To much astonishment, I appeared at the press club, more properly the BC Newsman's Club, the night before my departure from Vancouver to Lantana, Florida, a changed man. So much so that Bill Galt, the managing editor, shouted over to Pat Nagle at the other end of the bar, "Hire that man!" Like a soldier who had changed his Arctic whites for jungle fatigues, I had cut my shoulder-length hair of West Coast hippiedom to the short-back-and-sides of super-conventional West Palm Beach. I now sported a tropical worsted sports jacket with suitable shirt and tie and tan cotton trousers. The sole survivor from my old look were my old, but now polished, brown brigade boots.
I was off to the National Enquirer. In the opinion of many, if not most, to be consigned to the journalistic damned. Talking to my colleagues at the Vancouver Sun and the Province, I was greatly struck by how hidebound they could be in condemning the National Enquirer without thought and how determined they were not to listen to or look at the evidence I presented. The orthodox view was that such papers were trash - and that was that.
They all knew our former colleague Jim McCandlish was there and another of our former Sun staffers, Jeff Wells, was soon to join us. But the stories of how they got there only added to the trash party's case against the supermarket tabloids. Jeff Wells had returned to his native Australia and was said to be working for some scurrilous journal called The Truth. McCandlish, not to be outdone, managed to make the Guinness Book of World Records at the Hong Kong Standard for the biggest newspaper apology. He wrote a story saying that a Cathay Pacific crash was caused by pilot error, and for one the few times - if not the only time - in his career, he was caught out in a complete, abeit accidental, falsehood. Cathay demanded a front page apology. It not only covered the front page but ran for three consecutive days during which a major typhoon struck, toppling apartment buildings, which led to an unholy row over the depth, strength and number of pilings that supported such buildings, which were shooting up everywhere at the time. All of which did not assist me in making a spirited defence of what I called the "real movie."
I had long been aware that newspapers were not pitched to the average reader, but to those who could buy the goods and services advertised. I had also been aware that 70 per cent of a newspaper's revenue came from advertising and not the money from actually selling individual newspapers.
That's what aroused my interested in supermarket tabloids. In those days, they had little advertising. Ninety-five per cent of their revenue came from the money paid for each copy. So what interested the greatest number of people interested their editors. There was a certain mindless purity in the process. If most people were interested in broken beer bottles, then everything one could know about broken beer bottles would be unearthed and made the common property of all. It was, I said, the "real movie."
During the 26 hours after I arrived at Vancouver airport I experienced one of those horror stories the airline industry imposes on hapless passengers from time to time. While nothing worse has occurred to me or anyone I know, it is enough to say, that what was supposed to be an 12-hours journey, first from Vancouver to Chicago, and then after an hour layover, and four hours to West Palm Beach, became something else entirely.
Instead, it involved a surprise stopover in Seattle, then stacking over Cleveland when we were diverted at news that a hurricane had hit Chicago, then a race to Detroit when we ran out of fuel while circling, followed by a chaotic switch between Terminal A and and Terminal B and back and forth in Motor City, then my first ever 747 flight to Chicago, to be followed by more confusion at chaotic O'Hare, strewn debris of broken bottles, sleeping bags and weeping ballet dancers, then a flight to Atlanta and another wait for final flight to West Palm. But as one's travel horror stories are of greater interest to oneself than to others, I shall spare you further detail on the advice of my editor.
When I at last arrived at the motel, I called Jim McCandlish, who drove over and was anxious to show me the sights and amenities and not at all interested in talking about what I was thinking about. In the 1970s, Lantana was not yet part of a dense conurbation that spread northward from Miami, but a scattering of houses and businesses on the east and west sides of the I-95 highway, with the Intracoastal Waterway running parallel to what amounted to a series of elongated islands, from where the expanse of the south Atlantic lay to windward.
We drove to a pier from which Jim jumped into a motorboat, and we soon sped off along the canal-like Intracoastal Waterway. Spotting black blobs floating to the water, I cried out in alarm. "Deadheads!" I shouted, pointing to them.
"They're coconuts," he said, plowing right through them. He made much of my mistake thinking they were deadheads, partially waterlogged logs that have not quite sunk and can rip the bottom out of any boat unlucky enough to run into one.
