Yes, I was weary of London. I remember not wanting to sip my last half pint of Watneys beer, even as I recalled how delighted I was with my first taste of it 15 years earlier. This last sojourn in London, except for the money, had been disappointing. My friendships were shallow and fleeting. So were my love affairs, and I had no regrets about leaving the intrigues of the squalid love triangles of old unhappy friends. And while I admired my Euromoney colleagues, I hated the work.
By contrast, the news from everyone in Montreal was splendid and inviting. Everyone was having a wonderful time, it seemed. Even Simon was turning a buck as a freelance broadcaster on Radio Canada International. Of course, I had no work and no prospect of work at home, having burnt my bridges at the Gazette. But I did have money, so fuel tanks were topped up to fly anywhere in the world where prospects were brighter, if things looked bad when I got there.
I bunked in with Joel at what came to be called the Marlowe Barracks, though I was nearly alone there much of the time because Joel would only come into town for two or three days a week, spending the rest of the week in Richmond, Quebec, in the Eastern Townships about 90 miles east southeast of Montreal, where he had bought a 15-acre farm and stowed his wife and kids.
Most activity happened at Peter Leney's place, I think because he had a typewriter that he did not use now that he was employed as a business reporter at the Gazette, where they had switched to computers. During daytime at home, he would often sit in his front room and play classical guitar, which provided pleasant background music while Simon sweated over his upcoming broadcasts, which gave him so much trouble to compose.
As I got involved doing what Simon was doing, I had learned something of value on the flight from London, something he greatly resented. He was resentful because while he struggled with these 10-minute commentaries, I zipped through them. And that was mostly because on the plane I had read an Alistair Cooke anthology of his broadcast "Letters from America," many of which I thoroughly enjoyed on the radio. But I was surprised to discover what a bore he was in print.
That was when I realized that radio writing is far more forgiving of mediocrity than print. In print, the reader does the work of reading, and the writer must please him, or he will stop reading. If he stops, the process stops. Not so on radio. The listener's attention can lapse, but the process continues unimpeded by the listener's spasms of inattention, and their experience can be mutually rewarding.
The producer who approved Simon's efforts was a Zulu called Sylvester Lunga. He ran a section of Radio Canada International (RCI) called Topic Discs that served Africa and the Caribbean. There were two 10-minute commentaries on each side of these topical discs, which proved to be the limiting factor on how many could be produced by one individual: Only one commentator per disc was permitted. But the other limits of my personal production output were still far away when I started to bat out these mindless essays.
My real problem, was, unlike Simon's, delivery. At last he displayed his great competence with a masterful thespian flourish in his one or two commentaries, while I stumbled and stammered through my half dozen pieces, involving many retakes and restarts in the CBC studios. Still, Sylvester Lunga said "Splendid!" when I read the script to him over the phone and invited me to go to the studio on Thursday when RCI Topic Discs had its turn at the mic.
Back in Montreal, I reconnected with the Irish crowd and met Lorcan Lawlor, who was seeking to have someone share the expense of his flat. So I moved in. Lorcan was either involved in some get-rich-quick scheme or delivering pizzas. His flat was close to my favourite watering hole, alternately known as the Pique Assiette or the Bombay Palace, where the Montreal Irish Rugby Club hung their team pictures and displayed trophies.
It was, despite its French and East Indian names, the closest thing I have ever seen in Montreal to a genuine English pub, achieved despite the lack of any effort to make it so. In fact, the front of the place was the Bombay Palace, a standard Indian restaurant, while the back end was a bar and a few tables. Mostly, it looked like an old-fashioned English pub because the lights were on, probably the greatest distinguishing feature of a British pub. This contrasts with the ubiquitous subdued lighting that marks North American bars. Then there were the memorabilia, which were genuine. Group photos of rugby teams and displays of plaques and trophies. It was quite unlike the score of phony British pubs in town.
Not two blocks away was the Cock and Bull, Peter Barry's place. Peter Barry was one of my father's old friends, who fell in love with the English pub when he was in the Canadian Army in the war. But apart from setting up the bar as a reasonable facsimile, his mind drifted into odd and unrelated recollections of Merrie Olde England quite unrelated to the way pubs looked and felt. Why he fixated on porcelain chamber pots, I shall never know; and, while more to my taste, a considerable collection of Martini-Henry rifles were stapled to the wall and had little connection to any British pub I ever knew. One came away feeling that it was a bar opened by an ex-Guards sergeant in the Yukon.
