Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Two

N.B. The first part of ‘Desert Places’ was published previously on this blog.

Three weeks after his meeting with Mr. Salter, William entered the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Al Mussab. He was followed by a line of uniformed porters carrying his luggage. In one hand he carried a brown leather briefcase and in the other his kit-bag out of which stuck the handle of his squash racquet. It was a matter of personal satisfaction that he had prevailed upon Mr. Salter to arrange for the latter to be delivered to him in time for his first ever flight in an aeroplane, from Croydon Airport to Paris. The Foreign Editor had also been kind enough to assist William in compiling a parting telegram to his family which intimated that he had been sent on secret mission of national importance without disclosing by whom, for how long or where.

In Paris, he had caught the Blue Train to Marseilles where he had boarded the Meonia, a ship of the East Asiatic Line bound for Aden by way of the Canal. The Meonia had seen better days. She been built in an era of steam navigation earlier than that of the other ships of the Line, and had been furnished for service among the high waves and icy winds of the North Atlantic. Late Spring in the Gulf of Suez was not her proper place or season. There was no space on her decks for reclining chairs and her cabins, devoid of fans, were aired only by tiny portholes built to resist the buffeting of an angrier sea.

East Asiatic LineYet William had managed to occupy his time profitably enough, familiarising himself with all things Al Mussabian aided by Mr. Salter’s hastily-compiled dossier. In the dining room, and for the exchange of day to day information, William’s command of French was just adequate. However, it was not strong enough for sustained argument with his fellow passengers and he had fallen into the habit of muttering ‘peut-etre’ with what he hoped passed for Gallic scepticism before turning his attention to the reading matter or meal in front of him.

At luncheon on his second day at sea, William had encountered a fellow Briton.

‘Anyone mind if I park myself here?’ enquired the new-comer, standing by William’s table.

William had looked up from his entrée to see an unprepossessing young man with sandy-coloured hair. His suit of striped flannel had once, as its owner was later to proudly disclose, ‘fitted snugly at the waist.’ Now, in the mid-day heat, it had resolved itself into an alternation of wrinkles and damp, adherent patches, steaming visibly.

‘Not dressed for this climate, I’m afraid,’ remarked the young man taking the seat next to William. ‘Left in a hurry.’

William’s fellow diners had regarded the new-comer with resentment but said nothing. Meanwhile, the object of their resentment had ordered the soup followed by the fish and, to the horror of the steward, a pint of bitter.

‘You’re Boot of The Beast aren’t you?’ said the young man. ‘Thought I might run into you. I’m Corker of Universal News. I was in Fleet Street on Tuesday, got my marching orders and now here I am. Bit of a rush. Made the ship by the skin of my teeth. Slept through breakfast. I’m starving.’

William turned towards his fellow Briton, diner and journalist.

‘How did you know who I am?’

‘You can’t keep anything secret in this business, old chap. I expect somebody got wind of something. Tell me honestly, had you ever heard of Al Mussab before you were sent on this story?’

‘No.’

‘Same here. You know, when I first started in journalism, I used to think that foreign correspondents spoke every language under the sun and spent their lives studying international affairs. Take me. On Monday afternoon I was in Clapham breaking the news to a widow that her husband had jumped off Tower Bridge with a champion lady tennis player in a suicide pact. Turns out it was the wrong widow. Her husband arrived back from the City and cut up rough. The following morning the Chief says, “Pack your bags, Corker, you’re off to Al Mussab to cover the war.” “What are they having a war about?” I said. “That’s for you to find out,” he said. But I haven’t yet, have you?’

William lowered his fork which had been about to deliver a prawn to his mouth.

‘What do you mean foreign correspondents? What war?’

‘Well, whatever’s going on in Al Mussab. We’re bound to find out eventually. All the news agencies are sending special correspondents. We sell our reports to the big dailies like, well like your paper. Didn’t you know?’

‘The Foreign Editor didn’t tell me anything about a war. He just told me to write about wildlife, local customs, current events, that sort of thing. And what’s the point of sending me to write about something that everybody else will be writing about?’

Corker looked at William sadly.

‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism, old chap. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent the same story before us, our story isn’t news. It’s easy to write and easy to read but it costs a fortune to send by telegram. So we have to keep things short and sweet and make sure we’re first, see?’

Five days later, William had received a telegram:

OPPOSITION SPLASHING SITUATION UNCLEAR WAIT ADEN MALAYA BEAST

He took it to Corker for translation.

‘Well, it looks like The Beast’s competitors are giving Al Mussab a lot of coverage but nobody really knows what’s going on. And you should wait in Aden for the Malaya to take you to Al Mussab.’

