Labels by Evelyn Waugh

Ten minutes into Evelyn Waugh's “Labels”, I called the friend who kindly let me borrow the book, and said: “This is hilarious! Why didn't you lend me this before?” Waugh makes you feel that way — like you've missed out on something delightfully, disarmingly wonderful — especially today, when everybody claims to be a big travel-expert, and writes caustic reviews online. In that context, “Labels” is refreshingly different; it's an unpretentious account of Waugh travelling around the Mediterranean by cruise-ship, trying to comprehend life in places that are ‘already fully labelled'. Waugh might've journeyed over 80 years ago, but his satirical take is still relevant; in Paris — which he finds ‘lying in a pool of stagnant smoke' — he's struck by the sameness of it all; similar nightclubs, serving the same drinks, where the same crowd is entertained by dancers of a ‘type'! He shrewdly observes that it's ‘painful and ludicrous' that 500 tourists think nothing of ‘arriving by car to observe the solitude of a village in the Greek mountains'; and he is ‘amazed at the mesmeric effect of publicity' when ‘people from the hotel went out to see it by moonlight' (the Sphinx, Egypt) ‘and returned very grave and awestruck'. And yet, despite his mature and pithy observances, he's surprisingly chary to devote an entire chapter to Venice as it might be an ‘impertinence to every educated reader of the book' if he did so without being an expert on art, history and a dozen other things! What, you wonder, would he make of the current crop of online experts?

It works because...

Waugh instantly connects with his reader. He shows you the Acropolis in Greece — not ‘snow-white' as often thought, but a ‘very pale pinkish brown', like the ‘milder parts of a Stilton cheese into which port has been poured'. He's incisive, but not mean, when he leads you by the hand to the little visited Arab town at Port Said, and you're struck by the people's ‘animal-like capacity for curling up and sleeping in the dust, their unembarrassed religious observances, their courtesy to strangers, their uncontrolled fecundity'. He gently mocks his fellow-passengers gasping in homage at the sight of Constantinople's many domes and tendency to point somewhere vaguely and calling it the Agia Sophia. But for his readers he reserves nothing but kindness and a sincere request — ‘let me urge you, gentle reader, if you have only borrowed this book from a library, to buy two or three copies instantly so that I can leave London and go and live peacefully on this island' (Corfu). Waugh might be long gone, but I'm so touched by his earnest plea, I'm going to buy my own copy; and if you, gentle reader, are raring for a nice (Wodehousian) addition to your library, you might want to as well...

And this one stays with you — in true Waugh style…

‘I do not think I shall forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.'

Keywords: LabelsEvelyn Waugh