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Chapter IV. — The Odd Sticks

page 41

Chapter IV.
The Odd Sticks

Titbits in Wellington started off so pure that one might almost have called it the clean sheet. Its spiritual father, so to speak, was a man on the Dominion, Temple yclept—a long, lean, rather sallow and sorrowful-looking man. For some reason known alone to himself and his Maker, he thought it would be a good idea to try a new weekly. He gave me some work and even some money (I was then in very early Dominion days) amassing recipes for assumed women readers; writing articles about the ideal home, of which I knew considerably less than nothing, having at the time a one-room pied-a-terre whose chief adornments were a ghastly-looking galvanized iron double bed and a curious branching candlestick, also of iron, bursting out into lotus blossoms. However, living there and on boiled eggs (since the hen is at least a reasonably pure-minded beast, but you never can tell with sausages), was evidently a good and sufficient qualification for my very brief free-lance association with Titbits.

From its period of chaste mediocrity it emerged bloody but sufficiently unbowed to pass from Mr. Temple's hands into those of a more enterprising editor. It became sensational. I think its highest flight in sensationalism was reached during the visit to Wellington of the American naval squadron. The hospitality with which those unfortunate visitors were received was nothing less than a scandal, and the worst feature of it was that the nautical equivalent of the “pore blimey infantry” were the page 42 ones who got it, so to speak, in the neck, snobbism on the part of Wellington's social circles more or less safeguarding the interests of the ships' officers.

Undeniably, Australia's gutter press had worked up animosity against the squadron on—of all things —moral grounds. To be quite fair, I don't think that the dour lack of any general welcome displayed in Wellington was as much the fault of the women, as of those sterling protectors, the menfolk. To be seen in company with one of the city's guests was almost a stigma—in the first day or two at least— on any girl's character.

Titbits was the paper which went far, and, I am glad to say, fared very badly indeed, in its abuse of the moral character of the American fleet. Even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce consider the feeblest of cheers, when an article in this impassioned and disinterested weekly stated, “These Boys Aren't Boys, They're Beasts,” and went on to describe with some gusto an alleged incident at a Wellington bay, when a local girl had (once more, allegedly) had her garments somewhat damaged by an American sailor.

That article did more to give the fleet a belated welcome in Wellington than any amount of white-washing could have done. Journalistic indignation was roused to a point where it had quite a genuine ring: wild rumours flew about the city that the writer of the article had been (a) beaten by a justly indignant deputation from the alleged U.S.A. Tarzans, (b) that he had been even more soundly horse-whipped by members of the local Journalists' Association. At all events, there was a published retraction and apology—but the writer thereof showed a resourceful brain. Reprinting an article of much milder, even civil criticism, he stated that “he hoped it was not considered too strong.” The article that caused the real sensation was thus never really retracted nor, except in implication, apologized for.

The Wellington Journalists' Association decided page 43 to throw a party for American pressmen who arrived with the fleet. A big reception room was specially hired, quite nattily got up, electric heating was installed all round to make sure that our visitors couldn't go away cursing the well-known Wellington frigidaire climate. Well, it was rather a smack in the eye when it was ascertained, all too late, that exactly two journalists from the fleet had stopped off at Wellington. The show had to go on. It was crowded… . but not with American journalists.

Sequel to this. The Journalists' Association found themselves out of pocket for a trifle over £40 expended on entertaining their missing American confreres. Well, in those high and far-off times, there used to be some money to spend. A member of the said woe-begone Association drafted out the most touching little plea as to how all had been informed—through Government error, probably— that many a good pressman and true was to arrive with the Wellington detachment of the fleet, that it was up to the Association to stand by and order the tea-party equivalent of a rum ration. Hospitality is sacred, and so on.

I took this up to the House, and told the sad story to one M.P., himself at one time a first-rate journalist.

There is many a kind heart beats underneath an M.P's. waistcoat. In no time, he had the full tale in the ear of the Minister of Internal Affairs, now regrettably deceased, but a most kindly old gentleman. I received a wire a little later—a congratulatory one. The £40 odd had been passed through the Department's estimates. Long live Parliament —that is, if only it would revert to type and spend money again.

