The Invisible Man

6.4.2013

By Duncan Fallowell

A chance encounter in a remote Welsh town sparks an obsessive quest.

Photo: From the Collection of Duncan Fallowell

In a new collection of essays, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits, the writer Duncan Fallowell describes a delicious and haunting encounter with a reclusive old man in the remote Welsh town of New Quay. The chance encounter becomes a catalyst for a picaresque quest to unravel the mystery of Alastair Graham, the real-life model for the charismatic Sebastian Flyte who stands at the heart of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, with whom the novel’s narrator, Charles Ryder, enjoys an intense and romantic attachment. The following excerpt describes how Fallowell began to piece together Graham’s story.

At the end of the 1970s I was living in the small town of Hay-on-Wye writing a book. Several times a week it was necessary to escape Hay’s delightful, gossipy confines, and one of my jaunts took me to New Quay, an obscure fishing village on the west coast of Wales. In the season, not very well-off holidaymakers occupy its few modest hotels and boarding houses.

It was not the season. It was chilly and damp and the sky was a monotonous grey. At lunchtime, after meandering New Quay’s little streets, I entered a pub called the Dolau Inn not far from the sulky, flapping water. Having ordered a pint, I nodded at a character sitting on a stool at the end of the bar and eventually exchanged a few words with him. He was getting on in years and bald, with a trim grey beard, and dressed spotlessly in yachting clothes: sailcloth trousers with knife-edge creases, a navy-blue jersey, slip-on deck shoes. One thing struck me in particular: His nails, perfectly manicured, were white from base to tip. In these simple surroundings his curiosity lay chiefly in the air he had of an extreme refinement tinged with exoticism.

He was a nervous fellow and our conversation, such as it was, never flowed. He held his head down bashfully and from time to time, when speaking, cast blue lugubrious eyes upwards from beneath a lowered brow. The voice, issuing from slightly pursed lips, was fastidious but not affected, and his manner of expression had that casual charm which suggests a great deal and is utterly unrevealing.

I told him that I’d abandoned London the previous year after coming unstuck. He said he’d done the same thing but long, long ago and hadn’t been back, “except briefly during the Suez crisis.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Because I’d had enough!”

He fingered the beer mat to distract himself from this sudden show of temperament.

Shuffling about for a change of subject, I mentioned that I was reading Joseph Conrad and rereading the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. The beer mat did a couple of rapid twirls. I said that the more serious Waugh’s tone became, the worse his writing was. My companion nodded. When I advanced the idea that, although well endowed as a writer, Waugh’s later work was undermined by the progressive narrowing of his sympathies, the old man uttered an extraordinary remark.

“He wasn’t well-endowed in the other sense, I’m afraid.”

How on earth had that gear change come about? He could see I was taken aback, but having quipped, he remained silent, staring at his Cinzano on the rocks, as though he’d surprised himself too. Could his reference to Waugh’s private parts have been a way of making a pass? I thought I’d find out and asked, “What do you mean exactly?” at which he waffled something in a low tone which I simply didn’t grasp and courteously excused himself. We shook hands, he said good-bye to the landlord, with whom he was on easy polite terms, slid away in those perfect clothes, and that was that.

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A few months later I was having dinner with a friend of mine, Nick Jones-Evans, at his house in Presteigne on the Welsh Marches. His family used to own property in New Quay, so I mentioned my meeting with the funny old gent. “Ah,” said Nick, “I think I know who that was. I met him myself once, in my teens. That was also in the Dolau. I was with my father and when I started talking to him, my father called me away. When we got outside he said, ‘You mustn’t talk to that man again. He’s well-bred—but unclean.’ The thing I always remember is that his nails were so highly polished I thought he must’ve been wearing nail varnish.”

“But who is he?”

“He’s called Graham somebody and arrived in the district before the war with a retinue of servants. But he was always considered a dubious character. I wish I’d made more of a stab at getting to know him.”

“He told me that Evelyn Waugh had a small cock.”

“Goodness me—did he say more about it than that?”

“No, he didn’t. But the pub landlord called him Mr. Graham.”

“That’s it, Alastair Graham. I did hear once that he’d had a fling with a New Quay postman. Now look, you’ve got to finish that fish pie. I did it specially for you.”

Two years later, I was talking one afternoon to Charles Sturridge at a friend’s flat in Linden Gardens. He was directing the television series of Brideshead Revisited and said “The great mystery is, where is the real Sebastian Flyte? The model for the character was someone called Alastair Graham. Waugh met him at Oxford and they were lovers in the ’20s. Then after leading an interesting life, Graham suddenly vanished from the scene in the ’30s. We don’t know where and we don’t know why.”

