufficient warnings to the careful reader about the negative aspects of luxurious confinement. The passengers are boring and unavoidable, the lecturers dull, the noise intolerable. When in port the whole vulnerable crowd is simultaneously disgorged from the ship, which “causes an unnatural outbreak of rapacity among the inhabitants”. There is very little time to see the sights on land. (I can confirm this, having lectured on five cruises — to Quebec, the Amazon, Burma, Southeast Asia and East Asia — and bitterly recall having only five hours to see Borneo and one day for China.) Samuel Johnson declared, “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” A writer friend described cruises as: “Horrible. No, worse than horrible.”


Echoing Sherlock Holmes’ first words to Dr Watson, Waugh describes a mistaken encounter: “ ‘I perceive, sir,’ said the man with the pipe, ‘that you, too, are an Englishman.’ ‘No,’ answered the Greek, ‘only a damned foreigner.’ ” The typical John Bull, when venturing abroad, “is very suspicious of foreigners, chiefly on the ground that they do not have baths, disguise their food with odd sauces, are oppressed by their rulers and priests, are dishonest, immoral and dangerous, and talk a language no one can [understand].” Waugh cunningly plays up to these ingrained prejudices by mocking both travellers and natives.

“Nasty,” his favourite adjective, he freely applies to pottery, sherry, beggars and skin diseases. He also condemns vulgar coloured tiles, vile fripperies, frightful babies, ugly women and a dwarf with a “funny little shrivelled up, sexless face.” The hideous behaviour of the locals is also repellent. Officials are predatory and corrupt, guides adhesive and ignorant, correct change is never given until the incorrect has first been refused. On an excursion to visit massive monuments in the Egyptian desert, the passengers endure extreme discomfort and spend a fortune “to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must for ever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls.” Prophetically shattering Edward Said’s absurd but mindlessly accepted Orientalism thesis, Waugh notes that in his day “Egypt has not produced a single first-rate Egyptologist.” If there had been no Western archeologists, he concludes, nothing would be known of Egypt’s ancient history.

Waugh’s brilliant comedy constantly enlivens the book. The aquarium in Monte Carlo looks like a fish shop; the moustaches of the Palestinian dragoman stand out from his face “like the horns of a bison”; tortoise races on the ship are impeded, not by the reptiles’ “slowness so much as their confused sense of direction”. In his cheap Paris hotel room he discovers a forgotten set of false teeth under the pillow and sleeps on a bumpy mattress that seems stuffed with human skulls. Abstract art on view in that city, glamourised by Hollywood, resembles “handicrafts pursued in hospitals by the disabled”. When two Maltese hotels compete for his custom, and the loser petulantly flutters before his eyes Waugh’s own letter requesting a free booking, he duplicitously denies responsibility and theatrically exclaims, “You have been deluded by a palpable forgery.” In the seraglio of the recently deposed Turkish sultan, “agitated eunuchs protest against the abolition of polygamy” and “pimps demand a higher percentage to cover the increased cost of living”.

Waugh’s parodies of deceptive guide books are comically deflating. Gibraltar, which Thackeray compared to a lion couchant, appears to Waugh like a great slab of cheese. His overheated description of a famous volcano in Sicily parodies Robert Byron’s ecstatic outburst in Europe in the Looking-Glass (1926): “I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna. . . . Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.” (Italy had been fascist since 1922, but Waugh never mentions the oppressive regime.) When a woman rapturously quotes John Masefield’s “Cargoes” as they head for the Dardanelles (“Can’t you just see the quin-que-remes?”) Waugh cannot match her deluded vision. But he uneasily recalls “troopships, full of young Australians, going to their death with bare knees” in Gallipoli in 1915.

Waugh was one of the first English writers to describe the astonishing work in Barcelona of Antoni Gaudí, who was knocked over and killed by a tramcar in 1926. But Waugh has conservative tastes and fails to respond to his achievement in art and architecture. To Waugh, Gaudí’s creations “apotheosised all the writhing, bubbling, convoluting, convulsing soul of the Art Nouveau . . .The effect was that of a clumsily iced cake . . . [The walls] were made to look like caves . . . all wildly and irrelevantly curved, as if drawn by a faltering hand . . . He is a great example of what art-for-art’s-sake can become when it is wholly untempered by considerations of tradition or good taste.” Despite his unfortunate response, Waugh urges some wealthy benefactor to complete Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church, which began in 1882 and remains unfinished to this day. His ignorant dismissal and vehement tone reveal that Gaudí’s breakthrough from Art Nouveau made a deep impression.

