The Weasel: Mr Deedes goes to Waugh

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s far as I can see, there are two reasons for anyone buying another copy of a book they already have: a) Their home is so awash with books that it is impossible for the householder to lay his hand on a title that he wants to write about or read again. This situation has resulted in Weasel Villas containing not just two but three copies of various titles ranging from The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald to The Book of Marmalade by C Anne Wilson. b) A bibliophile becomes infected by the curious, but not entirely irrational desire to collect first editions of celebrated works. Largely because of a) I have never indulged in b). Until now, that is. When Mrs W offered to buy me a first edition of a 1938 novel that she spotted in a second-hand bookshop in North Yorkshire, I pondered the matter for maybe 10 seconds before welcoming her generous offer.

Later I discovered that the £65 Mrs W coughed up for Evelyn Waugh's Scoop was pretty much the going rate. On the Internet, you can pay £71 for the same volume in the same condition ("Very good. No jacket. Cloth binding has marbled design in black and pink"), but "an excellent copy in the nicked and slightly rubbed price-clipped first edition dust jacket" will set you back £4,012. The dust jacket, which carried a pastiche of the Daily Express, was changed when the newspaper's owner Lord Beaverbrook threatened to sue. Oddly enough, the novel was back in the news last month when Bill Deedes posthumously revealed his true feelings about its author 73 years after the two men reported on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. The long-held dam of disgust finally burst in Stephen Robinson's The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes (Little Brown, £20), published seven months after its subject's death. "Waugh was a natural shit," the veteran newshound told his biographer. "Scoop shows his contempt for journalism and for the lower classes."

Transformed into a civil war in the fictitious African state of Ishmaelia, Mussolini's Abyssinian campaign provided Evelyn Waugh with the raw materials for his satire on journalism. William Boot, the innocent protagonist sent to cover the Ishmaeli conflict for the Daily Beast, was partially based on the 22-year-old Bill Deedes, who was dispatched to Abyssinia by the Morning Post. In particular, Waugh saw the comic potential of Deedes's quarter-ton of luggage. A salesman at Austin Reed, apparently on commission, persuaded Deedes to spend a large amount of the paper's money on three tropical suits (not very practical for Addis Ababa, which is 8,000 feet above sea-level), riding breeches for winter and summer, bush shirts, a sola topi, a camp bed and sleeping tent, long boots to deter mosquitoes and a cedar trunk with a lead lining to protect against ants.

In Scoop, Waugh imaginatively inflates this haul to include "a collapsible canoe, an astrolabe, six suits of tropical linen and a sou'wester, a camp operating table and set of surgical instruments, a portable humidor, guaranteed to preserve cigars in the Red Sea, and a Christmas hamper complete with Santa Claus costume and a tripod mistletoe stand, and a cane for whacking snakes." The novelist gives the joke a splendid re-run when Boot is obliged to explain his kit to customs officials in Le Bourget: "C'est une chose pour garder les cigars dans la Mer Rouge – et dedans ceci sont les affaires de l'hospitale pour couper le bras et les jambes, vous comprenez – et ça c'est pour tuer les serpents et ceci est un bateau qui collapse et ces branches de mistletoe sont pour Noel, pour baiser dessous, vous savez."

Unlike Deedes, who said that he was a good candidate for the mission ("I was... young, unmarried, without dependents and easily insurable"), the rural columnist William Boot was chosen in error by Lord Copper, Waugh's newspaper magnate based on Beaverbrook. It was impossible to tell Lord Copper that he was wrong. "Up to a point, Lord Copper" is the best-known phrase in Waugh's oeuvre, though I have noticed that people now use it to mean "up to a point" rather than "you are talking the utmost twaddle". It seems likely that most journalists will at some stage have felt a measure of kinship with their predecessors so scathingly depicted by Waugh, but I would venture that some are closer to Boot than others. Those familiar with Scoop will recall the celebrated sentence from Boot's Saturday column Lush Places: "Feather-footed through the plashy fens passes the questing vole..." Remind you of another animal who crops up in a Saturday column? Fortunately, the resemblance stops there. The Weasel is not – well, not yet – "at the back of the paper, ignominiously sandwiched between Pip and Pop, the Bedtime Pets, and the recipe for a dish called 'Waffle Scramble'."

According to Waugh's biographer Martin Stannard, "the reviewers were universally delighted" with Scoop. However, when I turned the 70-year-old pages that earned unanimous praise I found the book only middling by the standards of this supreme comedian. Though the first half is hilarious and superbly crafted, it sags during the African section, which bears a marked resemblance to Waugh's earlier, far better novel Black Mischief. Bill Deedes raised more significant doubts. "The whole Abyssinian war was a disgrace to the human race. Scoop, for all its genius, blinds us to this truth, but it was a horrible, horrible war."

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