Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938) 222 p.

Scoop is a novel which for some reason I always thought came with an exclamation mark at the end (Scoop!) but I can now find no evidence to support this recollection. I also thought it was Waugh’s most famous novel, though I’ve now found out that he did in fact write Brideshead Revisited, a novel which I will definitely, one day, get around to finding out what it is about and why it is well-known and possibly even read it.

Scoop is one of those novels which is, somehow, simultaneously timeless but also an umistakeable product of its time. John Courtney Boot, a relatively successful writer, uses one of his wealthy patrons to insist that a media magnate signs him onto his newspaper (The Daily Beast, yes) as a foreign correspondent for the brewing civil war in the obscure African nation of Ishmaelia. The paper’s underlings are simply told to dispatch “Boot,” and check their existing staff list for the candidate, finding on the payroll a minor contributor named William Boot who writes a column called Lush Places. (I imagine these sorts of wistfully bucolic columns aimed at Londoners were quite popular at the time, but it immediately made me think of one of the only survivors, the Guardian’s long-running Country Diary.) Scoop is a fish-out-of-water comedy, as the naive and hapless William Boot is plucked from a life of genteel poverty in the West Country and dispatched alongside the cynical, ruthless journalists of the international press to a farcical civil war in a tinpot dictatorship.

Scoop is a dated product of the 1930s in the sense that it deals with a fairly quaint and predictably racist colonial setting and proxy war, but also in the sense that it was written as a satire of Fleet Street based on Waugh’s own experience covering the Italian invasion of Ethiopia for the Daily Mail (no less execrable in the 1930s than it is now, presumably), with characters very much based on real people. According to Wikipedia, Lord Copper is based on Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, William Boot is based on Bill Deedes, Wenlock Jakes is based on John Gunther of the Chicago Daily News and Mrs Stitch is based on Lady Diana Cooper. I haven’t the foggiest notion of who any of these people are, and I don’t mind admitting that, because I doubt the average well-educated Englishman would know either. Scoop is almost eighty years old; the figures it satirises may have been famous in their day, but they’ve long since become dust and ashes.

Fortunately Waugh’s general lampoonery of the habits of the press is in many ways still relevant today, but even if it weren’t, so what? We can still laugh at the habits and foibles of wholly fictional characters, and Waugh’s prose style is in itself wonderfully comic:

He gave the steward one of Nannie Bloggs’ sovereigns in mistake for a shilling. It was contemptuously refused and everyone in the carriage stared at him. A man in a bowler hat said, “May I look? Don’t often see one of them nowadays. Tell you what I’ll do, I’ll toss you for it. Call.”

William said, “Heads.”

“Tails it is,” said the man in the bowler hat, putting it in his waistcoat pocket. He then went on reading his paper and everyone stared harder at William. His spirits began to sink; the mood of defiance passed. It was always the way; the moment he left the confines of Boot Magna he found himself in a foreign and hostile world.

While Scoop doubtless would have been a more relevant novel in its heyday, it still has plenty of amusing observations about the nature of news – the indifference of its consumers, the cosy relationship between the press and the powerful, and its own distorting influence on the truth. It’s probably not going to be Waugh’s most enduring book, but it’s still worth a read in the 21st century.