I had good time recounting tales of Ireland with my Irish mob, much of this taking place at the Bistro on Mountain Street. In some cases, I was catching them up with news of their families, some of whom I had met in my time there. There was Austin Stack, the banker; Joe Walls, the dermatologist; Cyril MacSweeney, the inventor; and brothers Patrick and Michael Humphreys. Their father was an important man on the Herald Tribune in Paris, where they both grew up, but both suffered untimely deaths. Patrick died in a house fire while very drunk, we were told. Michael, whom I tried to recruit years earlier when we were planning Concordia University, decided instead to use his excellent French as interpreter to the criminal courts, and in few years he was the head of the entire department. I was saddened to hear that he died in the 1990s, shortly after meeting him for the first time in 10 years.
Dr. Walls was once the butt of a lame joke, which he suffered with good humour. He would from time to time oblige us with medical advice as ailments surfaced in the Mick Mob. He would often use the toilet as his consulting room when private parts needed exposure. One time he was checking out one of our number for a rash on his penis when suddenly he was broken in upon while examining the appendage. The person, a total stranger to the scene, hastily departed, never to be seen again. It was a horrified and embarrassed Joe Walls himself who told us of the incident, and there was much eye-rolling and clutching of pearls as we reacted theatrically to these revelations about straight-as-an-arrow Joe Walls. And for a week or two whenever he joined us, there would be displays of the mock-shock and more eye-rolling until the joke wore itself out.
Inventor Cyril MacSweeney was working on his invention—"Frankenstein"—and would bring us fresh reports on the triumphs and pitfalls of his progress. In the end, my efforts at publicity brought about his first step to financial riches, as his machine, once perfected, turned out to be very much in demand. Another rival product which did not work as well snagged the better name—"Bindicator." It was a device to measure how much material was in a bin, in Cyril's case a grain elevator.
I was successful in my publicity drive, getting good coverage in the Globe and Mail, which drew no takers. It was a piece in the Montreal Downtowner that turned the corner for Cyril, simply because there was a stack of Downtowners on the ground floor of the Alcan building in the old Berkeley Hotel on Sherbrooke. Some Alcan—that's the Aluminum Company of Canada—executive picked up a copy, read the piece and called Cyril and asked him if it would work with bauxite. Soon others were asking if it worked with liquid bulk. His attempts to get grain giants like Cargill to listen were disappointing. But to various handlers of dry and liquid bulk, he was able to say yes, yes and yes again.
Cyril had visions of changing the grain world. Who knows? He may have done that since. His method was to first ascertain the volume capacity of the silo, tank or bin. Then run an electric cable down from the ceiling to the bottom through whatever the container contained. Then one sent an electrical charge down the cable. At the point where the cable was immersed in the substance, a change in the electrical pattern could be detected and content of the remaining volume calculated.
I dearly valued my Mick Mob, they were the most entertaining, intelligent and literate group of friends I ever had. Even my Hong Kong lawyers, excellent bistro buddies as they were, did not match these guys' inquiring minds and readiness to engage in friendly arguments on a wide range of topics. They have greatly impacted my thinking professionally to this day.
Of course, I loved the RCI work too. It was so easy. Once I cobbled together a few facts, I could write up a storm. It was a process in later years I called marblization, drawing on the culinary term—well marbled—to indicate meat that is fat filled.
I decided to take an industrial approach. I recalled from my days at TVO working on the ill-fated third world series, One World, that there was plenty of information in Ottawa on what Canada was doing in Africa and the Caribbean. So I took a suitcase and went to my old office of the CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, where I knew there were stacks of Parliamentary Committee Hansards, transcripts of expert testimony on what various countries needed and what Canada was providing.
With a suitcase full of these, I headed home. I knew what was wanted by how loudly Sylvester Lunga said "Splendid!" over the phone after I read my offerings. So I fashioned them all with a tone of Unitarian sermon underpinned with slightly leftist London School of Economics assumptions. Normally, I would have bridled at this, but none of my friends knew what I was saying, and no one in Africa or the Caribbean knew me, so I was free to say anything because everything I said was between Sylvester and me.
It was great being able to make my living in my underwear. I would come home a little worse for wear from the Pique Assiette, grab one of the Hansards and with a pen underline expert or official testimony on how we were supplying river boats to Upper Volta or improving turkey stock in Cuba, then fall asleep. Then, after slurping a bracing coffee, turn the river boats and/or the turkeys into commentaries about how nice Canada was, read it to Sylvester, have him say "Splendid!" and set off for another splendid day doing what I wanted to do.
