My incompetence in all but travel writing at Doctor's Review was beginning to show. I wasn't bad at "still life journalism," as I came to call travel writing in which there is no issue or event. In fact, my piece on Ireland, "The Great Green Tunnel," was the second-most-read piece in the magazine that issue. The most-read piece was by the boss, David Elkins. And his was given a boost by offering a prize of air miles or some such thing. I had just returned in triumph from a US Travel Service junket to Montana, and my "Where Eagles Gather" was equally well received. But I also noted that my return was marked by the arrival of a new editorial staffer, who seemed to have Elkins’s ear.
I wasn't exactly fired. I would have my time reduced from four days to three until it dribbled into nothing and I was back on unemployment insurance.
To understand what happened next, we must go back two years. Yearning for an independent command, I wrote a proposal for the still limping along Sunday Express. Its brief and largely meaningless heyday was during the 1970 October Crisis when the terrorist Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British trade commissioner and kidnapped and murdered the provincial Labour Minister, always on a Saturday. The Sunday Express advantage in 1970 was that there were no local English-language Sunday papers because of the 1907 Lord's Day Act, which was pretty much a dead letter by the '60s. Montreal English newspapers did not bother to publish on Sundays as they saw no profit in doing so. The French being Catholic flouted the Lord's Day Act and had defied it for years, regarding it as a Protestant inspired law, and they were not hassled by the Catholic cops and courts.
In 1968, Joe Azaria decided to take the plunge, by opening the tabloid Sunday Express. I was working for the Gazette at the time but went down to see how they were doing and got a ringside seat at their truly chaotic first day.
Azaria had been making a successful go at publishing Midnight from 1952 from the back of a car with his lifetime editorial genius John Vader. By 1968, I reckon he had Midnight's circulation up to 600,000, but mostly in the US. It ran stories under such headlines as "Church Sexton Rapes Pregnant Teenage Mother" and "Cockroaches Devour Family of Five."
Midnight had stable mates, like National Examiner and Close-up on the Far Out. Midnight had great reach too—it was the only Montreal paper I could buy when I lived in San Francisco in 1964.
Its founder was Jesuit-educated, Iraqi-born, Lebanese-raised Joe Azaria, who moved to Montreal in his youth. What he appeared to want was respectability, and he hoped that by producing a real newspaper, the Sunday Express, he might mingle with the likes of the Montreal Star's proprietor, the McConnells, and the Gazette's, Peters and Whites.
While languishing on unemployment insurance before my stint at Doctor's Review, I returned as a freelance feature writer to the Sunday Express, where I had worked in 1970 during the FLQ crisis. It was now being edited by Pat Curran, ex of the Montreal Gazette's sports desk. I sold him a couple stories, but he was increasingly hostile to my ideas. I then drafted a proposal of how the paper might be pitched, as it really had not changed much from the very first.
There was no point sending my proposals to Pat, so I sent them to Azaria. Quite how Pat Curran got wind of it, I know not, though it would have been natural enough for Azaria to show it to him. Yet I would have thought that Azaria would have known that to Pat, acceptance of my proposal, especially if he knew it was from me, would be a direct threat to his command. Whatever happened, Curran was allowed to dispose of me, and I was never to darken their doors again.
A year or two later though, to bring us up to the current narrative, Azaria sold Midnight to his accountant Ike Rosenberg and the Sunday Express to Quebecor, owned by its founder Pierre Peladeau, who had made a great success of Le Journal de Montréal, the biggest paper in the Greater Montreal market. I add the qualifier "greater" because Le Journal's sales off-island were big, but the Gazette's circulation still topped Le Journal's on the Island of Montreal.
I then made a new Sunday Express proposal, going to more trouble and translating it into French. I got what I thought was a promising response when asked to meet a female vice president, Jocelyne Pelchat. It was clear moments after we met that she was not the person to talk to. She rattled on in a stream of MBA jargon, with references to yuppies (young urban professionals) and DINKs (double income, no kids). But my focus was getting the biggest circulation possible. My thoughts were on taking Vimy Ridge, taking one nearby trench and then another, and hers were focused on how we would organise the Berlin victory parade.
