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Chapter XV. — Sunset and Auckland Star

page 187

Chapter XV.
Sunset and Auckland Star

Tragedy is an inevitable interlude in all the fun, the hard work, and the romance of the newspaper world. There are papers in New Zealand whose proprietors have dug their toes in so deep that it will take more than a depression to shake them. Unfortunately, the best-capitalized ventures are by no means always those which the newspaper man likes best—the enterprises of originality, of keen insight, of trenchant criticism cutting like a knife-blade through all the swathings of policy dictated by financial interests.

The independent-minded newspaper is even more of a fiction in New Zealand than in other countries. It is true that all hands in the newspaper world have combined to treat the Coalition Government with some contempt—when there was nothing to lose by it—but this is merely because nobody has believed that such a shoddy makeshift could conceivably last.

The attitude of most New Zealand dailies on questions of any political importance is a foregone conclusion. Money-bags need never open his morning paper with the presentiment that the New Zealand Herald, the Wellington Dominion, or the Christchurch Press will have anything to say that could possibly spoil the flavour of his breakfast bacon. Nor is all the narrow-mindedness on one side. It would be even more stupid to look for an honest criticism of Trade Unionism, for instance, in the Labour organ, page 188 than to seek for a candid critique of Cabinet in one of the dailies. The coalescing (for purposes of expediency) of Reform and United parties—almost unrecognisable heirs of the old Tory-Liberal principles—has further made newspaper candour a thing of the past, and the most that the average daily can contrive is to be rather feebly unpleasant to everyone. There never was a time in New Zealand's history when there was less mutual respect between local politics and local journalism.

There are exceptions: until the depression became really acute, the Christchurch Sun was one of them, and it still exhibits a ghost of its old-time independence when really important points of policy are not under discussion. But “Sun Newpapers Ltd” went under a cloud that has not yet lifted, when, on September 20, 1930, the big white building of reinforced concrete which showed to Wyndham Street, Auckland, the proud crest of a risen sun, was stricken with the news of a premature sunset.

There have been other newspaper disasters in the last few years—notably the passing of the New Zealand Times—but no other newspaper enterprise of the past twenty years has been started with hopes as high, or conducted as ably, as was the Auckland Sun, younger brother of the Christchurch journal.

The first of the New Zealand Sun newspapers, the Christchurch Sun, fought for its popularity and won it during war days. Its success revealed something that nine New Zealand dailies out of ten blandly ignore—the fact that you can't have good journalism without good journalists.

Newspapers whose staffs cannot be termed brilliant thrive often enough in New Zealand: they rest on old-time prestige—and their youth has generally been far more turbulent and enterprising than their sedate middle-age. They have made themselves indispensable to party interests, build up big circulations in the farming districts—for your farmer page 189 is your true conservative, and insists on being told the things he likes to hear. Country circulation, party backing, help bring in the national advertising contracts—and it is on these that newspapers prosper or are bankrupted in New Zealand to-day.

There is no such thing in New Zealand as a daily free from the dictation of advertising and party interests.

The Christchurch Sun has consistently followed a policy of catching its reporters young—but not of treating them rough. Until recently, its editor, J. H. Hall, was the youngest New Zealander to have the control of a metropolitan daily in his hands, and splendidly he carried out his task. His successor, H. McD. Vincent (otherwise “the Little Serg.,” a nom-de-guerre dating back to Gallipoli days) is also a comparatively young man, and has certainly not had all the originality and pluck ground out of him in the party mills.

Concentration on local interests seems to me to have put the Christchurch Sun head and shoulders above its evening rival, the Christchurch Star. Where the rest of the world screamed Hitler or Mussolini, the Christchurch Sun would raise Hell in large headlines concerning a bridge, harbour or art gallery site the question of which was smouldering in the Canterbury bosom. All Sun reporters were “bush-rangers”—wandering hither and thither to pick up local incident, tint with local colour, and present in “snappy” style. There was no such thing as stereo-typed and formal reporting. Everything printed in the paper was original — with the exception, of course, of its cable services—and the consequence was a success hardly looked for in its first days.

It was up against a big thing in the Auckland Star, later to be incorporated with New Zealand Newspapers, Ltd., capital £1,000,000, when it was finally decided to float the Auckland Sun. But bigger things still were hoped for on the Sun's part.

page 190

The make-up of the paper was characteristically English—cable news on the front page, whilst every other newspaper in the Dominion was plugging away with front and back pages a weltering mass of advertisements, in which you could locate corncures, theatrical notices and the addresses of phrenologists, but nothing of further importance.

