Quite how I began my Red Period the next four years is blurry. Perhaps it was Pat Nagle's innocuous speech to a general staff meeting held in the congenial atmosphere of the War Amps one afternoon when the company was having doubts about the wisdom of the stultifying routine it was imposing on the staff. But all he came up with was that we should come up with more good stories.
Or was it the time a journalism instructor came in to talk to us from Langara College? I found him most engaging, and I prosed on about what I thought was wrong with journalism, that it was not exploring what was new in society. I mentioned Nova magazine from London, which we were still getting, or that journalists were not appealing to the average man but to the affluent minority who could buy the goods and services advertised in newspapers.
The upshot of this was that he asked me if I would come to the college and give regular lectures on the points I had raised. I was dead keen. At last something to look forward to in my grim life jumping from frying pan to fire and back again in the steady Vancouver rain. But the office would not allow it. I was the least favoured reporter and not entitled to such a perk. Choose someone else, they said. He didn't and no one was chosen.
Or was it the endless trench warfare between the management and the union that perpetuated this stagnation of life at the Vancouver Sun? If only one side would win, I reasoned, then we could move on to better things and stop bickering over petty matters like whether staffers could have two consecutive days off.
It was then I hatched the idea of starting a newspaper within a newspaper, calling it FYI (For Your Information), which meant that it was not a directive, but taken for information purposes only. I came out with one edition, which was greeted with great interest and much astonishment. It was much like my shipping news today, with objective news stories of a few paragraphs, unobjectionable material. I included an editorial in which I announced the advent of the free press within the corporation.
Some questioned my sanity. After some reflection, so did I. Figuring I would be fired, I decided everyone in the family should have a medical checkup except for Aislinn, who was already hooked up to St Paul's Hospital for treatment. After I was given a checkup, I went to a psychiatrist to review my mental situation.
It wasn't long before he started to suggest the root problem was my marriage, and that I "had to face the possibility of marriage breakdown." He made it sound so brave, so commendable, "facing the possibility of marriage breakdown." The more he spoke of this, the better I liked it.
The question raised now put FYI on hold, and in stages of negotiation I moved out, but any time she could have stopped me by either putting the kids to bed at 8:30 or letting me do it without interference. This was refused, so in a sense, I think she threw me out of her life as much as I threw her out of mine.
About this time, Alan Ritchie of yore turned up planning to sign up at the University of British Columbia for a degree in marine biology. He had rented an entire house at Pacific and Thurlow for C$65 a montfrom CBS Television. Before long I moved in, abandoning the domestic world of perpetual complaint.The the new house was in an advanced state of decay, with its only source of heating being a livingroom fireplace, but for some reason it was regularly supplied with coal once a week for no other reason than it had always been that way. The house was in such bad shape that one would stand at one corner of the front room and have the floor fall away from a corner of the wall to expose the weed infested expanse of earth outside. CBS was waiting for it to become a building site for another block of high-rise apartments that rose all around us like asparagus in Vancouver's West End.
Ours was a truly hippy West Coast lifestyle, idyllic to some, with lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Alan made some halfhearted effort to sign up for marine biology at UBC but spent most of this time chasing harbour seals around Burrard Inlet and English Bay in his kayak. One day Alan acquired a young man with no place to stay whom we called "our 22-year-old unemployed vegetarian." He would rail on about eating meat, to which I would reply, singing the Flanders and Swann Cannibal Song and its most persuasive lyric: "If the Ju-Ju had meant us not to eat people, he would have not made us of meat."
We settled by the small kitchen adjacent to the small sitting room with the fireplace. There were a couple of big battered easy chairs and a serviceable Winnipeg couch. Alan put his scrounging skills to good use, and we soon had a first-rate sound system cobbled together from discarded bits and pieces. My contribution was seeing that an abandoned wooden telephone cable spool would make a handsome coffee table.
Soon life took on a more pleasant aspect. There was less need to go out drinking as home life was truly a refuge from work. And since everyone was a Marxist more or less, or tolerant of such persuasions, there was no need to think much about it.
