119 TODAY!

It is the 28th of October, 2022. I calculate that it is Evelyn Waugh's 119th birthday, and I know exactly how to celebrate the event. I am going to make a Date Painting, after On Kawara, who I'm presently writing about at length on
another website. I'll just set things up with my most exquisite copy of Brideshead Revisited, the special boxed Penguin edition from 2008.


First, I must find an appropriate quote. Or should I apply the first coat? The latter, I think, as waiting for coats of acrylic to dry is what's going to take up most of the morning. Here goes then: burnt umber… A Date Painting always starts with a coat of raw Sienna, burnt Sienna or burnt umber, an earthy colour, which linked - in the mind of On Kawara - the Date Painting of the present day to Cave Paintings made 30,000 years earlier.


Now I have to wait an hour. So let's find that quote. Picking up the book covered in soft, brown leather - with thin, overhanging edges, like an old bible - is one of the great pleasures in life. The leather must be sniffed all over before being opened. And, of course, the page that it opens up contains this quote:

'Just the place to bury a crock of gold,' said Sebastian. 'I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.'

Is that it? Yes, that should do the trick. And I put away the lovely copy and get out a working Penguin from 1964. Before I know it, the first coat is dry and it's time to apply the first of two coats of cobalt blue.


I pause long enough to take the above photo. And then I get back to it. It doesn't take more than a few minutes.


Right, now I have to wait another hour. Let's start researching these birthdays. Evelyn had a tendency to mark his birthday with an entry in his diary, and I'm about to explore how these entries evolved over time.

OCT. 28, 1919. This first entry is in respect of his sixteenth birthday, which took place at Lancing School on the South Downs. A place where to bury a crock of gold? Well, let's see:

'It is extraordinary how unimportant birthdays become after a few years. Today has been a pleasant enough day but little out of the ordinary. At breakfast a letter came from Muriel [Evelyn's father's secretary] and from Alec [Evelyn's much older brother] on Chelsea football paper, 'with the manager's compliments', 'NO PRESENT: THANKS FOR INSULTING MY FRIENDS'. I suppose he means my disparaging remarks about his Lunn friends. I hope he really isn't bored. I learned that I was bottom for the week, a feat I have seldom accomplished before; other than that little marked it off as any different from any other Tuesday. A splendid parcel of confectionery arrived from home after lunch on which we sublimely overate ourselves. Nothing has yet arrived from the Flemings, but they are generally a day or so late, or from the aunts. I think 10 shillings may reasonably be expected from Aunt Elsie. Father sent Walter Crane's 'Bases of Design' for which I had asked. Meanwhile there is no work except a little Greek testament.'

Such a precocious boy was Evelyn. The precocious boy and the self-indulgent adult vying for ascendancy. The seventeenth birthday is not acknowledged, but the eighteenth, still at Lancing, is remembered like this:

OCT. 28, 1921
'My birthday. Spent, as most days, in history. Father sent me the Waterman pen I wanted, Mother a delightful tie, my aunts ten bob; other than this a few letters and nothing.'

Do you get the impression of a sense of entitlement? Full marks to his parents for loving their second son. Evelyn was boy who was taught to believe that the day of his birth was a special day, and that he should expect it to be acknowledged.

Meanwhile, back to work.


That's what we want! The cobalt blue is singing. Now all I have to do is wait for that second coat to dry. Let's see if Evelyn's 21st birthday, enjoyed at Oxford, was a happy time:

OCT. 28, 1924
'Yesterday I became a man and put away childish things. I did little to celebrate the occasion except to go to luncheon with Tony at Previtali and afterward to the Stoll Cinema alone instead of returning to Heatherley's. Joyce came to dinner. I have received more presents than I expected - my father, besides the silver mug, remitted the 4 guineas which I have owed him since the Glenmalure telegram and gave me £5 besides - 'most like a gentleman' I think. Jean Fleming and her sister sent me an exquisite snuff-box which hourly affords me greater delight. At first I did not like it overmuch. It has on casual inspection much the appearance of those tiresome toys which black men make out of brass and steel. But it was made a long time ago by white men out of silver and gold and is work in the most subtle and delicate manner. I think that it must originally have been a tinder-box, because there are two little screws inexplicable except as the remains of one of those nutmeg graters one sees in tinder-boxes. I was signally neglected by Oxford except by Fulford and Fremlin who sent me the Beaumont Press edition of Symon's 'Cafe Royal and Other Essays' - a book which I have sometimes wanted to buy. On the whole I enjoyed yesterday infinitely more than I enjoyed the same day last year. I remember I gave a tiny dinner party with prodigious quantities of champagne at the Carlton Club and that Alastair could not come because he had drunk too much the night before and that we went back to John Sutro's room in Oriel Street and cheered a man called Walsh and lots of people came in with presents of alcohol which they drank. It was rather a dreary evening as I remember it.'

