GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

April 1 1935
GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

April 1 1935

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

AFTER three years on the Sunday Express it was agreed by Blumenfeld and Beaverbrook that I should be appointed managing editor of the Daily Express; which meant that I would take over the direction and editorial production of the paper, subject to the guidance and veto of “Blum” as editor-in-chief.

Guy Pollock was at that time managing editor of the Daily, and it was arranged that he and I should exchange posts. Thus in the contest for editorial supremacy which he had forecast in our first meeting, the tide was moving against him.

It is no discredit to Pollock to say that he had not been altogether suited to his task. By instinct he loathed sensationalism. He would have been far happier with the Post or the Telegraph. At the same time he was ambitious, and the news of his impending transfer to the Sunday was a blow to his pride.

Secrets are not easily hidden in a newspaper office, but for five days, from Monday until Friday, we kept the coming change to ourselves, while I wandered around at edition time watching procedure. On Friday Pollock presided over the usual four o’clock conference of all the editorial heads and announced the fact that I would succeed him. Then he said:

“I am leaving the finest staff in the world. No managing editor has ever been served more loyally than I have been by you chaps. But you can prove your loyalty to me by giving it in the same way to Mr. Baxter. All that matters is the newspaper.”

He left the conference room and I took over. I have never been to the Arctic, but the temperature must have been about the same. Even those few who had cursed Pollock as a martinet suddenly felt a glow of affection for him, like the Russians after the death of Ivan the Terrible. Those who genuinely loved him showed their resentment by their silence. Nor was it purely a personal matter. I had come from the Sunday, that bastard one-day publication that was always interfering with the six-day parent publication. It was like the leader of a street band mounting the conductor’s desk at Covent Garden.

A Difficult Situation

THE READING of the news schedule at that conference seemed interminable. Once I suggested an item and like a clap of thunder came the contemptuous chorus:

“It was in the Mail this morning.”

When the time was up they all filed past me without a word except J. B. Wilson, the news editor, who grinned at me and said, “I hope you will get on all right.” Then he walked out to bury himself in a ton of copy.

Immediately afterward I went to inform my colleagues on the Sunday that this was the severance of our relations. Reverse the situation and the picture is complete. We almost wept together, and their response to my plea for loyalty to Pollock was a unanimous decision on their part

to go out and get tight.

Warmed by their good fellowship, I went to the Big Room and sat in the editor’s chair. The machine was at work.

At eight o’clock I decided to go out for a meal and, crossing over to the chief sub-editor, I said:

"You might raise all the headings one size on the second main news page. They are too small.”

When I came back at nine o’clock I was walking toward my desk when young “Goosie” Blumenfeld, son of the editor-in-chief and night editor of the paper sang out to me: “Oh, Baxter! Sorton told me that you wanted some

headings changed. No headings can be altered without my father’s permission. That is a standing order.”

This was a situation. I had given an order and it had not been obeyed. What is more, young Blumenfeld, by calling out to me, had made a dozen members of the staff unwitting but not unwilling spectators to my dilemma. I stood in my tracks and spoke so that they all could hear.

“I did not know of the editor’s ruling,” I said, “and I will explain it to him in the morning. Now carry out my instructions and change the headings.”

“Goosie” Blumenfeld, fanatically loyal to his father, came toward me.

“Do you order me to break a ruling of my father’s?”

“Yes.”

“Then I resign.”

“I accept your resignation.”

He walked to the rack and, taking his hat, went out. I asked that grand old journalist, H. J. Farthing, to take over his duties, and then I sat down to read proofs. The machine went on, but the air was charged with electricity. The night seemed endless, but it was actually less than an hour later when young Blumenfeld came back. With a gesture of manliness that I appreciated very much, he came to my desk and apologized.

“I have been long enough in the game,” he said, “to know that the man in charge is in charge. If you order me to set the headings upside down that’s your business, not mine.”

So the first Daily Express of my direction was bom.

Early next morning I reported to R. D. Blumenfeld to offer my regrets for the events of the night before. I explained that his son had challenged my authority openly, and that my position would have been untenable if I had not met the challenge. At the same time I explained that nothing in the world would have induced me to break a ruling of his if I had known of its existence.

Blumenfeld entirely supported my action. The whole thing had hurt him, that was obvious, but his sense of justice was stronger than any resentment. As I went out he said rather wistfully:

“Goosie is a foolish youngster. He thinks there is only one god.”