It was perfectly obvious that it was pointless talking to her, with her soothing PR talk of the desirability of securing desirable market segments. I saw a frown cross her face when I suggested reporting on linguistic cleansing so did not press what I thought was our most promising market opportunity. So that was it. A few months later, Peladeau folded the Sunday Express.
But not long after, I heard Peladeau was starting a new daily called the Montreal Daily News. I called in and said I wanted a job. I delivered my CV, and the chief sub or news editor, an Englishman from a substantial English provincial daily, gave me a rigorous subbing test on which I felt I did well.
But I heard nothing, the new paper started without me in March 1988, and again I gave up hope. Yet out of the blue, I had a call from Jim Duff, the managing editor, who had been the managing editor of the tiny Sherbrooke Daily Record, which barely clung on to daily status with its tiny shrinking circulation.
Jim Duff and I had made attempts to be friends, but there were difficulties. First, there was his tendency to back the politically correct for no other reason than it was taken from authority. I remember discussing an FLQ communique or a response to it. I said it meant what it said, and he disagreed. "You have to read between the lines," he said with all-knowing authority. I was supposed to say "yes, sir, no sir, three bags full, sir," but instead I re-read the document and still could not see what he was talking about and asked him to explain, at which point he turned away sharply in sullen silence.
We had worked at the Gazette together, and he and my brother had gone to Bishops College School. While we were cordial on meeting, he never sought my company and I never sought his.
So his call was a big surprise. He was offering me a job with greatest reluctance, as if ordered to do so. Which made me think that my long-ago Sunday Express proposal to Peladeau may have prompted it. I was grateful, of course, as life on unemployment insurance was restricting. After he said in that offhand insincere way of his that "you're the best writer in the business," I asked if I might be a reporter or a feature writer.
At this point, what passed for bonhomie vanished and his tone became harsh and boss-like, telling me that this was not a full-time job, but I would work on the desk as a junior, or downtable, sub, between 6pm and 2am and could be dismissed at any time. Given the instability, I did not report it to the Unemployment Insurance Commission as I was supposed to. Junior downtable sub or not, I got the full senior sub's rate of C$40,000 year—if I lasted that long.
The Montreal Daily News occupied a floor of the old Canadian Fairbanks Morse building at 990 St Antoine, next to the Gazette's old building, which it abandoned to move into the more modern Montreal Star building after the Star folded in 1979. The Fairbanks Building had also been the home of a truly noble attempt to publish a daily newspaper in French, Le Nouveau Journal, from 1961-62. I became familiar with it when I was 16 in one of those fruitless attempts to learn French at night school. Our teacher used the paper as a teaching aid, and we all had to buy copies. I had come to admire it.
The office was divided in two with a wall separating editorial from sales and a row of executive offices, with two connecting doorways providing access from one side to the other. Close to our side of the wall was a large desk, at which eight of us subs sat, four facing four. I was at one end. At right angles to our desk was a slightly smaller configuration of desks for the sports department, headed by Kevin Boland, the only one in the entire operation who felt well suited to his job. He had a great management style, blunt and forceful, but with a ready sense of humour to get the staff through dark hours in good order.
Behind sports was another wall, against which were lodged offices of departmental editors. Along the far wall was the business news department. The reception area with the siren-voiced receptionist and switchboard operator was given ample space, and it went as far as the first connecting doorway to the ad sales department. On the other side it was walled off from the rest of the editorial department. There lay the city desk, headed by leftist Englishman Dave Wimhurst and his assistant, a former Gazette reporter who actually believed Elvis was alive. Later there came a fellow called Frank McCormick. But apart from establishing that we were not related, we had little to do with each other. He had been a minor but competent radio personality in town for years.
Having gone to Jim Duff on arrival, I was gruffly told to talk to John Elder, the chief sub. At the time of my subbing test, we had exchanged Fleet Street reminiscences, both confessing a special liking for the Daily Mirror in the 1960s, before it went the way of the tits-and-bums tea-tent tabloid school of thought that had taken over portions of British popular press at the time.
The daily grind, subbing on the main desk of a daily, is much the same everywhere. The bigger the paper, the smaller the cog the downtable sub is, and the smaller the paper, the bigger he is. I confess to not liking subbing. I tend to feel it is a job more suited to the female personality, as women are more adept at finding errors and more judgmental of faults.
