On leaving the NDG Monitor, I went out on a toot. Anne said that if I came back after midnight, she would lock the door on me. I was back dead drunk at 11:55 and she locked the door anyway, because she was less interested in the time I came in, and more in my state on arrival. Nonetheless, I felt abused as I had kept my word, and I broke the door down—right off the hinges and door frame.
This prompted Anne to end our relationship. To prevent this, I did the unthinkable—promised to quit drinking altogether. She relented on her demand that we end it there and then, once she was convinced that I would live up to my promise.
When she wanted to exact another concession from me, I balked. She wanted me to join a men's consciousness-raising encounter group that was to run for six weeks. I agreed, if she would read J.G. Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur, which told how attitudes changed when various characters were up against it during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. I had hoped she might see her way to developing a more positive attitude, as several of the characters did.
I made a few discoveries arising from my promise. I kept going to bars and had drinks with my bistro buddies. But after a second soda water, their beer-soaked conversation became boring, and I realized how forgiving one was of truly fifth-rate talk after a few drinks.
The men's consciousness-raising group met at first in the basement of our dope dealer, as marijuana smoking was still done daily. The man's wife had some decent salary in one of the helping professions. After a while, it turned out that he hoped to go legit and draw pay for his consciousness-raising group as an official therapist from the local community health centre, known as a CLSC (centre local de services communautaires), a relatively new creation as the Quebec government took over Anglo volunteer clinics, like our local NDG one, Head & Hands.
Our men's group was the usual collection of NDG leftist professionals facing "mid-life crisis." There was a Concordia University professor of applied social science, and an engineer who a few years later turned out to be my step-father-in-law, when I married his wife's elder daughter. There was a prosperous interior decorator who ran an atelier and a conservative Jew in the schmatta business.
It was supposed to last only six weeks, but we got on well despite our differences, and it went on for three years as we met at each other's houses and went out on a couple of country outings. I enjoyed our sessions as I jokingly told friends that it was like intellectual skeet shooting, blasting the turds of leftist BS as they arced overhead. This led to some interesting discussions as we were truthful with each other, vowing not to proceed knowingly in error.
It reminded me of my hitch-hiking experience in that we were not a part of each other's lives, so therefore could be trusted to comply with the first rule of Montreal gossip: that you can say what you like about others as long as it never gets back to the principals.
Another plus was that it was good to get out of the house and talk to someone about intimate matters freely, as one could with one's woman—if the subject matter did not concern her. As so much of such conversation might do, that avenue was not open at home without risking domestic emotional turbulence. And while one seldom got any worthwhile answers at the pub in such matters, one could rant freely, get some relief and everyone would forget what was said. My two-hour Friday night sessions at the Professors' Table at the Royal Pub continued on soda water at no great cost, as sessions began at 10 p.m. and ended at midnight with none of us getting in the slightest bit drunk. Our conversations were largely focused on European history and current politics, which I always found engaging.
I was partly motivated to quit the Monitor by another factor, other than having decided I could not further my dream of making the newspaper first a Sunday and then a daily, eventually crushing the hated Gazette. That other factor was an opportunity to take a six-month UIC (Unemployment Insurance Commission) total immersion French course while they paid me the usual dole for eight months.
In the course of signing on, I discovered another inequity of Canada's social engineering. I was at the UIC offices applying for the dole when the typical French Canadian clerk told me I was not eligible for the French course, as I was a native Quebecer. I would get my money, of course, but not the course. Then he changed his mind when he saw my Social Insurance Number (SIN).
Back in 1965, when SINs were introduced, the federal government made them seem unimportant. I hated them from the start, suspecting they would be important, as I continued to revel in my British right not to have ID if I did not want to carry it. If one wanted something of an official, a bank, a drink from a barman, or a driver's licence, then one would be obliged to provide identification. But, as I told the cop who stopped me on my bicycle in broad daylight for a reason so petty I cannot remember, I need not carry ID, while he insisted that I did. I told him that if that were true, he should charge me with an offence. I told him I was only obliged to tell him where I lived, where I was going, and where I was coming from, that is, "give a good account of myself," to use the legal phrase I learned covering magistrates court in England. He gruffly told me to be careful next time. I assured him that I would with sufficient contrition that he quickly departed. It is unwise to have officers of the law lose face gratuitously. It's how Canadians differ from Americans.
