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   Chapter 14 PRESS WORK IN LONDON

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 24325

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Before I come to the period when I became, not only Editor, but Proprietor, of The Spectator, I must give an account of some of my experiences with other newspapers. My first newspaper article appeared in The Daily News. It gave an account of the bonfires lighted on the hill-tops round Cortina, in the Tyrol, at which place we spent the summer of 1880, on the birthday of the Austrian Emperor. I was an undergraduate at the time and was much delighted to find myself described as "a correspondent" of The Daily News. I expect I owed the acceptance of my descriptive article to the first sentence, which began, "While the Austrian Kaiser is keeping his birthday with the waters of the Ischl in his kitchens, we at Cortina, etc., etc." The paper, however, for which I wrote chiefly during the time I was at Oxford and in my first year after leaving Balliol was The Saturday Review. The Saturday in those days was famous for its "middles," and I was very proud to be able to get articles of this kind accepted. I also wrote for The Academy and for The Pall Mall, which at that time was being edited by Lord Morley. I remember that when going with a letter of introduction to him, he asked me whether I had had any former experience of journalism. I told him that I was writing "middles" for the Saturday. His reply was characteristic. "Ah! When I was a young man I wrote miles of 'middles' for them"- stretching out his hands to show the unending chain. Some of my work also appeared in The Academy, then a paper manfully struggling to represent the higher side of English literature. One article I recall was a review of a reprint of the poems of Gay-a poet who has come back into public notice owing to the delightful art of Mr. Lovat Fraser, combined with the talent of the ladies and gentlemen who so admirably represent Macheath and his minions male and female. On looking at the article the other day, I was glad to see that I drew attention to Gay's peculiar handling of the couplet and also to his delight in every kind of old song and ballad. I quoted in this respect, however, not from "The Beggar's Opera" but from the song as sung by Silenus in Gay's Eclogues. One of these songs I have always longed to hear or to read, owing to the fascination of its title-"The grass now grows where Troy town stood."

After I went to The Spectator the newspaper world widened in my view. I left off writing for the Saturday and the Pall Mall and the Academy. Instead, and after I married, I took a regular post as leader-writer on the staff of the Standard. I also wrote a weekly leader for the Observer for the best part of a year. Of the Observer I have only one thing to note, and that is a saying of the Editor, Mr. Dicey, brother to my old friend, Professor Dicey-a man for whom I have great veneration, though my lips are happily closed in regard to him by the fact that he still lives. At our first interview Mr. Dicey told me that in writing for the Observer I must remember that I was not writing for a weekly paper, like the Spectator, but for a daily paper which, however, only happened to come out on one day in the week. That, I always thought, was a very illuminating and instructive remark, and it is one which should be observed, in my opinion, by all writers in Sunday papers. At present Sunday papers are in danger of becoming merely weekly magazines. What the world wants, or, at any rate, what a great many people want, is a daily paper to read on Sundays, not a miscellany, however good. But perhaps Mr. Dicey and I were old-fashioned. Anyway, there was a sort of easygoing, old-fashioned, early-Victorian air about the Observer Office of those days which was very pleasant. Nobody appeared to be in a hurry, and one was given almost complete freedom as to the way in which to treat one's subject. I was also a contributor to the Manchester Guardian. For that distinguished paper I wrote Notes for their London Letter and also a number of short reviews.

I should add that from that time till I became Editor and Proprietor of the Spectator I wrote a weekly article for The Economist- a piece of work in which I delighted, for the Editor, Mr. Johnstone, was not only a great editor, but a very satisfactory one from the contributor's point of view. He told you exactly what he wanted written about, and then left you to your own devices. As it happened, I generally was in entire agreement with his policy, but if I had not been, it would not have mattered, because he made it so very clear to one, as an editor should, that one was expressing not one's own views, but the views of the Economist. Whether they were in fact right or wrong, they certainly deserved full consideration. Therefore, full exposition could never be regarded as taking the wrong side.

