The old and the new—The scissors and paste auxiliaries—A night’s work—“A dorg’s life”—How to communicate with the third floor—A modern man in the old days—His migration—Other migrants—Some provincial correspondents—Forgetful of a Town Councillor—The Plymouth Brother as a sub-editor—A vocal effort—“Summary” justice—Place aux Dames—A ghost story—Suggestions of the Crystal Palace—The presentation.

IT would give me no difficulty to write a book about sub-editors with illustrations from those whom I have met. It is, perhaps, in this department of a newspaper office that the change from the old regime is most apparent. The young sub-editors are frequently graduates of universities; but, in spite of this, most of them are well abreast of French and German as well as English literature. They bear out my contention, that journalism is beginning to be taken seriously. The new men have chosen journalism as their profession; they have not, as was the case with the men of a past age, merely drifted into journalism because they were failures in banks, in tailors’ shops, in the drapery line, and even in the tobacco business—one in which failure is almost impossible.

I have met in the old days with specimens of such men—men who fancied, and who got their employers to fancy also, that because they had failed in occupations that demanded the exercise of no intellectual powers for success, they were bound to succeed in something that they termed “a literary calling.” They did not succeed as a rule. They glanced over their column or two of telegraphic news,—in those days few provincial papers contained more than a double column of telegrams,—they glanced through the country correspondence and corrected such mistakes in grammar as they were able to detect: it was with the scissors and paste, however, that their most striking intellectual work was done. In this department the brilliancy of the old sub-editor’s genius had a chance of being displayed. It coruscated, so to speak, on the rim of the paste pot, and played upon the business angle of the scissors, as the St. Elmo’s light gleams on the yard-arms.

“Ah!” said one of them to me, with a glow of proper pride upon his face, as he ran the closed scissors between the pages of the Globe. “Ah, it’s only when it comes to a question of cutting out that your true sub-editor reveals himself.”

And he forthwith annexed the “turn-over,” without so much as acquainting himself with the nature of the column.

“Do you never read the thing before you cut it out?” I inquired timidly.

He smiled the smile of the professor at the innocent question of a tyro.

“Not likely, young fellow,” he replied. “It’s bad enough to have to read all the cuttings when they appear in our next issue, without reading them beforehand.”

“Then how do you know whether or not the thing that you cut out is suitable for the paper?” I asked.

“That’s where the instinct of your true subeditor comes in,” said he. “I put in the point of the scissors mechanically and the right thing is sure to come between the blades.”

In a few minutes he had about thirty columns of cuttings ready for the foreman printer.

I began to feel that I had never done full justice to the sub-editor or the truffle hunter.

I have said that in those old days not more than two columns of wired news ever came to any provincial paper—The Scotsman, the Glasgow Herald, and a Liverpool and Manchester organ excepted. The private wire had not yet been heard of. In the present day, however, I have seen as many as sixteen columns of telegraphic news in a very ordinary provincial paper. I myself have come into my office at ten o’clock to find a speech in “flimsy,” of four columns in length, on some burning question of the moment. I have read through all this matter, and placing it in the printers’ hands by eleven, I have written a column of comment (about one thousand eight hundred words), read a proof of this column and started for home at half-past one. I may mention that while waiting for the last slips of my proof, I also made myself aware of the contents of the Times, the Telegraph, the Standard, and the Morning Post, which had arrived by the midnight train.

I suppose there are hundreds of editors throughout the provinces to whom such a programme is habitually no more a thing to shrink from than it was to me for several years of my life. But I am sure that if any one of the sub-editors of the old days had been required to read even five columns of a political speech, and eight of parliament, he would have talked about slave-driving and a “dorg’s life” until he had fallen asleep—as he frequently did—with his arms on his desk and the “flimsies” on the floor.

