Evelyn Waugh (Everyman’s Library, 2003)
200 p. Second reading.
John Courteney Boot is a rising star in the London literary scene; William Boot is a quiet, retiring man who writes “Lush Places”, a minor column about country life tucked inconspicuously into the London newspaper The Beast. When The Beast wants to send someone to cover the broiling civil war in Ishmaelia, the editor decides to send “Boot”. He means John; they send William. Comedy ensues. Such is the premise for Waugh’s farce this time around.
William reminds me in many ways of Paul Pennyfeather: a naive bumbler who nevertheless somehow manages to find himself in the center of affairs. He is not a journalist, and his relaxed country manner contrasts sharply with the headline-hunting news-now mindset of his employer. Though easily duped, he is sufficiently uninterested in his assignment that he doesn’t pick up on the decoy leads planted by Ishmaelia’s corrupt government. This, of course, lands him right in the middle of all the action, exactly where they don’t want him.
Scoop is a splendid send-up of journalism and the newspaper business. It was written in the days before television, and long before the advent of CNN, but his pointed humour has only grown more relevant:
Corker looked at him sadly. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.”
Waugh is also well aware of all the ways in which the alleged objectivity of news is subverted: journalists are manipulated by foreign governments, stories are embellished with speculation, and news agencies juggle their own politics with the facts and the need to be entertaining:
“With regard to Policy, I expect you already have your own views. I never hamper my correspondents in any way. What the British public wants first, last, and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is The Beast Policy for the war.”
It all seems so familiar.
In the end, this was a thoroughly enjoyable book. Waugh’s writing is as fine as ever. Certain passages are so well put together that I could not help lingering admiringly over them. He has also wrapped the whole story up very well, avoiding the structural problems of his previous novel. I would say it is his most successful book since Decline and Fall. Is it perhaps more successful? “Up to a point.”
[William tries his hand at journalism]
He sat at the table, stood up, sat down again, stared gloomily at the wall for some minutes, lit his pipe, and then, laboriously, with a single first finger and his heart heavy with misgiving, he typed the first news story of his meteoric career. No one observing that sluggish and hesitant composition could have guessed that this was a moment of history — of legend, to be handed down among the great traditions of his trade, told and retold over the milk-bars of Fleet Street, quoted in books of reminescence, held up as a model to aspiring pupils of Correspondence Schools of Profitable Writing, perennially fresh in the jaded memories of a hundred editors; the moment when Boot began to make good.
PRESS COLLECT BEAST LONDON he wrote:
NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA HEADED BY SUPERIOR BLACK CALLED BENITO AND RUSSIAN JEW WHO BANNISTER SAYS IS UP TO NO GOOD THEY SAY HE IS DRUNK WHEN HIS CHILDREN TRY TO SEE HIM BUT GOVERNESS SAYS MOST UNUSUAL LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING.