Oct. 28, 2010

Oil & Steel

by Henri Cole

My father lived in a dirty-dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
"Dead is dead," he would say, an antipreacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
And some motor oil—my inheritance.
Once I saw him weep in a courtroom—
neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.

"Oil & Steel" by Henri Cole from Pierce the Skin. © Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Evelyn Waugh, born in London (1903), the author of great satirical novels like Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), A Handful of Dust (1934), Put Out More Flags (1942), and Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945).

He drank a lot in college and afterward went to Wales to work as a schoolteacher. He didn't like it there, and later wrote: "The Welsh … are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing . . . sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver."

He was miserable and depressed and tried to commit suicide by walking out into the ocean, but along the way he was stung by jellyfish and turned back, abandoning his plans. He was fired from his teaching position for trying to seduce one of the head schoolmistresses.

In his 20s, he married a woman named Evelyn; the couple's friends called them "He-Evelyn" and "She-Evelyn." She came from an aristocratic family, and he was not a very nice person to her. They were unhappy together, and she left him for a BBC newsman a few years after they were married.

Around the same time, he converted to Catholicism, which fueled lots of gossip among his London peers and the press. He wrote an essay called "Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me," in which he said that it was about deciding "between Christianity or chaos." He wrote, "It is no longer possible to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it is based."

He fell in love with a 19-year-old woman, Laura Herbert, the cousin of his previous wife. He wrote a bunch of letters trying to convince her to marry him — letters in which he said things like: "I can't advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy and have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it's a lousy proposition. On the other hand, I think I could do a Grant and reform & become quite strict about not getting drunk and I am pretty sure I should be faithful. Also there is always a fair chance that there will be another bigger economic crash in which case if you had married a nobleman with a great house you might find yourself starving, while I am very clever and could probably earn a living of some sort somewhere." He would tell her: "Above all things, darling, don't fret at all. But just turn the matter over in your dear head."

They wedded, had six kids, settled in Somerset, and stayed married for the rest of his life, a period during which he wore checkered tweed suits and used a big ear trumpet when he went hard of hearing. He died in his bathroom in 1966 from a heart attack; it was Easter Sunday, and he'd just come home from Latin Mass. His diaries were published in 1976, and an edition of his letters was published in 1980. There have been several biographies about Evelyn Waugh published recently, including Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family (2007), David Lebedoff's The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh (2008), and Paula Byrne's Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (2009).

In Brideshead Revisited,Waugh wrote: "I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendor, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1636 that Harvard University was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just 16 years after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth.

It's the birthday of the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, born in 1955 in Seattle, Washington.

It's the birthday of poet John Hollander, born in New York City (1929). His books include Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake (1976), Types of Shape (1968), Powers of Thirteen (1983), and A Draft of Light (2008). He said, "I want my poems to be wiser than I am, to know more about themselves than I do."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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