Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Devout also, but rarely edified, were the readers of the sports pages. It is a tested axiom of newspaper work that the sporting fraternity are never content. Although the proportion of most news­papers which is devoted to sport is far greater than the proportion of the population which is seriously interested in sport, sports lovers usually feel that a niggardly allowance of space has been given to their hobby. They tend to be zealots, and they believe their kind to be more numerous than is really the case; and because they are frequ­ently superstitious, and possess a strong mythopoeic faculty, they attribute to newspaper sports reporters grudges and malign inten­tions toward their favourites of which those hard-working men are innocent. It sometimes seems to harassed sports editors that sports enthusiasts read the papers only to find food for their vast disgrundement.

The Bellman was closely perused by countless specialists, and by none more keenly than the specialists in morality; the reports from the police court were their special meat, and they acquired and retained a wide knowledge of who had been before the magistrate, and upon what charge; reckless driving, drunkenness, non-support of wives, all the common offences were docketed in their minds, enlivened now and again by a lively fist-fight or tasty bit of indecent exposure. Everybody looks at a police court report now and then, but the specialists never missed one; wherever a report might be printed, separated by some mechanical necessity from others of its kind, they would sniff it out, make it part of their mental fabric, never forget it, and recall it when the offender died, or when his daughter married, or when some distinction or piece of good fortune brought him once again into the news. They were good people, these moralists, who rarely offended against the law themselves; but if by chance one of their kind were found, say, drunk and in charge of a car, they knew at once all the details — that his wife was pregnant, or his aged mother trembling upon the threshold of death (for these are the two commonest afflictions of wrongdoers, as every newspaperman knows) and bemoaned his fall with an intensity which might almost have been mistaken for relish.

To set down all the special interests to which a paper like The Bellman ministers every night would be a gigantic task and weary reading. For who, in his heart, really wants to give much of his time to another man’s concerns? Most people will sympathize with the schoolchildren who search the columns of the paper for items about “Current Events” to take to school to appease a teacher who approaches history by that path. But who except a physician searches the columns of accident news, to see what other physicians may be mentioned; and who but a lawyer gives special attention to the lawyers who are named in the reports of court cases? Professional etiquette forbids the gentlemen of the short and the long robes to advertise their skill, but they do not like to be overlooked in the news columns; as Mr Marryat sometimes bitterly remarked, they were fond enough of advertising when they did not have to pay for it. Even the clergy are not above this human weakness; they may personally choose to do good by stealth, but their congregations like themselves and their pastors to be frequently and favourably mentioned. The page of social news was read with eagerness by those who hoped to be included, or who admired or envied those who were named, for even in democratic Canada the fire of social ambition burns with a hard, gem-like flame in many bosoms. There were thousands among The Bellman’s readers who apparently never wearied of reading that “lovely flower arrangements and tapers in dainty silver holders graced the table”; they always wanted to know who had “poured”, at afternoon teas, for to “pour” is for many ladies the pinnacle of social achievement. And the wedding photographs were keenly scanned by all the photographers, of course, to see whose work had been printed and what could be found wrong with it.

Specialists of all sorts find the daily newspaper a mine of treasures for their delight. Sometimes this delight lies in indignation, and here both labour and management can be accommodated by a single item of news, for both are convinced that newspapers never use them with complete fairness. Indignation, also, was sought by the old lady who nightly scanned The Bellman for pictures of girls in bathing-suits; upon finding such a picture, she never failed to write to Gloster Ridley, threatening to cancel her subscription if the offence were repeated. The advent of the two-piece suit, with its inevitable concomitant of a few exposed navels, was an unlooked-for source of delicious indigna­tion to her. There were the people who read everything about royalty, and pasted it in a scrap-book, and the people who did the same with all news about movie stars. There were the people who always worked the simple crossword puzzle, or who read the article on bridge. There were the people who read the advice to the lovelorn, sometimes for laughter but usually in deep earnest. There were the people who read the nightly article of the medical columnist, seeking always a new name to apply to the sense of insufficiency, of dissatis­faction, of heart-hunger which gnawed at them. And of course everyone who had written a letter to the editor sought early for it until it was printed, or until hope died and resentment came to fill its place.

As well as these specialists there were of course the professional newspapermen who read the paper closely for their own reasons. Mr Rumball read all that he himself had written to see whether the city editor (who was, of course, jealous) had cut that splendid paragraph of “colour” in his report of a street accident. Archie Blaine looked to see whether, as he suspected, he had not written considerably more news reporting than anyone else; he was not jealous, but he some­times wondered whether the fellows who had taken journalist courses at universities would ever write as much, as fast, as well, as he did. Mr Swithin Shillito invariably read all that he had written aloud to Mrs Shillito, and then pondered aloud on possible reasons why some of his witty aperçus (“Quite good enough for Punch, though I say it myself, my dear”) had not been printed. Jealousy, he feared; yes, it was a pity that poor Ridley could not rise above jealousy. Nevertheless, his brilliant couple of paragraphs about the decline in the quality of shoelaces had been used, and certainly Mr Eldon Bumford would comment on it when next they met.

Matthew Snelgrove read his evening copy of The Bellman with a special gloomy relish, for it never failed to yield several instances in which rampant democracy had been guilty of some foolishness which could never, he was convinced, have happened under the old squirearchy — particularly if a sufficient number of squires happened also to be lawyers. Life, as he conceived of it, was a long decline from a glorious past, and if a reader approaches a newspaper in that spirit, he can find much to confirm him in his belief, particularly if he has never examined any short period of the past in day-to-day detail. Bleak also in her approach to The Bellman was Mrs Solomon Bridgetower, the mother of that Solomon Bridgetower whose name had been unwarrantably linked with that of Pearl Vambrace. She was a lady whose life had been devoted in great part to the study of world politics; when she was a young and keen-witted undergraduate of Waverley she had explored and dreaded the Yellow Peril with an intensity which was beyond her years, and won the admiration of her professors. As a young wife during the First World War she had been a great expert on German atrocities; she had successively foreseen and dreaded the Jazz Age, the Depression, the Rise of Fascism and the Second World War, but she had always had a soft spot for her first dread, the Yellow Peril, and insisted on regarding the rise of Russia to world power as an aspect of it. Higher education and a naturally acute mind had enabled her to dread all these things much more compre­hensively and learnedly than most ladies of her acquaintance, and had won her a local reputation as a woman of capacious intellect. She read her Bellman with a special pair of scissors at her side, so that she might cut out and keep any particularly significant and doom-filled piece of news.

The only other reader of the Salterton paper who used scissors was the secretary to the archbishop of the Roman Catholic diocese which had its cathedral there. Unknown to each other as they were, Monsignor Caffrey and Mrs Bridgetower had both read and been impressed by a book written in the ‘twenties by a French abbé, who recommended the clipping of newspapers as a method of clarifying and understanding what appeared in them. But while he did not use scissors, Gloster Ridley made it his nightly duty to read The Bellman, using a blue pencil to mark every error of spelling, punctu­ation, proof-reading and grammar; from time to time he confronted his staff with these marked papers, as a means of urging them toward the perfection which danced before him, an ever-fleeting goal.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson