"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."
--Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
It's Karen's turn to host her book club; I have to clear out of the house for a few hours tonight.
I wish I didn't have to; this month's book is Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, and while it's been 20 years or so since I read it, I wouldn't mind listening to the discussion. I know the book in a way I know only a few novels--like something I lived through. Back when there were literary touchstones for journalists, it was one of them.
And in this age of fake news, this 1938 novel is strangely salient. It's inspired by events Waugh witnessed in 1935 and 1936 when he was a foreign correspondent for London newspaper The Daily Mail stationed in what we now know as Ethiopia and what was then called Abyssinia.
Back then, Italy was ruled by the fascist strongman Benito Mussolini, who had it in for the Abyssinians because 40 years before the Italian army lost the Battle of Adwa, which led to the Treaty of Addis Ababa, which secured independence for the Abyssinians, whom the Italians had intended to colonize.
(Long story, criminally synopsized: By the end of the 19th century, most of Africa had been divided up among European nations. Italy felt left out because the only African territories it controlled were the impoverished states of Eritrea and Italian Somalia, to the north and east of Abyssinia. Italy tried to make relatively rich Abyssinia a client state, first by treaty and later by invasion. It didn't work.)
In 1935 Mussolini was determined to make Italy great again by avenging the Battle of Adwa. Everybody knew Italy was going to invade and depose Emperor Haile Selassie; Mussolini had massed his colonial forces on the border and declared Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III the rightful ruler of Abyssinia. But somehow Waugh got the news of the actual invasion before any of the more than 120 journalists who'd gathered in Addis Ababa waiting for the war to begin. So he wrote a report and telegraphed it to his editors.
But Waugh took the precaution of writing his report in Latin, so as not to tip off his competition. Back in London, the foreign desk, lacking Waugh's upper class education, failed to recognize Waugh's scoop as such.
Outside of this ill-fated report, Waugh proved to be a pretty ineffectual war correspondent. It wasn't all his fault--the reporters were confined to Addis Ababa and had to rely on what the Italians told them. It wasn't too long before the Daily Mail recalled him to London. And all Waugh got out of what he had assumed would be a great adventure was a idea for a slim comic novel, the little miracle that is Scoop.
Before I go any further, it has to be said that Scoop is one of those books that uses racist language because its author was a man unable to transcend the racist temper of his times. It treats Africans with disdain. It uses words that decent people do not. (And it is fair to consider the attitudes expressed in the book Waugh's own; his non-fiction book based on these same experiences, Waugh in Abyssinia, uses the same language and displays the same bias.)
A lot of people dismiss Scoop as a bitter satire in which Waugh takes shots at journalists by exaggerating their foibles and pretensions. Waugh's main character, a timid nature columnist named William Boot who finds himself dragooned into service as a war correspondent because Lord Copper, the Trumpian proprietor of the Daily Beast (where Tina Brown got the name for her website), mistakes him for his cousin, a dashing young novelist named John Courteney Boot. William is sent to the East African nation of Ishmaelia where Lord Copper believes "a very promising little war" is about to break out.
Though William is completely unsuited to the task (he's a terrible writer, responsible for the legendarily purple sentence "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole") and temperamentally unsuited to asking questions. Yet his journalistic ineptitude saves him from from charging after the news and leaves him well positioned to receive the extraordinary scoop that falls into his lap.
Even better, the scoop is credited to his cousin, the other Boot, another relative takes the glory, and William is left to go happily back to writing his nature column.
It's assumed most of the characters in Scoop are based on real people, and apparently the caricatures are accurate enough that journalists recognized themselves and others in the book. Through the years, journalists have recognized themselves--as a class--in the characters. And they are exquisitely rendered.
There's impatient Shumble who makes up a story about a Russian spy, and Corker, the solid professional who advises against explaining to his editors that Shumble is mistaken because newspapers don't like printing retractions and that the thing to do is to keep looking for a Russian spy. (Before you draw any parallels to current events, understand that it turns out there really is a Russian spy.)
Then there's Pappenhacker, an upper-class communist who writes a column for the Twopence (modeled on the Times of London) and who bullies waiters on the theory that "every time you are polite to a proletarian you are helping to bolster up the capitalist system." There's obsequious Salter, the Daily Beast foreign editor who can only respond to Lord Cooper's most outrageous falsehoods by agreeing with him "up to a point, sir."
But Waugh's purpose is not to point out that reporters can be craven, opportunistic and careerist, though all that is certainly true. The real point of Scoop is that it's difficult if not impossible to determine the real truth about anything. Waugh was deeply Catholic, distrustful of rationalism. Scoop isn't an assault on the laziness of journalists, it's a book about how arrogant human beings are when they pretend to know anything.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 05/16/2017
Print Headline: Up to a point, sir