Sadly, this happy state of affairs came to an end when Sylvester, without appreciating what he was asking, foolishly suggested I write about the language laws in Canada. With this, I went at the topic hammer and tong.
One must realise, which I did not at the time, that RCI, unlike the CBC that administers it, was not under the control of Parliament but rather under the aegis of the External Affairs Department, which would not suffer anything undiplomatic emanating from what in effect was its broadcast arm.
Unlike my easygoing approach to my usual commentaries, I started off with the harsh premise: The French were fucking us up in Africa. I only had to discover how. It wasn't hard. First, Canadian foreign aid was divvied up equally, with French and English Canadian bureaucrats administering aid to former British and French colonies. The French had a little bit more money to spend, but nothing to fuss about. On the map it looked fair, too. The geographic proportions were pretty much the same, especially if one removed South Africa, which did not get any development assistance from Canada at the time of apartheid.
Where things failed to add up in Canadian foreign aid allocations was in the stark population difference: 462 million in British Africa versus 257 million in French Africa. (These are figures from Wikipedia today, and not the ones I cited 40 years ago, but the proportions are much the same.) What it meant was that the French Canadians had more money to spend on far fewer people.
I got my usual "Splendid!" from Sylvester on that one, but there was a certain uneasiness in his voice when I read my next offering over the phone. I observed that Canada could not sign the UN Covenant against Discrimination in Education, for the same reason apartheid South Africa could not. That's because both Canada and South Africa were forcing children into schools decidedly not of their choice. Canada wanted to force them into French schools while the South Africans wanted to force them into Afrikaans schools, as both French Canadians and South Africans sought to create jobs in their shrinking cul-de-sac cultures. That's what the 1976 Soweto Riots were about. In both cases, there were English schools willing to have these students.
When I next spoke to Sylvester, it appeared that RCI had a backlog of my stuff on topical discs and would contact me if they needed any more. I took the diplomatic hint and bothered him no more.
Having been bounced from an ideal job, I was lucky enough to find another, though it was a little bumpy at first. It started with running into Donna Flint, who invited me to a Midnight party, Midnight being a scandal sheet she was now working for. Dangerous Donna had been the deputy women's editor at the Gazette when I was deputy entertainments editor, and we had shared a flat and experienced a stormy alcholic relationship.
Midnight was no longer Midnight, I discovered, but had managed to change its name to Globe without damaging itself through the expedient of first attaching its new name to the old one with a hyphen, as Midnight-Globe, and after a while dropping the hyphen and placing "Midnight" on top and "Globe" underneath. After a time in this configuration, the "Midnight" became smaller and "Globe" became bigger until the day came when "Midnight" disappeared, and "Globe" shone through in all its glory. I admired the stratagem and decided I would do it that way if ever faced with the same problem.
I soon learned that Midnight had become more substantial since my last secret association with it when I was besieged by collection agencies 10 years earlier. There was the "A team," the Globe itself, and the "B team," the National Examiner.
And this was a National Examiner party. There were other publications, too, but none that took up the floor space occupied by Globe and the National Examiner. I was never sure how much floor space the Globe operation occupied in the modern but unspectacular 10-storey office building, but there always seemed to be a publication squirreled away here or there, from the venerable "National Police Gazette" founded in New York in 1845 to "Close-Up on the Far Out," a sci-fi monthly.
This was a second-string B-team party and I was partying with the journalistic damned, given the professional ethics of the time. Even they regarded the other daily newspapers on a higher level as the "straight press," in a sense accepting their own illegitimacy. Of course, I knew better, having worked for the National Enquirer in Lantana, Florida, as an articles editor; still, things like the National Enquirer were regarded as the gutter press. But with my National Enquirer background, I was immediately accepted, not that my new acquaintances were in any way judgmental.
As I said, it was bumpy getting aboard my new ship. I was to try out for the B Team as a reporter by re-writing several different accounts of incidents. I was supposed to do five in an hour, which I did. Back then, Peter Leney, not to mention horror-struck Simon Twiston Davis, would marvel at my machine-gun-like typing as I buzzed through RCI scripts. I must have had the same impact—even though I learned in a day or two that I had failed the test—for soon I got a call from Globe's news editor Robert Taylor, aka "Red Beard the Pirate," to come in and join the A Team. It turned out that my performance frightened the editor of the Examiner, who feared I would take his job. I learned this a few weeks later, after he was replaced.
