Evelyn Waugh's novel, Scoop, is a satirical attack on journalism and the modern world. Its aim is to entertain whilst exposing the bungles of the foreign correspondents of the vulgar press by matching wits and pretensions against the artifice and corruption inherent in an unstable community. Waugh has employed the conventions of pastoral and anti-pastoral in all their hilarious confusion to aid him in his ridicule of the press. The characters involved cover a broad spectrum of human folly and ingenuity and the worlds they inhabit range from the idyllic pastoral of Boot Magna at one extreme, to the complicated, antithetical world of London's Fleet Street at the other. The fictional East African state, Ishmaelia, incorporating recognisable elements of both worlds, acts as a mirror and magnifying glass to reflect and enlarge the blemishes of modern society, its manners, loyalties and practices.
None of the worlds is ideal, though Boot Magna enjoys least discontent. William Boot, who is confused for his distant cousin, John, and transported willy-nilly to Ishmaelia, professed no higher aspiration in life than ‘to keep my job in Lush Places and go on living at home’ (p.33). Home, in accordance with pastoral tradition, is the large country house William has inherited by primogeniture, and in which there appears to be neither great wealth nor great want. His mild-mannered family do not escape censure by the satirist’s pen as they stake their individual claims in the estate of Boot Magna. All the loyal old retainers end their days as invalids in the comfortable bosom of Bootdom as reward for their years of devoted service to the family. Only Uncle Theordore (something of a Jacques figure) is dissatisfied with his lot, observing ‘change and decay in all around’ (p.17) and yearning for escape to the sinful delights of London. Boot Magna is a decadent edifice, but its other inhabitants all hold out against any idea of change. Uncle Theodore, therefore, provides an element of anti-pastoral to Boot Magna, which is otherwise almost fulsome in its ignorance, simplicity and monotony; nightly, for fifteen years, Mrs Boot and Nurse Grainger have engaged in the same formal little exchange of opinions about William’s grandmother (p. 204). William’s departure for London marks a prodigious and solemn event, with his grandmother fearing she cannot possibly survive his journey (despite the convenience of modern transport and day-return tickets, (p. 33)), which reminds us that Boot Magna cannot forever hold out against contact with the modern world.
Boot Magna and London are two opposite spheres and Waugh places them in satirical combat with each other. If William is uncomfortably out of his depth in London, his every discomfort is matched in Mr Salter’s reluctant safari to Boot Magna. At least William manages to find London without the aid of the Foreign Contacts Adviser (p. 194). The two worlds cannot meet easily, nor share a common language. A townsman could never know a badger from a great crested grebe (p. 23). To a townsman, there was ‘something unEnglish and not quite right about the country’ (p. 27), where even the ‘staple diet’ was foreign, consisting, as was supposed, of ‘cider and tinned salmon’ (p. 16). The valiant Mr Salter took a crash course in languages in his attempt to bridge the cultural gap and picked up some linguistic tips about mangel-wurzels and roots, cider and zider, but all to no avail. In this wonderfully comic mismatch is depicted the polar extremes of the two worlds, while allowing the protagonist to gently satirise the values of each other’s society.
In London, William was instantly recognisable as a ‘sucker’ or ‘greenhorn’ (p.44) and indeed had scarcely left the safe confines of Boot Magna when he fell foul of the sharper wits of the bowler-hatted brigade (p. 23). William’s brief sojourn in London serves as a cameo of his forthcoming misadventures in Ishmaelia, and the nurturing of this happy anticipation in the reader is a conventional tool of comedy that has been cleverly utilised by the author.
Waugh’s most forceful weapon of satire is his choice of names. Interestingly, at Boot Magna, Uncle Bernard is something of an expert on names and pedigrees, and he would certainly find a wealth of entertainment in the confused and corrupt empires of The Daily Beast and Daily Brute newspapers, presided over by the Lords Copper and Zinc – neither one a precious metal! The names of the inept journalists in their employ simultaneously bespeak lowly status and reflect on the perspicuity of the hierarchy of the press. These are the Messrs. Shumble, Whelper, Pigge and Corker.
In this circus news is manufactured rather than discovered. The golden rule of Copper’s beastly ‘policy for war’ is that ‘the Patriots are in the right and are going to win’ (p. 42) irrespective of the fact that no one is able to differentiate between patriot and traitor, bolshevist or fascist, black, white or red (p. 43).
Corker explains the craft of journalism to William (p. 66) and this is indeed ‘craft’ in both senses of the word. When Shumble, like Wenlock-Jakes in the past, pre-empts the real news by fabrication and craft, and the story is ‘killed’ by common consensus, William is denied his first real opportunity of a scoop. The journalists, with their misrepresentations and falsifications, are victims of their own crafty profession, to whom the real truth is irrelevant. William remains incorruptible and untouchable (his one weak spot having already been probed by Mrs Salter’s little hint of blackmail (p. 34)) so that his philosophical acceptance of the devious ethics of his craft is his saving grace. His detachment from this world make his experiences appear almost second-hand. The band of impostors, however, set out on an epic journey in search of non-existent news in non-existent parts, leaving the arena free for William to forge a name for himself in the annals of journalism.