We might forgive Evelyn his casual racism, given the year of it. Let's focus on Alastair, the real life equivalent of Sebastian. Evelyn is not pleased with him because Alastair had drunk so much the previous evening that he could not afford to do the same again with Evelyn, not even to celebrate his 20th birthday. I wonder where Alastair was for Evelyn's 21st. He is not mentioned as being present. Perhaps he'd already been sent down from Oxford and would be languishing at Barford House.

My painting is not quite dry. You can see from the finished painting
MAY 31, 2022 where we are heading with this exercise. Also, I have to say that Vincent Van Gogh on the way to work somehow reminds me of the Sebastian figure on the cover of the 1970s Brideshead.


My painting is still not quite dry. Let us go to Evelyn's next recorded birthday, his 22nd, by which time he was teaching boys at Aston Clinton School. A place to bury that crock of gold?

OCT. 28, 1925
'Chapman and Hall [a nickname for Evelyn's father] sent me £2 and my bald brother £1, because it is my birthday. My aunts sent me a disgusting tobacco pouch. Some shops sent me bills. It has been rather a dreary day. I tried to play football but had to stop because I felt so tired. Richard has gone off to buy hardboiled eggs for us to eat when this preparation is over. I think that I should have been incredulous last year or the year before if I had been told how this birthday was to be spent.'

Oh, how the mighty Evelyn has fallen from his perch at Oxford! The next year's birthday is spent in much the same way and at the same place.

OCT. 28, 1926
'On Thursday I attained the age of twenty-three years. My father gave me, besides some very expensive underclothes, £1 to buy some dinner with. Edmund and Charles gave me a penknife with a highly coloured variegated handle, an aunt a tobacco pouch, the cook at the Bell a cake, and John Sutro a telegram. It rained all the time. I ate luncheon at the Bell, and dinner, drank a good deal and smoked cigars and had tea with Edmund and Charles in the stables. Nick Kelly gave me a story by Hueffer and Conrad.'

I like to think the aunts are having a laugh at Evelyn's expense.

Two hours later and my work is done, at least the painting part of my day is over:


I ask Aloysius what he thinks.

"Not bad from about three-feet away," he concedes, "but hopeless from close up."

Yeah, well, thanks, Alo. It will satisfy my present purposes. Alo is disappointed to hear that Evelyn Waugh made no further birthday entry in his diary until he was in his 30s.

OCT. 28, 1936
'My 33rd birthday. Lunched at Midsummer Norton with my aunts.'

"Midsummer Norton. Just the place to bury those aunts," says Alo.

OCT. 28, 1939
'My 36th birthday which Laura and I had arranged to spend together in Exeter. A happy day with Laura. She did a little shopping, we lunched heavily and quite well, and sat in a cinema until it was time for her train.'

"Exeter. Just the place to bury Laura," says Alo.

OCT. 28, 1942
'My 39th birthday. A good year. I have begotten a fine daughter, published a successful book, drunk 300 bottles of wine and smoked 300 or more Havana cigars. I have got back to soldiering among friends. This time last year I was on my way to Hawick to join 5 Royal Marines. I get steadily worse as a soldier with the passage of time, but more patient and humble - as far as soldiering is concerned. I have about £900 in hand and no grave debts except to the Government; health excellent except when impaired by wine; a wife I love, agreeable work in surroundings of great beauty. Well that is as much as one can hope for.

"Is there an app that counts your consumption of fine cigars and bottles of wine, then?" asks Alo. "If so, I need one for my birthday."

In Samuel Beckett's play
Krapp's Last Tape, the protagonist listens to a tape recording he made on his 39th birthday. How does that go? I have a copy of the play to hand:

'Thirty-nine today. Sound as a bell, apart from my old weakness, and intellectually I have now every reason to suspect at the crest of the wave - or thereabouts. Celebrated the awful occasion, as in recent years, quietly at the Winehouse. Not a soul. Sat before the fire with closed eyes, separating the grains from the husks. Jotted down a few notes on the back of an envelope.'

Alo finds this creepy. We decide to go outside for Evelyn's remaining birthdays. How quickly they speed by! How did Beckett put it at the end of
Krapp's Last Tape: 'Perhaps my best years are gone, when there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back.'

"No more Samuel Beckett," says Alo. "It's our Evelyn we've come to mourn."


OCT. 28, 1944. This birthday was spent with Randolf Churchill, holed up in Topusko, Croatia.

'My 41st birthday and the glummest I have had for eleven years. There was a drizzle of rain all day and I left the house only once - a journey to the baths which were said, untruly as we found, to be open again. It has been a good year - a daughter born, a book written, a narrow escape from death. I pray God that next year I am at my own home, at my own work, and at peace.'