I learned much about tabloid layout when I edited the Georgian university newspaper for a month as an outside professional in the pay of the Sir George Williams University student council while I worked at the Gazette. The Georgian staff had walked out in protest over charges of racism against a professor who refused to make black students more equal than others at exam time. I had hoped to copy the style of the London Daily Mirror that John Elder and I admired. But I found that doing anything more than the basic rudiments on the front page was simply too much work for one man of my limited skills.
Our eight subs at MDN were nothing like the 20 the London Sun had when I worked a shift before my Euromoney stint. There were six subs on the financial desk of the Daily Telegraph, only to put out two or three pages. Our eight subs had to put out 32 pages. Sports, business and features did their own, which accounted for the full 48. What's more, since there was hardly any advertising sold, the pages were largely empty. So while Elder was more successful than I, he wasn't much closer to producing the highly subbed product that was the Mirror of the '60s. I put it down to skill and experience of course, but one factor was purely mathematical, that is, the ratio between the number of subs to the column inch. In England, the staff is much larger yet there are fewer column inches to fill than in North American papers. That's because we chop down trees for newsprint in our own back yard while England must import.
Another problem we faced was the "Hateful Harris" computer system from Melbourne, Florida. It was like most other systems of the period, not too bad once you got used to it. The real problem was that everyone—20 to 30 of us—had to get used to it all at once. Usually, when such systems were introduced at established newspapers where the staff had worked together for years, computers were brought in gradually with each one teaching the other. But we who had just met and hardly knew each other’s names were all chucked in at the deep end. The result was that the system kept crashing.
The entire production staff would down tools for 20 minutes to a half hour three and four times a day and head for the coffee room where, with a touch of extravagance, Peladeau laid on a gourmet free coffee machine for the staff. When the Florida computer boffins got up from the floor and restored our machine, bearded Mike McConnell, the sub who sat beside me, would shuffle back to the coffee room waving his hands spookily and saying "They're back!"—imitating Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist movie. With a groan, we would then return to work until the next breakdown.
It was in the coffee room where we encountered a mysterious fellow called Gérard Cellier, who said little and appeared to have no real function but was always around, exuding an air of importance.
Over the weeks, his story emerged. He was the man credited with making Le Journal de Montréal the great success it was because of his singular action the night Elvis Presley died in 1977. At that time, the old tabloid Montréal Matin was moribund, and all eyes were fixed on the battle between Le Journal de Montréal and the feisty Metro Express. What happened the night Elvis died was that Cellier was at the helm of Le Journal and Peladeau could not be found to approve his radical idea. Which was to recall, return and scrap the edition that was already on the road—and prepare an all-Elvis edition to replace it. Not finding Peladeau anywhere, he decided to go ahead himself. He had the provincial police tell the trucks to return while the journalists prepared the All-Elvis edition.
It was a triumph. Le Journal sucked oxygen out of the air for rival French tabloids, which died after a time. It was a total breakthrough—like the 1918 Battle of Amiens. But it also appeared that Cellier could not have come out of it that well as he was no longer in command of Peladeau's flagship.
I wondered whether he had fallen prey to Monty's dictum that, more often than not, an officer reaches a rank ceiling. He may have been competent, even gloriously heroic commanding a company, but found running six-company battalion beyond his organisational scope.
I suppose Monty's thoughts were variations on the Peter Principle, that one rises to the level of one's incompetence. If indeed that were the nub of Cellier's story, it would be ironic indeed that his own singular action, which resulted in the ascendency of his newspaper, made it so big that it required management skills that surpassed his own.
Not long after I started, I spent some time talking to an old friend, the features editor Ian Mayer, the dour lowland Scot who had been around as long as I could remember and was the source of that indiscretion that drove me to England in 1966. I did so want to write rather than be a sub, and my days were empty with a 6pm start on the desk. Ian had been promised a writer but was fobbed off with excuses and told to make do with freelancers and wire until they could find the money for a full-timer. So Ian gave me job after job. There appeared to be a rule that staff were not allowed to collect freelance money—but then I wasn't staff, as Jim Duff reminded me the day he took me on. In the fuss about this, Ian said I might be a useful combination writer/departmental sub at "whatever rate he's getting on the night shift." That seemed to be a nice way of getting rid of me and the problem I represented. So without examining what they were doing, Jim Duff authorised the change.
