Normally, I do not check my mailbox (real postal one and not email box) at 7 in the evening because I have already collected the day’s mail by mid afternoon. Last evening, I made an exception as a ruse to actually check out why there was an unknown car parked along my curbside.
I opened the mailbox with no expectations of finding any mail. However, there was a packet inside. From the contours I could tell that it was a book. I stood in my driveway, tearing off the wrapper with the same urgency that horny couples in Hollywood movies display while removing their clothes, shoes and undergarments near a half open door to their apartment. Why is it always that urgent? About that, some other time.
All through my opening the packet I kept looking at the driver’s seat of the car to make sure there was no one with headphones and laptop tapping into the goings on inside my house. It turned out the car belonged to a visitor to my next door neighbors. The book turned out to be the all time classic ‘Scoop’ by the redoubtable Evelyn Waugh. I knew instantly that my friend, Dr. Charles Langs was feeling generous again.
I have seen ‘Scoop’, the TV movie adaptation a couple of times, but have never read the book before. So it is just as well that Charles felt generous, for the fourth time, and gifted it to me. Thank you, Charles.
‘Scoop’ has existed in my consciousness as a book for a long time, almost since I became a journalist in 1981-82. It is only now that I am getting to read it. As of this morning William Boot, a hinterlands correspondent, is being prepared by his newspaper Daily Beast to be sent to a fictional country called Ishmaelia, which is about to slip into the grip of a civil war.
Sometimes sitting in Naperville I do feel somewhat like Boot in reverse. Boot went from the hinterlands to war reporting. I went from reporting insurgencies, riots, politics, economics, culture, crime to sedate suburbanism where strange cars parked along one’s curbside turn out to be visitors next door on Valentine’s Day. I was secretly hoping that someone was actually monitoring me from that car.
As media satires go Waugh’s ‘Scoop’ is regarded as the benchmark. The London Times Literary Supplement called it “Amusingly unkind.” It is amusing how all daily newspapers have some versions of the caricatures portrayed in ‘Scoop’, including the one of William Boot. For instance, I used to know a version of the Beast’s foreign editor, Mr. Salter, during my stay in Bombay. In this case he was a city editor of sorts, who very much like Mr. Salter, had perfected the art abject servility towards his proprietor. In Mr. Salter’s case his two preferred responses to Lord Copper, the proprietor of Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation, are "Definitely, Lord Copper" and ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper." The clever nebulousness of the responses helps Mr. Salter navigate any exchange with Lord Copper. In the case of the city editor, he went a step further and altogether eliminated the need to say anything at all. Instead, he would open his mouth ever so slightly, as if anything the proprietor had to say was worthy of consternation, and vigorously nod sideways in response to anything that the proprietor actually said.
Even though I know the story, reading ‘Scoop’ the way Waugh wrote it promises to be great fun.