The cruise began as a honeymoon trip and was interrupted when Waugh’s new bride became seriously ill with double pneumonia and high fever and had to be hospitalised in Port Said, Egypt. He offers an absurd account of all the worthless sights in that squalid town without explaining why he was stranded there. Instead of portraying her in this book, Waugh introduces as stand-ins a sweet young English couple, Geoffrey and Juliet, whose constant endearments suggest they are on their honeymoon. Waugh becomes chummy with Geoffrey and Juliet gradually disappears.

Before he took the cruise Waugh was a married Protestant; soon after it he was betrayed by his wife, got bitterly divorced and converted to Catholicism in 1930. The most interesting and rarely noticed aspect of this oddball book is Waugh’s self-portrayal as an aloof and conscientious Protestant, and his caustic criticism of Catholics. Nuns flog merchandise, priests demand tips; churches are not, as they claim, always open for devotion. Superstition is rampant when a bogus saint is venerated for curing a boy bitten by a mythical basilisk, and women who wish to bear children perch on an ancient stone that “will cure the most stubborn case of barrenness”. Málaga Cathedral contains nothing more than a “riotous troop of begging choir boys, and paralysed old women, and a dull verger”. In Nazareth and again in Cairo he sceptically visits residential caves that reveal the “always troglodytic” inclinations of the Holy Family. An Oxford undergraduate, after surviving a dangerous celestial airplane flight, is suddenly converted to the Catholic Church. But when he later “came down in flames, the Jesuits lost a good ally, and to some people it seemed as if the Protestant God had asserted supremacy in a fine Old Testament manner”. It was ironic — and intensely embarrassing — that Waugh had to swallow his own satiric barbs when he himself went over to Rome.

Waugh’s arduous expedition to an unknown land was very different from his luxurious cruise to the cities of high culture in the Mediterranean. After being cuckolded by his wife, he felt an absolute necessity to move. In December 1932 he took a ship from London to Georgetown, British Guiana, and described his three-month journey in 92 Days. He rides 700 miles on horseback to Boa Vista, 40 miles into northeast Brazil on the Rio Branco, but fails to get a river boat down to Manaus. In 1985 I reached Manaus on my Amazon cruise, during which the gigantic wake of the ship accidentally destroyed a village, and found the town modernised and squalid. One had to press on to Iquitos, Peru, 900 more miles up the Amazon, to find the truly primitive place.

Amazon river (Shutterstock)

Waugh called his book “a direct and accurate day-to-day chronicle of a journey over strange ground and in unusual circumstances”. He adopts a disenchanted tone and concedes, “there were no hair-breadth escapes, no romances, no discoveries,” and most of his experiences are disappointing. As Paul Fussell notes in Abroad, “the essentially comic design of his book becomes a study of the dynamics of frustration and disillusion.”

Waugh was fascinated by “distant and barbarous places, particularly in the borderlands of conflicting cultures and states of development.” He went to South America because he knew so little about the countries (though his friend Peter Fleming had just preceded him to Brazil) and had no idea what would interest him. Though there is nothing much to see and he is often bored, his trip becomes a dangerous adventure and test of endurance. Though Waugh describes himself as a victim in the tropics, he turns out to be much tougher than the pampered aesthete of Oxford and the spoiled visitor to fashionable country estates.

He was warned that a journey anywhere in the interior would be a very reckless undertaking. The only transport is by river, which is filled with dangerous creatures and unswimmable. In deliberately weary prose and sinking rhythm he describes the riverine scenery as unendurably monotonous and the countryside even more desolate than the savannah: “Here there was no vestige of life; no cattle track, no stray animals; simply the empty plain; sparse, colourless grass; ant-hills; sand-paper trees; an occasional clump of ragged palm; grey sky, gusts of wind, and a dull sweep of rain.”

In a self-reflective and farcical comparison, he notes the similarities between the Indians and the English: “They both like living with their own families at great distances from their neighbours; they regard strangers with suspicion and despair; they are unprogressive and unambitious, fond of pets, hunting and fishing; they are undemonstrative in love, unwarlike, morbidly modest; their chief aim seems to be on all occasions to render themselves inconspicuous.”

