GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

May 1 1935
GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

May 1 1935

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

IN SEPTEMBER, 1929, I threw in my hand and resigned from the Daily Express.

One week later I returned. Perhaps the story can be told now.

If in these pages I have failed to indicate the fascination of journalism, then this book is a shoddy piece of work. I can imagine no life that satisfies more completely the love of power, adventure and variety. But there is the gruelling side which demands its toll of the nerves— the long hours, the incessant grind that enforces the preparation of the next day’s paper almost before the presses have ended their run.

An owner who operates by telephone judges his paper by what appears. He can do nothing else. Yet the test of editorship is often in what does not appear. Many times I have spent almost the entire day balancing fact against probability in a story of such importance and delicacy that a false word might ruin the people involved and bring a costly action against the paper. In the end there may be nothing to show for the hours of deliberation.

An onlooker might say:

“Why publish if there Is any risk?”

The editor who takes no risks soon loses the respect of his staff and eventually kills his paper. Yet his is the sole responsibility. His legal staff warn him or sustain him, his colleagues may urge him on or try to dissuade him, but in the end his “Yes” or his “No” absolves all others.

Six days a week. Six days a week. It is like the song of the shirt.

When you wake up in the morning the papers are brought to your bedside and the “show-down” with your rivals has begun. At eleven-thirty you are at your office, and if things are normal you may get out to dinner by eight. Perhaps you go to a theatre or to your club. A courteous attendant meets you with: “Would you mind calling your office?”

Dinner, good companionship, the respite of badinage and the company of gleaming cutlery, stiff shirts and white arms.

“Excuse me, sir, the Express wants you.”

The ladies have left the room. We are in a furious and stimulating argument about the crookedness of cricket or the imponderability of Baldwin.

“The Express on the phone, sir.”

I drive my wife home. Beside the telephone is a written message to call the office.

Back to Fleet Street in the rain or in the moonlight. The night editor walks in.

“A passenger in a private plane has thrown himself into the Channel. It left Croydon about nine o’clock. The plane is the same type as that owned by Lowenstein. He dined at the Carlton at eight and left with his valet and his bag right afterward. What do you think?”

We check his movements as far as we can. The evidence is complete unless coincidence is making a fool of us. “Mystery death of an airplane passenger” is just a fill-up; but “Mystery death of Lowenstein in mid-Channel” is a terrific story.

Supposing we are wrong. Supposing there is a run on his shares?

It must be Lowenstein. Every fact points to it. “Say it is Lowenstein.” That is the editor’s decision. The staff jump at it like a pack of hounds that see the kill in sight. The lawyer shakes his head. Quite right. A lawyer should always shake his head.

To bed at two or three. Ten minutes of a novel to ease the mind and then to sleep. . .

The curtains are quietly drawn aside. Tea. the papers, and another day have arrived. It was Lowenstein. Now for tomorrow’s paper.

Where was Elsie Mackay?

ONE AFTERNOON a man whom I knew I could trust came to see me and said:

“I will not give you my source of information, but you can take my word for it that Elsie Mackay and Hinchliffe are going to fly the Atlantic. They are up at the aerodrome now. He pretends that he is contemplating a flight to India. It is not true. They are going to attempt the Atlantic.” He would reveal nothing more. We made every enquiry, but could get no farther. Yet I felt I could trust him, and all newspapers are produced on trust. That night we published the splash story that Lord Inchcape’s daughter was going to fly the Atlantic.

The storm broke next day. An indignant and categorical denial was issued. Elsie Mackay called me on the phone and accused me of being a blackmailer. Other newspapers publishing her denial mentioned in words that echoed the Pharisee’s boast that the false report had not been in their columns.

Even my proprietor, who seldom joins in a clamor of criticism, called it bad journalism and said that such mistakes gravely injured the paper.

I could do nothing but bow to the storm. Apparently I had chanced my arm once too often.

Five days later, motoring to town from Leatherhead, I saw an evening paper bill, “Hinchliffe flying the Atlantic.” I jumped from the car and bought the paper. The news was in the stop press, and stated that Hinchliffe and a passenger named Captain Sinclair had taken off for the Atlantic flight.

At the office there was almost pandemonium. The whole staff had felt the smart of the whip and partial justification was in sight.

