The idea of Hong Kong iMail was to surf to glory on the popularity of the dotcom boom—already going bust as fashionable people were losing faith in the "new economy" that had supposedly moved beyond mundane concerns of supply and demand. They were coming to realise that one had to produce something other than money raised from an IPO (initial public offering stock sale). People now demanded an income stream from services someone was willing to pay for.
Into this sobering world the iMail came out with the new design concept that Canadian designer Patrick Dunne made look much like the Toronto Sun, the Ottawa Sun and the Winnipeg Sun, which in turn looked like the ill-fated Montreal Daily News and the other Sun clones.
Unthinkingly, the newspaper set about producing a mass circulation working-class tabloid at a time and place where there was no mass English-speaking working class to buy it, much less a working-class reading public.
At least the various Suns in English Canada and the one in London had the remains of a substantial working class who might well buy a downmarket tab. But not in Montreal or Hong Kong. The Anglo working class in Montreal had been driven out by French unions and French-friendly HR departments. There was no hiring of one's own, certainly not at the working-class level, as the French did universally. Conrad Black once remarked that Anglo-Quebec was "like a puppy on the surgical table pathetically licking the hand of the vivisectionist." Nothing so dramatic in Hong Kong, but both cities lacked anyone who might buy the paper.
Uncannily, the iMail and Montreal Daily News took the same approach: to win single women readers, thinking them a neglected, unexploited market. Given the realities, it was like selling perfume and pantyhose to men because they never bought it before, thus creating a market with enormous growth potential.
They said that since girls did better in school by volume, women were a more attractive readership tranche. Also, they were better at languages and more of them spoke English. Plus, the big buyers of supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer were women. While they had a basis for thinking such a strategy might work, it was delusional because women do not buy newspapers in significant numbers. But the iMail had an argument that trumped all—the success of a women's newspaper in London.
Back in the 1970s, London's Daily Mail switched from an eight-column broadsheet format to a five-column tabloid. Its main rival, the Daily Express, did the same without a sex change and lost market share. The Daily Express, once top dog in the mid-range national newspaper market, was no longer. Meanwhile the Daily Mail decided to chase women in a serious way, with stories about beasts we love to hate, what's Prince Harry really like, and the traditional women's page focus on sex, recipes and disease. Instead of being back-paged, human interest items were front-paged. Hard news was made secondary.
The Daily Mail's new direction was not foolish. In London in the 1970s, there were a dozen dailies, all male-oriented. True enough, 85 to 90 per cent of newspapers were bought by men. But getting a bigger chunk of the other 10-15 per cent -perhaps most of it—proved a better bet than getting a smaller slice of the 85-90 per cent. What's more, women shop, and that was a good thing to pitch to retail advertisers at a time when Carnaby Street fashion was setting the style for the Western world. Another temptation to go tab was that tabloid doubles the page numbers without increasing the size of the paper, thereby adhering to Lord Thomson's rule that the thicker the paper, the better it sells.
But the iMail did no better than its late unlamented clone in Montreal. Although email addresses were appended to each reporter’s story, no one seemed to be getting emails. Like the Montreal Daily News, it was competently done. Our business section turned out a solid product though it was irrelevant to the life of the paper. And no one else was doing anything that mattered either, putting out competent little sections providing nothing more than the South China Morning Post was doing as well or better.
There was reason to compare the iMail experience to my time at Doctor's Review in the late '80s. In both cases, my failings were no fault of my bosses or the publications they ran. Those who recall my travails there will remember the distinct differences between what that publication did and what it pretended to do.
Doctor's Review posed as "good medicine for doctors," an overwhelmingly male, slick, upmarket lifestyle magazine. But we were actually after doctors' wives as primary readers. Reviewing market research, I discovered they were the biggest buyers of hardcover books in Canada. So we did a lot of travel pieces, shopping tours in exotic locales, upmarket sound systems, famous doctors etc. All in the quest of securing the rich loam of pharmaceutical advertising that filled our pages. The magazine’s life cycle was extended by copies recycled in doctors' waiting rooms, mostly filled with women, who might even request pills they saw in the pharma ads with high-quality pictures of ladies who radiated contentment.