I was, and still am, a big upholder of legal principle, however minute. At the Monitor, I editorialised against four-corner and mid-block stop signs as well as mid-block speed bumps. I sided with the city traffic department's opposition to these ideas favoured by fretful mothers and leftist city councillors. The four-corner stop signs are downright dangerous. Drivers with two corner stop signs know what to do. Priority goes to the driver on the right. With four-corner stop signs, each of the four cars arriving at the same time finds himself on the right of another, so who enters the intersection first became a question of who dares win—or not, depending on the outcome. Another menace of safety.
I also totally agreed with the traffic department's philosophical point that the speed limit is there to control speed, and one should expect to be able to move at the allowable speed without being slowed by speed bumps or mid-block stop signs. We cannot have cars crawling through the city on the off chance they will encounter a street hockey game.
I saw the SIN as the thin edge of the bureaucratic wedge of something nasty like postal codes that added to the citizen's burdens without compensation. But I got my SIN at the Montreal Star and promptly lost it. If I ever needed it, I would go to the Star personnel department. It was the institutional world's number for me. It was not my number, but theirs.
But when I got to the Vancouver Sun in 1970, they wanted my SIN, and when I said I didn't know where or what it was, they simply got me another. And that is what the French UIC clerk spotted that made me eligible for the total immersion course. Quebec SINs start with the number 2 while SINs issued in British Columbia start with 7—so I was in!
The course was conducted in an old English Protestant school long abandoned in the continuing Anglo Exodus and later renamed École Des Cinq-Continents, Pavilion Saint-Antonin, perhaps reflecting students who were forced to suffer French as a medium of instruction despite having English schools willing to have them. This was the very problem that sparked the 1976 Soweto riots in Johannesburg, as the apartheid government was dragooning Bantu kids into Afrikaans schools when they wanted to go to English ones, which again were willing to have them.
I struggled with French, but I did my best in what I increasingly regarded as my French aversion course, made more so by the two female teachers, one old, the other young, both of whom disliked Anglos with the older one making no secret of it. Neither of them had ever left school and were lifelong denizens of the classroom. But one of them got sick and was replaced by a young man, who was the classic substitute teacher in that he had a life outside school. What's more, he had lived in Colombia, was au courant with South American politics and had a genuine interest in such things without being partisan.
While that suddenly made the classes interesting—discussing South American politics, people and geography—the girls, who had been the most active in the class before, were now left out and complained about it. That's when I discovered that girls are interested not, as supposed, in different things, but far fewer things. Of course, my Globe and National Enquirer experiences made me aware of gender differences, but it was in that class that I discovered how narrow women's interests were. It made the Victorian custom of having the men linger over port and cigars at the dining room table, while the ladies withdrew to the drawing room to discuss things among themselves, perfectly natural.
So the class returned to what I soon characterized as "relationships and shopping" but years later distilled into "things that touched their bodies" or might conceivably do so, such as clothes, babies, men, even dread criminal beasts they loved to hate—though sometimes characterized as "food, fashion and fucking" or "sex, recipes and disease."
All the students were, as expected, out-of-towners, some more interesting than others. There was a stupid, chippy, but pretty BC girl who had just acquired a French boyfriend and seemed to breeze through the course as I struggled. There was a young man my age, a graduate of Toronto's Osgoode Hall who planned to get into Canadian constitutional law, who seemed only a little less awkward than me in French. There was also a delightful lady, the wife of the Irish delegate to the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation, and we got on splendidly. There were others I liked and disliked, but we all got on well. There were about half a dozen classes of about 20 students each in the school. And at the end of it all I did manage to carry on a halting primitive conversation, though it wasn't until 20 years later when I got to Wuhan on the middle reaches of the Yangtze in Central China that I fully used my French and improved it.