Later we met girls and went to the bar, seemingly the only one National Enquirer staffers frequented, where I was introduced to a few of our number. It was pleasant and like everywhere else air conditioned, a ubiquitous whirring sound like that of an airliner idling on the field. It was a sound I had not heard in Vancouver, where there was hardly any need for such devices, or in Montreal, where their use was largely restricted to new buildings and public venues.
The next day I arrived at the office. It was a freestanding low-slung bungalow-like place about the size of a neighborhood strip mall, with a big lawn in front, hard by the I-95, and a parking lot to the rear. At one end of the building there were writers, almost exclusively women, who had windows on three sides and all the amenities within reach. Then came the article editors' section, with windows on one side. On the western windowless side, various machines like photocopiers and amazing letter answering machines with a couple of girls to operate them took up about half the wall. The other half comprised two same-size offices occupied by the two main men, Bill Dyke and Ian Calder, leaders of what was jokingly called the "Scotia Nostra" in reference to the surprisingly high number of Scottish accents about the place - perhaps only slightly more than the British accents. Among the articles editors, American accents would have been only a substantial minority. What few writers I met were American girls, though we articles editors had little to do with them. We gave what material we had amassed to Dyke or Calder, who if satisfied would send it on to the writers and later approve or disapprove of their work before giving it to the production team at the other end of the building. And it was said that once approved, it was sent to Generoso (Gene) Pope, the owner, for final approval.
I once had a step-sister who worked as a researcher for Time magazine, when Time was a truly towering institution. I became quite impressed with its division of editorial labour, with reporters, writers, researchers and editors all working as a smooth machine. The National Enquirer at the time came the closest to that style of organisation I have ever encountered. I was impressed in the same way that I had been with the very different East Anglian Daily Times. These were both model institutions doing all that could be done within their particular circumstances.
The AEs' room was made up of two rows of 12 desks grouped in pods of two and a wide aisle in between. Between each AE's desk was seated a female a/AE, effectively a secretary. But such perks only came once one had passed the "try-out" stage. These a/AEs were American ex-junior reporters from "local bugles," as we called smaller newspapers.
I remember one saying to me in a rare idle moment that she found British journalists so much more imaginative than American ones, whom she still counted among her closest friends, unable to become comfortable with the social life of these raucous alien creatures who didn't care about Watergate and certainly did not talk about it ceaselessly as Americans did.
Next to the AEs' area was a reception area, beyond which were the reporters, mustered in pods of two or three attached to an articles editor. As a try-out AE, I did not have any any such pod, so Jim was working to get Jeff Wells in his AE's pod. Jeff had just arrived that day from Sydney, but was taking a day off on account of his 24-hour flight. My flights and layovers were 26 hours, but weren't supposed to be, so I got no time off.
A typical day at the National Enquirer began with girls arriving pushing shopping carts piled with the world's newspapers and magazines. The AEs would search through these for material that might make the grade as a story either as is, or with a fresh angle stressing an aspect of the original story that had been downplayed, or by combining two or more elements from a story to make up an entirely new story.
The atmosphere in the AEs' room was friendly, distant and highly competitive. We were to draw up "Lede Sheets" constantly. These were basic printed forms on which one wrote proposed headlines and a sentence or two supporting the attached material. The girls who brought in the papers on shopping carts would cheerfully get what you wanted in terms of any new publication or extra copies of the most popular ones.
From astrology being all the rage at the time, I managed to get one assignment on the board, after submitting a Lede Sheet saying: "Divorce Rate Increases as Uranus in the House of Libra." To which I attached the article from which I took the dread warning. By the end of the day I managed to find a story in the Spokane, Washington "Bugle," the tale of a 94-year-old barber who was still clipping hair, which sadly did not get on my board because another AE snagged it first.
The competition to get on the board was intense. Colour-coded cards appeared under one's name - or embarrassingly, did not. Each colour indicated a priority. So some Lede Sheets would take less than an hour before they appeared on the board marked RUSH!