Life at work changed, too. I was moved to the finance department, as it was thought that I could not be separated from the waterfront and that my wishes would be better accommodated there than among the general reporters. I ended up doing odd jobs that cropped up from time to time. One man from Edmonton, a middling manager walk-in, told a story of how he met the high and mighty of the Eastern Bloc just because he wore several service club lapel pins. Communist underlings introduced him to overlings and then to even higher-ups, each assuming he was a Canadian VIP because he flashed a lot of expensive-looking lapel pins that they took to be important badges of rank.
Or interviewing the owners of Sneaky Pete, a cat that had fallen 16 storeys twice - and survived. I called the Guinness Book of Records, vainly trying to claim the international cat falling title. But they were adamant that Toronto's Fat Olive's 21-storey fall trumped Sneaky Pete's 16-storey fall even if it happened twice. Still, I had the opportunity to blame perfidious Toronto and all the dastardly men of the East who had once again stolen what was rightfully a British Columbian honour.
There were several stories of this sort that sustained me, but in the meantime I learned the rudiments of financial journalism, of which, like most general reporters, I was ignorant. And as I came to know more, I took pleasure in explaining to them how one bought money and sold debt. And in later years, when looking for work in London, this knowledge improved my employability to such a degree that getting jobs was hardly a problem at all.
Perhaps the most bizarre story occurred from an unusual finance department assignment to cover a convention of the Canadian Public Relations Society. Like other reporters, I had dealt with public relations people, known as PR men or flaks, many times. Such encounters were thoroughly routine.
Which was perfectly fine if we were talking about whatever they were flakking about, because the business of their clients was the subject of whatever story we were to write. But to talk to flaks about flakking was another matter. Try as I might, I could not find the nub of a story. Reviewing copious notes availed me nothing, only a profound emptiness.
Returning to the office with growing panic, I sat down at the typewriter and did what I do in times of desperation--turn to verse.
Thus I started:
"The charm, it oozed
From careful lips,
Then carried in the air
For at the flaks convention
There were plenty more to spare
"Their words they came
In measured tones
Geared for all variety,
For respectability is all
in their PR Society.
"Public Relations is the name
For the funny trade they're in
For as oft as they dispense a truth,
They cover up a sin.
"They're the 'spokesmen' you read
about spouting the company line
And if persuasion fails to work
Then you are wined and dined
"'That's not true,' said one
Jack Oldham, spokesman
for Canada Trust.
'If you try that today,
you will certainly go bust."
"We regard them warily
We of the Fourth Estate,
For once they were a part of us
And we tend to fear our fate.
"For one day soon, a flak
Will come to me and say,
Come Chris, come flak with us
Add 5,000 to your pay.
"And the horror is that I shall go
All eager for the treat
My face washed, my hair combed,
My shoes all clean and neat.
"And for that, independence's lost
Gone is freedom's base
For then I'll go a flakking
To plead the corporate case."
I was no more than a stanza or two into it when the financial editor, a gruff fellow of about 60, approached me from the rear and looked at what I was doing, demanded to see it, and then gruffly said: "Finish it," and harrumphed over his desk and demanded to know whether the "Washington Copper" story was in on the wire.
All went well after that; the departmental sub even came up with a rhyming headline for my story and it developed into one of those three-day wonders, with McCandlish saying: "That did you a lot of good." My stock was always rising or falling around the place.
The PR society was mildly furious and demanded that we give them facilities to hold a seminar in the Pacific Press Building, which we did. It attracted quite a few journalists from both our paper and the Province--anything to get away from just sitting around the office on standby. All of which put more positive attention on me.
As the waterfront is a secretive place, there were few press releases that would land on the news desks of newspapers as a matter of routine. The Province newspaper down the hall had a full-time waterfront man, but he was an old fellow who hardly did anything other than make himself useful rewriting press releases on other matters when there was nothing else to do.
I envied what he had in terms of scope, that the waterfront could be treated as its own bailiwick with a full range of stories, rather than general news as it occurred, such as strikes and threats of strikes and business news, which tended to be much the same thing. My interest was in the fate of the port vis-a-vis other ports, and I also took an interest in fishing. It was the barest infancy of containerisation on the west coast. Vancouver was mostly an export bulk port, and some general cargo--mostly imports--arrived breakbulk as very little arrived in containers in the early '70s.
