Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part One

At a relatively early age, John Boot had achieved an enviable reputation as a writer. His novels typically sold 15,000 copies, and even his unprofitable non-fiction works on history and travel had succeeded in furthering his literary reputation in all the right intellectual circles. His latest offering was a description of several harrowing months spent among the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, an experience only slightly ameliorated by a short period of recuperation visiting the tango salons of Buenos Aires.

In London, Boot had many influential friends. The most valued was the celebrated Mrs. Algernon Stitch to whom, like all in her circle, he habitually brought his problems for solution. It was for this reason that, on a bright Spring morning, he called at her house near St. James’s Palace en route to a squash match at his club in Pall Mall. On the doorstep he encountered Mrs. Stitch’s husband clutching a crimson royally-emblazoned dispatch case and in the act of stepping into his chauffeured ministerial Daimler.

‘She’s in the morning room,’ said Stitch hurriedly.

Boot found Mrs. Stitch dressed for the street despite it being barely eleven o’clock.

‘I want to get away from London, Julia’ he said despondently.

‘I don’t suppose it’s got anything to do with that American girl, has it?’ enquired Mrs. Stitch.

‘Well, mostly, yes.’

‘Where were you thinking of going?’

‘That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about.’

‘What about the Arabian peninsula?’ said Mrs. Stitch. ‘Algy says there’s a potential crisis out there; Al Mussab or somewhere like that. Something to do with oil and foreign powers anyway.’

‘Do you think he’d send me there as a spy?’

‘Not a chance. He’s been sacking spies left, right and centre for weeks. It’s a grossly overcrowded profession, apparently. Why don’t you go as a foreign correspondent?’

‘Could you fix it?’

‘I don’t see why not. After all, you’ve been to Patagonia. I would have thought they’d jump at you. I’ll see what I can do. I’m meeting Lord Copper at a charity luncheon in Mayfair in an hour. I’ll try and bring the subject up.’

****

Lord Copper, proprietor of The Daily Beast, knew of Mrs. Stitch. On more than one occasion he had seen her at a distance but now, as she approached him across the reception room, he wondered what she could possibly want.

‘I suppose she wants your sketch writer to lay off Algy,’ whispered his hostess, Lady Bamford, as she moved tactfully away.

To his surprise, Lord Copper found himself entranced by Mrs. Stitch’s conversation. She expressed concern about the ‘worrying situation’ in Al Mussab, of which Lord Copper was completely unaware even though he gave his opinion that civil war was inevitable. She also remarked how few famous foreign correspondents still survived, and bemoaned the dearth of young journalists who could write stylishly about the true nature of events both on the ground and behind the scenes.

Lord Copper found himself agreeing with Mrs. Stitch whole-heartedly.

‘Who are you sending to cover the story?’ she asked.

‘I am in consultation with my editors on the subject,’ replied Lord Copper. ‘We feel it to be of significant interest to the British public. Of course, we shall have a team of military experts, photographers and reporters covering the war from every angle.’

‘If I were you,’ said Mrs. Stitch, ‘I should send someone like Boot; that’s if you could persuade him to go, of course. He’s a brilliant writer. Did you know that the Prime Minister always keeps a Boot by his bed? Well his work, I mean.’

Lord Copper suddenly became Boot-aware.

‘Boot?’

‘Yes. If you could get him to go he’s very well-known in all the right circles. Very sporty too, I hear. He plays squash.’

****

Half an hour after leaving the luncheon, Mrs. Stitch telephoned Boot at his club. He was lunching with his old friend and long-term squash partner the Honourable Frederick William Charles.

‘I think it’s fixed. I suspect he’ll be in touch in a few days. Don’t take a penny less than fifty pounds a week.’

‘God bless you, Julia. You’ve saved my life.’

Boot felt as though a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He returned to the dining room with a spring in his step and shared the good news with his lunch companion.

‘All very hush-hush, of course, Freddie.’

‘Absolutely, old man. Mum’s the word, eh?’

It was turning out to be a good day after all.

****

That evening, Mr. Salter, foreign editor of The Beast, was summoned to dinner at his chief’s country seat. As he drove to Lord Boot’s frightful mansion, he thought sadly of his care-free days editing the Woman’s Page. His ultimate ambition was to take charge of the Competitions Page, yet here he was, languishing as Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter’s side of the dinner conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right, he said ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, he said ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘This Al Mussab place,’ said Lord Copper. ‘It appears that the Foreign Office thinks there’s going to be a civil war there. I propose to feature it. Who were you thinking of sending?’

Mr. Salter hadn’t been thinking of sending anyone to cover a war he hadn’t, until that moment, heard of in a place which he also hadn’t heard of. He improvised.

‘Well, since we lost Richardson to The Brute we’ve tended to borrow one of the Americans from Reuters. Of course, none of them is familiar to the public.’

‘No. I tell you who I want; Boot.’

‘Boot?’

‘Yes, Boot. Brilliant writer. Very well known in all the right circles. Squash player. The Prime Minister keeps his work by his bed. Do you read him?’

‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘Well, get onto him tomorrow. Get him up to see you. Take him out to lunch. Get him at any price. Well, any reasonable price.’

‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’

****

Newsroom 1950The following day, Mr. Salter went to work at noon. He found the Managing Editor reading The Beast’s Sports Page.

‘Who’s Boot?’ asked Mr. Salter at last.

‘I know the name,’ said the Managing Editor.

‘The chief wants to send him to Al Mussab. He’s the Prime Minister’s favourite writer.’

Mr. Salter listlessly turned the pages of the morning edition of The Beast.

‘Well, I’ve got to find him. Boot, Boot. Ah! Boot – here he is. Why didn’t the chief say he was a staff man?’

He perused the newspaper’s bi-weekly column devoted to Nature.

Country Places edited by William Boot. Do you think that’s him?’

‘It must be,’ said the Managing Editor. ‘The PM’s nuts about rural England.’

‘Well, I’d better get him up here for a chat. I’ll send him a telegram. Funny the chief wanting to send him to Arabia. Still, if that’s who he wants.’

****

William Boot extracted his kit-bag from the disorganised heap in the bar of the Old Cromwellians Squash Club. The handle of his racquet (which was sticking out of his bag) banged him in the knee as he did so bringing an un-Boot like exclamation from his lips. He had spent a pleasant evening losing a league match to a local farmer before partaking of a half-pint of excellent bitter brewed locally by another club member. Now, he felt ready to drive along a series of unlit pot-holed country lanes back to Boot Magna Hall, the ancestral seat of the Boot family. He bade the other occupants of the bar goodnight, stepped into the cold night air and made for his modest Austin motor car.

English Manor House 1950As he drove, William pondered the current standings in his squash league (he was bottom), the state of the local countryside (still boggy after an untypically wet March), and the subject of his next Country Places column (a choice between the habits of the water vole and a profile of the new Master of Foxhounds for the South Wiltshire Hunt.) He had inherited his editorial position on the column from the widow of its previous holder, the Rector of Boot Magna, without even having to go through the inconvenience of meeting, or even corresponding with, anyone connected with The Beast. Having the position was of the utmost importance to him and gave him the best possible excuse for remaining in the countryside, observing its wildlife and playing squash.

On his arrival at the Hall, he carefully deposited his kit-bag beside the coat stand avoiding further injury from the handle of his squash racquet. As he did so, his Uncle Theodore emerged from the library holding a large glass of brandy. He seemed agitated.

‘Thought I heard you. A telegram’s arrived for you; from London.”

He gestured towards a small silver tray resting on a chest two feet from the coat stand beside which William was standing. William was surprised. He had never been to London and certainly didn’t know anyone who lived there except…

He lifted the telegram from its resting place, opened it and read.

‘Not bad news, is it, old chap?’

William re-read the words with an increasing sense of dread.

REQUEST YOUR IMMEDIATE PRESENCE HERE URGENT LORD COPPERS PERSONAL DESIRE SALTER BEAST.

****

After an early breakfast, William left for the station. Almost all of his family stood on the steps of Boot Magna Hall to see him off. His mother and sister wept. His Aunt Josephine’s motor car waited to carry him to Boot Magna station. Uncle Theodore attempted to accompany him but was detected and stopped. His father remained in his study.

‘Going to London, eh?’ said his grandmother. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll be alive when you get back.’

At the station, he caught the eight twenty-seven slow train, arriving at Paddington at a quarter to eleven. A black cab conveyed him through the living hell of London and deposited him outside The Beast’s imposing offices at 700-850 Fleet Street. Feeling increasingly nervous, William negotiated the revolving doorway, entered the Byzantine vestibule and proceeded to the reception desk. Behind it sat a uniformed and be-medalled concierge. William handed over his heavily-perused telegram and five minutes later found himself in the office of the Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter greeted William cordially.

‘Ah, Boot, how are you? Don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. I know your work, of course. I understand that the Prime Minister is an avid reader of your column.’

‘Are you sure?’ asked William.

‘Definitely.’

‘Oh.’

They sat opposite one another in Mr. Salter’s office. Between them, on the desk, lay an atlas, open at the page where Mr. Salter and the Managing Editor had successfully located Al Mussab.

‘How is the countryside?’ asked Mr. Salter, hopefully. ‘Lot of foot and mouth, I expect.’

‘None, I’m pleased to say.’

‘Oh.’

He attempted a second ice-breaker.

‘Plenty of foxes to hunt?’

‘The season’s finished.’

‘Oh, I see.’

Mr. Salter’s understanding of ‘the countryside’ was confined to what could be seen from the window of a train travelling between Waterloo and Woking. He attempted a non-countryside ice-breaker.

‘I hear you’re a squash man.’

‘Yes,’ said William. ‘Do you play?’

‘Er, no.’

Mr. Salter decided to take the initiative.

‘Well, I’ll get straight to the point. Lord Copper wants you to work for him in Al Mussab.’

‘Where?’

‘It’s there.’

Mr. Salter pointed triumphantly to Al Mussab’s precise location in the atlas.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Definitely,’ affirmed Mr. Salter confidently. ‘The Managing Editor and I found it yesterday.’