My astrological warning took three days to appear in its low priority anaemic yellow. And that after having sent in a blizzard of Lede Sheets in with various ideas. None came back approved, but I kept sending in more. Jim was off to Nebraska interviewing Mrs America, getting her secrets on 12 ways to keep your husband. And Jeff was off doing something else, somewhere else. This was the reporter's life, once described as three weeks on the road and one week at home. I befriended a South African AE. He had been a Reuters correspondent who had interviewed Gene Pope, and the National Enquirer publisher was so pleased with the result, he offered him a job as an AE. The AE job paid US$40,000 a year to start, double what I was getting at the Vancouver Sun.
I saw Pope only once when I was there. He came into the AEs' room with a tape measure and a ruler, accompanied by one of the girls who brought in the morning papers. She was dragging an aluminum three-step folding ladder. After looking at the acoustic tiles on the ceiling, Pope climbed it, explaining his mission to all who cared to listen. There had been some complaint about the sounds of telephone conversations from our area disturbing the writers. Indeed, long distance conversations could be loud, especially overseas calls, but also those from comparatively remote locations like Lantana. We all had complete phone freedom. We could make as many calls for whatever reason as often and as long as we liked. I recalled the Brit AE behind me, who had organised the shipment of the world's largest Christmas tree from Finland, shouting over the phone: "Yes, yes General. We'll pay the whole shot, yes for all of them in first class hotels!" I wasn't there long enough to discover whether he did get the West Point Military Academy Glee Club to perform before the world's biggest decorated Christmas tree, but I did hear about the tree, which became an annual tradition, though more patriotically sourced from Washington or Oregon.
As Mr Pope ascended the ladder, he told us he had a theory about the sound and that he could, by adjusting the angle of the acoustic tiles or inserting angled tiles at intervals, fix the problem. I, of course, had no time to consider this, having to get Lede Sheets in the hope of scoring another card on the board. I had called the ex-longshore chief, more particularly his wife, to see if she could get me the name of a qualified and quotable astrologer. But when I read her the article, she said it was nonsense, that Uranus being in the house of Libra would pose no marital risk to anyone. In desperation, I turned to the South African Reuters guy, and he pulled out a file and wrote a name and number. "Tell her what you want her to say, and she'll say it," he said. He also gave me the name of a reporter who would interview her and send me the story - and lickety-split, it worked like clockwork.
Talking to my South African colleague, I soon got the idea of what I was doing wrong. He agreed with my theory about the National Enquirer, with its lack of advertising revenue and its near total dependence on street sales, but what I had failed to appreciate was that the problem was more nuanced than I had supposed. He didn't like my idea of pictures and qualifications of elite military and police forces, which I saw as a panel of uniforms and bullet-point qualifications, and other items for the same reason. It really wasn't the "real movie,” as I had imagined. My stuff, with the exception of the astrology idea, was masculine. And what was wanted, without saying so, was of female interest: "food, fashion and fucking" or "sex, recipes and disease," as Fleet Streeters would say. More men could be interested in that than women could be interested in what chiefly interested men: "war, crime, politics and sports." Like it or not, he said, that was the abiding reality of the National Enquirer.
He pointed out that the Enquirer and its rivals were now purchased at supermarket checkout counters, retail terrain that was overwhelmingly female. What's more, my South African friend noted, women read far more than men, particularly at the lower social registers.
So while I was still in admiration of the house that Gene Pope built, it became increasingly clear that I would not prosper here. I was a multi-focused dragoon in lands better suited to fixed-focus engineers bent on exploiting a narrow vein of interest where more and more had to be drawn from less and less.
I had no idea of Pope's political views, though we did cooperate with the Nixon administration, and I was told that our contacts went right to the top. Evidence of this appeared in our write-in campaigns. Occasionally we would find a "basket case," typically a child with terminal cancer or a victim of a debilitating accident, and appeal to readers for letters of love and hope. Bags of these would arrive, and among them, one from President Nixon himself, which, of course, would occasion another headline, which would benefit both the Enquirer and Nixon.
I saw Pope as something of a Scottian Technocrat. Being unhappy with my Marxism, having run into Marxists more interested in soaking the rich than helping the poor, I had strayed for a time into Scottian Technocracy, an American political philosophy of the 1920s and '30s, which was based on engineering principles. Pope, who seemed to be politically the closest thing to a technocrat, was an MIT engineer who worked in the CIA black propaganda department. After that, he bought the failing New York Enquirer for US$75,000 with the help of his father, the publisher of a New York Italian paper called Il Progresso. There were also links to the Mafia mooted.
