Deedes comes clean on his African jaunt but rejects the mantle of Boot

Click to follow

A hundred years after the birth of Evelyn Waugh, one of his most famous fictional characters, William Boot, shared a panel in Hay-on-Wye yesterday with the journalist Christopher Hitchens and the comedic polymath Stephen Fry to discuss the novelist's work. Or, at least, that is what many people at the literary festival believe.

Bill Deedes, the former editor of the Telegraph and octogenarian war correspondent, has long been suspected of being the inspiration for Boot, the hapless central figure in Waugh's 1937 novel Scoop. Boot is a junior reporter sent in his early twenties to cover a war in "Ishmaelia"; Deedes was sent to cover the rather similar war between Abyssinia and Italy for the Morning Post when he was 22. He shared digs with Waugh for four months during the conflict.

Deedes admitted that at that time he was, in his own words, "very naïve". He added: "I had never got beyond Switzerland. And like Boot, I had rather a lot of luggage. Evelyn took one small suitcase. I took a quarter of a ton of luggage in a huge cedar trunk sealed with zinc to keep the ants out. Evelyn thought this was hilarious."

Also like Boot, Deedes prepared for the trip by going with his news editor to Austin Reed on Oxford Street. Deedes explained: "They took us for a ride. We bought everything. We purchased riding breeches for summer and winter, and all kinds of summer hats and khaki shirts. Unfortunately, we didn't know that Abyssinia was thousands of feet in the mountains, so I had to wear the same suit the whole time I was there. I never did get to wear those riding breeches."

He added, with a smile, "I am not Boot" - but it was difficult to shake off the impression that he had just sauntered from the pages of Waugh into a tent at a literary festival.

Boot is not the only figure who has entered journalistic mythology. Lord Copper, the proprietor of the Daily Beast, is a notoriously meddlesome boss who - protesting all the while that he does not want to interfere - dictates a clear line to all of his reporters.

Deedes noted guiltily that "Lord Copper lives on in Fleet Street today," but he was visibly reluctant to offer an example when asked for one by the audience. As the journalists in the audience grinned, thinking of Conrad Black, Deedes' proprietor at the Telegraph and a billionaire admirer of Napoleon, his employee squirmed. "This is a very dangerous question," he said after a pause. "I make my living on Fleet Street." Another long pause. "I think, Richard Desmond of the Express."

Hitchens was less reluctant to damn a proprietor with whom he has clashed in writing over Henry Kissinger, a man Black has defended from charges of war crimes.

Although the three panellists were unanimous in their adoration of Waugh's writing, they also seemed to agree that he was - at best - a fairly flawed figure in his personal life and political views.

Deedes was by far the most understated of the three. Asked if he ever felt the brunt of Waugh's famous temper, he said: "When I was dealing with Evelyn, I always felt glad I had gone to a reasonably good public school."

Fry, who has just directed a film version of Waugh's Vile Bodies, was more blunt: "Towards the end of his life, he was more or less a howling shit ... he took the pessimistic view whenever possible. He had a very low view of humanity." Deedes mounted a slight defence. "Evelyn knew he could be awful, but he believed that but for his religion he would be even more awful still. Unlike many people, he knew his flaws.

"Gluttony, for example, was one of them. And he believed very strongly that his [Roman Catholic] religion made him less intolerable."

Hitchens - a persistent critic of monotheism - disagreed, arguing that "his religion made him much more unpleasant. He would not have been pro-Mussolini or pro-Franco if it had not been for his Catholicism. Those were obligations that his faith placed upon him."

Deedes admitted that Waugh had, as Hitchens had said, "fascist and racist sympathies," explaining: "Evelyn thought Mussolini was doing a rather good job [in Abyssinia] cleaning up a savage black race," but he later added that "during the Second World War, he [Waugh] realised he had put his foot in it and that Mussolini was a bad sort."

Fry did counter one aspect of this reading of Waugh. "One thinks of him as a stuffy reactionary, but Waugh had strong modernist aspects.

"There's a great deal of surrealism and coincidence in his novels ... he even used a line from The Wasteland' [T S Eliot's modernist classic] as the title for A Handful of Dust."

Deedes - who said he could remember his times with Waugh more clearly than he remembered what happened to him yesterday - smiled rather sagely at this thought. Boot, it seems, does not believe that his creator had a more politically acceptable modernist streak.