So now I was getting C$80,000 a year plus C$10,000 in unemployment insurance. Thus began the Money Monsoon.
I thought someone would catch on before the first double paycheque came through and I would be fired, so I continued getting Unemployment Insurance, though I deposited the cheques at different branches of my bank so not to draw attention to myself at the one near my flat, where I had banked for years and was known to the staff. There were times when after cleaning the flat I found old cheques had slipped behind a bookshelf and at another time behind the fridge. And these were big fellas, cheques of C$2,500.
I was not liked. Much of the talk was how long the paper would last. And while I never brought the subject up, I was free with my opinions, frequently calling the venture the Charge of the Light Brigade, backed by my daily St. Catherine Street sales surveys. Six months in, the only solid progress the paper made was finally mastering the Hateful Harris to the point that the term fell into disuse.
I went home every day about 6pm. I walked through what was then a block-sized vacant lot that served as Montreal's south shore bus terminal, then through Dominion Square to St. Catherine all the way to MacKay Street to my flat. I then walked my dog, Trooper, and went back to work checking shops that carried the Montreal Daily News, most often finding the same number I counted in the morning. And this stretch was as good as it gets in Montreal for shops selling English newspapers.
Yet there was something of a mismatch even getting the papers to the point of sale. The Montreal Daily News piggybacked on Le Journal's distribution system, which naturally followed the sales pattern of its flagship, which sold poorly in the English-speaking west end. Thus, the delivery system was weak where it ought to have been strong.
Not that this would have made any difference. But it became a handy excuse for why the paper was not selling, which I took to be a way of escaping responsibility for simply producing a newspaper few wanted, or even heard about. At the time of its birth there was some hoopla. The Gazette even put out a Sunday edition, fully appreciating that Peladeau was a serious player and a substantial threat, which by all rights he should have been. What's more, Robert Maxwell, the publisher of the London Daily Mirror, had a 25 per cent stake in MDN and was there to add extra muscle if needed. But in the end, MDN was only the Gazette writ shrill.
The results were pathetic. Peladeau thought that the hedonist working class Le Journal formula would work just as well in English as it did in French. This was almost unforgiveable, given that he had the same experience in Philadelphia, where his working-class Philadelphia Journal had failed after two years of operation a year or two before. But he and Maxwell, who was soon to die mysteriously and in disgrace amid charges that he was raiding the Daily Mirror's pension fund, excused the American failure quite reasonably on the grounds that his Philadelphia Journal was competing against the market-leading Philadelphia Inquirer and its weak sister, the Philadelphia Bulletin.
After his Philadelphia Journal folded, the Philadelphia Bulletin closed, and naturally they thought that had they only hung on a bit longer, all would have been well.
I know nothing about the Philadelphia experience other than that the paper, like Le Journal, did not have an editorial page. In English-speaking America, local newspapers are expected to stand for something if they are to be respected in the community. It is one of the reasons why entertainment journals like the National Enquirer are not, however accurate they are and how much money they make. But I can see that not having an editorial page at Le Journal was an astute move in Montreal, given that it was facing the Union Nationale standard bearer Montréal Matin. For Le Journal to have an editorial page would invite an expectation to support a political party. To have supported the Liberals would have bolstered Montréal Matin into a fresh fight that could have revived the fading tabloid. As electorates are divided 50:50, Le Journal would not want to alienate half of its readership to advantage a rival, so in these circumstances Peladeau chose well. Union Nationale voters could read Le Journal knowing it was not helping the godless Liberals, and the godless Liberals could read it knowing it was not upholding the ultramontane Union Nationale.
But what made sense in one situation was ill-suited to another. In Philadelphia, indeed in North America north of Rio Grande, including Anglo-Quebec, a newspaper's politics didn't come much into play except at election time, because until the 1990s newspaper were chiefly purveyors of straight news and entertainment features. There was the newspaper's official opinion in the unsigned editorial on the editorial page, and then usually allied and some differing opinions in articles on the opposite-editorial, or op-ed, page.
