A humble suggestion—The reviewer from Texas—His treatment of the story of Joseph and his Brethren—A few flare-up headings—The Swiss pastor—Some musical critics—“Il Don Giovanni”—A subtle point—Newspaper suppers—Another suggestion—The bitter cry of the journalist—The plurality of porridge—An object lesson superior to grammatical rules—The bloater as a supper dish—Scarcely an unequivocal success.

I HOPE I may not be going too far when I express the hope in this place that any critic who finds out that some of my jottings are ancient will do me the favour to state where the originals are to be found. I have sufficient curiosity to wish to see how far the jottings deviate from the originals.

In the preparation of stories for the Press it is, I feel more impressed every day, absolutely necessary to bear in mind the authentic case of the young sailor’s mother who abused him for telling her so palpably impossible a yarn about his having seen fish rise from the water and fly along like birds, but who was quite ready to accept his account of the crimson expanse of the Red Sea. Some of the most interesting incidents that have actually come under my notice could not possibly be published if accuracy were strictly observed as to the details. They are “owre true” to obtain credence..

In this category, however, I do not include the story about the gentleman from Texas who, after trying various employments in Boston to gain a dishonest livelihood, represented himself at a newspaper office as a journalist, and only asked for a trial job. The editor, believing he saw an excellent way of getting rid of a parcel of books that had come for review, flung him the lot and told him to write three-quarters of a column of flare-up head-lines, and a quarter of reviews, and maybe some fool might be attracted to the book column. Now, at the top of the batch there chanced to be the first instalment of a new Polyglot Bible, after the plan so successfully adopted by Messrs. Bagster, about to be issued in parts, and the reviewer failed to recognise the Book of Genesis, which he accordingly read for fetching head-lines. The result of his labours by some oversight appeared in the next issue of the paper, and attracted a considerable amount of interest in religious circles in Boston.


The remaining quarter of a column was occupied by a circumstantial and highly colloquial account of the incidents recorded in the Book of Genesis, and it very plainly suggested that the work had been published by Messrs. Hoskins as a satire upon the success of the Hebrew race in the New England States. The reviewer even made an attempt to identify Joseph with a prominent Republican politician, and Potiphar’s wife with the Democratic party, who were alleged to be making overtures to the same gentleman.

But I really did once meet with a sub-editor who had reviewed “The Swiss Family Robinson” as a new work. He commenced by telling the readers of the newspaper that the book was a wholesome story of a worthy Swiss pastor, and so forth.

I also knew a musical critic who, on being entrusted with the duty of writing a notice of Il Don Giovanni, as performed by the Carl Rosa Company, began as follows: “Don Giovanni, the gentleman from whom the opera takes its name, was a licentious Spanish nobleman of the past century.” The notice gave some account of the affaires of this newly-discovered reprobate, glossing over the Zerlina business rather more than Mozart thought necessary to do, but being very bitter against Leporello, “his valet and confidant,” and finally expressing the opinion somewhat dogmatically that “few of the public would be disposed to say that the fate which overtook this callous scoundrel was not well earned by his persistence in a course of unjustifiable vice. The music is tuneful and was much encored.”

Upon the occasion of this particular representation I recollect that I wrote, “An Italian version of a Spanish story, set to music by a German, conducted by a Frenchman, and interpreted by a Belgian, a Swiss, an Irishman and a Canadian—this is what is meant by English Opera.”

My notice gave great offence; but the other was considered excellent.

The moral tone that pervaded it was most praiseworthy, the people said.

And so it was.

I have got about five hundred musical jottings which, if provoked, I may one day publish; but, meantime, I cannot refrain from giving one illustration of the way in which musical notices were managed long ago.

Madame Adelina Patti had made her first (and farewell) appearance in the town where I was located. I was engaged about two o’clock in the morning putting what I considered to be the finishing touches to the column which I had written about the diva’s concert, when the reporter of the leading paper burst into the room in which I was writing. He was in rather a dishevelled condition, and he approached me and whispered that he wanted to ask me a question outside—there were others in the room. I went through the door with him and inquired what I could do for him.

“I was marked for that blessed concert, and I went too, and now I’m writing the notice,” said he. “But what I want to know is this—Is Patti a soprano or a contralto?