As an associate editor, I wrote travel pieces on Ireland and Montana, but was mostly employed selecting articles and securing reprint rights from other upmarket magazines in the US and the UK that would delight the ladies. In this, I did not excel. What did I know of shopping, of perfume and pantyhose? Eyes would roll skyward and fits of giggles would erupt at my selections. So our relationship petered out.
There was much the same problem at the HK iMail. I could not sit at the high table in the finance department as was intended. I knew too little of business. In shipping I had considerable knowledge. I could read a balance sheet and know what to look for. But as for competence in business as a whole in a Hong Kong setting, I was a babe in the woods.
So I stayed on the subs table with Brett Creedon, a twentysomething Queenslander, and we learned the ropes together. There was a lot of work to do, and we toiled long and hard to get it done in the time allotted.
Looking back at the Montreal Daily News, there was so much wrong with it, I never got around to appreciating the structural flaws embedded in the prepackaged tabloid format ubiquitous at the time. Put simply, the fault lay in focusing too much on what a newspaper looked like, a trend favoured by women, whose custom was increasingly sought. There was less interest in what was reported. This applied to broadsheets and tabloids alike.
Typically at the iMail, an important piece of news might be relegated to a brief simply because the story wasn't long enough to fill a designated slot for a front-page story. Maintaining the "design concept" was all.
There was simply no thinking involved in what we were doing or how we were doing it. Colleagues were even against thinking, as unwelcome intrusion. Who was in and who was out was all that mattered. No one had the slightest thought about what impact the newspaper was having in the market. I assumed that was only true at our sub-editor level, but I was soon to discover that such was the case right to the top.
I observed from the start that I saw little evidence of anyone reading the iMail. It was, of course, a politically correct paper, which made it entirely predictable. So people on the right–which in Hong Kong is a reliable majority of Chinese at least, it being one of the last bastions of raw, naked 19th-century capitalism—had no reason to read it. People on the left, a gweilo-rich tranche, had no reason to read it because the SCMP had much the same stuff and more of it. The iMail was like the Montreal Daily News that way, winning widespread approval of the bien pensant as fit reading material for the lower orders.
But my observations were met with bewilderment and hostility by most everyone I encountered. It was none of my business, they said. Or that I was wrong because it had a good subscription-based circulation. I tried to get a subscription myself but found no way of doing it. So I told them so. More hostility.
I almost felt a familial duty in voicing my thoughts on the single-feature front page just as my father had done when he first started to follow the ways of the New York Daily News and his old alma mater, the New York Mirror, when he edited the Montreal Herald, creating Canada's first daily tabloid.
In big bad New York, it was fine to focus on a single big picture and story to occupy the whole front page. But in Montreal, one-eighth New York’s size, one couldn’t reliably produce a single piece of news, plus a picture, that was engaging enough to sell newspapers. So instead, he featured three or four items on Page One. If one was not to a reader's taste, he might catch him with another. In the end, New York tabs did the same in the late '40s and thereafter. I remember being proud of my father when I ran into an ex-NY Daily News man, who seemed pleased to meet the son of the man who invented the "Ted McCormick page." It was a genuine thrill to be received so grandly because of what my father had done so long ago.
But fashions changed and the iMail followed in the single-feature front page that had become standard for North American tabs since the 1970s. It wasn't working any better than it had been in the 1940s. Partly because the cloth-capped working class of the '50s and early '60s that had dominated electoral rolls was disappearing into yuppiedom and television.
Newspaper reading had become a class act, and TV and then the Internet were rapidly vacuuming up market share, though less so in the UK, where street sales were valued more than advertising revenue. There, selling tea-tent tabloids of the tits-and-bums school thrived for a time until men discovered Internet porn.
When I looked at the Hong Kong scene. I could see men counted more than women as newspaper buyers. Men carried a briefcase, umbrella in one hand and exact change in the other. (Backpacks were not de rigueur between 2000-2003) The process was messier with women, and thankfully for all, more infrequent, involving opening purses within purses and fishing out coins, then thoughtfully selecting one newspaper over another. Men, after taking their paper with machine gun rapidity, proceeded to two or three escalator flights down to the metro train platform. This was their first encounter of the day's editorial product.