What the Vancouver Sun lacked was a comprehensive spirit about the waterfront, seeing it as producing a full range of stories that would fit into an entire newspaper: hard news, soft news, adventure tales, odd brighteners, apart from the usual business news. But it could not be generated by the odd strike or press release. It required a ferret who would follow his nose.
So I tried to find better waterfront stories than the non-waterfront stories the financial department thought up. Sometimes I won and sometimes I lost. I usually lost when the story I was working on was not a business story, at which point I might appeal to Pat Nagle on the city desk to overrule Finance. That might be successful, but I was building up a mighty store of resentment, to the point they moved me from Finance to General again. To an extent the problem resurfaced when I wanted to work on a business story rather than a general story.
While Pat Nagle was usually good about this, he was more accessible from Finance than he was from General, where I was under the more direct supervision of Chester Grant and Lorraine Shore, whose names live on in infamy as being my fiercest critics and bureaucratic fusspots.
Nonetheless, it was easier to peel from their neat formations. I might add I was not the only one so persecuted. I now sat in a double row--called "Blood Alley"--of ex-city editors who were now embittered souls who lost any spirit they ever had, though they radiated the highest competence and batted back whatever was given to them with the greatest professionalism. So sitting among them was something of an honour, and so it was regarded.
Despite mean-spirited assistant city editors ambushing me with assignments without warning--the salmon run and the army camp job--they invariably backfired on them. I might have missed an appointment or two or had a waterfront day plan screwed up, but the docks are used to things not arriving on time and are far more forgiving in that respect than the rest of the world.
I had quite a generous interview with Harry Bridges, the communist leader and founder of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, since renamed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The reason the interview was so generous was that he had nothing to do as he awaited the arrival of delegates to the union convention in Vancouver. The problem was discovered quickly enough by the local delegates of the ILWU: the vast bulk of the American delegates thought the convention was being held in the Holiday Inn in Vancouver, Washington, rather than the Holiday Inn in Vancouver, British Columbia, 300 miles and a six-hour drive away. So there was Harry Bridges wondering where everybody was, and more than willing to while away the time with me. Sadly, I was ill-prepared for this opportunity, only wanting to cover obvious points of coping with automation, the answers to which were much the same nearly 50 years later.
I did not know till much later that he was a communist and subject to deportation orders that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where they were quashed. Reading the Wikipedia entry I was surprised to learn that he began with the East Coast International Longshoremen's Association, with which I had many dealings on the Montreal waterfront. In fact, each union's prefix "international" was justified by the fact Canada was included. Frankly, I had always found that the main difference between the two was that the ILA was chiefly criminal, while the ILWU was chiefly political.
Of course, I had been aware that the Vancouver Canada's ILWU Local 500 was in a constant battle between the communists and the astrologers.
The one thing that I remember about Harry Bridges was that he was a wiry old man of 73. When he wanted to show me a document to illustrate a point, he excused himself and walked briskly over to the elevator, but finding it on a distant floor going in the wrong way, he sprinted to the stairs, ran up to the third floor, got what he wanted, ran down in a jiffy and immediately launched into the point he was making.
Another communist, or former communist, whom I became involved with was Homer Stevens, the head of United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, who broke with the party over the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
How the fishermen were being hard done by I quite forget, but what I learned from my experience with them is the advantage in journalism of describing in as much detail as possible the actual steps in a process that one's subjects are subjected to. I got a clue when explaining an arcane waterfront cargo handling procedure, which was central to understanding a dispute. After that story appeared, I received appreciative comments from colleagues. But it was after the rave reaction I got on the fishermen's relations with the canneries and how they were paid that I became convinced that detail itself was a key to winning reader interest.
What makes this so - and this is the hard part - is managing to keep the description simple and not a parade of learning. Of course, when doing so one risks oversimplification, the avoidance of which requires repeated, tiring and often tiresome consultations with one's expert sources, who often are so familiar with the processes they have lived with all their working lives that they find it hard to simplify. A situation which necessitates repeated interviews, particularly in the case of BC fishing, the details of which were hard to understand.
