Monday 12 September 2016

Waugh Food

I like reading about food in fiction and often include descriptions of meals from novels in, (on? isn't it always the little words that trip you up peskily, whatever language you're in?,) this blog. In this context, I've been listening to Audible's brilliantly read, unabridged audio recording of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, and I've noticed that in the second volume food plays a rather prominent role. Perhaps this is because the characters spend quite a lot of time feeling hungry, and therefore it is appropriate that eating should come to the fore, as it is probably dominating their thoughts a great deal of the time. 

Perhaps the most significant culinary moment in the book takes place during the retreat from Crete in May 1941. A character called Major Hound, aka Fido, gives in to hunger, to his eternal cost:

"All round now heads were bobbing up in the bushes but no one moved on the road. The Sergeant swung his pack forward and took out a tin of biscuits and a tin of bully-beef. He hacked the meat open with his bayonet and began carefully dividing it.

Fido watched. He craved. Not Guy nor the ragged, unshaven Sergeant, not Fido himself who was dizzy with hunger and lack of sleep, nor anyone on that fragrant hillside could know that this was the moment of probation. Fido stood at the parting of the ways. Behind him lay a life of blameless professional progress; before him the proverbial alternatives: the steep path of duty and the heady precipice of sensual appetite. It was the first great temptation of Fido's life. He fell.

'I say, Sergeant,' he said in an altered tone, 'have you any of that to spare?'

'Not to spare. Our last tin.'

Then one of the other men spoke, also gently.

'You don't happen to have a smoke on you, sir?'

Fido felt in his pocket, opened his cigarette case and counted.

'I might be able to spare a couple,' he said.

'Make it four and you can have my bully. I'm queer in the stomach.'

'And two biscuits.'

'No, I can eat biscuit. It's bully I never have fancied.'

'One biscuit.'

'Five fags.'

The deal was done. Fido took his price of shame in his hand, the little lump of the flaky, fatty meat and his single biscuit. He did not look at Guy, but went away out of sight to eat. It took a bare minute. Then he returned to the centre of his groups and sat silent with his map and his lost soul."

There are many more meals in the book, but none so fateful. Some - for instance, the "nourishing but economical meal" Virginia orders one evening with "Trimmer" - we are denied any details of, while others come with almost too many details supplied. The meal Dr Glendening-Rees is providing for himself when Guy Crouchback, the trilogy's hero, happens upon him at the edge of the sea falls, I think, into this last category:

"As Guy returned to the hotel, he paused to observe a man with a heavy load on his back who stood on the edge of the sea, bent double among the rocks and clawing at them, it appeared, with both hands. He rose when he saw Guy, and advanced towards him carrying a dripping mass of weed; a tall wild man, hatless and clothed in a suit of roughly dressed leather; his grey beard spread in the wind like a baroque prophet's; the few exposed portions of skin were as worn and leathery as his trousers; he wore gold-rimmed pince-nez and spoke not in the accents of Mugg but in precise academic tones.

'Do I, perhaps, address Colonel Blackhouse?'

'No,' said Guy, 'No, not at all. Colonel Blackhouse is in London.'

'He is expecting me. I arrived this morning. The journey took me longer than I expected. I came North on my bicycle and ran into some very rough weather. I was just getting my lunch before making myself known. Can I offer you some?'

He held out the seaweed.

'Thank you,' said Guy. 'No, I am just going to the hotel. You must be Dr Glendening-Rees!'

'Of course.' He filled his mouth with weed and chewed happily, regarding Guy with fatherly interest. 'Lunch at the hotel?' he said. 'You won't find hotels on the battle-field, you know.'

'I suppose not.'

'Bully beef,' said the doctor. 'Biscuit, stewed tea. Poison. I was in the first war. I know. Nearly ruined my digestion for life. That's why I've devoted myself to my subject.' He reached into his pocket and produced a handful of large limpets. 'Try these. Just picked them. Every bit as agreeable as oysters and much safer. There's everything a man can want here,' he said, gazing fondly at the desolate fore-shore. 'A rare banquet. I can warrant your men will miss it when they get inland. Things aren't made quite so easy for them there, particularly at this time of year. Not much showing above ground. You have to grub for it and know what you're looking for. It's all a matter of having a flair. The young roots of the heather, for instance, are excellent with a little oil and salt, but get a bit of bog myrtle mixed with them and you're done. I don't doubt we can train them.'

He sucked greedily at the limpets."

The one really tempting meal in the book to my mind is this one, taken in Sidi Bishr one evening by Guy and Tommy, his commanding officer of the moment:

"He and Guy went to the Union Bar. It did not occur to them to ask Major Hound to join them. The restaurant seemed as full as ever, despite the notorious crisis in manpower. They ate lobster pilaff and a great dish of quail cooked with Muscat grapes.

'It may be our last decent meal for some time,' Tommy remarked. 'The BGS heard from someone that fresh food is rather short in Crete.'

They ate six birds and drank a bottle of champagne. Then they had green artichokes and another bottle.

'I dare say in a day or two we shall think of this dinner,' said Tommy gazing fondly at the leaves which littered their plates, 'and wish we were back here.'

'Not really,' said Guy, washing the butter from his fingers."

I suppose I should also mention the one recurring food reference in the volume, (other than bully-beef). It is the repeated description of Corporal-Major Ludovic's eyes. They are, we are told time and again, "the colour of oysters." It is a brilliant, if disturbing touch. But Waugh is brilliant, and not simply about food.


  1. The other evening, in Joyce Cary's Memoir of the Bobotes, a memoir of Red Cross service during the Balkan War of 1912-1913, I read

    "You object again that this history is all of meals, of stew and eggs.
    Anyone will tell you that a war is not made up of fighting, but just exactly of stew, and if you are lucky, eggs."

    The meal I remember from Officers and Gentleman involves the stew the Free Spaniards have cooked in a cave, and which Ludovic sees that Hound shall have some of. It has been a long time since I read the book, so the details of that meal may have got mixed up with the gypsy's stew in The Wind in the Willows.

    1. Oh YES, I forgot that one: "men sat round an iron cauldron; in it there seethed chickens and hares and kids, pigs and peppers and cucumbers and garlic and rice and crusts of bread and dumplings and grated cheese and pungent roots and great soggy nameless white tubers and wisps of succulent green and sea-salt and a good deal of red wine and olive oil."
      Ludovic is the most sinister of characters.

  2. Mayonnaise this evening on sandwiches, and a reference to it seen on-line today, reminded me of another meal, certainly in the third volume, probably shared by Virginia and Guy's uncle. It was at a restaurant on good terms doubtful characters, perhaps persons dealing in the black market; and when someone (the leftist peer's wife?) asked about their mayonnaise recipe, she was informed that it consisted of olive oil and eggs. My stepmother, who spent the war years stateside, took this to be an obvious lie; my father, who spent some of 1944 in England, supposed--I think correctly--that it was the truth, and that the owner simply purchased on the black market.

    1. Ah Reuben's. I'm going to look that meal up. You may be conflating a meal enjoyed there with the dinner at a fish place near Victoria that Peregrine gives to Virginia one evening when Guy is recovering from a parachute jump. I shall go and investigate.