Though The Economist was less strongly Unionist than I was, I cannot recall any occasion on which my leaders were altered by the Editor. I can only recall, indeed, one comment made by Mr. Johnstone in the course of some nine years. It was one that at the time very greatly interested and amused me. It happened that Mr. Johnstone, though so great a journalist and so sound a politician, was not a man who had paid any attention to literature. Possibly, indeed, he did not consider that it deserved it. When, however, the complete works of Walter Bagehot, for many years Editor of The Economist, were published, Mr. Johnstone asked me to review them for the paper. Needless to say I was delighted. How could a young man in the 'nineties, full of interest in the Constitution, in Economics, and in belles-lettres, have felt otherwise than enthusiastic about Bagehot?

It was, therefore, with no small zest that I undertook an appreciation of Bagehot in his own paper. I was always an immense admirer of Bagehot's power of dealing with literary problems, and still more of that perfection of style for which, by the way, he never received full credit. I sought to say something which would make people "sit up and take notice" in regard to his place in literature on this special point. Accordingly, in praising his style, I said that it was worthy to be compared with that of Stevenson, who at the time was held to be our greatest master of words. Mr. Johnstone, with, as I fully admitted, a quite unnecessary urbanity of manner, apologised to me for having altered the article. He had, he explained, left out the passage about Stevenson. But mark the reason! It was not because he thought the praise exaggerated, but because he thought, and thought also that Mr. Bagehot's family might think, that one was not properly appreciative of Bagehot's work if one compared it to that of Stevenson! I have always been a lover of the irony of accident in every form; but here was something which was almost too bewilderingly poignant. I had thought, as I wrote, that people might think I was going a good deal too far in my praise of Bagehot, but lo and behold! my purple patch was "turned down," not because of this but because it was held to be too laudatory of Stevenson, and not laudatory enough of my hero!

I was, nevertheless, quite right. Bagehot's style was inimitable, and I think if I were writing now, and with a better perspective, I should have said not less but a good deal more in its praise. The humorous passages in "The English Constitution" are in their way perfect, and, what is more, they are really original. They owe nothing to any previous humorist. They stand somewhere between the heartiness of Sydney Smith and the dainty fastidiousness of Matthew Arnold, and yet imitate neither. They have a quality, indeed, which is entirely their own and is entirely delightful. One of the things which is so charming about them is that they are authoritative without being cocksure. What could be more admirable than the passage which points out that Southey, "who lived almost entirely with domestic women, actually died in the belief that he was a poet"? The pathos of the situation, and the Olympian stroke delivered in such a word as "domestic" cannot but fill any artisan of words with admiration. The essay, "Shakespeare and the Plain Man," is full of such delights.

If I am told that I digress too much and that I seem to forget that I am writing my autobiography and not an estimate of Walter Bagehot, I shall not yield to the criticism. There is method in my madness. No, I am prepared to contend, and to contend with my last drop of ink, that I am justified in what I have done. If this book is worth anything, it is the history of a mind, and Bagehot had a very great effect upon my mind, largely through his skill in the art of presentation. Therefore it cannot be out of place to say something about Bagehot's style. In truth, instead of my being unduly discursive I have not really said as much as I ought to have said on the subject.

I was also for rather more than a year a leader-writer on the Standard-my only experience of true daily journalism. Of this work I can only say that I enjoyed it very much while I was in direct contact with Mr. Mudford, one of the greatest of English publicists, and the man who made the Standard what it was from 1874 till about 1894, one of the most important papers in the country. In those days the Standard though strongly conservative, was in no sense a capitalist organ, nor in the bad sense a mere party organ. While it supported the fixed institutions of the country, the Church, the Crown, the House of Lords, and the City, it, at the same time, did it with reason and moderation. In fact, though it was called a Tory paper, and rejoiced in the name, it would have been called "left-centre" in any other country. It was, it need not be said, strongly Unionist. I, therefore, had no difficulty whatever in writing for it.

