As you may have noticed by now, I am having a little bit of a month focused on one writer: Evelyn Waugh. Scoop was the first on my list and one that I found to be very funny. It is full of wit and is a comedy of errors to lose yourself in.
The novel begins with a visit by author John Courtenay Boot to lady of high society, Julia Stitch, whom he asks to convince newspaper mogul Lord Copper (of the newspaper The Beast) to hire him as a foreign correspondent in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia. The press have caught wind of a story there and of an imminent civil war – John Boot isn’t so much interested in that as running away from a woman who has become over-desirous of his attention. After a few errors and misunderstandings, the foreign editor of The Beast hires a Mr William Boot as their foreign correspondent, wines him and dines him and introduces him to the world of journalism and sends him off to Africa with a ridiculously large pile of luggage. What follows is a rather comical account of Boot getting caught up in the hunt for a story.
The main things that I enjoyed about Scoop were its wit and satire of the press. I was laughing out loud at this book as some of it is rather farcical but somehow you could quite believe that these things could have happened. William Boot is an unsuspecting journalist and falls into it – he lives a sheltered life with his family in the country and really doesn’t often venture very far. He is learning the ropes as he goes along and it is through his eyes that the reader gets to gaze in wonder at the ridiculousness of the press in their search for a scoop. He teams up with another correspondent out there who tries to show him the ropes:
‘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.’
While all of these foreign correspondents are chasing a story, the people of Ishmaelia are benefiting from the revenue that this sudden influx of men living on expenses brings – hotels are doing the best business they’ve ever done and office workers are taking time off their jobs to be runners for the journalists, charging them extortionate fees of course. And the politicians are having a rare time playing the journalists off one another and sending them on wild goose chases which make for some hilarious scenes!
The bits featuring the foreign editor Mr Salter and his boss Lord Copper were very funny, as they constantly misunderstand each other, accidentally on Lord Cropper’s side and willfully on Mr Salter’s. I love this little anecdote which really sums up their relationship:
‘Mr Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, ‘Definitely, Lord Cropper’; when he was wrong, ‘Up to a point.’
‘Let me see, what’s the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?’
‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’
‘And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?’
‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’
I think I might borrow ‘Up to a point’ for future use!
The press aren’t averse to making up stories, or adding a little ‘colour’ as they describe it. There is even an incident where a member of the press describes a Russian spy arriving by train to the capital of Ishmaelia. It turns out the man is actually a ticket collector and not Russian at all – however, instead of retracting this story, the journalists let the public continue to believe so as not to shake their belief in the press. It makes me very wary of believing anything I read in the papers as you just never know!
One downside for me was that there are some parts of the dialogue and even the narrative that can be a little racist in their word choice and comments that grated on me a little but I had to remind myself of the time this was written, back in 1939. Aside from that I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading more!