Friday, May 10, 2019. I'm in Chipping Campden, where Professor Martin
Stannard has just delivered an introduction to both the 'Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh' project and to Scoop. Following that there was a reading from near the beginning of Scoop, given by Sam Walters and Auriol Smith, prominent London actors who have retired to the Cotswolds. Both performances have been well-received by the 100-strong audience. Now it's my turn, so let's not blow it:

"This is where I work, a shed in Blairgowrie."


"It's here I write books and maintain websites, including sites about Enid Blyton and Evelyn Waugh. My non-biological parents.

"Some of the advantages of writing in a shed are as follows:

"No peer review. Only I decide what needs publishing."

This elicits an encouraging ripple of amusement from the audience.

"No distraction of teaching. Though to teach is a wonderful thing."

That line was really for Martin, who I am delighted to be sharing a platform with.

"Tea and coffee on tap. Though I do have to walk thirty yards to the house for it."

Another ripple of amusement. This is going to be easy. I turn round so that, along with the audience, I'm looking at the first slide.


"I write most days. Usually I stop when I hear the garden’s hedgehog snuffling around outside, by which time it’s dark."

"I think that hedgehog must wonder about me.
‘Why is he down here in the shed when he could be watching Netflix in his big, warm house? What is this obsession with Evelyn Waugh?'


"Inside the shed is my Evelyn Waugh library. All Waugh's own writing. Everything that other people have written about him, including two highly-valued volumes written by Martin. Plus all the books written by Waugh's peer group. And a huge number of Evelyn’s friends and acquaintances wrote books.

"On the shelf shown are Waugh’s first five novels and a collection of short stories, which were published between 1928 and 1938 by Chapman and Hall, a publishing firm managed by Evelyn Waugh’s father.

"Yes, he had a privileged upbringing, did Evelyn, raised in the atmosphere of a literary
salon. This was when there was still a British Empire, and for young men to go to Oxford and hang out with their Bohemian friends was the thing to do. And after Oxford, there was the whole wide world to explore. Nice life. Though not socialist and distinctly pre-feminist."

"I have one of those novels with me today. For luck. And because whereever I go, a little bit of my shed goes with me."


"Thick creamy paper. Clearly printed with black ink."

I open the book and stroke the paper.

I sniff the book and look up: "Vile Bodies?" I repeat the movements: "Black Mischief?"


Third sniff: "A Handful of Dust?"

Now a cheeky look to the audience, and a line that's intended to get a laugh. "I make sure the hedgehog
never sees me doing that."


Another ripple of amusement. I try and resist the temptation to become over-confident.

"Also inside my shed there is an iMac. For is this not the 21st Century?"


"As you can maybe see, top left, the URL for my Evelyn Waugh website is

"I did have some difficulty with this. The Wylie Agency, who represent the Evelyn Waugh Estate, said this name suggested that my site was officially sanctioned. Whereas, they implied, it is run by a single, crackpot scholar.

"Anyway, after seven years I think it’s here to stay now. Professor Stannard was kind enough to refer to a page, and to print its full link, in the authorised version he edited of
Vile Bodies. And several times Philip Eade refers to the site in his recent biography of Evelyn Waugh.

"So I’m part of ‘the canon’. Whether I like it or not. And of course I do like it."


"The menu of the site is down the left side, underneath the ‘Introduction, Investigation, Treasure Trove, Day Trips, Time Travel, Rhapsody’ sub-title. Rhapsody is the key word by the way. It’s intended to suggest the FEEL GOOD FACTOR of the whole enterprise.

"There are more than 100 essays. If I was to print them all out, the shed would be full to overflowing with paper. How ridiculous would that be? Next slide."


"Between 1930 and 1937, in his late twenties and early thirties, Evelyn Waugh had no permanent home but a tried and trusted writing system.

"He would travel as a reporter, getting all his expenses paid by a newspaper or magazine. He would come back to England and write a non-fiction travel book. Then, once his experience had sifted down, he would come up with a novel.

"First, he went to Africa, that was to cover Haille Selassie’s Coronation for the
Daily Express. He wrote Remote People on his return to England, and then the novel Black Mischief. This was informed by the bestsellerdom of Vile Bodies as well as his time in Africa, accounting for the arrogance of the protagonist, Basil Seal.

"Then he went to South America, having been rejected by Teresa Jungman, the woman he loved. This time he wasn’t able to set himself up with journalism quite so well. He wrote up his Amazonian adventure as a travel book when he got back. Then he came up with the moving and stunning novel,
A Handful of Dust.