I have just now discovered that it would be unwise for me to continue very much farther these reminiscences of editors and sub-editors, the fact being that I have some jottings about every one of the race whom I have ever met, and when one gets into a desultory vein of anecdotage like that in which I now find myself for the first time in my life, one is liable to exhaust a reader’s forbearance before one’s legitimate subject has become exhausted. I think it may be prudent to make a diversion at this period from the sub-editors of the past to the suppers of the newspaper office. Gastronomy as a science is not drawn out to its finest point within these precincts. There is still something left to be desired by such persons as are fastidious. I have for long thought that it would be by no means extravagant to expect every newspaper office to be supplied with a kitchen, properly furnished, and with the “good plain cook,” who so constantly figures in the columns (advertising), at hand to turn out the suppers for all departments engaged in the production of the paper.

It is inconvenient for an editor to be compelled to cook his own supper at his gas stove, while the flimsies of the speech upon which he is writing are being laid on his desk by the sub-editor, and the foreman’s messenger is asking for them almost before they have ceased to flutter in the cooling draught created by opening the door. Equally inconvenient is it for the sub-editor and the reporters to get something to prevent them from succumbing to starvation. The compositors in some offices have lately instituted a rule by which they “knock off” for supper at half-past ten; but what sort of a meal do they get to sustain them until four in the morning? I have no hesitation in pronouncing it to be almost as indifferent as that upon which the editor is forced to subsist for, perhaps, the same period. I have seen the compositors—some of them earning £5 a week—crouching under their cases, munching hunches (the onomatopæia is Homeric) of bread, while their cans of tea—that abomination of cold tea warmed up—were stewing over their gas burners.

In the sub-editors’ room, and the reporters’ room, tea was also being cooked, or bottles of stout drunk, the accompanying, comestibles being bread or biscuits. After swallowing tea that has been stewing on its leaves for half-an-hour, and eating a slab of office bread out of one hand while the other holds the pen, the editor writes an article on the grievances of shopmen who are only allowed an hour for dinner and half-an-hour for tea; or, upon the slavery of a barmaid; or, perhaps, composes a nice chatty half-column on the progress of dyspepsia and the necessity for attending carefully to one’s diet.

Now, I affirm that no newspaper office should be without a kitchen. The compositors should be given a chance of obtaining all the comforts of home at a lesser cost than they could be provided at home; and later on in the night the reporters, sub-editors, and editor should be able to send up messages as to the hour they mean to take supper, and the dish which they would like to have. Here is an opportunity for the Institute of Journalists. Let them take sweet counsel together on the great kitchen question, and pass a resolution “that in the opinion of the Institute a kitchen in complete working order should form part of every morning newspaper office; and that a cook, holding a certificate from South Kensington, or, better still, Mrs. Marshall, should be regarded as essential to the working staff as the editor.”

I do not say that a box of Partagas, or Carolinas, should be provided by the management for every room occupied by the literary staff; though undoubtedly a move in the right direction, yet I fear that public feeling has not yet been sufficiently aroused by the bitter cry of the journalist, to make the cigar-box and the club chair probable; but I do say that since journalism has become a profession, those who practise it should be treated as if they were as deserving of consideration as the salesmen in drapers’ shops. Surely, as we have sent the bitter cry into all the ends of the earth on behalf of others, we might be permitted the luxury of a little bitter cry on our own account.

This brings me down to the recollections I retain of the strange ideas that some of the staff of journals with which I have been connected, possessed as to the most appropriate menu for supper. One of these gentlemen, for instance, was accustomed to make oatmeal porridge in a saucepan for himself about two o’clock in the morning. When accused of being a Scotchman, he indignantly denied that he was one. He admitted, however, that he was an Ulsterman, and this was considered even worse by his accusers. He invariably alluded to the porridge in the plural, calling it “them.” I asked him one night why the thing was entitled to a plural, and he said it was because no one but a blue-pencilled fool would allude to it as otherwise. I had the curiosity to inquire farther how much porridge was necessary to be in the saucepan before it became entitled to a plural; if, for instance, there was only a spoonful, surely it would be rather absurd to still speak of it as “them.” He replied, after some thought, that though he had never considered the matter in all its bearings, yet his impression was that even a spoonful was entitled to a plural.

“Did you ever hear any one allude to brose as ‘it’?” he asked.

I admitted that I never had.

“Then if you call brose ‘them,’ why shouldn’t you call stirabout ‘them’?” he asked, triumphantly.