Because of the Loi Tinguet in revolutionary France, it was a serious offence to publish anything unless the writer's name was affixed to it. This made French journalists more opinionated from the start. Junior reporters at the Star and the Gazette in various press rooms about town would marvel at the temerity of young French journos no older themselves starting off stories with the words "Par LUC CARON." English bylines were awarded only for excellence in those days.
English-language newspapers in North America were less personal and more institutional. What's more, they were expected to take the same form. One was supposed to have an editorial page with unsigned editorials, which are hardly read, but the sight of which reassured North American readers that what they were reading was a real newspaper. So I suspect the Philadelphia Journal, standing for nothing, was considered an alien being. And while Anglo-Quebecers are the most tolerant of North Americans, they too found the Montreal Daily News an alien being to which they could not relate.
By the time the Montreal Daily News rolled around, bylines were handed out with the bully beef. My old francophile, French supremacist boss, David Allnutt, who fired me from Concordia University a decade earlier, thought MDN was pretty good, though he never read it—but it was a paper Anglo-Quebecers "should" read.
That was the reigning attitude of the bien pensant. It was too low-brow for their tastes, but it was the sort of thing for lower orders. It genuflected to the politically correct, sometimes to a ridiculous extent. For example, they replaced the typical tits-and-bums Page 3 Girl of the London Sun and Mirror with a fully clad "Sunshine Girl," who looked more elegant than sensual. Somehow they held the line on "Sunshine Girl" when the feminists in the office insisted it be "Sunshine Woman" with a bitter minority demanding "Sunshine Person." While "Sunshine Girl" was retained, they had to introduce a "Sunshine Boy" as compensation. I think it took a photographer the better part of a day to supply us with pictures, because so few were willing to pose for them for free.
The Sunshine pix were stupid and wasteful, and the devil to write new captions for every day with the only information supplied by the photographer being the name of the subject. (We heard that he managed to wheedle permissions to shoot on the basis that the paper sold so few copies that no one would ever know they had posed for the picture.) But worse was to come.
The worse was what I recall as "anal sex night," an elaborate two-page centre-spread based on the latest piece of ersatz sensationalism, which was beginning to dominate the newspaper's front pages. I remember one was PIZZA WARS!!! This was based on the assumption that Toronto pizza had become more popular than Montreal pizza and we were to hang our heads in shame. I remember the leftist city editor Dave Wimhurst feverishly pacing the office during the day trying to think of these weird ideas that had no traction with readers.
But as I said, taking the cake was "anal sex night.” This was based on a reporter's discovery of several anal sex magazines in some dark corner of a news agent’s shop. Pictures were handled separately, though we were given photocopies to do captions. They were barely publishable in a daily newspaper, and this splurge of pious pornography plainly disgusted Mitch Axelrod, the sub across from me. Mitch went on to edit a similar tabloid, the Ottawa Sun, where at least there was a working class and a media-addicted middle class. Mitch was also the closest thing to a Montrealer we had, as he came from Chomedy-Laval just off island. But I do not think anyone but myself on the staff went to high school in Montreal.
Jim Duff, who must have approved of anal sex night, spotted the disgust on Mitch's face and said: "I know it's disgusting. Do you think I like it?! But this is what people want. And it is our duty to provide news of what people read." That was the gist of it, anyway.
As I said, I was not much liked. My one true friend there was the features editor, Ian Mayer, but he was fired for going on a three-day drunken bender. Ian was greatly amused at my remark at the news that Peladeau was ordering us to put out more pages than we had been doing. I said: "Ah, the Light Brigade puts on speed!" He thought it was uproariously funny and became angry when his retelling brought blank stares. He turned to me and angrily said: "Don't tell me what's wrong with this newspaper—everything is!"
People were disappearing now, quitting without being replaced or being fired. There was a streak of red grease pencil on the upper frame of my computer screen, which I made no attempt to remove, seeing it as the blood of the lamb at Passover.
I was ubiquitous, having two shifts. There was never a time I wasn't there. One time, Wimhurst emerged from a meeting with Duff and senior managers, muttering repeatedly, while unaware of my presence: "Fire Christy! Fire Christy! Fire Christy!" Operationally, we had nothing to do with each other, so apart from his obvious leftist and my rightist reputations, there was no reason for him to want me sacked.