While Waugh travels on horseback his first guide, Mr Bain, remarks:
“ ‘Listen, that is most interesting. It is what we call the six o’clock beetle because he always makes that noise at exactly six o’clock.’ ‘But it is now a quarter past four,’ Waugh says. ‘Yes,’ he replies with a Sherlock Holmes response, ‘that is what is so interesting.’ ” At sundown it becomes cold and clammy; clouds of mosquitoes come in, biting them to a frenzy. Mr Bain gloomily predicts that they are probably infected with malaria, which causes deafness, insomnia and impotence—the last irrelevant in the wilds. The dried tasso meat they force down is “the incarnation [a pun on flesh] of every joke made about meat at schools or messes or charitable institutions, and would certainly cause a mutiny in any English prison.” Even the omnivorous ants refuse to touch it. 

As soon as Waugh leaves his guide he is pursued by mishaps. Finally, he reaches the river and finds Brazil on the opposite bank. He has been told wonderful things about the attractively named Boa Vista. After weeks in the jungle, he indulges in tourist clichés and “imagines himself at a beach, sipping ice-cold lemon squashes under a striped umbrella beside translucent blue water”. But the natives are suspicious and contemptuous, and “only their listlessness prevented active insult.” Accustomed to bountiful hospitality he inquires, “where do strangers stay?” and is told, “strangers do not come to Boa Vista.”

The town is depressing, even inimical. The main street “was very broad, composed of hard, uneven mud, cracked into wide fissures in all directions and scored by several dry gullies. On either side was a row of single-storeyed, whitewashed mud houses with tiled roofs; at each doorstep sat one or more of the citizens staring at [him] with eyes that were insolent, hostile and apathetic; a few naked children rolled about at their feet. The remains of an overhead electric cable hung loose from a row of crazy posts, or lay in coils and loops about the gutter.” In this comatose village only the coiled children show any sign of life.

When he asks if the next boat to Manaus will be a question of days or weeks, he is shocked to hear that it will be “a question of weeks or months.” Time here, as in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, has lost its usual meaning. After only a few hours the Boa Vista of his imagination has been shattered by crude reality. No wonder that the inhabitants look ill and discontented. They are all “naturally homicidal by inclination. Every man, however poor, carries arms. Only universal apathy keeps them from frequent bloodshed. And there is rarely a conviction for murder.” Waugh has the extraordinary ability to interest the reader in this boring episode, which affords the opportunity to fantasise about European luxury and culture while rotting away in a barbaric outpost. Since neither pleas nor bribes gain passage on the overcrowded boat to Manaus, he concentrates on escaping in any direction from Boa Vista and reluctantly decides to retreat to British Guiana. But his comic attempts to escape are constantly frustrated. He is forced to return, day after day, to the charitable but churlish Benedictine monastery that is housing him and to the increasingly sour scowl of the new prior.

At this low point he explodes three common fallacies about rough travel. First, “that one felt free.” On the contrary, there seems to be no limit to the number of restrictions concerning possessions, transport and bearers. Second, “that one was untrammelled by convention.” In fact, dressing in the tropics with all its hygienic precautions is every bit as elaborate as dressing for dinner in London, and the nauseating hospitality of “savages” is more boring than the dreariest social occasion. Third, “that one eats and sleeps better than anywhere else.” This is also nonsense. The food is quite horrible and he hasn’t had a single good night in his swinging hammock. Admittedly, two pleasures are more intense in the tropics than elsewhere: bathing in a mountain stream (I’ve done this, too, in Samoa) and losing oneself completely in reading. Waugh especially enjoys absorbing himself in the novels of Charles Dickens.

Waugh then provides the ultimate justification for moving beyond the places where civilisation has temporarily managed to wound the bush: “It is only by crawling on the face of it that one learns a country; by the problems of transport that its geography becomes a reality and its inhabitants real people.” Only suffering validates the trip and allows him to feel that he’s endured enough privation to spend the rest of the year in indolence and self-indulgence.

The reward of this journey was his best novel, A Handful of Dust (also 1934). In this comic fiction the kind and civilised Tony Last, betrayed by his wife, joins an exploring expedition and becomes lost and ill in the deep jungle. He is rescued and captured by Mr Todd, who is based on the fanatical fundamentalist Mr Christie in 92 Days. Todd tells Tony, “Until five years ago there was an Englishman — at least a black man, but he was well educated in Georgetown. He died. He used to read to me every day until he died. You will read to me when you are better.” So Tony is trapped forever, forced to read Dickens aloud for the rest of his life. In this witty account Waugh describes how he would have felt if he had not been able to escape from Boa Vista and from British Guiana.

