Saturday, March 5, 2011

Scoop - Evelyn Waugh

I’ve read quite a few of  Evelyn Waugh’s novels over the years. Brideshead Revisited at the time of the 1980s TV series, of course. Then, I listened to Christian Rodska read the Sword of Honour trilogy audio books & loved them. A couple of years ago, I read Put Out More Flags, a very funny novel about a scoundrel trying to avoid war service. Now, I’ve read Scoop, a satire about journalism that, unfortunately, is still relevant today, even though it was published in 1938.

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.

Evelyn Waugh is set for a revival this year. Penguin are about to begin publishing a lovely hardback collected edition of all Waugh’s books, fiction & non-fiction, in order of publication. I’m especially excited about book no 1, his biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter & poet, first published in 1928. As I wrote 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.


  1. Like you, I first read Waugh when the televised version of 'Brideshead Revisited' was on and went through pretty much his entire canon. I haven't been back since although at the time I enjoyed his writing very much. Perhaps it's time for a re-read, although if I do return I think it will be to 'Brideshead'. I see that they are broadcasting the more recent folk adaptation on BBC2 this evening. It didn't get particularly good reviews so I'm not certain as to whether or not I'll watch it. Maybe the best thing would be to record it and try later.

  2. Brideshead Revisited was my introduction to Waugh and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Whenever I come across his other books I think 'soon, but not just now'. Women authors definitely occupy my tbr list at the moment so I'm saving EW for later. But yes, a year full of wonderful reading experiences indeed!

  3. I'd never heard of this book until I started reading the Modern Library Top 100 which includes three by Waugh. I didn't get it at first but then I realized how funny it is. I've been trying to read all of Waugh and so far my favorite is Decline and Fall which is just hilarious.

  4. Annie, I didn't mind the latest Brideshead but it couldn't compare to the 1980's series. How could it cram everything into 2 hours?And it didn't have the music, Castle Howard or Jeremy Irons & Anthony Andrews either! Darlene, I've read Waugh over many years & still have lots to read. I didn't realise how funny he was until I read Put Out More Flags. Karen, I haven't read D&F but I plan to read more Waugh & I've heard it's one of his best novels.

  5. Oddly enough I don't think I have read any Waugh at all, I've heard of many titles but not actually read them. Thanks for another title to add to my growing list.

  6. Lyn, did it have Aloysius? As far as The Bears in this household are concerned the most important character in the book.

  7. Are there enough hours in the day for all this reading, Rose? That's the trouble with reading blogs. If only I didn't have to work... but then, I do enjoy eating! Annie, I don't remember if Aloysius is in the new film but surely he is? It would be like Hamlet without the Ghost. Pointless.