"In the third two-year cycle, he went back to Abyssinia for the Daily Mail, because Italy was about to invade the country. Back in England he wrote up the travel book. But all this time, the war correspondent experience was trickling through his mind, and eventually he was ready to write a witty and imaginative novel about it.


"This is the dust jacket from the first edition, published in 1938. In other words, that should be wrapped around this."


"If it was, my book would be worth three thousand pounds. But then I wouldn’t have been able to buy it for 25 quid from abebooks. So I’m happy with that.

"It’s an unusual cover for the time, the ironic words on it amounting to a synopsis. ‘Due to case of mistaken identity, the wrong man called Boot is sent by a British national Newspaper to cover a war in Africa.’ There, I’ve summarised the book in a single sentence."

I then try an experiment. I drum my index fingers against the book, close to the mic…


The effect is as I'd envisaged. So I say:

"How solid is this book! On
Black Mischief and Scoop evenings that sound can be heard emanating from my shed. For hours on end. It's nothing to be afraid of. Just the sound of one man thinking."

"Next slide. This is the title page. Doesn’t give much away, does it? The Stitch Service? Stones £20??


"What it does give away, is that the book was printed before computers. Pieces of metal have been inked up and then slammed onto sheets of paper. Some of the letters are darker than others and the position of the dittos is odd. They should be up a bit, surely!

"But back to the words, which resist meaning. Compare the contents page with another 20th Century classic,
Auto Da Fé by Elias Canetti. It’s three parts are called:

"Part One: A Head Without A World. Part Two: Headless World. Part Three: The World in the Head

"Something like that is what’s going on in
Scoop. From innocence to experience. But Waugh is too subtle a writer to say so.

"A couple of weeks ago, Melvyn Bragg focused on
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his program on Radio Four. It prompted me to associate the humour of Scoop with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Boot representing Bottom. Journalists obsessively chasing stories rather than lovers. Evelyn himself being Puck. Above all, a mood of upbeat absurdity from start to finish.

"I just throw that in in passing."

I hold up the book and quote: "
But O, methinks, how slow this old Waugh wanes."


"To repeat. Due to a mix up at The Daily Beast, it’s not suave, much-travelled John Courteney Boot that is sent to Africa to cover a civil war for the paper, it’s William Boot, who lives in the countryside and writes a nature column called ‘Lush Places’. The last thing William wants to do is go out of his comfort zone. He only agrees to do so in order to keep his column.

"The picture on the right is from the dust-jacket that I showed you of the first edition from 1938, showing an urbane Evelyn Waugh
a la John Courteney Boot.


"The photo on the left was taken at the same time, but it’s subtly different. I say subtly different. Sometimes I think it’s the same photo, just lighter and stretched vertically a little. Sometimes I don’t think it’s even the same person!

"One has a knowing smile, almost a sneer. While the other has a ‘rabbit trapped in the headlights’ look that puts me in mind of William Boot, the naive protagonist of Scoop. Effectively, it
is Willam Boot on the left, and Evelyn Waugh on the right.

"A rightly famous ‘bad’ sentence from William’s ‘Lush Places’ crops up on page 18, and you've already heard it tonight read by Auriol, but it bears repetition. I’ve committed it to memory, so don't need to look it up:

“Feather-footed… through the plashy fen… passes the questing vole.”


"William though that was a good sentence. Waugh knew otherwise and was taking the piss.

"When he's sent for by Lord Copper, William thinks he is going to be sacked from his column because his sister had gone through his latest copy and changed every mention of badger to crested grebe. And as such it had been printed.

"One reader asked whether William condoned the practice of baiting these rare and beautiful birds with terriers and deliberately destroying their earthy homes. Another asked William to produce a single authenticated case of a crested grebe attacking young rabbits."


"On the left is the 1945 paperback version of Scoop. Of course, it’s a penguin - dodging bullets perhaps. After all there was a war on. But I can’t help seeing a cross between a badger and a grebe.

"On the right is the 1953 paperback. The cover seems to be asking the same question: badger or grebe? Though in a more restrained way. O elegant fowl? O tentative growl? For sure, from the 1930s to the 1950s cover art didn’t change nearly as quickly as it does these days.

"This map shows Evelyn Waugh’s journey to Addis Ababa in 1935. And suggests William Boot’s more or less identical journey.


"William flew from Guilford, Surrey, to Paris, just so that Waugh could get the most from his joke of how much unnecessary clobber he was taking with him. A second plane was needed for his luggage.