In his Introduction to his later collection of travel pieces, When the Going Was Good (1946), Waugh wrote that his grim experience was not entirely negative. Most of his generation have “marched and made camp, gone hungry and thirsty, lived where pistols are flourished and fired. At that time it seemed an ordeal, an initiation to manhood,” especially for those who were too young to fight in the Great War. It’s significant that Guiana also prepared him, in his late thirties and early forties, for active service in World War Two.

Waugh visited Abyssinia in 1930 and satirised the barbaric country and splendiferous coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie (who reigned for 44 years) in Remote People. He returned six years later to report and praise the Italian invasion in Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). Between his two journeys he published two comic novels about Abyssinia, Black Mischief and Scoop, as well as his early masterpiece A Handful of Dust. By 1936 he was more experienced, famous and self-assured. 

During centuries of isolation the remote and mysterious Abyssinia, Christian and never colonised, occasionally impinged on the Western consciousness. Awareness began with the biblical Sheba and Solomon, from whom the 20th-century Haile Selassie dubiously claimed descent. The exotic country appeared in accounts of the legendary king Prester John, in Samuel Johnson’s fable Rasselas and in the Abyssinian maid playing on her dulcimer in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. Sir Richard Burton’s First Footsteps in Africa described Abyssinia, and Arthur Rimbaud spent several disastrous years as a trader in Harar. The Italians, attempting to carve out their share of the African spoils and create a new Roman Empire, suffered a humiliating defeat at Adowa in 1896, but took revenge with Mussolini’s cruel invasion and conquest in 1935.

Though Waugh travels to escape what he called “the boredom of civilised life”, he devotes a whole chapter to his stupefying boredom on his four-day trip from Harar to Aden. Remote People describes his journey by ship from Marseilles to Djibouti in French Somaliland and by train to Addis Ababa. After the coronation (described in the first half of the book) he moves on to less remote people in well-run British colonies in Africa — Aden, Zanzibar, Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika — which serve as a welcome contrast to the primitive discomforts of Abyssinia. He then pushes on to the eastern Belgian Congo, takes a train to South Africa and sails home. He compares the phantasmagorical world of Abyssinia to Alice in Wonderland (“curiouser and couriouser!”) and, like Alice, he finally returns to the reality of England. The whole trip, during which he endured extreme discomfort and received abundant hospitality, took about five months and cost £500 (perhaps £35,000 today), most of it recouped from his journalistic fees.

Remote People is structured by a series of contrasts. Waugh opposes the exceptional beauty of the Nilotic Somalis — “slender and erect, with delicate features and fine, wide-set eyes” — to the “thick lips and flat noses” of the darker Hamitic Africans and to the “thin, black bodies hung with scraps of skin and sacking” of the native dancers. The mass of journalists, who have to file their dispatches in time for the London morning papers but before the actual coronation takes place, abandon all pretence of reality and send in the absurd inventions provided by their well-paid but unreliable informants. 

Waugh, who believes all foreigners are funny, is both fascinated and repelled by the Abyssinians, and frankly appeals to the racial prejudices of his English readers. He emphasises the tangle of incipient modernity and traditional barbarity, the clash between the dignified diplomatic corps with their cocked hats, dangling ostrich feathers and rows of decorations, and the chaos that surrounds the shoddy pageantry and interminable religious celebrations. At the start of the coronation a vast crowd pushes into the tents erected near the cathedral and hears, amid the ecstatic dancing and drumming, the last of the singing in the all-night service, conducted in the ancient ecclesiastical tongue. The American Professor W, a putative expert on Coptic ritual, supplies a continuous narrative of misinformation. A salute of cannons terrifies the imperial horses, which break away and kick their gilded coach. Aeroplanes swoop overhead and awaken the dozing audience. 

Waugh came to praise and stayed to mock. The worse the conditions, the better the copy, and he greatly enjoys deflating the mystique of the country: “No catalogue of events can convey any real idea of these astounding days, of an atmosphere utterly unique, elusive, unforgettable. If in the foregoing pages I have seemed to give undue emphasis to the irregularity of the proceedings, to their unpunctuality, and their occasional failure, it is because this was an essential part of their character and charm. In Addis Ababa everything was haphazard and incongruous.” 