The big difference between the A Team Globe and the B Team Examiner was that the latter staff were allowed to call anywhere in the US and Canada, while the Globe team could call anywhere—total phone freedom. While I found the National Examiner people more congenial and even better educated, they were not as single-minded as the A Team. Their ranks included blustering lawyer Michael Fitzjames, who went on to better things in legal publishing, and a diffident physician, Jim Farquhar, who went on to psychiatry. The Globe people were a colder bunch with a play-to-win mentality. They had that lightning surface intelligence that was able to grasp situations in a way that reminded me of Jim McCandlish, who had by then settled into a long and successful career at the National Enquirer.
In general, the two teams, and probably all the other subsidiary publications, had staffs that were pretty impressive if a little weird. There was Ron Lee, who was the author of Goddam Gypsy, for that is what he was. Ron had an inexhaustible contacts list displaying the global reach of his Romani tribe. There was Liz Metcalfe, who kept two serious pythons as pets, occasionally bringing live rabbits into the office to feed the snakes when she got home as they would eat them no other way. Much later, I heard that one of her pythons "got too frisky" and she simply put it into the freezer for the night and threw it out in the garbage the next morning.
Knowing little of this, except that she kept pythons as pets, I took her out for drinks once, as she was an intelligent beauty and I was between girlfriends. She was receptive, too, or appeared to be. Yet I failed to make a move or even think in those terms. The experience gave credence to those who say people are like their pets. So after a few drinks, I was content that we remain friends and colleagues—as my desk mate Larry from Louisiana had predicted when I boasted that I was taking her out. "You aren't the first and you won't be the last," he said, with me totally misunderstanding his meaning. There was also Blanche Hodder, who ended up marrying a maple syrup king and disappeared into domesticity, escaping the clutches of Revenue Canada, I heard. She was special because she was very good at delivering to the desk exactly what it wanted in double-quick time.
I loved the work as a phone ferret, travelling the world by telephone but able to make Toe Blake's Tavern for lunch. Nothing could be better. Jim McCandlish would occasionally call to talk, as he too had phone freedom from Florida. Apart from work and servicing a steady supply of empty-headed half-naked women, there was little to do that interested him in Florida. He once asked about the number of bars where I worked. I remember in my National Enquirer days there was only one we went to. I estimated there were at least 40 within five-minute walks from my office. Jim sighed with envy.
Jim's life, though better paid in plump US dollars, while I got two thirds as much in anemic 87-cent Canadian dollars, was not nearly as good as mine. Yet I found myself at odds with colleagues who thought they were hard done by, even though by their own admission, after tiresome interrogations on my part, they had never had it so good. They were mostly leftists and naturally given to complaint.
Not that I cared. I loved the work and plunged into it. Globe was No. 3 of the top three supermarket tabloids, with the National Enquirer leading the pack (3.7 million circ.), the National Star (2.1 million) and Globe (1.7 million). The National Star, later simply "Star," started up almost the instant I had left the Enquirer in '74 when Rupert Murdoch moved into the US market.
He had long since expanded from his father's paper, the Adelaide News (hence News Corporation), to start up and acquire papers in Australia and New Zealand before expanding into the United Kingdom in 1969, taking over the News of the World, followed closely by The Sun.
Being a National Enquirer alumnus, and hearing many a Fleet Street retread in Canada prose on about how superior British news presentation was vis-a-vis the staid approach of North American newspapers, I had closely observed the advent and progress of Murdoch's National Star in New York in this regard.
At the time, the National Enquirer was about as sober in typography as the New York Times. So when the Aussies deployed the circus make-up the popular British press favoured, this would be the test to see how it fared in the North American market, pitted against the staid American school. Well, by the time I came to Globe, the question had long been settled. The Aussies in New York found that their wild circus make-up did not take as well as they thought, and they toned it down. Much the same happened at the National Enquirer, where the Scotia Nostra, as the predominantly Scottish Enquirer guys were called, felt compelled to brighten up a bit, and so the two met closer to the middle. The third place, the rum bunch in Montreal, followed suit.
Globe was like the National Enquirer, but it had an edge in that it did much the same thing at much less cost. While Jim and his colleagues were jetting about the world, splashing out on hotels and local travel to interview people in the flesh, we used the telephone and seldom left home. We had Robin Leach doing celebrity gossip in L.A., and he occasionally loomed at the office. And there was an airhead lady who was so passionate about celebs and was certainly presentable enough to send to any gathering of the rich and famous, which happened from time to time.