My waterfront friends in those days were Lou Kaufman, for a time president of Local 500 of the ILWU, and Jim Greenlees, a cargo expeditor, who worked for a big importer and was also the local representative of the Canadian Importers Association. He had the first cellphone I ever saw.
Lou was the long-haired head of the local longshoremen, who were wary of the BC maritime employers association, but he was ready to keep disputes local, not engulf the entire port. He ran the union, with the able assistance of his wife, by the horoscope, which was the great rage of the 1970s, and was set against the embittered communist faction under a surly, snarling man called Kennedy and his Indian sidekick Garcia.
Being a Marxist, I was big on democracy and thought the dockers union, being democratic, was best suited to run the port, perhaps setting up a stevedoring cooperative. Lou said such a thing was entirely too ambitious for a local union, especially since the membership was getting good wages and living a good life. Despite his hippy-dippy appearance with billowing white embroidered shirts and fashionably flared jeans, he was 50 or more. I would go to his nice house midway up a mountain and note that his balcony was tastefully roped off with thick ships' hawsers and other nautical decorative items that seemed to have been purloined from the docks over time. The rest of the house was fitted out with tasteful furnishing and astrological charts that undoubtedly guided his every step.
While I was analysed by his pleasant, pretty wife, I considered the validity of astrology, thinking that since it had been scientifically accepted that the tides were moved about by the moon, there might be reason to think that the position of the moon at time of birth, when humans are at their most watery and least solid, might shape a human one way rather than another. But I could not accept that the stars would have any impact, their gravitational pull being too slight. Which left me considering that there might be some validity to Chinese lunar astrology, but thinking no more about it.
I could see that however bogus conventional astrology was, it served Lou Kaufman well. It made him brave and fearful at times of his own choosing. I recalled that Churchill said something that seemed to fit. There are times when doing something is better than doing nothing. Or as my old East Anglian Daily Times colleague David Twiston Davies said about the weird ways of our seance-driven former Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King: "He may have let the country be run by his mother, and she may have been dead, but she never told him to put a foot wrong."
There was something of that with Lou. He would choose to negotiate with the employers' chief Ed Strang when it was bad for Geminis and good for Scorpios. Whether Stang's Gemini nature and Lou's Scorpio sign had any bearing, it gave one side initiative and the other a surprise.
One day, a Sunday morning about 8 o'clock, I received a phone call from one of Lou's men I knew to go down to the Terminal Dock to "help," which seemed a strange request, but I mounted my bike and set off. It was one of the oldest quays in the harbour, so it was assigned for small older ships. This was a Greek tramp, which I soon discovered was in the grip of a strange dispute. Evidently, two thuggish Greek officers had thoroughly beaten four of the ship's crew, all Filipinos, who were complaining about not being given back pay.
Lou could not come, I was told, and I was to do what I could to make the situation better and not worse. These instructions were repeated by the longshoremen when I arrived. By now they had become familiar with me on a bicycle.
What had happened was that the dockers were told about the beatings by the crew. Without seeking authority from anyone else, they told the sailors to picket the ship, helping them out by ripping up cardboard boxes to make placards on which they scribbled "Cruel officers" and "Stop violence" and such like.
The ILWU men then told them to march up and down in front of the ship along the quay, and this would prevent the dockers crossing their picket lines. This prevented the ship's cargo from being discharged. The officers summoned the Greek consul general and the dockers helped the Filipino crew to phone their consul general.
Which was about the time I arrived, moments ahead of the Greek consul. No sooner were we in the wheelhouse than Davy Lomas screeched up to the gangway and ostentatiously parked his big car in the way of everyone. Lomas was the Teamsters local business agent and wanted to know why his members' trucks could not pick up cargo.
I started to explain as much as I knew. I had not explained much, when the Filipino consul arrived. Both diplomats were nattily dressed. Only I wore a jacket and tie, being prepared for anything. The rest of them, including the officers, were in pretty ragged mufti except for peaked caps, their only badges of rank.