It is quite true that a question was asked in the House subsequently by a Member of the Labour Party as to what should be done with the number of “illegitimate” children who arrived in due season page 44 after the fleet's departure. It is equally true that New Zealand, according to its own statistics, contrives to produce a fair output of “illegitimate” children whether they send us foreign fleets or not. By the way, the word “illegitimate” has been legally abolished in the Dominion, but I suppose the unco guid will keep on using it for at least another century. Bernard Shaw said: “One might as well talk about an illegitimate earthquake,” which was, I think, nice of him. Incidentally, a similar difficulty arose in New Zealand after the visit of Fijian fire-walkers to the Christchurch Exhibition.

Sometimes as fixed stars in journalism, sometimes as ships in the night, one meets with those who have had quaint adventures. Should they be dead, the evil they are assumed to have done lives after them. I think it would be better if we thought more of the funny side… . since, of course, we can't take mere aspirations seriously.

Faces just passing by in a crowd, dead faces some of them, others grown old. And of many of them, one knows nothing good, except that they saw visions and dreamed dreams. Perhaps that is not a little, but everything.

When old Aloysius Horn came to New Zealand, just breezed in, stopped at the hotel bars, what seemed to touch the Auckland public to the very heart was that he was seldom if ever quite sober. Nobody seemed to realize that this was just what should have been taken for granted… . an old adventurer, bit of an old fraud in his way, drinking in success for the first time in a long life. Did they honestly expect him to fold his ancient but still agile legs up under drawing-room chairs? Where else would you expect to find him, but in bars?

A young Enzedder, free-lance journalist, rather a good one, in between times theatre commissionaire or just any old thing that turned up, went to a show one night with three fair young maidens. At the page 45 time he was doing a spot of relief work. As they passed the theatre lobby, the girl who had thoughtlessly suggested show diversion thought, “Lord above, I can't let this boy in for paying for the gang, he won't have the money, anyhow.” Discreetly, she slipped the filthy lucre into his palm.

Later she found out that her second companion in crime had done just that down the street—and the third, at the top of the theatre steps. The youth must have fancied himself mistaken for a gigolo, but he bore up all right, and, besides, he was really quite a good journalist.

Relief works have occupied the energies of more than one New Zealand writer who, by using brain instead of pick, shovel or what-have-you, may end by bringing some very real credit to his native land. Rex Fairburn—tall, broad-shouldered, be-sandalled Auckland poet and writer, with an almost eternal look of guileless innocence and suppressed mirth mixed up—landed back from England, travelling third class, found that relief works were what his little country was offering at the moment. He has been so occupied for over two years.

But, of course, whilst articles, poems and such like can be accepted, staff jobs seldom if ever come the way of writers. The Newspaper Proprietors' Association has no money—sings that in its bath every morning. Also writers are supposed to be erratic. There was an historic occasion when Frank Morton once “let down” the Otago Daily Times. That is to say, came the dawn, came also dewy eve. No Frank Morton. He just wasn't there: continued not to be there, until the spirit moved him.… . But he could write.…

Very occasionally luck may smile even on a journalist. Ted Guy, sporting writer on N.Z. Truth, once won £1,000 in a sweep. He got so many letters from sick friends urgently needing fivers that he laid in a stock of halfpenny postcards page 46 inscribed with the simple words: “Hard work will cure your complaint.”

Geoffrey de Montalk, also known as the Count Potocki, whose father is by the way a simple and untitled gentleman living at Highland Park, Wellington, had shaken New Zealand dust from his sandals before I knew anything about writers, playboys, and journalism's white slaves. But Geoffrey, who enjoys life, is usually more or less in the news: I believe he would be had he to ascend several thousand feet in a balloon and then make a parachute jump clean into the heart of it. He didn't much like New Zealand, though he seems alone of his generation to have mastered the music of Maori names, fitted them into his poems……

The “Count” used to conduct a milk-round down South in New Zealand. At first the Polish title of “Count,” which practically every literary paper in New Zealand has ascertained from his very expressive letters that he has discovered and doesn't mean to be done out of, didn't seem to content him: for once in London, there was quite a hefty scheme afoot, by which he and other shining spirits should become possessed of an island off Greece, Geoffrey to reign its King. Or is this story, which makes “The Count” sound a little like the spiritual fruit of an of course equally spiritual union between dear Edith Sitwell and the late (too late) Lord Byron, merely one of A. R. D. Fairburn's best yarns?