Why in the name of all newspaperdom's gods and idols this particular type of make-up should be considered dignified and conservative I simply cannot see: but it is so. It's a freakishness of mentality, ingrown with the passing years. The Auckland Sun put important things on the pages where they might reasonably be expected to catch the eye… and thousands on thousands of times, during its brief but bright existence, I heard the complaint, “But you can't find anything in the Auckland Sun.”

However, not lack of circulation, but lack of advertising, was the ultimate cause of the crash.

During the short years of the Auckland Sun's existence, the Auckland Star might roughly have been described as a good paper, though the same could never truthfully have been said of its Christchurch satellite, the Star, which seems to exist mainly because its parent company has a lot of money and is ambitious of making a lot more.

It is common newspaper axiom that four Christchurch dailies—Christchurch Press and Christchurch Times in the morning, Christchurch Sun and Christchurch Star at dewy eve—cannot all continue to exist. The Press is impregnable: the real tussle is between the two evening papers. It is, in my opinion, a test of strength between good money and good journalism, though, since the litigation which finally let New Zealand Newspapers, Ltd., in for heavy costs over the great empty Auckland Sun building in Wyndham Street, things have been brighter financially for the Sun's supporters.

There are reasons why the Sun papers inspire page 191 more loyalty—and, yes, perhaps more sentiment too —than most New Zealand dailies, though nearly all newspapers have a soupçon of that fatal fascination you'll find written up in Gibbs' “Street of Adventure.” The Christchurch Sun was the one and only daily to pay serious attention to literary work— poems, short stories, articles—garnered in from the stores of New Zealand writers.

A common cry is that as soon as a New Zealand writer has made good, he or she takes a lifebuoy and strikes merrily out for another and a better shore. When C. A. Marris was co-editor and literary chief of the Christchurch Sun, one of the wealthiest newspaper proprietors in New Zealand wrote down to him on the subject of verse, asking how much he paid per poem: “Not that he really believed in running the tripe, but that it seemed a popular thing now-adays.”

And on hearing the usual Sun rate, the writer of this intelligent and encouraging screed promptly offered payment for original contributions — at a figure just a little more economical. C. A. Marris and the Catholic organ, The Month, between them can claim the credit of bringing Eileen Duggan's work to popular notice in New Zealand. She was a poet, and one of note, before the Sun ever got into its stride, but New Zealand was not aware of the fact.

The Christchurch Sun inaugurated literary competitions which must have cost the company hundreds yearly. Its Christmas supplement was by far the most brilliant thing that any New Zealand daily has ever contrived, and its collapse, after the Auckland Sun's downfall, was something of a tragedy to New Zealand scribes.

Fairburn, Mason, C. R. Allen, Alison Grant, Monte Holcroft, Ngaio Marsh, a score of writers whose names count to-day, if their audiences are still small, came to light in Sun supplement days. It wasn't the Sun page 192 practice, when kids in their 'teens sent in stuff that the literary djinns approved of, to post off a cheque and leave it at that. Letters of encouragement were forwarded too… the paper had a genius for making friends, and it has kept them, though to-day it is shorn of its literary glory.

C. A. Marris, first of the Christchurch Sun's literary men, departed for Wellington to rescue the New Zealand Times from oblivion. For years, the one-time Liberal organ had sunk into a hopeless condition. In the first place there weren't any Liberals left; in the second place, the company hadn't any money. The Times was a dead loss, and the sly little reminder on the back of its morning rival's delivery van, “Buy the Dominion and keep ahead of the Times,” was absolutely unnecessary. It was as forlorn in the newspaper world as the handful of erstwhile Liberals uneasily seated in the House, switching from one new name to another, looking for leaders and finding them not, eternally failing to attract the slightest attention. It was from this woe—begone band that our present Prime Minister was recruited—and he has lived up to his political antecedents.

After a brief spell of Marris editorship, the New Zealand Times was sold at an excellent figure and as a thing to be taken seriously, to the Dominion newspaper, which, of course, once having obliterated its newly potent rival, went ahead blandly in its same old way, bestirring itself no more. C. A. Marris had resurrected the Times as a newspaper, and it was a bitter blow to him when, without overmuch warning, the daily which he had visioned as a political and journalistic instrument of real significance simply slipped into oblivion. Though most newspaper proprietors have their price, every editor hasn't. Marris was for a time editor of the New Zealand Referee — an extraordinarily uncongenial position, as it transpired, for though the Australian- page 193 born journalist knew the fine points of horse-flesh, literature, politics, art were far closer to his heart.

