William Boot, the bumbling war correspondent in the satirical novel about journalism, Scoop, and I have much in common. Or so I have been told by readers of the “On the wing” column.
Although I’ve tried to develop the image of a cool, jet-setting journalist – at least during my younger days – I’ve never quite escaped the shadow of William Boot, the nature writer for the Daily Beast who found himself sent to Africa to cover human conflict by mistake.
Notebook in hand, sharp pencil at the ready, and keeping an eye out for the neatest telex machine, I thought I had a “hold the front page” persona far removed from the dithering, confused and lost Boot during my own days covering wars in Africa. But Boot stalked me at every turn, making the press clubs of the continent a troubling environment. It was as though I always carried a pair of binoculars strung around my neck, to match the metaphorical Indiana Jones fedora with a press card jutting from the hatband.
Then again, my eyes were often trained on the skies, or the treetops, and my reports from various fronts in war and peace had more references to birds, and wildlife in general, than was usual for a war correspondent. And the lexicon of the foreign correspondent sometimes strayed into that of the twitcher. The other journos gathered in the press clubs of Cape Town, Johannesburg and the old Salisbury, Rhodesia, tweeted as much when I walked into the bar, long before tweets became fashionable in the electronic age.
It was after all the lure of birds, and elephant, rhino and lion, which landed me on the Dark Continent in the first place and, strangely, a meeting with the man whose own deeds in northern Africa had inspired the Boot character. William Deedes, the editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, had come to Salisbury to witness himself the last of Africa’s colonial wars.
Sipping gin-and-tonics with Deedes in Salisbury’s historic Meakles Hotel, it occurred to me at that time that Evelyn Waugh had displayed a spark of comic genius to make a nature writer the butt of satirical jokes about the cut-throat world of journalism in the 1930s, and the cut-throat nature of war.
The war correspondent, and conversely the nature columnist, had been the mainstay of the newspaper content in troubled times, not just the tense period in the build-up to the Second World War, but to the Boar and First World Wars.
If you were going to write a satire about war and its coverage, why not base it on a man who loved badgers?
Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, published in 1789, might have fired my interest in nature writing – probably because it covered the area in southern England where I spent my youth – but it has always been the nature notes published in newspaper columns that I have turned to first instead of books on wildlife.
The columns link my two great passions in life, nature and newspapers. The Guardian of England’s Country Diary – first published in 1904 – has been the stand-out and the modern age of the internet now allows me to read it each day, wherever I am.
The Guardian writers, though, have rarely been working journalists as such. There’s even a hint of Boot in their eccentricities, often as interesting and entertaining as the nature they cover. On a rare gathering in London, one of the correspondents was reported to have arrived with a luggage label attached to his duffle coat. On it was written his name and home address in Wales just in case he got lost in the metropolis.
In contrast, my predecessor at the Mercury, Michael Sharland, was very much a journalist, writing his nature notes under the name of the “Peregrine” for 60 years before retiring in the 1980s. In all that time, Sharland missed only three editions, and that was because he was preoccupied with war himself, serving with the Australian forces in Papua New Guinea in World War Two.
The nature column has always had its place in newspapers. It might have gone out of fashion in recent years, as newspapers themselves have in the age of television and later the internet, but it is now making a comeback. So much so that the Guardian is printing each week columns going back 100 years, revealing that the connection between nature scribes and war pre-dates Evelyn Waugh. One column published in April 23, 2017, gave an account of events on the Somme a century previously, with the headline “Birds on the battlefield”.
The battlefield aside, if there has been a constant theme in nature writing over the past century it is the shrinking habitats available to wildlife, and thus declines in populations. Ironically, the same can be said of the nature writer, who has found competition for shrinking column space. But like birds fighting to defend territories, the nature writers have held their own, patrolling what I consider the world’s most important front line, between nature on the retreat and the advance of humankind.
In more modern times the nature of nature writing itself has slowly evolved into another genre. We now have what is termed new nature writing, following in the tradition of new journalism which puts the writer in the story, instead of he or she merely sitting back and observing.
There is room, though, for both genres, and I find myself straying out of the “On the Wing” format to the other from time to time.
When I met the real Boot, I soon discovered he was not a bit like the character lampooned by Waugh in the late 1930s. All the same, as a naïve but enthusiastic 22-year-old setting out on his first assignment by equipping himself with 270 kilograms of luggage for travel to foreign parts at a colonial outfitters in the British capital, Deedes caught Waugh’s attention, and imagination.
Bill Deedes was now a grand old man – who had taken time out from journalism to serve in Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet during WWII – and I felt it inappropriate to mention Boot.
Not so the people I come across these days, even in far-flung Tasmania, so far from the Fleet Street where Scoop was set and where I once worked as a wordsmith myself.
My latest Boot episode came on a day when I was being a little more intrepid than usual. I had escaped my suburban environment to travel to Tasmania’s south-west wilderness in search of the rarest wild bird in the world, the orange-bellied parrot.
At that moment I was ecstatic, ticking off the bird at last after searching for it over several winters the hard way – unsuccessfully hunting for the tiny parrot in its wintering grounds on the mainland.
As I waited on the remote quartzite runway at Melaleuca for the flight back to Hobart, a reader of the Mercury recognised me, saying: “You don’t look a bit like Boot!”
I wasn’t so sure. My thoughts were still with the parrot and the journalist inside me wanted to cry out “scoop” in celebration at finally seeing the bird.