Waugh and George Steer

In a story about the upcoming release of a major English language film production entitled Gernika (Basque for Guernica), the Cape Argus (a South African newspaper) recalls Evelyn Waugh’s assessment of a fellow journalist in the Abyssinian War, George Steer. It was Steer, a South African, who later broke the story of Nazi involvement in the destruction of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The film includes an a American journalist who, according to the film’s director, combines “character traits” of Steer as well as Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa.

Waugh also has a bit of history with Steer whom he met during the Abyssinian War which Steer was reporting for The Times. This is recounted in the Argus article which claims that Waugh:

… dismissed Steer as “a zealous young colonial reporter” opposed to the Italians’ “civilising” African mission.

Rankin [Steer’s biographer] believes Waugh may have been jealous of Steer, whose education was grander than his own. Steer had graduated with a “double first” in classics, while Waugh had scraped through with a third class honours in history.

Waugh would later waspishly comment on Steer’s “affinity” for the Ethiopians, “like himself African born, who had memorised so many of the facts of European education without ever participating in European culture”.

The “zealous young colonial reporter” appears in Waugh in Abyssinia (p. 166) and is temporarily retained by Italian troops when attempting to scale the walls of the  legation compound. Steer is also said to be the model for the fictional correspondent Pappenhacker who appears in Scoop. Steer was educated at Winchester and Christ Church, and it may be those credentials rather than his “double first” which rankled Waugh. Waugh reviewed Steer’s book about the Abyssinian War in The Tablet (from which Waugh’s last quoted comments are taken) and, while he disagreed with Steer’s support for the Ethiopians, he concedes that Steer

exhibited in a high degree the peculiar gifts required for [international] journalism–keen curiosity of mind, a retentive memory, enterprise, a devotion to duty even at the expense of personal dignity and competitive zeal that was notable even in the international cut-throat rough and tumble of his colleagues…[H]e did earn the affection and respect of many of us… “A ‘Times’ Correspondent“, The Tablet, 23 January 1937 (reprinted EAR, 188-89).

Waugh later wrote a largely favorable review of another book by Steer. This was about the British forces’ East Africa campaign during WWII, and Waugh describes it as “full of witty narrative and sharp portraits.” The Tablet, 26 September 1942 (reprinted EAR, 271-2).

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