Apart from the French I learned at the UIC course, I also conducted a gender-performance experiment, the first of many that would be done over the years. Every morning recess and again at lunch, a big shiny pick-up truck would park in what would have been the school playground.
The driver and his helper opened the two side panels, to reveal the coffee and tea urns, cakes, sandwiches and cold drinks. I imposed myself without explanation, directing the men to one side and the women to the other. What I found was the men knew what they wanted and were through in a flash. But the women would decide what they wanted when they got there, leaving more women waiting in line.
Twenty years later when doing newspaper purchasing surveys on the Surbiton railway platform south of London. I found the same thing. Men knew what they wanted and had exact change at the ready, but most women arrived ready only to pick and choose and ferret through handbags to find change
The French course came to an end, and I regretted leaving the Monitor if only because that one day a week in Ville LaSalle working with the French guys at the printing plant would have been just enough to keep my French in animation instead of languishing and nearly dying in Anglo Nowhere Land as it did.
At some point, I had an idea of jointly writing a book with Anne based on the Iliad, but about a Montreal newspaper war. It was prompted by a remark Anne made when I angrily quit the Monitor, when she said: "You are just like Achilles sulking in his tent."
By now UIC had run out, and my fuel tank, i.e., my bank account, was running low. Then I got a job as the editor of the Downtowner. I cannot remember how I hooked up with Ron Seltzer, publisher of the miniscule weekly he ran from the ground floor flat of the Tupper Street triplex he owned. We agreed on my paltry wages, which were enough to arrest the outflow from my bank account, largely thanks to my being on the wagon, which I maintained effortlessly even though Anne and I had split up. Nevertheless, she was still in my tiny flat tinkering with the book, which apart from providing us with an exclusively private world to live in often sounded like two yentas prattling endlessly about the various intrigues of soap operas.
When rewriting chapters we got into rages with each other. One time, it grew so violent that Anne pulled the fire alarm in my building which ended up with firemen and police rushing in, and we just managed to squeeze out of that without consequences. We were not living together, but we were not living apart either, as the computer and the book took over the totality of our lives together.
Every other night she'd stay over, and Derek, age 10, would be on his own. There was a very attractive girl called Amely, who briefly worked at the Downtowner, and we went out. She was intelligent, attractive, but a doctrinaire leftist so not for me. Her most important contribution to my life was the gift of a dog, a shaggy black schnauzer-poodle mix. She couldn't keep him, I took him in, and he became a best friend in a serious way.
Derek was a cold lad, some called him a cyborg. He wanted me to stop calling him Trooper. I could call the dog Trooper, if I liked. So I did. Derek got over his first negative impression of me as just another man trying to screw his mother. In the end, he taught me how to play the recorder to the limited level my co-ordination problems would allow. He had been enrolled in the Big Brother programme and a do-gooder music professor and a do-gooder sculptor took him on in turn, which did not bother Anne or me as we saw advantages for all concerned.
When Anne and I finally and fully split up, she spun into full drug addiction, becoming a vagrant bag lady while I became seriously involved with Miriam Schieffer, which led to two children and a 9-year marriage. Derek had a nogoodnik dad in low-rent Verdun, and I had first told Derek to live with his dad, but if he couldn't stick it after three months of trying, he could come back to me. Thus, having served his three months, he returned to me and Miriam and stayed with us for eight years until he was 19.
At the Downtowner I made a deal with Ron that the old editor, Colin McGregor, would take me through the weekly cycle with him being in charge at first and me gradually taking over. It was simple enough and it worked well enough. Young McGregor and I got on reasonably. We were fellow Westmounters, his father the owner of a prosperous travel agency. He had gone to Selwyn House school. That made him a notch or two above me socially, as he was a lower-hill dweller and I a mid-flat dweller three blocks to the south. Such latitudinal matters matter in Westmount.
Colin taught me what there was to teach in his squalid little office on Tupper Street. I once lived not 300 yards away just across the Westmount border, between the ages of 10 and 12.