Some New Zealanders, whilst yet writers, do contrive to do things in style. There is Hector Bolitho, once upon a time young and inky like the rest of us, in the Auckland Star office, which would either, I should think, blow the spark of genius to a wrathful frenzy, or roll on it like a slumbrous elephant. Evidently in Bolitho's case it worked the first way: he made up his mind to write and to succeed. Result, American and Con- page 47 tinental critiques which are darned near being prose-poems all by their own sweet selves, all this Queen Victoria and Albert the Good business, all this Windsor quietude: to be frank in what can only be a self-condemnatory way, having ploughed through everything from “Solemn Boy” and “The Flame of Ethirdova” to the latest biographical work, I have never yet read anything of Mr. Bolitho's that I thought even halfway good. Which only serves to prove that one may be afflicted with a Bolitho blind spot, as with others. On the principle that flippancy may cure such ailments, wrote a limerick about him, just as a contrast to those critiques:

When asked why he lived at the Deanery Said Hector, “I add to the scenery—
And the wily Yankee
If his luck's in, may see
Me peer like a faun through the greenery.”

When H.R.H. toured New Zealand, it was Hector Bolitho who had the brilliant idea of a book to be written around the princely tour. He put his idea over with the powers-that-were, accompanied the Royal procession in its every stage, wrote a strictly conventional and acceptable account when all was over. Later he went to Sydney, where his association with the Prince of Wales gave him glamour enough to open the doors of publicity and journalism. The little Shakespearean Quarterly, brief though its life may have been, was not beneath his dignity as an opening for journalistic work that was “different,” and he learnt a lot from Frank Morton on the Triad. But in England, that Dominion tour of his proved an almost magic key. All of which would have meant nothing in success or celebrity, had he not been prepared to work as few New Zealand writers, largely though they talk, would ever dream of doing. His inside knowledge of English Royalty is now worth a packet. One Auckland periodical wired Mr. Bolitho asking if he could page 48 supply some chatty stuff in re the Duke of Gloucester. Terse cable reply from Hector: “Yes; 10 guineas.”

Seriously though, I think perhaps New Zealand writers who have carried conviction “over there” do a great deal, merely in prestige, to help the odd sticks. Swedish drill became the fashion, didn't it?

And some of the odd sticks, I'd swear to it, are more than worth helping—out of this morass of slights and discouragements, little or no payment, recognition so far away. “Genius always makes good,” say the portly and complacent, omitting to mention how often the genius has been well and truly dead, probably in a quite harrowing fashion, long before the “making good” has started. London, where Dick Whittington does maybe get his one chance in a million, is afar, the fare, just so much, and these writers, the real ones, never seem to fluke a business head at the same time. All around, pressure of time, pressure of fools, pressure of indifference.

Another picture.… . R. A. K. Mason, plain fed-up with the no sales and yet further no sales of his first book of poems, going down to the end of the Auckland wharf, and dumping off scores of superfluous copies. As a matter of fact, they weren't superfluous.…“For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his soul?” And what, exactly, shall it profit a country if it gains its little tuppence-happorth of quite mythical security, and loses the gift it might have made to a civilisation? “The nation that forsakes a poet, or where poets forsake it, is lost,” quoth Mirabeau.

D'Arcy Cresswell's book, “Poet's Progress,” was first printed in the Christchurch Press columns, dead against the weight of mass opinion. Only now that it has succeeded everywhere, even New Zealanders have been heard to say that it's a good book. It's in the Defoe manner, and tells of the author's page 49 wanderings abroad, door to door, selling his poems (for Mr. Cresswell, having written about three good sonnets and a couple of delightful lines, is absolutely clear in his conviction that he's a poet), at six-pence a copy. The book makes delightful reading … wit, the descriptive touch, philosophy, all that the title promised. Perhaps it went no better in its full-serial print, nor even in its smooth-covered book form, than when read aloud by admirers, one gay passage after another, under the trees on Oliver Duff's little Christchurch lawn. In between Mr. Cresswell's hails and farewells came occasional draughts of a pleasantly bitter home-brew, and there were sheep-dogs, a polite, thoroughly at-home conclave of them, to nod their wise pointed heads in courteous approval. It is possible that but for the literary convictions of the editor whose name is given above, “Poet's Progress” wouldn't have seen the light of day in New Zealand newspaper columns. But editors who definitely have ideas on the subject of literature, and who will stick to them, are an oddity more than anything else as far as the Dominion is concerned.