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14 March 2013

The importance of precision: Evelyn Waugh on Randolph Churchill’s “coughing and farting”

Randolph Churchill, Winston's son
Further to my post on 9 March, I am getting on with Evelyn Waugh’s Diaries (available from the British Council Library when I have finished) and thoroughly enjoying it. He is a witty writer and a great stylist.
     In the bath tonight, I came across a wonderful example of his caustic wit, which I reproduce below as an illustration of the value of precise observation for comic effect (and other effects too). I invite readers to take a look at it and say why they think this passage works as an example of amusing prose. 
     Waugh is in Jugoslavia, in the autumn of 1944, on a military liaison mission to Tito’s Partisans. His commanding officer is Major Randolph Churchill, the Prime Minister’s son and a boring drinker. Randolph's great pal was Freddie Birkenhead, the son of one of Winston’s chums, Lord Birkenhead (F.E. Smith, who died of drink). It rained almost continuously, keeping them indoors in their off-duty hours, all cooped up together.
     This is part of Waugh's  entry for Monday 23 October:
“At luncheon Randolph and Freddy became jocular. They do not make new jests or even гереаt their own. Of conversation as I love it - а fantasy growing in the telling, aрt repartee, argument based on accepted postulates, spontaneous reminiscences and quotation - they know nothing. Аll their noise and laughter is in the retelling of memorable sayings of their respective fathers or other public figures; even with this vast гереrtoire they гереаt themselves every day ог two - sometimes within an hour. They also recite with great zest the more hackneyed passages of Macaulay, the poems of John Веtjeman, Веllос, and other classics. I remarked how boring it was to be obliged to tell Randolph everything twice - once when he was drunk, once when he was sober. Two hours later, in а fuddled state, with а glass of rakija in his hand, he came to my room to expostulate with me for unkindness. Later he cooked kidneys for Zora, the cook, making loud appreciative kisses and whistles when the dish appeared - these, his American slang, his coughing and farting make him а роог companion in wet weather.”
     So why do you think that is funny? Don't read on until you have made up your mind.
     I suggest, that it is the last three words. Without those, the whole passage would be merely interesting. With them, it is extremely funny.
     But perhaps you disagree.

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