A few bloggers seem to have been reading Evelyn Waugh at the same time as each other – Rachel wrote about Decline and Fall and Ali wrote about Vile Bodies – only my review is coming rather belatedly, as I finished Scoop (1938) about a month ago. Oops. But it’s great, and very funny, so better late than never, I’m getting my review specs on (they’re the same as my usual specs, by the way.)
This is my fourth Evelyn Waugh novel, and I still haven’t read Brideshead Revisited. I found the first couple too cruel for my liking, then thought The Loved One had the perfect mix of barbed wit and affection. Well, Scoop continues in this vein – ridiculous and farcical things happen, people are mean and selfish, but always with a covering of good-humour – helped, chiefly, by the incredibly loveable lead character.
Like Decline and Fall, Scoop opens with a series of coincidences and misunderstandings (unlikely, but not impossible) which propel the central plot. Unlike Decline and Fall, these misunderstandings are not malicious – but they end up with the wrong Mr. Boot being sent to the Republic of Ishmaelia by the Daily Beast. Instead of the pushy young John Boot who’s been badgering the absolutely wonderful character Mrs. Stitch (the novel opens with her multi-tasking – on the telephone, directing the painter, answering correspondence, doing a crossword, and helping her daughter with her homework at the same time) to get him sent out there, it is William Boot, writer of the rural matters column Lush Places, who is accidentally sent. Boot is an affable, quiet, honest young man (supposedly in his 20s, but he never comes across as younger than 45) who wants to live out his life in rural peace. Who better to mire in the world of sensationalist foreign reporting?
Before he sets sail, there are my favourite scenes in the novel – where William Boot is meeting with an editor of the newspaper, Mr. Salter. William thinks that he is going to be reprimanded for his sister mischievously exchanging ‘badger’ and ‘great crested grebe’ in his copy – which leads to a brilliant cross-purposes conversation with Mr. Salter, who has never stepped a foot outside London, and has the impression (shared by so many Londoners today!) that people from the countryside do nothing but drink pear cider and lean on gates. As a staunch countryside person at heart, I laughed heartily at the limited views of the town-dweller, and the horror he felt when the great crested grebe reared its great crested head…
But things are sorted out, of course, and off William goes to the Republic of Ishmaelia (when it is suggested to him that he might well be fired if he refuses to go.) Before we get there, I want to share this wonderful snippet of the way Mr. Salter deals with the newspaper’s proprietor:
Mr. Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, “Definitely, Lord Copper”; 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.”
So practical! So wise! So deliciously funny on Waugh’s part. It’s also a taste of his satirical tongue – for that is what the rest of Scoop essentially performs; a satire on journalism.
Boot and a dozen or so other journalists land in Ishmaelia, where nothing whatsoever seems to be happening, and have to send back copy in the form of telegrams. While some journalists are fabricating spies and making the most out of the smallest incident, this is a telegram Boot sends back:
NO NEWS AT PRESENT THANKS WARNING ABOUT CABLING PRICES BUT IVE PLENTY MONEY LEFT AND ANYWAY WHEN I OFFERED TO PAY WIRELESS MAN SAID IT WAS ALL RIGHT PAID OTHER END RAINING HARD HOPE ALL WELL ENGLAND WILL CABLE AGAIN IF ANY NEWS.
Waugh has great fun crafting the telegrams from both sides, and it is here that his satire of journalism is both loudest and (I daresay) closest to the bone – with words like ‘ESSENTIALIST’ and ‘SOONLIEST’ abounding, not to mention ‘UNRECEIVED’ and ‘UPFOLLOW’.
The satire becomes rather a farce, as most of the journalists head off to a place which doesn’t exist, and the most famous reporter sends in his copy without even visiting the country. It’s all very amusing and enjoyably broad, which makes the inclusion of a romantic interest (even one who is desperate for him to store rocks for her, and suggests that he marry her so that her extant husband can become British by extension) feels a little out of kilter, and I wouldn’t have been sad if Kätchen hadn’t been included.
Indeed, despite the focus of the novel being Ishmaelia – and Boot being adorable – I preferred the scenes set in England. Perhaps that’s because I could understand a comedy on office politics, rural matters, and eccentric families (about a dozen bedridden relatives and servants fill his country pile) better than foreign reporting, or perhaps Waugh was on firmer footing himself. Either way, I was always pleased when things turned back to Blighty.
As a round-peg-in-a-square-hole story, Waugh could scarcely choose a man less fitted for the role he is forced into – and that, of course, is the intended crux of Scoop‘s humour. It’s just a bonus that he does everything else so well on top of this – otherwise the joke would probably have worn thin. And, as I say, there is enough good-humour and camaraderie in Scoop to prevent Waugh’s mean streak from dominating, and so gentle souls like me are left entirely free to revel in the farcical hilarity, and not get anxious about the victims!