But what did the iMail offer them? A headline, a picture and a caption. There might be a promotional blurb advertising an inside feature. But that's all they got on the escalator. There was a pathological resistance to turning a story from page one to a page inside—not just at the iMail, but everywhere in the tabloid field—when that is exactly what should be done, because the reader, having got into the story, would be committed to opening the paper. But if that one item did not interest him, he would not be inclined to open the paper in the crush of the train platform or even on the train. Soon he would wonder why he bothered to buy the paper at all.
My father told me that the large headline on page one was only needed to attract readers at 15 yards from a newsstand, but after that, things could "calm down". Smaller headlines meant more stories and greater variety of news. It was good to have a sensational item on page one, if it could be managed. But Dad was totally against what he called "Gee Whiz Journalism," hyping readers into thinking you had something you did not. I updated Dad on one point. Pictures were big in his day because photo reproduction was poor. No longer. That enabled more and smaller high-definition pictures. I had already seen this in Hong Kong's wonder paper, Apple Daily.
Sandra Pang, Joel’s partner at Pronto Communications, who had held my hand in my early days in Hong Kong, became a closer friend as time went on. We met more often in this period, not at the office, but on weekends on Lamma Island where she lived. By now Steve was ensconced in my flat. I was earning good money and paying a low rent, made cheaper with Steve's contribution. He had worked for the Eastern Daily Press a few years before, left town after a year or two and went to Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, making use of his Muslim rights of having two wives. Steve's love life was confusing and ever evolving.
We explored Hong Kong together. Since so much was being torn down and rebuilt, even places once familiar to him were new again after a year or two. Steve was thrilled at the discovery of a vast new multi-floor, multi-building shopping complex a few hundred yards from our flat.
We - or I, to be honest—went skating in the basement of the brand new Tai Ku Shing mall. I hardly distinguished myself at the age of 56, not having been on the ice for 40 years. This was made worse when I could only rent figure skates with teeth in the toes, which caught in the ice and sent me sprawling, much to Steve's amusement standing safely by the boards. They had not even heard of hockey skates, which I had mastered after a fashion in my distant youth.
On weekends I returned to Lamma, sometimes hiking around the island, having lunch at one end and dinner on the other, sitting at round tables beside aquariums of fish and crabs waiting to be eaten. Steve might go home or elsewhere early, not taking to the hard drinking Lamma gang, and Sandra and I would talk about the doings upstairs in the iMail advertising department and at high councils she attended.
Her complaints differed little from those heard at the Montreal Daily News. No one could see the point of advertising in the iMail. I regaled Sandra with all the points I made above. She was sympathetic but wasn't going to risk crossing the powers that be and ending the money monsoon.
Optimistic staffers thought we were doing the right thing if only we could hang on a bit longer. That was like the old Montreal Daily News "deep pockets" argument that because we were financed by London's Robert Maxwell and French Canada's leading press baron, Pierre Peladeau, MDN was invincible. Less optimistic colleagues thought that a tweak here and there would get us to the Promised Land.
The editor, Andrew Lynch, was a rotund Englishman who had been in Hong Kong for seven years. He was the quintessential backbench sub, who could have been a match for the MDN's chief sub John Elder, another Fleet Street retread, excellent at turning pigs' ears into silk purses, or reasonable facsimiles, if that had been the relevant task, which it wasn't if the paper was to survive. Again it was a case of bringing a siege gun to a jungle war.
There was a publisher, who was nominally Lynch's boss. Lynch had recommended he get the job, so while he looked the part, turned up in his grand office every day, played a ceremonial monarchial role at meetings, he let Lynch run the show.
One day, Sandra called me about trouble she was having in her department, which numbered a dozen or so. Four were advertising feature writers while the rest were ad reps, the chief of whom was Abe Chung, an attractive woman and a wife of a gweilo Bloomberg correspondent. The head of the ad features section was causing Sandra trouble and she wanted to fire him but found it impossible to have him replaced by his neophyte underlings. So she asked me to take over while she hired a replacement.
I took over full time while continuing my subbing job on the business desk, as this was a temporary secondment. The experience mirrored my double-shift time at the Montreal Daily News. I would show up suited and tied in the morning and after a day's work report to Sean and Ken for the night shift with the business subs.
The night shift had become a mind-deadening routine. I tried to think of it as the movie Groundhog Day. Most of the business desk had seen it, and for a while at least, we did our best to "shovel the shit" as subs do with the best spirit we could muster, trying to make each day better than the day before.
