Waugh and Humour | Daily News

Waugh and Humour

There is no doubt about it. In another forty years, one of our grandkids will ask us, “What on earth is a newspaper?” We will probably fumble with our explanation and tell them that long before everyone on planet earth uploaded information into our electronic devices telling us what is going on, whether there is a forest fire in their area or whether they are going on a shooting spree, people actually read the news by holding a piece of paper in front of their noses often in the morning, after breakfast, or in the evening, before bedtime. The newspapers actually paid people to go into the world to report and photograph what had taken place, was going to take place — or, even, what might have taken place.

On days when there was little news to report, the newspapers filled their pages with stories about mythical creatures or the discovery of bricks on Mars. Also, there were columns like the one that appeared every Monday written by a Bookacholic for fellow Bookacholics!

Of course, if you wanted to explain further, you could give the grandkids your tattered copy of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’ and tell them to read it for further illumination. But, do remember to give it to them with a warning: the contents of this book might make them laugh out loud.

In ‘Scoop’ Waugh, who was once mistaken for a lady by some Italians thanks to his ambiguously gendered first name and was greeted with a bouquet of crimson roses, writes of a fictional 1938 tale of British foreign correspondents reporting on a civil war in the fictional East African country of Ishmaelia.

Lord Copper, owner of the fictional ‘Daily Beast’ decides to cover the socialist insurrection in Ishmaelia (which has the geography of Ethiopia and the history of Liberia) because, as he explains, “We think it a very promising little war.” (One problematic aspect of the novel, it should be noted, is Waugh’s crude treatment of Africans, but we should forgive Waugh for his racism in the same way we forgive Twain for his use of the n word). Copper means to send the novelist John Courtney Boot, to cover the ‘little war’ but a case of mistaken identity leads him to send William Boot, instead, the newspaper’s timid nature columnist, who writes amazing lines of journalistic purple prose: “Feather-footed through the splashy fen passes the questing vole.” (Fans of Hemingway and Orwell, please ignore).

When William is summoned to the head office, Mr. Salter is told to welcome him warmly with heavy hospitality and light conversation about what interests William the most - country matters - mangold wurzels, and root crops generally:

“There was a pause, during which Mr Salter planned a frank and disarming opening. ‘How are your roots, Boot?’ It came out wrong.

‘How are your boots, root?’ he asked.

William, glumly awaiting some fulminating rebuke, started and said, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I mean brute,’ said Mr Salter.”

This is the early 20th century. So, they are working in a world where sending a foreign correspondent to Ishmaelia will take three weeks. Filing copy is done by post that also takes three, or more, weeks, and urgent news stories are dispatched by telegram. The telephone doesn’t seem to be involved, and if the telegram office is shut, or closed by the government on whom you wish to report, well, the story just has to sit there and wait.

Waugh has a fun time inventing messages in mad telegraphese, which William Boot, and the reader, is bemused by, and needs to translate. For example, one telegram reads “BADLY LEFT DISGUISED AMBASSADOR RUSH FOLLOW BEAST”. Boot’s own telegrams to his London office are very expensive, because he writes them as a cordial social letter, with wordy English politeness. “PLEASE DON’T WORRY QUITE SAFE AND WELL IN FACT RATHER ENJOYING THINGS WEATHER IMPROVING WILL CABLE AGAIN IF THERE IS ANY NEWS YOURS BOOT.”

Waugh who had learnt to type on a long sea journey when the Daily Mail sent him to Ethiopia as a war correspondent in 1935 happily transferred his inexperience to William Boot in ‘Scoop’:

“The keys rose together like bristles on a porcupine, jammed and were extricated; curious anagrams appeared on the paper before him ...”

Here’s how Corker, another journalist in ‘Scoop’ explains how he was sent on this trip overseas. “You know, when I first started in journalism I used to think that foreign correspondents spoke every language under the sun and spent their lives studying international conditions. Brother, look at us! On Monday afternoon I was in East Sheen breaking the news to a widow of her husband’s death leap with a champion girl cyclist – the wrong widow as it turned out; the husband came back from business while I was there and cut up very nasty. Next day the Chief has me in and says, “Corker, you are off to Ishmaelia.” “Out of town job?” I asked. “East Africa,” he said, just like that. “Pack up your traps...I don’t see anything in it myself, but the other agencies are sending feature men, so we have got to do something. We want spot news,” he said, “and some colour stories. Go easy on the expenses...”

I know I will not spoil the story when I reveal Boot in spite of his inexperience or because of it, gets the scoop in the end and returns to London as Boot of the Beast. The cub reporter and nature columnist is now transformed into a legend on Fleet Street. Not that it matters. Boot wants only to be home, writing his column: Lush Places. “The waggons lumber in the lane under their golden glory of harvested sheaves, and maternal rodents [who] pilot their furry brood through the stubble.”

The story is fictional, yes, but to us journalists, most everything about the novel will seem real, too real. This could be why in my eyes, Waugh who is mostly known for his more ambitious novels: ‘A Handful of Dust’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ is at his best in ‘Scoop.’ Besides, he is all laughter, too. Hence the warning: if you read the book in a public place your sudden bursts of laughter might earn you curious looks from passersby.

And...lest you think I’m laughing at my own profession, no, not at all.

Here’s wishing you a happy April fools’ day!


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