Evelyn Waugh is required reading for fans of drinking and cultivated comic sarcasm. Born in 1903 to a literary family, Waugh by his own admission wasted an Oxford education and was pitched out of an early job as a private school teacher for drunkenness. He went on to become one of England's greatest 20th century satirists, starting with a novelistic treatment of his own misspent youth, Decline and Fall, and continuing over four decades with such deliciously malicious broadsides as A Handful of Dust and The Loved One. Alcohol features in all Waugh's works – remember Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisited – but readers here will be particularly interested in 1955's Officers and Gentlemen, the second volume of Waugh's wartime trilogy.War for Waugh was a mixture of drunken tedium, bureaucratic absurdity, class consciousness transmuted into distinctions of rank, and, ironically, insight into human nature. Officers and Gentlemen opens with Waugh's typically diffident, somewhat innocent hero Guy Crouchback arriving at an officers' club in London during the Blitz. The windows of the card-room had been blown out and bridge players, clutching their score sheets, filled the hall. Brandy and whisky were flowing here, if not in the gutters outside. "Hullo, Guy. Haven't seen you about lately." "I only got back from Africa this afternoon." "Odd time to chose. I'd have stayed put." "I've come home under a cloud." "In the last war we used to send fellows to Africa when they were under a cloud. What will you drink?"Waugh's talent for farcical settings is in evidence here, as well as his knack for simultaneously cutting and comically pretentious dialogue. At this stage in World War II, the Battle of Britain is being led by a bunch of thumb-twiddling booze hounds. Crouchback is soon sent to the Scottish island of Mugg to join a commando on a mission so secret no one knows what it is. This section of the novel is full of caricatures of both Scotland and the army: the local laird, obsessed with stockpiling explosives to mine granite and, quite possibly, blow the island to kingdom come. Or the officers killing time, money and liver cells.On the second day of the Commando's arrival Ivor Claire had ordered the local carpenter, a grim Calvinist with an abhorrence of cards, to make a baccarat show on the pretext that it was an instrument of war … At other tables there was a game of poker and two couples of backgammon. Tommy and Guy made for the table of drinks.An academic arrives soon afterwards to try to convince these ‘happy warriors’ to leave off their gluttonous ways and live off lichens and seaweed. They refuse. With island whisky on tap, it's hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that, under the influence of alcohol, a genuine camaraderie develops among the men. And this, as a whisky-besotted journalist makes clear before the troops ship out, is the larger
sense behind the seemingly senseless war.In the various stages of inebriation, facetiously itemised for centuries, the category, 'prophetically drunk,' deserves a place. "This is a People's War," said Ian … "and the People won't have poetry and they won't have flowers. Flowers stink. The upper classes are on the secret list. We want heroes of the people, to or for the people, by, with and from the people." The Commando finally lands in Crete, where the bibulous fighters experience the indignity of retreat and surrender, and the protagonist Crouchback begins to develop heroic qualities. Distinctions of class and rank lose their meaning, as individual courage is put to the test. War, like whisky, turns out to be a tremendous equaliser.