He left us before his last afternoon was over after a quarrel with me. I had read his story about a speech he covered during the election campaign that put Jean Doré in the mayor's office. Probably to rid himself of the taint of the left-wing and largely Anglo political force that was his core support, Doré told his audience that under his administration there would be no English signs on our main concourse—certainly in the Downtowner's bailiwick—St Catherine Street. But Colin buried the lead and emphasized something prosaic, headline worthy but just.
It was the last hour or two of Colin’s reign and I decided to take over. Ron said it was okay and I rewrote his story with a headline like "Doré to eliminate English from St Catherine Street." Colin stomped off in a huff. I remember him leaving, properly togged out in a shirt and tie, his open trench coat streaming behind him, as I watched him through the window.
I encountered Colin, who shortly after was married and moved to Ottawa, during the walkabout during the Queen Mother's visit in 1987 and then heard nothing of him until he shot and killed his estranged wife with a crossbow. She was a Revenue Canada lawyer who loved the GST. It was the first time I had heard there were problems with the marriage.
The big surprise was the way the Gazette treated the Doré news. They blew it up big time. I was certainly the hero with Ron, the ebullient, rotund publisher, who had never had such recognition by the Gazette in the 10-year history of the little paper he had created to honour the memory of his late first wife.
The reason I was astonished at the Gazette reaction was that at the Monitor we had got any number of such stories, one in which language law minister Camille Laurin had been run out of a schoolhouse and had to have police physically protect him from a mob of angry parents. The Gazette was quite comfortable in ignoring such tales.
Next-door neighbour and senior Gazette reporter Hubert Bauch had the full story, or rather his wife, Jill, did after Hubie, falling down laughing, told it to her. What happened this time was that the Gazette had no idea I was behind it, and therefore treated it as if it were Colin's or Ron's work. When Hubie told them it was Christy McCormick's doing, they were dismayed and embarrassed, but their discomfiture amused Hubie no end.
Hubie was a constant visitor, together with his wife and two little girls. He and Ron and the office shared a backyard with his triplex next door, the upper decks of which were occupied by Montreal city councillor Nick Auf der Maur, who has often been a part of this story before. It was all so madly social, with lots of talk of planning taking place at frequent backyard barbecues.
The first of these should have warned me of things to come. I had cleared out the Augean stables of the Colin McGregor regime, using four industrial garbage bags to dispose of his debris. As I did at the Monitor, I threw out all the pictures of policemen with octagonal caps that hadn't been worn since the 1960s.
But in the debris I found an action plan from Anthony Wilson-Smith, an early editor who years before had evidently been asked to do what I had been asked to do for the Saturday afternoon barbecue. His plan was as good as or better than anything I could produce knowing far less about the Downtowner than he did. At the very least I totally agreed with his proposals for immediate action, so I presented the document at the barbecue as my proposal, fully crediting Wilson-Smith. Steven Phizicky, then a CBC producer, was a part owner of the Downtowner and attended such meetings. I remember him saying: "Yes. I remember that. Whatever happened to that?"
There was an air of disappointment now, as if I were the party pooper, mostly from Ron, who was looking forward to an afternoon of blue-sky discussions far more than talk on how we were to implement a plan the day after tomorrow. So while these sessions were potentially pleasant, they usually took place at a time when I had to be doing something else if the paper were to get out on time. They seldom came to any resolution or resulted in any action that could not be forgotten about in a day or two.
When I protested when these sessions took place mid-week, Ron Seltzer would say that he did not think it unreasonable if the publisher of the New York Times wanted to meet with his editor on occasion. I agreed but said this was more like the publisher wanting to meet with the editor and the entire staff and having all production stop until the meeting was over.
I could see growth potential in the Downtowner. And it wasn't as though Ron didn't have good ideas, many of which, like his defence of the evening newspaper, I have adopted myself. It was his timing that was inappropriate. Leisurely after-work discussions should not be conducted mid-ops.
