I re-read Scoop, Black Mischief, and Vile Bodies almost annually, yet somehow I had never got round to reading Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, which features many of the characters established in these earlier novels and could be seen as although is not explicitly a sequel. Why that is I have no idea, but I have now rectified the omission.
Waugh’s sixth novel was written and published in 1942, and as we shall see that date is significant. The plot looks back at the first year of the war, and contemplates the strange period in which at first little changed for many people followed quickly by the major upheavals thereafter.
Waugh’s characters are as usual wealthy and upper-class, and the war impacts them in (for them) unexpected ways. Country estates lose their servants. Billeting officers have to find accommodation for evacuees. Basil Seal, the louche ne-er do well of earlier novels struggles to find an army commission or any other constructive role in the war. Ambrose Silk, a gay Jewish intellectual looks elsewhere for a role, ideally in the Ministry of Information. Peter Pastmaster, about to go abroad into combat, decides he to marry and father an heir in case he is killed in action.
In my eyes, the novel is less than the sum of its parts. There are admittedly some fascinating character portraits. Ambrose Silk for example is an openly gay character who Waugh treats surprisingly sympathetically. In previous novels he would have been an object of ridicule, but here he is treated as the unhappy victim of his sexual desires:
A pansy. An old queen. A habit of dress, a tone of voice, an elegant, humorous deportment that had been admired and imitated, a swift, epicene felicity of wit, the art of dazzling and confusing those he despised – these had been his; and now they were the current exchange of comedians; there were only a few restaurants, now, which he frequent without fear of ridicule, and there he was surrounded, as though by distorting mirrors, with gross reflections and caricatures of himself.
While Waugh may be tolerant of Silk’s sexuality, society is not. He writes a novel about a former lover, a Brownshirt who is now in a Nazi extermination camp. Basil spitefully engineers a situation where this work is interpreted as pro-German and Silk is forced to flee to Ireland, disguised as a priest. Waugh’s writing directly about a gay character without hiding behind euphemism or suggestion was quite transgressive for its time, showing a progression in his treatment of character.
Put Out More Flags captures a very precise moment in time, starting with the weeks before the war (“days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of “peace”) followed by the phoney war in which nothing seems to change very much, (“Well, we’re at war now. I expect there’ll be a lot to put up with”) and the final grim realisation that the war is starting in earnest, people are dying, and there’s no going back: “There’s only one serious occupation for a chap now, that’s killing Germans. I have an idea I shall rather enjoy it.”
Waugh’s commentary on these phases of the war is, as you would expect, scathing. His characters speculate that the decadence of the 20’s and 30’s, portrayed in his earlier novels and exemplified by his characters, are what lead Germany to believe we would not put up much resistance:
“You can’t blame Ribbentrop for thinking us decadent when he saw people like Basil about. I don’t suppose they’ll have much use for him in the Army.”
The comic elements of the novel are the outstanding chapters, for example when Basil abuses his sister’s position as local billeting officer, finding homes for evacuee children sent to the country to escape the air raids. He uses three horrible working class children to extort money from country folk who pay him to rehouse them. Incidentally there’s a disturbing hint of incest in these scenes. Doris, precocious oldest sister of the profitable evacuees, notices the incipient attraction between Basil and his sister Barbara:
“He’s your boy, isn’t he?” she said, turning to Barbara.
“He’s my brother, Doris”
“Ah” she said, her pig eyes dark with the wisdom of the slums, “but you fancy him don’t you? I saw”.
Waugh makes no attempt to disguise his class hatred – Doris has ‘pig’ eyes, not ‘pig-like’ eyes. He suggests that her ‘wisdom of the slums’ gives her an insight into the attraction between siblings that has previously always been hinted at but never openly acknowledged. Waugh never returns to this topic, but even to open this door the smallest of cracks must have been shocking to contemporary readers.
Put Out More Flags is in many ways just a series of sketches with the barest of plots. I think it is best seen as a portrait of the period, and as a transition novel between the lightly comic, absurbist novels of the pre-war period and the later, more serious Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy.