Lord Copper, newspaper magnate and proprietor of the Daily Beast,has always prided himself on his intuitive flair for spotting ace reporters. That is not to say he has not made the odd blunder, however, and may in a moment of weakness make another. Acting on a dinner-party tip from Mrs Algernon Stitch, he feels convinced that he has hit on just the chap to cover a promising little war in the African Republic of Ishmaelia. One of Waugh's most exuberant comedies, Scoopis a brilliantly irreverent satire of Fleet Street and its hectic pursuit of hot news.
The hero is William Boot, a young man, the head of the ramshackle Boot family, who's family seat, Boot Magna Hall, is as decayed and improvised as any seat could be. He lives a blameless life, his main aim is to keep his small salary as the writer of Lush Places a nature column, published weekly in the Daily Beast, so that he can live quietly. A mix up occurs and he finds himself Foreign Correspondent for the Daily Beast in Ishmaelia, an African country that is a composite of Abyssinia, Liberia and others, to cover an uprising.
The press core, a fine collection of grotesques, fire off five word telegrams and the newspapers cover three pages with 'colour', no one can find the uprising, the Fleet Street legends find themselves comfortable holes and try and make the news, the rest whinge, bicker and get drunk. In Ishmaelia, Boot finds love, and loses it, he loses a wagon-load of gear (including a huge bundle of cleft sticks) and finds it, but on the whole, he survives better than the than the rest of the journalists. The world of Ishmaelia is one of corruption, nepotism and pretence (the second largest town on the map doesn't actually exist and everyone who gets sent to it ends up eaten.) The natives are barbarous, venal, stupid and lazy, the ruling, extended, Jackson family is eccentric, and corrupt.
The key to Williams survival, is his background at Boot Magna Hall. Waugh's description of Africa and Africans is no more withering than his description of the inhabitants of this decayed outpost of the rural ruling class, in England. An impoverished sprawling family, variously mad, bad, stupid and venal, whose decrepit and lazy servants spend more time looking after each other than they do the family, and whose farm workers make the cast of Deliverance look well bred. The visit of Mr Salter to the Hall, a suburbanite amongst the savages, is my favourite bit of the book.
"...at every station there had been a bustle of passengers succeeded by a long,
silent pause, before it started again; men had entered who, instead of slinking
and shuffling and wriggling themselves into corners and decently screening
themselves behind newspapers, as civilized people should when they travelled by
train, had sat down squarely quite close to Mr Salter, rested their hands on
their knees, stared at him fixedly and uncritically and suddenly addressed him
on the subject of the weather in barely intelligible accents; there had been
very old, unhygienic men and women, such as you never saw in the Underground,
who ought long ago to have been put away in some public institution; there had
been women carrying a multitude of atrocious little baskets and parcels which
they piled on the seats; one of them had put a hamper containing a live turkey
under Mr Salter's feet. It had been a horrible journey."
The book is beautifully crafted and very funny. I think it is genuinely a serious satire, Waugh's characters lead lives of drudgery, misery and failure. His characters who have attained worldly success are pathological and self-deluding, in his books he chronicles human despair and hopelessness, I must re-read more Waugh.
In this outing Waugh takes a break from heavy social commentary (war, politics, social mores) to take on a much broader mark: the fourth estate. Unrest is brewing in the African country of Ishmaelia; British tabloids scamble to deploy their best foreign correspondents to cover the efray. Alas, through a series of blunders and misunderstandings, the Beast ends up deploying the author of their "pastoral living" column. Regular readers of Waugh will recognize William Bolt's type: steadfast and unflappable in the face of mounting chaos. Thrust into the heart of a forgotten African country, surrounded by a cast of socially/ethically/intellectually compromised foreign correspondents, and laden with an entire train-car full of wholly ridiculous luggage (including a "rather overfurnished tent, three months' rations, a collapsible canoe, a jointed flagstaff and Union Jack, and hand-pump and sterilizing plant, an astrolabe, six suites of tropical linen and a sou'wester, a camp operating table and set of surgical instruments, a portable humidor, and a Christmas hamper complete with a Santa Claus costume and a tripod mistletoe stand"), Bolt weathers a series of increasingly absurd predictaments without ever compromising his dignity.
There's not much subtlety here: the majority of characters are little more than grotesques and much of the humor is broad farce. But it's extraordinarily witty and hugely amusing farce: I laughed aloud so often, people actually began to move away from me on the metro. (A added boon during rush hour!)
Yes, Waugh's treatment of Africans is racist and irreverent - but then again, so is his treatment of his fellow countrymen, so critical reviewers might consider lightening up. The racism is no more than an honest representation of the paternalistic attitude of Britain towards "uncivilized lands" at this time in history; and, besides, all's fair in love, war, and satire.
Scoop is brisk, broad, and fun, fun, fun! Definitely a book I'll be picking up again one day.
Apparently, not a totally inaccurate way of how foreign wars were covered, i.e. from a distance and quite a bit of it made up, which is disconcerting. (Of course, nothing like that would ever happen today....?)
