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Alec Waugh's Martinique, and a Brotherly Deed to the World

Friday, January 11, 2013 - 01:00 PM

WNYC

In this amusing, time-capsule of a talk, given at a 1956 Books and Authors Luncheon to promote his best-selling novel Island In the Sun, Alec Waugh explains how he came to write about the West Indies.

London in 1925, though in many ways a pleasant place for a young man to live, presented two insuperable problems: there was no fresh material to write about, and the newly emancipated woman of the time "puzzled" him with her contradictory demands of complete equality and expectations to be protected and cared for. Thus he set off on a round-the-world trip, hoping to find new grist for his creative mill as well as "a Polynesian hula girl" to satisfy his domestic needs. India, alas, had been thoroughly exploited by Kipling. Malaya, which intrigued him at first, he came to realize was the province of W. Somerset Maugham. In Tahiti his plans for romance went awry when he fell in love not with a native girl but "a charming American woman" who was, alas, married to an equally attractive man whom she had no intention of leaving. It was after this disappointment that he chanced upon Martinique.

What differentiates the West Indies from other colonial outposts, he explains, is there being no indigenous population, "no free-born proletariat," but rather one "imported from Africa." This presents the would-be novelist with "a whole new and exciting series of problems." Still, he had no intention of making the West Indies his primary subject until his more famous brother, Evelyn, began traveling and writing about foreign places, too. He describes a humorous summit meeting in which the two brothers divide the world based on their respective passions: Evelyn would write about Catholic countries whereas Alec would write about places where the natives play cricket. And since, as he has explained, India, the Far East, and the South Seas were excluded for other reasons, his fate was sealed. 

Waugh was born in London in 1898. His early success in literature was purchased at considerable cost when his first novel became a cause célèbre. As Joan Acocella writes in The New Yorker:

… at the age of 19, Alec published his first novel, The Loom of Youth (1917), which takes place at a school easily recognizable, to those in the know, as Sherborne. Among its evils is the staff’s hypocrisy regarding sexual relations between the boys. Everyone knows that this is going on; the only crime is to get caught. The Loom of Youth sold many copies and created a scandal. Impassioned letters ran for weeks in the London press.

After serving in the British Army (he was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war), Waugh settled in London, where he wrote novels and worked in publishing. Unable to replicate the success of his first novel, he did create a lasting impact by being credited with inventing the cocktail party when he shocked guests by serving, instead of afternoon tea, rum swizzles. Soon, however, his travels, as described in this talk, led to a more peripatetic existence, while in no way affecting his prodigious literary output, which included travelogues, memoirs, as well as writings about food and drink. Unlike his more gifted but also more erratic brother, Waugh was the consummate professional. As The New York Times describes in its obituary:

For most of his life, he had remained a man of fixed habits who wrote six mornings a week and who alternated books of fiction and nonfiction; the nonfiction was frequently about travel. He was shy and retiring in public.

Island in the Sun (1955) received ecstatic reviews. Orville Prescott, in The New York Times, wrote:

Anyone who enjoys an exciting and clever story set against an exotic and colorful background should rush right out and buy Island in the Sun…Mr. Waugh may not have written a profound work of literary stature…Nevertheless Island in the Sun is absorbingly good reading and a considerable achievement in its own right.

The book was subsequently made into a film starring James Mason. It also featured Harry Belafonte, who sang the title song. 

Waugh eventually settled in Tangier, where he continued to write until shortly before his death. He remained in many ways, however, an Englishman of the 1920s. In 1975, when invited to be the castaway on the BBC radio program "Desert Island Discs," he chose to take with him on his island the English music hall performer Basil Hallam's rendition of "Gilbert the Filbert" and an excerpt of Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence performing "Private Lives." No rum swizzles, though. The one luxury he opted for was "wine."

Waugh died in 1981; he was 83.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition of original recording.

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Alec Waugh

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