The New York Enquirer started in the 1920s as a paper to be sold after baseball games mostly to men whose acceptable interests boiled down to politics, sports and crime. It was spun off by the Hearst Corporation to a series of owners, becoming a celebrity paper, a Broadway paper, or back to its decaffeinated sex and crime format. Rarely was there anything covered beyond the New York metropolitan area.
My history of the genre is shaky, as few if any respectable people took an interest in the development of such a despised species. But by the late '50s, there were a half dozen papers serving the same or similar markets. They were the New York Enquirer, Montreal's Midnight and Confidential Flash, Toronto's Justice Weekly and Chicago's Tattler.
For a time, the Enquirer, Midnight and Flash were in what might be called the "horror-depravity" market - "Cockroaches Devour Family of Five" would be a typical headline. Justice Weekly was the first to engage in scrupulously honest reporting. Not for any moral reasons, but because they published the details of seamy court cases, which risked lawsuits if inaccurate. The reports were supplied by professional court reporters, whose regular employers, local dailies, would not publish such reports, and certainly not at the length demanded by the Justice Weekly. Meanwhile, Tattler in Chicago reported on celebs.
In the '50s, Pope's Enquirer milked the depravity market for what it was worth. But it wasn't enough. What he wanted was to reach "50 per cent of America," and try as he might, he could not have the circulation rise beyond a million copies. Clearly, what he was doing would not achieve what he wanted done.
With that technocrat spirit of executing extreme feats of engineering, Pope asked his lieutenants from which point in the United States would it be cheapest to distribute a national newspaper. Lantana, Florida, was that place, they said, because trucks laden with manufactured goods in the north headed south, but often returned empty except for a smaller number of north-bound citrus-carriers in season. Once discovered, the news was announced to all hands, and those staying ashore in New York would not need to surrender their car keys and have the contents of their flats shifted to storage until the move could be completed. With that, the New York Enquirer became the National Enquirer without a break in weekly publication.
But with that came a new editorial approach, summed up by one AE as "Believe-It-Or-Nots." This gave birth to the Scotia Nostra -men from the Scottish Daily Mail, the Scottish Sunday Post and the Glasgow Daily Record, who knew how to make the mundane seem electrifying because the mundane was all there was in Scotland. Thus, a routine report from the American Dental Association reporting an 11 per cent increase in tooth decay would then appear under the scarifying headline as "Tooth Decay Sweeps America!" This I came to call the "conceptual scoop."
Not all went well in the changeover, though. I heard tales of the circulation plunging between the time they shed their horror-depravity male readers and regained their believe-or-not female following. Many a journalist was sacked in the process, which ended when the Scotia Nostra was firmly entrenched and circulation rose at a satisfactory rate, surpassing the million mark in a steady climb.
It was clear that I was not getting on with the job. There was also the problem of Lantana itself. No other place better fit my put-down of the US that it was "alien without being interesting." There were more bookshops in any two blocks of Montreal's St Catherine Street than there were in the entire state, it seemed. Again, there was the Vancouver problem of feeling like a paraplegic without a car. And the one oft-extolled advantage of the place, its proximity to sandy beaches and half-naked women, left me cold. I never liked the public voyeurism that was the essence of beach life. And the women were inaccessible without a car, and the ones I had encountered were vacuous and mostly known among my colleagues for whether they made noise during lovemaking or for some other attribute in that department.
I called Alan Ritchie, and decided to take him up on his offer to share a flat with him in Toronto. He was finishing up a contract as a writer for TVOntario, and was about to start another, or so he thought. TVO was the principal holding of the Ontario Educational Communications Authority, which was pretty much the leading educational film producer in North America, if not the world. Toronto was just starting to sneak up on the world as a major metropolis, draining Anglos from Montreal and the world-class corporations they founded. This was in the face of French nationalist anti-English laws that wanted their operations to operate in French when they had always operated in English. Toronto was already the third biggest film production by virtue of its production of commercials that were done more cheaply and better outside the US and to a lesser extent Britain.
