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Chapter II. — They Want to Write

page 18

Chapter II.
They Want to Write

Everything delicately lovely surrounded her. There was a tiny Venetian flower-boat in porcelain, an etching of a boy with his impish face puckered up into a whistle.

“There was too much poetry written in that Form,” said she firmly; “I believe, my dear, they used to read ‘Poems of To-day,’ go out and contemplate for a bit—and lo, forthwith another poem.”

It used to be her Form, as far as literature, alleged literature and literary attempts were concerned. And it was at Wellington Girls' College, where we all liked her—and I think that on this especial point she was wrong.

What is it gets into the blood and dreams of youth, singles one out here and there, shoves obvious incompatibles into a group, says, “Create, or be damned?” Of course, you probably are, anyhow, in the long run, but you don't know that for the time being, and perhaps you, or somebody else, may create something worth while. I suppose that usually, with women, it's best done via matrimony. But there were some, a group of malcontents if you like, who couldn't be content to leave well alone the scornful crystal moons, the bluegums straight as masts on the Wellington hills. They wanted to write. A similar group might have been found among our predecessors, the girls whose feet had hollowed out the College stairway, a wooden one, into little grooves, as the stone stairs in the caves of Kor were hollowed out by the tiny passing feet of Rider Haggard's “She.”

page 19

In Auckland, there's the same restless ill-worded wish among the 1934 youngsters. Well, anyhow, if it does little else, it provides the Funny Men who criticise the works of “budding writers” with a jolly good Aunt Sally. … . and one impotent when it comes to hitting back.

Free Lance office, Panama Street, Wellington. There reigned old Mr. Geddis. Probably there'll be a long line after him, but none will ever have more impressive editorial eyebrows. First poem printed, something about Poppy Day. But it was the dickens of a while since Poppy Day, no cheque had arrived. Beard the lion in his den, then……

There was something majestic about that editorial retort (quite kindly though; editors always are quite kindly to kids with pigtails down their backs, who come in and want to know why they haven't been paid for their work).

“But that was for a patriotic object. We didn't think you'd want money for that.”

I went out feeling like an interesting zoological sort of cross between Judas Iscariot and a worm. On request, would have executed a fleshy wriggle on the office floor. I never thought of asking him whether he gave away Free Lances, really dinkum free, or advertising space, when a patriotic object was in view.

About that time I read Jack London's “Martin Eden.” Martin Eden wanted to write, too. For a long while collecting cheques from newspaper offices came harder than the Scriptural attempt to get figs from thistles. The office I liked best, in this tale, was the one which when asked for money simply banded its merry men together and threw the seeker down several flights, of stairs. I think the same compromise should be reached between New Zealand newspapers and young contributors; that way one has at least a sporting chance, and it's all page 20 a mistake to think women can't fight, as witness the Pankhurst lasses and the suffragette cause.

There was much fun, though, in just trying to write. There is for everyone. Over in Australia, the Bulletin and the Triad shone stately, like Aldebaran and Neptune in our sky. (The literary sky's eyes must twinkle, rather, to watch the immense earnestness of beginners.) The Bulletin said “Promising,” twice it did. The Triad said “Shows signs of unusual promise,” which is, I suppose, the sort of thing you might say about a new kind of tomato, but I cut it out and kept it.

Not the gold lamps of Heaven,
Not the unmoving sea
Where no wind blows, but grey desert
Is fate for the soul of me—
Such is my destiny.

Through the great shadowed sky-space
Age after age to tread
With the little gold stars for campfires
And the bivouac songs of the dead.

On second thoughts, the Triad certainly did best to lock it in the old oak chest. Meanwhile a contributor to the Dominion, I think it was Eric Baume, now very successful editor of the Sydney Sunday Sun, excavated bits from the little “Reporter,” and, before I'd said “Goodbye for ever” to the English trees and wooden stairway of our school, startled several people, including this scribe, with a full column in the Dominion—on a news page, too: if ever you're on a newspaper you'll know what a thrill that means—headed “Schoolgirl Poetess.” That was an awful thing to call anyone, really, but at the time it looked like a leap up the ladder of fame which a kangaroo, in good form, might have envied. In between quoting bits out of various extremely sentimental poems, Mr. Baume would write paragraphs admitting that the stuff had points (but so page 21 has barbed wire in a nudist colony).

