A Journalist’s Note-book, Frank Moore

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With generous dosages of irony and wit, Frank Frankfort Moore chronicles his journalistic life in A Journalist’s Note-book. The Irish playwright-novelist-poet-journalist’s memoir was published by Hutchinson and Co. in 1894. Hutchinson and Co, now an imprint of Random House Group, had on its catalog writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the Professor Challenger novels), Vladimir Nabokov (Camera Obscura and Despair) and H.G. Wells (The Bulpington of Blup).

 A Journalist’s Note-book has the aura of old school journalism with cynical editors and cocky reporters. However these editors and reporters are a far cry from the hard-boiled gritty depiction of journalism as Tom Carthy, the director of Spotlight puts it, “blue-collar craftsmanship, this rolling-up of the sleeves and just doing the hard work because you’re a curious person who wants to get to the truth.” We see this hard-working representation of journalists generally sourced from the American newsrooms and shown in American-produced films. The characters of Moore’s memoir are oddballs and screw-ups, the descendants of the “practical jesters of the fifties and the punsters of the roaring forties”. The whimsical characters that invaded the newsrooms where Moore worked make their appearances as bothersome and sometimes as too-audacious-for-comfort co-workers.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that not all journalists are scrupulous. Moore starts off with fresh-off the University “modern journalist” who signs the Bible “With the author’s best compliments” and hands it over to a pretty admirer just so he could get rid of her and get on with his editorial work. There is the serial pickpocket who picks up precious watches and stones and claims to have found them lying on the street. Then there is the columnist who cut up columns from different newspapers and glued them to his scrapbook. This collection would be later used to “write” his own column. This is how, ladies and gentlemen, plagiarism happened in the early days.

Moore was especially suspicious of the soldier-turned-journalists who were apparently “savages” and “liars”. One of these types used to work for Hue and Cry, an Irish newspaper that was popular with the Royal Irish Constabulary. This particular journalist used to carry a pair of stage whiskers and beard as disguise so that he was not recognized by any policeman. The last the author hears from this gentleman is when he receives a letter requesting a loan and a hat. The letter is addressed to the author from her Majesty’s gaols.

Though it was unfortunate for their victims, but Moore’s satire-laced description of the handful of colorful characters in the Irish press is entertaining. Moore’s world belongs to those sepia-coated days when the “Press” being the press had unlimited unrestricted access. So any one could just declare “Press”, flash a card and waltz in anywhere at any time. This also gave the adventurous ones to easily moonlight as a burglar or pickpocket. As Moore says:

The Press rush in where the public dare not tread.

Typical of men of his generation, despite his dry wit, Moore seemed like he was a misogynist. I think I should get used to the fact that while reading books belonging to antiquity, I should be mentally prepared to find the occasional sexist jibe.  Frank Moore was of the opinion that higher education of women was a method of “increasing the percentage of unmarriageable females.”

Women in the field of journalism were an annoyance for Moore. He gave them a condescending label, “lady journalists”, who were unlike the “trained journalists (male).” With their chatty descriptions of smart frocks and picture hats and health advice columns that along with remedies gave advice about marriages and etiquette as well, women journalist were to newspapers exactly what they used to write about: fancy props. Here lies the sore-point of Moore’s otherwise amusing memoir: the lack of objectivity or to put it mildly, a narrow perspective. Because when Moore was making fun of the aspirations of “lady” journalists and their “lady journalist-like” behavior, on the other side of the Atlantic, feisty investigative journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran or Nellie Bly was filing reports on the ill-treatment of inmates in a mental asylum where she stayed undercover for her story. In 1890, four years before Moore’s memoir was published, Cochran completed her seventy-two-day solo journey around the world.

An obscure website Irish Identity describes Moore as a satirist who was known for his excessive religious views. (Irish Identity is the only website that has a detailed biography on Moore. More detailed then the hallowed pages of Wikipedia.) Satire is a tricky concept. Either you get its subtle nuances or you get offended by it surface brashness. Roy Peter Clark is writing instructor and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center at Florida, US. In a poynter.org article that Clark wrote right after the Charlie Hebdo attack, he cites an example to demonstrate the twisted perceptions of satire:

What could be more outrageous than Jonathan Swift in 1729 offering anonymously “A Modest Proposal” that poverty in Ireland could be solved by selling the oversupply of Irish babies as food for the upper class Brits: “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.” Of course there were those who read Swift and thought his proposal was serious – and barbarous – an encouragement of cannibalism.

Clark adds in his article, “This reveals one of the problems of satire. The capacity to understand irony, one of the essential strategies of satire, includes the ability to embrace a message and realize that it means something different – even the opposite – of what it delivers on the literal level.” It is a pure coincidence that Clark’s example is situated in Ireland, the same country from which the author of A Journalist’s Note-book came. The Irish society, entrenched in the doctrines of the Catholic Church, was extremely conservative. Journalist Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee uncovered how the Church influenced the Irish political system for financial gains. Sixsmith’s investigative report became the 2013 drama film Philomena starring Judie Dench and Steve Coogan and directed by Stephen Frears.

Keeping in mind the sense of moralistic censure that pervaded the Irish society of that time, I wonder, if Moore’s misogynistic side is a facade, a ploy of the satirist to bring out his compatriots’ perception towards women. Or are we being too nitpicky about sexism, as we are prone to do in today’s easily-offend-quickly-offended world? After all Moore wrote his memoir at time and place where only men were the expected readers of “serious nonfiction type” books. All we can do is wonder, as Moore concludes about “lady journalists”:

Yes, I feel the position of the lady in modern journalism is unassailable; and the lady journalists always speak pleasantly about one another and occasionally describe each other’s “picture hats.” In brief, the lady journalist is the silver mounting of the newspaper staff.

Moore’s memoir loses steam as the author runs out of stories from his journalism days and towards the end digresses to his playwright days and random bits from his non-journalism life. This diversion “upon a course of theatrical anecdotage” is unintentional. Although the author was quite a prolific writer with an extensive oeuvre of plays (lesser known) to his credit, it would have been interesting to read more about the author’s journalistic adventures.  A Journalist’s Note-book is just what it says it is—a notebook where there is no cohesion between one topic and the next. Moore narrates one anecdote and then suddenly recalls another story with no connection to the previous story and drifts off to another tangent.

Despite Moore’s occasional rambling, the book ends with humorous blunders that newspapers are susceptible to, all thanks to over-eager printers.

The printer who at the conclusion of an obituary notice was expected to announce to the readers of the paper that “the internment will take place on Saturday,” but who, instead, gave them to understand that “the entertainment will take place on Saturday,” did not , I think, cause any awkward mishap. He knew that the idea was that of entertainment, whatever the word employed might be.

Image: The Printing Press by George at Flickr

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