Oddly enough, it was said, and I think with truth, that Mr. Gladstone always read the leaders in the Standard and that it was his favourite paper. He had, no doubt, a strong vein of Conservatism in his nature. Though he thought it his duty to be a Liberal, when he gave himself a holiday, so to speak, from party feelings, what he reverted to was almost exactly the Standard attitude towards the great institutions I have just named. A propos of this I cannot resist a most illuminating story of Mr. Gladstone, which I once heard told by Mr. George Wyndham, the Irish Secretary. Mr. Wyndham commanded the Cheshire yeomanry, after Mr. Gladstone had gone into retirement, and had his regiment under canvas for training at the Park at Hawarden. Being an old House of Commons friend, he went several times to dine. On one of these occasions he was alone with Mr. Gladstone after dinner. While sipping his port, the great man unbosomed himself on the political situation of the future in language which, as Mr. Wyndham pointed out, approximated to that of an old country squire-language which seemed astonishing from the mouth of one who had only a few months before been the leader of the Liberal and Radical Party.

Mr. Gladstone began with a panegyric of the English squires and landlords, and then went on to say that he feared that in the coming time the country-gentlemen of England who had done so much for her would have a hard and difficult time. "But," he went on, "I pray Heaven, Mr. Wyndham, that they will meet these trials and difficulties with a firm and courageous spirit. They must not weakly yield the position to which they have attained and which they deserve." I can remember no more of Mr. Gladstone's speech, but it was all to the effect that the country- gentleman must stand up against the rising tide of democracy. No wonder, then, that Mr. Gladstone liked the Standard, even though it very often attacked him in the strongest language.

Another person said to be a regular reader of the Standard, and I should add rightly said to be, was Queen Victoria. The Queen, as Lord Salisbury said at the time of her death, understood the English people exactly, and especially the English middle-class. Therefore she would have been wise to have read the Standard as the representative and interpreter of that class even if she had not liked the paper on its me

rits. As a matter of fact, however, its note happened to be pitched exactly to suit her. Her admiration was not politic, but personal.

Here I may note an interesting example of how little the person who has had no first-hand experience of journalism understands the journalist's trade and how often he or she is amazed at what I may call our simple secrets. It happened that while I was writing leaders for the Standard, which was twice a week, i.e., on Wednesday nights and on Sunday nights, the news came in of the death of Lady Ely, a lifelong personal friend of the Queen. Lady Ely had been with her almost from girlhood and held up to the last, if not actually a Court appointment, a position which brought her into constant personal contact with the Queen. She was, in fact, the last of the Queen's women contemporaries who were also close friends. This fact was common knowledge, and Mr. Mudford in one of his notes, which were written in a calligraphy the badness of which it is almost impossible to describe without the aid of a lithographic print, wrote to me shortly, telling me of the death and asking me to write that night a leader on Lady Ely. He pointed out how great the loss was to the Queen, and how much, therefore, she must stand in the need of sympathy. I don't suppose I had ever heard of Lady Ely before, for ever since I came to London she was living in retirement, and was not only not written about in the press, but was very little talked about in general society. Further, I had only the ordinary knowledge about the Queen, at that time much scantier than it is now. It might be supposed that with this amount of ignorance it would have been impossible to write a column and a half on the death of an old lady who may be said to have had no public life at all, and whose private life, even if it had been known, would have been either too trivial or too intimate to be written about in a newspaper.

All the same, the task was not one which any journalist worth his salt, that is, any journalist with imagination, would find difficult to accomplish. What I did, and all it was necessary to do, was to envisage a great lady devoted to the Queen from the time the Queen was married, and also receiving in exchange the Queen's devotion to her. These two women, now grown old, one in the service of her country and the other in the service of her friend, had gradually seen, not only their nearest and dearest drop away, but almost the whole of their own generation. Thus they stood very much alone in the world. Sovereigns by their nature are always lonely, and this loneliness was intensified in the case of the Queen by the premature death of Prince Albert and by that inability of sovereigns to make intimate friends, owing, not only to the seclusion which life in a palace entails, but to the busy-ness of their lives. This being so, the breaking by death of a friendship formed when life was easier to Queen Victoria than it was after the death of the Prince Consort was an irreparable loss. In a very special degree the Queen needed sympathy of all who had minds to think or hearts to feel.

Such considerations were as easy to put on paper as they were true. To draw a picture of the unknown Lady Ely seems more difficult, but, after all, one felt sure that to have remained the intimate and trusted friend of the Queen she must have had great qualities, for the Queen did not give her confidence lightly. The separation of the two friends and the intensification of the Queen's loneliness was therefore bound to touch the heart of anyone who heard "the Virgilian cry" and felt "the sense of tears in mortal things."

I am not ashamed to say that though by nature little disposed towards the attitude of the courtier, I wrote my modest tribute of regret ex animo. I was not only not writing a conventional article of condolence, not even writing dramatically, but sincerely. When, however, the leader was finished, I, of course, thought very little more of the matter, but passed on to consider, after the way of my profession, subjects so vital or so trivial as the best means of supporting Mr. Balfour in his law-and-order campaign in Ireland, maintaining the cause of Free Trade (the Standard was always a Free Trade paper), or discussing such topics as "Penny Fares in Omnibuses," or "The Preservation of the Ancient Monuments of London," or "Should Cats be Taxed?" It was therefore with some astonishment that I received a message from Mr. Mudford saying that the Queen had sent one of her Private Secretaries to enquire on behalf of Her Majesty the name of the writer of the article on Lady Ely. The Queen, said her Envoy, had been very touched and struck by the article and felt sure that it must have been written by someone who knew Lady Ely. It exactly represented her life and character, and her special devotion to the Queen. The Queen also appeared much struck by the representation of her own feeling towards her friend.

Mr. Mudford, of course, gave my name. I have often thought with some curiosity that the Queen must have been rather bewildered to find the complete remoteness of the writer from her friend and herself. The Queen had a very limited literary sense and, we may be sure, failed altogether to realise how the nerves and sinews work in that strange creature the journalist. She can hardly have been otherwise than disappointed in finding that it was not some old friend of her own, or some friend of her friend, but a person of whom she knew nothing-and with a name which must have left her quite cold, even though with her knowledge of India and her own family that name was not actually unfamiliar. My uncle, Sir John Strachey, after the murder of Lord Mayo, was for six or seven months Viceroy of India, pending the appointment of a successor. She also, no doubt, had known the name of another Indian uncle, Sir Richard Strachey.

But though Mr. Mudford was very sympathetic to the new journalist on his staff, the arrangement did not last long. After I had been there about six months, Mr. Mudford went into greater retirement than even before, and practically left the whole conduct of the paper to his subordinate, Mr. Byron Curtis, a journalist whom I can best describe by saying that he was of the kind delineated by Thackeray. Though we had no open quarrel I found it difficult to work with Mr. Curtis, and he, on the other hand, was by no means satisfied with my work. He used to say to me, "Please do remember, Mr. Strachey, that we don't want academic stuff such as you put into the Spectator and as they appear to like. What we want is a nice flow of English." "A nice flow of English" with Mr. Curtis meant what I may call the barrel-organ type of leader- something that flowed like water from a smooth-running pump. This I admit I could never manage to produce. Mr. Curtis's standard of style was solely governed by the question of the repetition of the same word. It was an unforgivable sin to repeat a substantive, adjective, or verb without an intervening space of at least four inches. This, of course, leads to that particular form of "journalese" in which a cricket-ball becomes a "leathern missile" and so forth. Apropos of this I remember a good Fleet Street story. An Editor, enraged with a contributor, tore up an article on grouse, with the exclamation, "Look here! You have actually used the word 'grouse' twenty times in your first paragraph! Why cannot you call them something else?" "But," said the contributor, "what else can I call them? They are grouse, and that is the only name they have got. What would you want me to say?" "Oh! hang it all! Don't make excuses. Why, can't you call them 'the feathered denizens of the moor'?"