Upstairs was a step up. I had the third biggest private office on the floor. Sandra's master stroke was changing one of our three publications from quarterly to monthly and changing its name from "Concierge" magazine to "Amazing Hong Kong." Finally, a leader who could lead. And the more I surveyed my new domain, the more I saw potential for expansion.
There was one new hire, Nick Walker, who had editorial jobs here and there and was not much liked by people I spoke to. He was a bit odd, but he wrote well and appeared to do what he was told. Edward was Hong Kong Chinese but grew up with his family in the shadow of Windsor Castle, wore a school scarf and looked and acted like a Sloan Square ranger, to the manor born. If I exaggerate, I do so only slightly. Nick, whom I befriended, called him "our toff" who spoke the purist RP (Received Pronunciation). And there was Edmund, an Indian Portuguese mix, whose family hailed from Goa as I recall. Later Winsome Lane joined us. She was a wizened, sharp-tongued but highly competent English-accented but Welsh-rooted journalist in her sixties who had been in Hong Kong since she was a pretty young thing. She had contacts and knew where the bodies were buried. No one liked her, but she did the job well with no excuses. Mother would have approved.
I was the editor of a number of things. A bilingual publication called JobMarket Success, a large-formatted free distribution magazine, which needed to be filled regularly with employment-related material. That seemed to be running well without a need for a new direction.
There were ad hoc supplements, the focus of which would be cooked up by the ad reps. There were one-off full-colour magazines on various themes and special National Day pages. And of course my prize possession, Amazing Hong Kong, for which I held out my highest hopes.
National Day pages were easier sells, a holdover from the old Hong Kong Standard that involved selling a consulate a full celebratory page marking its national day and good-will ads to the major firms that did business with that country. It often involved an interview with the consul general, which was always interesting, though sometimes odd. The one from Pakistan insisted we not refer to the Indian Ocean but call it the Pakistani Ocean. The very Chinese-looking and sounding Irish honorary consul turned out to be a delightful cigar-chomping ruffian who'd fit right into the rambunctious crowd at Mulligan's pub in Pool beg Street, Dublin.
I began to make great use of the Internet for material. The CIA's website was particularly useful. Wikipedia, then in its infancy, was a good source too. And for trade relations the Hong Kong Trade Development Council website was invaluable.
Among the one-off magazine supplements was "American Giants," dealing with a number of multinationals, and in a lighter vein the Hong Kong Beer Guide, which dealt with the pubs and clubs of Lan Kwai Fong, which seemed like a carbon copy of the Crescent Street scene in Montreal. Making this less of a surprise was my discovery that it was the creation of an ex-Montrealer, Alan Zeman, who had made his fortune in the rag trade before developing a decaying downtown core into a pubbing and clubbing district that in the end dwarfed what it copied. He also created Ocean Park, a theme park centred on aquatic zoological exhibits. Most impressive. If only Montreal developed the same way, and French dealt with Anglos the same way the Chinese did, treating them as assets, not threats, what a wonderful world it would be.
Then there were more routine "advertorial" duties. A number of firms were persuaded to have features written about them. There was always something to be learned about the industry or how Hong Kong did business.
Securicor was an armoured car and security guard company that hired ex-Gurkhas. I had grown up next to a neighbour who had been a major in the 7th Gurkha Rifles and retired to Montreal after India's independence in 1948. He lent me his book, Bugles and Tiger, and we talked a lot about India and the British Empire. So when I got to interview to the Securicor general manager, an ex-Gurkha Rifle officer himself, he found me so well versed in regimental lore that he gave me the run of the place. I was really pleased when a couple of sub-editors on the night business desk said my Gurkha story was the best thing in the paper that day. Not often are such things said of an advertising feature.
But the jewel in the crown was the rebooted "Amazing Hong Kong." This involved input from the Hong Kong Hotels Association, which did not oppose any of my ideas, or much care about them. It simply wanted the magazine to reflect well on the association and its members.
Here, my newness to Hong Kong was an asset; I could see Hong Kong as the readers saw it. The magazine circulated to 30,000 hotel rooms, I was told. I suspected that was nonsense, but 10,000 was reasonable. And that was three times what the iMail's circulation later turned out to be.
