December 1, 2003 Topic: Society


Mini Teaser: Africa out-distanced Evelyn Waugh's satire in Scoop and Black Mischief. It still does.

by Author(s): Keith B. Richburg

William Deedes, At War With Waugh (London: Macmillan, 2003), 125 pp., £12.99.

IT HAS long been one of the worst. kept secrets among that tight-knit community of those of us commonly deemed "war correspondents"; that is, that Evelyn Waugh's fictitious masterpiece Scoop, about journalistic follies in a make-believe place called Ismaelia, was in fact not parody at all, but a frighteningly accurate portrait of the working press at its very worst. But what makes Scoop even more enduring is that it seems to defy time. Waugh's nature-writer-turned-war-reporter William Boot, crating up his cleft sticks and canoe to travel to the front, could just as easily have been the latter-day hacks in Kuwait last February and March, stocking their rented Land Cruisers with boxes of tuna, cartons of bottled water, and fuel-laden jerry-cans, while twiddling their thumbs for weeks in five-star hotels waiting for the bombs to begin falling on Baghdad.

Now along comes William Deedes, the 89-year-old former editor of Britain's Daily Telegraph, with a short and delightful new memoir, At War With Waugh, in time for Evelyn Waugh's centenary, in which he gives us some juicy tidbits into the making of Waugh's classic while providing more evidence yet that Scoop was indeed closer to fact than fiction. Deedes was sent to Abyssinia in 1935 at the age of 22, a novice reporter who had never traveled beyond Switzerland, and he has long been rumored to be the true-life character on which Waugh's William Boot was based. Deedes, of course, gamely denies this--Waugh's Boot, after all, flew to Paris, then took the train to Marseilles, while Deedes went first to Calais. But for most of his 134 pages, Deedes proceeds to describe almost exactly the scenes and even the characters that made Waugh's Scoop perhaps his most memorable work.

In trying to deny he was the model for Boot, one can accept Lord Deedes' protests--but only "up to a point", as Waugh might say. When Deedes describes his own 600-pound kit for making his virgin foray as a correspondent--tropical suits, riding breeches for winter and summer, camp bed and sleeping bag, as well as bottles of quinine pills and "slabs of highly nutritious black chocolate"--the reader is reminded instantly of William Boot's consignment of a canoe, a humidor, ant-proof clothes box and the famous cleft sticks, to be used for filing his yarns. Deedes ended up traveling with Waugh--already a famous novelist and a seasoned Africa traveler with only one suitcase. Reading Deedes' account, one can gleefully imagine Waugh scribbling the notes from which Boot of the Beast would eventually take form. Even Deedes is forced to concede "I was not to know that such extravagance would contribute to Evelyn Waugh's portrait of William Boot in Scoop, the novel he later wrote about journalists covering the war."

The young Deedes finds Waugh a difficult character with a streak of irritability. But he seems genuinely affectionate towards Waugh. "He had a weakness for well-connected people, but unlike a lot of so-called snobs, he was adept at conversing with people of small importance, though often baffling them with his brand of wit." Among the many insights in this memoir, Deedes finds that Waugh's outward disdain for journalists and journalism--which manifested itself in Scoop--may have actually sprung from a feeling of resentment, after his own brief and failed attempt at newspaper writing for the Daily Mail. Waugh, we learn, was actually not a bad journalist himself, displaying all the needed qualities of observation and attention to detail. But his time was split between writing for papers and gathering material for his books, under the contract deals he arranged to subsidize his living standard.

But while Waugh's Scoop, and its insights into journalism, can be seen as prescient, his wickedly dark view of the continent that inspired it can be seen in hindsight as even more foresighted. Africa has long been a place where the line between the sublime and the ridiculous is often blurred to the point of invisibility. As a correspondent there in the 1990s, I found myself often standing as witness to scenes that could have come directly from Waugh's satirical pen. His novel Black Mischief,, written incredibly in 1932, could have easily been a parody of modern-day Africa's failed states and senseless, ongoing tribal conflicts. If anything, Waugh's hapless "Emperor Seth"--with his obsession with all things modern and European--might be considered an enlightened intellectual compared to some of today's African Big Men who have made such a mess of their own countries.

Consider: Waugh's fictitious Seth, ruler of Azania, issues decrees on a whim, depending on which book he most recently read. He orders that a museum be set up, because the country doesn't have one and needs a museum to be "modern." And he prints money bearing his own image, in top hat and tails, and keeps stacks of the stuff stashed in a cupboard. When Seth's exasperated white aide complains, the Emperor replies, "I assure you. It was easy.... [A]nd now that the plates have been made, it is quite inexpensive to print as many more as we require."

