No one could describe Geoffrey in the way a writer in the Bulletin described David Syme just after his death; “The dour grey man with his mighty power, his sagging sac-coat, his sour, hard stare, and his unexpected revelations of kindness……a very tall man, grim and grey, with the slight stoop of a bookworm. A closely cut grey beard that could not hide the impressiveness of his square jaw - dogged defiance in every line. His eyes were black and deeply set behind rugged grey brows. They were sometimes abstractly meditative, but more often keen…………. It was the look in his eyes that gave the keenest sense of the directness of the man - the knowledge that once seeing his way clear, no obstacle would be too big to fight.” In February 1908 another writer - who disguised himself with the pseudonym of “Globe-Trotter”- commented about David Syme: “Very people knew by sight the man whose will counted for, say, thirty thousand votes at the federal election then going on, under what is supposed to be a most democratic system. The tall, grey-clad figure has a most unpretentious bearing, but an observer of the keen but not unkindly bronzed features might easily pick their owner out from the crowd of vacuous face on The Block, as a man of innate power able to repeat without any suggestion of theatrical effect the boast of Caligula “Hate me as much as you like, so long as you fear me.”
Geoffrey’s demeanour never inspired fear; He did not really look like his father. He looked genial rather than intimidating. Nor, at least would it seem, was he a vindictive man, though he was in fact very capable and determined. At home, and probably at work, his attitude was patriarchal, but he was a benevolent patriarch. He laughed a lot and was an incorrigible tease, though in public he was both self-effacing and modest, so much so that when he was first offered a knighthood, about a decade before he actually accepted it, he declined it, explaining that he would not become Sir Geoffrey when his elder brother Herbert was still alive.
His wife had a great deal of influence on him, but his was the ultimate authority. It is hard to judge whether he enjoyed using his political power. Probably not; more likely he simply took it for granted, much in the pattern set down by his own father. His power regarding the paper was unrestricted, but unfortunately his financial power regarding his father’s Estate was often limited by his fellow Executors, all but one of whom was older than he was. The Will was a heavy burden: There were many beneficiaries to be provided for, and his father had never had to work with such responsibility for the welfare of other people.
In his sixties Geoffrey was still a good-looking man. He was of medium height, five feet, ten and three-quarter inches tall, and of average build. Neither fat nor very thin. He had no paunch. His older brothers were much fatter and perhaps shorter than he was. By the 1930’s his light brown hair had become slightly grizzled and he always had it cut very short. He had a pale olive skin and his eyes were a brownish hazel. He had no beard and his face was very smooth, perhaps because he always shaved himself with a cutthroat razor. He was scrupulously clean and smelled slightly of lavender, pipe tobacco, and of the dark, bitter chocolate that he used to keep in his desk or carry round in his pocket. It was quite a large lump of chocolate, not in a packet. He bought it from Franz, the grocer at the Eastern Market, where he parked his car each day. He used to shave off bits of it with his little gold penknife. Probably he found it a sort of stimulant and ate it when he was tired. The cups of tea brought to him by Miss Jeffreys were another form of stimulant. He was virtually a tee-totaller and hardly every drank spirits; certainly not at the office. Probably he did not even offer it to his visitors.
He was always a bit untidy. He wore well-cut suits made of dark grey worsted or fine dark tweed, but somehow they never hung quite properly. He usually wore a waistcoat and a gold watch-chain with his watch and keys and penknife dangling from it. Sometimes at home he took off his waistcoat and changed into a grey cashmere cardigan that showed an inch or two under the coat of his suit. His everyday shirts had soft collars and were white or had thin blue stripes, and his ties were so dark and conservative that they were unmemorable.