"Then ten days in a ship, during which Waugh introduces us to Corker, a fellow journalist of William’s. I mean a real cynical, lie-pedalling member of the press pack. Then six days in a train inland from Dijbouti to Addis Ababa. Nearly three weeks in all."


"Today a news reporter would fly there in less than eight hours. In fact, there is an Ethiopian Airlines plane flying from Heathrow at 9 o’clock tonight, getting in to Addis Ababa by 6.45 tomorrow morning. It was one of the things that puzzled me on my first reading of the book, why Waugh didn’t take us straight from London to Addis Ababa to emphasise the contrast. It’s because that’s not how it happened to the writer, and the middle section of
Scoop is very much about reflecting what happened to Evelyn Waugh in 1935."


"It took me a while to work out what the 1971 cover illustration on the left was alluding to. It’s William Boot travelling in a very slow boat with a map of Ishmaelia on his knees. Although I love the aesthetics of this Art Deco-style cover – its visual panache matches the elegance of Waugh’s prose - it’s the image of William on the right that captures his gaucheness. An insightful drawing by Quentin Blake from 1961.

"William Boot in Africa trying to give the Daily Beast what it expects. War news. What they get is…. Well, it’s as if William is typing out postcards to an elderly aunt. He’s arrived in Ishmaelia in the rainy season, so the telegrams say: ‘VERY WET HERE’…then…’RAINING HARD’… but eventually… ‘WEATHER IMPROVING’.

"Typing William is surrounded by the ludicrous kit that he was persuaded by a London shop assistant as being essential for a trip to Africa. As you can see, it includes a Christmas pudding. After all William travelled to Africa in August and didn’t know if the war would be over by Christmas.


"I should say here that after university, Waugh had a job on the
Daily Express. In six weeks he never got a story into the paper and was sacked. Waugh didn’t seem to mind much. He had high self esteem even though he knew he had his limitations. That high self-esteem and sense of his own inadequacies constantly found their way into his writing. Admit your mistakes, was his philosophy, in fact exaggerate them ten-fold so as to make them funny."

“Feather-footed… through the foreign field…


…passes the questing Boot.”

"Evelyn Waugh was a complex character. Reading the travel book he wrote in 1936 on his return from Africa, and the book that a fellow journalist from the Abyssinian expedition wrote in 2003 (nearly 70 years in retrospect), one realises how combative he was.

"Bill Deedes tells us that Waugh got involved in a fist fight with an American journalist called Knickerbocker who referred to Evelyn as the second greatest living British writer after Aldous Huxley. Evelyn wasn’t having that from a Yank. (I think that’s exactly how Martin Amis would have behaved 30 years ago, if he'd been told by Saul Bellow that he was second best in the UK to Salman Rushdie.)

"The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project that Martin was telling us about earlier has published Waugh’s diaries when he was a schoolboy. These are obsessed with books and fights. He was getting into scraps at every opportunity. He notes at one point:

Rostail entered and - squatting temptingly on the edge of a basin - proceeded to call me ‘Wuffles’. I informed him that unless he refrain from using my name in a corrupted form I would have to chastise him. He - knowing that he was larger than me - continued in the name, whereupon I fulfilled my promise one hundredfold.’

"I expect the situation in Abyssinia was much the same. Poor Knickerbocker.

"Deedes makes it clear that, partly because of his travel experience, partly because of his fame as a novelist, the 33-year-old Waugh was looked upon as a leader. Many people looked to Waugh for leadership during his life. And I do though he's been dead for 50 years."


"So here we have two war correspondents relaxing in the hotel in Addis Ababa."


"They have their fags and booze, you’ll note. They have the same kind of hat - pith helmet - which you’ll see dozens of journalists wearing in a subsequent image.

"They also have a range of books to read, obviously brought with them in their luggage from Britain. Let’s envisage a conversation between the pith heads:

"Smoking journalist: 'What do you make of Evelyn?'

Other journalist: 'I love his feather-footed stuff.'

Smoking journalist: 'Reckon he’s the best English novelist writing today?'

Other journalist: '
And he’s got balls of steel.'”


"With nothing happening in Addis Ababa, Waugh organised several expeditions into the countryside. Two trips to Harar in the east and two trips to Dessye in the north. Sorry I haven’t marked Harar, which is back down the railway line towards the coast.

"The first trip to Dessye was made without permission to leave Addis Ababa. The journalists had to hide in their lorry and argue their case when they were stopped at guard points. Now the Ethiopians were expecting to be invaded by white Europeans who couldn’t speak their language, and here was a lorry full of white Europeans, albeit they were flying the Union Jack rather than an Italian flag. You need a certain kind of personality to even attempt to bring that off. Arrogant, perhaps. Assertive, certainly.

