John C Adams Reviews 'Scoop' by Evelyn Waugh
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall, 1938)
Evelyn Waugh had two missions in life and at both he was incredibly successful. The first was to produce memorable quips and one-liners with a dry, acerbic wit that would still be remembered a century later. The other was to utilise that humour to throw an unforgiving light on any situation where humanity was in danger of taking itself too seriously. 'Scoop' exemplifies both aspects of Waugh's interwar writing.
John Courteney Boot eagerly awaits a job offer from Lord Copper's 'Daily Beast' newspaper to pivot from fashionable travel writer to war correspondent. Meanwhile, William Boot (the remotest of relations) can think of nothing better than continuing his weekly 'Beast' column on country affairs 'Lush Places' undisturbed at Boot Magna Hall, but fears that a recent prank by his sister might bring his fledgling career in journalism to an premature end.
A mix up in the offices of the 'Daily Beast' sees William urgently called to London and offered an assignment as the newspaper's War Correspondent with instructions to go immediately to the fictional country of Ishmaelia, which is on the verge of civil war. Unable to summon the courage to explain that he is utterly unqualified for the job of war correspondent, William sets off to Ishmaelia, armed only with a generous expense account and a trusting nature that is likely to get him into plenty of trouble.
Waugh spent the years 1928 to 1938 travelling the world, including spending time in North Africa. He penned a number of travel books, including 'Waugh in Abyssinia', which was published in 1936. This gave him plenty of opportunity to observe the behaviour of his countrymen abroad, journalists included, and it is very evident from this novel that he paid close attention to the precise mechanics of how war correspondents get their stories and how slender the resemblance can be between truth and printed copy.
There is a weary cynicism to Waugh's portrayal of journalism in these pages that is only partially lightened by the full-on comedy of character and situation of the novel. He is searingly honest in showing the grubby truth and exploding the myth (carefully nurtured by Fleet Street during the First World War) that war correspondents were almost as brave as the men who actually fought. Given that renewed conflict was only a year away, and was by 1938 all but unavoidable, this put Waugh somewhat out of step with the renewed portrait of plucky journalists risking their lives to bring newspaper readers and cinemagoers the gritty truth in the conflict to come. It's important to remember that fourteen journalists lost their lives during World War Two (according to Wikipedia); but then the magic of Waugh's writing always lies partly in the shock factor. A different way to look at it might be to say that, with another war on the horizon, 1938 was precisely the right time for a pithy analysis of the low-down means by which journalists get their stories, and the divergence between truth and reporting that follows.
'Scoop' is also a portrait of the hopelessly inept Englishman abroad, something Waugh encountered extensively on his travels. The novel is a much-needed concept that went some small way to countering the extensive Empire propaganda, designed to foster the unquestioning assertion that the British were somehow born to rule over the whole world.
William is likeable and easygoing, the kind of pleasant acquaintance you could make while travelling. He learns the ropes of journalism eventually, aided by old hacks spilling their secrets while drunk in the hotel bar. He manages to get by sufficiently to complete his assignment and return home to his weekly newspaper column on rural life, which was all he ever wanted to continue doing.
It's a hilarious novel, much like 'Decline and Fall' and 'Vile Bodies', providing one last blast before the seriousness of war descended in 1939. Renewed conflict led Waugh to develop his more serious fiction with books such as 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'The Sword of Honour Trilogy' thereafter, so 'Scoop' earns a special place in my heart as being, along with 'Put Out More Flags', one of the last of the cheeky Waugh novels.
Thank you so much for reading my 'Monday Musings' post. Please share your thoughts on this or any other funny novel you've enjoyed and would recommend in the comments section below.
My next post is a 'Friday Frighteners' review of a recent horror novel that I really enjoyed.