Some time ago I was in London, and had written an article at my rooms, with a view of putting it on the special wire at the Fleet Street end for transmission to the newspaper on which I was then employed. It so happened, however, that I was engaged at other matters much longer than I expected to be that night, so that it was past one o’clock in the morning when I drove to the office in Fleet Street. The lower door was shut, and no response was given to my ring. I knew that the editor had gone home, but of course the telegraph operator was still in his room—I could see his light in the topmost window—and I made up my mind to rouse him, for I assumed that he was taking his usual sleep. After ringing the bell twice without result, it suddenly occurred to me that I might place myself in connection with him by some other means than the bell-wire. I drove to the Central Telegraph Office, and sent a telegram to the operator at the Irish end of the special wire, asking him to arouse the Fleet Street operator and tell him to open the street door for me.

When I returned to Fleet Street I found the operator waiting for me at the open door. In other words, I found that my easiest plan of communicating with the third floor from the street was by means of an office in Ireland.

I do not think that any of the old-time subeditors would have been likely to anticipate the arrival of a day when such an incident would be possible.

The only modern man of the old school, so to speak, with whom I came in contact at the outset of my journalistic life, now occupies one of the highest places on the London Press. I have never met so able a man since I worked by his side, nor have I ever met with one who was so accurate an observer, or so unerring a judge of men. He was everything that a subeditor should be, and if he erred at all it was on the side of courtesy. I have known of men coming down to the office with an action for libel in their hearts, and bitterness surpassing the bitterness of a Thomson whose name has appeared with a p, in the account of the attendance at a funeral, and yet going back to their wives and families quite genial, owing to the attitude adopted toward them by this subeditor; yes, and without any offer being made by him to have the mistake, of which they usually complained, altered in the next issue.

He was one of the few men whom I have known to go to London from the provinces with a doubt on his mind as to his future success. Most of those to whom I have said a farewell that, unfortunately, proved to be only temporary, had made up their minds to seek the metropolis on account of the congenial extent of the working area of that city. A provincial town of three hundred thousand inhabitants had a cramping effect upon them, they carefully assured me; the fact being that any place except London was little better than a kennel—usually a good deal worse..

I have come to the conclusion, from thinking over this matter, that, although self-confidence may be a valuable quality on the part of a pressman, it should not be cultivated to the exclusion of all other virtues.

The gentleman to whom I refer is now managing editor of his paper, and spends a large portion of his hardly-purchased leisure hours answering letters that have been written to him by literary aspirants in his native town. One of them writes a pamphlet to prove that there never has been and never shall be a hell, and he sends it to be dealt with on the following morning in a leader in the leading London newspaper. He, it seems, has to be written to—kindly, but firmly. Another wishes a poem—not on a death in the Royal Family—to be printed, if possible, between the summary and the first leader; a third reminds the managing editor that when sub-editor of the provincial paper eleven years before, he inserted a letter on the disgraceful state of the footpath on one of the local thoroughfares, and hopes that, now that the same gentleman is at the head of a great metropolitan organ, he will assist him, his correspondent, in the good work which has been inaugurated. The footpath is as bad as ever, he explains. But it is over courteously repressive letters to such young men—and old men too—as hope he may see his way to give them immediate and lucrative employment on his staff, that most of his spare time and all his spare stamps are spent.

Ladies write to him by the hundred—for it seems that any one may become a lady journalist—making valuable suggestions to him by means of which he may, if he chooses, obtain daily a chatty column with local social sketches, every one guaranteed to be taken from life.

He doesn’t choose.

The consequence is that the ladies write to him again without the loss of a post, and assure him that if he fancies his miserable paper is anything but the laughing-stock of humanity, he takes an absurdly optimistic view of the result of his labours in connection with it.

About five years after he had left the town where we had been located together, I met a man who had come upon him in London, and who had accepted his invitation to dinner.

“We had a long talk together,” said the man, recording the transaction, “and I was surprised to find how completely he has severed all his former connections and old associations. I mentioned casually the names of some of the most prominent of the people here, but he had difficulty in recalling them. Why, actually—you’ll scarcely believe it—when I spoke of Sir Alexander Henderson, he asked who was he! It’s a positive fact!”

Now Sir Alexander Henderson was a Town Councillor.