Grand Royal Hotel, AdenThere had been two nights to wait in Aden for the Malaya. Corker disappeared into the bazaar and emerged with four carpets, three silk shawls, an amber necklace, a cigarette box inlaid with mother of pearl and a wooden carving of a camel. William visited the British Resident in an attempt to find out whether he knew what was happening in Al Mussab but was refused an audience. Fortunately, the Resident’s subordinate, a disshevelled young man in wire-rimmed spectacles, took pity on him and took him for a tour of the compound.

‘Is that a squash court?’ asked William, pointing to a windowless building located beside the Anglican church.

‘It certainly is,’ answered the subordinate. ‘The only one in Aden. Do you play?’

Squash Court in Aden

The Squash Court in Aden

Later the same day, William had sportingly lost his match with the subordinate,  and had learned that neither he nor the Resident had the faintest idea about what might be happening in Al Mussab.

Back at The Grand Royal Hotel, he shared the news with Corker.

‘There’s a story right there, old chap. “ADEN RESIDENT REFUSES TO DENY AL MUSSAB UNREST.”’

They both sent telegrams to Fleet Street before returning to their hotel next to the Zoroastrian temple.

Six days later, William advanced towards the reception desk of the Intercontinental Hotel. It was early evening. He had left Corker at the harbour attempting to secure transport suitable for conveying himself, his luggage and his en route purchases to the Liberty Guesthouse, wherever that was.

As he approached the desk, William noticed two young men in local dress sitting at a nearby table, drinking tea. On the floor beside them lay two kit-bags, squash racquet handles protruding from both. Leaning forward, one of the men whispered to his companion, stood and approached William. He smiled and held out his hand.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, politely, ‘But are you Mr. Boot?’

****

In London, it was the night of the Duchess of Stayle’s ball. John Boot was in attendance, confident in his belief that Mrs. Stitch would also be present. For half an hour he hunted her among the columns, arches and salons. The older guests sat in little groups, while the younger generation promenaded between buffet and ballroom in singles and couples. By eleven o’clock, many of the latter had departed for the night-spots of Mayfair and Soho leaving the supper room full of elderly, hearty eaters.

John finally ran Mrs. Stitch to earth in the Duke’s dressing-room eating foie-gras with an ivory shoe-horn. She was accompanied by three elderly admirers who glared at him as he entered.

‘How very peculiar to see you,’ she said. ‘I thought you’d gone off to the war.’

Her three admirers gave their excuses and left, each securing her agreement to meet them at forthcoming operas, receptions and parties.

‘The last thing I heard was from Lord Copper. He telephoned to say you’d left.’

‘I didn’t hear a word from him,’ said John. ‘It’s been very awkward.’

‘The American girl?’

‘Yes. We said good-bye a fortnight ago. I haven’t dared go out or answer the telephone since, just in case.’

‘I wonder what went wrong?’ said Mrs. Stitch. ‘It’s all very mysterious.’

****

The following afternoon, Mr. Salter chaired a meeting at the offices of The Beast to discuss developments in Al Mussab.

‘Lord Copper has told me to write a first leader on the Al Mussab situation,’ said the First Leader Writer. ‘What’s going on? What do we know about it? What have we got to go on?’

Mr. Salter looked at the Managing Editor who looked back at him. William’s first telegram from Aden had seemed promising, despite the fact that it had failed to confirm that there actually was any crisis in Al Mussab. Since his arrival in Al Mussab, however, his cables had focussed either on the weather (‘HOT’, ‘HOT AND HUMID’ and, most recently, ‘GETTING BETTER.’), the local cuisine, the prevalence of biting insects and the habits of camels.

‘Well,’ began Mr. Salter, ‘I would point out that, although our competitors have been giving the story a lot of coverage, none of them appears to know any more about what’s going on than we do. The Brute’s most popular article has been the Al Mussab quiz on its Competitions Page.’

‘I can’t write a first leader in the form of a quiz,’ complained the First Leader Writer. ‘What are special correspondents for? Can’t you cable this Boot and wake him up?’

Mr. Salter sighed.

‘Yes, well I never felt that Boot was really up to the job. I was surprised when Lord Copper picked him but he’s all we’ve got. It would take three weeks to get another man out there, by which time…

‘…the weather may have got still better,’ said the the First Leader Writer bitterly.

Mr. Salter winced. ‘I suppose we could denounce the vacillation of the government in the strongest terms. Say that they fiddle while Al Mussab burns, that sort of thing.’

The First Leader Writer gave Mr. Salter a disapproving look.

‘There isn’t someone out there who could point him in in the right direction, is there? You know, take him under his wing?’