Now, consider that Waugh envisioned his fictitious Emperor Seth long before Zaire endured its late dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who similarly defied the laws of monetary policy--and the advice of World Bank experts--by printing his own currency bearing his likeness in his leopard-skin cap. Or before Ivory Coast's late strongman Felix Houphouet-Boigny wasted $200 million of his country's wealth building a massive Basilica, larger than St. Peter's in Rome, in the middle of the African bush at Yamousoukro. When I visited the costly monstrosity, I was startled to see that Houphouet-Boigny even managed to commission a painting of the Last Supper, with himself, the African Big Man, painted into the scene. Waugh himself couldn't have devised a more comical, or pathetic, scene.

Waugh's fictional Emperor Seth is kept in power by an army of barefoot cannibals, who are so primitive that, when a shipment of boots arrive, they have no idea what to do with them, so they eat them.

As a correspondent in real-life Liberia, I followed the exploits of General Butt Naked, commander of the Butt Naked Brigade, whose troops went into combat with just their AK-47 rifles and their birthday suits, believing they could ward off enemy bullets with their flesh. (I have been lately told that the General has since found his calling with the Lord, has become a minister and is now referred to as "Reverend Butt Naked", although this I have not been able to independently confirm.)

In Africa, truth is often stranger than fiction--life imitating art. In depicting the lunacy of the place, Waugh got it just about right. If anything, he toned it down.

OF COURSE, in today's politically-correct world, Waugh might easily be dismissed as a racist, as a colonial-era imperialist who believed in European, that is, "white" superiority. And some of his descriptions and passages no doubt betray his less attractive instincts. For instance, he names the African wife of the European general "Black Bitch", and typically describes Africans in unflattering terms--like possessing a "soot black face" with "coal button eyes." In one jarring passage from Black Mischief, Waugh describes a scene of "a thousand darkies crooning and swaying on their haunches, white teeth flashing in the firelight." And the ending to Black Mischief has his hero Basil Seal at a tribal feast and mistakenly eating his one-time paramour, Prudence--the white man's worst fear of African cannibalism realized.

But dismissing Waugh simply as a racist would be, first, misguided. As Deedes, a Waugh fan and protégé, points out, the author did in fact have sympathies with the Italians as they prepared to invade Abyssinia, and perhaps this was due to Waugh's inherent belief that the white, Christian, European nation was on a "civilizing mission" in Africa. But as Deedes so succinctly puts it in his memoir, "A lifetime in journalism has taught me that people have to be judged in the context of their times, and that is what newspapers and television so often overlook."

More to the point, calling Waugh a racist would miss the brilliance of his satire. For, with all his unflattering depictions of Africa and the Africans, he is equally, if not more vicious, when he is pillorying the upper-crust British society, from the ineffectual Lord Courteney, head of the British legation, who is more concerned with his afternoon tea than the country going up in flames around him, to the doddering British ladies who come to Azania to save the animals and end up in the midst of a riot.

Some of Waugh's best jibes come from the mouths of his African characters commenting on the unsuspecting whites, like the following exchange from Black Mischief'.

"Which of the white ladies would you like to have?" "The fat one. But both are ugly." "Yes. It must be very sad for the English gentlemen to marry English ladies."

WAUGH WAS an irascible character in life who used biting satire to turn an unflattering mirror onto real-life scenes and society. The British upper-class, the journalism profession, the incompetent African Big Men running dysfunctional states--none of these escaped his finely-aimed pen.

Deedes, Waugh's contemporary and brief partner in the Abyssinian adventure, returned to the country, now called Ethiopia, in 2000, for the ceremonial burial of the Emperor Halle Selasse, upon whom, at least in part, Waugh's Emperor Seth seems to be based. Using a laptop computer, Deedes is able to send off 900 words of copy to London in the blink of an eye, and he quietly marvels at how much has changed in the intervening sixty-plus years since he and Waugh first met amidst the journalistic chaos that became the inspiration for Scoop.

For Waugh aficionados--and mainly for modern-day war reporters and anyone who follows the unfolding tragedy of Africa--the true marvel seems how much things stay the same.

Keith B. Richburg is Paris Bureau Chief of the Washington Post and author of Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (Harvest Books, 1998).

Essay Types: Essay