File this under guilty pleasures. I'm, well outraged isn't the right word, made weary by the dreariness of the other reviews of this book: plot summaries, gestures towards its transhistorical narratives (or towards its capturing that peculiar moment before the Nazis invaded Poland), and hamfisted comparisons to P. G. Wodehouse (different sort of writer entirely, although, hilariously, Wodehouse does get a shoutout as the plot winds down). And then, well, there's the fact that the book is terribly racist. It's not racist in a Mein Kampf or Turner Diaries kind of way; there's no particular program Waugh wants to push; but the novel nevertheless goes hand-in-thoughtless-hand with the postwar atrocities committed by Britain in Kenya. Is this attitude inevitable? Simply a record of its time?
Of course not. Don't be foolish.
That said, it's delightful. I'm of course reminded of A. J. Liebling's war journalism. The plot should be a model for plots everywhere. The odd mixture of affection and contempt is characteristic of the best humor writing (see, for example, Diary of a Nobody or Cold Comfort Farm). I'm going a bit too far here: it's clear that Waugh finds the expropriation of Africa's natural resources by European colonial powers distasteful. And that's something.
I'd suggest, however, starting with The Loved One.
Sometimes literature from certain eras will use negative, racist terms and words to describe a person, peoples or practices. And sometimes in the context of such books we can read around this, as simply being chronologically representative of the way things were then. These terms and words are used in profusion in Scoop. Here, however, the attempted humor of the book too frequently depends on the reader's acceptance of the negative characteristics implied by the racist terms. In other words, if the reader doesn't accept the blatant racism of some of the 'humor,' it's not easy to find anything to laugh about. There are a few zingers about the way the press sometimes manufactures news, but not enough to ignore the cringe-inducing remainder of the reporter's African adventures. Not recommended.
Scoop is the story about a modern war. Or rather, about modern journalism and how they report on a war. The war is in the fictional African country of Ismaelia, and our intrepid reporter is sent off to get the story. The Megalopolitan News Agency wants to be the first to break the story. Lady Stitch recommends her good friend, Mr. Boots. But a hapless editor hires the wrong Mr. Boots, and William is sent off quite unwillingly to cover a war he knows nothing about and which, in fact, hasn't really started yet. (But the paper still wants news of a victory around the first of July.)
Naive country gentleman William is soon mixing with a crowd of veteran news reporters, barnyard animals, a somewhat faithful German wife, a Scandinavian missionary, and a crowd of politicians as eager to avoid him as he is to speak to them. Only when events take a strange and sudden turn does William find his chance to get the story and get back home to England.
I have to add that this book is full of racial slurs. My impression is that they are mostly used to describe the close minded, bigoted attitude of the Europeans in the story, but it was still pretty shocking in parts. I really don't remember the last time I read anything quite this offensive, so take a warning from that.
My favorite quote from the story is when William is discussing the situation with his editor, Mr. Salter, just before leaving England.
"I don't read the papers very much. Can you tell me who is fighting who in Ishmaelia?"
"I think it's the Patriots and the Traitors."
"Yes, but which is which?"
"Oh, I don't know that. That's Policy, you see. It's nothing to do with me."
Very cynical, but very funny. Now I want to give that Brideshead Revisited book or whatever it is a try.
And it is the characters who really make this novel what it is--a motley cast of misfits, each trying to get by, mostly without ambition or understanding and certainly without any real sense of connection to the rest of the human race.
At the center of it all is bewildered William Boot, yanked inexplicably from his life of genteel semi-poverty in the English countryside and dispatched to the northeastern African nation of Ishmaelia as a war correspondent for the Beast. With only a bottomless expense account to guide him, our confuddled young hero doggedly attempts to do what's expected of him. But since he's actually not even the journalist the paper meant to send, he blunders continuously and pathetically.
Ishmaelia, once he finally reaches it, presents an object lesson in the "art" of journalism. Hordes of correspondents have converged on Ishmaelia because its highly unstable political situation has captured the interest of Europe and England--except that no one in Ishmaelia seems to be aware of, or care about, or even acknowledge, a political situation of any kind. So the journalists lounge around drinking, playing ping pong, getting insanely overcharged, and occasionally firing off dutiful wireless cables to their editors. The cables, which are filled with nonsense of the most improbable kind, generally conveyed in 10 words or less, are worked over and splashed onto front pages as thrilling, dire headlines. And William, who probably never told a lie in his whole life (because he never even thought of it), simply cannot wrap his mind around the business. Even when he lucks into some real news, it doesn't matter, because What Really Took Place just happens to be something the newspapers have already denied. And how could a paper maintain the trust of the people if were to be retracting what it had reported as fact?
But Boot triumphs. Sort of. In this ridiculous world Waugh has created--one which contains more than a kernel of truth--only the most ridiculous person, who has the least possible interest in (let alone understanding of) what he's supposed to be doing, through the most unlikely series of coincidences, can come upon the Holy Grail of Ishmaelite news and bring glory to himself and his paper.
Waugh's dryness and convoluted vocabulary and product-of-his-times racism mean he's not for everybody. But if you like a novel that falls into place bit by bit in a decidedly satisfying way, and can appreciate the artful decimation of naive ideas like "journalistic integrity" and "governmental competence," then give this unusual book a chance.
Some of the vocabulary and of the depictions of Africa and Africans did make me wince - this is very much a book of its time in that respect.
Scoop is of a similar quality to Waugh's Decline and Fall, and nearly as good as Black Mischief, which is probably the funniest book I've read. This is definitely one for fans of Waugh, and a good place to start for those who have not before experienced his brilliant humour.