What his extreme hostility indicated to me was a situation that was mystifying to him, given that Duff liked me no more than he did, and probably said so often enough. But now they were firing their nearest and dearest when I was clearly the least favoured among them all. So why not fire me? It had to mean that Peladeau was protecting me. It was either that or the blood of the lamb red grease pencil streak. Gone were the rows of ad salesmen. Then writers here and there would say their goodbyes every week or so.
Then I was sent to purgatory, to spend my 6pm-2am shift at the printing plant going over the finished pages looking for errors. I was the stone sub in the electronic age. It was most unpleasant. I later thought that if Duff could not fire me, he could at least make conditions so bad that he would induce me to resign. There was a rude and bullying French foreman who confined me to a small windowless room where I could read the page proofs for errors and phone them through to the desk, where corrections would be made and the pages "pooped out" again. No one was happy to hear from me. Corrections were an unwanted task and "re-pooping" the page or pages lengthened everyone's day.
But the good aspect of the job was that I saw the trucks come in with returns to be pulped and they confirmed the findings of my daily survey: that the paper was not selling 30,000 as first claimed, but something like 4,000. This was just the sort of information Jim did not want me to have, so I was recalled to the desk.
The one successful promotion we had was the "Search for Gold" contest. It was the only genuine public response for anything the Montreal Daily News did. Readers were given clues to where the gold was and wrote in with their discoveries to get their gold certificates.
During this time, the Gazette did one of its periodic handwringing weepers about hardship in the city that included a map of its poverty zones. They included the traditional areas of St. Henry and Point St. Charles, up along the off-the-boat immigrant trough on the north-south artery of St. Lawrence Boulevard, aka the Main, and then the Bantustans along the east-west artery of the Metropolitan Boulevard. And weren't these the very areas where our Search for Gold contestants lived? This I discovered by looking through the return addresses on discarded Search for Gold envelopes. Now it appeared that our strongest appeal was effectively made to people who were least able to buy the goods and services that someone might advertise in our newspaper if they were foolish enough to do so.
I thought of making a stab at getting Peladeau's backing for another proposal. So I tried to think of what I might say. It didn't take me long—less than a day or two of daydreaming—before I found myself in a hopeless position. The subs were okay. Other than that, there were only three departments that did not have to destroyed—subs, business and sports—and neither business nor sports mattered to the final outcome. Kevin Boland ran sports and could have been made news editor, but who would run sports? Anyway, John Elder was fine as news editor, though I might have had trouble moving him to a Daily Telegraph or a classic Montreal Star style condensed into a tabloid format.
I had to have a local man on the city desk and the most qualified man might be me. There was no one else I could think of. What I wanted was Ian Mayer's local knowledge and street sense, with the intelligence and political outlook of the business section's 2i/c Fred McMahon. All the senior reporters were hostile to me politically and personally so would have to go. Perhaps two or three of the junior staff could remain. And of course business under Bob Gibbons and McMahon was doing a solid job. I could have moved Fred to another post, and they could have got another man in business, but I didn't know where I could put him.
All the above blue-skying presupposed that I would have a free hand and could hire and fire at will. MDN was not like the much smaller Sunday Express, which could easily be switched in direction midstream. This would involve the entire crew being re-indoctrinated into an entirely new normal. And once that process had progressed over two to four weeks max, then to start a campaign for the Gazette's market share was not an over-the-top Battle of the Somme in the blithe expectation of a breakthrough, but rather a more studied Vimy Ridge approach of smaller incremental bite-and-hold operations. One would take and hold smaller market segments, not the ones that were most desirable from a marketing point of view, but the ones that were most readily available.
But I could not see how this could be done. No, this was to be the massacre of Isandlawana, not the heroic stand at Rork's Drift. If there was any relief of Khartoum, I was not the man to provide it. It was just a matter of hanging on to the end, hoping to prolong my personal money monsoon.
One thing about doing double shifts is that one does not have much time to spend money. My social life was now limited to drinking soda water at the professor's table Friday nights at the Royal Pub, where I had been since the early 1970s. In 1988, we all learned that the Royal was to be demolished in a month or two, and professors hatched a charming plan to have each bring their most prized student to the final night.
