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"Labels" by Evelyn Waugh

Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (20th Century Classics) - Evelyn Waugh

Recently I have fully begun to appreciate the writing genius of Evelyn Waugh. I always realised he was good, but now I am starting to understand more fully his greatness. Throughout 2013 I have read, or reread, a number of his books, along with the splendid Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne. Having read all of his fiction, bar Sword of Honour, which I am poised to start, I was keen to sample some of Evelyn Waugh's non-fiction.

I am delighted to report that "Labels" is every bit as good as his wonderful fiction. In "Labels", we join Evelyn Waugh on a trip around the Mediterranean in 1929: he travels from Europe to the middle east and north Africa. Waugh chose the name "Labels" for this, his first travel book, because he thought the places he visited were already "fully labelled" in people's minds. Despite this, he brings a fresh and entertaining perspective to all that he encounters. His pen captures the local colour and the amusing idiosyncrasies of being a tourist. The writing is a delight, and each page is full of fun, amusing anecdotes, and incident. Even when he is bored, he still manages to write about it entertainingly. I look forward to reading more of his travel books, and more of his non-fiction.

Three things particularly struck me about this book:

1. The style is very chatty, humorous and self-deprecating, which is completely as odds with his misanthropic reputation.

2. His innate snobbishness results in some outrageous humour. For example, the cruise ship on which Waugh travels, occasionally encounters another cruise ship favoured by German tourists. He describes this ship as "vulgar" with inhabitants who are all "unbelievably ugly Germans" albeit "dressed with great courage and enterprise e.g. One man wearing a morning coat, white trousers and a beret".

3. By focussing on various minor details of his travels, Waugh provides the modern reader with all kinds of fascinating insights into tourism and travel in 1929. For example, the book starts with Waugh was taking a flight to Paris - he was one of only two passengers in a tiny plane, and this mode of transport was very new and unusual at the time. His detailed description of the experience is very informative about the early years of air passenger travel.

A very enjoyable read and, at a mere 174 pages, pleasingly quick and easy to read.