Then, with the help of Harry Tombs, he put out the first number of Art in New Zealand. Nobody believed for a moment that this quarterly, overshadowed by the larger capital and older standing of Art in Australia, could possibly live. It is still going strong, and its editor has not only picked up the threads of association with most of his old Sun contributors, but has discovered new lights a-plenty. Art in New Zealand may have a long way to go yet before it entrenches itself in a position as invulnerable as Art in Australia, but during the depression it has played a fine part in New Zealand letters, and has the satisfaction of knowing that Art in Australia took it seriously enough to appoint a special agent to round up New Zealand circulation, even to suggest printing a regular New Zealand section.

When Marris departed from the Christchurch Sun, “J.H.E.S.,” otherwise Mr. J. Schroder, took his place as literary chief, built up the highest standards in the literary section ever attained in New Zealand journalism, and ran his own very delightful column, “The Wooden Horse” yclept. Strawhatted and serene, “J.H.E.S.” took literary classes at the W.E.A. in Christchurch, had been a master at a Christchurch college. He is now associate editor of the Christchurch Press, which paper has since, from the literary point of view, blossomed as the rose.

The news editor of that day was “Mac” Vincent, Christchurch Sun editor now—a little Irishman with grizzled dark hair, twinkling brown eyes and a sense of humour that would by no means be repressed. He was famed as the man who shot Lord Kitchener. This occurred when “Mac” was a very junior member of the military reserves, and the severe war lord was in Christchurch looking over Colonial discipline with an eagle eye. Military manoeuvres on the grand scale were arranged, and cadets armed with blank-loaded page 194 weapons stalked one another in Hagley Park. The “death” or capture of an enemy was naturally an excellent thing. Beholding an important-looking, red-visaged personage sitting on a horse, “Mac” discharged several rounds of blanks, exclaiming with glee, “Now you're dead.” Kitchener grinned, but the Christchurch powers-that-were declared that the entire show had been ruined.

An ardent mountaineer, “Mac” Vincent has had more than one adventure in the Mount Rolleston regions—less publicised than Mount Cook and its soaring Alpine brothers, but offering hazardous climbs for those who care to undertake them. On one occasion, “Mac” achieved a winter climb which he believed to be the first successful snow-season attempt on a particularly stiff peak. To his rage, on descending, he found that an eighteen-years-old flapper had nipped in ahead, conquered the minor Everest just a week before. Girls will be boys these days.… . Another climbing expedition was rather more disastrous. “Mac” and his companion, another Sun man, Frank Hinton, cables editor, disappeared gracefully from view over a precipice. That broken ribs and bruises were the only souvenirs was a signal proof of the fact that Somebody—no matter whom— takes care of journalists, who are of course all his very own.

Other figures of interest slipped in and out of old Christchurch Sun days. Under J. H. Hall's editorship, things went pleasantly. Reserved, quiet, but always friendly to his racketty crew of youngsters and never under any circumstances ill-tempered or unfair, the young editor from Taranaki knew far more of the inner workings of his office than does the average metropolitan daily “chief,” for everyone, from the caretakers and the carrier pigeons downwards, liked and trusted him. His present occupation of the Dominion's editorial chair is interesting, for there could hardly be more dissimilar types than the page 195 Sun chief and C. W. Earle. Staunch old fighter though the latter was, he had a heart-breaking trick of pigeon-holing his reporters and scribes, thereafter forgetting all about them. I met one “leader-writer,” since become the editor of a smaller but still quite significant daily himself. His attitude was almost tearful. Week in, week out, he turned in his copy. Week in, week out, he drew his salary. The only omission was that his stuff didn't appear. Nor was he the only Dominion writer, male or female, to enjoy the same experience. Now, whilst no journalist is especially priggish about taking money for nothing— for the profession is ill-paid—every journalist is more or less vainglorious, and would rather be hauled over the coals every night of the week than thus paid off and ignored. The great difference is that, with the exception of a trusted few of the “old brigade”— and even these sometimes fell a long way out of favour-Earle saw little of his employees, whilst in the Christchurch Sun, where the editorial office was a dusty little den shared by the literary editors, entering was not a matter of vast form and ceremony.

However, in the Dominion's old days, when politics were politics and scribes were glad of it, there were different reports of the “Early Bird”: one being that he used to stalk through the sub-editorial domain, murmuring, “Well, boys, plenty of Blood and Guts in it this morning, I hope?”

