AS there is only one man in charge of a steamer, so there is but one man in charge of a newspaper, and he is the Editor. My Chief taught me this on an Indian journal, and he further explained that an order was an order, to be obeyed at a run, not a walk, and that any notion or notions as to the fitness or unfitness of any particular kind of work for the young had better be held over till the last page was locked up to press. He was breaking me into harness, and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude, which I did not discharge at the time. The path of virtue was very steep, whereas the writing of verses allowed a certain play to the mind, and, unlike the filling-in of reading-matter, could be done as the spirit served. Now a sub-editor is not hired to write verses. He is paid to sub-edit. At the time, this discovery shocked me greatly; but, some years later, when, for a few weeks I came to be an editor- in-charge, Providence dealt me for my sub-ordinate one saturated with Elia. He wrote very pretty, Lamb-like essays, but he wrote them when he should have been sub-editing. Then I saw a little what my Chief must have suffered on my account. There is a moral here for the ambitious and aspiring who are oppressed by their superiors.
This is a digression, as all my verses were digressions from office work. They came without invitation, unmanneredly, in the nature of things; but they had to come, and the writing out of them kept me healthy and amused. To the best of my remembrance, no one then discovered their grievous cynicism, or their pessimistic tendency, and I was far too busy, and too happy, to take thought about these things.
So they arrived merrily, being born out of the life about me, and they were very bad indeed; but the joy of doing them was pay a thousand times their worth. Some, of course, came and ran away again, and the dear sorrow of going in search of these (out of office hours) and catching them, was almost better than writing them clear. Bad as they were, I burned twice as many as were published, and of the survivors at least two-thirds were cut down at the last moment. Nothing can be wholly beautiful that is not useful, and therefore my verses were made to ease off the perpetual strife between the manager extending his advertisements, and my Chief fighting for his reading-matter. They were born to be sacrificed. Rukn-Din, the foreman of our side, approved of them immensely, for he was a Muslim of culture. He would say: ‘Your potery very good, sir; just coming proper length today. You giving more soon? One-third column just proper. Always can take on third page.’
Mahmoud, who set them up, had an unpleasant way of referring to a new lyric as ‘Ek aur chiz ‘— ‘one more thing ‘—which I never liked. The job side, too, were unsympathetic, because I used to raid into their type for private proofs with Old English and Gothic headlines. Even a Hindu does not like to find the serifs of his f’s cut away to make long s’s.
And in this manner, week by week, my verses came to be printed in the paper. I was in very good company, for there is always an undercurrent of song, a little bitter for the most part, running through the Indian papers. The bulk of it is much better than mine, being more graceful, and is done by those less than Sir Alfred Lyall — to whom I would apologise for mentioning his name in this gallery — ‘Pekin’, ‘Latakia’, ‘Cigarette,’ ‘ O,’ ‘ T.W.,’ ‘ Foresight,’ and others, whose names came up with the stars out of the Indian Ocean going eastward.
Sometimes a man in Bangalore would be moved to song, and a man on the Bombay side would answer him, and a man in Bengal would echo back, till at last we would all be crowing together, like cocks before daybreak, when it is too dark to see your fellow. And, occasionally, some unhappy Chaaszee, away in the China Ports, would lift up his voice among the tea-chests, and the queer-smelling yellow papers of the Far East brought us his sorrows. The newspaper files showed that, forty years ago, the men sang of just the same subjects as we did — of heat, loneliness, love, lack of promotion, poverty, sport, and war. Further back still, at the end of the eighteenth century, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, a very wicked little sheet in Calcutta, published the songs of the young factors, ensigns, and writers to the East India Company. They, too, wrote of the same things, but in those days men were strong enough to buy a bullock’s heart for dinner, cook it with their own hands because they could not afford a servant, and make a rhymed jest of all the squalor and poverty. Lives were not worth two monsoons’ purchase, and perhaps a knowledge of this a little coloured the rhymes when they sang:
‘In a very short time you’re released from all cares —
If the Padre’s asleep, Mr. Oldham reads prayers!’
The note of physical discomfort that runs through so much Anglo- Indian poetry had been struck then. You will find it most fully suggested in ‘ The Long, Long Indian Day’, a comparatively modern affair; but there is a set of verses called ‘Scanty Ninety-five’, dated about Warren Hastings’s time, which gives a lively idea of what our seniors in the service had to put up with. One of the most interesting poems I ever found was written at Meerut, three or four days before the Mutiny broke out there. The author complained that he could not get his clothes washed nicely that week, and was very facetious over his worries!
My verses had the good fortune to last a little longer than some others, which were more true to facts, and certainly better workmanship. Men in the Army and the Civil Service and the Railway wrote to me saying that the rhymes might be made into a book. Some of them had been sung to the banjoes round the camp-fires, and some had run as far down coast as Rangoon and Moulmein, and up to Mandalay. A real book was out of the question, but I knew that Rukn-Din and the office plant were at my disposal at a price, if I did not use the office time. Also, I had handled in the previous year a couple of small books, of which I was part owner, and had lost nothing. So there was built a sort of book, a lean oblong docket, wire-stitched, to imitate a D.O. Government envelope, printed on one side only, bound in brown paper, and secured with red tape. It was addressed to all Heads of Departments, and all Government Officials, and among a pile of papers would have deceived a clerk of twenty years’ service. Of these ‘books’ we made some hundreds, and as there was no necessity for advertising, my public being to my hand, I took reply – postcards, printed the news of the birth of the book on one side, the blank order-form on the other, and posted them up and down the Empire from Aden to Singapore and from Quetta to Colombo. There was no trade discount, no reckoning twelves as thirteens, no commission, and no credit of any kind whatever. The money came back in poor but honest rupees, and was transferred from the publisher, my left-hand pocket, direct to the author, my right-hand pocket. Every copy sold in a few weeks, and the ratio of expenses to profits, as I remember it, has since prevented my injuring my health by sympathising with publishers who talk of their risks and advertisements. The down-country papers complained of the form of the thing. The wire-binding cut the pages, and the red tape tore the covers. This was not intentional, but Heaven helps those who help themselves. Consequently, there arose a demand for a new edition, and this time I exchanged the pleasure of taking in money over the counter for that of seeing a real publisher’s imprint on the title-page. More verses were taken out and put in, and some of that edition travelled as far as Hong Kong on the map, and each edition grew a little fatter, and, at last, the book came to London with a gilt top and a stiff back, and was advertised in a publisher’s poetry department.
But I loved it best when it was a little brown baby, with a pink string round its stomach; a child’s child ignorant that it was afflicted with all the most modern ailments; and before people had learned beyond doubt how its author lay awake of nights in India, plotting and scheming to write something that should take with the English public.