Hrnivth nf it Npwsnnner

THE STORY of the Express from that time, when our circulation was around 700,000 a day, to the moment nine years later when we announced a sale of over 2,000,000 copies a day, the largest not only in Great Britain but in the world, is a romance that must have a permanent place in the annals of journalism. If the energy put into that success could be measured scientifically, I believe it would make an interesting commentary on human achievement.

The battery was Beaverbrook. At times the power generated from his cells made ordinary lamps gleam like arc

lights. Other times the force was too much and they just burned out under the pressure. There was no such thing as a routine production. Every day it was a triumph or a disaster. Every day we began our careers anew. Every day we cheered when we scooped the enemy. Every day we tore our hair if the enemy scooped us.

Robertson and I were given financial carle blanche to build up the best staff that money could buy. We took

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' Hannen SwafTer, the most picturesque figure in Fleet Street, and turned him loose on the theatre. Hannen always carried himself like a buccaneer in the office, as if authority could never touch him. but he was a supreme journalist and devoted to whatever paper he was working on. If you said to him, “There’s a balloon leaving for the moon in an hour and we want you to go in it,” he j would reply: “Balloon stories are old stuff.

! I did the best balloon story ever written for : Northcliffe. I did all the balloon stories.

! Nobody ever thought there was anything in ! a balloon until I made it news. If it hadn’t been for me—”

“The balloon leaves in an hour, Swaff.” “Right, old man. Don’t let them hack my I stuff about on the table, will you? Those cursed Scottish sub-editors ruin every story they get their hands on.”

He never let the paper down. He knew nothing about hours or days off, and was indifferent to pay. He argued about everything and always carried out orders. He attacked the theatres so mercilessly that he was eventually banned from a number of them, but he would walk miles to do a kindness. He had an unsmiling wit that was made more pointed by an odd hesitancy of speech. One night Osbert Sitwell was in my office when SwafTer came in. Someone mentioned a review in Punch.

“I never read Punch.” said Swaff.

“Why not?” asked Sitwell.

“Oh ... I got fed up with those cartoons of one wooden British lion looking at another j wooden British lion and saying, ‘Bravo, John Bull.’ ”

For his arrogance, his vanity, his humor and his supreme news sense, I have nothing but affectionate memories. When Hannen departs to the spirit world which has occupied so much of his thoughts, Fleet Street will not look upon his like again. And when that sad event occurs, he will deserve a better epitaph than the one that was prepared for him:

“ Honi Swaff qui mal y pense.”

At the same time I took on the staff, H. V. Morton, a young man of subtle charms with a mind that was Western in its penetration and Eastern in its foundation. He was as sensitive as a schoolgirl and as shrewd as a Rothschild. Plis sense of beauty blossomed between the sunshine of his humor and the clouds of a deep and pervading depression. Life was such a joke that it made him sad. His previous editor warned me that he was gifted but would give me trouble.

One day we discussed a series of articles. Like Mr. Pickwick, he was to wander about the country and tell the public of its own country. Striving for an improvement of the obvious, I suggested that he should call the series “In search of England.”

PI. V. Morton saw the wisdom of the suggestion at once. He searched for England to the delight of our readers. Then he searched for Scotland. In the meantime a publisher went in search of H. V. Morton, and in a moment of casualness we said that Morton could have the book rights of his articles.

That was the founding of a considerable fortune for him. His books have found their way to the bookstalls of the world. Americans packed them next to their flasks, and Canadians carried them about England like guidebooks. He deserved his success for his writing was delicate and full of feeling. Pie was grand company and made many good jokes in the office.

Colleagues

AN EARLY problem was “Beach! comber.” This famous column was j being written by Wyndham Lewis, a romantic, handsome misanthrope, touched with genius and cursed by a stutter that made normal conversation difficult. He resigned on a point of order soon after my arrival, and

his successor became a matter of urgency. It happened that on the Sunday Express 1 had taken on an ex-Oxford, ex-Army iivefoot-flve swashbuckler named J. B. Morton as a tame poet and book reviewer. He detested a newspaper and all its works, but could write lovely lines at a moment’s notice. His hobby was walking vast distances over mountains, drinking ale with the villagers, and singing loudly in an enormous and discordant voice.

Pie worked in the same office as Wyndham Lewis, and one day arrived in walking kit with masses of wet mud on his shoes. Lewis looked disapprovingly at him and stuttered:

“F-f-f-filthy fellow.”

Morton went down to the basement and knocked most of it off with a stick. When he returned, Lewis looked him over again.

“F-f-f-fop!” he said.

With a flash of inspiration, we made Johnny Morton “Beachcomber.” There he is to this day, mocking everything that the rest of the paper treats seriously, extolling beer, walking the mountains, and proudly boasting that he has never contributed one item of news to the Express in his life.