His tailcoat, his dinner jacket and his morning suit were also perfectly cut, but he never looked at ease in formal clothes. He was probably happiest in the clothes he wore at the weekends, at golf, and in the country (grey trousers, a grey or pale blue cashmere jumper and an open-necked shirt). He was, however, fairly formal; he always put on his tweed sports coat at lunchtime and wore a suit for dinner at night. In the 1920’s he had worn plus fours for golf, but by the 1930’s they were less fashionable and he wore ordinary grey trousers. He was a good golfer, for many years he was Captain of The Age and The Leader team, and won many cups and trophies. He became a member of the Metropolitan Golf Club in July 1908, and even in the last decade of his life he and his architect friend Bill Godfrey played there almost every Sunday morning.
From Monday to Saturday he left home for the office at about 10 o’clock. Driving his black sports Bentley, he turned into Barkers Road, driving through the Cutting, across Victoria Bridge and past the Chinamens’ vegetable garden on the banks of the Yarra and then along Victoria Street. He parked his car in the old Eastern Market and walked the couple of blocks to The Age Office. The office was on the south side of Collins Street, very near the corner of Swanston Street. A flight of stone steps with polished brass rails led to the double doors of the main office, which was still marked outside with a brass plate that bore the words ‘counting house.” Inside, directly opposite the doors, was a long mahogany counter where the daily business transactions, for example the placing of advertisements, were handled. At the left end of this counter the teller had his small wired-in cubicle, where he either paid or accepted payments. The floor of the main office was red-tiled, and beside the high windows were tall mahogany reading-desks on which were placed perhaps eight of so copies of the most recent edition of The Age, as well as a few of the latest copies of the weekly paper, The Leader. Usually a few people stood reading at these desks, while outside the building others stopped to look at the double pages of The Age which were put in glass cases beside the front steps. Reading a paper without having to pay for it was important, especially during the Depression, when many people needed to search the advertisements for jobs.
At the right hand side of the long counter was the door and passage that led to other offices. The office just behind the counter was that of the David Syme Estate. In the 1930’s this was presided over by Arnold Anderson, helped by an underling called George Featonby, Later on, Featonby’s neat, small and child-like writing appears on many of the minutes of the meetings of the Trustees of the David Syme Estate and hewas to rise to higher things after the Company was formed in 1948. Their office held the papers and documents relating to scores of people, principally those of David Syme’s seven children and their many descendants. Unfortunately there was no privacy with regard to these documents. Any Trustee, in fact a number of other people, had access to this room and could rummage around in the filing cabinets and drawers and, unimpeded by Mr Anderson, be allowed to read many private and personal details about their relations. The reason for the accumulation of private documents was the dubious benefit given to the beneficiaries of the David Syme Estate; namely, that the Estate, via Mr Anderson, provided the seemingly free benefit of the assessment and preparation of their income tax, as well as the legal services of the Estate’s firm of solicitors, which was at that time the firm of Gillott, Moir and Ahern, presided over by the formal, elderly and humourless C. J. Ahern. The situation meant that no one had privacy in their personal affairs, be it school fees, a mortgage for a run-down farm, assessment as a primary producer, divorce settlements, medical bills, an overdraft or legal fees or interest in a particular tax-deductible charity. All this information made it simple for those who paved the way for the formation of David Syme Ltd and then Syme Partners. The precise financial situation of each beneficiary was already known. However it is doubtful if such a lack of personal privacy in the Estate office existed until the years after Geoffrey Syme’s death. He kept a tight rein on both Anderson and Featonby and would not have tolerated unprofessional lapses in an employee.
Years later all that was needed was to commission C. E. Sayers to write a book that gave a sanitised picture of David Syme, and then to put forward the name of Colin York Syme as planner of Syme Partners. His surname, Syme, was considered to be reassuring; some probably did not even realize that he was not a relation at all.
Geoffrey Syme did not enter The Age office through the double doors to the main office He went to the Editorial department through the single dark-green door on the east side of the building. Beyond it a narrow tiled passage led to a greyish-white and rather worn marble staircase. The passage was lined with dark green tiles that went half way up its walls, and above the tiles were hung the honour boards that recorded in gold letters the names of members of staff who had been killed or who had served in the Boer War and in the 1914-1918 War.