After the meeting, Mr. Salter spoke to the Managing Editor.

‘Call a few of the agencies, will you, and find out who they’ve sent out there. Let’s see if we can kill two birds with one stone.’

****

William sat in the bar of the Intercontinental sipping a pre-prandial glass of dry sherry. The ceiling fans whirred silently, re-distributing the humid air around the room.

It was his third day in Al Mussab and had, in many ways, been much like the previous two. After breakfast, he had spent the morning in the main town of Al Mussab where he had been conveyed by a shabby yellow taxi driven, rather recklessly, by a shabby, middle-aged man wearing a white keffiyeh. Wandering aimlessly, yet slightly less aimlessly than the previous two days, he had come upon more official buildings all of which appeared to be shut. He had also mingled with the local residents as they browsed the shops, stalls and kiosks lining the traffic-clogged streets. Disappointingly, his exposure to Al Mussab’s fauna had been limited to the ubiquitous presence of biting insects and of ill-humoured camels pulling carts through its sand-blown thoroughfares.

At noon, the hubbub throughout the town had given way to peaceful calm as the escalating heat of the day forced Al Mussab’s inhabitants indoors. William had, with some difficulty, managed to find a taxi to drive him the mile or so back to the hotel. There, he had composed cables for transmission to Mr. Salter, lunched and retired to his room where he could shower and perspire in private.

Today as he was dressing for dinner, he had discovered a telegram pushed underneath the door of his room. He opened it.

BEHIND COMPETITORS IMPERATIVE SEND NEW STORIES IMMEDIATELY CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL BEAST

William had sensed that Mr. Salter wanted him to send him new stories at once. However, he was at a loss as to what ‘CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL’ meant. He decided to ask Corker.

As he was about to finish his sherry, he heard a familiar voice.

‘Boot, old chap. How are you settling in?’

Corker entered his field of vision and sat down opposite him, gesturing towards the bar steward.

‘I’ve got a cable from Mr. Salter at The Beast. I don’t suppose you could translate it, could you? I can’t make head nor tail of it.’

William took the telegram from his inside pocket and handed it to Corker.

‘I can guess exactly what it says,’ said Corker. ‘I’ve just got one from my Chief.’

He handed William a crumpled piece of paper. William uncrumpled it.

‘See? Mine says ‘CRISIS COOPERATE BEAST’ and yours says ‘CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL.’’

“What’s UNNATURAL?”

‘It’s the telegraphic name for Universal News. Don’t you see? Our Chiefs want us to work together on new stories about the crisis. It looks like they want to get ahead of the competition.’

Corker paused to order a pint of bitter from the steward before settling for a dry sherry.

‘I’m not sure there is a crisis,’ said WIlliam. ‘I’ve been to the town every morning since we got here and everything seems normal. None of the ministries are open so I can’t ask anyone in authority.’

‘Really? Maybe the ministries have been shut down because of the crisis. “MINISTRIES CLOSE AS CRISIS DEEPENS.”’

William sighed.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve come up with anything to go on?’

‘Well, as a matter of fact, there’s another agency special staying at the Liberty Guesthouse. Older chap called Hitchcock. Very experienced, apparently. He told me that he reported the entire Abyssinia campaign from a hotel in Cairo. Street demonstrations, riots, hand to hand fighting, a tank battle outside Addis Ababa, eye-witness reports, the lot.’

‘Where did he get the information?’

‘Oh, one of his university friends was a government minister and one of his lovers was the wife of an Italian general. It’s all about contacts, see? Have you met anyone?’

The steward arrived with Corker’s sherry and handed him the check to sign.

‘Nobody, really,’ said William, despondently. ‘Well, I say nobody. I had a very nice chat with a couple of chaps who were in the lobby when I arrived. Hassan and Abdullah. They play squash here once a week. When they found out that I play, they invited me to join them in a round robin. It’s tomorrow evening.’

Corker scribbled on his check, entering William’s room number which he had spotted on the bronze tag of his room key lying on the table between them.

‘Excuse me, sir.’

William looked up. It was the steward.

‘I couldn’t help over-hearing. Those gentlemen you were talking to. Do you know who they were?’

‘Yes. Hassan and Abdullah.’

‘That was Crown Prince Hassan Bin Rashid Al Nahmi and his cousin Crown Prince Abdullah, sir.’

William and Corker sat very still.

‘Crown Prince Hassan’s father is Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Nahmi.’

William looked at Corker who looked back at him.

‘Who is…’ asked William.

‘The Minister of Foreign Affairs for Al Mussab.’

Next time…

What is going on in Al Mussab? What will William report back to Mr. Salter?

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.