I did not have nearly as much control over the Downtowner as I had over the Monitor. There was a lot of donkey work to do and only me to do it. I had to type out the column on Montreal architecture by Mrs. Mary Seltzer's father, a retired McGill professor. My only complaint about the column was that I had to type it. Steven Phizicky wrote the editorial, which was a reasonable compassionate conservative essay. There was a column by a female economist I didn't like it because of its passive nature. She assumed things would be going the way they had been, and all we had to do to make things better was to make better choices from available options that were at hand. I saw the economy more like a ship at sea taking what advantage one could from wind and weather. Hers was an entirely below-decks outlook from the galley—doing a better job at divvying up what one had and ordering more good fortune from the bridge and engine room in time of need. It would have put me in a permanent bad temper had I had to type that out week after week. There was also a faintly disgusting swishy gossip columnist, whose copy, like the others, was sacrosanct and immune from editing, though once I pulled an item that spoke of the joys of anal sex.
The rest, including my What's Up column, was mine to do with as I pleased. Because I no longer had a column of my own, I focused more attention on my anonymous What's Up column, decorated with the unicorn I had taken from the Monitor. It improved as a result and was even more widely read than any other regular feature in the paper. I also got the Hansards back ostensibly to quote our Liberal MP, who seldom if ever said anything in the house, but mostly to get the Parliamentary committee transcripts that at the time were holding hearings on Canada's fur trade, with animal rights groups wanting to put native trappers on welfare. Downtown Montreal was, and had been since the beginning of Canada, to fur what Antwerp was to diamonds. Continuing coverage of that stirred up interest and certainly proved the worth of the Hansards.
There was the weekly interview of our Peter McGill district city councillor, Nick Auf der Maur, sometimes in his flat upstairs next to Ron's and sometimes at the bar of Winnie's, the Winston Churchill pub. There was also the weekly visit to No. 10 police station to get the crime reports.
There were exciting times too. The Stanley Cup riot of 1986 was not two blocks from the office.
Having won the cup, supporters of the local team went out and trashed downtown district with widespread looting. No one expected this. It was so unlike the previous 1955 Montreal hockey riot at the same place, when there was genuine anger with the Anglo president of the National Hockey League, who upheld the suspension of local star player "Rocket" Richard for the season after he slugged a referee. The predominantly French fans went mad.
This time, the riot was done in a spirit of joy. The local team had won after all. But the French were still in a punitive mood against the English. They had come far and wide to see their final playoff game, and having had a massive French Canadian victory, they found themselves in the heart of the Anglo-Quebec district. The new mayor had promised to erase English signs on St. Catherine Street and nothing had been done. He was soon to repair that deficiency and English signage was erased.
I was 10 years old when I rode my bicycle through the downtown wreckage in 1955, again not two blocks away from the riot. We lived just within the Westmount border on Tupper Street and now I worked on the same street not 300 yards away. The police were ill-prepared for the later Stanley Cup riot, thinking it would be a small affray when it was much more than that. The fewer police that arrived, the bigger and more confident the mob. I had long noted in cowboy movies that what seemed like a lot of mounted men did not amount to nearly as much when dismounted. It was the same with police cars. While 20 or 30 police cars with their lights flashing looked impressive as they clogged the streets, they brought only 40 or 50 cops to meet a mob that was rampaging in the thousands.
The hockey riot produced many angry St Catherine Street merchants, whom I interviewed afterward. Some had defended their stores with steel bars, and many wanted compensation from the city. I began to see some advantage for the Downtowner in this. The common denominator among the merchants was that they did not trust each other despite their common interest. Nonetheless, I got them to agree to form a Montreal Downtown Merchants Association, which as far as Bleury Street was largely English anyway.
I saw great potential in this for the Downtowner in that while Ron had little business acumen, perhaps because of this very lack, he was trusted by them, and I thought he would be an ideal president. Everyone agreed with me except Ron himself, who wanted no part of it.
Then there was the fire at the Soviet Consulate on Avenue du Musée, which was reckoned to be the biggest KGB station in North America. When the firemen came to quell the blaze, there were KGB agents toting submachine guns to ensure they did nothing else. After the fire, which was attributed to no credible cause, the Soviets erected a giant fence around the building. We made a fuss over that, as it was the first consulate to do so.
Anne O'Reilly was by now writing restaurant reviews competently, understanding and accepting that the most negative thing she could say was that the service had been "leisurely." The column was there to encourage restaurant advertising, not to identify "ptomaine palaces," as Ron would say.
