My first intention was not to go to London, but to try Ireland first. I was a popular young man of 22 at the Star and the staff had raised C$300 to send me off, together with three letters of introduction to notables in Irish journalism at the Irish Press and the Irish Independent from Walter O'Hearn, the executive editor.
Montreal was important then, and there were direct Aer Lingus flights to Shannon, Dublin and London, with much drinking with pretty stewardesses en route. This was not my first transatlantic flight, but it was the first time I was primarily interested in where I was going rather than a girl I was going to see. It was a night flight from Montreal, and in the moonlit takeoff I could see the snows of Laval, or Ile Jesu, as we were still calling it, before rising 40,000 feet into the blackness of the night.
At dawn we approached Shannon. I was amazed at the resplendent, almost glowing green it presented in the bright sunlit morning. It was an overwhelmingly positive feeling and quite unaccountable, as I never had such a feeling well up in me before. Those bound for Shannon, like myself, tumbled out of the aircraft and entered the customs shed. It really was a shed, made of weathered boards and beams with an elongated wooden table upon which to put luggage. They looked at passports, asked a few questions but let us go without delay.
I thought I had caught sight of a familiar face from a balcony at the main airport building on the way into the shed so was only half surprised when I saw Alan Ritchie emerge red-cheeked and with a cheery grin. While he was officially a school teacher at Deanery for Girls in London's Borough of Newham, he was assigned as sailing instructor and resident manager of the borough's Outdoor Activities Centre in Malden, Essex. With Christmas less than two weeks away, Alan managed to escape to Ireland when he did.
I had written to Alan about my departure from the Montreal Star, perhaps unwisely telling him about the C$300, a considerable sum equalling six weeks' take-home pay in those days. No sooner had he shouldered one of my bags than he began to tell me about documentary film opportunities in London and how there was a Bolex 16mm camera he had his eye on if only he had the money to buy it.
We both liked the impact of documentaries and would like to make such a mark in our own journalism. I confess being so enthralled with that vision I ignored the masses of preparation needed. What's more, my brief run-in with a CBC documentary crew in Mississippi two years earlier made me wary about the entire field. They appeared interested only in one side of the story, less interested in conveying a balanced account than producing effective propaganda—not journalism, in my view, then or now.
Anyway, I wanted time to absorb Ireland and Limerick City as Alan hastened us on to Dublin on the other side of the country. While he chatted about documentaries, I noticed that the main street seemed lined with gingerbread houses that I later observed were not much different from English row houses of the same type that had been converted into shops. What gave them the gingerbread look was the riotous variety of paint applied to those used for commercial purposes on the main street. The only thing that stuck in mind was Alan's discovery that in England one says Suffolk County, while in Ireland one says County Kerry. Otherwise, I absorbed the local colour in the bright, bracing December air.
A farmer in a car picked us up, but no sooner were we on the road than he turned off to wherever he was bound. This was our first experience of the "great green tunnel"—overgrown hedgerows that line the roads obscuring the view right and left, so there is nothing to look at the but the road behind and the road ahead. Not long after, we were picked up by an English salesman selling double-glazing, or what in Canada we would call storm windows.
He was a cheerful, dapper little man, and he warned us that he might spot a prospect on his return trip to Dublin. He had travelled the coast road south to Cork and north again to Limerick, from where he was now headed cross-country ending his first tour of his new territory. He allowed the Irish were "interesting," but it was hard to discern if his description contained any sense of irony. His governing motive, as one might expect of all salesmen, was to keep positive not only for others but for himself.
There were times in the hills or in barren lands where the hedgerows gave way to low rock walls that marked the fields in ragged rectangles descending into valleys and inevitable bog lands, where Cromwell said his cavalry could not go in the 1640s without sinking in. This I remembered from my father's leather-bound volumes of Cromwell's "Speeches and Dispatches." The boulder-strewn land then rose up to a new summit 1,000 yards away. Here I could see positions taken by IRA men in 1919 with their Lee-Enfields and German Mausers taking pots shots at Black and Tan auxiliary police in trucks on the roads we were travelling.
Then suddenly a flash of modernity surprised us when the road opened up into something like the 401 between Montreal and Toronto. But moments later, just when I was musing how soon we would be in Dublin, the superhighway collapsed into the Dinky Toy quaintness from which we had emerged not ten minutes earlier.
"It seems they tried that and didn't like it," I said to an appreciative chuckle all 'round.
Our trim, trilby-hatted salesman stopped by a cottage hard by the road, across from a barely discernible pub marked by a crude painted metal sign bearing the publican's name, with its customary apostrophe "S."