‘No, I mean about Lord Copper wanting me.’

‘My dear fellow. With the possible exception of the Prime Minister, you have no more ardent admirer than Lord Copper.’

‘The Prime Minister?’ said William.

‘Definitely,’ replied Mr. Salter, finding his rhythm. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t know that the PM keeps a copy of your work by his bed?’

‘No, I didn’t,’ said William, astonished. ‘But what’s that got to do with Al Mussab?’

Mr. Salter realised that William knew nothing about Al Mussab, let alone anything about a potential civil war there. He decided not to mention it for the time being.

‘Ah, yes, I thought you might want to know more about that,’ he said.

‘Yes, please.’

Mr. Salter began to warm to his task.

‘Lord Copper wants you to do precisely what you’re best at. No more, no less.’
William had begun to look interested.

‘What does he suggest?’

‘He wants you to write about the Arabian countryside,’ announced Mr. Salter.

William raised his eyebrows.

‘The Arabian countryside?’

‘Definitely,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘Wildlife, the desert, local customs, profiles of prominent figures, current events, that sort of thing.’

‘What on earth for?’

Mr. Salter leaned forward over his desk, looked furtively around his office and lowered his voice.

‘Well, to be honest, it’s all a bit hush-hush. The PM wants closer, shall we say, cultural relations with Al Mussab. All part of his international diplomacy initiative, I expect. He’s specifically asked Lord Copper to send you out there as a sort of unofficial cultural attache.’

William’s mouth fell open. Mr. Salter leant forward again for final effect.

‘I wouldn’t tell anyone else if I were you.’

He tapped the side of his nose with a fore-finger.

William nodded weakly, his position as editor of Country Places slipping from his grasp.

Mr. Salter pressed home his case.

‘Naturally, we’re willing to pay a very fair salary. Shall we say, fifty pounds a month?’

‘Fifty pounds a month?’ said William, goggling.

‘I meant a week,’ said Mr. Salter hastily. ‘Plus expenses, of course. That’s at least another twenty a week; and you can resume your existing position at the end of your assignment.’

William sat in stunned silence as Mr. Salter administered his coup de grace.

‘I’m sure you realise that Lord Copper expects his staff to work wherever the best interests of the paper call them. I don’t think it would be fair to expect him to employ anyone of whose loyalty he was in doubt, now would it?’

William nodded. He could see no alternative than to agree to Lord Copper’s request. He would have to consult his family of course; that would take a week or two. Then, he would need to buy new clothes suitable for working in Arabia, whatever they might look like; he would also need to find a temporary editor for his Country Places column, which could take some time; and he would have to arrange and play the final two matches in his squash league. He had much to do.

‘Excellent,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘The chief will be pleased. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience. Let’s sort everything out over lunch, shall we? I’ve sent for your passport so we can sort your visa out this afternoon. Lord Copper wants you to leave tomorrow morning.’

****

Dubai 1950sOn the squash court of the Intercontinental Hotel, Hassan Bin Rashid Al Nahmi’s weekly match with his cousin, Abdullah, had gone to a fifth game. Abdullah had won the fourth with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner, but now Hassan’s superior court coverage was finally beginning to tell. He won the final game by nine points to four and with it the privilege of buying tea and fresh figs for his vanquished opponent.

After showering and changing, the cousins sat on the terrace in the early evening heat. Across the shimmering waters of the Gulf, the sun was setting over the Al Mussab desert

‘Is your family well?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, praise be to Allah. And yours?’

‘Yes, praise be to Allah.’

They both sipped their tea and fingered their prayer beads.

‘Have you heard from your cousin in London?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, I received a letter from him only yesterday,’ answered Abdullah. ‘He said that one of his British friends had played a man at his club who said he was coming to Al Mussab to report on the crisis.’

‘What crisis?’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘Oh.’

Hassan decided see whether his father mentioned a crisis at the family’s evening meal, which reminded him that he was hungry. He finished his tea and picked up his kit-bag and racquet.

‘Forgive me, cousin, but I have to get home for our evening meal.’

‘Me too.’

In the hotel’s careworn lobby they waited for their chauffeured Bentleys to arrive and convey them to their family residences.

‘Same time next week?’ said Hassan.

‘Definitely,’ said Abdullah.

They sat in contemplation, watching for headlights approaching along the coast road.

‘Do you remember the name of the man who is supposed to be coming to Al Mussab?’ said Hassan.

‘Yes, cousin,’ said Abdullah.

‘I think it was Boot.’

Next time…

Which Boot, or Boots, will arrive in Al Mussab and what will they find? Will Mr. Salter realise his mistake? Will Lord Copper discover that Mr. Salter has made a mistake? What crisis will befall Al Mussab?

Influences

Evelyn Waugh‘s book ‘Scoop‘ was published in 1938. It is the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal. Remarkably, it’s a satire revered among successive generations of British hacks, the breed so mercilessly skewered in the book by Waugh, a one-time special correspondent for the Daily Mail.

I’ve based John Boot’s club in London’s Pall Mall on the Royal Automobile Club whose premises have housed squash courts since the 1930s.