Then Anne's son, Derek, came up with a tale that was intriguing, though I was unaware of its journalistic potential at first, reacting more as a concerned parent.
His school, FACE (Fine Arts Core Education), shared the old High School of Montreal building with MIND (Moving in New Directions). FACE was created by Philip Baugniet in 1975 and said to be inspired by New York's High School of Performing Arts. One Sunday, Derek came home from an overnight school outing in the country with a report that Mr Baugniet had entered one of the cabins where the kids were sleeping and told one of them he would be more comfortable in the cabin where the teachers were lodged. When the kid rejoined the group the next morning he had a tale to tell that shocked Derek. He reported the boy being roused from deep sleep, led by Baugniet back to the cabin where he was put into another bed in a separate room, but soon joined by Baugniet, who fingered the boy's genitals.
I phoned the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal and was shocked by what I was told. I was not after severe prosecution, I only wanted to be assured that measures would be taken to ensure such behavior stopped. I had been diddled by a gas station attendant when I was kid that age and was no worse for wear for the experience. But Derek was upset and wanted it to stop, having later discovered that this was not the first incident but rather a regular occurrence on overnight school excursions.
What shocked me was the school board's attitude. Far from wanting to discuss what might be done to stop Baugniet, they advised me to get a lawyer to duke it out with their lawyers. I could not believe that they would treat such complaints not as a problem to be solved but a charge to be denied. I could understand the teachers' union taking such an attitude, but not the school board.
It was only then that I decided to involve the Downtowner newspaper, at first with the enthusiastic blessing of all concerned, Ron and Mary, Jill Bauch, the full-time mother from next door. FACE, after all, was in the heart of downtown. Derek had gathered the names and phone numbers of a half dozen kids who had been victims of molestation, most of whom had told parents about the incidents. Shocked parents welcomed my interest in doing something about it and appeared willing to cooperate after we met several times.
Derek had also contacted a favorite and trusted teacher at the school who claimed to know nothing about incidents of child molestation alleged against the principal. All I needed for a story was a charge from the parents committee. My status with Derek was irregular, as I was only an ex-boyfriend of his mother's. Anne didn't want to get involved, and when confronted with the prospect of action and having their names attached to this ugly business, nor did the parents.
Another teacher became involved, and together, as a result of my badgering, and she and the trusted teacher said they would "look into it. That was not quite "investigate" but was good enough to say so in a headline. But Ron thought not. Mary thought not. Jill from next door thought not. I was able, without objection, to run an interview with Baugniet, not addressing the issue but getting the details of his career, knowing he would go to ground once charges were made and an investigation launched. This otherwise bland interview was allowed to run framed in a thick funereal box, which looked most odd to me without the accompanying story about the probe into the allegations of child molestation.
Councillor Nick Auf der Maur stayed well away from the affair. So there was no support from that quarter. But a year later Nick told me that at the end of the school year, Baugniet took early retirement without, I was told, the thanks of the board. It seemed my awkward, inconclusive thrashings about had some impact in the end.
As I founded the embryonic but stillborn Downtown Merchants Association, I also founded the Overdale Tenants Association a few weeks later, when I got wind of tenants wanting to preserve their apartment building from demolition at the hands of the landlord, who sought to sell the land for high-rise development.
I found a disheveled group of tenants, young student types, mustered in a kitchen not knowing what to do. So I suggested the occupant of the kitchen become president of the Overdale Tenants Association. Two others I appointed secretary and treasurer. I took their picture, got quotes from the new executive, and went off to write my story and get on with other things.
But you can imagine my disappointment when I opened the Saturday Gazette to see my Overdale Tenants Association given huge play and me with a considerably weaker story to go with our Tuesday publication. They had called the Gazette, figuring they would get a bigger bang for their buck. Which they did of course, even winning themselves a Wikipedia entry under the simple rubric "Overdale"—to wit: "Overdale was a small residential district in downtown Montreal that became a famous symbol of the struggle between urban conservationists and land developers." It was my acorn but the Gazette's oak tree. Oh, well, such is life.