My radical thought was that daily newspapers had to change their content from issue to issue because readers remained the same. Not so monthly hotel magazines, because their readership changed every few days. Thus, there could be monthly features of time-sensitive festivals and seasonal opportunities, but the major articles would run more than three months and be recycled and updated if and when appropriate.
The real controversial aspect was that I wanted to switch from a female orientation to a male focus. Worse still, an older male focus. This passed muster with my bosses because it was soundly based on what the hotels association told us about their clientele. Sixty per cent were male and over 40, and 90 per cent of them over 50. It was the staff, the lefty journalists, who objected. To them it was like me finding a promising market tranche in old white Nazis, or the patriarchy, as it would be later described. "You just want a magazine designed for people like you," protested a feminist female staffer.
By this time, the slow wheels of the exclusively female HR hiring bureaucracy had produced the female in question, one Kelly Sinosky, a thirtysomething Canadian from British Columbia, who had been chosen to replace me. I think it was a case of one hand not knowing what the other was doing, since by then my status had been made permanent. She was allowed to join my staff as deckhand as compensation. She was bitter and hostile, the last thing I wanted in an assistant, which she fashioned herself to be.
Everything was a battle. Except for Nick and Winsome there was always some reason why something couldn't or shouldn't be done. I was enamoured of Sun Tzu and his Art of War and realised the wisdom of having a commander able to execute a soldier instantly in front of the troops without ceremony. In a a film clip on Sun Tzu the point was illustrated by his having 20 of the emperor's concubines learn how to wield a sword. When they all refused in fit of giggles, Sun Tzu cut one of them down. The rest immediately fell to the task with a will. Now that HR Nazis had the company in their evil grasp, sacking had to be preceded with warnings and performance reviews. This did not have the same impact and tended to spread more passive resistance in the department. So I simply endured them.
I managed to get my rotation articles in place, largely by doing them myself. Before doing them, I toured the hotels. These were the days when Americans and Europeans were not nearly as phone savvy as Asians. In Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei or Tokyo, to be without a cell, or mobile, phone was to be naked in the world. This meant that older visiting gweilos, cyber klutzes to a man, were left stranded in their hotel rooms waiting for land lines to ring to arrange their business meetings.
One assumes they had exhausted Hong Kong's tenth-rate English television offering—things have much improved since 2001—and looking out the window. The third thing to do was to read Amazing Hong Kong. The idea was to get them to read it again and again as they waited for phone calls. Winsome did a splendid piece on the social heights of the Peak, which interested rich-and-famous wannabees. They could see the Peak, or Mount Austin, from their hotels.
I wrote a book review on The Basic Law, Hong Kong's post-colonial constitution, which answered—up till that point at least—the most frequently asked question: "What's it like under the Communists?" Under the title "Governing Success," I simply outlined how the government worked and how it wasn't exactly democratic but did preserve rule of law, which was the important thing.
The contents were translated into Chinese, which consumes 13 per cent less space than English. This is a happier mix than the French and English on the same page I endured in Canada. The Chinese characters come across as a graphic to the European eye. That's why Chinese signs in Montreal's Chinatown were allowed to remain despite being strictly illegal, as languages other than French are forbidden on commercial signs in Quebec with various special exemptions.
I was making yards, but slowly. I had resistance on the design of the magazine. They opted for bright primary colours, I favoured more subtle, restful browns and greens. Here I had an ally in Nick as he looked for compromise in his concept of the "jade green sea." I was happy with that, and his frequent, almost poetic perceptions that got us through difficulties. I didn't want to look like junk mail.
It came time for me to take three weeks annual leave, which I sorely needed, working day and night for months. There was a stopover to see my daughter Aislinn from my first marriage, who lived with her husband, a successful computer animator (did "Walking with Dinosaurs"). Aislinn was working at Harper Collins sifting through the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts. She later gained her teacher's cert and got a job in a nearby primary school. Her little boy, Oscar, was in diapers when I arrived.
They lived one stop from the Surbiton railway station. So while she was breakfasting and sending husband to work in west end London, and attending to Oscar's needs, I made myself scarce, spending an hour or two surveying newspaper buying habits.