I heard a story about him that I liked very well. It happened (men say) when he was on one New Zealand paper, the editor of which everybody hated in the extreme. After listening to much blackguarding of this gentleman's ways and works, “I say, look here,” said the then youthful Mr. Baume thoughtfully, “this man is an editor, isn't he?”

It was agreed that such was the hideous state of affairs. “Then,” said Mr. Baume, with the air of one who doesn't let trifles stop him, “if he wanted me to kiss his foot, I'd do it.”

In the 1922 days stuff you remembered was going into Triad pages, some haunting poems, prose that had an edge like a scimitar. A man called Baeyertz was running the show. He was rather excitingly rude to almost everyone. You'll remember that the Triad described the singing voice of a gentleman of the Fuller clan as a “pig's whistle.” Said gentleman, possibly acting on the principle, “I don't care what you may say about me so long as you mention my name,” sang scales in court to prove Baeyertz a liar, but lost his libel action.

The mana of the Bulletin was great, and had its awkward moments for its many imitators over here in New Zealand. For example, I know of one New Zealand periodical which does its honest best, in the sweat of its photographers' brows, to cut something of a social dash. The Bulletin boasted —still boasts — social columns of the racy ilk. “Copy that style,” was the edict passed around among the New Zealand periodical's city social contributors. Down in Christchurch was a little lady who could write herself, anyhow, and who didn't much like being invited to copy the style of some other person. She's the only person I know of who ever definitely out-Bulletined “Bulletinese.” She sent one bride to the altar “neatly parcelled in white page 22 satin,” and the bride's mamma was “upholstered in black velvet.” Through some oversight it got through, too. I hope she sent a copy to the Bulletin.

The Bulletin was the first journal that ever paid me a cheque; I mean a cheque one could flourish, a cheque for a guinea, for a poem. May its substance never grow less. The poem was called “Pierrette,” which, of course, in those days nearly all first poems submitted to the Bulletin were christened. Now-adays I understand it's the fashion to call your efforts “Pink-Fronted Omnibus,” or something like that, but it's the same thing under a new if dingier label.

There's a lovable touch in some of the magazines put forth… . . and at what trouble, only the editors and staunch contributors know… . . by Colleges and Universities in New Zealand. Once on a day, some old wartime copies of the Canterbury College magazine came into my hands. It's sometimes asked if that lost generation, the wheatfield scythed so swiftly and strangely, was really the knightly thing that it has become in the minds of old men who limp along in Anzac Day processions.

Your answer's in magazines like that. There was such a bravery and generosity as only youth triumphant could show. Some of the contributions were odd little scraps of verse, or rather humourous letters. The stuff didn't get into anthologies or imagist collections, I suppose even such of the writers as survived have more or less forgotten it now. But it was touched with gold.

Wellington is a place that everyone passing through or staying in for a couple of days hates like henbane. It's so wind-tossed. And if you stay much longer, you get to love it. It's so wind-tossed.

Fitzherbert Terrace, the one street where huge dark pines used to grow in an untidy, fatherly-looking row, was the street associated with Katherine Mansfield's school days. Her old home, the Beau- page 23 champ place, was on view for a time. It's all very square, very ugly, much too heavy for a heart like Katherine's, but she must have loved the heaps of pine-needles, which have been tidied up in order that the street should be laid down in garden-plots, with a massive red brick waiting-room sort of place (it looks like a “Ladies Only”) as a memorial to her. Poor Katherine.. …

Among New Zealand writers themselves, there is too often a ridiculous prejudice against the solitary voyager—and, curiously enough, man rather than woman is the chief offender, damning, or, to be more accurate, attempting to damn with faint praise, tepid civilities, depreciation. Though there is a certain drawing-room politeness preserved towards the dead, it does not go very far. Katherine Mansfield had a spirit, defeated on earth yet most surely victorious in the fields of immortality, that must needs express itself in words. Admittedly, her more private writings were to some extent exploited by her husband. That speaks bluntly enough for the business sense of Mr Middleton Murry, who not only in the case of his New Zealand wife's work, but in that of D. H. Lawrence, whose one poor unavailing prayer was “Do not betray me,” has acted the part of a literary ghoul.