Inside, a rough assemblage of four or five tables was arrayed before a bar that appeared to be a jerry-built structure of two chairs on one side matched by two chairs on the other, upon which were placed four standard brewers' beer kegs. Across the top of these two rickety pillars lay a stout board to which were clamped three pneumatic pumps marked Guinness, Harp and another brand as well as the plastic hoses that ran to the live beer kegs plainly in sight on the floor. Certainly, a no-frills approach to retail brewing. I took a Guinness, my first in Ireland, and marveled at its creaminess and good taste.
It was clear that our benefactor wanted words with the muscular shirt-sleeved publican to sound out double-glazing prospects in the area, so Alan and I returned to the car. It was parked within a few feet of a cottage. The cottage door was open and three ragged children, no more than 5, were playing in and around the entrance. The sun was high and shone brightly through one of the few cottage windows, which made it plain that there was no difference between the dirt outside the cottage and the earthen floor inside. I had never encountered such poverty outside of Mexico.
Our natty salesman returned and was now intent on making Dublin by nightfall, which in those climes meant an hour or two. Ireland, with its occasional and incongruous palm tree, was a land freakishly warmed by the transatlantic Gulf Stream despite sharing a latitude with sub-Arctic Labrador in northern Canada.
On arrival in Dublin, I saw the bright lights of O'Connell Street, a place I would come to know intimately 15 years later, when I broke away from Alan on another ill-fated documentary film venture and decided to check out Ireland, this time without distraction.
While waiting for the Dublin-Liverpool ferry to cast off, we put into a Wimpy Bar, and against Alan's advice, I ordered a hamburger, an experience I shall never forget. I confess to be a connoisseur of fine hamburgers, having sampled the best of Dankoff’s in Montreal, Rosalita's in San Jose, those of the George in the Western Cape in South Africa as well as Delaney's in Hong Kong.
So much for the best. For the worst, nothing could plumb—or ever has—the abysmal depths of putridity achieved by that greasy glutinous lump served in that Dublin Wimpy Bar. It was some time before I learned that it was the conversation, not the food, that made the Irish dinner party the national treasure it is.
We booked third-class passage , which seemed a bit rough but manageable. In time, there were would be a bar open.
At first there was nothing untoward about our fellow passengers, just the usual crowd of bargain-basement types like ourselves--except for one lot quite distinguishable as a group for their uniformly dirty, disheveled appearance. There were about 20 of them, ranging in age from 5 to 70, male and female.
"Tinkers," someone within earshot muttered with a mixture of disgust and alarm.
"Gypsies," said Alan, when I looked to him for an explanation. In truth, Tinkers are like Gypsies but are not Gypsies, I later learned. First, unlike Gypsies, they are not racially Romani and share no Gypsy traditions, but live mostly in Ireland, the US and the UK, in areas where Irish congregate. There have been costly attempts to integrate the "Travelling People" into the settled community, for which the helping professions are eternally grateful for providing their university graduates greater employment than they would otherwise have.
No sooner had the ferry cast off and into the choppy Irish Sea than the Tinker mass began to seethe with anger, first with shouts, sudden movement and insults, with much female screeching from two matted mops of hair in their early 20s. The whole group was instantly on their feet and spreading out, occupying more than their fair share of the cramped space allotted to third class passengers, who could no longer safely sit or stow valuables on or under the interlocking deckchairs set up like benches. This pinned 40 of us standing up holding bags and baggage against the bulkheads.
The threatening atmosphere prompted the white uniformed crew to shutter the bar, seal us in and leave us to our fate. Whatever law and order to be found was for us to find. We were on our own, like peaceful inmates in a prison riot.
Then insults ended between the girls, and punches, hair pulling and wrestling began. One would pull away, and then both would rise to their feet, circling each other, arms aggressively outstretched with witch-like hands curled into claws, thrusting, snatching and catching until one came close enough to the other to bring the other down. They grappled hand to hand with one soon on top of the other, pounding at her face without restraint.
For a time, when the cuts, scratches, punches were evenly distributed, each side held off. But after a while, the bigger girl got the better of the smaller one, and the smaller girl's side of the family attacked the bigger girl, which instantly brought in the bigger girl's family for a full-blown counterattack.
This erupted into a general melee. Men brawled with men, women tore at each other with the same viciousness of the principal combatants and children battled each other or protected little ones as best they could. There was even the sight of a black-clad granny flailing away with a cane at a 6-year-old boy who was trying to kick her in the shins.
As the melee took up more space, things became dangerous for passengers, which included a few noncombatant women and children.