The disappointments mounted and at last came one that ended my professional relationship with Ron and the weird little gang on Tupper Street. A woman came into the office. She told me a story about her purse being snatched on a Metro train. Being something of an artist, she did a decent sketch of the culprit. I took her picture and wrote the story, but it would be days before our next edition.
Then she called again. She had decided to hunt the guy down, having remembered what he looked like and where he was likely to lurk. She spent hours watching trains and passengers. Her phone call brought news that she had caught him. She being a big girl and he being a little scruff of a pickpocket, the woman managed to frog-march the thief down to the Metro police enclosure. But the Metro cops said they were mere security guards, not entitled to make arrests, and let him go the moment she delivered him into their custody.
When I ran the story based on her telephone call under the headline "Woman catches thief, but cops let him go," she was furious because she hadn't given me permission. Ron agreed that I needed permission, at least his, before running such a story.
This led to a fuss in which I either quit or was fired. He quickly hired a bald thirtysomething nebbish to replace me, but Ron soon phoned me up for coffee as the new man wasn't working out. I would only go back if he would not interrupt my working day at will just for these hourlong reflective chats. But that he could not accept and we parted. Yet we remained friends, and I was a frequent visitor to his barbecues and his place by the lake in the Laurentians. We both accepted that we both wanted different things from our working day.
A man named David Elkin, who did amazing things with a Canadian doctors mailing list, appeared in my life under circumstances I quite forget, though we had been introduced to each other 20 years earlier when our two circles of friends momentarily overlapped. There was a lunch during which he asked me to write a travel piece on Ireland. Which I did. He was pleased enough with that to take me on three days a week as contributing editor at his flagship, Doctor's Review, a lifestyle magazine ostensibly for doctors but in reality pitched to doctor's wives, who were the biggest hard-cover book buyers in Canada at the time.
All in all, it was another life raft. It paid as much as the Downtowner, but the work was less and less interesting. Writing travel pieces was gratifying enough, one involving a wonderful trip to Montana. Nor did I mind the editing and the writing of picture captions. Elkin had two other publications, one a third-rate medical journal in which the properly post-nominalled could more easily publish articles than in the more exacting medical journals. The other was a journal of investment, which gave advice to physicians, who were widely known as the world’s most incompetent investors. These journals had a slight presence where art and production work was done in our recently renovated and moderately fashionable St Paul Street offices—not in the super fashionable stretch east of McGill Street but the want-to-be fashionable stretch to the west.
I think David Elkin, a strikingly handsome man in his early 40s, thought I might become his operational editor. But while the ostensible normative objective of the editorial operation was pitched at male doctors to attract the rich loam of pharmaceutical advertising that filled every other page, the descriptive objective of Doctor's Review was to have the book retained by doctors' wives with editorial material to please them before old copies were recycled to doctors' waiting rooms, which are also filled disproportionately with women. So big pharma advertisers had a fresh crack at the end users even in recycling mode.
"Good medicine for doctors," as we jokingly called the magazine in the office, was a nifty operation, but it didn't suit me. Moreover, our principal activity was not editing or writing but selecting articles from other magazines and going after reprint rights.
Any hope of rising in this organisation ran aground if I didn't get in touch with the female side of my nature. I had done this when writing material for the Independent Woman in Dublin, but that was occasional and to beat off the wolf at the door. But this was to be, if I were to be successful, a permanent state of affairs.
I recall one incident that was typical and depressingly repetitive. I would find a really cool piece about tiger hunting in Bengal, and one of the girls—there were three editorial people in the shop—would pick out another piece about the delights of shopping in Berlin, and that would be the one chosen. And if I tried to be fashionable, I was invariably risibly wrong and made the butt of jokes.
My trip to Montana was a joy put on by the U.S. Travel Service. I was amazed that Doctor's Review rated one of the dozen invitations to prominent travel writers and publications in America and Europe. I was the only Canadian, because Canadian publications refused to accept junkets, which meant that they only dealt with freelancers, who took the junkets but didn't mention it the newspapers and magazines that published their stories.