In any case, Mr. Curtis and I found it impossible to work together. The process of separation was speeded up by the fact that I did not find night-work suit me. All the same, I very much liked going down to the policeman on night-duty. What was trying was to be up all night for two nights in the week, and to lead a normal life during the other five. That tended to throw one's working days quite out of gear. To adopt two ways of life was a failure. All the same, I am always glad when I pass down Fleet Street to be able to say to myself, "I too once lived in Arcadia," and knew the pleasant side of the life. There was something peculiarly delightful, when one's leader was finished, in lighting a pipe or a cigar and stretching out one's legs and feeling really at leisure. There is only real leisure in the middle of the night, that is between one and five. There are no appointments, no meals, no duties, no plans, no dependence on other people's arrangements. One is as free in one's complete isolation as a Trappist monk. If one sees a friend in Fleet Street or Shoe Lane at three, he will be as free as you.

Such a friend was Mr. Joseph Fisher, then the understudy of Mr. Byron Curtis. Mr. Fisher, who is an Ulster-man, later became the Editor of The Northern Whig, and I am happy to say is still alive. He has done excellent work in defending the interests of the Loyalists and Protestants of the North.

That, I think, is the full record of my regular newspaper activities, except for one particular. I have not mentioned the fact that I edited the official organ of the Liberal Unionist Party for about two years-a monthly, entitled The Liberal Unionist. The paper was started during the election of 1886. The work was interesting, if not particularly well paid, and brought me into contact with most of the leaders of the Unionist Party-Lord Hartington, Mr. Chamberlain, Mr. Goschen, the Duke of Argyll, Mr. Arthur Elliot, and Mr. Henry Hobhouse, to name only a few of my colleagues on the Liberal Unionist Central Committee. I never had any difficulties with them. They gave me a free hand, and in return I gave them what I think was good value. As my work enlarged I found I wanted help in The Liberal Unionist, and secured an admirable helper in Mr. C. L. Graves. This was the beginning of our private and journalistic friendship, and, though I must not break my rule of not dealing with living people, I may say here what a kind and loyal helper he has always been to me, not only in The Liberal Unionist but for many years in The Spectator. All who know him, and especially his associates on Punch, will, I feel sure, agree with me that no man was ever a more loyal colleague. No man has ever succeeded better than he in combining scholarship and vivacity in humorous and satiric verse.

While carrying on the activities I have mentioned above, I also from time to time wrote for the magazines-for the Edinburgh Quarterly, for the National, the Nineteenth Century, the Contemporary, and once or twice, I think, in the Fortnightly. I even perpetrated a short story in a magazine now deceased-a story which, by the way, if I had time to adapt it, might, I think, make an excellent cinema film. The title was good-"The Snake Ring." It was a story of a murder in the High Alps, when the High Alps were not so much exploited as they are now. There were adventures in sledging over mountain passes in mid-winter, and wonderful mountain Palazzi, with gorgeous seventeenth-century interiors, in lonely snowed- up villages in inaccessible valleys. As a rule, however, my contributions to the magazines were of a serious kind. Very soon after I left Oxford, I wrote my first article in the Quarterly. This was followed by several more, for the old Editor, Dr. Smith, took a strong liking to my work. Dr. Smith was a man of real learning and a true journalist. Though it was the custom to laugh at his "h's," or rather, his occasional want of them, he was very much liked in society. As a boy I had made his acquaintance, I remember, at Lady Waldegrave's, though this chance meeting had nothing to do with the acceptance of my first article. Henry Reeve of the Edinburgh also on several occasions asked me to write the political article in the Review. That was a pleasure. I was given a free hand, and I had the agreeable sense that I was sitting in the seats of the mighty, of Sydney Smith and of Macaulay.

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