There were phone ferrets and photo ferrets, the latter being a small team run by a lady I remember as Lenore. Like the Enquirer, much of our source material was from already published work—newspapers, medical journals and other periodicals. But instead of articles editors making assessments and submitting lede sheets to the senior editors, who then assigned them a priority, the four girls reading incoming materials simply flung clippings they liked into a cardboard box. When full, it was given to the chief editor Cliff Barr, who would use the clippings to draft lede sheets, much like the Enquirer's, starting with a headline and then a paragraph dictating the angle, sometimes scrawling "RUSH" on top with the relevant clipping attached.
These would be delivered to Red Beard the Pirate, who would assign the phone ferrets, depending on one's specialty and/or availability. Each of us had a cassette tape recorder attached to a Rotary 500 telephone and a typewriter. There was also a simple metal file-folder holder. It was common to have three or four stories on the boil at a time, so file folders contained the lede sheet to which one appended contact telephone numbers and attached other material as it came to hand. One transcribed the taped interviews, from which one wrote the story, and submitted the lede sheet and all the bumf to Red Beard the Pirate, who sent it off to the cold and remote Cliff Barr, who assigned it to the rewrite crew, who delivered the finished product for publication.
I remember the entire process in one case, as the lede sheet started with an exclamation behind me and ended up on my desk. Four girls sifted through newspapers and magazines behind me. Then I heard their leader, Joanne, say with mild astonishment, "Bulls' balls!" Occupied with another task, I thought no more of it until a day later the lede sheet arrived on my desk with the headline "Bulls' testicles save heart patients." Attached was a three-page article from The New England Journal of Medicine under the headline "Hyaluronidase GL enzyme effect on myocardial infarction"—hardly a headline to generate a racy tabloid story. But these girls were Royal Marine readers able to traverse the most mired and murky literary swamp without a break in concentration. Soon, I found the source of Joanne's exclamation. Circled in blue pencil mid-article were the words "bovine testicular," the discovery that prompted her to exclaim: "Bulls' balls!"
The article had been written by a cardiologist named Prendergast in Manchester. I found him quite willing to talk to the Globe newspaper in Canada. Back then, people were still quite impressed to receive long-distance, particularly overseas, telephone calls. Dr. Prendergast’s tale did indeed involve bulls' balls saving heart patients, as the lede sheet said, which was always a relief.
(In one case, I was given a lede sheet that said "UFO therapy centres set up from coast to coast.” Using Ron Lee's contacts, I was able to run down any number of such UFO centres in California and more in Nevada and New Mexico. The idea behind the story was that people who have been kidnapped by UFOs face serious trauma when no one believes them on their return to Earth. Most of the UFO centres, and there are a few here and there, had no idea what I was talking about when I called; but once I explained, they "understood the need" and welcomed the opportunity to have their group mentioned in Globe, so were willing enough to go along with anything I said.
But there was nothing to the east of New Mexico. I canvassed them all again and had them scour their minds to find someone on the east coast, so I could fulfill the lede sheet's coast-to-coast demand. Finally, I found someone who knew someone in western Pennsylvania who was thinking of setting up a UFO club, which I managed to convert into plans to establish a therapy centre, as they too understood the need.
Dr. Prendergast presented no such problem and the story fell into my lap and was recorded by a cassette player on my desk. First, one must understand what myocardial infarction is. It is the gumming up of heart tissue, which if gummed up terminally has terminal results. Hyaluronidase is the substance found in bovine sperm, and GL enzyme is the active ingredient, the Royal Marine substance that cuts the guck in the vaginal passage to fertilise the egg. Thus, subtracting GL enzyme from the bovine testicular offering, one injects it into infarcted heart tissue to provide guck-cutting that prolongs a heart patient's life.
If I use Royal Marine similes and metaphors it is because I was quite enamoured with them at the time for their role in the 1982 retaking of the Falkland Islands, which I followed with the avidity and partiality of any hockey fan. Which of course had nothing to do with me, sadly.
