15 February 2010
Part 1 – The Stitch Service
The Stitch service doesn’t actually work this time: Julia S demonstrates how to work the room in general and the boss of the biggest paper on Fleet Street in particular with a lesson in upper-middle class smarm. As ever – she’s good at this – she opens the right doors for one of her cronies. It’s only a pity Lord Copper (for it is he) lets the wrong man in. In a typical bit of Waugh preposterousness that the man who wanted to escape for a while hears nothing from the great man, because his ignorant deputies have never heard of him. He’s only one of the most successful novelists of the age, why should (spit) journalists have heard of him? They give the job to a nobody who writes… well, guess. What would the most uncool column in any newspaper be? Who would write it? Answer: the nature notes column, submitted twice weekly by a harmless buffoon who was born yesterday. Same surname as the novelist though: easy mistake.
I’m sure Waugh doesn’t really hate journalists, he’s just having a laugh. He’s doing that thing he does when everybody is either venal or stupid – I always think of him as the progenitor of all those cynical modern stand-ups who do the same thing – and William Boot, our nature notes man, is one of the dim-witted ones. A lot of this first section of the novel is therefore about how he is endlessly duped and fleeced by everybody except the other stupid ones. So we get him being persuaded to buy so much kit for his foreign trip it needs a truck to get it to the private plane he has to charter to transport it. How we laughed. (This was the point I gave up the first time I tried reading this book.) We get the exorbitant price he has to pay for a virtually imaginary visa, from a self-appointed consul. I’ll tell you about him and the other Africans later. He gets fleeced by French customs and all the porters in Paris, he’s teased by a rival journalist on the ship…. You get the picture.
Of course, again, he’s put in the position of being The Beast’s star foreign correspondent because of other people’s stupidity and their fear of appearing stupid. Lord Copper pretends he knows who the other Boot is, the novelist, and is easily conned into taking him on. His yes-men underlings do exactly the same thing – is this novel as repetitive as I’m making it sound? Might be – and in watching their own backs take on the hapless nature man. There are set pieces, like the one in which the foreign editor wines and dines Boot – who’d been expecting a dressing-down for an article he’d written that someone had altered as a practical joke. I can’t remember how much I split my sides, but I bet it was a lot.
I’m getting tired of this. We’re in the familiar Waugh world where people are snobbish or pretentious to the point of imbecility, only – only –after ever-more outlandish ways of fiddling their expenses (Boot gets a lesson in this from the rival journalist who eventually, because the newspaper world is so arbitrary and preposterous, soon ends up being a sort of colleague) or, as I’ve suggested already, were born yesterday. I’m sure I’d be enjoying it more if I hadn’t read Decline and Fall recently: there’s not enough new stuff to keep it entertaining. This novel was written ten years after that debut, and even Waugh must have known he was working an old formula. Sure, there are occasional laugh-out-loud moments, but I can’t remember any just now.
Another hilarious thing (sorry, sorry) is Waugh’s treatment of Africans. This novel is only his second after Black Mischief, the one which even I, the great believer in reading novels in the cultural context they were written in, found hard to take. Africans are a sub-species, and everything they attempt to do is, by virtue of the fact that they’re the ones doing it, is preposterous. Ishmaelia, the imaginary country Boot is about to visit, is split by factionalism. We’ve had one cynical white man’s take on the absurdity of the conflict there – don’t ask – but the reality is worse. So one consulate, in the basement of a house where some vaguely-suggested disreputable business goes on, charges £50 for a worthless visa. And the consul-general, 50 years before Goodness Gracious Me, claims every invention and discovery since the dawn of time for Africa. The other consulate only charges five shillings – but the joke there is that we overhear the stationery boy’s charge for the rubber stamp – 4/8 – and this consul-general’s main preoccupation is his own Aryan status. At one level it’s as satire on the absurdities of fascist Germany – but its sting is largely based on the sheer ludicrousness of the pretensions of these ‘Negroes’.