It was a warm Friday night in June 1988, a significant anniversary in the 1688 Glorious Revolution. I arrived late at the end of my night shift. I remember coming in through the door just as a big monarch butterfly flitted past me into the night. This, I remarked, was like seeing the departing soul of the Royal Pub, as I took my seat among the greybeards and sprightly young things arrayed about our table near the front door.
I found myself sitting across from Miriam Schleifer, the star pupil of Aaron Kristalka, who taught history at Dawson College. She was an 18-year-old who was shortly to go to Kamp Kanawana as a counsellor. As I was a Kanawanan camper when it was an all-boys affair, we had lots to talk about. But soon we took part in the discussion about the Glorious Revolution, and I ventured something bathetic like "James II was a total asshole," to which she said: "You have been reading too much of Macaulay."
Apart from gleaning my hasty conclusion from various bits of textbooks and encyclopedias (I regarded my trusty Columbia Desk Encyclopedia as my intellectual sidearm), the only thing I had read of substance was Macaulay’s History of England. Not that she was able to counter my view with any other source material, but we had a good natter about it as our other table mates filled in much of what turned out be an exceptionally good night of conversation, ending with heartfelt goodbyes. (The professors table still meets at the sports bar at the Montreal Forum Friday nights.)
The official professors' table ends at midnight, but Neil Cameron, who taught the history of science at John Abbott College, usually went on to Grumpy's, a Crescent Street bar fashionable with politicos and journalists.
I would say that even by this time Miriam and I were an item. I remember the experience as being much like a light switch. One moment I was a 42-year-old guy talking to an 18-year-old girl, maintaining an avuncular air. But as we spoke, she appeared to me as an occasionally challenging yet charming fully adult woman. With Neil talking to others, we had a chance to talk with each other for the better part of two hours.
I invited her to my place less than two blocks away, but Anne O'Reilly might be there working on the book, even though she promised to vacate the place by midnight for just the sort of eventuality that had at last eventuated. This was all perfectly above board as we had broken up. Telling Miriam that I half expected Anne to be there, she was to ring the downstairs buzzer after my arrival and if I gave her one buzz she was to come up, but if I buzzed three times she was to go home.
Having buzzed three times, I told Anne that I had met someone, it looked serious, and her access to my computer and the book would have to be strictly curtailed—though I allowed greater access when Miriam went off to summer camp two weeks later for the summer. She came over the next day, and we hooked up and were going steady after that.
Life at the Montreal Daily News went on and on with people wondering when the much-vaunted deep pockets would be drained and no longer pay the shrinking staff to flog this dead horse.
Was MDN doomed from the start? Ron Seltzer, the publisher of the Downtowner, and I discussed this frequently. Despite our failure to work together running a newspaper, we were good at talking about it. Ron held that MDN would have stood a good chance of making it without changing one of its idiotic exclams had it only published as an evening paper. "People like to sleep on a purchase," he repeatedly said in defence of his thesis.
Ron was a Tory too, albeit one of the sea anchor variety, who see their role as slowing the inevitable leftward drift of the predominantly tax-and-spend establishment rather than backing a 180-degree turnabout, as I did.
I countered that we were looking at MDN under its current financing model with Peladeau and Maxwell being as generous as they had been. If such an evening paper were to appear it would have been handicapped by not being able to piggyback on Le Journal's fleet of trucks.
If Ron could figure his way out of that, I would have backed his evening paper idea. Even so, I thought that such a paper—am or pm—would have to become a middle-class product. The bien pensant thought the MDN fit meat for the lower orders as it was; after all, Le Journal was just the ticket for the French Canadian masses. Trouble was, there were no lower orders on the English side in sufficient numbers to sustain a daily newspaper.
Then there was the problem in journalism among journalists—and another among the owners, meaning Peladeau and Robert Maxwell—of not understanding the changes that had taken place in the community they hoped to serve.