The proceedings commenced with a dispute between the captain and the Greek consul over who was in charge. As this was a Greek flagged ship, the consul said it was Greek territory and that he was in charge. I knew this to be nonsense, because any ship in the territorial waters of another state was subject to the laws of that state. I told him so, which prompted the question from all--who was I, anyway? I said I was with the Vancouver Sun, which had the combined effect of making all aware that what transpired here would be known to the world outside, and impressing the two consular officials, who knew the power of the Vancouver Sun.
Taking advantage of this moment of reflection, I suggested that I do what journalists do best and give an account of what had transpired, inviting all, including a Filipino rating who had joined the gathering, to make corrections to my account as they saw fit. Only when I related the account of the beating did the first mate object, but he was silenced by the captain, who reminded him that I had only said what the Filipino crew had said.
The Greek officers retired with their consul to another cabin to caucus. After a time, they emerged, and the Greek consul went to his car where there was a phone link and made the necessary calls to Athens to fix the back pay. He returned to the wheelhouse and retired to confer with the Filipino consul, after which all was settled. The pay would be delivered within 24 hours, with my unofficial warning that as it took the ship a week or two to unload and reload cargo, the dockers would resume their strike if the Greeks reneged.
Although Davy Lomas was pleased enough with the outcome, that his trucks could go about their business, he sourly remarked on the Filipinos' fate: "I wouldn't want to be in their shoes once they put out to sea."
Back at the office, my story was rejected by Pat Nagle himself, with a memo saying he could not believe that the "longshoremen were the source of good order on the waterfront."
As much as I was able, I covered the waterfront often in the company of Jim Greenlees, whose hair was as long as mine. Rather like Lou, he seemed too old for the hippy garb he wore. As a cargo expeditor, Jim's job was to find cargo importers were expecting, often rooting around in the holds of ships or waterfront sheds, and use his abundant cheery charm to cajole nearby dockers to re-prioritise the cargo he wanted and get it on a train or a truck. Typically, he would use his big early '70s-size cell phone and phone the consignee in Montreal, Toronto or Winnipeg to announce his find, or often as not seek further guidance on whether what he found was the consignment sought.
I remember how he was pleased with my idea of him having a camera phone. I knew that the video phone had been a reality for a few years, but also that it had been a marketing disaster. There was no demand for people wanting to show how they looked to an unexpected caller. But in Jim's work it would be of great use if the camera was focused not on him but on what he was looking at, and he agreed wholeheartedly.
It was a time when the China market was just opening up, but the Japanese exports, first with cameras and office equipment like photocopiers and more recently with cars, were approaching their zenith. There was one importer shipping in masses of facecloths and small towels from China in handsome wooden chests. It turned out the contents of the chests were of little value, but the importer had developed a market for the chests. One time Jim took a three-man delegation from a China trade mission into the holds to demonstrate what he did. The visitors were amazed, not to mention greatly impressed when Jim let them talk on the phone to their families in Shanghai.
My Marxism, frail as it was, received its first serious blow when Lou said he would not be running for re-election as head of the union simply because it was inadvisable for Scorpios to undertake such a project at that time.
I was disappointed but took it in stride and arranged to meet the man who would be president, the card-carrying communist Kennedy and his ever-present sidekick Garcia. They, knowing how close I was to Lou, were suspicious, and when I broached my idea of the union starting a stevedoring co-operative, they were dismissive. "We don't want to own the cow. We just want to milk it."
I tried to think that these people were bad and Marxism was still good, but the first serious and permanent fissure appeared in my New Leftist edifice. It would take another two years before it crumbled entirely.
The trade story I was most proud of, but went unappreciated though its significance was deep and long lasting, and would have been regarded as sensational in a trade journal.
The transatlantic container trade, barely five years old on the East Coast, was more like five months old on the transpacific, at least in regards to Canada. There were containers moved on conventional freighters, but no cellular ships as yet.
But a weird thing happened in the US that changed the transpacific trade in ways that were never intended. The father of containerisation, Malcom McLean, who had been loading containers in hollowed out tankers, was running a profitable service between New Jersey and Houston. He then went to the Pentagon, which was soon sold on having their logistics needs served by McLean's Sealand containers in Vietnam. McLean even got the Pentagon to pay for the return trip as there was little to export from Vietnam.
