When my divorce came through two years earlier, notice arrived in the mail in the presence of my girlfriend. Sensible Susan made an instant volte-face from not wanting to get married to wanting to get married, which I found troubling. Not only was I resistant, I took steps to stock the emotional lifeboats and keep the davits well oiled: I ingratiated myself with Wash-Cycle Wendy, a pretty teacher at O'Sullivan Secretarial College, a pleasingly plump intelligent girl who travelled in the same circles as I did. Other than keeping her warm conversationally, I kept at a sexual distance. But we grew closer as it became more difficult to deflect the increasingly frequent and pressing demands for formal engagement from Susan.
One night I came home from the pub and found myself locked out with my belongings in two green plastic garbage bags. I hailed a cab and took them over to Wendy's place. Like Wolfe at Quebec, my plan was to try my luck moving in then and there, but I was ready to leave stuff and move in for a day or two with friends. Wolfe's plan was to try his luck climbing Quebec Heights with light infantry, but if he ran into opposition, to scramble back down to the boats and rejoin the big troop ships already sailing with the strong river current back to Boston before the French got out of their pajamas. This was Wolfe's last throw of the dice on September 13, 1759, before cold weather set in. Anyway, no need. Wendy was receptive and in I went.
Two years later Wendy and I were still together. It was nothing like the passionate relationship I had with Susan, but she thought I was a "nice lover," we got on well, and together we made a few interesting discoveries.
One worth noting occurred at Boston College, where she was taking a month-long summer course. One weekend I came to stay with her in the student dorm. No one fussed about boys and girls sleeping together; though the building was designed for unisex residency, they did separate the floors by sexes to separate the washrooms. Thus, I slept on the female floor, but ablutions were done on the floor below or the floor above. What a difference a floor made, I discovered!
Whatever Conor Criuse O'Brien said about moving from a republic of yelping dogs in Northern Ireland to a silent kingdom of cats in the southern republic could be equally said of the dorm floors. On the girls’ floor, occupants came and went with no more than a nod to each other—if that—opening and closing doors behind them. Most of the time when I emerged from Wendy's room, it was an empty corridor. The boys’ floor was all abustle with talk, open doors and clutches of young men in the corridor quaffing beer. For years, whenever women or leftist men tried to minimise the differences in the sexes, which they increasingly did in the decades to come, that contrast came to mind. It contradicted notions of gender equality in that men left to their own devices would always be up to something. For women, it seemed there had to be a problem to coalesce around before they would organise. Men would simply do something, and that attracted another's attention, and soon others would join in—even if in opposition.
My previous encounter with television journalism in Mississippi 15 years earlier had been disappointing as its producers scorned objectivity, which we young print journos treasured. TV journalism's subjectivity—a disease that would become pandemic and universally mistaken for The Truth—was a matter of first settling on a conclusion, then finding material to support it, ignoring or sidelining inconvenient information encountered along the way.
At this juncture, Concordia having fired me, it was quite fortuitous that Alan Ritchie of Old turned up with an offer to be a co-writer of a 13-part TV documentary called One World, about the Third World. I jumped at it. It had all the appearance of victory after the disgrace of being fired. What's more, it was fashionable. Not just a move into TV journalism, but all sorts of people were leaving Montreal at the time in what was called the Anglo Exodus. And I was just one of them. Brinks trucks were photographed at the airport loading planes with valuables for Toronto. As they say, optics looked good.
It was the spring of 1978 when the TVO offer came up. TVOntario was only starting to morph itself into the provincial CBC it has become. At the time it was still very much a creature of the Ontario Department of Education, known as the Ontario Educational Communications Authority, or OECA. Having been a schoolteacher in London, Alan had a series of overlapping contracts writing educational films, often on math and science. These would be broadcast to captive school audiences. But in the late 1970s, the agency was emerging as a journalistic force. Ontario was the biggest and richest province, now enriching itself even more on Anglo fortunes that had been driven out of Quebec by the French nationalists. Toronto had taken the title of Canada's No. 1 city, even boasting the world's tallest "free-standing structure" in the form of the CN Tower for 32 years, before it was surpassed by a building in Dubai.
