Last night I dreamt about this magnificent letter, and for that reason—and for that reason alone—I thought I’d send it to you. I hope it brightens up your day. (It can be found, by the way, in Letters of Note: War.)
Best known for his 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, English novelist Evelyn Waugh spent the five years preceding its publication in the military, first in the Royal Marines and then, thanks to a transfer in May of 1942, the Royal Horse Guards, stationed at the time in south-west Scotland. This change of pace and scenery was much-welcomed, not least as his wife, Laura, was at home many miles away, looking after their three children. She was also very pregnant with their fourth. On May 31st, a mere ten days before she gave birth to their daughter, Margaret, Evelyn put pen to paper and brightened her day considerably with a letter, perhaps the funniest he ever wrote, in which he told a tale involving a tree stump, some questionable mathematics, and an overabundance of explosives.
31st May 1942
It was a great joy to get a letter from you. I thought you had been swallowed up in some Pixton plague.
Do you know Ellwoods address? I wrote to him care Harper – no answer.
Miss Cowles leaves tonight. Everyone except me will be sorry. I have had to arrange all her movements and it has been a great deal of trouble. She is a cheerful, unprincipled young woman. She wants to be made Colonel in chief of the commando so I have suggested Princess Margaret Rose instead. Bob eats out of my hand at the moment.
So No. 3 Cmdo were very anxious to be chums with Lord Glasgow so they offered to blow up an old tree stump for him and he was very grateful and he said don’t spoil the plantation of young trees near it because that is the apple of my eye and they said no of course not we can blow a tree down so that it falls on a sixpence and Lord Glasgow said goodness you are clever and he asked them all to luncheon for the great explosion. So Col. Durnford-Slater D.S.O. said to his subaltern, have you put enough explosive in the tree. Yes, sir, 75 lbs. Is that enough? Yes sir I worked it out by mathematics it is exactly right. Well better put a bit more. Very good sir.
And when Col. D. Slater D.S.O. had had his port he sent for the subaltern and said subaltern better put a bit more explosive in that tree. I don’t want to disappoint Lord Glasgow. Very good sir.
Then they all went out to see the explosion and Col. D.S. D.S.O. said you will see that tree fall flat at just that angle where it will hurt no young trees and Lord Glasgow said goodness you are clever.
So soon they lit the fuse and waited for the explosion and presently the tree, instead of falling quietly sideways, rose 50 feet into the air taking with it 1⁄2 acre of soil and the whole of the young plantation.
And the subaltern said Sir I made a mistake, it should have been 71⁄2 lbs not 75.
Lord Glasgow was so upset he walked in dead silence back to his castle and when they came to the turn of the drive in sight of his castle what should they find but that every pane of glass in the building was broken.
So Lord Glasgow gave a little cry & ran to hide his emotion in the lavatory and there when he pulled the plug the entire ceiling, loosened by the explosion, fell on his head.
This is quite true.
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