Respite came when the two tinker patriarchs agreed that a general melee was needlessly destructive and it would be best if the girls fought it out fair and square. Now calmed, all prepared for battle, and they were soon at each other's throats. But it wasn't long before it went very much the same way, with the bigger girl beating up the smaller girl and the smaller girl's family piling in for the rescue, resulting in a general melee again when the bigger girl's family piled on.
Which again had all noncombatants pinned to the walls. Alan cleverly occupied a steel landing on the gangway to the deck, which he defended against all comers while allowing free passage to the few square feet of open deck allotted to third class passengers.
Again, a truce was called and all agreed to conditions outlined by those I started to call the Queensbury Rules mob. And again, the girls set upon each other. After a very short while, though, the battle ran out of gas and subsided. All retired into the bosom of their families, who took up defensive positions around their battered and bloodied champions. There was a short-lived resumption an hour or two later, but it was only a muffled scuffle. Alan and I briefly went on deck to be greeted with sheets of cold rain and gratefully returned to curl up on the small landing midway up to the deck. It was soon time to land. The white-coated ferry stewards opened up everything, even served snacks for breakfast, and we disembarked without incident.
My first, last, yet clear memory of Liverpool is a pleasing one to this day—that is, a vision through a rain-splattered bus window of my first helmeted British bobby smiling broadly at a passing friend or an acquaintance whom I could not see from my seat. It symbolized all I loved about England: good cheer and goodwill in adversity. A few minutes earlier, we had passed by the customs officers in their uniforms looking like shabby naval lieutenants, as well as two or three trench-coated fellows who looked like Special Branch keeping an eye out for IRA men, who even before the Troubles three years later could be counted on to smuggle arms into Britain.
We took the bus out of town to the London road. Rain continued throughout the day, but that seemed to warm the hearts of motorists. We were soon picked up and, after two or three helpful lifts, got one straight through to London, from where we took the Piccadilly Line at the northwest extremity of the tube system at Uxbridge. Then changing to the District Line, we arrived in West Kensington, which would be my London base for the next year. The Piccadilly Line cars had curved corners on the roof as if to fit into a tube, while the District Line cars were more box-like as one would expect of a train. Another feature I found odd was how deeply upholstered were the seats, covered in patterned plush, something like coarse velvet, giving it a somewhat Victorian appearance. Which is not surprising, since the District Line upon on which we were travelling was running in 1868.
Alan shared a flat with a pleasant girl about our age called Sybil Williams. There was no romance between them; they simply shared the flat, which was a common arrangement in England. The upper flat must have been servants' quarters when the four-storey row house, a cramped version of a New York brownstone, had been broken into flats. Our flat consisted of two bedrooms, fashioned as two bed-sitting rooms, or "bed-sits," a shared bathroom with an enormous bathtub, and a kitchen with a tiny stove and no fridge. Normal room temperature was sufficiently low enough to keep food cold. Each bed-sit had its own gas fireplace with its own shilling-hungry meter.
Life in winter became a constant feeding of meters. Gas and electricity would go out unexpectedly unless one had the shillings on hand to feed the meter. Apart from the fireplace, there was one for the cooker, as the stove was called, and one for the bathtub, which took pennies and offered a short-lived pathetic quarter-inch diameter low-pressure stream of barely hot water for three minutes. It was quite impossible to fill the giant cast iron tub more than two or three inches. Being in a refrigerated state, the enormous iron tub sucked out what few precious BTUs had survived the fall from the hot water nozzle to the distant water line.
As a result, we took few baths in winter and made short work of them, splashing about in a tepid puddle, soaping and rinsing as fast as we could and shivering our way in whatever warmth could be found in a damp towel. Nothing dries quickly in England.
One quickly learned that with shilling-gobbling meters for electricity, power seemed to shut down at crucial moments in television dramas, which, incidentally, were the best I had ever seen. I once said that a holiday in England would be well spent if you only watched television the whole time, given its quality back then. I could not say that today, as things have declined since the days of "Yes, Minister" in the 1980s.
Much of my time over the next few days, being Friday, Saturday and Sunday, was spent on walks. The most memorable was the one Alan and I took all the way downtown, as I persisted in calling the area between Westminster and the City of London. The five-mile trek took us past most everything including my second helmeted policeman, then the neighbouring Earl's Court, aka "Kangaroo Valley." I foolishly looked for Aussies in turned-up slouch hats, found none and was disappointed to see it was like any other nondescript part of London.