"On the second trip to Dessye, Evelyn and his entourage were invited to breakfast by a local chief who fed them curried titbits from his fingers, the fiery food washed down with the local alcoholic drink. The chief told them that Italians were not real men. A friend of his had killed 40 of them, one after another, with his sword.

"Quite a heavy start to the day, Evelyn admits in
Waugh in Abyssinia."


"So while Evelyn Waugh had access to the sensitive and shy person we all have inside ourselves - shown on the left - he could also be an intrepid explorer, a determined listener, a battle-hardened individual who was quite ready to agree that it was possible to kill 40 enemies, one after the other, with your fists or your sword. Quite an unusual skill-set.

"In the picture on the right, Waugh’s wearing a coat made from the skin of a lion. He said in a letter home that it stank like a corpse. Probably stank like a dead lion, let’s face it. Let me put it this way."


One sniff: “Feather-footed…”

I turn the page and take two sniffs: “…Through the Abyssinian plain…”

I turn the page and take three sniffs: “…Passes the literary lion.”

"OK, moving on. There are about 50 pith-helmeted journalists being briefed by an Abyssinian spokesman in this photograph. Waugh probably amongst them."


"It was because Evelyn was so intrepid that he missed the real-life scoop. While he was on one of his expeditions, a mystery man that he’d travelled with to Africa, broke a story of how he, representing the British and American governments, had bought oil concessions from the Abyssinian emperor.

Scoop, Waugh reverses this. After a misleading official briefing, all the other journalists travel out of Addis Ababa to Laku, a place that doesn’t exist. In their absence, the mystery man informs William about the gold concession deal he’s struck with the emperor and even writes his cable for him. The Daily Beast is delighted and William is acclaimed as ‘Boot of the Beast’.

"In real life, Waugh was given the boot by the
Daily Mail who sent another journalist to replace him.

"I’ll just drop in here an exchange of cables between William Boot and the
Daily Beast, which speaks of how annoyed Waugh was with the Daily Mail, though it is expressed with Waugh’s customary light touch."




"William Boot returns to London having fluked a scoop in Africa."


"‘Boot of the Beast’ is to be guest of honour at a feast given by Lord Copper, newspaper proprietor. Lord Copper was partly based on Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express, whom Evelyn despised. Instead, William flees to the countryside, and, in a hilarious sequence, editor Salter tries to fetch him back. Salter being Lord Copper’s skivvy. The guy who pathetically says “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” every time he completely disagrees with what his lord and master has just said.

"After a long train journey, Salter is asked to ride in the back of a coal lorry driven by a local who, speaking in strong regional dialect, just about manages to communicate how dangerous an unlicensed driver he is.

"Turning down the lift and setting out on a cross-country walk instead, Salter is in a state of collapse by the time he gets to Boot Magna Hall. He has to endure an evening meal without wine. He’s not allowed any because adjudged ‘already drunk’ by the Boot family. Also, the dinner table conversation seems designed to both exclude and humiliate him. I laughed at Salter’s difficulties when I first read about them as a teenager. But I now realise Evelyn was referencing his own experiences of travelling and dining in the middle of Africa. Hiding in the back of a truck, being force-fed curried meat washed down with a pint of Abyssinian ale for breakfast.

"Here is an extract from the dinner table talk going on around Salter:

"'Mr Salter is having Annabel to sleep with him,' said Mrs Boot.
'Mr Salter is very fond of her,' said Lady Trilby.
'He doesn’t know her,' said Uncle Bernard.
'Mr Salter is very fond of all dogs,' said Mrs Boot."

"Salter fails to get William to return to London. Instead, it is Uncle Theodore who attends the feast as ‘Boot of the Beast’. His purple face, smutty innuendo, heavy drinking and knowing looks offend Lord Copper greatly, but the latter must plough on with his ‘Triumphant Youth’ speech that William’s success has inspired.

"For Uncle Theodore, I’ve used a photo of Evelyn Waugh in the mid 1950s, twenty years post-
Scoop. But really I needn’t have, as you’ll see in a second.

"Evelyn Waugh got married for the second time while writing
Scoop. He was 33, going on 34; Laura Herbert was nineteen."


"Waugh’s diary entry for the day before his wedding reads:

"‘Lunched at Buck’s and enjoyed it.’

"That means he had a lot to drink.