The One World (Third World) TV job was only to last a few months, at which point there was every expectation that an expanding TVO would provide more work. So as far as Wendy was concerned, this was just a short-term business trip—as indeed it turned out to be.
Alan was living with Barbara, a librarian somewhere. I cannot remember much about the place, or even Toronto, as I was taken from place to place during what little time I spent there. Most of the work was travelling to Ottawa and Montreal to do pre-interviews. Much of the time in Toronto was spent in a huddle with young clueless researchers and the producers who seemed to know little more. The most senior—a woman who hardly attended and when she did, left early—seemed most interested that we establish a reason to do research in Paris and Bangkok. It later transpired that she simply wanted to go to Paris for reasons that had nothing to do with the programme and that she was developing a tie-dye business in Thailand.
They were all talking about Third World countries, mostly fussing over whether it was still proper to call them "underdeveloped countries" or "lesser developed countries." I was so new to the scene, having no idea how TV documentaries were made, that I simply kept my mouth shut and ears open.
But there was a misunderstanding about me from the start. In Montreal, I had bought a blue Mao jacket. It was the real thing from China. I found that if you did it up to the top, it looked like a 1910 police jacket, an effect heightened when Wendy pinned on two small red china stars to each of the collars. (I write "china" in lower case advisedly, as they were actually made of china.) The jacket was given even more of a constabulary appearance if I took off my belt from my trousers and put it on the outside of the jacket.
Alan was so amazed at this sartorial sleight of hand, he exclaimed: "You've got to go into the office like that tomorrow!" Which I did, but to my dismay, the reaction was highly respectful—even reverential. "We understand how seriously you feel about this," intoned the chief operations producer Nick Ketchum. So it was hard to fault them after my appearance that day for thinking of me as a left-winger, although after my Laying Up of the Colours of the 199th Irish Canadian Rangers my sentiments lay firmly on the right, as I had shed the last of my Marxist sympathies.
I immediately discovered that apart from Nick, who had some experience with, or some knowledge of, a mystical veneration for Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, the others knew nothing. Nick was quite forgiving of Nyerere's one-party state, detention without trial, and the usual presumption of guilt that corrupted the usually incorruptible English rule of law. But I kept my mouth shut except with Alan.
Simply because I was a regular reader of the Sunday New York Times since childhood and through my terrorism research had become familiar with guerrilla wars in the Third World, I knew far more than anyone there about the subject.
It was the most confusing of times, with the writers not writing nor expected to do so. It seemed impossible for either Alan or me to secure a desk with a phone on it. Instead, we, usually I, had to write letters requesting interviews. It seemed that Alan and everyone else were too busy; and when they did deign to write one, they took all morning, after which their efforts were no different than mine.
But most of the time we were flying back and forth to Ottawa—or technically Hull in Quebec, across the Ottawa River, a tributary to the St Lawrence—where we were lodged in the offices of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Here, at least, we secured desks with phones on them. Sometimes we would fly back to Toronto mid-week for more "cooking." But when we were in Ottawa or Montreal, there were things to do. The idea was to round up enough "talking heads" to put on the show, and our purpose in seeing them in the flesh was to ascertain whether they were presentable enough to put on camera. We also sounded them out on their competencies and where they would sound credible, but all that could have been established by telephone.
Occasionally, we split up. I remember going on my own to a downtown Toronto hotel for the Commonwealth Press Conference, a convention of editors and publishers of major newspapers from the ex-British Empire. I was late and I asked the taxi driver to be a quick as he could. He was absolutely marvelous, and so un-Toronto like, zipping in here and there, making a dash through an amber light, flooring it when open stretches appeared. As we arrived—on time—I said he was great, just like a Montreal cab driver. "I am a Montreal cab driver," he said, adding as we completed our business that he didn't like it in Toronto but was determined to stick it as that was what his wife and kids wanted. As the parents had not been educated in English in Quebec, his children were being forced into French schools, when there were English schools willing to have them.
