Boars in the wild
While I was re-reading Evelyn Waugh's 'novel about journalists' for last week's British Library discussion (see Scoop! below) it was as though there were parts I had never set eyes on before.
My more cynical friends would say that this was because I had never actually read them before - and that my Scoop-reading, like my War-and-Peace-reading and much else besides, was done in early student days when gutting, skipping and pretending were the most common things to do with any classic book.
But I would contest that - or try to.
One of the parts I was most surprised not to recall comes in the opening scene where Mrs Stitch, her face in a cleansing pack of clay, is paying bills in bed, considering charity invitations ("Why should I go to Viola Chasm's Distressed Area; did she come to my Model Madhouse?") and when (and this is the bit that I forgot) she is helping her daugher Josephine with some Latin homework.
" 'Floribus Austrum' , Josephine chanted, 'perditus et liquidis immisi fontibus apros'; having been lost with flowers in the South and sent into the liquid fountain; apros is wild boars but I couldn't quite make sense of that bit."
Even this least modest of high-born pupils ("I am by far the best in my class although there are several girls older than me and two middle-class boys") is flummoxed.
The lines are from Virgil's second Eclogue, one of his earliest poems in which he mourns the threat to the countryside from war, soldiers and other unpleasant urban realities.
A highly suitable piece for Waugh to pick at the beginning of a novel in which the country peace of Boot Magna is threatened with the craziness of the Ishmaelian War.
Virgil's speaker is the honest countryman Corydon and he is bemoaning the resistance to his charms of the beautiful sophisticated Alexis.
'Madman, I have let in the South wind to my flowers and boars to my crystal springs'.
I never noticed this neat detail when I was skimming (sorry, reading Scoop through) at the studious age of eighteen.
At our British Library event the polymath and journalist, Francis Wheen, also had an identity for little Josephine. She was based, he said, on the character of the then child prodigy, now distinguished chronicler of Byzantium and Venice, John Julius Norwich, son of Lady Diana Cooper, model for the various attributes of Mrs Stitch.
Like so much in Scoop, only the smallest sex change was made to the reality of Waugh's experience.
Last Monday, on a night of near African heat in St Pancras, Our Scoop group chatted gently about that.
Also about the characterisation of the reporter from The Times in the book, the classicist George Steer: "Yes, there's a highbrow yid from The Twopence - but we don't count him", says one of the press pack on the Ishmaelian camoaign.
I recalled a very similar greeting to me once from The Daily Mirror man when I turned up for The Times to cover a royal tour of southern America.
In ninety minutes, under the friendly chairmanship of Peter Florence, we picked our way through all the many other sources for Scoop, most of the examples, to the audience's clearly expressed satisfaction, reflecting very badly on the noble practice of journalism, both then and now.