Saturday, March 5, 2011
Scoop - Evelyn Waugh
The 1930s was an era of newspaper barons running their newspaper empires as if they were a private propaganda bureau for their favourite political party. In Scoop, Lord Copper is the proprietor of the Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation, publisher of the Daily Beast. When Julia Stitch, wife of an MP, wants to help out her friend, impoverished radical writer, John Courteney Boot, she vamps Lord Copper at a luncheon party into offering him a job as foreign correspondent on the Beast. Unfortunately, by the time the directive reaches Salter, the foreign editor, the name of the new correspondent is known only as Boot. As they already have a writer on staff of that name, William Boot, Salter decides he must be the man however odd it seems.
William Boot writes a nature column from his dilapidated estate deep in the English countryside. However, no one questions the Chief, so Boot is inveigled into accepting the job of going out to Ishmaelia, an African country seemingly on the brink of civil war. Boot sets off on the three week journey, falling in with reporters from other newspapers along the way. When he arrives, he finds that nothing is happening & the whole civil war seems to be no more than a rumour. The government of Ishmaelia is corrupt, but no more so than any other & the journalists spend their time sending back local colour reports to their editors & putting everything on their expense accounts. Waugh’s vision of journalism is breathtakingly cynical. When a correspondent has a reputation for accuracy, like the legendary Wendell Jakes, anything they write is believed,
Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window – you know.
Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution... Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny, and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution underway, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the Press for you.
They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing descriptions of the carnage – but that was just colour stuff.
William Boot is an innocent abroad. He’d much rather be at home with his eccentric family, watching the badgers in the woods & writing lyrical descriptions of the natural world. But, he’s taken on a job & he tries his best to find out what’s happening in Ishmaelia even though the bureaucracy does its best to run him around in circles. He falls in love with a beautiful but rapacious girl, Katchen, whose husband has disappeared into the country & left her penniless except for a suitcase full of geological samples that she persuades Boot to buy from her.
When all the other journalists are taken off on a supervised tour of the so-called hotspots, Boot stays behind & inadvertently stumbles across the scoop of his life. Scoop is a bitingly funny novel about the power of the Press although I found it depressing that so little has changed in the 70 years since the book was first published.
here a few weeks ago, 2011 is shaping up as a year full of wonderful reading experiences if you love early 20th century English fiction. The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh have recently been reprinted as a Penguin Modern Classic & I have it sitting temptingly on my tbr shelves. This could be the year I read more Waugh as well as more Mitford.