Evelyn Waugh’s travels in Guyana

Fifty-one years ago today, shortly after attending an Easter Latin Mass, Evelyn Waugh died at his home in the Somerset village of Combe Florey. He was 62. More than thirty years before, Waugh had spent a winter in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana). Afterwards, chronicling his travels, he wrote Ninety-Two Days: Travels in Guiana and Brazil.

Even Waugh’s comic imagination could not have invented the characters he met in South America: A cattle-rancher who claimed to be a close friend of the Virgin Mary, a Jesuit missionary with a pet toad that ate burning cigarette ends, and a gold-prospector who believed he was guided through the jungle by speaking parrots. Below is Waugh’s amusingly bad-tempered introduction to the book.

October 12th, 1933

At last, relentlessly, inevitably, the lugubrious morning has dawned; day of wrath which I have been postponing week by week for five months.

Late last evening I arrived at the house I have borrowed and established myself in absolute solitude in the deserted nurseries; this morning immediately after breakfast I arranged the writing table with a pile of foolscap, clean blotting paper, a full inkpot, folded maps, a battered journal and a heap of photographs; then in very low spirits I smoked a pipe and read two newspapers, walked to the village post office in search of Relief nibs, returned and brooded with disgust over the writing table, smoked another pipe and wrote two letters, walked into the paddock and looked at a fat pony; then back to the writing table. It was the end of the tether. There was nothing to it but to start writing this book.

I read the other day that when his biographer revealed that Trollope did his work by the clock, starting regularly as though at an office and stopping, even in the middle of a sentence, when his time was up, there was an immediate drop in his reputation and sales. People in his time believed the romantic legend of inspired genius; they enjoyed the idea of the wicked artist – Rossetti unhinged by chloral, closeted with women of low repute, or Swinburne sprawling under the table; they respected the majestic and august, Tennyson, Carlyle and Ruskin in white whiskers and black cloaks; what they could not believe was that anyone who lived like themselves, got up and went to bed methodically and turned out a regular quantity of work a day, could possibly write anything worth reading. Nowadays, of course, opinion is all the other way. The highest tribute one can pay to success is to assume that an author employs someone else to write for him. Most Englishmen dislike work and grumble about their jobs and writers now make it so clear they hate writing, that their public may become excusably sympathetic and urge them to try something else. I have seldom met a male novelist who enjoyed doing his work, and never heard of one who gave it up and took to anything more congenial. I believe it would have been better for trade if writers had kept up the bluff about inspiration. As it is the tendency is to the opposite exaggeration of regarding us all as mercenary drudges. The truth I think is this – that though most of us would not write except for money, we would not write any differently for more money.

All this is, in a sense, an apology for the book I am going to write during the coming, miserable weeks. It is to be a description of the way I spent last winter and, on the face of it, since there were no hairbreadth escapes, no romances, no discoveries, it seems presumptuous to suppose that I shall interest anyone. Who in his senses will read, still less buy, a travel book of no scientific value about a place he has no intention of visiting? (I will make a presence of that sentence to any ill-intentioned reviewer.) Well, the answer as I see it, is that man is a communicative animal; that probably there are a certain number of people who enjoy the same kind of things as I do, and that an experience which for me was worth six months of my time, a fair amount of money and a great deal of exertion may be worth a few hours’ reading to others. Just as a carpenter, I suppose, seeing a piece of rough timber feels an inclination to plane it and squire it and put it into shape, so a writer is not really content to leave any experience in the amorphous, haphazard condition in which life presents it; and putting an experience into shape means, for a writer, putting it into communicable form.

When anyone hears that a writer is going to do something that seems to them unusual, such as going to British Guiana, the invariable comment is, ‘I suppose you are going to collect material for a book,’ and since no one but a prig can take  the trouble to be always explaining his motives, it is convenient to answer, ‘Yes,’ and leave it at that. But the truth is that self-respecting writers do not ‘collect material’ for their books, or rather that they do it all the time in living their lives. One does not travel, any more than one falls in love, to collect material. It is simply part of one’s life.

Find out more about Ninety-Two Days here.