by Evelyn Waugh
“News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read.”
Scoop is a much-admired satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, widely held to be a comedic literary classic. It was first published in 1938 and recounts the tale of British foreign correspondents reporting on a civil war from the fictional East African country of Ishmaelia.
Waugh had himself worked as a special correspondent in Ethiopia during the 1930s, reporting for the Daily Mail on Mussolini’s invasion. His experience left him with a cynical view of the profession and the men behind the news: the powerful newspaper barons.
Scoop’s farcical plot involves the hapless William Boot, a nature writer who is mistaken for the fashionable novelist John Boot, and sent in error to cover the African conflict by Lord Copper’s Daily Beast. It depicts journalists as being callous, corruptible buffoons, and was described by Christopher Hitchens in his introduction to my Penguin Classic copy as: “A novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps.”
It therefore saddens me to report that I didn’t entirely connect with Scoop. While there were parts, for instance the ridiculous muddle over a badger and a great-crested grebe, which made me chuckle, on the whole it failed to amuse or delight. Why? For several reasons, not least because Waugh’s book felt excessively dated. This in itself wouldn’t normally concern me unduly – in fact, I concede, in some novels it can be a pleasing aspect – but I found certain racist elements, for instance the revolting names used by characters to describe black people, sickening in the extreme. Yes, I fully appreciate it is satire and the terms merely reflect the era in which the story was written. The period is of course representative of pre-war British journalism, exactly as Waugh intended, but to this bleeding heart, lefty, postcolonial reader, large chunks of the narrative simply weren’t funny.
Waugh himself, while being an immensely gifted writer (one of my favourite novels is Brideshead Revisited ), was a controversial figure even during his lifetime, partly because of his openly fascist sympathies. However, Scoop remains one of his most popular works and is regarded by many as being one of the funniest pieces of fiction ever written about journalism. So there is little more I can write on the subject, except to assert, as someone deeply troubled by fake news, I was bitterly disappointed not to have enjoyed this novel.