At the top of the stairs was a glassed-in booth for the solitary telephonist who sat at the switchboard, plugging wires in and out, connecting the various offices and dealing with all the incoming and outgoing calls. Nearby was a reception desk where, in the 1930’s, a visitor was confronted by either Oliver or John, both of whom were very young. Beside the telephonist’s booth was the glass door that led to the passage where the editorial department’s rooms began. If the visitor managed to get past Oliver or John, there was a much more awesome figure to protect Geoffrey Syme from any unwelcome caller. This was his secretary Miss Jeffreys, whose office was behind the telephonist’s booth and opposite the conference room. She seemed incredibly old, though she was probably only in her mid-thirties. She usually wore sensible laced-up shoes with Cuban heels, a grey coat and skirt, and her long hair was twisted around each ear like earphones. She must have been efficient. She was certainly no rival for Geoffrey’s wife, Violet Syme. Violet seldom went to The Age office and, when she did, she probably would have worn a simple, dark, long-sleeved silk dress, a large straw hat and very, very high-heeled shoes. She was always elegant and Miss Jeffreys was definitely lacking in glamour. It is doubtful if the two women liked each other.
Miss Jeffreys looked after the secretarial needs of the managing editor and the editor, both of whom worked on this passage. It was a short passage with a door opening into each of the four principal rooms, all of which had windows that looked out onto Collins Street. The first room was a conference room. It was also used as a waiting room. Then came Geoffrey’s office, the office that had been his father’s. The third was the editor’s room and the fourth belonged to the leader writers. Herbert Syme’s office was downstairs, not within the editorial department.
The conference room had two doors, one leading from the passage and the other opening into Geoffrey’s office. It had a big mahogany table in the middle of the room, with straight-backed chairs placed all around it. Several maps hung on the walls. Some of these were rather like blinds that could be rolled up or down and probably were detailed maps of Australia and in particular Victoria, including railway lines, parish boundaries and electoral boundaries. There was also a large engraving of the scene of the opening of Federal Parliament in 1901. David Syme features prominently in that picture, but Geoffrey does not appear at all: he was away, or perhaps he was just about to go to England, where he was to fall in love with Violet Garnett. In any case, even if he was in Melbourne, he probably would not have been invited, since he was still only a junior member of the editorial staff of The Age.
The conference room was not only where the editorial staff conferences which took place each week-day morning at 11 o’clock, but it was also the room where the Trustees held the monthly meetings of the David Syme Estate. These were often more fiery than the minutes indicate. Roughly speaking, Herbert Syme was responsible for the maintenance of the presses and the type-setting machinery, the buying of newsprint and controlling the day-to-day business of the paper, and Geoffrey, whose position made him senior to his brother, was totally in charge of the paper itself. The other Trustees, Francis, Arthur and Oswald, and, earlier on, his mother Annabella, had no say at all in the contents or production of the paper, but could cause problems with regard to providing for future expansion and for capital expenditure; their main interest was concerned with the other multifarious parts of the David Syme Estate, including properties such as Mellool, near Swan Hill and the Melbourne Mansions in Collins Street.
The meetings of the editorial staff were much more friendly. After all, Geoffrey’s three successive editors, George Schuler, who had been his father’s last editor, L. V. Biggs and H. A. M. Campbell had worked with him for many years, as had the principal leader writers and journalists like Matthew Macfarlane, Jackie Smith, E. R. Powers, Roy Austin, Frank Maugher, H. J. Curwen, C. E. Sayers and E. N. Armit. Everyone came well briefed in the subjects for discussion. Biggs, who was very formal, was tall with a shock of white hair that contrasted with his rather pink face. He was a vestryman at St. Paul’s Cathedral and was good at chess and enjoyed public speaking. Macfarlane, an earnest Presbyterian, was the senior leader writer. He was tall, with dark hair, and was very Scottish. Or perhaps it was just his voice that seemed so Scottish. Campbell, a West Australian, came to The Age in the early 1930’s. He was shortish, stocky, with light brown hair and, though plainer, he had a slight resemblance to Kim Philby. He owned a cherry farm, somewhere out beyond Box Hill.