I held an immediate conference. Who was Captain Sinclair? Was there any such person? Yes. His identity had been established and he had been seen at the aerodrome. Where was Elsie Mackay? She was expected back in London in time for dinner. But where was she at that moment? This is a small country. She must be somewhere. But where?

No trace can be discovered of her. It is nine o’clock. The early provincial edition must go to press. The night editor wants to hint that it may be Elsie Mackay in the plane.

“There is going to be no hint,” I decree. “Either we come right out with it or we leave her name alone.”

A man from the process department comes into the big room and hands me a proof picture that is still moist. It shows Elsie Mackay in heavy flying kit standing with Hinchliffe similarly garbed beside their airplane. There is snow on the ground -and it had snowed that morning.

Suddenly the picture is snatched out of my hand. My original informant, who works on the sub-editorial desk, is glaring angrily at me.

“That is mine,” he shouts. “It is my own personal picture. I simply sent it up to be developed, and it belongs to me until I release it.”

Bold Tactics

I TAKE HIM into my private office and we face each other. It is a moment for bold tactics.

“You cannot keep this story back,” I say. “I know the

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whole business. This Sinclair fellow was just a blind. He left with Hinchliffe as if he were going to fly with him, but at the last moment he disappeared and Elsie Mackay took his place. Shall I tell you morethat Sinclair came back to London tonight?”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“I promised to protect my informant until 10.30, but if the news is out, there is the picture.”

At eleven o’clock, Harry Greenwall, one of the best foreign correspondents in the world and who was in the office, came up to me and urged caution.

“Supposing you are wrong again?” he said.

“Then tomorrow I shall fly the Pacific.”

There was truth behind the bravado. If the story proved wrong, I could only resign and walk out. 1 was acting on instinct, deduction and faith in a man’s honesty. I sent for the night editor.

“Publish what the other papers said about us when they denied our first story. Give them a broadside this time.”

At midnight I realized that I had eaten nothing since noon and, calling a boy, I gave him a pound note and told him to go to the Press Club and get me some beer, sandwiches and cheese. In fifteen minutes he returned, staggering under a huge basket filled with mountains of sandwiches enfiladed by a regiment of bottles and punctuated with lumps of cheese. He possessed a literal mind and had spent the entire pound.

To bed at three. . . Then morning and the papers. Our story was true, the stoppress columns of the others confirmed it. I went to Roehampton and played a round of golf with good old Peter Donovan. At intervals messengers came out to say that Lord Beaverbrook wanted me on the phone. But we finished our game first. There are times in journalism, as in the piano business, when one need not care for man or devil.

I did not know then that the two people who had given me a journalistic coup were to die in the cruel arms ol the sea. At the time the spell of the newspaper game was upon us, and we had no thought for the poor creatures who had challenged the lonely majesty of the stars and had paid for their audacity with their lives.

The Breaking Point

THESE incidents, if not always so spectacular, could be multiplied many times. I have described them not so much for themselves as to show the barrage which goes on against an editor’s nervous system. I was not always right in my decisions, but I was fortunate inasmuch as my mistakes were on smaller stories and my successes on the bigger ones. In other words, no man who runs a store or government or an army or a newspaper can succeed by ability alone. He must have the elements of luck on his side— that queer, inexplicable, fateful conjunction of the stars that dogs the footsteps of some and guides the others like a torch. The logical mind will decry such blasphemy. Let it do so. All the best arguments are on its side. But as the far-away voice of Cardinal Mazarin comes from histon' as he is urged to appoint a commander of cavalry because of his knowledge of tactics: “Yes, yes, but tell me—is he fortunate?”

The curse of Daily Express journalism was

that there was no respite for the men in charge unless sickness intervened. It is only fair to state that Beaverbrook never spared himself. He expected his chiefs of staff to be at the end of the telephone when the machine was in action. Never mind if he were there until 3 o’clock the previous morning, the machine must function on time.

Longsighted in most things, he was grossly shortsighted in this. He could feel his own nerves fraying with endless strain. He knew from the growing irritability of our conversation tnat I would be nearing the danger point. But he would neither give respite to himself nor suggest it to his editor. You cannot leave troops in the front line all the time. They must be taken out for periods of rest.

