Escaping my cramped, clammy hotel room in Djibouti just wasn’t possible one evening. I sorely wanted to – this Horn of Africa coastal port is an intriguing place to wander as a journalist – and no one was stopping me. No one, that is, except the cast of the 1980s Brideshead Revisited television series.
A few weeks earlier at my base in Ethiopia, a parcel from a friend arrived including a USB stick with an eclectic selection of films and television programmes. Previously I’d only known Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisited through stills and short clips. But having opened the first file on my laptop I became mesmerised, so much so that the USB stick accompanied me for an assignment in neighbouring Djibouti. So I watched the last tumultuous episode while encased in the city’s African quarter, a muezzin exclaiming from a nearby mosque.
Such surroundings for viewing a most English classic weren’t as incongruous as one might think. Brideshead’s author, Evelyn Waugh, visited Djibouti in 1930 to catch the train westward to report on the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as a special correspondent for the Times. While modern Djibouti, with its swirling Arabic, Somali, French and Ethiopian influences, seizes my imagination, back then Waugh was far from impressed at its “intolerable desolation”, declaring it a “country of dust and boulders, utterly devoid of any sign of life”.
As demonstrated above, and in much of his travel writing, Waugh could use words to memorably acerbic effect. But at the same time, and despite his much-reported capacity for stinging rudeness and misanthropy, he could also unleash the most hauntingly beautiful writing. Hence my Brideshead crush.
For though the sublime acting of Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Marchmain must be acknowledged, a large reason they entrance is because of the words they speak – many of them Waugh’s own. This is coupled with Waugh’s gripping analysis of “the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion”.
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