In editorial conferences Geoffrey was dealing with people he knew well. Though he could be both stern and unbending, he was quite reasonable and open to argument, though it was not always easy to change his mind if he did not approve of a proposal put forward to him. He was definitely not a Lord Copper: Although he knew Lord Beaverbrook, Waugh’s model for Lord Copper, he could never have been like him.
Geoffrey’s office, next door to the conference room, had been his father’s office. He worked there for thirty- four years, only a few years less than his father. Its two long windows opened out onto the balcony just above the main door. The balcony was seldom used, except as a place to watch the processions that occasionally came down Collins Street. Over his room, three storeys above, just behind the pediment, stood the statue of Mercury
He did not make many changes to the room when he moved into it in mid-February 1908. This was not simply because of his affection for his father, or dislike of change, but also for reasons of economy. He did not own his office. It, like the rest of the building, belonged to the David Syme Estate and he would have had to get permission from the other Trustees to make any major changes to its decoration. He was content, and probably proud to use his father’s roll-top desk, which stood in the centre of the room. The carpet that had been dull grey for many years was eventually changed to a new green one, and the Persian rugs remained, and a two-bar electric radiator was added to supplement the coal fire with its iron grate. The room had two or three chairs, and near the right-hand window was a table on which was spread a variety of papers; The Leader, The Herald, The Sun-Pictorial, The Argus and a few English papers, including The Manchester Guardian, The Illustrated London News, The Sphere and Punch, all of which were at least five weeks old because they had arrived by ship. The room was comfortable, slightly shabby and not at all impressive, but it was often full of sunlight because of its big north-facing windows.
Other members of staff who saw him in this room were people like Mrs Isaacson, who was responsible for the womens’ page, and Mrs Waters who worked on The Leader and wrote up all the principal dog shows. Mrs Waters was a rather formidable woman who usually wore a grey coat and skirt, a felt hat and flat leather shoes, suitable for walking around the muddy show-grounds. Members of The Leader staff were important to Geoffrey, since he, a farmer himself, found its contents interesting. He liked going to shows with Mrs Waters and he liked dogs; he had always had big dogs, but the last two he actually showed were pugs. They belonged to his wife, who adored them. One was fawn, Count Curly Wee, and then followed a black one, Winton Zulu Chief; both dogs nearly became K.C.C. champions, but both were run over accidentally in the Blythswood drive, only a few points short of achieving championship.
Frank Fitzgerald was another senior journalist he knew well. Frank was with him in July 1926 when a cable came through to The Age office to tell Geoffrey that his second daughter, Hilaire Peacock, had died in England, a few hours after giving birth to a daughter. Frank spent several hours with him that night, trying to console him and calm him enough to be able to go back to Blythswood to tell his wife what had happened. Peter Alston was on the staff in 1936, Harold Austin was a cadet journalist in the 1930’s and about the same time Mrs Isaacson’s son Peter was, for a short time, an office boy. Harry Peters was a political correspondent; federal, probably not state. Other senior journalists, whose Christian names seem to have been forgotten, were Wilkins, Neill and Holland; their names always seem to have been prefixed with the title Mr.
It is true however that Geoffrey Syme had varying relationships with members of his staff. He had favourites and non-favourites. C. E. Sayers must have been reasonably popular, since he was chosen to be Geoffrey’s personal assistant during the last few months of his life. It is odd then that Sayers should have forgotten to include his boss’s career when he assembled the collection of Syme Papers that were given to the State Library of Victoria.