Evelyn got his wish. And he made birthday diary entries for the next three years, aged 43 to 45. In some ways the zenith of his life? This lot should clarify:

OCT. 28, 1946
'My 43rd birthday. I start the year with the resolution to be urbane and to keep, for one year at least, a full diary. Had I been writing a novel and wished to fix my hero's position in life a summary of my morning's post would have done it conveniently. (1) A reply from the Dublin house agent to my enquiry about Gormanston Castle - 1806 Gothic, 15 bedrooms, chapel, seductive unfinished' ballroom', 124-acre park. (2) BBC Third Programme offering me a three-weeks'tour of European capitals as bait for introducing their Christmas programme. (3) 'La France Libre' continuing an unauthorised translation of an extract from my forthcoming travel book. (4) A nun thanking me for giving her copies of 'Brideshead' and 'Campion' for a library in France. (5) The Beefsteak Club reminding me to find seconders for Maurice Bowra and Ran Antrim. (6) An Owen Jones illuminated book from a Birmingham bookseller. (7) The 'New Yorker'. The day was cold and sunny; the leaves just turning. Laura did all she could to make it peaceful. We drank a bottle of champagne before dinner, ate haddock for breakfast, pilaf for luncheon made with a packet of rice Peters [Evelyn's literal agent] had given us, roast chicken for dinner. I wrote letters, read Henry James, put lawn sand on the grass, walked.'

OCT. 28, 1947
'My 44th birthday. I am a very much older man than this time last year, physically infirm and lethargic. Mentally I have reached a stage of non-attachment which if combined with a high state of prayer - as it is not - would be edifying. I have kept none of the resolutions made this day a year ago. I have vast reasons for gratitude but am seldom conscious of them. I have written two good stories - 'Scott-King's Modern Europe' and 'The Loved One' - in the course of the year and have decided to remain in England. I have added a number of beautiful books to my collection and a few valueless pictures. I have given large sums to church funds and been drunk less often. I have been more comfortable than most Englishmen.'

OCT. 28, 1948
'My 45th birthday. An unproductive and unhealthy year. The start pray God of a better.'


OCT. 28, 1955
'My 52nd birthday. Condition unchanged since last year. One letter - from my Aunt Emma. Nothing from Teresa or Bron. Margaret, James and Harriet left presents behind them at the end of the holidays - a collection of coloured inks from Meg which must have taken all her pocket money, a cake from Hatty, a crucifix from James. As the day wore on poor Laura, who was trying her best in extreme exhaustion, aches and cough, had to give up and take to bed. So I spent a lonely evening.'

It seems that Evelyn's five children are now the ones expected to give him presents, stroke his ego and buoy his self-esteem, now that his parents are no longer alive.

OCT. 28, 1955
'My 53rd birthday. A charming present of marble eggs from Bron, otherwise no recognition.'

And that's it. From then until 1965, Evelyn made no diary entry on his birthday. Quite sad really. He just faded away.

I'm still sad the next day. I've a feeling that if I was to dig right under these Acer leaves I'd come across, not a crock of gold to remind me of happy times, but Evelyn's dead body, very much the worse for wear for having been underground for 56 years. Alo and I are trying to take one day at time, but it ain't easy.


A genuinely funny thing happens on October 30. A postcard arrives. I have a hunch it shows the Stella Polaris, the ship that Evelyn Waugh spent some unhappy months on board in 1929, though not as unhappy as the months spent on board by she-Evelyn, his first wife.


I turn the card over and read its coincidental date and its intriguing message, as I invite you to do, dear reader, Waugh quotes and all:


A quote from
Labels. And a quote from The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. The postscript says: 'PS I enjoyed reading about your Lisbon visit. I did something similar. Laters.'

Great that someone else has celebrated Evelyn's birthday in a novel way. But who is this from? A fellow writer, perhaps. My first thought is that Tim Jones may have been responsible. But I don't know what his handwriting looks like.

"What do you reckon, Alo? Who is this from?"

"On Kawara."

"I know why you say that, but it's not in his style."

A few days later, this arrives through the post:


"Do you recognise the thumb?" asks Alo.

"No. But then again I don't recognise anybody's thumb."

"Well turn it over. Quick. What does it say?"


"Let me see!"


This time there is a clue as to who this postcard is from. The letter 'I' after the word 'Laters'. I'm thinking it may be from Ian Callaway, fellow writer, and someone who read my Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love earlier this year. He's on Twitter so I'll put out a feeler.

"Come on, Alo, Let's go into the garden. We can bury this postcard under those acer leaves, where I've been happy, and then, when I'm even older and uglier and more miserable than I am now, we can come back and dig it up and remember."