Finally. There’s a rich and influential character who, by accident, owes Boot a favour. In case we haven’t stubbed our toes on the broad hints Waugh has dropped, the ex-rival journo routinely refers to him as ‘the pansy’. I remember when I read Decline and Fall thinking of Jimmy Carr as I read it. You can see what I mean.
First half of Book 2: Stones £20, Chapters 1-2
We’re in Africa now, so we get some history. In Ishmaelia itself: nothing. They’re all savages, used to eat any white man who went there – there’s some joke about how the ones converted by the missionaries wouldn’t eat uncooked humans during Lent – and when democracy is imposed all they get is a dynasty of Jacksons descended from the first president, parachuted in from the US. The factionalism we’ve heard about is non-existent: it’s an imaginary division along Western-style Communism/Fascism lines – imagined, that is, by people not living there. The consuls-general we’ve met in London have never been to the country: they just parrot the different party lines that (spit) political theorists have provided for them.
The joke is, there is no story except what the journalists make up. Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, the doyen of the lot – the one who always sets the news agenda – has disappeared. We know what the journalists don’t: he’s simply hiding in an ‘annexe’, making up stories based on imaginary journeys and meetings. He’s done this sort of thing before, and the journalists know it – but it’s the nature of the beast (ho-ho) that they have to file stories to match his. One of the journalist crowd attempts to create a scoop out of nothing – the railway inspector is really a Russian agent – but it dies a death and nobody tries that again. Chapter 2 ends with everyone except Boot convoying off to Luka, a city that Boot knows does not exist, where Hitchcock has set his most recent story. (Its name, like the kangaroo in the apocryphal story everybody knows, is a native word meaning ‘I don’t know’.)
And that’s it, really. Everything else is what the journos call colour: human interest stories, descriptions of Ishmaelia’s appalling rainy season, and the cheating ways of the natives. As you’d expect, Corker, the hard-boiled journalist Boot has teamed up with, refers to these as blackamoors and niggers. The fact that he is the epitome of cynicism in Waugh’s hierarchy doesn’t make it any easier for a 21st Century reader. I can remember thinking about Waugh’s easy racism when I read Black Mischief – easy in that it was acceptable amongst the middle and upper classes in the 1930s. In that book and this one, making all the white characters crooks or fools doesn’t entitle you to make all the blacks into savages hiding beneath only the thinnest veneer of civilisation. I’ll shut up about that now.
So where’s this colour I talked about? What’s going on? Boot is one of Waugh’s hapless victims, like Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall: atrocious things happen to them all the time, but they are somehow left better off by their experiences. Boot makes every possible mistake – treating his £1000 of travellers’ cheques like monopoly money, sending telegrams that read like postcards (one of Waugh’s favourite running gags) – and, still, being fleeced. Even the love interest, a German woman left behind by her husband who has disappeared in the bush, presumed eaten, sells him the eponymous stones he’s left behind for £20. But – and this is how Waugh repays his patience – he’s met an old school-friend, who’s tipped him off about the non-existence of Luka – so he hasn’t wild-goose-chased off into the middle of nowhere with all the others. Instead, he is left playing games like a child with Kätchen, the German woman. It’s hard to see him getting any further with her: he seems to have the sexual experience and expectations of a 10-year-old.
Finally, the African ruling classes. Any factionalism in the country is based on family rows, any local business is run by one of the family. The hotel is run by an aunt, who knows nothing about the business and cares less – so the only way the whites get any service is by hiring ‘boys’ provided by another native on the make. There’s only one African character we’ve met that Waugh seems to have any real interest in: Dr Benito. I can’t remember what branch of the family he belongs to, but in 1938 his name marks him out for something. We’ve really only come across him in the last chapter, as ‘Minister of Foreign Affairs and Propaganda’. He’s the one the journalists have to deal with in order to get permission for their wild goose chase, and he’s suavely competent. He tells them what they want to hear, in two languages (the chip-on-the-shoulder insistence on this by the French is another running gag), and makes it seem he’s doing them a great favour.