You may recall that Sebastian Flyte is the youthful drunkard with whom the narrator of Brideshead Revisited falls in love when they are undergraduates at Oxford. At the time nothing registered. So great was the disparity between the two images -- young radiant Lord Sebastian Flyte and the jittery old codger in the pub—that it wasn’t until the following week that I recalled my seaside encounter years before and realized that although I didn’t know why, I certainly knew where.

Sebastian Flyte was living in New Quay.

Naturally I wished to return there, establish contact and find out what had made him run away at such an early age from everything he knew. Meanwhile Charles Sturridge arranged for his television company to do a search of the printed sources and send me the results. They amounted to quite a stack of pages, much of it from Evelyn Waugh’s diaries, and with the help of this preliminary material I was able to pencil an outline profile.

Graham was born in 1904 and went to Brasenose College, Oxford in 1922, that memorable year of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Joyce’s Ulysses, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the death of Proust, and the opening of Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the first modern nightclub. Graham drank too much and failed his exams. He and Waugh were constantly together at Barford House in Warwickshire, to which Graham’s mother, Jessie, had moved. After her son’s flop at the university, Mrs. Graham enrolled the boy in an architectural school in London, but he never attended any of its classes. Next he became an apprentice at the Shakespeare Head Press at Stratford, where he published Waugh’s first work, an essay on the Pre-Raphaelites, but that didn’t last either. In 1928 he joined the Diplomatic Service—and left it in 1933. End of career. No more jobs. All this sounds perfunctory and disjointed, and one gets the impression that these activities occurred spasmodically, against a background of drifting and boozing, which were the really coherent activities. Obviously Graham had dropped out before he was 30 years old. But the question is—had he ever dropped in? Waugh, in his autobiography, A Little Learning, gives Graham the name “Hamish Lennox,” and calls him “the friend of my heart,” writing, “We were inseparable or, if separated, in almost daily communication… Hamish’s home was uncongenial to him. His father, the younger son of a Border family, was dead and his mother was high-tempered, possessive, jolly and erratic.”

And that was all on Alastair Graham. After 1933 his trail disappeared completely. Even those in the know didn’t know what had happened to him. Does it matter? Well, it’s tantalizing. Recluses and absconders always are. They bring out the mischief in one as well as the curiosity. You suddenly ran away, old fruit, and have been hiding for 50 years. We want to know why.

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And so I decided to return to the seaside village of New Quay and call on Alastair Graham and invite him out to dinner. It was October 1981; I travelled across England to Presteigne and asked Nick Jones-Evans to accompany me for support, and we drove to the coast and booked into the New Quay Hotel. Nick was wearing his tweed cape and deerstalker and also smoking a pipe. He quite often does, but on this occasion the Sherlock Holmes get-up was absurdly appropriate. As usual on the west coast of Wales, the weather was windy and drizzly. We trudged over to the Dolau Inn, where there was a major setback. “You used to be able to time your clock by Mr. Graham. But he hardly ever comes by these days. He hasn’t been well. And he won’t let you in. Round here we call his house ‘The Kremlin.’ ”

Perhaps it was na├»ve to expect someone who’d deliberately withdrawn from society to give a welcome to strangers -- and “Kremlin”? It sounded dreadful. But undeterred and optimistic, we walked over to his home, the finest in the row, double-fronted, painted dark pink, with an 18th-century porch. A dolphin stood on either side of the entrance. I knocked on the front door. There was a long interval. Nick and I looked at each other nervously. At last there was the sound of a lock being turned. The door opened sheepishly, a third of the way. Those blue, sad eyes, which I recognized at once, peered over a pair of spectacles in steady, watery silence. It was the same old man I’d met in the pub years before, the same trim beard, the same freshly pressed nautical clothes and blue deck shoes. But he looked much thinner. There was no “Can I help you?” nor even a “Yes?” Only a stare. So I said, “Please forgive us for calling like this,” and I introduced Nick and myself, mentioning that actually we’d met before, and I explained my interest in Evelyn Waugh and the 1920s—whereupon he started to flap like a cornered bird and became quite desperate.

“I’ve had a stroke, I can’t remember anything. I’ve nothing to say!” His eyes registered even greater consternation as he caught sight of Nick’s Sherlock Holmes outfit.

I was stumped. For some reason a response as abrupt as this had never crossed my mind. I considered my interest in history, literature, and life to be entirely legitimate and in need of no special pleading. How wrong I was. I played another card: “Would you like to join us for dinner this evening?” In the circumstances it sounds mad, put down like that, and his reaction was worse still.

“Oh, no! I can’t go out, I’m not fit to be seen! I had a stroke last year, I’m an invalid, I can’t think at all, everything was so long ago—he was older than me, you know.”

Well -- that last observation of his popped out oddly, accompanied by something slightly less frantic in the eyes. What on earth was going on in his head? It suggested guilt, an attempt to transfer responsibility for something bad. “But weren’t you Sebastian Flyte?” I blurted out, now in some disarray myself.