The provincial successor to the sub-editor just referred to was undoubtedly a remarkable man. He was a Plymouth Brother, and without guile. He was, for some reason or other, very anxious that I should join “The Church” also. I might have done so if I had succeeded in discovering what were the precise doctrines held by the body. But it would seem that the theology of the Plymouth Brethren is not an exact science. A Plymouth Brother is one who accepts the doctrines of the Plymouth Brethren. So much I learned, and no more.

He possessed a certain amount of confidence in the correctness of his views—whatever they may have been, and he never allowed any pressman to enter his room without writing a summary on some subject; for which, it may be mentioned, he himself got credit in the eyes of the proprietor. He had no singing voice whatsoever, but his views on the Second Advent were so deep as to force him to give vocal expression to them thus:—

“Parlando. The Lord shall come. Will you write me a bit of a summary?”


The request to anyone who chanced to be in the room with him, following so hard upon the vocal assertion of the most solemn of his theological tenets, had a shocking effect; more especially as the newspaper offices in those old days were constantly filled with shallow scoffers and sceptics; and, of course, persons were not wanting who endeavoured to evade their task by assuring him that the Sacred Event was not one that could be legitimately treated within a lesser space than a full column.

He usually offered to discuss with me at 2 a.m. such subjects as the Immortality of the Soul or the Inspiration of Holy Writ. When he would signify his intention of proving both questions, if I would only wait for four hours.

I was accustomed to adopt the attitude of the schoolboy who, when the schoolmaster, after drawing sundry lines on the blackboard, asserted that the square described upon the diagonal of a double rectangular parallelogram was equal to double the rectangle described upon the other two sides, and offered to prove it, said, “Pray don’t trouble yourself, sir; I don’t doubt it in the least.”

I assured the sub-editor that there was nothing in the somewhat extensive range of theological belief that I wouldn’t admit at 2 a.m. after a long night’s work.

The most amusing experience was that which I had with the same gentleman at the time of the Eastern crises of the spring of 1878. During the previous year he had accustomed himself to close his nightly summary of the progress of the war between Russia and Turkey and the possibility of complications arising with England, with these words:—“Fortunate indeed it is that at the present moment we have at our Foreign Office so sagacious and far-seeing a statesman as Earl Derby. Every confidence may be reposed in his judgment to avert the crisis which in all probability is impending.”

Certainly once a week did this summary appear in the paper, until I fancy the readers began to tire of it. As events developed early in the spring, the paragraph was inserted with feverish frequency. He was at it again one night—I could hear him murmur the words to himself as he went over the thing—but the moment he had given out the copy I threw down in front of him a telegram which I had just opened.

“That will make a good summary,” I said. “The Reserves are called out and Lord Derby has resigned.”

He sprang to his feet, exclaiming, like the blameless George, “What—what—what?”

“There’s the flimsy,” said I. “It’s a good riddance. He never was worth much. The idea of a conscientious Minister at the Foreign Office! Now Beaconsfield will have a free hand. You’d better write that summary.”

“I will—I will,” he said. “But I think I’ll ask you to dictate it to me.”

“All right,” said I. “Heave ahead. ‘The news of the resignation of Earl Derby will be received by the public of Great Britain with feelings akin to those of relief.... The truth is that for several months past it was but too plain to even the least sagacious persons that Lord Derby at the Foreign Office was the one weakness in the personnel of the Ministry. In colloquial, parlance he was the square peg in the round hole. Now that his resignation has been accepted we may say farewell, a long farewell, to a feeble and vacillating Minister of whose capacity at such a serious crisis we have frequently thought it our duty to express our grave doubts.’”

He took a shorthand note of this stuff, which he transcribed, and ordered to be set up in place of the first summary. For the next three months that original metaphor of the square peg and the round hole appeared in relation to Lord Derby once a week in the political summary.

Among the minor peculiarities of this subeditor of the old time was an apparently irresistible desire for the companionship of his wife at nights. Perhaps, however, I am doing him an injustice, and the evidence available on this point should only be accepted as indicating the desire of his wife for the companionship of her husband. At any rate, for some reason or other, the lady occupied an honoured place in her husband’s room certainly three nights every week.