Always restless and in search of new material, Waugh twice ventures out of Addis. On his first trip, to the sacred monastery of Debra Lebanos, north of the capital and surrounded by desolate desert, he contrasts his own sharp-eyed scepticism to the naïve, gullible and ill-informed Professor W. The famous holy treasures, wrapped in a silken shawl, turn out to be two tawdry “coloured lithographs, apparently cut from a religious almanac and printed in Germany”. The dreary eastern Orthodox rites, accompanied by chanting and drums, are also disappointing: “For anyone accustomed to the Western rite it was difficult to think of this as a Christian service.” 

The second trip is to Harar, east of Addis and halfway back to Djibouti. The Harari women are surprisingly beautiful: “Instead of monkey-like faces and sooty complexions, they had golden brown skins and features of the utmost fineness.” Waugh does not reveal if he enjoys the charms of the women, some of whom are turned into beasts of burden. Chaos reigns there as it does everywhere else: “The way was full of traffic, caravans of camels, mules and asses, horsemen, and teams of women bent double under prodigious loads of wood.” In a striking comparison he observes that the town, like the omnipresent lepers, “seemed to be dying at its extremities”. One priest explains “that it takes several lepers to make one man.” The populace, armed with antiquated weapons, seem “very much like Rat’s preparation for the attack on Toad Hall” in The Wind in the Willows. A lion is held in narrow and foul-smelling confinement, and the prison is also “a place of frightful filth, only comparable to the lion’s cage”.

Waugh hopes to discover new information about Rimbaud or perhaps even find a mixed-race son, but his interview with an old priest who had known the poet is, like everything else, profoundly disappointing. The priest describes the poet as “a young man with a beard, who was in some trouble with his leg (later amputated in Marseilles); a very serious (and sad) man who did not go out much (though he traveled extensively); he was always worried about business; not a good Catholic…He used to live with a native woman in a little house, now demolished, in the square; he had no children.”

Harar, Ethiopia, 2012

Emphasising the recurrent contrast between expectations and reality as he travels in British territory, the characteristically cross-grained, even perverse Waugh opposes the prevailing views of Aden and Zanzibar. In Addis he had been an obscure reporter among the exalted representatives of the great European powers, including the Duke of Gloucester, son of King George V and leader of the British delegation. But Waugh likes Aden, a fiery crater at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, where the landscape is lunar, the heat overwhelming, the sea swarming with sharks. He is lavishly entertained by bored British colonials, always eager to see a new face, and diverted by the constant distractions of parties, dances, balls and cinema. The ludicrous examination of a Somali Boy Scout once again reveals the clash of cultures in an amusing way: “ ‘What do you mean, when you say a scout is thrifty?’ ‘I min a scoot hass no money.’ ”

Paralysed by the heat, Waugh hates Zanzibar, the fabled spice island with its Arab dhows and elaborately carved doors, floating off the coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. More hatred erupts when he naively praises the Christian Armenians to a Muslim Turk, who recalls the “splendid tortures inflicted on them by his relatives”. But Waugh condemns the East African Indian merchants and harshly concludes, with considerable exaggeration, “We came [to East Africa] to establish a Christian civilisation and we have come very near to establishing a Hindu one.” The latter he calls “a mean and dirty culture…without roots or piety.” (The value of this society became clear in 1972 when Idi Amin drove all the Indians out of Uganda and the economy they had sustained quite suddenly collapsed.)

In Kenya, Waugh once again opposes received opinion by criticising the brave and handsome Masai warriors, whose traditional pastime, he claims, was “murdering their pacific neighbours”. But he defends the wealthy settlers who had established a Trollopian social life in the invigorating climate of the Happy Valley: “One may regard them as Quixotic in their attempt to recreate Barsetshire on the equator, but one cannot represent them as pirates and land grabbers.” Uganda, “this little island of order and sweetness in an ocean of rank barbarity,” features a very old hippopotamus who strolls peacefully through a lakeside town every evening. Waugh hopes to catch a series of short flights across the Belgian Congo and sail home from Léopoldville on the Atlantic coast. When this proves to be impossible, he takes a long train ride through Rhodesia to Cape Town, South Africa. Ignoring the spectacular setting on the Cape of Good Hope and the fine views from Table Mountain, and indulging his taste for shocking exaggerations, he unaccountably maintains that the handsomest town in Africa is “a hideous city that reminded me of Glasgow”.