At the conference I remember listening to the keynote speaker, Toronto Star publisher Marty Goodman, prosing on about how much money his newspaper made. This never-had-it-so-good speech brought the publisher of the Times of Zambia to his feet, who noted that the Toronto Star, indeed all Canadian newspapers he had seen during his short stay, did not contain much in the way of foreign news. “Was this because Canadians had no interest in foreign affairs?" he asked.
"No, no, not at all," said Goodman, oblivious to the hole he was digging for himself. "No, Canadians are very interested in foreign news, but it is too expensive to provide."
The Times of Zambia editor did not press him on the point as I would have done, given his speech boasting that his paper had never made so much money.
The reason for the contradiction was Quebec nationalism, which after the election of the avowedly separatist Parti Quebecois government in Quebec had focused attention on domestic politics. That, and the increasing loss of the British connection that had always been our window on the world through the Empire, which gave Canadians an international awareness that existed in few other countries. When I was a kid we sang "We Are Marching to Pretoria," the "Twelve Days of Christmas," "Waltzing Matilda" and "The Maple Leaf Forever." That was fading in the Canada of 1978 and completely gone by 2020.
When we were in Ottawa, it was mostly a matter of chasing after experts in federal departments. The Department of Agriculture, located in the picturesque Carling Experimental Farm, was a delight. Greeting us was a great lump of an agricultural girl in a wooly sweater, who led us into our white-coated expert. It was the sort of place where you would not have been surprised to see her return to that utilitarian office, with clipboards and graphs hanging from the wall, leading a cow for inspection. There we learned that the department was raising turkeys in Cuba and about many other projects worldwide.
We got to know, love and hate various departments. I liked Industry, Trade and Commerce, which was always cooperative, upbeat and friendly, and disliked External Affairs, which was uncooperative, downbeat and unfriendly. I was saddened to learn a few years later they had merged the two, feeling that the superior sullen attitude of External would have smothered the bouncy cheerfulness of Industry, Trade and Commerce. I vaguely remember interviewing forgettable professors who told us what other forgettable professors told us elsewhere. The task in this case was to find the most charismatic among them.
In Montreal I went to the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Conference. It was agreed that, however politically inconvenient it was, the 40-nation Commonwealth was a good cross-section of the world and an even sampling of the Third World from a per capita GDP perspective. Most of my time there was spent attending press conferences led by finance ministers every four hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and snatching comments from officials as they went between their hotel rooms and conference rooms. There was a smattering of international press here, and I occasionally ran into a correspondent from the Times of London, but he seemed to have an arrangement with his minister or a member of his entourage to tell him what was up and was seldom there.
I had lunch with the correspondent from the Press Trust of India, who told me of the vast array of Indian newspapers. For the first time, I had a sense of the vastness of India, which was so overwhelming that I have no memory of the details, save that Bombay was on one side, Calcutta on the other, Delhi on top and Madras on the bottom. It was if Canada had a town every few miles and a substantial city every 50 miles in all directions east to west and from the North Pole to the US border, rather than what Canada really was like: a horizontal Chile with 90 per cent of its people strung out along a 100-mile strip on the 4,000-mile US border.
There was another fellow, with press credentials from Fiji, who did not seem like a journalist at all. Certainly, he did not share our interests. He pursued me relentlessly, because I was one of the few who stuck closely to the press room, policed by the most elegant, eloquent uniformed security guard I ever met. (He was there to ensure that the journalists did not go into restricted areas.) I stayed put, as it was the only thing I had to do, not being interested in sightseeing in my own hometown as other foreign journalists were doing. But the Fiji man mistakenly thought I would be useful in selling jute in Canada. I had thought jute was used to make burlap bags, but he kept saying it had many uses and that one of the most promising was in the manufacturing of footwear.
One thing clear and surprising about the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Conference was that the various plans hatched from day to day could not proceed without Canada's say-so. It was quite surprising to find Canada in such a pivotal position. I guess I should not have been surprised, had I thought about it. Britain in the 1970s was strapped for cash, still run by the capitalist-hating Labour Party. The Tories under Margaret Thatcher would not take power till the following year, in 1979. So financially speaking, Canada was what counted in the Commonwealth world.
