Novelist Evelyn Waugh’s adventures in Hampstead ‘pleasure garden’

Novelist Evelyn Waugh in 1961 leaving the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Warwick Street, Mayfa

Novelist Evelyn Waugh in 1961 leaving the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Warwick Street, Mayfair, after the wedding of his eldest son, Auberon, to Lady Teresa Onslow. Picture: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Adam Sonin explores the life of Brideshead Revisted author Evelyn Waugh, who was born in West Hampstead.

Author Evelyn Waugh in 1948. Picture: PA Archive

Author Evelyn Waugh in 1948. Picture: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Hedonistic, homosexual, a convert to Catholicism and heterosexuality, writer and journalist Evelyn Waugh was twice married.

Highlights of Waugh’s career included covering the 1930 coronation of Haile Selassie (1892–1975) in Ethiopia, interviewing Mussolini (1883–1945) in Rome, reporting on the Nuremberg Trials and meeting Hollywood producers to develop a script of his most famous work, Brideshead Revisited.

The son of a publisher, Waugh (1903–1966) was born in a house in Hillfield Road, West Hampstead, near Hampstead cricket ground. When he was four the family moved to Underhill, a property built by his father in the village of North End, Hampstead.

Golders Green had no Tube at this time and was “a grassy cross-road with a sign pointing to London, Finchley and Hendon”.

Underhill was in North End Road above the “seedy old proletarian dwellings” named ‘the Terrace’ and “all round us lay dairy farms, market gardens and a few handsome old houses of brick and stucco”.

As a boy, Waugh accompanied his nurse’s brother on local milk rounds, taking the reigns “while he delivered churn to jug”.

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He was homeschooled by his mother with a neighbour’s daughter as classmate. Incidentally, her father happened to be the first editor of Everyman’s Library.

Later Waugh would attend Heath Mount School in Hampstead Village where he recalled bullying fashion photographer Cecil Beaton (1904–1980).

Crossing the road from Underhill, he passed Ivy House where Waugh once inscribed his initials in the drying cement of Anna Pavlova’s (1881–1931) wall. Further up was the “Italianate house” then under construction for Lever (1851–1925), the manufacturer of Sunlight Soap.

The Waugh family lived around the corner from Henrietta Barnett (1851–1936) and Evelyn’s father “had some difference with her”. Waugh describes him as sometimes wandering the house singing: “Blast it! Darn it! Henrietta Barnett.”

Waugh refers to the inhabitants of Hampstead Garden Suburb as “people of artistic leanings, bearded, knicker-bockered, flannel-shirted, sometimes even sandaled”.

After the extension of the Northern Line and the construction of Golders Green Tube, the postal address was changed from Hampstead to Golders Green. This angered Waugh’s father as the new address lacked the historical connections which Hampstead boasted.

Waugh wrote that Hampstead was a “pleasure garden, not a place from which people travelled to work in London, but where Londoners resorted on summer evenings and weekends for refreshment and jollity”.

Saddle-donkeys were for hire and there was often a Punch and Judy show by the Vale of Health. When the fair visited Hampstead Heath, Waugh’s mother would run the first aid tent and he recalled the exhilarating smells of “orange peel, sweat, beer, coconut, trampled grass, horses”.

Waugh described the village shop windows being dressed differently at Christmas and was fascinated not by the merchandise but the “dexterity of the shopkeepers and their assistants, who were deft with butterhands, weights and scales, shovels and canisters, paper and string”.

A bright pupil at Heath Mount and then Lancing, Waugh spent his days at Hertford College Oxford drinking, socialising, learning to smoke a pipe and exploring his sexuality. He left with an undistinguished third class honours degree in history and tried his hand at everything from teaching to carpentry.

While working as a teacher, Waugh tried to commit suicide by swimming out to sea, but turned back after being stung by jellyfish. He was later sacked for making improper advances to the school matron.

Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), which drew among other things on his stint as a schoolmaster, was followed in 1930 by the even more popular, though darker, Vile Bodies, which succeeded in making him a celebrity, in this country at least, and a writer much in demand in the popular press.

Waugh’s diaries are littered with entries of lavish luncheons, dinners and cocktails at various London hotspots.

Soon after the dissolution of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardener (1903–1994) in 1929 – “She-Evelyn” to his “He-Evelyn” as they were known – Waugh converted to the Roman Catholic Church at The Church Of The Immaculate Conception Farm Street in Mayfair, known simply as Farm Street.

He remarried in 1937 and saw little action in the war, instead spending time gambling with Randolph Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill’s son, who he served with in a commando unit. Waugh famously commented that warfare was “like German opera, too long and too loud”.

On one occasion he became a London tourist with his son, Auberon Waugh (1939–2001). He took the boy to the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, lunched at the Hyde Park Hotel, sneaking him up to the roof afterwards to enjoy the view, then on to Harrods where he bought “vast quantities of toys” and finally to tea.

When he returned the boy to his grandmother’s house in Highgate, she enquired: “Have you had a lovely day?” to which Auberon replied: “A bit dull.” Waugh later wrote: “I have come to the conclusion that the boy Auberon is not a suitable companion for me.”

Days after this excursion, he wrote to George Orwell (1903–1950) thanking him for sending a copy of Animal Farm, which he thought an “ingenious and delightful allegory”. Four years later in 1949 Waugh again wrote to Orwell thanking him for the “stimulating experience” of reading Nineteen Eighty-Four.

During a mass at Farm Street in 1948, Waugh ran into his friend, “the shambling, unshaven and as it happened quite penniless figure of Graham Greene”. He mentions taking him to The Ritz for a cocktail, giving him 6d for his hat and that Greene (1904–1991) “had suddenly been moved by love of Africa and emptied his pockets into the box for African missions”.

In 1955, Waugh was invited to Edith Sitwell’s (1887–1964) acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church, again at Farm Street, where he was her godfather.

On the day he travelled by train from Folkestone, stopping at White’s Club to refresh himself with a mug of stout, gin and ginger beer.

Arriving at the empty chapel Waugh met a “bald shy man” who introduced himself as the actor Sir Alec Guinness (1914–2000). Just moments before the service started, an elderly deaf woman accidentally dropped all her wrist-bangles on the floor. Guinness recalled searching under the pews for the jewellery and getting “barely controllable hysterics” as they collected her belongings.