I had to laugh when an American reporter, in a story published in the Boston Globe, reported that the British soldiers were "immensely proud of their organisations," by which he meant "regiments," but strangely frightened of losing their "canteens." This I thought most odd, until I reminded myself that the British did not use the term canteen, but "water bottle." Then it dawned on me. The soldier probably said he was frightened of "losing his bottle," which the American mistranslated as meaning "canteen," as he seemed to have a grip on the differences in equipment terminology, the article being otherwise competently written. But in cockney rhyming slang, "bottle" means "arse" or "ass" (bottle and glass). To say you might "lose your bottle" means to be so scared as to shit yourself. That much I learned from Tony Bright in the Alma pub in Wandsworth, where he went on at length about cockney rhyming slang.
In a sense, life took on much of a muchness, but a high quality muchness, as I schemed to get an interview with John Wayne Gacy and other inmates on death row at the Menard Correctional Centre, the story being that Gacy posed a threat to other inmates as he possessed palette knives used in his oil painting that could harm them. One of my favourite stories we got from the Irish Times correspondent in Brussels. A Catholic nursing order that ran major hospitals in the country had defrauded the Belgian national health service for millions to fund their palatial 5-star convent. Or tracking "Miracles in the Jungle" in West Africa, paying stringers from La Tribune de Cameroon to run down the story, which proved to be fascinating but beyond the scope of our readership. There was another story of which I was most proud, involving reporting to produce the perfectly justified headline, "Lifespring: Happiness cult that brings death to its disciples." This story was so important that despite being impossibly long for a tabloid, they continued it to another page after allowing it to occupy a full page to start. This was indeed an honour. Everyone said they had never seen anything like it before.
Another one I was proud of resulted after a three-day hunt for a missing teenager, who had fled a religious cult in Des Moines, Iowa. Everyone was looking for him—cops, media, the lot. I remember after calling around town it dawned on me, as it later proved to be true, that "the Catholic Bishop of Iowa was concealing the fugitive 14-year-old boy from the legal custody of his fanatical cultist mother," as I recall the lede that I submitted.
Returning to my quest to conduct interviews on death row at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary, to give the Menard Correctional Centre its earlier and more descriptive name, it took a little subterfuge on my part. I knew, having tried to access prisons before, that one does not simply ring up and ask for Mr. Gacy on death row. That only gets you to a secretary to the deputy warden and news that it can't be done.
Instead, I decided to find out about the prison itself. Nothing to do with Gacy, but rather his neighbours or some death row inmate not as eye-catching as America's most infamous serial killer, who murdered 33 men and boys. I phoned the Chicago Daily Herald, which was a smaller suburban paper. Big papers like the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times were impossible to deal with. It was as though one had to call someone by appointment only. So we went instead for the still substantial but smaller papers, where one could call the library or morgue, at a time when a newspaper calling from faraway Montreal was still impressive and one might crave a boon. In such situations even my slight stammer helped.
What I sought and obtained from the librarian was the name of other death row inmates, and more importantly the names of their lawyers. One was unavailable, but I reached the next one. Not only did he welcome my interest as an out-of-town journalist, he also shared the concern about Gacy wielding a palette knife. What I wanted from the lawyer was technical information about how the prison functioned telephonically. As I said, you don't just say, "Death row, please." So what do you say?
Now coached in the drill, I called up and said: "Major Evans, CU [condemned unit] please."
Worked like a charm. A gruff voice answered. I identified myself as an attorney, with express permission from his lawyer to talk to whomever the fellow was, as I might have information that would bear on his case. Major Evans interrupted me and asked me to give him my phone number. Which I did, after which he said that the inmate would get back to me if he wished.
I rang off. Soon the inmate called and I interviewed him about the palette knife, admitting that I was not a lawyer but a newspaper reporter. Not that he minded. I do not think he even understood the false hope I was offering. He was just told a lawyer wanted to talk to him, so he phoned as there was nothing else to do.
He was really impressed that I was from Globe, not the Toronto Globe and Mail or the Boston Globe, which we Globees were sometime mistaken for. "Wow," he said. "My mother reads that paper. I do too when I am there." He was thrilled to be interviewed by a paper close to him.
My other thrill in that regard was riding on a New York subway and seeing a black girl reading my story and then seeing someone down at the other end of the car reading Globe. To think that could be happening all over the US and Canada.
I asked the inmate to pass on my number to the other inmates and they all called. Gacy got my number, I was told, but didn't call. But I had more than enough as more and more called from death row, so I had to have the switchboard refuse the calls.
