Frying the Flag
"I confess I look back on the old Central Balkan Herald with something like nostalgia."
"Good heavens," said Antrobus, and blew out his cheeks. We were enjoying a stirrup-cup at his club before taking a turn in the park. Our conversation, turning as it always did upon our common experiences abroad in the Foreign Service, had led us with a sort of ghastly inevitability to the sisters Grope; Bessie and Enid Grope, joint editor-proprietors of the Central Balkan Herald (circulation 500).
They had spent all their lives in Serbia, for their father had once been Embassy chaplain and on retirement had elected to settle in the dusty Serbian plains. Where, however, they had inherited the old flat-bed press and the stock of battered Victorian faces, I cannot tell, but the fact remains that they had produced between them an extraordinary daily newspaper which remains without parallel in my mind after a comparison with newspapers in more than a dozen countries --- "THE BALKAN HERALD KEEPS THE BRITISH FLAG FRYING" --- that was the headline that greeted me on the morning of my first appearance in the Press Department. It was typical.
The reason for a marked disposition towards misprints was not far to seek; the composition room, where the paper was hand-set daily, was staffed by half a dozen hirsute Serbian peasants with greasy elf-locks and hands like shovels. Bowed and drooling and uttering weird eldrich-cries from time to time they went up and down the type-boxes with the air of half-emancipated baboons hunting for fleas. The master printer was called Icic (pronounced Itchitch) and he sat forlornly in one corner living up to his name by scratching himself from time to time. Owing to such laborious methods of composition the editors were hardly ever able to call for extra proofs; even as it was the struggle to get the paper out on the streets was grandiose to watch. Some time in the early thirties it had come out a day late and that day had never been made up. With admirable single-mindedness the sisters decided, so as not to leave gaps in their files, to keep the date twenty-four hours behind reality until such times as, by a superhuman effort, they could produce two newspapers in one day and thus catch up.
Bessie and Enid Grope sat in the editorial room which was known as the "den." They were both tabby in colouring and wore rusty black. They sat facing one another pecking at two ancient typewriters which looked as if they had been obtained from the Science Museum of the Victoria and Albert.
Bessie was News, Leaders, and Gossip; Enid was Features, Make-up and general Sub. Whenever they were at a loss for copy they would mercilessly pillage ancient copies of Punch or Home Chat. An occasional hole in the copy was filled with a ghoulish smudge --- local block-making clearly indicated that somewhere a poker-work fanatic had gone quietly out of his mind. In this way the Central Balkan Herald was made up every morning and then delivered to the composition room where the chain-gang rapidly reduced it to gibberish.
MINISTER FINED FOR KISSING IN PUBIC.In the thirties this did not matter so much but with the war and the growth of interest in propaganda both the Foreign Office and the British Council felt that an English newspaper was worth keeping alive in the Balkans if only to keep the flag flying. A modest subsidy and a free news service went a long way to help the sisters, though of course there was nothing to be done with the crew down in the composition room:
WEDDING BULLS RING OUT FOR PRINCESS.
QUEEN OF HOLLAND GIVES PANTY FOR EX-SERVICE MEN.
MORE DOGS HAVE BABIES THIS SUMMER IN BELGRADE.
BRITAINS NEW FLYING-GOAT.
Mrs. Schwartkopf has cast off clothes of every description and invites inspection.
In a last desperate spurt the Cambridge crew, urged on by their pox, overtook Oxford.Every morning I could hear the whistles and groans and sighs as each of the secretaries unfolded his copy and addressed himself to his morning torture. On the floor above, Polk-Mowbray kept drawing his breath sharply at every misprint like someone who has run a splinter into his finger. At this time the editorial staff was increased by the addition of Mr. Tope, an elderly catarrhal man who made up the news page, thus leaving Bessie free to follow her bent in paragraphs on gardening (How to Plant Wild Bubs) and other extravagances.
It was understood that at some time in the remotest past Mr. Tope had been in love with Bessie but he "had never Spoken;" perhaps he had fallen in love with both sisters simultaneously and had been unable to decide which to marry. At all events he sat in the "den" busy with the world news; every morning he called on me for advice. "We want the Herald to play its full part in the war effort," he never failed to assure me gravely. "We are all in this together." There was little I could do for him.
At times I could not help feeling that the Herald was more trouble than it was worth. References, for example, to Hitler's nauseating inversion --- the rocket-bomb, brought an immediate visit of protest from Herr Schpünk the German chargé, dictionary in hand, while the early stages of the war were greeted with
BRITAIN DROPS BIGGEST EVER BOOB ON BERLIN.
This caused mild speculation as to whom this personage might be. Attempts, moreover, to provide serious and authoritative articles for the Herald written by members of the Embassy shared the same fate.
Spalding, the commercial attaché who was trying to negotiate on behalf of the British Mining Industry, wrote a painstaking survey of the wood resources of Serbia which appeared under the startling banner
BRITAIN TO BUY SERBIAN TIT-PROPS,
while the military attaché who was rash enough to contribute a short strategic survey of Suez found that the phrase "Canal Zone" was printed without a "C" throughout. There was nothing one could do. "One feels so desperately ashamed," said Polk-Mowbray, "with all the resources of culture and so on that we have --- that a British newspaper abroad should put out such disgusting gibberish. After all it's semi-official, the Council has subsidized it specially to spread the British Way of Life....It's not good enough."But there was nothing much we could do. The Herald lurched from one extravagance to the next. Finally in the columns of Theatre Gossip there occurred a series of what Antrobus called Utter Disasters. The reader may be left to imagine what the Serbian compositors would be capable of doing to a witty urbane and deeply considered review of the 100,000 performance of Charley's Aunt.
The Herald expired with the invasion of Yugoslavia and the sisters were evacuated to Egypt where they performed prodigies of valour in nursing refugees. With the return to Belgrade, however, they found a suspicious Communist régime in power which ignored all their requests for permission to refloat the Herald. They brought their sorrows to the Embassy, where Polk-Mowbray received them with a stagey but absent-minded sympathy. He agreed to plead with Tito, but of course he never did. "If they start that paper up again," he told his Chancery darkly, "I shall resign."
"They'd make a laughing stork out of you, sir," said Spalding. (The pre-war mission had been returned almost unchanged.)
Mr. Tope also returned and to everyone's surprise had Spoken and had been accepted by Bessie; he was now comparatively affluent and was holding the post which in the old days used to be known as Neuter's Correspondent --- aptly or not who can say?
"Well, I think the issue was very well compounded by getting the old girls an M.B.E. each for distinguished services to the British Way of Life. I'll never forget the investiture with Bessie and Enid in tears and Mr. Tope swallowing like a toad. And all the headlines Spalding wrote for some future issue of the Herald:
SISTER ROASTED IN PUNK CHAMPAGNE
AFTER SOLEMN INVESTITURE.
"It's all very well to laugh," said Antrobus severely, "but a whole generation of Serbs have had their English gouged and mauled by the Herald. Believe me, old man, only yesterday I had a letter from young Babic, you remember him?"
"For him England is peppered with fantastic place-names which he can only have got from the Herald. He says he enjoyed visiting Henleg Regatta and Wetminster Abbey; furthermore, he was present at the drooping of the colour; he further adds that the noise of Big Bun striking filled him with emotion; and that he saw a film about Florence Nightingale called The Lade With the Lump. No, no, old man, say what you will the Herald has much to answer for. It is due to sinister influences like the Gropes and Topes of this world that the British Council's struggle is such an uphill one. Care for another?"--- Esprit de Corps
©1957 Faber & Faber