On we marched, stopping in for a half pint at a Chelsea pub. It was already nearly full at opening time of 11 o'clock. I don't remember much, other than it had a horse-and-hounds crowd that was young, good-humoured and perfectly understandable, not universally characteristic of British pubs, I had yet to discover. Onward to Hyde Park Corner, the sight of the old gallows of Tyburn, once thronged by multitudes to witness the executions, but more important, to hear the speeches of the condemned. These were often performed when drunk, because well-wishers could pass up bottles of brandy to tumbrils on the mile or two from Newgate Prison to the Tyburn, where the tradition of public speaking lives on. There were three people talking. I listened to a mean-spirited ferret-faced fellow demand the unification of Ireland and another haranguing a half-dozen listeners on some topic of an environmental or dietary nature.
But my most enduring memory of Hyde Park Corner was being shocked to the core when I bit off a large chunk of my first English hotdog, having generously smothered it with a thick layer of mustard. Alan had been looking elsewhere when I went to the hotdog vendor and returned, and I recall him shouting "Don't!!" as I took my first big bite. I instantly spat it out as Alan laughed and explained: "I tried to warn you!"
The problem was too much English super-hot mustard, the only type available at the time, meant to be dabbed gingerly here and there on the hotdog, itself a relatively new concept in England and probably only sold in London where Americans might gather.
Having disposed of the remains of my purchase in a nearby bin, we went by Buckingham Palace. The foot guards had long withdrawn from outside sentry boxes at the palace gates to the safety of the palace walls. I noted the red plumes in the bearskins and tunic buttons in groups of twos, indicating the Coldstream Guards were doing duty that day. We hastened through St James's Park, to Horse Guards Parade, which I recognised from seeing footage of the Trooping of the Colour at the Queen's Birthday Parade. It was there from the Major General's Window that our Colonel-in-Chief of the Black Watch, the Queen Mother, saw the Trooping each year. Then we saw the mounted troopers of the Blues and Royals with their blue cloaks, silver cuirasses and helmets topped with red plumes, with whom the red-coated, silver-helmeted, white-plumed Life Guards formed the two regiments of the Household Cavalry.
While I noted all this with appropriately thrilled language (Alan was nonchalant as he had seen it all before), we strode on into Downing Street. Apart from a car idling on one side of the road and a helmeted policeman—the second sighting that day—there was no one on the short street except a woman turning the corner. But as we approached No 10, the residence and office of the Prime Minister, who should appear, opening the door in the most ordinary way and shaking hands with a departing guest, but the current occupant, Prime Minister Harold Wilson? Somewhat shocked that I was not shocked, the personage so extraordinary but his appearance so ordinary, we moved on. I was pleased that Alan was at last so nonplussed that he was momentarily unsure how to make the detour to get down to see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
I was surprised to see Oliver Cromwell standing in bronze in the courtyard, before recalling that despite his evil reputation, regarded as an olden-day Hitler in Ireland, he was a champion of the rights of Parliament over the kingly prerogative and would find friends here if they were to be found anywhere.
Thence to King's Cross Station, the centre of a five-mile radius within which the panoply of streets, avenues, roads, mews, closes, drives, walks, terraces and lanes must be memorised by every black-cab driver as a condition of his licence. The licence does not cost that much but to get it, a driver must also know the best way to get from any point to any other to acquire what cabbies call "The Knowledge."
From the Strand we came to Fleet Street, an area I would come to know intimately in later years, passing the Wig & Pen, where I was to have my wedding reception eleven months later in one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. At the time I was more interested in El Vino's, where I heard that Fleet Streeters gathered. We entered, looked around and then moved down the street. I saw a truck unloading newsprint at the News of the World in Bouverie Street, the dingy but handsome Daily Telegraph building, and the shiny art deco black building of the Daily Express, which I thought and still think of as garish.
Soon we crossed into the City of London, with its own police force, whose badge did not bear the crown. Instead there were plumes, rather like those of the Prince of Wales. And instead of the lion and unicorn on the City's shield, the crest was flanked by two dragon-like griffins.
We entered St Paul's Cathedral too tired to climb the stairs to the Whispering Gallery. We decided to save that for another day and headed back to West Ken on the District Line from Blackfriars. (That other day would come 30 years later when my then 30-year-old daughter and I made the climb.)
That night, I was introduced to my lifelong passion of Indian food. Sixty years later, it is still the only food about which I have any enthusiasm. I had been introduced to Alan's friend Farouk, a Persian (he could not abide being called an Iranian and was the first and last Zoroastrian I ever met) who lived with his mother and 35-year-old sister. I soon discovered that in England, Indian food was the standard exotica, the way Chinese food was in Canada and the US. I learned that social life in the area centred on the Cedars pub on North End Road and that a passport to an after-hours party in the area—pubs having closed at 11 o'clock—was "a bottle or a bird."
