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 “On the wing”.
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.
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 the then Rhodesia 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 world of journalism in the 1930s, and the nature of war.
The war correspondent, and conversely the nature columnist, had been the mainstay of the newspaper content in troubled times since the advent of the newspaper as we know it today in the Victorian age. And although the nature column had gone out of fashion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as newspapers struggled in the age of television and later the internet, it was now making a comeback. So much so that the Guardian in Britain is not only publishing its century-old country diary each day, but some of those columns going back 100 years.
The Mercury itself employed the “Peregrine”, Michael Sharland, for 60 years before he retired in the mid-1980s and are happy for me to continue the tradition. But I don’t think the erudite Sharland was ever compared with William Boot.
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 the south-west wilderness in search of 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 seeking 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.