Extra, extra, read all about it!

Extra, extra, read all about it!

“While still a young man, John Courteney Boot had, as his publisher proclaimed, ‘achieved an assured and enviable position in contemporary letters’.”

Back in the day, I thought about working in journalism for a bit. I have since done the odd bit of freelance here and there, but generally I find that it’s not an area that comes naturally to me. Besides, in these days of fearmongering, phone hacking, celebrity obsession and Rupert Murdoch, it’s not exactly an area that seems particularly pleasant sometimes. It all seemed to much more wholesome back in the thirties, so let’s go!

So, another classic book on the blog – a rarity for me, and my first one this year, but thankfully another one I happened to like. Scoop is a farce of a novel, reading like an early sitcom and definitely comedic. The story opens with John Boot, a popular novelist, telling his society friend Mrs Stitch that he longs to escape. She offers to put in a word for him with Lord Copper, editor of newspaper The Daily Beast, suggesting that maybe the Lord can get John out of the country and into something a bit more exciting.

However, when the discussion arises between Copper and his assistant Mr Salter, confusion begins. Already working on the Beast is William Boot, a distant relative of John and known only for writing articles about nature and having recently got in trouble with an article about crested grebes. Assuming that this is the Boot in question, Copper and Salter call him in and request he go immediately to East Africa where drama supposedly reigns supreme in the small country of Ishmaelia. There is a war going on and, while no one’s quite sure what it’s about or who they want to win, every other newspaper is sending a reporter, so the Beast must do the same. William would rather stay at home and live his quiet life at Boot Magna, but no one argues with Lord Copper, and after some issues with the passports and luggage, William finds himself in the middle of Africa, not knowing the first thing about foreign reporting. And then the revolution happens.

For a book written nearly eighty years ago, I was surprised not only by how funny it was, but also by how relevant it still seems. The journalists are seen as ruthless and quite happy to make up a story if there isn’t one to be had. There’s the fun idea that if enough journalists descend on a place where nothing is happening to report on it, their mere presence will cause something to happen. It’s a good classic case of mistaken identity that couldn’t happen in the modern world (you’d think) and Waugh clearly revels in mocking journalists and indeed the English. William Boot is a classic Englishman in the manner that something has happened that he didn’t expect, but rather than cause a fuss, he’s just keeping a stiff upper lip and getting on with it.

Some of the secondary characters don’t appeal to me much or seem to add anything particularly vital to the narrative. William falls for a German woman while in Ishmaelia, but her existence seems only really to give him something to do while waiting for the news to break. The way that the country of Ishmaelia changes leaders so quickly and repeatedly is a parody of how great world powers fought over (what were to them) new lands, all trying to do what they thought was right, regardless of what the natives thought.

The language is fast and witty, as particularly displayed in this passage where Mr Salter attempts to explain to William how he is to tell the difference between the two factions in the war, the Reds and the Blacks:

You see, they are all Negroes. And the Fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. So when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white and when the party who call themselves blacks say traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you. But from your point of view it will be quite simple. Lord Copper only wants Patriot victories and both sides call themselves patriots, and of course both sides will claim all the victories. But, of course, it’s really a war between Russia and Germany and Italy and Japan who are all against one another on the patriotic side. I hope I make myself plain?

It’s a quick read, and while not laugh-out-loud funny, is certainly capable of making you smile and have a little chuckle at the British, the way we handle ourselves abroad, and the manner in which we conduct our journalism. Like I say, while some things have certainly changed, a lot is still deeply familiar.

For my take on modern day journalism (with the necessary addition of old gods and lots of cannibalism), download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from all online ebook retailers.