The only other interesting thing about that job was an extended interview I had with Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal. The interview was longer than either of us would have liked, but only I expected it would be that way because I knew Montreal rush-hour traffic.
Going to the faraway CTV studios in the north end of town was a brisk 15 to 20 minutes as we left at 7.30 a.m. But by the time the breakfast interview and a bit of chat with a professorial panel was over, we didn't get back into the car until 8.30 and then plunged into crawling rush-hour traffic.
Apart from the liking the guy, a plump and pleasant Guyanan lawyer who would be knighted in the coming Thatcher years, the only thing I remember of what he said was that Third Worlders once upon a time were said to "breed like flies and die like flies. Now they only breed like flies, but do not die like flies." Because of medicines and food supplies, they live on and continue breeding. That is what the First World must keep in mind, he said.
Most of our time was spent in Ottawa, largely because that is where most Third World expertise lived, and in that richly upholstered world welfare office that CIDA was. We stayed at the first-rate Chateau Laurier Hotel, reflected on our opulent circumstances, noting jovially that "there's a lot of money in poverty." We were supposed to fly back to Toronto on weekends and to Ottawa on Mondays. Alan did this, but unless there was a reason to be in Toronto, I usually took the two-hour bus ride to Montreal and returned to Wendy. Given the short-business-trip scenario, that seemed natural enough.
I was soon caught up in the municipal election as a humble campaign worker helping Nick Auf der Maur win election to the Montreal City Council. Nick, an old friend and a friend of my father's, was a journalist, and we had worked for the same papers at different times. He was a larger than life character, a Casanova, bon vivant and boulevardier. When he ran for a federal seat, one columnist said the PM should make him Minister of Nocturnal Affairs. He was the life of the party, when stretches of downtown Montreal were pretty much al fresco cocktail parties every night, and every night Nick was there.
For decades, the city had been run by Mayor Jean Drapeau as a dictatorship by virtue of his control of the Civic Party he created. His sole opposition in the 51-seat council was the maverick Councillor Frank Hanley from St Anne's, Montreal's version of Hell's Kitchen, holding an equally maverick Irish electorate that celebrated the 24th of May, Queen Victoria's birthday, with giant bonfires in the street and rioted if the police ever tried to put them out.
But while Hanley and the bonfires were still there, Mayor Drapeau, a former gang-busting prosecutor bent on cleaning up police corruption, was no longer the powerhouse he was. The Montreal Citizens Movement (MCM), a party of well-organised covert communists backed by a vast number of Liberals offended by Drapeau's dictatorial ways, managed to win a number of seats in the predominantly Anglo west end and downtown. The heart of downtown, in Peter McGill District, was where Nick's Municipal Action Group was campaigning against an MCM candidate, but mostly against Drapeau's Civic Party man.
My role was Nick's "scrutineer" at the polling station in Victoria School, where my brother went from grades 1 to 3. Not on Election Day, but for the advance poll a few days before. Each political party or candidate can have a "scrutineer" at the voting site to raise objections to a voter's credentials or any other irregularity that comes up. In Montreal's west end, it was usually easygoing with no shenanigans.
But in the east end, when I was checking for "election irregularities" for the Montreal Star in 1965, there was much evidence of such things. There, where goats could be found in the back lanes, polling places were not in schools or churches but in private homes, in the faraway kitchens near the back doors of narrow elongated ground floor flats of duplexes and triplexes. Here voters ran the gauntlet from the front door along the corridor—or rather, they had to squeeze by as many as 10 toughs who would not be shy about asking about one's voting preference and forcibly urging a change of mind before voters reached the voting booth in the kitchen. And the same treatment applied on the voter's return to the front door. Local voters would warn others of this, and those who had less popular preferences were discouraged from voting at all.
