Those of us who blogged through the Iraq War will of course remember the Friedman unit, a measurement of time defined as how long it will take until things are OK in Iraq, conventionally equal to six months, named for Thomas “Airmiles” Friedman of the New York Times. But I didn’t realise the unit has a prior history. Not until I read Waugh in Abyssinia, that is.
OK so; this is the book Evelyn Waugh wrote about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, that would become the source for his novel Scoop!. It’s a very strange book. Waugh divides it into three parts, and there’s no reason not to tackle it in the same way. The first third is a potted history of imperialism in the Horn of Africa, startlingly radical (he basically adopts a Hobson/Lenin economic-determinist explanation) and very critical of the British (mostly for hypocrisy). His account of the complicated way in which Ethiopia was both a target of imperialism and an expansionist empire itself, and his insistence on the transformative importance of the League of Nations’ international recognition of the country, is great.
The second contains Waugh’s narrative of his travels and the war. This is basically why the book is still read – it’s classic impressionistic travel writing, with good jokes about reporters prefiguring Scoop, fine prose, and a subtle account of a pre-modern society trying to be modern.
What he’s going on about here is one of the key forms of the state in the 20th century – the development dictatorship. Waugh is very good on the conflicts inherent in this, the contract-hunting chancers and weirdos drawn to it, and the ambivalence of the whole project. Ambivalence about modernity is the core theme of his work, and development dictatorship gave him enormous scope to, ah, develop it. One of the key things you have to grasp about him is that although his self-presentation in his old age was as someone who’d been a deep reactionary all along, his books aren’t often like that. He plays up the old git shtick, and then leaps on a train de luxe to the front line. The contradiction is where the art gets in, and why the journey to Ethiopia inspired him.
The third section, though, is completely weird. Waugh went back to Ethiopia after the Italians occupied it, and at this point his scepticism seems to have completely failed him. He kicks off mocking journalists in Djibouti who tell him the war isn’t over and guerrillas are everywhere, warms up by insulting British MPs who make the mistake of caring what happened to the Ethiopians, and travels up the line to Addis Ababa. On the way he observes that every bridge, tunnel, and choke point is heavily guarded by tired, nervous Italian soldiers. No matter.
He goes to see the Italian governor, who has installed himself in the emperor’s palace, surrounded by the few sticks of dictator chic the looters didn’t steal or torch. Six months, they agree. He bashes “liberals” some more. Guerrillas break into the city centre in company size, exactly as the guy he was shitposting says, and he gets shot at. Six months, he says, and everything will be OK. Not just the unit size, or the security situation, but the characteristic architecture and interior design of the Friedman unit has been defined. He has another dig at a British MP for believing that the Ethiopian resistance government still exists. They’ll be put in the bag, in six months. Rather as the Americans never did get Saddam’s appointed deputy, the Italians never did catch it.
He completely falls head over heels in love with the Italian contractors who are building a new road as a counterinsurgency project (it’s going to be done in six months), and announces that the Ethiopians never bothered to build any roads, forgetting that he already praised one of theirs a hundred and fifty pages back. It’s a header right into the deep end of the trahison des clercs.
And we probably better talk about the racism. At this period of his career Waugh has a weird habit where he’s quite capable of being respectful of foreigners’ institutions, character, or appearance…and then he throws in a massive, jarring insult. It’s never integral to his point, but rather chucked in as a style statement, a sort of sprezzatura of turds. This always makes him sound weirdly American, because the style he adopts and the choice of epithets come from there. Rather than the kind of patronising imperial condescension you expect, you get a shot of the Klan, of burning crosses on suburban lawns, corpses towed behind Ford V-8s. Tellingly, he kids himself the Italian conquerors are like…the pioneers of the American West.
The point would be made to him in due course. By the time he came to write the Sword of Honour trilogy, he’s cut it out. It took the second world war to do that. But what interests me is that he didn’t start off writing like that. He got it from somewhere, but where?