There's no need to write everything about those who want to write in a past tense. They still do. Among the Auckland University College students, two lads in the sweat of their brow and with their own printing-press, brought out The Phoenix, a quarterly now defunct; and brought it out pretty well, even if, in its first issue, Mr. D'Arcy Cresswell, author of “Poet's Progress,” did choose to sound so infernally ladylike about what New Zealand “culture” (Gott mitt uns) should be. It was a magazine of good printing—and how that counts!— some good prose, politics which certainly made you feel that wisdom doesn't always come out of the page 24 mouths of babes and sucklings. Still—“they want to write.”

Canterbury College, with its crimson-covered and hastily-suppressed little Oriflamme, printed in 1933 by a very small student conclave who later learned a bit about iron hands and velvet gloves, also provided some entertainment. I had one of the original copies. There was nothing whatever sensational in it, unless you count an advocacy of Free Love and extenuation of sexual diversions by one student. I thought his article was a little old-fashioned.

Just “wanting to write” usually ends, if your parents are well-to-do, in a head-and-shoulders photograph of you in the Free Lance, with a caption underneath like this:

“Miss Barbara Wuffles, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. T. Wuffles, ‘The Kennels,’ Dogsdale, who has gone to England to further her studies in music, for which she has a decided talent.”

I mean, by the time you're twenty or there-abouts, you become so ashamed of your heretofore literary aspirations that you'd as soon as not have a nervous breakdown should they be mentioned, so your parents vamp up another talent for you and pack you off Home.

If you're poor, you probably marry someone or get a job in a shop.

But there is a lady named Luck, a most capricious wench. So there was also a job, when I was sixteen years old, in the Dominion newspaper office, not the astonishing new building, the old disreputable one off Lambton Quay……

For a while, when the “minnie golf course” was all the rage and you couldn't step into a public building without treading on a “minnie,” there was one in the top floor of this old building. (This, of course, after its newspaper days were done.) It was tall and narrow, and the editorial staff roosted like corbies on the second floor. For a while I had what page 25 seemed to a novice the exceedingly harrowing experience of working in the outer precincts of the editorial sanctum itself. C. W. Earle — tall, thin, iron-grey hair, tennis player, and with the reputation of being the only honest-to-goodness lucky race-goer in Wellington—was of the reserved type. As one ages, one likes them best, but in extreme youth they are alarming, and Mr. Earle (though, God wot, there was not the shadow of a reason for it) always made me feel like a pickpocket at a prayer-meeting.

But soon I was transferred to the “morgue.” The “morgue” sounds worse, but if you're at all sentimental and frequent newspaper offices you love it. It is very cold, usually fireproof and with a heavy safe door like a bank vault's, no windows of any kind whatsoever, and all around you, on shelves, are the huge leather-bound volumes of old newspaper files. The Dominion had an imposing morgue. Files, not only of its own publications, but of overseas papers with the queerest and quaintest old gaillard advertisements, went right back into the past, into days of gallantry and esprit. Just such advertisements must my beloved and erratic Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Knight of the Tower and Sword of Portugal, have read at his breakfast. (His cracked tombstone in Boulton Street cemetery, split across by wind and weather, was a favourite retreat. It sounds ghoulish, like the morgue, but it wasn't at all. This graveyard had been closed for a long time, and the sunshine was not afraid to dance there. There was peace, real peace, great red masses of the tiny flowers called “kiss-me-quick” flourished everywhere, and bursting the narrow wooden fence of one English gentleman's grave soared up the trunk of a huge ash-tree, its leaves all silvered in the moonlight like an angel's wings. More than one Member of Parliament climbs up to this steep old forgotten place when he wishes to delude himself page 26 with the idea that the Government does not exist.)

Which reminds me: the most interesting of all Dominion files were those dating back to the days when “Bill” Massey was in Opposition. Being in Opposition may be bad for the little white soul and for the pocket, but it does wonders for the literary style…… a truth which never seemed to get home during the Dominion's later, larger-building days. Already the old “fighting files” were changing from black and white to the ivory colour that speaks of a page past and done with.