‘"Came on to 2.30 to 8.30 cocktail party, mostly highly enjoyable. Rather tipsy.’

"That means he had a hell of a lot to drink. Then he dined with Henry Yorke and his wife, which would have meant a superior wine followed by port.

"I suspect this drink-sodden day helps explain why Evelyn looked like such an old man on the day of his wedding.

"Evelyn on the left: 'How are you feeling, old boy?'
Evelyn on the right: 'Yesterday, I came across a big red button labelled ‘self-destruct’. And I pressed it.'"


"Does the face on the left look like the face of a 33-year-old man, especially given his photograph of the subsequent year, seen here on the right?

"Evelyn Waugh worked hard, played hard, drank hard. Here is another diary entry, again from 1937 when he was in the midst of writing

I have been surprised again and again lately by blanks and blurs in my memory, being reminded by Laura of quite recent events which delighted me and which I have now completely forgotten.’"

"In the same diary entry of November, 1937, he goes on to describe a talk he gave in public about the right-wing author, Calder-Marshall:

"‘Having an empty mind I drank two huge whiskies to stimulate it: paralyzed it instead. Was led at last into a huge hall full of young women – 700 or more of them. Began to speak – ‘ideological writing’ – and heard my voice like someone else’s droning and stumbling; felt, ‘if only I could sit back and think of other things’; and realised that I must keep this thing in motion. At last, in an awful blank, I looked at my watch. I found it was 5 o’clock so shut up sharp. The audience missed any point, but they had come to stare, not listen.’

"It’s as if in 1937, while still in his early thirties, Waugh was poised between youth and old age. Still able to draw on the vulnerability of inexperience but becoming aware of a different kind of vulnerability that was creeping up on him."

"That is the title page of
Scoop on the left."


"However, I often think of the book as being about its author, in which he is represented by three individuals. John Courteney Boot, William Boot and Uncle Theodore Boot. That’s the consummate professional, the innocent romantic and the debauched elder, respectively."

"It really helps a book if an author can call on different strands of his or her personality in this way. So as you’re writing you’re not just looking out into the world objectively, but seeing it, and your own response to it, through the prisms of your own character traits.

"Which comes back to that
Auto da Fé contents page: 'A Head without a World'; 'The Headless World'; 'The World in the Head'.

"Evelyn’s 1937 wedding brought an end to Waugh’s travelling years. He wanted to set up home in the country and this explains why
Scoop is structured the way it is. His African experience bookended by his wish for a simpler life, a calmer life, a life in the country.

"In fact, Waugh wrote the two happiest books of his life when he was engaged to be married. That’s
Decline and Fall from 1928 and Scoop from 1937. His personal happiness fed through to his writing in the most exhilarating and uplifting ways. In both books the protagonist ends up back in a beloved place. That’s Scone College, Oxford, in Decline and Fall and the family house, ‘Boot Magna Hall’, in Scoop.

"It’s the mood of
Decline and Fall and Scoop I’ve tried to capture in Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love. A tribute to his personal joy, his innocent heroes and his joie de vivre."


"The cover of my book is artificially aged, to make it seem like it comes from the 1970s, as this version of
Scoop does. That little crease in the top right corner of my book is fake, as are those blots in the margins. What my book misses is the decisive splash in the bottom right corner of Scoop. Funny thing is, my shed copies of Evelyn! all have splashes just like that. Scientific analysis suggests they are of hedgehog origin."


"But I need to end my presentation as Evelyn ended his novel, back at base, where William - returned to his nature notes - gives us this vision:"


"‘The wagons lumber in the lane under their golden glory of harvested sheaves’, he wrote, ‘maternal rodents pilot their furry brood through the stubble.’

"Well, no, the last line of
Scoop is Waugh’s not William’s. Indeed, slaughters William’s:

"‘Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry brood.’

"Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I have to get out of bed and make my way to the shed with the help of a torch. Just to check all is OK in my world."


"Whenever I do this, I invariably hear the sound of laughter just outside the shed. I’d say it was from about ground level. A groundswell of laughter. But that’s fine. Mockery is something that we all must come to terms with.

"Thank-you so much for listening this evening. And for looking."



Thanks to Vicky Bennett for inviting me to Chipping Campden Literary Festival. Thanks to John and Genevieve Wilson for putting me up at the Tractor Shed. Thanks to John Wilson and Kit Nicholson for photography on the night. John, Kit and I are the intrepid threesome that followed in the footsteps of Evelyn Waugh and Alastair Graham in 1926, as you can see and read