Mon 14 Jan 2013
In his 1938 novel Scoop, the British writer Evelyn Waugh portrays a young journalist sent by a London newspaper, The Daily Beast, to cover a civil war that’s brewing in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia. (Tina Brown, by the way, took the name for her news-aggregator website The Daily Beast from the novel.)
Evelyn Waugh (left), 1903-66.
Scoop, which is based on Waugh’s own experience writing for London’s Daily Mail, satirizes the foreign correspondents who rush to wherever big news is supposed to be happening.
Even if they find nothing much going on, they still must satisfy their editors by filing stories, so they create news, Waugh suggests.
One of the book’s more colorful characters, Wenlock Jakes, provides a facetious example of what can happen. The character is based on Chicago Daily News correspondent John Gunther (1901-70). As another character comments, “When [Jakes] turns up in a place, you can bet your life that as long as he’s there it’ll be the news center of the world.
“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong [train] station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window.
“Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special [correspondent] in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too.
“Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny — and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you.”
Henry Stanley (right). Drawing from my own copy of Allgemeine Illustrirte Zeitung, 1877.
Although Stanley was a courageous newsman and explorer who faced down danger in the Ottoman Empire and various parts of Africa, he is best known for one utterance.
In 1869, The New York Herald sent Stanley to find Dr. David Livingstone, a Scots missionary and explorer, who disappeared for six years in Africa while looking for the source of the Nile River.
When Stanley found Livingstone in a village on the shore of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, there were no other white men for hundreds of miles around, which presumably inspired the journalist’s tongue-in-cheek, formal-English greeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
Point Reyes Station residents can set their watches by a loud, recorded moo from the top of the Old Western Saloon at noon and 5 p.m. daily. In Scotland, this gun at the top of Edinburgh Castle is fired at 1 p.m. every day but Sunday. The One O’Clock Gun allows “citizens and visitors to check their clocks and watches,” the castle’s website explains.
“The origin of the tradition lies in the days when sailing ships in the Firth of Forth were able to check and reset their chronometers in the days before accurate timepieces were available.” (For those of you not familiar with the Gaelic, a firth is an estuary, in this case of Scotland’s River Forth, Black River.)
Now here’s chance to test your Scottish brogue with a bit of Gaelic humor:
A wee Glesga wumman goes intae a butcher shop, where the butcher has just came oot the freezer, and is standing haunds ahint his back, with his erse aimed at an electric fire. The wee wumman checks oot the display case then asks, “Is that yer Ayrshire bacon?” “Naw,” replies the butcher. “It’s jist ma haun’s ah’m heatin’.”
Scots writer Alasdair Gray, whose wife’s resolute thrift saved their family more than $8,000.
More tidings from Scotland, as reported in the London Times Literary Supplement. Last year the Scots writer Alasdair Gray “refused the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award for his book A Life of Pictures. Not to be outdone, the judges refused Mr. Gray’s refusal and sent him a cheque for £5,000.
“Mrs. Gray, refusing to believe what her husband had done, refused to accept his refusal of the judges’ refusal of his refusal, and cashed the check.” Such refusals are hardly new. In 1964, the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel Prize for Literature on grounds it could change him and get him involved in East-West politics.
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (1917-2008).
I’ll close by noting that the late British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and I were alike in at least a couple of ways. As he once acknowledged: “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.”