Time, I think, for a bit of light relief from theatre reviewing. Here is an oh-so-topical extract from the Edwardian classic novel ANTHONY BLAIR CAPTAIN OF SCHOOL. In chapter eight, the new captain of school Blair seeks the help of Murdoch, editor of the school newspaper The Rocket, in quelling a strike by the fags (junior boys) at St Stephen's.
Blair had one more important interview to conduct. He despatched Mandelson to find Murdoch and ask him to visit his study. Murdoch was not often to be found in the usual haunts of St Stephen’s sixthformers; he shunned the dayroom and the sports pavilion, and avoided the tuck shop. After half an hour Mandelson came panting up the stairs.
‘He wants you to go and visit him instead.’
‘But that’s ridiculous. I’m captain of school.’
‘I told him that, but he took no notice. I think you’d better go.’
Blair realised that there was no point in standing on ceremony. ‘Very well. Send out a scouting party if I don’t come back.’
Following Mandelson’s directions, he made his way down to the basement and entered a cavernous corridor. On either side there were vaulted brick arches, some containing wood and coal for the boilers. Shafts of light from ground level illuminated old desks and broken chairs, iron bedsteads and a series of padlocked doors. A small black mouse scurried past him. The passageway turned to the left, and revealed a door marked with a neatly printed card, just readable in the darkness. ‘St Stephen’s Rocket Editorial Office’, it said.
From behind the door Blair could hear the sound of a piano playing ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes.’ He knocked, and walked straight in. Murdoch was sitting in an armchair beside a potted plant. At the back of the room Campbell was sitting at a table in front of a typewriter. ‘G’day, Sooty,’ said the rough-hewn colonial boy, motioning him to a stool. ‘I’ll stop the pianola if it bothers you,’ he said. ‘What’s the trouble?’
Blair outlined his concerns about the strike, and said he was curious to know how the Rocket planned to report the affair. He hoped very much that the school newspaper would take the side of the school as a whole, rather than that of a small faction of boys who were bent on trouble.
‘We’re pretty even-handed, I think,’ came the reply. ‘You know Campbell – he writes the story without fear or favour. Just the facts.’
Blair said he understood the Rocket had to report events in a balanced fashion; nobody was more aware of the need for balance than he was; but he hoped that the authority of the school and its prefects would receive firm support in the newspaper’s editorial column. He reminded Murdoch that as captain of school, he had the authority to vet anything that was placed on a school noticeboard, and this included the school newspaper. Naturally, censorship of the Rocket was the last thing on his mind, but he considered it useful, for the avoidance of possible misunderstandings, to remind Murdoch of where ultimate authority lay.
Murdoch rose from his chair and walked over to the table. ‘I want to show you something,’ he said, drawing back a cloth. There on the table was a piece of modern electrical machinery and on the floor beside it, an empty wooden packing case. ‘Do you know what this is?’ Blair shook his head.
‘It’s called a Gestetner machine. My folks ordered it for me from the United States. We’re going to use it for the Rocket.’
Blair let out a whistle of admiration. ‘By Jiminy. How does it work? Gas or electricity?’
Murdoch pointed to Campbell, who was vigorously pounding the keys of a typewriter. ‘He’s cutting a stencil. We put it in the machine, with ink and paper, and Bob’s your uncle. Out comes the newspaper, like a rat going up a drainpipe.’
‘And then it will go on the noticeboard in the same way?’ Blair asked.
‘Oh no, we won’t be troubling you to use the noticeboard any more. You see, this is a duplicating machine. We can print as many copies of the Rocket as we like. We could print one for every boy in the school, if we had enough paper. There’s no limit to what we can do.’
The implications of what Murdoch was saying took a moment or two to sink in. If the Rocket was not going to be pinned on the school noticeboard, he would be unable to check and approve its contents in advance. Suddenly, Blair realised that his chief bargaining card had been blown away. A change of tactics was required.
“What are you going to say about the fags’ strike?’ he asked.
‘I’m not sure I really approve of fagging. We certainly don’t have it Down Under. Now what do you think we should write?’ Murdoch’s question was posed with a menacing smile, but Blair detected the faint glimmer of a useful compromise.
The intelligent reader will not be surprised to learn that the conversation ended in agreement. Nothing was written down, but some important understandings were reached, namely: that the Rocket would criticise the striking fags as un-British and their ringleaders as dangerous troublemakers; and that the new duplicated version would be sold freely around the school at the price of one halfpenny per copy; and that the freedom of the editor would be fully respected. There were some additional minor points which Blair agreed to in a spirit of goodwill once he was confident that Murdoch had succumbed to his persuasive personal charm. These points were to remain confidential. The editor would be free to visit the town of Coalhaven to conduct interviews, meet potential advertisers and fetch printing supplies, without interference from prefects, and would have access to the editorial offices in the school basement at all times. It was understood that rival publications to the Rocket would be strongly discouraged. At the end of fifteen minutes, as in all diplomatic negotiations of high import, there was a handshake.