At the particular time of which I am writing there was no chance to recover from the fatigue that was spreading its poison throughout my system. The machine went on until I could hardly bear the sight of the paper as it came from the press. Beaverbrook, tired out as well, relapsed into one of his depressions. In such a mood his powers of devitalization are at least equal to his normal powers of vitalization. The very trees in his garden wither and the birds droop and are still.

A couple of days in Paris or at the seaside and values would have been restored again. But we are the Death’s Head Hussars of Fleet Street and while we stand we fight. Fine heroics, poor judgment.

One morning, utterly weary, I came late to the office. Beaverbrook was out of town. He had called me on the telephone but, not finding me at my post, he had sent a wire of elaborate sarcasm asking what hours I was | at the office so that he would be able to call me at my convenience and thus avoid disturbing me unnecessarily.

It sent me into a blind fury. Neither Strube nor anyone could calm my anger. Now that I recall the telegram, I wonder what my anger was all about. The truth, of course, was that I was just exhausted and was unable to keep anything in proportion.

Next morning he telephoned me about a gossip paragraph that displeased him. He complained too much. It was not worth more than a few seconds of our time and my fury surged all over me again.

When I reached the office I asked my secretary to call Mr. William Harrison, Chairman of the Inveresk Company, whose office was across the street in the Daily Chronicle building.

“Yes, Baxter.”

“I want to see you,” I told him.

“When?” t

“Right now.”

“Come on over.”

A New Job

THERE HAS probably been no more incredible figure in all journalism than Harrison. A North Country solicitor, he had acquired for a small sum a controlling interest in a paper mill. From that to other mills was a step he took in his stride. The illustrated papers were for sale—that unequalled luxury group containing the Taller, Sketch, Sphere, London Illustrated News, Bystander, etc. An enormous price was asked. Harrison paid it. The Daily Chronicle, which had carried the declining fortunes of Lloyd George

on its shoulders and had been bartered until its life stream was losing color, was rumored to be in the market again. Harrison got it.

There were a number of provincial papers still outside the existing amalgamations. Harrison purchased them.

Fie engaged Gilbert Frankau at £10,000 a I year to create a new magazine, Britannia. It was launched with pomp and cost. In the first couple of issues Gilbert denounced Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, Communists, Fascists and newspapers. Not being able to maintain so formidable a pace, Britannia dissolved as a separate entity and was merged in blessed union with Eve. The end was happy but the cost was heavy.

Harrison’s shares were at a giddy height. Although he lived in the same modest town house and country cottage as before, he lunched nearly every day at the Savoy. His entrance was made superb by his retainers. Knights, baronets and even peers held up the skirts of his coat as if it were a royal train. I had played golf with him once or twice, and my old friend, Douglas Stephenson, who had his confidence, had persistently touted me as the Caesar of Fleet Street.

Harrison received me with simplicity and cordiality and asked me what I wanted.

“I want a job.”

“Go on. You’re joking.”

“I’m serious.”

“Has Beaverbrook fired you?”

“You just want me to make an offer so you can go and hold him up, eh?”

“Nothing of the sort. If you give me the job I want, I will sign the contract here and now.”

“What job is it you’re after?”

1 sat down and leaned over the desk. “You have some marvellous newspaper properties but they are not co-ordinated. Huskinson knows more about illustrated newspapers than I could ever learn, but you should have a common purpose between all your publications. Your group is so big that you could make news, make new personalities, not just record and photograph them. Your Daily Chronicle needs new life. So do your provincial papers. They have lost their faith. You need an editor-in-chief to create a common bond of policy and enthusiasm.” For a few minutes we discussed the project and then Harrison fixed me with his eye. “WTiat salary?” he asked.

“Ten thousand pounds a year.”

Harrison nodded. “Do you mean business, Baxter?”

“I mean business.”

He put out his hand. “Put it there. It’s a deal.”

He rang for his secretary.

“Take this down,” he said.

“I herewith appoint Mr. A. Beverley Baxter editor-in-chief of all Inveresk publications at a salary of ten thousand pounds a year. He is to be allowed a further one thousand pounds a year for general expenses. This agreement is for seven years.”