The problem with the "Miracles in the Jungle" story was that it was a tale that rose to the intellectual stratosphere, while our readership—and editorship—confined themselves to the troposphere. Not that the editors were incapable of rising higher. Indeed, except for Euromoney, I had encountered no more intellectually engaging group of journalists anywhere. But not in their work-a-day life. Where their depth was revealed was at the pub after work, where they engaged each other on Heidegger, Kant and Hobbes, or scientific advances, or even the interesting bits of Miracles in the Jungle. But this was divorced from work. They did not get emotionally involved with stories, as I did. To them, it was all grist for the mill, nothing more. They cared that it was genuine grist and of the proper trade, but that was the limit of their interest.
What I found so fascinating about Miracles in the Jungle was an incipient Christian-Muslim dispute whether it was a Christian or a Muslim miracle. At issue was a stagnant pool whose waters allegedly had healing powers. (Apart from that, there were the jungly telephone acrobatics necessary to execute the operation. Outside Canada and the US, telephonic highways end. In western Europe, it’s secondary roads, and beyond that, cart tracks!)
At first, both the local priest and imam wanted nothing to do with it, dismissing all miraculous claims. But as more people came to be cured, it was taken more seriously by the imams, who insisted that it was, if indeed such existed, a Muslim miracle. The Christians for their part summoned a devil's advocate from Rome, the church official assigned to debunk miracles to avoid false claims becoming part of church doctrine, but who at the same time seemed to be sizing it up as a Christian miracle. I am not too sure what the Muslims were doing, but it was clear that while both wished the whole thing to go away, neither was willing to give the stagnant pool to the other faith, even though the miracles, if true, came from the same god.
I wanted to look into it more, but Red Beard the Pirate just wanted it wrapped up without further extraterrestrial elaboration. I submitted what I had, and they stripped out the Christian-Muslim dimension. Our readers were left to marvel at Miracles in the Jungle pure and simple, perhaps as God intended.
I always thought 312 was my kind of town—312 being Chicago's area code. As a phone ferret, one thought in terms of area codes instead of cities after a while. I always had tremendous luck in 312. It might have had something to do with my name, McCormick. Colonel Robert McCormick founded the Chicago Tribune and built this and that all over town. It was like having the name Molson in Montreal, or Cabot or Lodge in Boston, or Rockefeller or Astor in New York. People are polite to you just in case you are the real McCoy, which is a good start to any interview.
So it was that one day I got a lede sheet that told of the embarrassment of the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward retail giant when a full-frontal Playboy pinup ended up in its spring catalogue. I knew the print shop would not say a word, so I headed to Playboy, where I ran into a guy called Murphy, a cheerful rogue who backed the Chicago Blackhawks and chided me for backing the Montreal Canadiens, which led to a lot of hockey talk from which I barely survived, knowing so little about the game. Murphy suspected it was a "merry prankster" at the print shop, which he said was what Charlie Winters told him, "the guy who sells me printing." Once Murphy told me all he knew about the shop, he told me that I would get nothing out of Charlie as they were all swore themselves to secrecy. But I had an idea.
"Bet you five bucks he'll talk to me," I said.
"You’re on," said Murphy.
So I called print shop salesman Charlie.
"Hi, I'm Chris McCormick. We run Globe, a four-colour 48-page tab. We're saddle-stitched but thinking of upgrading the paper and going perfect-bound. You can do that, right?"
"Where are you from, again?" he asked, sounding very much interested.
"Sorry, Montreal," I said. "We have several publications, but I am referring to the big one, Globe."
"What's the press run?" he asked.
"Weekly, 1.7 million. You do perfect-bound, right? I don't think it’s going to happen, but I’ve got to ask."
"Sure, we do the Montgomery Ward catalogue. Perfect bound all the way."
"Oh yeah!" I said in a tone of mock horror. "Weren't you the guys who got the pinup in the Montgomery Ward catalogue?"
After that, the story came tumbling out pell-mell. He saw a huge printing contract slipping away and was doing everything he could to keep it in sight. It was a merry prankster, and the matter had been dealt with and remedial measures put in place. I said I would have to consult my people.
Interviews were recorded and there was nothing missing from the account. I called Murphy and said: "I think you owe me five bucks." I played back the interview. But he never paid, the bugger!
There was a horrific time when I had to listen to a mother tell me about her "Little girl with the alligator skin," which was so horrible to transcribe that I had to leave my desk and walk around the office every five minutes or so. This was a disease which created skin more like a scab that regularly flaked off, exposing raw flesh underneath.
