Book: Labels by Evelyn Waugh

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Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (1929) by Evelyn Waugh

Published by Penguin Following a brief visit to Athens in 1927, Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary: “The truth is that I do not really like being abroad much. I want to see as much as I can this holiday and shut myself for the rest of my life in the British Isles” (Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.  He may not have enjoyed “abroad” but Waugh did not remain shut in the British Isles for long. Despite insisting that he had no aspiration to be a great traveler and was no adventurer, twenty years later Waugh was able to look back and state: “From 1928 until 1937 I had no fixed home and no possessions which would not conveniently go on a porter’s barrow. I travelled continuously, in England and abroad… It is fortunate that he did as, from his travels in this period, Waugh produced several travel books of which Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, was the first.   Labels recounts Waugh’s journey around the Mediterranean by Norwegian cruise ship in 1929, the same year same year in which Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all that, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front were published. In a 1962 interview with the Paris Review, Waugh was dismissive both of the journey (“I went through a form of marriage and traveled about Europe for some months with this consort“) and of the book (“I wrote accounts of these travels which were bundled together into books and paid for the journeys, but left nothing over.“). The NY Times shared Waugh’s lack of enthusiasm for the book. When Labels was republished in 1949 (in abridged form as part of a collection, When the Going was Good), the NYT simply noted that Labels did not have “a great deal of interest“. This might seem surprising for a journey which included Paris, Monte Carlo, Naples, Malta, Port Said, Cairo, Constantinople, Crete, Athens, Corfu, Venice, Haifa, Nazareth, Barcelona, Seville, and Lisbon as well as modern day Croatia and Montenegro. However, the reader looking for much insight into the places themselves will be disappointed. In that regard, the NYT appears right although dismisses Labels too lightly. In his unfinished essay about Waugh, Orwell observed that Waugh’s books appeared to consist of “high-spirited foolery“, and were “tinged by the kind of innocent snobbishness that causes people to wait twenty-four hours on the pavement to get a good view of a royal wedding.” Both are on display in Labels. Waugh explains early on that his book is so titled because all of the places he visits have already been “fully labelled“. He admits that “there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard” and “no towns so constantly and completely and completely overrun with tourists” as those he visits. Why then engage in writing a travel book about such places? Nicholas Shakespeare provides the motive in his introduction to Waugh Abroad, (Waugh’s collected travel writing); the cruise was part expenses paid trip and part honeymoon. Waugh may also have been trying his hand at travel writing because it was a popular and growing literary genre. Indeed, Paul Johnson, writing in the Spectator notes that Waugh could have joined the circle of travel writers in the 1930s apart from one “insuperable reason”: He travelled to ‘get away’, always a compulsion. But none of his travel books reveals any profound interest in the places he saw, the people who inhabited them or the art they produced. Instead, he looked for bizarre characters or events which could provide material for his anarchic humour in fiction. Waugh’s lack of interest in the places he visits is evident in Labels.  He reserves his enthusiasm for lesser visited destinations – the Croatian coast, Lisbon, Barcelona – and also Malta which he praises as being as not having been allowed to become a “show place”. Generally, Waugh is more interested in lampooning famous places as travel destinations along with those who visit them. He expresses disappointment with many of the sights he visits.   Bored with the “cult of mere antiquity“, the Sphinx is described as “an ill-proportioned composition of inconsiderable aesthetic appeal” while Etna at sunset is dismissed with the sentence: “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting”.  While visiting the Serapeum at Sakkara, he wonders whether the joke is on “us”, longing to declaim – “fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all of 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. Waugh also takes a swipe at earnest travellers writing more serious travelogues (Hilaire Belloc, in particular, comes under fire by name and by inference, as “Off the Beaten Track in Surrey” could easily be a reference to Belloc’s Four Men a Farrago).  As a result Waugh recounts not only his journey but also offers insights in to travel, tourism along with different traveller types and motives and is funny doing it. He confesses to preferring the “fleshy comforts” of the cruise ship to the “dirt and indignity” of rail travel and the “cold and noise” of air travel (not to mention air-sickness, which produces a funny anecdote).  When re-joining the cruise ship after a stay on Malta one senses Waugh’s relief at being able to unpack and renew his “acquaintance with the deck bar steward” and of pushing his trunk under the bed “in the knowledge that it would not be wanted again until [he] reached England“. Waugh recognises that travel by cruise ship would not be for the “real travel snob” for whom “recurrent clashes with authority at customs houses and police stations are half the fun of travelling” but prefers it to the “incessant packing and unpacking which is entailed in independent travelling“. Nevertheless, Waugh sets himself apart from his fellow passengers and enjoys observing them exchanging “competitive anecdotes” about their shore adventures and bargaining skills and foresees the pretensions with which trinkets haggled over in bazaars might be presented at home (as a “reminder of those magical evenings under a wider sky“). He delights in the foibles of his fellow passengers who, when encountered in less reputable places ashore, “wink knowingly at you the next morning” and “borrow money at Casinos“. Waugh also captures the frustration of having too little time to see things meaningfully.  In Naples he is “impelled by a restless sense of obligation” to see much more than he intelligibly could and admits disappointment with Mallorca although recognises that may be a result of “excess of variety” brought on by moving so rapidly from place to place so that one “misses the subtler and more fugitive qualities which reveal themselves shyly to more leisured travellers“. At the start of Labels, Waugh proclaims that “[e]very Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist“.  He identifies with “real travel snobs” who shudder at the thought of pleasure cruises and guided tours yet prefers the “outstanding comfort and leisure” of a cruise ship.   On boarding the Stella Polaris, Waugh admits that it is time to give up the pretence and accept that he is a tourist and not a traveller.  To (or for) the reader’s amusement, he struggles to do so though and in Naples, insists on sightseeing alone, ends up wasting money and seeing almost nothing, finally admitting that he might have fared better to join a guided tour.  Perhaps Waugh merely saw, as Fussell later recognised, that “[t]he anti-tourist deludes only himself. We are all tourists now“. Waugh then is a curious type traveller but is nonetheless interesting and funnier for it.  At times, when reading Labels, one wonders why Waugh left the British Isles at all, but we should be glad that he did. Further reading: Times Literary Supplement review of Labels 2011 edition   For an overview of Waugh’s Travel Writing see this article or , for a more detailed analysis, Nicholas Shakespeare’s introduction in Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing or the chapter, Evelyn Waugh’s Moral Entertainments in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.

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