There was some talk of my joining him on his next TVO documentary, but it seemed unclear when, what and where it was or would be, after many chats at TVO offices. This was, I was told, the usual fuzzy-wuzzy film world approach to employment, but it was soon apparent that I was not to make my debut as a screen writer and Alan was unlikely to gain any immediate employment. So he up and left me for London, having paid the full month's rent in the fully and richly furnished flat on handsome dead-end Walmer Road not 100 yards from Casa Loma, a full scale Gothic castle in midtown Toronto long ago seized by the city for back taxes and turned into a museum.
I decided to try my hand at any editorial job going now that TVO had vanished with Alan. The Toronto Sun, a daily tabloid, had recently started to replace the Toronto Telegram, which had been on strike for years but apart from that shred of official existence had ceased to be. I went in with one idea that didn't pan out when I asked the Ontario Addiction Research Foundation what they planned to do about tobacco use. They were dumbfounded by the question and said they had no plans at all. Twenty years later one might have managed to get a "shock-horror" story based on their inaction, but there was not the slightest level of public expectations of tobacco control in 1973 or that anything should or could be done about smoking. Not that I was surprised that I wasn't given a little something I could bluster into a scarifying headline in the National Enquirer tradition.
So I went to the newly created Sunday Sun with my failure and a weak story about the foundation's new alcoholism programme, which was pretty thin gruel. The commissioning editor agreed that that was too weak to make it into the paper, but came up with another idea in which he had more confidence than I. Simply put, it was now that the Foundation programme was in the works, where could serious drinkers go to escape the busybodies. It involved finding such a place, which he imagined to be the most disputable drinking establishment in Toronto.
I first went to the Salvation Army, as their people regularly canvassed low dives for donations and to save souls from ruin. But they were huffy and would not help. I then went to one police station, which was surprisingly co-operative and friendly but in the end thought I better go to a neighbouring precinct. Which I did, and again found them helpful and friendly. But there was disagreement among the three policemen. They all agreed I had come to the right station, guffawing at the notion that the precinct from which I had come was in any way competitive with their own. Yet all fell to cheerful bickering over which of three finalists was truly the lowest dive in Toronto. Eventually, the sergeant, his authoritative red banded forage cap sitting squarely on his superman face, who had said little but was clearly listening, said: "It's the Royal Oak." And that settled it. All ranks fell silent; the Dudley Doright sergeant had spoken; the subject was closed and I set off to find what I imagined to an establishment with a naval air and ambience.
As I trudged through the hot streets lined with nondescript red brick buildings in Cabbagetown, then a slum and now trendy, I found it punctuated with sad, languid shops with no one about. Ten years later, my mind would flash back to this very scene as I walked through what appeared to be an identical scene in Belfast on another hot day - the 12th of July, as I threaded my way through back streets to find the starting point of the Orange Day Parade.
I soon came upon the beer parlour called the Royal Oak, which I discover at this writing to be a highly respectable Royal Oak Inn. But back then, the first thing I noticed was that the place had not removed its snow shed, a structure that looked like a useless appendage in high summer. Such things are small standing-room-only wooden sheds attached to an external door to retard the escape of warm air from the inside when customers enter and exit. One goes through the inner door, down two or three steps after closing the front door, before opening the outer door which is exposed to the elements. Revolving doors serve the same purpose in a different way.
It was clear when I entered the snow shed that the serious minded police sergeant was clearly on the money when he pegged the Royal Oak as the lowest dive in Toronto, for there I had to step over a man lying on his stomach in a pool of vomit. I climbed steps and opened the inner door to what looked like a rundown Montreal tavern, with a few lone drunks sitting at small circular tables. Others in groups of twos and threes sat at other tables scattered about. In the centre, a group of five was playing cards with clusters of small beer glasses at their elbows. A lone, butchy woman with a flower tattoo on her arm and a pack of Export cigarettes rolled up in her t-shirt sleeve was playing energetically against the four men, who seemed barely awake.
I went to one of two men who looked the most sober to ask if the proprietor was about.
"That's him," he replied, pointing to the other at the table.
I realised before I spoke that I could not kick off the interview with: "You've just been nominated by Toronto's Finest as having the lowest dive in Toronto the Good. What's it like running the dirtiest saloon in town?" No, there were times when it was best to get straight to the point and times to beat about the bush.
