The book that changed me: Infallible cure for depression, boredom and toothache

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The Independent Culture

by Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh published Decline and Fall, his first novel, in 1928, when he was 25. I first read it when I was 13, at my Oxford preparatory school in the 1930s. Up to then I had wanted to be a song and dance man, to tap-dance down a long white staircase in a top hat, white tie and tails. By my 13th birthday I realised that, as I could neither sing nor dance, this career wasn't open to me and I'd better be a writer. This struck me as a rather solemn business, having to do with heroes and heroines, crime and adventure, as found in Sherlock Holmes, Rider Haggard and Bulldog Drummond. I think I discovered Decline and Fall at home, took it back to school and read it hidden in the art room or the lavatory whilst avoiding being involved in any kind of sport. It was then I realised that writing could be wildly funny and that comedy with some new or unexpected outlook on the human condition was what I should aim for, even if I could not hit the target so brilliantly as Waugh did in his first book.

For those who haven't yet enjoyed it, it's the story of Paul Pennyfeather, an innocent who is unfairly sent down from Oxford because his room has been attacked by hearties, and goes to teach in a ghastly prep school where he meets the outrageous Captain Grimes, a cad who is frequently "in the soup". Paul is later seduced by a parent, the glamorous Lady Metroland. Becoming unconsciously mixed up in her business interests (the White Slave Trade), he ends up in prison. He finds this a comparatively restful experience and, released at last, he returns quietly to Oxford.

I have read this book innumerable times ever since and use it as an infallible cure for depression, boredom, uncertainty as to whether writing is a worthwhile profession, or the toothache.

I suppose I first found Decline and Fall liberating because it satirised the strange form of middle class education, prep school, public school and university, which I was going through. I had long suspected that the traditions of these sorts of schools were something of a joke, and I was delighted to get my doubts reinforced so hilariously. Captain Grimes' defence of the public school system is unforgettable. Having been "in the soup" while in the army, he's left alone with a loaded revolver in the faint hope that he will "do the decent thing". Of course he doesn't, but he's recognised by a major who announces that it's "out of the question to shoot an Old Harrovian", and he's given a cushy job in the postal service in Ireland.

Other high spots are the description of the brass band that comes to play on the school sports day. "They advanced together with the loping tread of wolves, peering about them furtively ... as though in constant terror of ambush ... each clutched under his ape-like arm a bundle of curious and unaccountable shape." At the same sports day the running races are started by pistol shot; the boys then run off and disappear over the horizon, never to return. With such events on almost every page, the book becomes more than a satire on the old school tie; it's one of the great comic books of my lifetime. Waugh wrote profounder novels, and more elaborate prose, but nothing more outrageously funny than Decline and Fall. It can be warmly recommended.

John Mortimer's latest novel is The Sound of Trumpets, Viking pounds 16.99