While a bottle is a transatlantic term, North Americans may be unfamiliar with "bird"—meaning a girl, equivalent to "chick." English girls used "bloke" for their menfolk. Before leaving this paragraph, we might include a few English usage lessons: People and places are "in” streets not "on" them. Always include the word "street," "road," "avenue," etc. when naming a location. Thus, never say the "corner of West Cromwell and North End." Instead, include everything, "corner of West Cromwell Road and North End Road"—better still, "at the junction of West Cromwell Road and North End Road." After a time, I became so thoroughly indoctrinated in this I accidentally gave an American couple directions to Oxford 50 miles away when they only wanted to go to Oxford Street 50 yards away. They protested in time, saying they were told that "Oxford was really nearby." It was only then I realised they meant the shopping mecca, not the site of Oxford University.
The next few days were madly social, taking the bus along North End Road to Notting Hill Gate, where Alan had friends who shared a large flat in Pembridge Crescent near Portobello Road and its busy market. Later I learned that the flat might have been in the house where Paddington Bear lived with the Brown family, and I felt certain that I had passed a shop that could have been Mr Gruber's antique shop, where Paddington shared their "elevenses" of biscuits and cocoa.
It was soon time to do something about job hunting. I dropped into the Montreal Star's bureau opposite Canada House in Trafalgar Square. In spite of my hostility to new flag, it being barely a year old, I confess to feeling pride in how it gloriously flew from Canada House, which had pride of place in glorious Trafalgar Square. Boyce Richardson was not much help, as he had little contact with the local working press and, more to the point, knew much little about its workings. But he made me welcome and bought me a pub lunch at the nearby Four Chairmen.
With clippings stuffed in two scrapbooks, dressed in my charcoal grey three-piece suit, and after what I hoped would be a bracing glass of wine at El Vino's, I went into the Daily Express in the vain hope that my Canadian-ness and my association with the founder Lord Beaverbrook's grandson, Tim Aiken, might help get me a job. I was disabused of this notion by the commissionaire, who asked where I was going and was not encouraging when I said to wherever the editorial department was. He told me to write a letter and showed me the door. I noticed that the British commissionaires, unlike the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, did not all wear the same uniform but sported various accoutrements from their old regiments—like chain mail epaulettes of cavalry regiments, red sashes to accompany sergeants' stripes, or black cross belts of rifle regiments.
Next door I went into the Daily Telegraph lobby and found it looked too intimidating. It was the one I really wanted to work for as it looked more like a normal newspaper, so I exited quickly rather than risking a brush-off. Easier access seemed available at the Evening News, where the commissionaire looked occupied. Instinctively, l headed to the elevator, pushed the button and waited. I was joined by two or three others and got lost among them. I pushed the highest floor, and thankfully my fellow passengers got off at intervals in between.
Alone when I reached the top, I found myself staring into the face of a prim receptionist at a big desk in a setting of polished wood panelling and oil paintings. I mumbled "sorry" and pushed the button for the next floor down. The door opened onto a less intimidating corridor of frosted glass and wooden wainscoting with closed doors at intervals. One open door revealed men and women at desks. It didn't seem the place to ask questions as they did not seem like my people—some other department, I imagined, like advertising or circulation.
I found the stairs and decided to check out each floor in turn. The next one also seemed unsuitable for reasons I forget, but I got to the right floor not because of what I saw, but rather what I heard, that familiar clacking of typewriters and men shouting at each other—sounds of a newspaper approaching deadline.
I boldly strode in to find exactly what I had heard and asked a guy unhurriedly changing paper in his machine: "Who's the guy who does the hiring around here?"
He pointed to a bulky, balding fellow sitting at a large desk, conferring with two others. I waited only half out of sight until they finished and then as they were moving off blurted: "I understand you are the one who hires reporters."
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded, clearly shocked and miffed at the presence of an unannounced stranger.
"I am Christy McCormick, late of the Montreal Star where I was on..."
"How the hell did you get in here?!"
"By the elevator," I said.
"By the what!?"
"By the elevator," I repeated.
One of the two men, now behind me, piped in: "That's what Yanks call the lift."
"We do the same in Canada," I said as I opened my scrapbook. "If you just have a minute to look at my work...."
But before I could say another word, he bellowed: "Get him out of here—get him out of the building!"
And before I knew it, I was bodily thrown out of the Evening News, and escorted by one of them out of the building.
And that's how I came to know that "lift" meant "elevator" in England.
That was enough for one day, so I headed home to West Ken and the Cedars, where I told my story to Alan and my new friends, Farouk, Tony Bright, who managed a small grocery store, and Graham Hassel, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, was now reading law at one of the Inns of Court and would eventually become a barrister.
