18 September 2013

Ishmaelia, and the art of the two-word scoop

via Penguin Australia
The narrator sets the scene for Evelyn Waugh's famed comic novella, Scoop, which satirises the fast and loose life of the newspaper foreign correspondent. The description draws on Waugh's own war-reporting experiences in Abyssinia including a trip from August to December 1935 that laid the groundwork for a non-fiction account, Waugh in Abyssinia.

Ishmaelia, that hitherto happy commonwealth, cannot conveniently be approached from any part of the world. It lies in the North-Easterly quarter of Africa, giving colour by its position and shape to the metaphor often used of it - 'the Heart of the Dark Continent'. Desert, forest, and swamp, frequented by furious nomads, protects its approaches from those more favoured regions which the statesmen of Berlin and Geneva have put to school under European masters. An inhospitable race of squireens cultivate the highlands and pass their days in the perfect leisure which those people alone enjoy who are untroubled by the speculative or artistic itch. 
Various courageous Europeans, in the seventies of the last century, came to Ishmaelia, or near it, furnished with suitable equipment of cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft-treaties and flags of the nations which they had been obliged to leave. They came as missionaries, ambassadors, tradesmen, prospectors, natural scientists. None returned. They were eaten, every one of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned - according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop). Punitive expeditions suffered more harm than they inflicted, and in the nineties humane counsels prevailed. The European powers independently decided that they did not want that profitless piece of territory; that the one thing less desirable than seeing a neighbour established there was the trouble of taking it themselves. Accordingly, by general consent, it was ruled off the maps and its immunity guaranteed. As there was no form of government common to the peoples thus segregated, nor tie of language, history, habit, or belief, they were called a Republic. 
- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, 1938, Book II, chapter 1.

A few pages earlier, our hapless hero William Boot is given a valuable lesson in the art of reportage by a friendly old hand, Corker of the Universal News, while en route to Ishmaelia. Turns out you can convey a scoop in just two words.

There were two nights to wait in Aden for the little ship which was to take them to Africa. William and Corker saw the stuffed mermaid and the wells of Solomon. Corker bought some Japanese shawls and a set of Benares trays; he had already acquired a number of cigarette boxes, an amber necklace, and a model of Tutankhamen's sarcophagus during his few hours in Cairo; his bedroom at the hotel was an emporium of Oriental Art. 'There's something about the East that always gets me,' he said. 'The missus won't know the old home when I've finished with it'. 
These were his recreations. In his serious hours he attempted to interview the Resident, and was rebuffed; and finally spent two hours in confidence with an Arab guide who for twenty rupees supplied material for a detailed cable about the defences of the settlement. 'No use both our covering it,' he said to William. 'Your story had better be British unpreparedness. If it suits them, they'll be able to work that up into something at the office. You know - "Aden the focal point of British security in the threatened area still sunk in bureaucratic lethargy" - that kind of thing'. 
'Good heavens! how can I say that?' 
'That's easy, old boy. Just cable ADEN UNWARWISE'. 
- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, 1938, Book I, chapter 5.
See also:
Books: P.G. Wodehouse - A Life in Letters, 17 August 2013
Books: Nathanael West - The Day of the Locust, 20 October 2012
BooksAmor Towles - Rules of Civility, 6 October 2012
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