The Auckland's Sun's brilliant rise and its early constancy in the heavens was watched with natural interest and anxiety by the Christchurch brethren.

Saturday, September 20, was the day of the deluge. Notice appeared without warning at about a quarter to twelve. The confidential secretary who typed the notice had no warning of the impending tragedy, and wept as she typed out the last dread “writing on the wall.” Neither the editor nor the editorial staff knew what was pending. One or two page 196 had had their suspicions. The managing director of “Sun Newspapers, Ltd.,” had been working late in his room that week, a most unusual circumstance. Furthermore, this director (E. C. Huie), though pledged to secrecy whilst negotiations were in progress, dropped a hint to one man, by telling him not to go ahead with his idea of buying a house. Probably not even the Sun men knew that certain of the shareholders in their company had quite openly, months before, disparaged the great idea and lamented over their small prospects of ever writing down the Sun venture as a profitable business.

Huie was the butt of much criticism at the time (the disaster was first cleverly but rather cruelly worded “Ship gone down, all hands lost but the captain”), but looking back one recognises his iron nerve and self-control in times of difficulty and personal humiliation. He had staked all his energy, skill, and judgment on the Auckland Sun's prosperity, and had failed.

A farewell leader was prepared by Huie himself, and was fitted into the leader page after the bomb had been dropped. An earlier leader, written by the assistant editor, was shelved, and never appeared in print. Likewise a good editorial that went down with the Sun was the leader-epitaph dealing with the death of His Majesty King George V. Written when His Majesty was gravely ill, it was shelved when he recovered, and kept for future use. (This is quite usual journalistic procedure, and many prominent people might be a little nervous if made aware that already, in journalistic annals, they are “meat” for obituaries, and can have their epitaphs in print at a moment's notice.) Ultimate fate of the King George V. obituary: melted down, which is one up for His Majesty.

Percy Crisp, the broad-shouldered jovial editor, was a fine man in himself, and splendid to work for: indeed, no really unpopular man has ever occupied page 197 an editorial or near-editorial position with Sun newspapers. The literary staff gave him two engraved pewter tankards—useful to the jolly “Captain Hook” who made such a hit when the Auckland Little Theatre Society staged “Peter Pan,” with Crisp as the piratical villain. Not all of his executive staff had shown him the loyalty his unselfishness deserved, and, though a brilliant writer, he had little enough time to contribute original matter to his own paper. But Percy Crisp made his mark on New Zealand journalism, and is now a prominent figure on the staff of the Daily Express, London. He finds time for wandering in out-of-the-way haunts, and I heard of him last year as a sojourner in — of all places —Finland and Lappland.

In the luncheon room on the third floor, Huie addressed the staff a day or two after the crash. (It was still intact for a week.) Some reporters were rebellious, and there were murmurs of dissent during Huie's address, for the youngsters who had been. kept so utterly in the dark felt that they had been badly treated. It is an ordeal for any man to go through, and Huie was profoundly affected, showing for the first time just how hard he had been hit. Even the rebels felt sorry for him on that disastrous day. They knew — or considered — that the fight against the Sun had not always been fair, and that important advertisers whose support would have spelt the difference between success and failure had been influenced by strategies which were less like war with the gloves off than like a chunk of lead comfortably concealed in the opponent's boxing-glove. And the depression was well under way… . Two months earlier, the staff had been asked to swallow a ten per cent. cut. Only one man, the associate editor, refused, and he took three months' notice instead.

Among the Sun staff that day, it was recorded that the Star people celebrated their success with a page 198 champagne dinner. Vae victis… . though since that time, unemployment and distress in any profession has come to look a little less charming to the hardest-headed than it did before we learned our depression A.B.C. However, the champagne went down, what time Sun men shed tears into their beer. The outlook seemed black enough for many of them, yet nearly all have come up smiling.

Stanbrook, the chief Sun reporter, is now with the New Zealand Herald, which paper has also gathered unto its bosom D. S. C. Taylor, a bright spot among reporters. J. G. McLean, Sun leader-writer, edits the New Zealand Observer. A. Tronson, racing editor, and better known as “Early Bird,” is a successful free lance. L. M. Aitken is chief sub. on the Christchurch Press, Bert Williamson has departed to sub-edit a Victorian daily, C. W. Vennell, the Sun's pictorial editor, now manages the Waikato Independent. Terry McLean, who left the Napier Public High School to join the Sun staff only a couple of months before the crash, went to the Hastings Tribune and had a hectic time in the 'quake four months later. J. M. Mackenzie, Sun sports editor, is on New Zealand Truth, Jock Gillespie edits the Mirror. Other Sun men, who departed before the holocaust, were Eric Ramsden, now pictorial editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Ian Coster, who draws a star salary as a London Sunday Dispatch feature writer and looks like making his name in England, Earl Robieson, now a Victorian newspaperman, Ian Donnelly, who went down to act as assistant editor on the Christchurch Sun, made the long trek to London and is sending back first-rate articles, W. A. Whitlock, who edits the Hastings Tribune.