St. John Ervine joined us as book critic. No one will deny his gifts, but he made the mistake of thinking that he could repeat the trick of his fellow Irishman, Shaw, and wound with impunity. Unfortunately, he had neither Shaw’s genius nor his charm. His humor was heavy-footed and his attacks uncouth. In conversation he was an agreeable and gentle enough fellow; in the theatre a good craftsman and a man of ideas; in criticism coarse-fibred and ineffective. It is only fair to add that from the time he left us at my suggestion he has denounced me in written and spoken word in terms that should make me ashamed to show my face except under cover of darkness. Perhaps it is fortunate that his low estimate of me did not find vent until he was off our salary list, and that during his tenure of office he was a useful, distinguished and docile colleague.

His departure made room for James Agate, whose verve and Gallic wit and aptness of quotation makes criticism a thing of elegance. How strange that a man of such sensibility should have a short handicap at golf.

Another stalwart was Geoffrey Gilberg, the gentleman tipster. If the muscular Christian in “Androcles and the Lion” had been to Eton and was not quite so muscular, you would have Gilberg.

And then, of course, there was Strube.

Strube’s Public House

HERE IS a character straight from Dickens. Strube—alternately pro-

nounced “Stroob” and “Strooby” by an admiring public—was a bayonet instructor at some period in the war. Surely no living creature could have been farther removed from the spirit of the bayonet. Blumenfeld suspected Ipis genius when Strube’s fingers were all thumbs, and brought him along slowly.

This quaint and kindly little chap occupies a position which has no successor. Ix>w of the Standard is a genius with his line, but he makes his victims squirm. There has been nothing more cruel in caricature than his treatment of Birkenhead in the declining years when that statesman thought to extract the secret of living by taking from life instead of giving to it. Strube’s hand cannot draw an unkind line. Even when day by day during the coal strike he depicted Baldwin wandering aimlessly about with a pencil in his mouth and a crossword puzzle dangling in his hand, Baldwin remained a figure of kindly fun, a benevolent fellow caught in the maze of uncontrollable events.

In the office Strube was responsible for an order of chivalry which meant almost as much as a knighthood. He was polite to everyone, but not too familiar. If he finally

decided that you were a good fellow he began to call you “George.” I lis wife was “George;” the scout was “George;” Stanley Bishop, the best of all chief reporters, was “George.” It was a matter of no small pride to me when, a few weeks after my taking office, Strube greeted me with:

“Good morning, George,” and I was able to reply, “Good morning, George.” Once in a moment of warmth he referred to “George” Beaverbrook, but I doubt if the latter was ever fully initiated into the order.

One day Strube purchased a public house. There has probably been no such institution in history. Actor friends out of a job made it their headquarters. Journalists down on their luck were put up. Every now and then a stranger paid for a drink. lie didn’t know that everything was on the house.

An income-tax demand had lowered my spirits on one occasion when Strube came into my office.

“George,” I said with an affected despair, “I am a ruined man.”

He said nothing at the time, but an hour later came back and, after a couple of false starts, said:

“Forgive me, George, but if you are in a bad way I’ve got a couple of rooms in my pub that aren’t much but you’re welcome to them as long as you like.”

Which is probably as gentle and unusual a speech as ever was made even in Fleet Street.

I believe that Strube had an office somewhere, but as an artist he was a nomad. He was always wandering about the place with cardboards under his arm and stopping anywhere to complete a line or two. \ ou would find him among the débris of J. B. Wilson’s office, sitting on Who's Who or leaning against the wall and sketching. Other times he would sit down on the stairs, or take a fancy to the foreign editor’s office.

Sometimes when the chief had ridden me too hard and my smoldering resentment could not be hidden in my face, Strube would wander unobtrusively into my office, and, sitting in the wastepaper basket or propped up against my filing table, he would work away on his cartoon until my mood had passed. Otten we would carry on without a word, but we both knew.

I always set aside a period every day for consultation with him and, although his genius flows completely from himself and needs no other source, I was able, like the electric hare, to entice his abilities to their utmost effort.

Sometimes I have thought that Dickens, who cartooned with words, had come back in the form of the Strube who cartooned in line. At any rate his “Little Man” with his glasses, umbrella and bowler hat, his undying faith in politicians despite incessant shocks, with his annual and fruitless search for the Derby winner, with his hatred of injustice and his contempt for dictators, may well take his place beside the immortals of Dickens.