First the journalists. One might even blame my father and the success he had with the Herald in the 1940s. Its life in that decade had achieved mythic status, having grown from an ailing near-dead broadsheet of 15,000 circulation to a sprightly tabloid selling 50,000 copies a day. Its problem was that it was unloved, and its success detested by its owner John McConnell, who also owned the Montreal Star, his one true love. He famously said that he was not to be overtaken by his "bastard son," meaning the Herald, which he had purchased as part of a job lot that included a range of properties including a sugar refinery. McConnell had allowed my father to turn the ailing broadsheet into a tabloid rather in the way Jim Duff had absent-mindedly given me the double shift, largely to get me and the problem I represented out of his office.
My father had been in love with tabloids since he first worked as a junior on the New York Mirror in the 1920s and now with his ragtag group of journos, soon joined by my mother. McConnell wanted all glory to accrue to his Montreal Star, "Canada's Greatest Newspaper," and not to the seamy low-brow Herald. It was even more maddening when the New York Daily News and the Daily Mirror adopted what was called the Ted McCormick page in New York itself. My father found getting a single focus picture and headline was too much for what Montreal could offer in terms of news. We were not New York, so he mixed several stories with pictures and blurbs on page one. New York found it difficult too and so took the escape offered by my father.
The street-savvy journos could conceive of a tabloid only as a working-class product and tended to hire those who thought the same way. This resulted in papers needlessly designed for a market that was shrinking in North America with the offshoring of labour to Asia, and nearly absent in Anglo-Quebec through that, and the combined efforts of linguistic cleansing of French personnel managers in Anglo firms and trade union membership exclusion policies.
My Battle of Vimy Ridge idea was to go after markets that were ignored by the Gazette. This is exactly what Le Journal's Madame Pelchat did not want. My idea was not to add yet another suitor seeking the hand of yuppies and DINKs, but to go after right-of-centre men, not in an obvious "Mark 10 for Men" way, as the long-dead cigarette brand once did, to its cost. Nor would I use sports figures unless they were especially newsworthy. But I would get a picture of a tank, or a high-recognition foreign potentate or a map. No girls unless they were Margaret Thatcher, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Golda Meir etc.—women men liked and admired, but even them to be used sparingly.
Then there is the true Montreal taste that does not give a fig for the rest of Canada unless it has business interests there, which, of course, would be covered in a sound finance section. At the same time, coverage would be intensely local, with a thorough coverage of courts, town councils with news of Quebec and Ottawa if it were beneficial or a threat, and even amateur theatrical events. Montreal is at once a metropolis and a village on the English side. On sports I would follow the advice of my father, who like me was a non-fan. "Let them do what they like, and if they insist on the front page, do what you are told. They're always right about that."
As the paper would be thinner than the Gazette if we assumed MDN space limitation, I would like a dense makeup, a bare minimum of white space, with even half-point rules separating tightly packed columns. What I would look for was the sophisticated worldliness of the Irish Times, the sense of humour of the Daily Telegraph and the political acuity of the Jerusalem Post.
Editorially, and tactically, I would complain about the excesses of feminism and demand an end of affirmative action. I say tactically because I thought it would drive the already feminising Gazette, even then peopled with a lot of blow-ins from Upper and Outer Canada, to become more feminist still, further alienating men and driving them away to our paper. It couldn't be a constant rant, but often enough to spark outrage in terms of Gazette columns. Women, who were increasingly running the Gazette even then, can be triggered by very little, so it would be important to use very little to trigger them. The point would be to have one's male readers mystified as to why the increasingly feminised Gazette was upset. It would be tricky, but I was confident it could be managed to gain substantial market share.
I would, of course, report on linguistic cleansing and oppose it vociferously, something Peladeau and other establishmentarians would forbid in the Montreal Daily News. This too would focus on how cowardly the Gazette had been in this regard.
Thus focusing on serving a minority of high earners with more money to spend than any other demographic—namely men—seemed to make economic sense to me. Our weekly focus would be to find red-hot stories the feminised Gazette would likely ignore and focus on getting them on the TV news.
If the above were executed competently, I saw a distinct possibility of winning enough ads from the Gazette to induce them to use even more white space, making the paper prettier and more inconsequential, relying on more heart-string stories.
That was the plan, but it would have to wait for another life. Given the fact that it was hopeless, I continued to serve MDN, the dead man walking, until fate handed me another job.
But that's another story.