So I spoke of the neighborhood and how much potential it had. The small burly fellow sneered at the notion, saying the neighborhood would need to be razed before any improvement could be achieved. I encouraged him with prodding questions, suggesting that the neighborhood had its good points, which he denied and continued to slag the place. When I suggested that his customers were worthy and valuable assets to the local community, he looked at me as if I was in serious need of professional help. When I pressed him for an answer, he said: "These people aren't assets to anyone!"
And with that, I thanked him and departed, stepping over the still prostrate man in the snow shed. With no enthusiasm I wrote the story and submitted it. The commissioning editor accepted it, and it was published in reduced form. "Lowest dive in Toronto" was replaced with the "refuge for the serious drinker" to avoid libel suits from the proprietor and the displeasure of the police, who were referred to as police sources in the published version.
I enjoyed the party celebrating the arrival of the Sunday Sun but had no more to do with it. The one benefit, apart from that slender cheque for C$25, was meeting a fellow there, one Bob Wilson, who told me that there were reporters going on vacation at the weekly Marketing Magazine, as indeed were many editorial personnel throughout the entire Maclean-Hunter organisation that summer. So there were jobs galore at what was then Canada's publishing giant, which at this writing only survives through its publication of Maclean's Magazine, Canada's news weekly.
I went to see Colin Muncie, the editor, a Scot and a decent stick. He took me on immediately, and I set to work doing jobs that I might have done at the Vancouver Sun's business department except they had to do with advertising.
Later I would joke about how I became a war correspondent at Marketing Magazine, covering the breakfast cereal wars between Switzerland's Alpen and America's Harvest Crunch as they fought their way across the shelves of Loblaw's and Safeway supermarkets in the West. Most of this derring-do was accomplished in the morning in this super-slack shop. Even the press releases being professionally done by ad agencies and PR firms hardly needed more than retyping. This was followed by a daily liquid lunch at the then nearby Holiday Inn that we and other similarly inclined Maclean-Hunter staffers often managed to prolong to four o'clock, whereupon we would toddle unsteadily back to the office and, after a perfunctory check for messages, collect our briefcases and head for home. I was always lucky at the Holiday Inn in finding pliant female company who were also staffers at other equally slack Maclean-Hunter publications.
I never got much of a feel for our readers. I never went out on an interview. Few of us did. It was mostly rewriting press releases, which showered in like confetti, so there was little heavy-lifting work to do. I liked Colin Muncie, though his assistant editor was a serious drunk and more than once had to be poured directly into a taxi from the Holiday Inn bar without the ritual appearance at the office to end the day.
At last all came to an end, but I paid my end of the rent. Alan told me he was getting a job in England and I was on my own as far as the flat was concerned. My plan was to haunt Maclean-Hunter and report for any of its journals that would take my work. I was encouraged when I got a big-ish job from the Canadian Travel Courier, which involved calling a dozen travel agents to get their views on a change in the law that stood to affect their business in some way I quite forget.
At the time, there was much talk and public revulsion at the news that Chilean General Augusto Pinochet had seized power in a coup from Salvadore Allende, the first freely elected Marxist head of state in the world. As my Marxism still lingered, I was pro-Allende, but at the same time I wasn't surprised it happened after I saw TV footage of the Chilean Army being publicly humiliated by having them march around to the strains of the "Teddy Bears' Picnic." I thought pulling the tiger's tail like that to the gleeful derision of thousands of triumphant Marxists was not a good idea. So I was not at all surprised that the army wanted to kill more people than was strictly necessary, just for the fun of it.
All this was far from my thoughts when I settled down in the flat on Walmar Road to record the interviews over the phone. My telephone recording process was jerry-built and awkward, and unless carefully executed, ineffective.
I had not been there long enough to know that the Casa Loma castle at the foot of the street was something of a second home for the Queen's Own Rifles militia regiment, who lodged their regimental museum there in the building itself. But mostly, it used the generous parking lot as a parade square to drill troops.
But not that day. The regiment was frustrated to discover that the parking lot was filled with tourist buses and civilians were milling about.
Not to be flummoxed, the 50-strong detachment of Queen's Own reverted to Plan B and marched up Walmer Road, which was a dead end of 200 yards with almost no traffic that backed into a raccoon-invested ravine.
