Thursday, 18 November 2010

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh’s second novel, the saga of the Bright Young Things in 1930s London, is an experimental and daring piece of writing, documenting the difficult beginnings of that doomed decade. There’s also plenty to drink...


Adam Fenwick-Symes, a penniless writer engaged to be married to Nina Blount, has returned from Paris to London and is staying in Shepherd’s in Mayfair, an Edwardian institution where the game pie is quite black inside and full of beaks and shot and inexplicable vertebrae. He’s greeted at the door by Lottie Crump, who runs the place:

“Well,” she said, “You are a stranger. Come along in. We were just thinking about having a little drink. You’ll find a lot of your friends in here.” She led Adam into the parlour, where they found several men, none of whom Adam had ever seen before. “You all know Lord Thingummy, don’t you?” said Lottie. “Mr Symes,” said Adam... In came the waiter. “Bottle of wine,” said Lottie, “With Judge Thingummy there.” (Unless specified in detail, all drinks are champagne in Lottie’s parlour. There is a also a mysterious game played with dice which always ends up with someone giving a bottle of wine to everyone in the room, but Lottie has an equitable soul and she generally sees to it, in making up the bills, that the richest people pay for everything.)

As the drink starts flowing, Adam comes into some money, a thousand pounds to be precise. Easy come, easy go, however; he gives the whole lot to a drunken major to put on a horse in the November Handicap. Drunken shenanigans seem to be the order of the day at Shepherd’s. After a particularly wild night out (the party ends up at No. 10 Downing Street and the government falls the next day...) Adam returns to find the place crawling with the constabulary who are investigating an incident in the Judge’s room:

Downstairs, as Lottie had said, everything was upside down. That is to say that there were policemen and reporters teeming in every corner of the hotel, each with a bottle of champagne and a glass. Lottie, Doge, Judge Skimp, the Inspector, four plain-clothes men and the body were in Judge Skimp’s suite. “What is not clear to me, sir,” said the Inspector, “Is what prompted the young lady to swing on the chandelier. Not wishing to cause offence, sir, and begging your pardon, was she...?” “Yes,” said Judge Skimp, “She was.”

Adam’s fortunes rise and fall with the chapters of the book and his engagement with Nina is an increasingly on/off affair. Driving to a race meeting with friends, he finally runs into the drunken major who had kept his word and planked the thousand pounds on Indian Runner, leaving Adam with a nice little packet of thirty-five thou. should he condescend to collect it:

“Good heavens... look here, have a drink, won’t you?” “That’s a thing I never refuse.” “Archie, lend me some money until I get this fortune.” “How much?” “Enough to buy five bottles of champagne.”

Unfortunately, the major disappears and Adam is left boracic again. Still, the day isn’t without its entertainments. The man they have come to see race has dropped out halfway round and their friend Agatha Runcible takes over as second driver. Adam is slightly concerned that she might be over the limit, so to speak:

“I say, Archie, is it all right being tight in a car, if it’s on a race course? They won’t run her in or anything?” “No, no, that’s all right. All tight on the race course.” “Sure?” “Sure.” “All of them?” “Absolutely everyone – tight as houses.”

As the day finishes, the drink wears off:

Adam and Miles and Archie Schwert did not talk much. The effects of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance hand-books, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay.

Sounds like a suitable metaphor for the 1930s... The book finishes with war declared and Adam finally finding the drunken major, now a general, walking across no-mans-land. While the guns start up again, they share a case of champagne in an abandoned Daimler...

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