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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
Anniversary Waugh of words
Evelyn Waugh
Waugh eventually rewrote much of Waugh In Abyssinia
English novelist Evelyn Waugh remains as controversial now - 100 years after his birth - as he ever did.

Waugh is well-known - and well-loved - as one of the country's foremost satirists and authors, having written the likes of Brideshead Revisited, Decline And Fall and the Sword Of Honour trilogy.

But his satire often had a much darker aspect, namely overt racism, as typified by a sequence in his novel Black Mischief where a white Oxford graduate staying with a tribe in Ethiopia ends up eating another white woman by mistake.

"It made me angry because I thought he was ridiculing Ethiopia," Dejazmatch Zewde Gebre-Selassie, member of the Ethiopian Royal Family and former deputy Prime Minister, told the BBC World Service's Masterpiece programme.

The essence of the offence was that the Abyssinians, in spite of being by any possible standard an inferior race, persisted in behaving as superiors
From Waugh In Abyssinia
"On the other hand he's a satirist, and I think he has more or less done the same thing to English society, so there's nothing really to be angry about."

'Mere native'

Waugh's attitude toward the coronation of Ethiopian Emporer Haile Selassie in 1930 - for some a moment of Biblical fulfilment - was typical.

"Why all this fuss?" wrote Waugh in his travelogue Remote People.

"The kings of the world were paying homage... honest columnists across Africa grumbled at this absurd display of courtesy towards a mere native."

Support for Mussolini

But it was not just light-hearted fun-poking that Waugh's work involved.

Darker still was his viewpoint as a fascist apologist.

Ethiopia - also known at that time as Abyssinia - was where it could be argued the Second World War effectively began, on 3 October 1935, when Mussolini's Italian troops invaded the country.

Journalists poured into Abyssinia - amongst them was Waugh, covering events for the pro-Mussolini Daily Mail.

Waugh saw the Italians as Catholic crusaders, and believed that Italy had much more of a right to control Ethiopia than the natives.

Most controversially of all, when the Italians began dropping poison gas on Ethiopia, Waugh played down the effect.

Haile Selassie
Waugh could not understand the reverence at Haile Selassie's coronation
"Gas was used but accounted for only 18 lives," he wrote in Waugh In Abyssinia.

"It seems that at no time was gas or Yperite very effective as a lethal weapon - nor was it primarily used as such."

But other journalists there - for example George Steer of The Times - argued that the use of gas was of major significance.

"It's only from the Italian side and from supporters of Italy that you hear that gas was not important," said professor Richard Pankhurst, the leading historian of Ethiopia.

"I think that Waugh, in a way, is playing into that sort of game."

Daily Mail politics

"He was totally wrong about that," said Lord Deedes.

"I knew all about this. I knew how much Yperite the Italians were carrying through.

"It was pure audacity to deny the fact that they used mustard gas - we all knew they had.

"In fact it had a particularly poisonous effect on the Abyssinians because it set up septicaemia in their bloodstream."

Benito Mussolini
Waugh had a blind spot for Mussolini's regime
However, professor Pankhurst explained that the nature of his employers may have had some influence on Waugh's views.

"One has to remember that he was writing for the Daily Mail, which was owned by Lord Rothermere, and was one of only three newspapers which supported the Italian fascist invasion," he said.

"Rothermere himself said that Mussolini had rejuvenated Italy, that Italy had been saved from Bolshevism by Mussolini, and that Mussolini was fighting the battle of the white races in Africa."

Revised opinions

Waugh in Abyssinia was completed in 1936, but, as the threat of war began to envelope Europe, Waugh began to feel more ambivalent towards the regime he had so favoured.

"Later on, to be quite fair about this, I think Evelyn Waugh changed his mind," explained Lord Deedes.

Eventually he scrapped Waugh in Abyssinia, and much of what he said about Italy was annulled.

And even in Ethiopia - the subject of so much of Waugh's satire - Waugh is acknowledged as a fine humorous writer, whatever his weaknesses as a journalist.

"Satire and storytelling - even mischievous storytelling - to us Ethiopians is as ancient as Ethiopia itself," said Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, Ethiopia's poet laureate.

"Reading these immensely satirical, cunningly witty, and brilliantly cruel books of Evelyn Waugh on the centenary of his birth, I'm immensely reminded of the greatest Ethiopian wit.

"I think it's time for more Evelyn Waughs."


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