This was expanding on what I had already done in Hong Kong. Having heard of an iMail circulation figure bandied about in the advertising department—30,000—and not believing it, I decided to find out for myself. I am used to bilingual environments and newspaper sales within them and there was no way 30,000 was anywhere near the true number.
So I went a block from my flat to Tong Chong Street, and stood across from a 7-Eleven where a dozen dailies were stacked. I noted who bought what, their gender and age. As there were so many American and European firms including the South China Morning Post (SCMP) lodged in adjoining interlocking buildings all named after English counties, as well as a row of Anglo restaurants and bars, it was clearly a good place to maximise sales of English newspapers.
According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the SCMP had a circ of 80,000, roughly the size of the Ottawa Citizen. So I noted how many SCMPs were sold against the number of iMails, and proportionalised the result over three days' observations between 7:30 and 9am to come up with a figure in the thousands. I also did an hour in Central, where the gweilo count was much lower, and another hour on Lamma Island, where the gweilo count was higher, and at the Discovery Bay Ferry Terminal where the count was higher still. All points except Central, where there were too few purchases to make a judgment, replicated each other’s pattern. The gender ratios were much the same in terms of purchases, ages were all over the shop, but gender was the most surprising - 85 to 90 per cent of the purchasers were male. As for my original mission, using my SCMP base numbers, I reckoned the iMail circulation to be 3,000, though I told the guys on the business desk 3,500 so they wouldn't feel bad. I was pleased that when iMail finally folded, the official announcement said it could not continue with a circulation of 3,000.
It was with these surveys behind me that I eagerly got off from my one-stop ride from South London's Thames Ditton to the Surbiton railway station platform. Demographically, this was the ideal place to sell a newspaper, where the inhabitants are acquisitive, young, upwardly mobile, double income, no kids. Just the sort the iMail would want as readers.
My mission was to see if the gender gap was the same as it was in Hong Kong. It was. It established itself immediately and repeatedly as successive trains swept away platform loads of people to be replaced by new platform loads, as they were disgorged by buses arriving at the station and now crossing the bridge and trotting down the stairs to the London-bound trains.
I noted that all these well turned out people were almost 50:50 male and female. Men bought the newspaper with exact change, while what few women who bothered, took their time to look over the selection and then fished through handbags before fishing for coins in purses.
Same as Hong Kong. The real surprise, though, was the new player on the field, the free distribution newspaper, which I later learned first started in Sweden as an international brand called Metro. It was a winner among women, the born-to-shop types beloved of advertising departments and retailers the world over.
I didn't pay them much mind at first because my focus was on newsstand sales. Then I took note. First that so many people had them and then, surprise! surprise!—women held them as often as men.
"Eureka!" I muttered to myself.
I almost couldn't wait to get back to the office. There was a way to beat the SCMP after all. It was just as handicapped as we were in not being able to reach women because we both operated paid-for newspapers, which were unpopular among them. If we could demonstrate how a free newspaper could reach 90 per cent of women while paid-for papers only reached 10 per cent of them, we'd be away in a hack, as we say in Ireland.
On my return, I tried to convey my findings to various people, but no one was interested. New executives I had not yet met in the Sing Tao organization regarded me with suspicion, as if I were up to no good. One man who was in charge of circulation numbers of various publications regarded me with barely suppressed hostility when I told him about my survey results.
I again gave up, as I had done with the Montreal Daily News, the difference being at MDN I gave up because the situation was hopeless, and nothing could be done to save it. At the iMail, there was every hope that things could be turned around by coming out as a freebee.
Years later this was actually done, but not before it reverted to its old name, the Hong Kong Standard. First, it became a financial paper, a hopeless quest given the top-doggedness of the SCMP, and later a general interest freebee. But it stood for nothing. While it did not challenge the SCMP, it had never been so popular, probably gaining market share if only because the SCMP was losing it as men fled ever-feminising newspapers for the diversity of the Internet.
Sandra had departed when I returned. Abe Chung was the acting chief, but it didn't look like she would get the permanent post. I backed her totally not because she could save the day, not that she ever had such a thought in mind, but because she was reasonable to work with. There was now a sense of gathering doom about the place, and the only hope was to keep the money monsoon going as long as possible and collect any big bucks while they were still collectable.
