Printer’s ink in the veins, Vincent O’Sullivan

Eyewitness: A Memoir of Europe in the 1930s
Geoffrey Cox
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 877133 70 1

Sir Geoffrey Cox turns 91 this year, the last of that remarkable roll-call of New Zealanders whose only way out of the constricting provincial life of 70 or 80 years ago was through scholarships to Oxbridge. Most of them made their careers, and a few of them international reputations, by not returning home. The list stretches from Ronald Syme to Ian Milner, from Paddy Costello to Jack Bennett – an array of considerable brilliance, and enormous range of personality. A few of them were among the finest scholars of their time. One or two of them may have been spies. Some were writers who helped shape ways in which New Zealanders declared themselves. They were a fascinating, clever, committed, diverse bunch.

Their family backgrounds similarly were diverse. They were the sons of a generation that spoke less confidently in terms of self-definition, yet one confident enough to press towards something different from what it derived from. The parents were tradespeople, small-town lawyers, farmers, journalists, teachers, workers. Take Cox’s generation, and the backgrounds they came from, and you cover quite a slice of what went into the making of Pakeha New Zealand, and what that “new” country aspired to. What an irony, then, that at one stage those who planned the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, so the rumour goes, were bothered by whether or not expatriates quite made the grade for inclusion. Had they been left out, the intellectual history of the country would be much diminished. And they most certainly would have left out some of those who contributed most to how we think about ourselves, and to how others perceive us.

Geoffrey Cox, a Rhodes Scholar from Otago in 1931, was among the smartest of those young men from the Dominion. He shared with the insistently “ordinary” John Mulgan, his closest friend at Oxford, and with the more calculatedly polished Jim Bertram, a passion for contemporary politics. All three had their sights set on a future in journalism. For eighteen months during their time together at Oxford, Cox and Mulgan sent home to the Auckland Star a fortnightly column called “Behind the Cables”, the most informed commentary on European affairs that the New Zealand press then carried. But, unlike Mulgan, who could not quite make up his mind between academe and the fourth estate, and even unlike Bertram, who soon became one of the finest journalists sending reports out of China, Cox was born, one might say, with printer’s ink in his veins.

More than any of his contemporaries, he was totally focussed on what he intended to do, and was assiduous in preparing for it. As a student, he travelled in Russia and Germany, worked at German and French, and made contacts in London, getting to know the ropes even before they were quite within his grasp. He perfected his knack for being where the action was. During university vacations, he worked as a farm-labourer in Norfolk, spent a vacation wearing the brown uniform of the Arbeitsdienst, the Nazi-promoted Labour Service for young men, was beaten up by storm troopers, and was within yards of the dais at a Nuremberg rally. He records, brilliantly, the orchestrated cynicism of such an occasion, its malevolent excitement and headlong national fervour. From his own observation, and with help from Malcolm Muggeridge’s Winter in Moscow, he saw through Russian Communism while many of his Oxford friends embraced it as the new and irrefutable faith. Here, Cox touches on what was both credo and basis of his own success – “my faith in my own judgement of events, that essential element in the make-up of a journalist.”

British journalism was not an easy world to crack. There was a strong prejudice against taking on young intellectuals from the universities. To be sharp was considered more useful than to be clever; a direct and effective prose came from knowing life on the streets, rather than ruminating in libraries. Cox was a natural. He revelled in the directness, the interviewing, the need to take up quickly what was going on. Clearly he still considers the 30s as a golden age of the craft. He writes with verve and obvious nostalgia on how one newspaper differed from another, on the styles and assumptions that distinguished the Liberal from the Tory press, and relishes the personalities that dominated Fleet Street and defined its ethos. He is absorbing on the stir and challenge of catching the immediacy of events, the flair and initiative one needed to come to grips with a Europe both collapsing, yet so recklessly complacent at its own collapse.

Soon after completing his degree in politics and economics, Cox found his niche on the News Chronicle, “the one popular paper of the time which was trying to give its readers a relatively unpartisan view of events.” He was driven by a moral imperative to get things right, to know what he was talking about, and by an obsessive zeal to find a direct prose to talk to ordinary readers. Cox’s politics, I suspect, are finally located in that urgency. One can read much into an anecdote that rings with both his vocation and his background:

I wanted to work on a popular, mass circulation paper because I wanted to record, and try to explain, events for the type of people I had lived and worked amongst in New Zealand. One man in particular embodied the audience I had in mind. Jim Gallagher was a skilled sawmill operative who had lost his job in the slump and made a precarious living for himself and his wife and five children by splitting logs for fence posts in the winter, and general farm work in the summer. Self-educated, he followed and argued about events with an Irish combativeness. When we had been forking hay together during my last summer in New Zealand I had told him of the attractions journalism had for me, but had also expressed my doubts as to whether it really was a worthwhile job. Would one not be too much of a spectator of life, too little of a doer? He dismissed these doubts. “If you can get out into the world and tell us the truth which those bastards of the New Zealand Herald try to hide from us at all times, you’ll be doing a real job alright …” There were, I was sure, a multitude of Jim Gallaghers and their like, responsible if baffled men – and women – who wanted their news in words and terms they could readily understand.

Cox admired the way the News Chronicle was “permeated by a sense of hope and faith in human nature”, and first made his name a recognisable byline with his reporting from Madrid under siege. This was eyewitness stuff par excellence. A few months later Victor Gollancz, that power-house of left-wing publication, brought out the Defence of Madrid, a typically Coxian combination of on-the-spot detail and perfect timing, as he stole the march on other commentators. He then crossed the street to the Daily Express, becoming its correspondent first in Vienna, then in Paris, where he reported on a city almost gaily slipping towards apocalypse. The Balkans were part of his beat, and he covered the Munich crisis from Prague.

A brief postscript to the volume anticipates something of what Cox would do in the next decade as journalist, as a serious member of Freyberg’s intelligence staff, and as a civilian restored to Fleet Street. And there is a hint, in passing, of his later political views, a taste for Thatcherdom which may seem a far cry from the young man of 60 years before, however much Cox himself insists on a continuing thread between the two. Eyewitness effectively ends with Europe at last braced for what journalists like Cox had been declaring inevitable for several years.

Otago University Press has produced a handsome book, and an important one. One feels the grain of the 30s in its precise, vivid prose, and the apprehension and excitement that made it so darkly glamorous a world for a talented young journalist. Here are the capitals of Europe, the long train journeys and the foreign hotels, the tension of press rooms and the covert contacts, the sense that history was at a moment of ultimate choice, and you were there to tell it as it was, to get the story through. This is autobiography as moral adventure, journalism as vocation: “By Geoffrey Cox”, as millions of readers would once have known the moment they picked up their daily paper and faced the world.

Vincent O’Sullivan won last year’s Montana poetry award for his collection Seeing You Asked.

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