So we signed and shook hands, and with knees that had gone all wobbly I made my way out to Fleet Street. I had in my pocket an unbreakable agreement for £77,000. I was to have control of a machine which was only limited in its potentialities by the abilities of those in charge.

Many Men in One

ALREADY my thoughts were fastening -fL on the Daily Chronicle. Liberalism was a declining faith—but what about a new and more robust Liberalism? What about a Liberalism that threw off the shackles of Free Trade in an impossible tariff-ridden world, that would embrace the idea of a Free Trade Empire protected by customs walls, a general policy of social reform and Government planning that would attract the younger Socialists and Conservatives because of its pliability, its humanitarianism. and its aggressiveness? Was it absurd or premature? Two years later we were to see Lloyd George deserted and the rump of the Liberal Party enter the National Government with its tariff policy.

It may have been that I sensed that new development in Liberalism. Perhaps at the head of the Daily Chronicle or in conjunc-

tion with its editor, I might have played an important part in making the Liberal reorientation a much more decisive move than it proved to be.

Of one thing I am certain. If I had been with the Daily Chronicle I would have moved heaven and earth to prevent the eventual scandal of its closing down. I would have hammered at the doors of the financiers. I would have bullied, cajoled and only stopped short of blackmail with the politicians. In desperation, if need be, I would have gone to Beaverbrook and asked him to save a rival paper, and I believe he would have given me the money. In some manner, somehow, I would have prevented the rape of the Chronicle.

It had a circulation of 900,000 copies a day, and threw up the fight to become merged with the Daily News. I have seen many tragedies in Fleet Street, but that was the worst.

None of these things were in my mind, however, as I sat in my office in Shoe Lane after the Harrison interview. In my pocket was the signed agreement. Yet all round me the normal life of the Express went on.

I felt like a spy among my own beloved troops. They asked me for decisions which might affect the paper for months ahead. What could I say? I had sold myself to the enemy. These fellows trusted me. They thought I was their leader. They were revealing secrets which no one but the most trusted confidante should know.

In desperation, I drove down to Leatherhead to see Beaverbrook. He knew something was up and received me with that human courtesy that makes him so queerly lovable even when the heart has been full of hate.

For five hours we sat on his terrace or walked his lawns and talked. It is not necessarily a tribute to my abilities that he was deeply hurt by my actions and urged me again and again to reconsider my resignation. He is many men in one. He can hound and humiliate with a feminine cunning that few women could equal. Yet he gives out a depth ot affection to those about him that can be warming and sustaining beyond that of any other man.

He did not believe that the Express would collapse if I left, but I was his man, his protégé, his editor, his countryman, his colleague, his friend. How could I leave him when we had fought together at Crecy and Agincourt? Was this to be the ending to the story of the Canadian backwoodsmen who had challenged Northcliffe and Rothermere in all their power?

We recalled a thousand adventures and misadventures. We laughed at remembered absurdities and we thrilled to the memories of passing triumphs. Then I drove back to town, to finish up my affairs at the office and leave at once. I had done a deal with Harrison, and rightly or wrongly I would go through with it.

It was like the last few hours at school. Inanimate things took on a sudden glamor. That map of the world—how often I had turned to it to tollow up the adventures of an army or to locate the collapse of a pretender’s dream. This bowl of tobacco, that easy chair from which had poured the confessions of ministers, minstrels and mountebanks. Even the accumulated débris of manuscripts and letters seemed kindly and friendly as if they were sorry to see me go.

Then the staff. Good fellows who mumbled their farewells because neither they nor I could trust our voices. Shrewd fellows who were calculating their chances under a changing dynasty. J. B. Wilson grinned. He had the perfect newspaper loyalty—not to the man but to the chair— and I respected him for it more than he believed.

“We shall continue your salary ( £4,000) for a year,” said Robertson. “Good-by. Good luck.”

The Storm

THERE IS nothing like the prospect of earning £15,000 in a year to ease an aching heart. I agreed to spend a week with Harrison arranging matters and then take a month’s holiday before starting in on my seven years sentence.