The pair never exchanged a word for the six or seven hours that they remained together. Perhaps here again I am doing one of them an injustice, for I now remember that during at least two hours out of every night the door of the room was locked on the inside, so they may have been making up their arrears of silence by discussing the immortality of the soul, or other delicate theological points, during this “close” season.

The foreman printer was the only one in the office who was in the habit of complaining about the presence of the lady in the sub-editor’s room. He was the rudest-voiced man and the most untiring user of oaths ever known even among foremen printers, and this is saying a great deal. He explained to me in language that was by no means deficient in force, that the presence of the lady had a cramping and enervating effect upon him when he went to tell the sub-editor that he needn’t send out any more “copy,” as the paper was overset. How could any conscientious foreman do himself justice under such circumstances? he asked me.

The same sub-editor had a ghost story. He was the only man whom I ever met who believed in his own ghost story. I have come in contact with several men who had ghost stories in their répertoire, but I never met any but this one who was idiot enough to believe in the story that he had to tell. I am sorry that I cannot remember its many details. But the truth is that it made no more impression on me than the usual ghost story makes upon a man with a sound digestion. As a means of earning a livelihood the journalistic “spook” occupies a legitimate place among the other devices of modern enterprise to effect the same praiseworthy object; but a personal and unprofessional belief in the possibility of the existence in visible form of a “ghost” is the evidence either of a mind constitutionally adapted to the practice of imposture, or of a remarkable capacity for being imposed upon. My friend the sub-editor had not a heart for falsehood framed, so I believed that he believed that he had seen the spirit of his father make an effective exit from the apartment where the father had died. This was, I recollect, the foundation of his story. I remember also that the spirit took the form of a small but compact ball of fire, and that it rolled up the spout—on the outside—and then broke into a thousand stars.

The description of the incident suggested a lesser triumph of Messrs. Brock at the Crystal Palace rather than the account of the solution of the greatest mystery that man ever has faced or ever can face. When I had heard the story to the end—up to the moment that the old nurse came out of the house crying, “He’s gone, he’s gone!” preparatory to throwing her apron over her head—I merely asked,—

“How many nights did you say you had been watching by your father?”

“Three,” he replied. “But I don’t think that I said anything to you about watching.” Neither had he. Like the witness at the mysterious murder trial who didn’t think it worth while mentioning to the police that he had seen a man, who had a grudge against the deceased, leaving the room where the body was found, and carrying in one hand a long knife dripping with blood, my friend did not think that the circumstance of his having had no sleep for three nights had any bearing upon the question of the accuracy of his eyesight.

Of course I merely said that the story was an extraordinary one.

I have noticed that Plymouth Brotherhood, vegetarianism, soft hats, bad art, and a belief in at least one ghost usually are found associated.

This sub-editor emigrated several years ago to the South Sea Islands with evangelistic intentions. On his departure his colleagues made him a graceful and appropriate gift which could not fail to cause him to recall in after years the many pleasant hours they had spent together.

It took the form of an immense marble chimney-piece clock, weighing about a hundredweight and a half, and looking uncomfortably like an eighteenth-century mural tomb. It was such a nice present to make to an evangelist in the neophyte stage, every one thought; for what the gig was in the forties as a guarantee of all that was genteel, the massive marble clock was in the eyes of the past generation of journalists. I happen to know something about the sunny islands of the South Pacific and their inhabitants, and it has often occurred to me that the guarantees of gentility which find universal acceptance where the hibiscus blooms, may not be wholly identical with those that were in vogue among journalists long ago. Should these unworthy doubts which now and again occur to me when I am alone, be well founded, I fear that the presentation to my friend may repose elsewhere than on a chimney-piece of Upolu or Tahiti.

As a matter of fact, I read a short time ago an account of a remarkable head-dress worn by a native chief, which struck me as having many points in common with a massive dining-room marble clock.

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