Although it ended so tragically, most of those who participated in the glorious adventure will look back on the three and a half years from February, '27, to September, '30, as the happiest time in their page 199 career in journalism. The Sun scored some mighty scoops — notably a complete report of the Rugby match on which Hawkes Bay lost the Ranfurly Shield to Wairarapa, on June 3rd, 1927. This match was not covered by the Star at all. The New Lynn “flat-iron” murder (the Norgrove case), was another Sun scoop.…

But more than success, scoops, prosperity, was the camaraderie which has always attached to the Sun papers, and the spirit of adventure which was encouraged there as in no other journalistic sphere. There was a genuine feeling of literary effort, too. … The famous Sun competitions have been dropped altogether since a Sun advertising man, Davies, first strolled by the great empty building, flourished his hat and quoted in a loud voice.

“Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then you and I and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.”

For a time, litigation over the value of the building which was taken over by New Zealand Newspapers Ltd. looked like putting the Sun company on a desperately precarious footing in its last stronghold, Christchurch. The purchasing company appealed against the valuation: they lost their case, and the judge was a little terse with certain aspects of the appellants' way of putting facts under his notice.

The facts were that the Star was to buy at valuation land and building — cost £43,341, government valuation £32,625. Mr. H. E. Vaile, valuer for Sun, valued at £18,000. The two valuers could not agree. Sir Walter Stringer, umpire, awarded £59,700. In the Court of Appeal, Sir Michael Myers, C.J.: “The two companies prepared and settled their agreement without professional advice.… They acted throughout as their own lawyers. It would not be surprising if they page 200 have since reflected upon the wisdom of a certain well-known aphorism.” The Star's application to upset the award was dismissed. (For the uninitiated the aphorism is: He who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.)

Maybe the survivors of the Sun's wreck didn't drink champagne that night, but there was probably a convivial round or two, anyhow.

Curiously enough, it is an Auckland Star man, Alan Mulgan, the assistant editor (Sir Cecil Leys is great white chief at the Star premises), who has done his level best to adopt the old Sun tradition, giving something of a helping hand to younger writers. Rumour hath it that not unopposed does he sandwich verses and stories every little while in between chunks of Dear Dora's Fashion Fables… An Irishman, tall, broad-shouldered, eternally in a hurry but not too busy to be an eminently kindly and human type of newspaper man, Alan Mulgan is himself the author of numerous books and plays. “Home,” a Colonial picture of England, was his most popular prose work, and is written with a wealth of descriptive detail and sympathetic feeling. His long narrative poem, “Golden Wedding,” is an unusual achievement in New Zealand poetry: it takes long for anything so alien as our brown hills and farmlands to attract any interest in busy London, but “Golden Wedding” should live in the history of New Zealand poetry. “Spur of the Morning,” a novel with a New Zealand setting, is his 1934 effort and has roused much interest.

Political developments of the next year or so will probably mean that New Zealand journals will take up a far more definite stand in regard to the present crisis than is possible at present. Never was a time when straight-speaking, clearly-worded and critical journalism was more bitterly needed in New Zealand. Journals of to-day will be forced into supplying it— page 201 or will be weighed in the balance, and found wanting. But often the independent thinker must pass by the tall white emptiness of the Wyndham Street Sun building with regret.… There was great achievement planned here, and journalistic standards were set back when it failed.

The machinery that brought out Sun editions, a few years back, has found at least partial use. The 'quake wrecked Napier and Hastings newspapers, damaged newspaper plant beyond repair. A fair proportion of the Sun machinery was taken over by the Napier Daily Telegraph, which pluckily carried on despite a loss rumoured to amount to £90,000.

There was some suggestion once of moving the Elam School of Art from its deplorable old buildings to the Sun premises. It was never carried out. None but memories and shadows move in the old building where one editor thanked his staff for pewter tankards, whilst champagne glasses were filled not far away.

The present owners of the building have taken down the symbol of the glittering risen Sun. But not yet has the Sun set in Christchurch.