“I must confess that I never had the matter brought so forcibly before me,” said I.

As he was going to “sup them,” as he termed the operation of ladling the contents of the saucepan into his mouth, I hastily left the room. I have eaten tiffin within easy reach of a dozen lepers on Robben Island in Table Bay, I have taken a hearty supper in a tent through which a camel every now and again thrust its nose, I have enjoyed a biltong sandwich on the seat of an African bullock waggon with a Kaffir beside me, I have even eaten a sausage snatched by the proprietor from the seething panful in the window of a shop in the Euston Road—I did so to celebrate the success of a play of mine at the Grand Theatre—but I could not remain in the room while that literary gentleman partook of that simple supper of his.

On my return when he had finished I never failed to allow in the most cordial way the right of the preparation to a plural. It was to be found in every part of the room; the table, the chairs, the floor, the fireplace, the walls, the ceiling—all bore token to the fact that it was not one but many.

In the hands of a true Ulsterman stirabout “are” a terrible weapon.

As a mural decorative medium “they” leave much to be desired.

Only one man connected with the Press did

I ever know addicted to the bloater as a supper dish. The man came among us like a shadow and disappeared as such, after a week of incompetence; but he left a memory behind him that not all the perfumes of Arabia can neutralise. It was about one o’clock in the morning—he had come on duty that night—that there floated through the newspaper office a dense blue smoke and a smell—such a smell! It was of about the same density as an ironclad. One felt oneself struggling through it as though it were a mass of chilled steel plates, backed with soft iron. On the upper floor we were built in by it, so to speak. It arose on every side of us like the wall of a prison, and we kept groping around it for a hole large enough to allow of our crawling through. Two of us, after battering at that smell for a quarter of an hour, at last discovered a narrow passage in it made by a current of air from an open window, and having squeezed ourselves through, we ran downstairs to the sub-editors’ room.

Through the crawling blue smoke we could just make out the figure of a man standing in his shirt sleeves in front of the fire using a large two-pronged iron fork as a toothpick. On a plate on the table lay the dislocated backbone of a red herring (harengus rufus).

The man was perfectly self-possessed. We questioned him closely about the origin of the smoke and the smell, and he replied that, without going so far as to pronounce a dogmatic opinion on the subject, and while he was quite ready to accept any reasonable suggestion on the matter from either of us, he, for his part, would not be at all surprised if it were found on investigation that both smoke and smell were due to his having openly cooked a rather bloated specimen of the Yarmouth bloater. He always had one for his supper, he said; critically, when not too pungent—he disliked them too pungent—he considered that a full-grown bloater, well preserved for its years and considering the knocking about that it must have had, was fully equal to a beefsteak. There was much more practical eating in it, he should say, speaking as man to man. And it was so very simple—that was its great charm.

For himself, he never could bear made-up dishes; they were, he thought, usually rich, and he had a poor-enough digestion, so that he could not afford to trifle with it.

Just then the foreman loomed through the dense smoke, and, being confronted with the hydra-headed smell, he boldly grappled with it, and after a fierce contest, he succeeded in strangling one of the heads and then set his foot on it. He hurriedly explained to the subeditor that all the hands who had lifted the copy that had been sent out were setting it up with bowls of water beside them to save themselves the trouble of going to the water-tap for a drink.

The next day the clerks in the mercantile department were working with bottles of carbolic under their noses, and every now and again a note would be brought in from a subscriber ordering his paper to be stopped until a new consignment of printers’ ink should arrive, in which the chief ingredient was not so pungent.

At the end of a week the sub-editor was given a month’s salary and an excellent testimonial, and was dismissed. The proprietor of the journal had the sub-editors’ room freshly painted and papered, and made the assistant-editor a present of two pounds to buy a new coat to replace the one which, having hung in the room for an entire night, had to be burnt, no cleaner being found who would accept the risk of purifying it. The cleaners all said that they would not run the chance of having all the contents of their vats left on their hands. They weren’t as a rule squeamish in the matter of smells; they only drew the line at creosote, and the coat was a long way on the other side.

Seven years have passed since that sub-editor partook of that simple supper, and yet I hear that every night drag-hounds howl at the door of the room, and strangers on entering sniff, saying,—

“Whew! there’s a barrel of red herrings somewhere about.”

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