Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 222 pages; 2000.
First published in 1938, Scoop is billed as one of the funniest novel ever written about journalism. Which says a lot: have you seen how many fiction books revolve around the Fourth Estate?
In this book, which is essentially a comedy of errors, we meet William Boot, who is mistaken for John Courtney Boot, an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast.
With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. In fact Booth is so out of his depth he does not even know how to write a telegram — the main means of filing his reports to the London office (remember, this is long before the days of email or the internet or even decent telecommunications) — much less what constitutes a news story.
The following extract (from pages 145-146 of my edition) demonstrates his inability to realise a wonderful news story even when it is right under his nose:
He sat at the table, stood up, sat down again, stared gloomily at the wall for some minutes, lit his pipe, and then, laboriously, with a single first finger and his heart heavy with misgiving, he typed the first news story of his meteoric career. No one observing that sluggish and hesitant composition could have guessed that this was a moment of history — of legend, to be handed down among the great traditions of Fleet Street, quoted in books of reminiscence, held up as a model to aspiring pupils of Correspondence Schools of Profitable Writing, perennially fresh in the jaded memories of a hundred editors; the
moment when Boot began to make good.
PRESS COLLECT BEAST LONDON, he wrote.
NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA HEADED BY SUPERIOR BLACK CALLED BENITO AND RUSSIAN JEW WHO BANNISTER SAYS IS UP TO NO GOOD THEY SAY HE IS DRUNK WHEN HIS CHILDREN TRY TO SEE HIM BUT GOVERNESS SAYS MOST UNUSUAL LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING.
He got so far when he was interrupted. Frau Dressler brought him a cable:
YOUR CONTRACT TERMINATED STOP ACCEPT THIS
STIPULATED MONTHS NOTICE AND ACKNOWLEDGE STOP BEAST.
William added to his message, SACK RECEIVED SAFELY THOUGHT I MIGHT AS WELL SEND THIS ALL THE SAME.
The entire book is littered with examples like this, which not only demonstrate one man’s incomprehension when it comes to news gathering, but highlights the extraordinary games that editors and newspaper proprietors play to beat the opposition.
But Scoop is not just a scathing satire on journalism, it also pokes fun at the upper classes and their eccentric ways (the final chapters when Boot’s boss visits him at his family’s rural estate are uproariously funny). And given the time in which it was written, it also says much about the English Empire and the treatment of her colonial subjects, not in a very positive light I might add.
Unfortunately, I found some parts of the book dragged (mainly in Ishmaelia), hence the three-star review. But all in all, this is a funny book set in a politically incorrect era that will undoubtedly appeal to journalists and anyone interested in the news media.