Read in a Penguin Classics edition
Scoop is, by Waugh’s standards, a fairly light-hearted satire on Fleet Street, Government, and the British upper classes. Nobody dies or gets stranded in remote jungles; instead we have what comes closest to a happy ending, in which everyone gets what they wanted. I usually avoid writing at too much length about the context in which a novel was written, but given the date of publication (1938) you would expect the novel, with its themes of colonialism and Imperialism, whereby a proxy European war is fought over the resources of a remote African country, to be much darker than it is.
The plot is simplicity itself. By a confusion over names, William Boot, the Daily Beast’s rural affairs correspondent, is sent to cover a conflict in Ishmaelia, a North African country where gold has just been discovered, and where the European powers are struggling, through proxies, for control. War has yet to be declared – it never really is – and the journalists have little to do except follow one another around. Boot stumbles upon the real story by accident, and returns to acclaim, only for the case of mistaken identity to be repeated, leaving him in the countryside seclusion her prefers.
Waugh portrays Fleet Street as a wholly corrupt organisation, which an appallingly cynical approach to foreign news. Lord Copper, press magnate, and owner of the Daily Beast gives his new war correspondent some guidance on the conflict thus:
“The British Public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side, and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Best Policy for the war.”
If Fleet Street is shown as a unredeemably corrupt, Government doesn’t come out any better. The European countries trying to exploit Ishmaelia and its gold are incompetent and amateurish. Salter, the Beast’s foreign affairs editor, summarises he conflict by explaining:
“when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white, and when the party who call themselves black say traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you…..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.” (43)
Elsewhere a fellow journalist explains in anecdote the power of the press, and why it should not be ignored:
“Once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote. Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny — and in less than a week there was an honest to god revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you. They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing description of the carnage”.
Boot is an ingénue, wandering through the conflict understanding little, but accidentally discovering the scoop that all his professional rivals are looking for.
So is it funny, and is it racist? Occasionally – the jokes are clever, but entirely predictable. The stereotypes that Waugh describes, such as the decaying Boot Magna with its retinue of servants having to fit in their duties around five meals a day, would, in the 1930’s, have been a lot fresher and more original than they are now. The racism is of course a more serious charge. On the one hand Waugh treats the Europeans trying to exploit the Ishmaeli’s as the inferior race – they invariably come off second best. It would have been remarkable given the context if Waugh had written respectfully about the Africans in his novel when everyone else is given such a hard time, and I can’t think of a novel of this period written by a European when the accepted racist attitudes towards “colonial races” are challenged. If you want to understand how most European’s thought about the people of Africa this is as good a starting point as any. Whether any of that is an acceptable excuse is for you to decide.