Later that night, I got another lesson in the differences in English usage between one side of the "Pond," as the Atlantic was called, and the other. In the jovial atmosphere of the crowded Cedars pub, with many of the locals seeing each other night after night and being largely in their late teens or early twenties, most everyone was an acquaintance.
Part of the playful banter was some ribbing about my "Yank accent," with me making the usual protests about being Canadian. This was more of a novelty in the mid-'60s than it is today. At one point, the verbal rough and tumble, though completely without malice, prompted me to say if they went on insulting the "True North Strong and Free" I would be obliged to slap them on the fanny.
There was an immediate hostile and visceral reaction with two or three shocked girls telling their friends in tones of outrage. I was totally bewildered, even innocently repeating what I had said when they asked me to repeat it to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This only prompted greater consternation, so I retired to the table where Alan and our friends had gathered. He laughed uproariously. But his table mates still didn't know what was funny. He explained that "fanny" in Canada meant ass, while in England, it means vagina. Alan dutifully got up and went over to the girls to explain, and soon they were laughing, too.
And that's how I came to understand why the English found the name of the all-female FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) so funny, even though I did not. I later discovered that the English would dissolve into giggles, dare I say titters, if I mentioned the word Regina, which they pronounce "reg'ee'na" while Canadians say "reg'eye'na." I had no reason to mention the capital of one of our square provinces, Saskatchewan, not to mention the spiritual home of our straitlaced Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There were occasions in English court reporting when one would use the Queen's legal Latin designation, for example in "Regina vs. So-and-So", making it less of an obscure term than one would think.
Mindful of these linguistic lessons, I was soon back job hunting. I got an interview with no problem at the Morning Star, the official Communist Party newspaper, which had only that year, 1966, changed its name from the Daily Worker. I went through my pitch saying I would make a good reporter and feature writer. The man designated to interview me—I never knew his position—was an ordinary looking fellow of middle age wearing a brownish tie and brownish cardigan rather like a rumpled deskman on the overnight desk at the Montreal Star. He said little and let me prattle on. As I came in for a landing, he said he would call me if there were any openings, but he doubted there would be. The whole thing seemed entirely pro forma, and I later thought that I was suspected of being an intelligence agent of a Western power attempting infiltration, granted an interview just in case he could learn something from me and my "real" mission.
Nonetheless, I had had a practice run of making a pitch and the experience gave me confidence in making the next attempts, two of which were short-lived and discouraging. At the Daily Mirror a deputy news editor came down to the lobby, where a commissionaire, sporting a Royal Artillery badge, kindly assigned me a chair and made a phone call on my behalf after I told him I was a fellow "gunner" in the 26th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery—neglecting to mention that it was only in the Stanstead College cadet corps. Even so we trained on .105 howitzers in dry run drills.
The man came down, looked at my clippings—or "cuttings," as they are called in England—but said that as I had no provincial experience, they could not look at me before I did. He said they were interested in tough reporters, "like in Glasgow, where they go after their stories with bicycle chains".
Next stop was the Daily Mail, where I relied on my elevator—sorry, "lift"—trick. I simply took the lift to an upper floor, avoiding the executive suite at the top. And again, went two or three floors down by the stairs until I heard the familiar sound of my people, click-clacking away, but otherwise lazing about. Again, I asked who did the hiring and was directed to one Jack Crosley, the news editor. This time, earlier experience paid off. While I could hardly masquerade as a Glaswegian thug wielding a bicycle chain, I came on as alert, cocky and ready for anything.
"I'm Christy McCormick and I am looking for a job. Here are my cuttings."
"How did you get in here?" said Crosley, with the same astonishment as the Evening News guys, but this time without anger.
"Trade secret," I quipped slyly, with a smirk.
"We pay so much for security, and you just waltz in here," he said, with a tone of appreciation.
"I've worked for the Montreal Gazette and the Montreal Star as a reporter. I am looking for something bigger and better," I said.
He was a handsome man of 35 to 40, slightly overweight, who spoke in an educated but classless accent. He sat down and began looking through my hardcover scrapbook at the headlines and pictures. The phone rang, and Crosley asked how the fellow at the other end was getting on in the "wilds of Kent" but otherwise did the listening, ending by telling him to stay the night. I noticed there was quiet in the department, as if the first edition deadline had come and gone.
Jack wanted to continue talking, but he was also anxious to get to the pub under what I later came to know as McCormick's Second Law of Journalism, to wit: "The newsworthiness of any given event loses value in direct proportion to its proximity to opening or closing time." The First Law, absorbed at the Montreal Star, being "What is not read does not offend."
