Evelyn Waugh. Scoop and Put Out More Flags. New York: Dell, 1966. Print.
The past month has been a difficult one for personal reasons. I was looking for something humorous to read to lighten the load a bit. Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One was one of the funniest books I ever read. I came across this volume with two short novels of his that I had not read. While not as rip-roaring as The Loved One, they are fun to read, especially the first.
Scoop begins like many comedies with a mistaken identity. However, unlike, say, The Comedy of Errors, most of the humor comes from other sources, especially as a nearly true-to-life send-up of the journalism industry.
John Boot is an up-and-coming novelist. He gets good reviews. He knows all the right people. Even the prime minister is said to enjoy his stories. One of the right people he knows is a Lady with whom he may be having an affair. He is in some financial straits and needs a steady job for a while. Lady Stitch has connections with the London Beast, so soon the publisher is asking editors to get a hold of Boot for assignment to the independent African nation of Ishmaelia where a communist revolution is rumored to be taking place.
It so happens that one William Boot has a regular column in the Beast describing simple country life. He lives in a small inherited estate and is uncomfortable anywhere else. He would be happy if he never traveled twenty miles from his home. When the editors are told to get Boot, Beast editor Mr. Salter calls on William Boot. He comes to London for the first time in his life to a meeting. He refuses the assignment until he is told that he would not be able to keep his Lush Places column and would be making more money than what he was used to earning.
Without going into too much detail, Ishmaelia is a small family-run desert country somewhere near the Sudan. In Waugh’s day it might have been something like British Somaliland or Djibouti. Nothing much happens there, but it does appear that a few disgruntled citizens may be trying to create a coup. Maybe.
Boot takes it easy in the Ishmaelian capital city while reporters from other newspapers and wire services race into the desert to a mountain that does not exist. (It appears on some maps due to a misunderstanding, kind of like Crespo Island in the Pacific).
There are some interesting characters in the story including a Swedish missionary-consul, a Greek ping pong hall operator, members of the ruling Jackson family, the naïve Katchen who may be from Germany or not, and a variety of reporters who are all to a greater or lesser degree bamboozled by Ishamaeli politicians.
Even though Boot is himself naïve and knows little of international journalism, he is the only one who reports back to London what is really happening in the country—and it is not much.
Nowadays people speak of fake news. Waugh wrote this in the 1930s and is saying the same thing. No, a lot of what we read as news is really fabricated or at least exaggerated. Perhaps the only way to deal with it is the way Boot does. (I am not going to spoil it, but he seems to be the only one who gets it but at the same time never loses his innocence.) We are certainly free to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Put Out More Flags is perhaps a bit more dated. It is set in England in the late 1939 and 1940 (it was published in 1942), so it deals with events leading to World War II and the early fighting in the war.
Unlike Scoop, this is an ensemble piece which follows about half a dozen characters through these years. We meet a military reservist who is trying to get out of fighting and another who is trying to figure out where in the war office he wants to work. There is a group of writers and artists with communist sympathies.
Much of the humor in Put Out More Flags is irony. And, let us face it, what is funny to one person may be merely ironic to another. Nevertheless, this is a clever novel, though I suspect an Englishman might appreciate it more. It reminds this reviewer of a person who tells us he is telling a funny story, but no one is laughing, so he admits, “You had to have been there.”
Today Waugh is best known for Brideshead Revisited, a relatively serious novel, but most of what he wrote was humorous, and Scoop especially will give the reader a few chuckles and maybe even a guffaw or two.