The muddled politics of London find a parallel in Ishmaelia, which can be related to the pastoral idea of ‘primitive’ (or unsophisticated) societies as uncorrupt. However, this ‘hitherto happy commonwealth’ (p.74), with its potential for all the pastoral idealism of Boot Magna, instead reflects all the corruption of London. In London, the government of the time, during the holiday season, has left the Prime Minister dependent upon ‘unreliable young men related to his wife’ (p. 182) for the execution of his duties, while ironically, Ishmaelia’s president, Mr Rathbone-Jackson, has a large ministry comprised of various uncles, brothers and aunts (p. 75). Indeed, in Ishmaelia, the ‘right of cousinship’ was such as to automatically admit someone ‘to the public payroll’ (p.77). In London, knighthoods are an almost automatic reward for little favours rendered (p. 183), thus emphasising the direct parallel between the politics of the so-called civilized and uncivilized worlds.
Modern London views Ishmaelia under misapprehensions, but the reverse is not the case in Ishmaelia, where the inherent cunning of the inhabitants enables one and all to seize upon the new found focus of attention and influx of press for personal manipulation and extortion. Dr Benito is cunning personified, and the servants, under the influence of Paleologue (grandly named perhaps after the Byzantine Emperor) learn with rapacity how to line their pockets at the expense of the press. Even Katchen engages in this little pastime. None of the journalists worries overly about his expenses, except of course, the incorruptible William, who is never more comically endearing than during his telegraphic incompetence:
THANKS WARNING ABOUT CABLING PRICES BUT IVE PLENTY
MONEY LEFT AND ANYWAY WHEN I OFFERED TO PAY WIRELESS
MAN SAID IT WAS ALL RIGHT PAID OTHER END…
William’s rambling, newsy telegrams and their curt replies make compulsive reading and create a powerful thread of light satire on the diversity of the two opposing worlds.
The charming Mrs Stitch similarly satirises her own world by her heedlessness of authority. Mrs Stitch is a law under herself, and cannot be tamed or governed by the rules and regulations to which the real world is bound. Mrs Stitch also presents scenes of comic delight in her lawlessness as she buzzes around London in her busy little car, across pavement and parkland and even down the steps of a public convenience (p. 40).
Another figure to similarly rebuke society is the enigmatic Mr Baldwin, through whom we learn the true state of Ishmaelia’s corruption. Because Mr Baldwin and Mrs Stitch are impervious to the bureaucracy of the mundane world, they mock the weaknesses of its loopholes. As both are said to have been based on two well-known people1 another convention of social satire and comedy has been utilized to add a further dimension to the novel. This would have been amusing and significant to the author's contemporaries. Mr Baldwin takes William under his protective wing in the same way as the Nannies of Boot Magna might, and it is the indulgence of William’s ‘extended family’ that enables William to emerge from his professional, political and romantic education in Ishmaelia, relatively unscathed.
To catalogue the happy endings in Scoop is an unnecessary task. In the convention of pastoral and comedy, Waugh has ensured that everyone receives his just deserts – though perhaps Uncle Theodore receives something in excess. Mr Salter’s demotion in Copper’s cauldron is, perhaps, the most comment-worthy. This benighted man, yardstick of the savage world of Fleet Street, always lived up to his ‘perfectly good name’ (p. 208), and never wanted more in life than to edit ‘Clean Fun’ (p.34). As Editor of Imperial and Foreign News, he was badly misplaced, not knowing the whereabouts of Reykjavik (p. 28) or considering William’s need for a passport (p. 52). In the latest stir-up, Mr Salter seems set to return to the ‘blameless domesticity’ (p. 26) he craves as he knits and purls his way through the rows of the ‘Home Knitting Section’ (p. 221).
Mr Salter’s career encapsulates the course of the novel; the conflicting values of two worlds, enabling each to satirize the other; the misplacement of characters to develop the theme and provide social commentary, and the final, orderly setting to rights of the initial confusion – or at least, as Mr Salter would say – ‘up to a point’.
The page numbers refer to the Penguin Edition of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (Reprinted 2000)
Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
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Footnote/Suggested Further Reading
1. McDonnell, J., Modern Novelists, Palgrave (1988)
Scoop Kindle Edition (2012)
Littlewood, I. The Writings of Evelyn Waugh, Blackwell (1982)
Pryce-Jones, D. Evelyn Waugh and his world, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1973)
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