We soon found ourselves in a tiny club-like pub off Fleet Street, where Jack knew everyone and everyone knew him. I took it to be the Daily Mail local. Jack was greeted by the Daily Mail "leader writer," a handsome, animated young man who was sharing an opinion on an issue of the day, on which I made what was taken to be an amusing remark. While I was asked a few questions, they were then joined by two others in turn, and spoke of many things as I concentrated on making a good impression, looking alert, flashing the odd appreciative laugh.
The mirthful group had grown larger, which gave Jack a moment to talk to me on the side, remarking that this was a mere pit stop in his day and he had to get back for the next edition, making me think that this was the very thing Brodie Snyder would be doing, pushing away from the bar at Mother Martins after a break between editions. I left with Jack, discovering that a leader writer was an editorial writer and that the city editor was not the man in charge of reporters as in North America—that position was held by the news editor. The city editor's staff covered the City of London, the quasi-independent financial district, the only serious business district in all of the United Kingdom.
Not wishing to continue my parade of ignorance of local tradecraft, I joined him in making excuses and we departed together. We stopped outside. "I thought I might try you out on this," he said, pulling papers from his jacket.
It was a press release from an organisation called Volunteer Service Overseas, which from his description seemed to be the British version of our CUSO, Canadian University Service Overseas. Four returnees would be giving talks on their third-world experiences. "See what you can make of it," he said on parting.
As the event was held in a small concert hall near Trafalgar Square, close to the Montreal Star's London bureau, I recalled Jack Crosley’s desire to see a copy of the Montreal Star, so I dropped in and picked one up. Fortunately, I got a recent 108-page Wednesday edition, which would wow even Montrealers today, let alone the Fleet Steeters of yesteryear, when British broadsheets numbered 24 pages, with tabloids doubling that on a good day.
So I lugged the paper, rather than my scrapbook, to the VSO gathering not 300 yards away. It was a small concert hall of 200 capacity and attracted no more than 100 people that day. There was a young reporter, well-spoken I thought, from the local Westminster weekly, and then a slightly thuggish 30-year-old from The Sun. This was not the tits-and-bums tabloid Sun of later years, but the last fling of the remnants of the leftist Daily Herald, once a strong Labour paper. It had died three years earlier, probably supplanted in the years since the Manchester Guardian had become the London-based Guardian national paper in 1960 and took the Herald's leftist parliamentary readership.
As the Herald remnant, the Sun in its first incarnation tried and failed to carve a business out of the youth market before Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1969 and turned it into a successful tits-and-bums tea tent rag.
In the brief time we had to talk before the VSO girls told their stories, the Sun man was stand-offish—which I later learned was my new normal among rivals in England, which was indeed what we were in this competitive environment.
Then listening and note taking occupied our thoughts, and I confess to being intimidated by the copious shorthand notes I saw flowing into my rivals' notebooks. In subsequent job interviews, I found prospective employers asked about my nonexistent shorthand, but readily accepted and seemed to know that such skills were unknown to American journalism. Rarely was the question of an applicant's education ever raised. And if it was, it was the applicant who raised it. In Canada, education was about all that counted for an entry level position.
There were four VSO girls on stage. The one I remember, largely because of the Sun story the next day, spoke of her experience in Pakistan, briefly noting that their VSO billets had been bombed or strafed by Indian fighter jets several years earlier when they were not VSO billets and VSO girls were nowhere near them.
I returned to the office with a story that one year in VSO was not enough to be effective. "By the time one is useful," all of them agreed, "it was time to go home."
First, I delivered Jack Crosley's copy of the Montreal Star.
"One would have been enough," he chided.
"That is one edition, and not as big as the Saturday edition with all its supplements and magazines," I said.
He was amazed. So amazed that his exclamations, as he picked up one section after another, marveling at the size of each, grew so loud that he drew others to his office, with one or two of them being familiar with the differing physical dimensions of British and American newspapers, and welcoming the opportunity to tell others.
One thing they all noticed was that 70 per cent of the Montreal Star was advertising, and on a Wednesday, perhaps as much as 80-85 per cent. And advertising provided much the same proportion of the revenue vis-a-vis what readers paid for individual copies. Circulation revenue covered little more than distribution costs in North America.
Because North American newspapers—in their heyday in the 1960s and '70s—were principally aimed at affluent readers, who could buy the goods and services advertised but who also increasingly lived in distant, hard-to-reach suburbs, fewer bulky papers could fit in trucks which had had to travel a greater distance to reach readers advertisers valued. Thus, the quality of the editorial material mattered little. Lord Thomson, when he was just plain Roy Thomson, owning a score of profitable dailies across Canada's biggest province of Ontario, would run news stories on the back pages that he had run on the front pages. What mattered was the advertising, particularly if the newspaper had no competition within its catchment area, which it seldom did by the mid-20th century.