There’s some plot about to happen. Benito isn’t very happy that Boot knows Luka doesn’t exist, and he’s not happy that Boot’s staying. He suavely apologises for the dreary time he’ll have in the capital (called Jacksonburg, obviously), suavely waves off the convoy, and no doubt goes back to plan whatever he’s got to do while they’re all away. Maybe Boot will get his scoop after all – and I’ve just remembered that the school-friend mentioned that there really is a Russian in the capital, who nobody’s noticed (obviously); and we haven’t heard from the perfumed gourmand lately, the one who owes Boot a favour…. That will be the joke: the dim-witted novice gets what all the hard-boiled hacks fail to get. What larks.
Second half of Book 2: Chapters 3-5
Yep, that’s what happens – as I’m sure we were supposed to guess. What makes it entertaining – these are definitely the best chapters in the book – is how Waugh gets it all to work.
I’m going to get literary for a minute. This novel was written over 70 years ago, and I have to second-guess the expectations of Waugh’s 1930s readership. I’m guessing that they would expect the idiot to be saved, like Paul Pennyfeather is saved in Decline and Fall (having been jailed for the crime of human trafficking actually perpetrated by his uber-charming upper class wife). So, basically, the game is getting him into the biggest possible fix before extricating him. The first half of the novel is about getting him into the fix – the bits I find so dull – whilst, it turns out, there are little clues left lying about, pointing to the ways he’ll get out. I got the biggest clue, as I was expected to, but I didn’t get the little ones. I’ll come back to those.
The really literary bit is the deus ex machina, the impossible plot device used to save what would otherwise be an impossible situation. In a bout of self-pity, Boot utters what turns out to be the line in which Waugh rips up the rule-book. He never pretended this was reality, and now he gets Boot to say (ahem): ‘Was there not even in the remorseless dooms of antiquity a god from the machine?’ And reader, he prays. The machine that immediately appears is an aeroplane, and the literally omniscient and omnipotent being who parachutes on to the roof from it is the perfumed aesthete. We might have seen that one coming, but not like that: the way he lands with pinpoint accuracy on the roof of Boot’s apartment satirises the kind of adventure hero that eventually led to James Bond two decades after this. (Ian Fleming was a great friend of Waugh’s, and they shared a love of good food. Just like their two heroes.) And good ol’ Waugh, making us feel clever for recognising the literary reference.
But I’m not telling you the plot. To tell it backwards: the Brits have been using the Jacksons to play the Russians and Germans off against one another, because both of them want the gold in the hills and the Brits prefer it to stay where it is. So those worthless stones sold by Kätchen the not-German not-wife of the prospector who’s disappeared… well they’re not worthless and, unexpectedly, he’s not disappeared. Benito is a Russian agent, and Smiles (I haven’t mentioned him before) is the German agent who’s found himself outmanoeuvred. Benito has imprisoned President Jackson and, just before the arrival of ‘Baldwin’ (nobody had better call him pansy any more), declares the country to be a Marxist soviet.
The good news as far as Boot is concerned is that he types up the first instalment of these events (the illegal imprisonment) before he reads the cable telling him he’s got the sack. He sends his dispatch anyway – and is immediately the hero back at The Beast. This is before Baldwin’s arrival, but we can tell that Boot’s already home and dry when Waugh composes a eulogy about his cable, how it will become ‘legend… held up as a model… the moment when Boot began to make good.’ And he’d only written it quickly so he could go off for a drive with Kätchen, one of Waugh’s babyishly self-centred – but ultimately harmless – women. She’s better than harmless: she accidentally got him the scoop while carrying on her campaign of fleecing him. He keeps paying up because he’s besotted by her, but she gets parachuted out of his hair before Baldwin parachutes in: her not-husband, once he’s turned up, sails off with her in the canoe we all thought couldn’t ever be of any use. Shows you what we know.