He flinched back into the hall.

“No, not me, not me -- er, it was a friend of mine.”

“But Waugh said it was you.” I blundered appallingly on. “And in the original manuscript of Brideshead Revisited Waugh wrote Alastair instead of Sebastian.”

“Please, no, I’m an invalid, I can’t remember anything.”

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One could tell from the intense clarity of the eyes that he had all his wits and could remember everything. But it was pathetic. His whole demeanor was of a man in mortal fear of exposure. It was impossible to persist and I apologized, wished him well, and came away thoroughly embarrassed. But if you are drawn by something or someone, you have to give it a try. Rejection is hurtful, but not even trying is worse. I’d foreseen a charming harborside dinner while Graham reminisced flavorsomely to a pair of fans. Instead of that it had been a disaster and I was acutely ashamed of myself.

January 1983. Nick Jones-Evans telephoned to say that he’d heard from an acquaintance on the coast that Graham had died the previous autumn, “taking his secrets with him.” To Nick’s knowledge there had been no sale and he didn’t know what had happened to Graham’s papers.

February 25, 1983. I was having dinner with Harold Acton at La Pietra, his house above Florence. Waugh had dedicated his first novel, Decline and Fall, to Harold and I told him of Graham’s death. “How extraordinary that you can tell me that,” he remarked. “Because not a single one of his contemporaries would have known it. I don’t think anyone knew him well except Evelyn. I can say he was very good-looking in a delicate, Pre-Raphaelite way and had the same sort of features as Evelyn liked in girls. The pixie look. He was not a hearty, but he dressed like a hearty, in the country style, plus-fours and tweeds.” Harold gave me a twinkly eye as he used that word “tweeds,” always his classic put-down.

“Oh yes, he and Evelyn were always together,” mused Harold with an odd smile. “An infatuation. And it went on for quite a few years. We hardly saw anything of Evelyn at that time. Oh, definitely an infatuation.” Harold, of course, was in Brideshead Revisited too. He and Brian Howard were blended in Anthony Blanche, the aesthete of Christ Church. So momentarily -- ha! -- I was listening to Anthony Blanche’s sly complaint, 60 years after the event, that Sebastian Flyte had stolen the narrator Charles Ryder from him.

Selina Hastings [Waugh’s biographer] came up with something solid: two surviving letters from Alastair to Evelyn. She thought there were no others, but I managed to unearth a third from the Waugh archive. All three are unpublished and undated but from the period 1922–’25. The most evocative is the Burgundy letter sent from London in 1923 or ’24, addressed to Waugh at Hertford College, Oxford. Enclosed with it is a photograph of Alastair standing naked on a rock with what appears to be a waterfall in the background. It was one of the few things from this period that Waugh, despite the later virulence of his religion, couldn’t bear to destroy. The letter reads:

Saturday

My dear Evelyn,

I’m sending this down by David or the Bastard John, whom I’m seeing this evening. I am sad that you wouldn’t come up for this party. I am afraid it will be bloody. One can always drink, but it is rather a cheap path to heaven. I’ve found the ideal way to drink Burgundy. You must take a peach and peal [sic] it, and put it in a finger bowl, and pour the Burgundy over it. The flavor is exquisite. And the peach seems to exaggerate that delightful happy Seraglio contentedness that old wine evokes. An old French lady taught it to me, who has a wonderful cellar at Lavalles. I’ve been in bed with pains in my ears for the last two days. May I go and call on your parents one day, or would they hate it? I do not know whether I ought to come to Oxford or not next week. It depends on money and other little complications. If I come, will you come and drink with me somewhere on Saturday? If it is a nice day we might carry some bottles into a wood or some bucolic place, and drink like Horace. I’m afraid this is a poor wandering letter. But I cannot write letters. It was only meant to express my sorrow at your absence from this party. I wish you felt merrier, and were not so serious.

With love from Alastair, and his poor dead heart.

The tone of whimsy and sad sweetness is so exactly that of Sebastian Flyte that it is clearer than ever how much of Alastair’s stripling manner was the basis for that character. Not to mention the outing to drink “some bottles” in the countryside -- such an outing on a sunny summer’s day is the first magical set piece in Brideshead Revisited. Another of the letters to Waugh, sent from the Bury, Offchurch, Leamington, probably in 1925, contains these telling lines:

…all the beautiful things that I have seen, heard, or thought of grow like bright flowers and musky herbs in a garden where I can enjoy their presence, and where I can sit in peace and banish the unpleasant things of life. A kind of fortified retreat that no one can enter except myself.

Both Narcissus and the recluse are glimpsed in these letters, but, of course, narcissism and reclusiveness are profoundly linked; you can gaze into your pool only so long as you are undisturbed by others.

Fallowell's How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits is out June 21, 2013

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