Then there were fun bits, interviewing the world's smallest judge and the world's smallest barrister, findings from a pituitary dwarf convention that honoured a doctor whose work so benefited their quality of life. We got a great picture of the normal-size doctor being surrounded by a sea of dwarfs. Then there were other pix for the little judge, a magistrate in South Carolin,a and a tiny female barrister in New Zealand, each togged out in their courtroom gowns.
The feminine nature of the beast, that is the entire supermarket tabloid genre, was again driven home to me with the death of Close-Up on the Far-Out, a sci-fi monthly.
What I suggested to Cliff Barr, the Globe editorial director, was a relaunch as "Close-Up on War News." I even advanced the possibility of having it either morph into, or cellularly divide into, a glossy perfect-bound coffee-table magazine fit for officers' clubs worldwide, with the rich loam of full-colour advertising from warships to handguns and appropriate high-quality editorial material in between.
But that was for later. The tabloid relaunch as I sketched it out, had a picture of a female infantryperson with the head: "How good are girls, anyway?" Then smaller pictures of British and Argentine soldiers carrying the same FN rifle, as they did in the then-current Falklands War, under the head "Weighing results of FN versus FN in battle." Then something about a warship and an aircraft. But my efforts were swiftly rejected and with some vehemence, the words "NO - REJECTED" scrawled on my submission in big letters.
Disappointed as I was, I could see that even if my proposal found favour, its execution would cause massive disruption to the system, as it would not fit into the overall scheme of things. For example, my UFO therapy centre story could be recycled in Close-Up on the Far-Out. There were no recycling possibilities with the military material. What's more, I was in general admiration of Globe and its operation, rather in the way I admired the East Anglian Daily Times operation in England in the 1960s. Both set out to do a number of things and only those things, and did them well.
So I returned to my toils cheerfully enough. I remember Peter Leney wondering how I could take being rewritten all the time, as indeed we all were, with perhaps the exception of Blanche Hodder, who prided herself on delivering the finished product to the desk. But I found the finished product entirely formulaic, filled with all their ersatz sensationalism such as having the word "amazing" appear in every other paragraph. I far preferred to write stories my way. Anyway, Trish, one of the rewrite crew, once said: "You are easy to rewrite. It's all there—and close to the top."
Life went on. Eric Johnson, once a Globee, was now working for the Lakeshore News & Chronicle in suburban Pointe Claire as its one and only full-time reporter. He urged me to meet his boss, Janet Burly Tremblay, who was the editor of Montreal's largest West Island weekly. Janet had been the mayor of Pincourt—a municipality on Ile Perrot, an island off the western tip of Montreal island with a population of 14,000—and as such was a fine choice as editor of the paper.
We hit it off from the start, and I began a weekly, fiercely anti-establishment column for C$25 a week, describing the Parti Quebecois government as "clinically National Socialist" and decrying the introduction of the metric system under the headline "Celsius Sucks." After all, 85 per cent of Canada's trade was with the US and the UK, which stuck to the British system. This was to set my course for nearly 20 years, which would include an unsuccessful campaign to win a seat in the Quebec legislature in 1998.
Little did I know that life-changing events were happening in the Globe library, where the girls were agitating for a union. They got the right to collectively bargain, and bargain Globe did, but only long enough to escape the clutches of the union. My right-wing views were so well known, they didn't even canvass me for a signature for the petition supporting the union bid, and I was left in ignorance of what was going on until well into the game.
And then one day—horror of horrors—the entire National Examiner staff was fired en masse. By now, we had got word that Globe had set up shop in Boca Raton in the Palm Beach area. There was much wailing and gnashing of gums, as you might expect. Fitzjames blustered empty threats and the girls said how unfair it was. I said they were playing softball when hardball was the game.
We had hoped that the A Team might be spared. But in a week or so, the whole A Team was fired too. Not all, as it turned out. It was my honour to say that Blanche Hodder and I, of the 150 rank-and-file, kept our jobs. Not like Cliff Barr and Red Beard the Pirate, shipped down to the "swamp," as Florida was becoming known, but to act as a transitional rear guard.
For four months, Blanche and I continued to sit at our old desks at opposite sides of the otherwise unoccupied great hall, filled with seats, typewriters, phones, tape recorders and the usual clutter that accumulates, as if the occupants were only out to lunch and would be back soon. After a few months, it was over for Blanche and me; we too had to say goodbye to all that and each other.