What else? In addition to sorting everything out politically, Baldwin sorts out Boot’s stories too. Boot had typed a long article, but the new government wouldn’t let him send it. No problem: Baldwin has his own private radio transmitter. Later, when things become too complicated for Boot to understand, Baldwin – who, as you’d expect, can type ‘with immense speed’ – sends off a cable that he expects to be splashed all over the front page. And that he expects, no doubt rightly, to change the course of international affairs. In other words, we watch with satisfaction as everything turns out fine for Boot. Benito is ousted – by a European, naturally – and, as we get another update on the hapless journalists stuck out in the bush, Baldwin tells Boot he already has tickets for both of them out of the godforsaken place.
Part 3 – to the end
This section is made up entirely of comic set pieces. I just wanted to get it over with, which I have now. Hurray. One series of set pieces is based on Boot’s mouldering country pile somewhere in Mummerset where the natives talk funny. We’ve been here before, in Part 1, and now we get more of the lives of the decaying aristocracy who might easily have served as Mervyn Peake’s models for the dilapidated royal family in Gormenghast. I quite liked those bits, especially one conversation in which any thoughts of why an editor from Fleet Street might be arriving are completely pushed out by arrangements for getting the youngest sister out of the house so the guest can have her bed. After that, Waugh seems to find it necessary to torture the harmless Salter – the one who only wants a quiet life at home – with pages of rustic discomfort. My problem is that I don’t like farce very much. When characters get into difficulties, especially when they’re not of their own making, I just feel a bit sorry for them.
The other comic thread is to do with the workings of The Beast in general and the way Lord Copper’s underlings have to deal with his childlike imperiousness in particular. He’s stupid and vain, but he has all the power. The deputies’ travails begin when, on his arrival in Blighty, Boot decides to catch a train straight home. Lord Copper wants to hold one of his ludicrous banquets in his honour – hence the fruitless trip to Boot’s neck of the woods – and get him a knighthood for good measure. Salter draws a blank on getting Boot to attend his own banquet, but – pay attention now – in his exhaustion invites the black sheep of the family to The Beast. Where he is presented as the returning hero. Lord Copper is surprised to see this dissolute old buffer instead of the young chap he (vaguely) remembers, but the banquet must… etc.
It’s after he exchanges a few words with the guest of honour that he decides to sack Salter – but the ‘infinitely agreeable sense of well-being’ he feels before his own Castro-length speech makes him change his mind, and he moves Salter sideways instead. We’ve been told in Part 1 how moves of editorship seem arbitrary, and now we’ve seen how it works. What else to say about Lord Copper? He’s one of those characters whose needs and wants are at an infantile level, like Kätchen and most of the inmates of Boot Magna. Enough said.
Anything else? In Waugh’s universe – both before and after his conversion to Catholicism in 1930 – human nature is a pathetic thing and all human institutions are defective. The workings of Downing Street are as ramshackle as at The Beast, so when the request for a knighthood for Boot arrives, guess who gets the honour instead of our man. (Julia Stitch claims the credit for it, but that’s women for you. The only other woman outside Boot Magna – where they’re all unspeakable, whatever their class – is Kätchen, writing to Boot from Madagascar and still asking for money. No, there are some other women: the ‘cropped amazons’ on an expedition to the South Pole, pursued by the other Boot, now on The Beast’s payroll. How we laughed.)
And what about the Victorian-style tying-up of loose ends? The arbitrary distribution of favours is another of Waugh’s authorial jokes, to go alongside the ‘god from the machine’ in Part 2. In a preposterous universe – which is a given with this author – there are no rules. Justice and fairness? Don’t make me laugh. Except… the outcomes in this novel are less deadly than in Decline and Fall ten years earlier. Nobody dies (apart from the hapless explorers and missionaries in Ishmaelia’s dark past) and by the end everybody has got what they want. Which philosophy is it that suggests that God is having a joke? It’s certainly true in this one but, well, after all the pratfalls and practical jokes everyone gets a party bag to go home with. Ok, the correspondence-course lad gets the sack and the country moron gets his leg broken, but we can live with that. Waugh isn’t taking it seriously, so why should we?