Our genial group of journos, all high-quality guys, engaged in what I have come to call "still life journalism," where there was no issue and no event. I find this aspect of travel journalism daunting, though my mother handled it well, occasionally selling pieces to the New York Times in years gone by. Most journalism is kinetic; travel journalism is inert.
Often travel writers focus on food to get the story going, but such an approach is quite impossible for me. Granted I have done my fair bit of restaurant reviewing both in Montreal and Hong Kong. But as I was not allowed to say anything negative about the restaurants, I got my material from the chefs, who told me how the dishes were prepared and how to face my biggest challenge—how to spell broccoli, linguine, sangria, ratatouille etc. My interest in food has always been minimal, more interested in having eaten than eating.
Fortunately, neither Ireland nor Montana saw themselves paragons of cuisine. In Ireland, I regarded McDonalds as a health food, given the local competition, and Montana did not pride itself on much more than beef steak and all the trimmings. So thankfully a food focus was not wanted on the voyage in the two travel pieces I wrote for Doctor's Review.
In my Irish travel piece I made a plea to visitors to let things happen to them, as they often do if only one lets them happen, and to only use one's itinerary to get out of a situation better left behind. And to not be trapped in the Great Green Tunnel—that being towering hedgerows with nothing to see but the road ahead and the road behind as one rushed from one uninteresting historic pile of stones to another.
Montana, which borders on a bit of British Columbia, all of Alberta and a bit of Saskatchewan, is like most U.S. states on the Canadian border, populated by civilised Americans. Border state citizens, with the exception of New York because it includes New York City, is where the mild-mannered Americans live. Thus Canadians invariably get on with Americans on their borders, and bear them great affection as it is from them that we get our PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) feeds, whence comes most of our British programming. Canada's MAB, the media, academic, bureaucratic complex, has been anxious to reduce if not eliminate any connection between Britain and Canada, despite popular sentiment to the contrary.
In Montana, I found all the elements of the America I loved. We were taken to the home of one guy with a magnificent gun collection. He allowed me to play with his AR-15, with its magnificent wide-angled scope. I had always disapproved of the AR-15 because of its low calibre and the fact that its round could be distracted by an encounter with a falling leaf at 200 metres.
I was left alone to do figure-8s around two mountain tops in a light aircraft, but ended up putting the plane into a steep bank when I looked over to see the pilot was no longer by my side but left me alone so he could chat to the other journos in the back of the aircraft. He rushed back and got me to resume control, climb and get back to my figure-8s. I met a girl who told me the definition of a Montana double date: "Two guys, two guns, a dog and a pick-up." There were no speed limits in Montana, but one could be dinged for dangerous driving. So much was left to one’s own judgment. There was such a freedom about the place, it was palpable.
It was also an eat-what-you-kill state, much like my beloved Hong Kong that way. Much was laid at the door of personal charity; doctors treated patients, but often did not expect to collect bills for some time. Layabouts would suffer the profound indifference of benign neglect. You had to at least try.
My highly successful story led off with a cowboy called Larry West, who "busted a leg busting a bronc" and was relegated to doing odd jobs about town in Kaliespell, a role he was resigned to play for the rest of his days. Montana was the place in the U.S. where the magnificent bald eagles gathered in their hundreds before setting off on their lonely aerial patrols of American skies to the south every year.
While I enjoyed writing the story and bathing in the praise of its reception, it did not take me long to see that the fourth person taken on in my absence, was not so much an addition to the team, but its new leader—a role, given the dynamics of the operation, I was not about to play. Madelaine was a plump, buoyant girl who continually referred to our mission as a "freak show," the illogic of which mattered little to me, having long grasped the essential female nature of the enterprise. More essential than logic was sustained bubbly enthusiasm that accompanies women's, now increasingly "lifestyle," journalism. That Madelaine had by the ton, that and an ability to be excited by very little. I recalled a remark by the Duke of Wellington: "A woman's idea of an adventure is a picnic."
That finding would end up guiding journalism henceforth, as getting excited about less and less would change the very nature of newsworthiness for the next 30 years.