A Foreword — The Song-And-Dance-Men
IN a glass dish on the little office table were some wheat ears which to me looked uninteresting and decrepit. Nevertheless he had to arise, go forth into the outer office, and have a ten minutes' heart to heart talk with their owner.
When he came back, “It's like that,” he said dejectedly, “all day long. Have a cigarette. You can roll your own, I suppose? Those things,” with a bitter glance at the wheat ears, “were raised from seed that came out of some Egyptian tomb or other, about 3,000 years ago. He's germinated them. Now he wants to know if it's any use growing them in New Zealand—you know, on a serious profit-making basis. No money, no fun. Yes, that's what it's like, and all day.”
It is like that all day, in New Zealand journalism. In most of the grimy little second, third or fourth storey newspaper offices (no decent journalist was ever yet in on the ground floor about anything), life becomes a matter of routine work and of suffering fools sadly.
You'd think that these little offices would at least be obscure. They are not. All the wrong people know them off by heart. They are frequented by religious maniacs, women who state that they have been drugged on respectable racecourses and want a lot of publicity about it, more women who know the inside facts of murder trials and the most unprintable vital statistics.page 10
There are also people who want you to believe like grim death (and in capital letters), all about a new faith-healer, bookies who won't be content to tell the tale once and leave it at that. Returned soldiers come up and offer lady writers bootlaces— brown ones at that. There's usually a sale, because there was once a war. I have sat by, suppressing mirth even as the Dormouse was suppressed at the Alice in Wonderland tea-party, whilst a powerfully-built woman with a chin that wouldn't take “No” for an answer made a determined effort to sell my editor dainty articles of underwear. (If there is a door between editorial sanctum and aide-de-camp's dugout, it either won't shut or doesn't fit).
There is also the telephone, and about this I would write with some feeling. It hits the women writers hardest and oftenest, and is used mainly by Wrong Numbers or by women whose names have been spelled incorrectly in, or left out of, the social columns.
I think journalism was begotten in sin, anyhow. If not, to judge by modern New Zealand newspapers, there's not a thing in circumstantial evidence.
'Way back in the time when we were discussing 3,000 year old wheat ears, the patient farming journal editor was trying to explain that journalism in New Zealand is changing. Before our eyes…
First we had America, then we had the depression. We could have stood either, but not both. And the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, such of it as is not already broke, has taken to crooning “For ever to have and to hold” over its money. There is what I call an extremely vulgar interest now taken in figures—outside the fashion page.
There used to be song-and-dance men on the stage. If you didn't like them, you threw tomatoes or raspberries at them. Otherwise.… you rather loved them. I don't know if you remember, but page 11 such was the case. They have gone. Once it might have been to the Devil, but now I'm afraid they go to America. There were, until a few years ago, sky-rockets a-plenty in New Zealand journalism. They weren't particularly official or officious, they just wrote, and were worth the reading.
Auckland Sun out —— and some sunset! Down in Christchurch, the first N.Z. Sun newspaper, to my mind the most likeable daily in the Dominion, cuts down on its contributors, and gets busy paying for its promising little brother's funeral expenses.
Christchurch Weekly Press out. …. with it, personal and vain-glorious memory of my first short story cheerfully featured on the paper's billboards. Green poster, black lettering —— and they were man-sized letters, too.
Read “The Seagull and the Wren,” by Robin Hyde.
“They said,” explained another Christchurch editor to me, “that it was a damned shame to pay 30/- for that story. So they put it on the boards.”
I'd have spent an extra couple of guineas, in fact probably they'd have been spent long before the cheque ever arrived, but there you are: black letters on a green board, sempiternal.
Otago Daily Witness, where for so long a while old Paul dug his toes into the trenches, and put up a stout fight after leaving the Labour cause: Aussie, where the Diggers used to read bits about one another: and more. Not only in New Zealand, of course. Years ago, the light that was the Triad flickered and failed when Frank Morton died, and Bayertz was left abandoned and helpless. Now all the Pretty Boys who've been to England once, come home not precisely entrenched in literary positions, sternly insist that it wasn't a light at all. We must, they say, develop a purely Colonial style, no family or Windsor ghosts, local colour laid on as page 12 thick as a chorine's grease-paint. Sit about singing to tuis and babbling of bellbirds for the term of your natural life, but if you happen to think of something that might have occurred just anywhere in the world of man, woman and child, keep it dark. I hate these aggressively insular New Zealanders. I think they menace journalism in our perfectly decent little country with something corresponding to appalling Australian complaint of the four big B's—bullockies, bluegums, Bradman, and you know the other one.
One may find the new journalistic breakfast foods, syndicated “tripe” features run cheap from America, a bit glutinous and pre-digested. But the song-and-dance men are gone from the stage, and the men who could simply write are gone, most of them, from journalism. Sic transit. Still, we shall speak a little of what was, for much of it deserves remembrance.