And so the troops began drilling in the middle of the road, shouting out the cadence as the sergeant bellowed orders and the corporals yapped correctively at individuals. For a moment, I almost welcomed them, recalling my days of shouting out the cadence of each drill movement - "ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, ONE!"
But not for long. It was awkward enough holding the small plastic microphone against the earpiece of the phone while holding the receiver itself, but it could be done and I was doing it. But it necessitated explaining to each of the travel agents what the hell was going on as they could plainly hear the bellowing NCOs and the soldiers tramping feet and shouted cadences.
But what made the recordings truly useless was when I played one back, I could not distinguish what the travel agents said from the din outside. It became impossible to work. It was a hot, sweaty day and I was an unkempt, unshaven mess, but I went downstairs to assess the situation. The scene was as I saw from my second storey window. At last, I saw a WO II, the sergeant major, who seemed to be in charge. And I told him the problem.
"I am recording interviews over the phone and it can't be done with this din. I'm sorry," I said, "but I'll give you till 4, but then I'll call the cops."
I returned to my lair and waited till the noise of the drilling stopped. Within a few minutes, there were new orders bellowed and the troops marched off to do their best amid the tourist buses in the Casa Loma parking lot.
And as I rushed to call my next travel agent before quitting time, I smugly reflected that a scruffy Canadian could chase away a company of soldiers with no more than a complaint, while in the streets of Santiago citizens were fleeing for their lives as soldiers shot them down.
(I might add a cautionary note here for the inexperienced with recording interviews. This was not the last time I had trouble with unwanted ambient sound, which must be avoided if you do not want interviews destroyed, as they easily can be. Beware of it particularly when doing group interviews at lunch in busy restaurants. Be warned that the innocuous clink and clank of cutlery on crockery frequently obliterate key words and whole sentences. Fifty per cent of the use of such interviews can be destroyed, quite apart from the pain one suffers in transcribing tapes.)
I am a great believer in recorded interviews because they add quality. I like to transcribe the whole thing, and then number all the paragraphs, or topics covered, down the left side margin, then renumber them in the right margin in the order they will appear in the article. Thus, on one side you have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and on the other, it might look like 5, 8, 9, 10, 2, 3, 4. I favour whole quotes partly because you can be sure of what someone said and you can confidently mix quotes up, connecting one at an earlier part of the interview with relevant quotes from what was said later. Also, the sheer act of transcribing the material allows the journalist to think of different angles and aspects of the story that one doesn't get by deciphering cold notes trying to get something out of what one can barely remember.)
When a big cheque came in - one was always waiting for a cheque as a freelance - I had a choice of shouldering the entire rent and living on a pittance before the Canadian Travel Courier money came in, or leaving town. I had never been fond of Toronto. To me, it was the American Dream realised, where people were polite and pleasant and colour-coordinated. The city was the first rate of the second rate, where so much of it looked like so much of the rest of it. It did not suit me, and I did not think I would ever prosper there.
I thought of returning home to Montreal, but rejected the idea of going home with my tail between my legs, which I would be doing in my present jobless state. I called Vancouver to see if I was needed, i.e. welcome, there, and it appeared that I was not. Vancouver's welfare system took care of my wife's rent and kicked in enough money to keep her and the children afloat. That left London, where I never had trouble finding a job, and as it turned out, Alan had found a cool place to live at a mutual friend's flat directly on Clapham Common.
I arrived at Toronto airport, and whom should I encounter but Colonel Sanders in his signature white suit, looking exactly as advertised. I pounced instinctively. It turned out, not surprisingly, he had come to Toronto to open a number of franchises in the area. He then told me he had got his start from the disastrous opening of the US Interstate Highway system, when his Colonel Sander's Kentucky Fried Chicken, located on what was once a main road across America, was bypassed by the Interstate. To survive, he then went to other restaurants in the area, and eventually around the country, making famous his white suit and his trademark, selling his signs proclaiming that "Colonel Saunder's Kentucky Fried Chicken" was sold there, for which he gave them the recipe and collected five cents a leg or wing that was sold. KFC restaurants came later.
He seemed a pleasant enough fellow, but after a while I realised that there was no one, in my present circumstances, I could sell this to. I thanked him and brought the interview to an end, and we went in our separate directions.
I then settled into the two-hour wait for the flight to London.
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