Waugh’s ex cathedra crankishness is redeemed in both Abyssinian books by his sparkling style, which combines formal and old-fashioned locutions with startling adjectives: “prehensile tyres” gripping precipitous escarpments and “extravagant writhings” of boys being caned. He later writes scornfully of the locals’ “passible dexterity” with dining utensils and of the “ineffable horror” of the toilets, and awards a scurrilous pseudonym to an extortionate Greek hotelier: “Mr Kakophilos” (shit-lover). The Law Courts at Harar feature outraged litigants, venal judges, barefaced perjury, legal perversions and summary punishment.

Waugh actually saw the rather tedious coronation in 1930; he hears rumours about but does not see the Italian war in 1935, on which he puns in the title of Waugh in Abyssinia. He gets within 200 miles of the battleground, but “no news of any value came from the front”. The swarm of foreign journalists, desperate for copy, continue to pour out their preposterous fantasies. The country has inevitably deteriorated during wartime and the ubiquitous lepers have returned. No longer fascinated by the comical anarchy, Waugh is now more impatient than ever with privation and danger, and more intensely critical than before.

He once again praises the beauty of the Somali women, with “their narrow hips, broad, straight shoulders and high, pointed breasts”, and contrasts them to the “sooty, monkey faces” of the native people. He justifies colonialism by declaring that the Abyssinian regime, featuring slavery, torture and mutilation, “had nothing to give their subject peoples, nothing to teach them. They brought no crafts or knowledge, no new system of agriculture, drainage or roadmaking, no medicine or hygiene, no higher political organisation, no superiority except in their magazine rifles and belts of cartridges.” 

Harar, vicious, tyrannical and squalid, is no better than Addis. During the festivals animals are slaughtered at every street corner and children run about “carrying handfuls of fresh entrails”. The jail, Waugh exclaims, is “the lowest pit of human misery to which I have ever penetrated”. In Jijiga (fifty miles east of Harar) a slave wrestles with half-grown lions and officers sell bullets to their own troops. He also condemns the fierce Danakil warriors, as he had the Masai, by asserting that they “had been resorting to their traditional sport of murdering runners and stragglers from the Abyssinian forces”.

The blame justly falls on the feudal Selassie, who “could make no pre-eminent claim to authority on grounds of heredity; the real (defeated) Emperor was in chains, few people knew where.” All these disasters, in Waugh’s view, leave the way open for the Italian invaders, the bearers of European civilisation. Selassie’s only hope lies with the League of Nations, which indulges in high-minded pronouncements but does nothing to assist the Abyssinians. In the end the Emperor, with no diplomatic cards to play, has to fight the overwhelming enemy. Waugh’s false claim that Selassie was driven from the country by his subjects and “fled precipitately” was hotly disputed by his defenders. In fact, Selassie fought with his army on the northern front, risked capture by returning to the threatened capital, and left to address the League of Nations in 1936.

Haile Selassie coin, 1944 (Shutterstock)

Waugh’s most contentious assertions concern the Italians’ use of bombs and poison gas against the helpless Abyssinians, who had no artillery or planes to oppose them. A civilian, far from the front, he conceals and condones the Italian atrocities, and maintains that the “bloodless” bombs did little damage. Ignoring the horrors, he states that “gas was used but accounted for only eighteen lives” and that the missionary who described the suffering of “women and children blinded by gas, now wrote to say that their sight had been restored.” Though the victims are Christians, they are also Africans, so the atrocities do not really matter. After General Rodolfo Graziani, the conqueror of Abyssinia, has granted him a private audience and graciously agreed to all his requests, Waugh is “left with the impression of one of the most amiable and sensible men.” As a recent Catholic convert, Waugh welcomes the Roman conquest in 1936 and also supports Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The novelist Rose Macaulay condemned his book as “a fascist tract”. In 1946, after the Italians had been defeated in World War Two, he reprinted Waugh in Abyssinia in When the Going Was Good, but quietly suppressed the embarrassing pro-fascist chapters.

Unlike most of his predecessors, who romanticised and glorified their experience, Waugh is engagingly frank when he suffers backward and brutal people, boring journeys and self-inflicted torments. He also feels, as Lawrence wrote when setting out for Australia, “one suffers getting adjusted—but that is part of the adventure. . . . I love trying things and discovering how I hate them.”

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