True, there were a number of publishers who had other motivations beyond profit, typically party politics. If there were once two newspapers in a single catchment area, they tended to represent one political party or another. But as one newspaper merged with its "weak sister" rival, the surviving proprietor could no longer represent one party over another without alienating close to half of its readers, as communities are usually split politically 50-50, judging by electoral results.
These mergers in the '30s, '40s and '50s ushered in a wire service objectivity in the working press. Wire services, known as news agencies in Britain, such as Reuters, the Associated Press, United Press International etc., adopted objectivity since their beginnings a century earlier because they had to sell their news to newspapers of opposing political views.
This new situation also induced newspaper proprietors, increasingly represented by "chains" of newspapers, or newspaper groups, to seek profitability as their goal. Partisanship in these new circumstances could only be commercially harmful. This meant owners were increasingly uninterested and disinterested in their editorial product as long as editors did not upset advertisers or people advertisers valued.
Not so across the pond, though, where individual readers who paid for their individual copies of newspapers really mattered. Advertising and circulation revenue came in near reverse proportions from the North American model. Now reader choice represented the bulk of revenue.
What's more, even affluent readers lived closer together in Britain than they did in America. Also, the UK was not yet a car culture and had more commuters using newspaper-friendly public transit, which itself was used by a wider range of social classes. That meant that many more newspapers, and smaller ones in terms of the number of pages, could fit into a truck that would cover more people over shorter distances.
All of which made the British editorial department a profit centre, rather than a promotional cost. Individual readers paid the bills and pleasing them and increasing their number was paramount. On one hand, it increased the value of journalists in a newspaper's strategic thinking. On the other hand, while this was gratifying to a journalist, it also made life much more harsh and competitive than it had been and led to practices which were not altogether healthy, as I was soon to learn.
Jack Crosley directed me to a typewriter and I quickly wrote the story, having settled on the "lead," a story's first paragraph (in later years, spelt "lede"), which was called the "intro" in Britain. This practice is something my mother advised, to get a good idea of what your lead was on the way back from an assignment, so you waste no time hemming and hawing when you arrive at your desk.
I was pleased Jack was pleased with the story, but he doubted it would run except on a very slow news day. It just wasn't exciting enough, important enough. He would pass it on to the copy taster on the sub's table, but was pretty sure it would be spiked, that is, impaled on a spike, 99.9 per cent dead--though retrievable if it fit the space left when some other story fell through and there were no better material to replace it.
He told me to fill in a chit for £5, which he signed and told me to put in at the pay window. I was to return the next afternoon, when he might have something more for me.
I bought the drinks at the Cedars, spending little more than a pound. After all, a pint of beer cost three shillings and there were 20 shillings in a pound, so there was free beer for all my mates. I was feeling on top of the world, thinking that all was well and I was well on my way to a job on the Daily Mail.
Until the next day, that is. I was disappointed to find nothing about the VSO in the Daily Mail, and I was positively horrified to find a prominent story with a picture of my VSO girls in The Sun, under a big headline "Danger's all in a day's work for our brave British girls." The story went on to say that "their billets were bombed and lying in ruins." And: "But what do our heroic girls say to this? 'One year is not enough!'"
I could not believe the shameless dishonesty of the story. But if looked at line by line by line, one could see that he had lied without actually doing so. Without making a factual error, he had deliberately set out to deceive the readers.
Which in the end gave birth to the McCormick's Third Law of Journalism: "Spin is a matter of subtraction not addition; one can tell the truth, nothing but the truth, without telling the whole truth."
But that law did not come until well after my next and last assignment with the Daily Mail. When I arrived at the office, feeling glum, but armed with a legitimate excuse, I ran into Crosley, told him the VSO billets had been bombed long before the girl was there. And that their statement about one year not being long enough had nothing to do with being in danger. He was understanding, but I knew he would have preferred getting the Sun story.
He then told me to go out to Heathrow Airport and greet Miss Universe from the States on her arrival in London before she headed home to Sweden. Unfortunately, I got lost in the airport maze, and by the time I found my way to the right spot, Miss Universe had come and gone. Heartbroken and deeply embarrassed, I phoned Crosley, who simply said not to worry, they would get it from Braynards and PA, and promptly hung up.
From then on--perhaps unwisely--I decided to set my sights lower and go for a job on one of the London weeklies, of which there were dozens. My plan was to expect rejections and move from one to the other. The idea was to move from east to west, so at the end of the day I would be closer to my West Kensington home base.