I was depressed to see my orders disregarded in my absence regarding the Star Ferry, one of the things hotel guests could see from their windows. I wanted a boy story, with the historical development of the ferry with pictures and engine horsepower, details of how it worked technically. What came back was how lovely the view was and lots of empty puffery repeating what everyone knew or suspected to be true.
I did get a good piece from Winsome on tailor touts in Kowloon—how India touts serve Chinese backroom tailors to get the finest cloth to make cheapest suits. My thought was to run the story again but slotting two or three different tailors into the story in exchange for advertising. Sandra thought it was a good idea, but now she was gone.
Then came a man called Michael Denmark, something of an east end London spiv, to take over Sandra's position. They brought in another Canadian as a designer, who was to control the magazine and made things difficult for me. It was obvious that they wanted me out. I asked Lynch if I could resume my seat on the night business desk: "I fear not," he said. By this time Sean was long gone. There was a new business editor who brought in his assistant, but they kept Ken Gangwani on as chief sub.
A few days after leaving the iMail, not quite thinking about getting a new job yet, I was consumed with the question of how a silencer was attached to a pistol. I mistakenly thought it clamped on to a revolver, but wondered how effective that could be, given that the barrel-cylinder gap is hardly a perfect seal and would allow gases and noise to escape. But there could not be a clamp on an automatic because it would impede the function of the slide. So how did it work? I decided to ask Geoff Crocker, a fellow member of the Montreal Pistol Club attached to the Black Watch. He was now in Sydney, but within email range and knew about such things.
Geoff was most unfriendly and impatient with me, which surprised me as we were good mates. "It's attached inside the barrel. Busy now. No time now. Turn on your TV."
Half thinking there was a fellow explaining to Hong Kong and Australia—perhaps the whole world—how a silencer was attached to the muzzle of an automatic pistol, I turned on the TV.
It was the first 9/11 coverage. The US was under attack by Muslim forces; footage of New York's World Trade Centre collapsing was repeated after two passenger jets crashed into it. So that was it.
Joel and I got together that day. I can't remember what he said except that it seemed to have fantastic predictions that I didn't buy. He said there would be 30,000 dead from the World Trade Centre. I said 3,000 and turned out to be right. It was in the morning and the day's activity was just getting underway. Everyone was in a state of shock.
Just as I was emotionally distant at the time of Kennedy's assassination, my mind turned to the practical ramifications. This was an interesting use of passenger aircraft as artillery, though it was probably a one-off deal because measures would be taken to see that it would not as easy to pull off again. Still, the deployment of suicide bombers might well be decisive in future.
I was already impressed with the Tamil Tigers’ suicidal attack a few months earlier at Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport that destroyed the Air Lankan fleet on the ground. Given that Sri Lanka's No. 1 GDP earner was remittances from housemaids working overseas (No. 2 was tourism followed by tea exports), I figured that the Tamil Tigers struck a far bigger blow for their cause than Al Qaeda did for theirs. Hostile Muslim powers hardly knocked out America's No. 2 GDP earner—not even close. How I wished I could talk to people who thought in these terms. Better still work for a newspaper that covered wars that way.
A few days later, I was with Joel at the Foreign Correspondents Club when I spotted Andrew Lynch sitting alone, which was unusual. I decided to have a word with him, to regret that things did not work out as well as I had hoped, and that I could not have been more helpful to him and the paper. It was clear that he did not want to talk to me, and I took the hint. Soon after he was joined by the publisher and the financial editor who succeeded Sean Kennedy.
That night my brother and I went our separate ways, but the next morning he called and I started rabbiting on about some 9/11 related thing.
He interrupted me and said: "It is time to stop thinking about the end of the world and receive the news of the day. The iMail has folded. More than 100 have been laid off."
I thought I might return to Canada, perhaps rekindle my application to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service showing off my research on terrorism. Now that my mother's fellow travelling was a dead letter and we were after Muslims, I just might make it through. That was not to be. I discovered that when the Russian Communists were no longer in business, CSIS had laid off its Russian experts. Now they rehired those who were fired, so again there was no room at the inn.
But I was not depending on that. I had discovered that the Hansards of the UK, Canada and Australia as well as the Congressional Record contained marketable news, and I would set out to market it from my own website, legislativenews.com.