It was a wish so far from the probabilities of life

by Evelyn Waugh

I had been meaning to read this novel for many years, as its satirical truth-telling about journalism is legendary. Despite the almost 80 years that have passed since its first publication, a lot of what it has to say still rings true.

The plot centres around young William Boot, an impoverished young country gentleman who is happy living in his country manor writing a weekly nature column for London paper the Daily Beast. Thanks to a farcical opening act, the paper’s management mixes him up with his distant cousin John Boot, a fashionable novelist who is eager to be sent abroad as a foreign reporter, and a reluctant William is sent instead to a “promising little war” in the fictional African republic of Ishmaelia.

I found the opening, covering London society and Fleet Street proper, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. I may even have snorted a few times. Waugh’s first-hand knowledge of having written for the Daily Mail means that this is truly observational humour, and it’s easy to recognise the journalistic traits being picked apart. It isn’t subtle – the Daily Beast is housed in the Megalopolitan Building opposite its nearest rival the Daily Brute – but that doesn’t stop it from being cleverly done.

“When he told Mr Salter that he wanted nothing except to live at home and keep his job, he had hidden the remote and secret ambition of fifteen years or more. He did, very deeply, long to go up in an aeroplane. It was a wish so far from the probabilities of life at Boot Magna that William never spoke of it, very rarely consciously considered it. No-one at home knew of it except Nannie Bloggs. She had promised him a flight if she won the Irish Sweepstake, but after several successive failures she had decided that the whole thing was a popish trick and refused to take further tickets, and with her decision William’s chances seemed to fade beyond the ultimate horizon. But it still haunted his dreams and returned to him, more vividly, in the minutes of transition between sleep and wakefulness…And now its imminent fulfilment loomed through the haze that enveloped him as the single real and significant feature.”

On arrival in Ishmaelia’s capital city Jacksonburg, William Boot finds himself surrounded by journalists from all over the world, and no sign of war. His lack of experience is contrasted with the herd mentality of the other reporters, who cheerfully collude with and undermine one another to report the same non-news to maintain the illusion of war for the sake of newspaper front pages everywhere. William’s naivety generates some great humour, such as his apparent inability to write in shorthand to make telegrams cheaper, but it also gives him a surprising edge in terms of finding some actual news in Ishmaelia. And he quickly picks up some important journalistic habits, such as milking his expense account.

But I have to admit that as soon as the action moved to Africa I began to feel uncomfortable as it all started to read as a little bit (or possibly a lot) racist. It’s one thing to depict all Americans as bold and brash, or all Englishmen as snobs, but it’s quite another to make jokes about Africans being cannibals and idiots. Or is it? I did begin to question whether I was being too sensitive, and if actually Waugh’s savage humour was evenly handedly picking apart everyone in this novel. Plus of course, there’s a danger in judging older books by today’s standards, and ignoring the fact that language and understanding around issues such as race have moved on a lot.

There is of course a kernel of truth to the satire of Ishmaelia, just like everything else. It was helped to independence by America, which put in place an American leader whose descendents have continued to rule the country as supposedly democratically elected leaders, who are loved for their showmanship and accepted for their uselessness. (Waugh had spent some time in Africa, including as a war reporter, and those with greater knowledge than me have identified exactly which countries’ history and geography he borrowed to create Ishmaelia.) Arguably some of the details I found offensive could be read as satire of the West’s view of Africa rather than satire of Africa itself but I couldn’t help feeling there was a slight air of superiority, of Ishmaelia being just a little bit hellish.

Just as at the start of the novel, senior editors at the Brute make the idiotic mistake of sending a nature columnist to what they think is a war zone, the foreign correspondents in Jacksonburg make no attempt to learn the local language and happily pay whatever extortionate rate the locals ask of them for goods and services. William’s family are all country bumpkins with curious tics, and Lord Copper, the owner of the Brute, is woefully ill-informed and only gets by because he is too feared for anyone to tell him when he’s wrong. So they’re all painted as fools, though some characters are at least self-aware fools.

“Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock once modestly attributed his great success in life to the habit of ‘getting up earlier than the other fellow’. But this was partly metaphorical, partly false, and in any case wholly relative, for journalists as a rule are late risers. It was seldom that in England, in those night-refuges they called their homes, Shumble, Whelper, Pigge, or Corker reached the bathroom before ten o’clock. Nor did they in Jacksonburg, for there was no bath in the Hotel Liberty; but they and their fellows had all been awake since dawn. This was due to many causes – the racing heart, nausea, dry mouth and smarting eyes, the false hangover produced by the vacuous mountain air, to the same symptoms of genuine hangover, for they had all been drinking deeply the evening before…but more especially to the structural defects of the building.”

The last third of the novel, where William is taken for a ride by a mysterious woman called Katchen, and Lord Copper tries to throw a banquet for his reluctant new star reporter, felt to me to be back on solid ground, and I was once again laughing freely.

This is definitely worth reading, especially if you have any experience of journalism yourself. I found a few articles from 2012 and 2013, when the News of the World phone-hacking scandal was still playing out, that invoked Scoop and suggested it didn’t go as far as the truth in terms of how corrupt the press can get. It’s certainly true that the only chilling moment is really an aside, a vignette from years past about a journalist who, on arriving in a country where he had expected to find civil war and didn’t, was able through false reporting to create such havoc that an actual civil war did break out. But for the most part this is a light read, with no heavy consequences for any of the many stupid acts depicted.

First published 1938 by Chapman & Hall.

Source: Christmas present from my Dad.

Challenges: This counts towards the Classics Club.