The 100 best novels: No 60 – Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Evelyn Waugh’s Fleet Street satire remains sharp, pertinent and memorable

Evelyn Waugh once said that journalism was the enemy of the novel, and urged all novelists who were serious about their art to get out of newspapers as soon as they could afford it. Perhaps only a writer and satirist so alert to the corruptions of newspaper life could have written a book as sublimely entertaining as Waugh’s tale of nature columnist William Boot, an innocent abroad, like many of his protagonists.

Subtitled “a novel about journalists”, Scoop is the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal. Remarkably, it’s a satire revered among successive generations of British hacks, the breed so mercilessly skewered by Waugh, a one-time special correspondent for the Daily Mail. Even in the age of online journalism, with many old practices facing extinction, its insights into the British press remain sharp, pertinent and memorable.

It was Waugh’s experiences in Ethiopia, during the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-36, that provided the raw material for a wicked romp through the more absurd byways of Fleet Street in the 1930s. Actually, in its combination of farce and pathos, Scoop derives less inspiration from Ethiopia than from the world of Waugh’s brilliant early fiction such as Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.

But there is a difference. As Cyril Connolly wrote in Enemies of Promise: “The satire of Evelyn Waugh in his early books was derived from his ignorance of life. He found cruel things funny because he did not understand them, and he was able to communicate that fun.” Later, Waugh’s comic vision would mature and darken into books such as Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy. So, published in the late 30s, Scoop is a kind of farewell to his beginnings as a literary enfant terrible.

As Scoop opens, it’s the other Boot, John, a self-serious literary novelist, author of Waste of Time, who is introduced as the confidant of Mrs Algernon Stitch, a classic Waugh hostess from Mayfair. It’s La Stitch’s dinner party gossip with Lord Copper, the megalomaniac press magnate, and proprietor of the Daily Beast, that inspires the blunder that will animate the plot: the herbivorous Boot at large in the surreal mayhem of Ishmaelia’s civil war.

Waugh had already satirised colonial Africa in Black Mischief (1932), and Boot’s adventures occur within the privileged bubble of the foreign press corps. Scoop, as its title suggests, is a satire not on colonial sideshows, but on the eternal quest for breaking news, the endless competition between the Brute and the Beast. It remains celebrated in newsrooms across the English-speaking world for its portraits of Lord Copper, Mr Salter, and the thrill-seeking foreign correspondent, Jakes, together with those deathless hacks, Corker and Pigge.

Many of these caricatures might remind some readers of Waugh’s debt to Dickens, but Scoop remains fiercely modern. So little has really changed. The six words of “Up to a point, Lord Copper” conjure a marrow-freezing universe of corporate fear. Most famous of all, there’s the glorious parody of the “feather-footed” vole questing through the “plashy fen”, a pointed reminder of the deep sentimentality always to be found in the Street of Shame.

A note on the text

Scoop was published by Chapman & Hall in 1938, and almost at once there was a quest for models. Fleet Street folklore says that William Boot was based on William Deedes, and that Lord Copper derives from Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook. In fact, for the origins of all Waugh’s characters, the truth is probably more complicated.

Scoop was made into a BBC serial in 1972 and also a television film scripted by William Boyd in 1987, starring Denholm Elliott, and directed by Gavin Millar. The fictional newspaper owned by Lord Copper in Scoop has also been the inspiration for the title of Tina Brown’s online American publication, the Daily Beast.

Three more from Evelyn Waugh

Decline and Fall (1928); A Handful of Dust (1934); The Loved One (1948).

Scoop is available as a Penguin Modern Classic (£9.99). Click here to buy it for £7.99

Contributor

Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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