If you’ve ever read any Evelyn Waugh then you’ll know the name Basil Seal. He’s the roguish protagonist of Black Mischief (squeezing money out of an impoverished African nation), Put Out More Flags (squeezing money out of WW2), and Basil Seal Rides Again (squeezing money out … no wait, sabotaging his daughter’s wedding). He also makes a brief appearance in the amputated limb of Work Suspended.
Amoral, unclean, and charming, he’s a bit of a fantasy self-portrait for Waugh. But he began as a stinging caricature of Waugh’s real life enemy from Oxford University: Basil Murray.
A dissolute and rich Oxford graduate who found a cause in Liberal politics and anti-fascism, Murray is probably the only man to be murdered by a monkey during the Spanish Civil War.
It all began with a Balliol man who enjoyed beating small boys. In an unguarded moment Oxford student F.A. Philbrick admitted to friends that he had enjoyed thrashing younger pupils at his public school.
Waugh, who arrived at Oxford’s Hertford College in January 1922, got hold of the story and spread it round the university in an exaggerated form. He had a talent for grotesque caricature: rechristening the college’s shambling night porter as ‘The Midnight Badger’ and giving his history tutor a fictitious bestiality backstory involving dogs. In Waugh’s telling, Philbrick became Philbrick the Flagellant, an enthusiastic sadist.
The story became so widespread that when a cinema newsreel showed scenes of a colonial type beating a native with a stick, students in the audience starting chanting Philbrick’s name. Shortly after, Philbrick and his college friend Basil Murray cornered Waugh in a deserted part of the university.
“We’ve had as much of you as we can stand,” said Philbrick.
Then they beat him up.
Basil Murray was short, weak-willed, and alcoholic. Born in 1902 to high-minded academics, Murray inherited their seriousness about politics (Liberalism, the League of Nations) but not their teetotalism. His aristocratic grandfather poured Castle Howard’s wine cellar into the lake when he inherited his title. Murray preferred to drink himself into a stupor at New College, Oxford.
“Satanic,” said Evelyn Waugh, “there were times when he seemed possessed by a devil of mischief.”
Murray’s satanism consisted of drinking too much and running up huge debts, aspects of college life with which Waugh was familiar. Murray must have taken them to extremes to have appalled the future creator of Basil Seal.
Both men were also short: Murray at 5’3″ and Waugh not much taller.
Drunk and Drifting
After leaving Oxford, Murray bounced through a variety of jobs: training to be a barrister, companion to a Japanese prince touring Europe, reporter at The Daily Express (sacked for getting Alice, Countess de Janzé‘s name wrong after she shot her lover at the Gare du Nord), author of a poor Lloyd George biography, unsuccessful husband, unsuccessful Liberal Party candidate. He was a drunk who passed bad cheques and depended on his family to bail him out of trouble.
By contrast, in the early 1930s Evelyn Waugh was a rich and well-known novelist of dark comedies about the Bright Young Things on the London party scene. A recent visit to Ethiopia as journalist covering the coronation of Haile Selassie inspired a more exotic turn for his next book. Black Mischief drops roguish conman and adventurer Basil Seal into the fictional island of Azania as its emperor tries to modernise his nation … but only succeeds in destroying it.
Seal was Basil Murray’s drunken irresponsibility mixed with the good looks and upper class sleaze of Waugh acquaintance Peter Rodd (he married Nancy Mitford in 1933 purely because she had £500 in a post office savings account), and Waugh’s fantasy image of himself.
A Cause Worth Following
Murray barely seems to have noticed his caricature in the book. By the mid-1930s he had found a cause in anti-fascism. He was involved in protests, joined committees, and heckled meetings. In 1936 he was convicted of a breach of the peace after starting a riot when Oswald Mosley visited Oxford University.
The same year saw the eruption of civil war in Spain. Right-wing generals tried to overthrow a left-wing government and the violence quickly turned into a symbolic battle between fascism and communism. Veteran communist Claud Cockburn was working for the Spanish government vetting British and Americans visitors. In early 1937 he got a letter from Basil Murray.
“I was astonished, and more than a little suspicious, when Basil, in making his application, explained that having hitherto lived the life of a roustabout at Oxford and layabout in London, he had suddenly seen the light and wished to dedicate himself to the cause of the Republic. Specifically, he wanted to give radio talks from Valencia, where the government was now established.”
Cockburn knew Murray was a drunk but thought he might be useful. He issued a visa.
Murray arrived in Valenica and gave several propaganda talks on the radio. He was a talented talker, although his impact was helped by lies about being the cousin of the British Foreign Secretary. Then he fell in love with a girl no-one else trusted.
“One may say that had she had the words I am a Nazi spy printed on her hat,” said Cockburn, “that could hardly have made her position clearer than it was.”
The girl eventually ran off to Berlin with a defecting Republican and Murray tried to drink his misery away. Wandering around the Valencia docks he saw a street menagerie containing a small monkey, probably a Barbary Macaque – known as a Barbary Ape but technically a monkey.
“And this ape, Basil said, was the first living creature that – since the defection of the Nazi agent – had looked at him with friendly sympathy.”
He bought the monkey and installed it in the bathroom of his room at the Victoria Hotel. Then he kept on drinking.
Two days later Cockburn got a call from the hotel. Murray was dead. The monkey had escaped from the bathroom, found him in a drunken sleep, and tried to wake him, eventually biting through his jugular vein. Murray bled to death.
Cockburn covered up the death as pneumonia although part of the story got out and enemies of the Spanish government liked to claim Murray had died of disease after getting physically intimate with the monkey. Even in death, Murray had failed to be find the seriousness he craved.
Waugh supported the right-wing rebels in Spain but never mentioned Murray’s death. It is possible he was showing generous restraint to an old enemy.
But he probably just never heard the story.
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