But far from returning empty, Sealand dropped into Hong Kong to load a range of containerable cargo, ditto Shanghai, ditto Pusan, ditto Yokohama and Kobe. So Sealand was getting paid three times for two voyages.
This greatly alarmed the Japanese, who saw their Niagara of high-tech products being carried away in American ships to the markets of the world. They met this intolerable situation by launching a containership building programme. Shortly after, the war in Vietnam ended and there was no westbound cargo to replace the military materiel.
And my story, which ended up on one column on a back page tucked between two small obscure ads, only announced that a shipload of empty containers had been returned to Japan.
I kept seeing the psychiatrist every week long after I took his advice and "faced up" to the possibility of marital breakdown, simply because I got out of that horrible office for what amounted to an afternoon of talking about myself - the key seductive element of psychiatry, I've come to think - with the option of cancelling the appointment and re-scheduling it at a more convenient time. It suited both of us. He could still charge for the session and I got away from the office.
Germane to this tale is that I had the doctor keep an eye on a container yard across from his office and asked him to tell me if they ever were taken away. One day they were, and a whole ship of empties headed back to Japan.
That has been, and still is, the problem with transpacific containerisation - it's largely a one-way street. That's because exports from the west coast are largely bulk cargo, lumber, coal, potash oil, wheat. This means that 90 per cent of the containers that arrived full from the Orient returned empty.
Since then, there have been changes. Logs and lumber have been cut to fit into containers, various grains are bought in quantities that suit boxes. West coast apples, peaches and almonds have been marketed for containers, with reefer boxes growing exponentially, carrying poultry and pork. Not to mention waste paper and electronic waste for Asian recycling, though this has come under effective attack by environmentalists. Westbound rates are so cheap that these low-value commodities can be moved profitably, but are now impeded by regulation.
I remember Al Shehan, the reporter who sat next to me; the only one who hadn't been someone truly important on Blood Alley, as the two rows of eight desks were called. I remember he didn't like me calling a family afflicted with heroin addiction "MacDonald."
"Why can't can you call them Smith?" he said. "There are too many people called MacDonald who might be offended." He was smart enough to know that there were plenty of Smiths about, whose name might serve just as well. But I knew what he meant, that the Smiths and Joneses of the world had become used to having their names being "generic-ed." And it was for that very reason I did not want it to be so. I chose MacDonald because I had read somewhere that MacDonald was the most common name in Canada. Whether it is or was, it was certainly abundant and seemed real in the sense it was someone one would know. A Smith or a Jones was almost as remote to real life as Jane or John Doe.
That aspect was central to what I had in mind for the piece. That, combined with my wishing to delve into the deep details of the subject, adding dashes of Tom Wolfe's taste for brand names and technical specifics.
The opportunity came at an awkward time. I had just quit the Vancouver Sun and was heading off to a new job. I had given my two weeks’ notice when I met two brothers and a sister who were living with their fretful mother in a house not far from Kitsilano Beach.
I found that not only were they willing to talk and reveal themselves, their mother was willing to let me into their lives, too. The teenagers thought it would be fun to be in the Vancouver Sun, and the desperate, exasperated mother hoped that some good would come out of the experience. I palled around with them all day and all night, buying heroin and doing up. They were perfectly normal, even pleasant and witty when they were high, and snarly and nasty when they were not.
One time they got news of a bust and the outcome of another bust that wound up in court, learning that when the police seize three kilos of hash in a raid only one kilo turns up in court. I was shocked, but not the MacDonalds; this was all par for the course. The police used the dope for themselves and their friends, perhaps sold some to dope-dealing informants. Remember this was the age of Serpico when police corruption was rife worldwide.
In the end, it was one of my better efforts: an inside look of what life was like with a family of heroin addicts, and the various things they did to keep going. My goal, successfully achieved, was to show how ordinary and everyday they were, just like us. It was the very thing that Al Shehan objected to when I chose the name MacDonald.
As is often the case, this was not to be appreciated until after publication. That was a special treat in itself, because the paper spread the story across the top of the front page, a fact I learned days later when I received a bulk envelope containing the front section of the Vancouver Sun. I had already begun working at the National Enquirer in Lantana, Florida, near West Palm Beach.