I thought that was the end of this story. Happily there is more. Quite a lot more. First, let's check out the current whereabouts of my 119th birthday tribute to EW.


Why put it in a birdcage? Well I didn't know why to begin with. I just liked the look. And the Van Gogh juxtaposition.


Then I remembered about Evelyn's admiration for the paintings of Charles Spencelayh. The three years in a row that Evelyn made a diary entry about his birthday, 1946-1948, were three years in row that he went to see the new Spencelayhs at the Royal Academy's summer show.

In the first of those three years, he saw three Spencelayhs, and he wrote to Diana Cooper about them individually. The third picture, he described in these terms:

'Not Alone. The masterpiece of nomenclature and symbolism is the old man seated with hands folded on calf-bound bible, look of earnest faith in his eyes, an oleograph of Christ behind his head, AN EMPTY BIRD CAGE. I would dearly have liked to have that.'

Below is the picture that Evelyn would have bought (for himself or Diana) if it hadn't already been sold. It's the only reproduction I could find anywhere. Ignore the stickers on the bird cage and top right which someone must have placed on the print before it was photographed.


The birdcage was one of Spencelayh's motifs. Below are two more of the paintings that old-before-his-time Evelyn would have venerated.


But what happens when your beloved bird passes away? No problem, simply get it stuffed, so that the bird, let's call it Evelyn, can go on being admired:


Our bird has flown. Has it? I don't think so.


That is where Evelyn's Date painting is currently displayed. The date is now November 15, 2022 and I must turn to third and fourth postcards that have recently arrived from the same mysterious source as before.


Another home-mader? Yes. Below is the message side. Note the way the date is written. This is an Evelyn Waugh reader who knows about my On Kawara project:


My correspondent was in Egypt in 2020 and visited a place that Evelyn had written about in Labels. I've looked up the relevant passage and can quote (edited) as follows:

'Another expedition which I made alone was to Sakara, the enormous necropolis some way down the Nile from Mena. There are two pyramids there, one, rising in steps, which is considerably older than the pyramid at Ghizeh, and a number of tombs. As I emerged from this walk I came across a large party of twenty or thirty indomitable Americans, dragging their feet, under the leadership of a dragoman. I fell in behind this party and followed them underground again, this time into a vast subterranean tunnel called the Serapeum, which the guide explained, was the burial place of the sacred bulls…'

I am interrupted in my transcription by Aloysius, demanding that he come on this expedition as well. "If there are buried bulls to be seen, I am just the bear to be seeing them."

'It was like a completely unilluminated tube railway station….'

"That's a quote from the postcard, isn't it?" asks Alo. "Sorry. Carry on…"

'We were each given candle, and our guide marched on in front with a magnesium flare. Even so, the remote corners were left in impenetrable darkness. On either side of our path were ranged the vast granite sarcophagi; we marched very solemnly the full length of the tunnel, our guide counting the coffins aloud for us; there were twenty-four of them, each so massive that the excavating engineers could devise no means of removing them. Most of the Americans counted along with him. "How did the bulls die?" One of them asks. "What did he ask?" chatter the others. "What did the guide answer?" they want to know. "How did the bulls die?" "How much did it cost?" asks another. "You can't build a place like this for nothing." "We don't spend money that way nowadays." "Fancy spending all that burying bulls…"'

"Don't stop there!" urges Alo. Keep going!"

Alo's right; Evelyn's just getting into his stride:

'Oh, ladies and gentlemen, I longed to declaim, dear ladies and gentlemen, fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must for ever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Surely the laugh, dear ladies and gentlemen, is on us.'

"Evelyn is laughing, " observes Aloysius. "He must be happy! Let's hope he buried something right there in the sand."

The fourth postcard came this very morning, sporting the same white border as postcards two and three, spurring me to this text.


Alo turned the card over before I had a chance to do so. It starts with the same quote that I'd already found on page 104 of my 1932, Duckworth's Georgian Library, copy of


"I think I've got it," said Alo, "but you explain."

"The Egyptians buried 24 bulls where they'd been happy. They hoped that - when they were older and uglier and more miserable - they would be able to return, dig them up again and remember. Instead, it was Evelyn and the Americans that eventually came across the buried bulls. Evelyn, for one, would have nothing to do with cracking open the sarcophagi. He was too busy laughing at the Americans for not understanding the irony of their situation and too busy making notes for a book, that each of us who has any sense, has buried in a special place of our own, so that
… well, you get the idea."

"I do, I do! Bears, budgies, bulls,
Brideshead; all buried right here in the desert. If you're old and ugly and miserable, come back and dig us up. And remember. And BE HAPPY."



Duncan McLaren, Blairgowrie,
October 28, 2022 - November 15,2022