The Circulation War

A STRANGE fellow named A. J. Russell used to drop in at seven o’clock and offer me ideas. He had an odd habit of looking at the ceiling when talking and believed that the two biggest things in life were sex and religion. He had so many ideas that at last I took him on as leader page editor, the job which had always remained particularly close to me. A little later Russell came into my office and, addressing the ceiling, suggested that a number of prominent people should write in the Express on “My Religion.” I assured him that no man of sensibility or taste could write on such a subject. He said I was wrong and wrote to various people including Arnold Bennett.

The next day I ran into Bennett at lunch and offered my apologies for the letter that had been sent to him.

“Not at all,” said Arnold. “It’s a . . . very good subject. How many . . . words do you want?”

The series was a startling success. From a spiritual standpoint, it could have done

nothing but good. From a material stand-1 ¡xnnt, it added nearly 100,000 copies I to our sale.

Day by day we threw ourselves into the I fight with the best rallying cry in the world. | “One for all and all for one.”

I played my luck to the limit and my j luck held. One afternoon a pretty woman I with Eastern eyes and black lashes an inch long came to see me. Her name was Lady Drummond Hay, and she seemed to have stepped right out of a Phillips Oppenheim novel. Never before had I seen in the flesh the woman who robs the susceptible king’s messenger of his papers on the train.

Zogoul Pasha was in London, trying for a ! new Anglo-Egyptian alignment. She knew all about him and about Egypt. He would not get what he wanted. On his return there would be assassinations. She would go to Cairo for us and cover the news. Day after day she called on me with the same object, until at last I told her to draw her money and go to Cairo.

Egypt was definitely not in the news, and I received some criticism for sending her there. The pressure was so strong that I was about to recall her when the Sirdar, Sir Lee Stack, was assassinated. It was an enormous story, and while the other papers were rushing their correspondents to the spot, Lady Drummond Hay was cabling us vivid, first-hand stuff that left all the others behind.

It sounds callous to use the word luck in connection with the death of a gallant soldier, but it is used purely in the inhuman j sense of journalism. It is the task of a newsj paper to record events, and if those events are tragic that is no more the fault of the newspaper than of the mirror that tells a woman her beauty is gone.

Like a band of pirates, we taunted the Daily Mail at every opportunity. That journal was the ship to overhaul, for we knew we had the measure of the three Liberal journals, the Westminster Gazette having transferred itself into a morning paper. Wisely, however, the Mail refused to j be drawn. It was, in first place, the best ¡ advertising medium in the world, and it was : not going to get mixed up in a dog fight with I Beaverbrook’s “amateurs.”

Nevertheless it thought it prudent to introduce accident insurance for its readers.! The Express raised the ante. The Mail raised it again. The Express met it and j doubled. In no time we had a situation i where a registered reader had only to be : killed on a train to leave his family indepenj dent for life. And if he and his wife could j only manage to be killed in the same train accident, their descendants were positively rich.

It is a credit to the coolness of our railways that they continued to be the safest form of | travel in the world, and the registered readj ers had the disappointment of arriving safely at their destination enriched only by j the passing wisdom found in the columns of their favorite newspaper.

When an accident did occur it superseded all other news, and our huge cheques were rushed to the bereaved almost before the first tears were dry.

A silly chapter in the story of Fleet Street.

A Newspaper’s Creed

EVERY NOW and then we raided the Mail, just to show that we were muscling in on their territory. We took Harold Pemberton from under their noses and, after many wooings, I secured Trevor Wignall, the most brilliant, prolific, emotional, hotheaded and opinionated sports writer in existence.

With the exception of a few of the older men and some of the juniors, we had all served in the war. In a deeper sense than is usual, we created the spirit of the regiment in the Express office. I do not mean that there was never a clash or that all was music and games, but it is a fact that the spirit of loyalty to the paper became so strong that if a reporter fell down on a story the rest of the news staff felt the humiliation as if it were their own. And, better still, if a

reporter did well, his comrades rejoiced openly with him as soon as the ¡tubs were open.

With Blumenfeld’s approval, 1 made the morning conference into a sort of officers’ mess. We were all there to discuss the paper, to lind ideas and pool them, to give each member of the conference a personal interest in the whole paper. 1 derived enormous strength from my staff, and we were all so in sympathy with the general purpose of the pajx-r that we achieved a

continuity of spirit as well as production.

There were tragedies, of course. Good fellows who could not measure up had to go. Drink took its toll, and there were others unfortunate enough to gain promotion only to lind that they had outpaced their own abilities. There were still others to whom expense accounts were but forms of selfexpression.

But for the survivors, it was an unforgettable experience.

To be Continued