Almost at once it became evident that the opening rounds were going to be stormy. The editor of the Daily Chronicle was Ernest Perris, a very considerable figure in Fleet Street, and he calmly announced that he did not propose to accept my direction and produced his contract as justification. The Chronicle, of course, was the key to the whole plan. Huskinson. Comvns. Beaumont and the others who edited the illustrated group were too good at their jobs to worry about any interference from me and. on the other hand, would certainly co-operate with me on a common policy if it could be proved a wise one. On the other hand. I did definitely intend to interfere with the Chronicle and make it the cornerstone of the whole daily newspaper group.

Fcr two days, Harrison, Perris and I staged a three-cornered discussion which got nowhere. Perris had a contract giving him editorial authority over the Chronicle. I had a contract giving me an overriding authority over the same publication. In the midst of the wrangle. Jack Akerman, the vice-chairman, arrived.

Akerman. of course, had been a big man on the Times, but had left to join Harrison. Already the natural sunshine of his countenance was streaked with clouds. It so often happens, as in the case of Harrison, that the man who can create a huge combine has not the capacity to control what he has created. It is a truism that men are either builders or operators, but seldom both. So it is with nations. The English are the greatest builders, and the Scots the best operators of what the English have built. Harrison was definitely not an operator, nor had he delegated sufficient authority for any of his senior colleagues to fill the necessary rôle of dictator.

Already, too, the City was in a state of nerves. That terrible whisper of an impending smash was at work, catching on with the same diabolical mischief as did the glim epigrams which passed among the Sans-Culottes before the storm broke against the French Monarchy. America was at the last frenzied peak of her Wall Street prosperity, and men were saying the crash was at hand. In other words, the ballet was over and the tragedy was about to begin.

At the end of four days discussion Perris made an offer. He would give up his editorship of the Chronicle providing he could become joint editor-in-chief of the whole group with me. Harrison gave some support to the idea. He was desperately anxious for peace.

I refused. Already it was apparent that, with the situation as it was, it would be difficult enough to secure results with singlehanded editorial authority. But to walk the bridge with another captain, both in charge of the ship and each with decided notions as to how the ship should go, was merely to invite chaos. Poor Harrison, beset by many worries, must have wished a curse on both our houses, but he remained cheerful and kindly throughout.

TOWARD the end of the week the impasse was so complete that I sought guidance from my wise old friend. Beaverbrook. We went riding on his estate and I told him of the trouble that had arisen. He thought for some time, then said:

“You had better come back to the ; Express. The Harrison situation is not clear I cut. If you want to come back you can have ] a seat on the board, and as Blumenfeld wants to retire you can be editor-in-chief.” “And the salary?”

Beaverbrook waved his hand thoughtfully.

“Ours is a queer story,” he said. “I suggest that if you come back there should be no discussion as to salary and you leave the matter entirely in my hands.”

I agreed, providing that it proved impos-1 sible that night when Harrison, Perris and I were to meet in a private room at the Savoy, to come to a working agreement.

It was a strange scene as the three of us talked into the early hours of the morning. But there was too much at stake to reach a compromise and at last the discussions ended in complete exhaustion. Something had to be done. There was no use meeting in the morning, so I addressed myself to the chairman:

“Harrison, you have been a good friend to me and I should have liked to work with you. But you gave me a contract that you could not carry out. That contract is for £77,000, and I think you will agree that £30,000 would not be unreasonable as the amount of compensation due me. The courts would uphold my claim, I think. I am going back to the Express and you must pay me something.”

“What do you want?” asked Harrison, the smile gone from his weary face.

“Give me one cigar and you can have your contract.”

Theatrical? Perhaps. Bul I did not take one penny. When I am challenged at the j Gate, that ought to count for something if only for its rarity.

So I returned to my newspaper, after one week’s absence, and in due course occupied the chair of that great gentleman and splendid journalist, Ralph D. Blumenfeld.

J. B. Wilson grinned a welcome. It was all the same to him.

The doors had hardly closed behind me when the Harrison crash came.

The North Country solicitor had challenged the giants of finance and had lost. ;

Two months went by and my salary remained unaltered. Then one day Robertson came to see me and said:

“Lord Beaverbrook wants you to name the salary which you think you should get in view of your discussion with him during . the Harrison negotiations. He will accept your figure.”

So I named the sum, and in a few hours received a cheque for arrears of increase dated back to my return.

A curious fellow.

To be Concluded