I liked the 'wayback articles signed “C.J.M.” every bit as much as the most highly-paid overseas “whimsicalities”: in fact, more, they were more human, not self-satisfied or standardised.

C.J.M. — otherwise C. J. McKinnon — was then with the Dominion, had been from the first, and still is — though now there are no odd little special articles. Recruited from teaching ranks, a little man with an unconquerable twinkle in his eye, an almost abnormal passion for work and a quite abnormal carelessness, he was one of the overlords— literary editor, I believe.

The Dominion ran a little rural journal, the Farmers' Advocate. I was its “Aunt Mary” and christened chickens, cows, children, on a page for the young idea. May God and the said chickens, cows and children forgive me, sooner or later. Doing that and doing more things, mostly scissors and paste, for the Dominion, meant the weekly payment of 30/- a week, which looked princely. The hours of the Dominion were long, as they always are on a morning paper, whose great presses are throbbing away, like a heart that won't stop, at about 3 a.m. Then your papers are passed put, under chilly sky and moon, to the lorries. But in these early days, I certainly wasn't “requisite and necessary” at any such hour. Later on, there were all-night sittings in the women's press gallery… but that's later on.

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There was a daily column for upwards of 20 years under the initials “T.D.H.” Tom, Dick and Harry, that stood for. As a matter of fact, the writer, a quiet sort with eyebrows which refused to lie down and a stoutly-built person, was the Mr. Field who wrote “The Truth About the Slump.” Depending on which side you take, you agree that this is the worst or the best explanation of the depression yet supplied by New Zealand letters. Mr. Field has taken the depression very seriously, and the extraordinary thing is that somebody doesn't rope him in for Parliament. But in those days, I remember him as a man whose funnyisms (his column was supposed to be “light”) were practically always funny, and the wee scraps of verse with which he concluded his day's toil were never wrong. God wot, his erstwhile column is not so to-day.

Prime Minister “Bill” Massey, his last election successfully carried, lay a-dying. I was too busy christening chickens to know the difference between Reform and Liberal — or even the astonishing latterday corollary, that there's no difference at all, both are in the soup together.

Truth published a cartoon of Massey's face, I remember, a fat morning-sun face, all beaming. “The Survival of the Fattest.”

It was printed somewhere or other that he was asked “Whom do you think will be Prime Minister?” And he whispered, “That fellow in the next room there.” The fellow in the next room was, of course, Mr. Coates. But perhaps the tale was only put around slightly to reduce the frightful and unfair handicap under which he started…… the fact that the public had got it into their heads Downie Stewart was One Who Knows, and would have been a far better Prime Minister, if only…… True or not, Mr. Downie Stewart's possibilities seem to me a bit beside the point when it was Mr. Coates who had to do the job.

All the world saw Massey borne past through page 28 the crowded streets at last. I don't think there was ever before or since such a crowd, not even in dimly-remembered war days, when girls, crying and laughing, would catch the arms of the soldiers as they swung past, and march with them for a little; not even when “Smithy” actually crossed the Tasman safe, got through alive to the balcony of the Royal Oak Hotel (in its way, considering the crush, just as great a feat) and grinned at the throng, who all cheered madly, even the present writer, who had just had a perfectly good bag of cream-puffs squashed by an onslaught of excited people. But no, that day, for hours and hours the banks of people lining the streets pushed against the rope barriers, started false rumours, waited, stared. I suppose it was altogether rather horrible really, and it is as well to be lonely in death. Yet certainly they said, these crowds, “Somebody of note passes.” They have not said that of any New Zealand politician since.

I remember the election night when Coates went out of power. In front of the Dominion buildings, where the failure of something that had been the paper's very life and reason for living was placarded, item by inexorable item, the crowd roared. It wasn't a sporting crowd. It gave no audience to men defeated. All its own speech was the ancient “Vae Victis.”

A member of the Dominion staff: “Well, we thought everyone was listening to the Thunderer. 'Pears nobody was.” After which some of us went out and had a party, or would you call it a wake?

To the last day of his active editorship, C. W. Earle was still a fighter… . though whether his weapon ultimately became a crochet-hook instead of a sword is another question.

It is a pity they ever had a minnie golf course in the old—and not half so impressive—Dominion building.