Geoffrey arrived at The Age office at about half past ten, and settled down to deal with his mail. He also checked the signed paper. At that time journalists were usually anonymous and a paper was put up on a board every day for each journalist to sign and identify what he had written for that day’s paper. Geoffrey also had to deal with any immediate problems before he went to the editorial conference. The rest of the morning was spent in interviews and meetings and sometimes he was away from the office for board meetings; for example for several years he was The Age’s director on the board of Vogue Broadcasting, the company that owned and operated the radio station 3AW. Lunch was a quick and abstemious affair, sometimes at the Athenaeum Club with Bill Godfrey, his architect and golfing friend, or at the Australian Club with Billy Williams, a Country Court judge who was rarely free at lunchtime. Bill Godfrey, as well as being The Age’s architect, was responsible for architectural repairs to Blythswood and about 1911 had designed Geoffrey’s original rather dark panelled little farmhouse at Woori Yallock. Bill was very keen on dark panelling. He lived in Chesterfield Avenue, Malvern, and left behind him many panelled houses in the Stonnington area. Violet Syme did not let him loose at Blythswood, at least as regards to panelling.
Geoffrey was back at work early in the afternoon, ready for more meetings, perhaps with politicians or perhaps authors, or other people quite unrelated to the paper. He would usually go down to speak to some of the staff who worked on the linotype machines or to the compositors, even though the next days paper was still in the early stages of preparation. He usually had his more serious private conferences at home at Blythswood, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. These would be informal, mostly just he and a friend walking round the garden, or else sitting in front of the fire in his library. Mr Menzies usually walked to Blythswood, but sometimes a Commonwealth car would sweep up the front drive. One who came in such splendour was Mr. Lyons, but he was a Tasmanian, whose home was either there or in Canberra, and who certainly did not live within walking distance of Kew.
Geoffrey left the city at about four o’clock, bringing with him the proofs of the next day’s leading articles. He would fill his brief case with them and a few magazines and anything else that needed his attention and walk back up the hill to the Eastern Market. Even then Victoria Street was often blocked with trams and the rush hour traffic and he did not have a quick journey home.
Nor did his work finish when he got home. In summer time he would go around the garden, picking himself an apple or a pear in the orchard, and deciding what he wanted the gardeners to do on the following day. But in winter he would hang up his hat and coat and go straight to the library, where a fire had just been lit. He would sit down and look at the long curling papers on which the proofs were printed, perhaps he would mark them, and then go to the little room that was really only a blocked off passage but was called the telephone room. Here he would telephone back to the editor or to the leader writer whose work was in question and order changes to the text. He liked company at this time, but quiet company, for example a child who sat peacefully with him and read the magazines he had brought back, English ones for his wife, and treats for himself like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. And Punch. His youngest daughter, Veronica, learned to read on Punch. She spent several hours with him each evening, reading, not talking.
He was always available to his staff, and depending on the importance of the matter and the gravity of the news, would sometimes get calls from the office after dinner. He went out a lot at night and then it was hard for his staff to reach him. He liked the theatre, the opera, the ballet and musical comedies at His Majesty’s and straight plays at The Comedy Theatre. He had his weekly night of poker at the Athenaeum Club. He entertained a lot at home, usually rather informally, and also went to many parties, some of which he probably hated. Or perhaps he just looked rather uncomfortable in his white tie and tailcoat.
He was a man who was almost always on duty, always in control, though in quiet way. All the same it was rare for children to feel that they could discuss problems with Geoffrey Syme. They were accustomed to being told what to do, and he seldom gave any explanation or provided any background as to the reason why they should do it. This led to a lot of mistakes on the part of a child. For example there was no acceptable excuse for being late. It was not that he was difficult to talk to, he was in fact rather friendly, but a child would never have dared to ask for more information, question his reasoning or express an opinion that was contrary to his. His favourite maxim, ”qui s’excuse, s’accuse” was not a very sensible one. Probably he did not realize that a child might have been quite unaware of the facts of a particular situation and therefore thought his reproof was unjust. As his youngest daughter explained “I was very fond of him, in fact I admired him and loved him, yet I always had a feeling of relief when I heard him shut the side door, walk across the little courtyard and down the passageway to the big courtyard where his Bentley stood parked under the archway of the stables. From about ten o'clock, which was the time he left for the office, until he came back about five o'clock, life at Blythswood was much more relaxed.”
Perhaps, at least at times, some of the younger members of his editorial staff at The Age had much the same feeling.
Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.