When I first went on these missions as a green cub reporter of 20, the photographer had to explain it all to me. We couldn't do much. After receiving a call from a voter subjected to this treatment in such an establishment, we would receive the address on the car radio and go there, ostensibly to ask the polling clerk, who would have been part of the scam, if there were any voting irregularity to report. By the time we got there and identified ourselves, the goons, who were reportedly lining the corridor, slipped into the adjoining rooms and waited for us to go. We might stay there to watch, in plain sight of the watchers watching us, until we were told to go to another address or to a place that had given trouble before.
As I said, in the west end, which includes downtown, there were few if any shenanigans. But at Victoria School that day, there were shenanigans aplenty, about which I could do nothing but gnash my teeth in impotent rage or laugh. It was the advance poll, for those who were entitled to vote but could not on Election Day. The Civic Party had since its creation in the 1950s developed itself into a well-oiled machine to control 50 of the 51 seats on city council. It did not want to waste vehicles ferrying voters to polling stations on Election Day when they might just as well be ferried to the advance poll.
And on that day, I stood alone against the serried ranks of some 200 Grey Nuns, questioning the veracity of their excuses for why they could not vote on Election Day. They had all sorts of reasons, any of which might have been true, except that they all could not have been true. But I could not prevent them from voting and gave up as they flooded through. But it did Drapeau's man no good. Nick still won his seat.
An ironic turn came eight years later in the 1986 election, when the Civic Party went down to a near terminal defeat after Mayor Drapeau retired from municipal politics and went on to run UNESCO in Paris. Voters had wearied of Nick's libertine ways, and it looked like Peter McGill district was lost to the Puritan, Red-led Montreal Citizen's Movement. All seemed lost when Election Day results were in. But when those who had voted first in the advance poll were counted last, the gloom at Nick's headquarters suddenly exploded into unrestrained joy when the unbelievable happened—Nick had won again! Drapeau, who liked Nick, had bequeathed his advanced poll-voting nuns, the Sisters of Mendacity, to downtown's bon vivant boulevardier libertine. Better Nick than the Reds, said the mayor. The Holy Sisters of Mendacity concurred.
Monday morning I was back at TVO dealing with my own Reds, or fellow travellers, who always preferred Marxists like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania over Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, who had just died. I didn't know what I was going to do with myself, but my encounter with television journalism was again not a happy one. I would occasionally run into Alan's associates in the editing studios and hear them talking rot. One told us that the film we were watching was taken when it was 40 below, and it was clear that that was not the case: Eskimos had open collars, their wash was blowing about on a clothesline, and only occasionally could one see one's breath. Feelings seem to count so much more than facts in television.
So I was going through the motions, planning to continue as long as I was paid. For some reason, it was best that Alan and I collect our thoughts and occupy a couple of tents at a well-upholstered resort camp after the summer season had passed near Orangeville, 40 miles north of Toronto. When I heard each of us would have a tent of our own with a TV and access to a VCR (video cassette recorder, in case it has gone the way of floppy disks in our collective memory), I availed myself of the TVO library, which supplied Ontario schools with educational films. The one I selected was a 12-hour series called "Wings," about the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. It was an amazing experience, though quite commonplace today, to watch an entire novel in film. (Having recalled it, I found it online at this writing and saw it again for the first time in 40 years with just as much enjoyment).
That was one of the few good experiences I recalled from the TVO days. We had just returned from this semi-rural sojourn when Alan got into a dispute over something that could only be appreciated by someone with greater sensitivity than I can muster. It seemed that someone insulted someone else's dignity. I don't know who. It might have been Julius Nyerere, for all I knew—Nick Ketchum was hugely protective of his reputation. In the end, Alan quit or was fired, and I was seen as an adjunct long since correctly identified—not the useful Marxist comrade they had mistaken me for in the beginning when I arrived in my Mao jacket. There was a debriefing session during which I was paid off and fired too.
I left in a bitter mood, though I blamed myself for not realising that television was not for me. I also reflected about how many joint ventures went awry with Alan. Not his fault, but my fault for following his lead when I should have gone my own way. Which led me to ask: "Where was I going when I last met this guy?" I was going to Ireland.