Friday, October 07, 2005

The Waugh on Drugs

The addiction-inducing fops of Granada TV's 'Brideshead Revisited'.

Whaddaya mean, you didn't read my column in last week's Sunday Telegraph? Cuh! It took me five hours to file, as well, as I had to use the only phone in the Ranomafana Rainforest, in Madagscar, to ring the copytakers at the newspaper - a rickety old French phone that kept cutting out, and only accepted $3 phone cards, of which I needed several hundred. Talk about dedication to the job. And to think I used to be a layabout heroin addict..

Which neatly leads me into the column itself. For those that missed it, yertiz:


Sunday Telegraph; 25/09/05

It's not often you can trace the source of a 15-year drug habit to a television series, but I think I can do that with Brideshead Revisited, which is being re-released on DVD to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the publication of the Evelyn Waugh novel.

The programme was first broadcast on ITV in 1981. That, as it happened, was the year I first went up to University College London. I can remember avidly watching the early episodes in my little hall of residence bed-sit - and everyone else in my year doing exactly the same.

Why were we all so transfixed? One obvious reason was the unusually lavish production values. Granada's Brideshead was blessed with a John Mortimer script. The leads - Anthony Andrews as the gay, posh, Oxford student Sebastian Flyte; Jeremy Irons as his impressed bourgeois sidekick Charles Ryder - were perfectly handsome, and cinematically famous. The Oxbridge locations were glossy and honeyed; even the cardigans looked fabulous.

But there was something else in the DNA of that Brideshead that made it oddly potent and perniciously effecting: particularly to any impressionable young undergraduates watching this series about impressionable young undergraduates going to pot.

To my generation, Brideshead seemed to offer a primer on how to behave, how to be glamorous, a primer we desperately wanted and needed. Because we were the generation that had been raised on a diet of 1970s dreariness, of safety-pinned punks and urban grot. Then came this fatally seductive drama, telling us we didn't have to live in a world of three-day weeks and keg bitter. Instead, we could look to an earlier, happier time of upper-class excess, of plovers' eggs and liqueurs, of wind-up gramophones in purple-cushioned punts. We may have missed Evelyn Waugh's subtler allegories about Catholicism, but we understood the appeal of too many brandy Alexandres.

Finally, Granada's Brideshead infiltrated this thought into socially insecure young Englishmen of the time: that the true essence of English elegance lay not just in effortless superiority (we knew that) but in wasting that superiority, in deliberately destroying oneself and one's talents so as to give two fingers to a mediocre and unappreciative world.

Soon after Brideshead, my friends and I started experimenting with dangerous drugs. I believe that somewhere in our immature brains there lurked the notion that hard drugs were a short cut to the wasted beauty of upper class decadence, à la Brideshead. It took me 15 years to realise that it was a tragic, sickly delusion.

Interestingly, Waugh himself had doubts in later life about his novel. "The book is infused with a kind of gluttony," is the way he put it. He should have said it is infused with the dangerous glamour of a very English nihilism.


Talking of undergraduates, last week the Government announced that it intends to "roll out" a scheme of scholastic aptitude tests for 18-year-olds; these SATs will be piloted on 50,000 UK students, and will be based on American models in use since 1948. The idea is that with these souped up IQ tests, our perplexed universities, confronted by tides of sixth formers all with A grade A-levels, will be able to winnow out the very bright from the merely sharpish.

The curious thing is that in America, SATs are hideously controversial. This is because they seem to discriminate against ethnic minorities and women. An average white student's SAT score in the States is about 1,000 plus; black and Hispanic candidates score 100-200 less than that on average, and women average about 30 points less than men.

Several explanations for these results have been suggested: some brave souls have even claimed that they show that men are smarter than women. Others aver that SATs are timed and women, being more risk averse, do less well in timed tests. As for the ethnic differentials, the arguments have raged for decades; what is inarguable is that they are one of the main reasons American universities have affirmative action programmes for non-white students. In other words, it's an unholy mess.


In the midst of all this depressing stuff, I should say this column is being written, rather incongruously, in the Madagascan national park of Ranomafana, where the lemurs, with their petite forms and wide-eyed grace, look like so many furry Helena Bonham-Carters swinging through the trees.

My guide here, a charming man called Mark, has just told me his life's ambition. There is a bird on the island called the Sakalava Rail, which is on the verge of extinction: down to 100 pairs. Mark has decided to spend the rest of his life saving this one, beautiful bird for the future of the world.

I find that moving and oddly humbling. I wish I'd had a species to save when I was wafting around in a daft cardigan, nibbling quails' eggs, on drugs.

• Nigel Farndale is away


Kentonist said...

We're looking for music lovers/bloggers in London. We're trying to get as many as we can to take a chance and come and see us at the Purple Turtle in Camden on the 11th of November. We're interested in meeting writers/photographers/artists of all stripes who have an informed opinion about music to let us know what they think, both of us live and our new album, "King Martha". Bloggers will get a free album to review if they attend. Let us know if you're interested.



Serf said...

Judging by your comments on Political Betting, you are not a Ken Clarke fan. Can I add you to my anyone but Clarke bloggers list?

southbite said...

Hahahahaha! Brilliant - unfortunately one needs money to supply a true and sincere junk habit - nice try anyways, the vision of a shooting gallery in a suitably baroque setting - populated with licentious consumptive nobels and a dark suited doctor with oiled hair and small mustache priming a gleaming silver syringe of the antique style - does have a certain allure, how could you be blamed?