Monday, May 20, 2019

My Log 731 May 20 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 166; Taking in some less than gripping articles from my newspaper-cum-magazine; real life might intrude more often perhaps, on the shallowness of journalism as she is written

For several years the only newspaper I have subscribed to has been The Guardian Weekly, an offshoot from what originally was for almost a century the most admired newspaper in the English-speaking world, The Manchester Guardian, which for many years now has been known simply as The Guardian (of London).
The Weekly has recently undergone a metamorphosis into a magazine-style function that seems to have been welcome to most of its readers, although not so much to me. I recently went to an optometrist to find out what was happening to my eyes: he told me nothing was wrong with them, but I could use more light when I read. So now I have a light over each shoulder, and they reflect back a sharp and varying light from the glossy paper on which the magazine is now printed, that makes it even more difficult to read, especially with its extremely small print. But then, as my cancer doctor says, I have to remember the context, by which he means, I am 91, after all.
In other ways, too, I find the new magazine to be that much less than a newspaper in that it now prints more articles of a sociological and scientific nature (or off-shoots therefrom) than I would wish.  An advantage of the new format is that it is easy to leave lying around, and just his morning I picked up a copy from April 12, containing an article on a group of apparently unspeakable idiots called “influencers”, who are manipulating the capitalist system in bizarre and profitable (to them) ways, the sort of thing I would normally  bypass  rather than  read about. This article --- I read it in an extremity upon awakening at 5.10 a.m. --- contained some amazing stuff, such as there is a whole industry built around extreme phonies who celebrate online such bizarre holidays as  Vlogmas. And that one of the pillars of this industry is Kim Kardashian West, one of these people who are famous for being famous, who, according to Sophie Elmhurst, author of the article, has recently “been extravagantly paid for  promoting an appetite-suppressing lollipop to her then 111-million Instagram followers.”
Much as I might have felt like just giving up on capitalism and all its works right there, things hardly got better when I picked up a similarly discarded copy of the magazine dated May 3, which I found contained a similarly missable article about the industrial battle --- I kid you not --- for supremacy between mechanical hand-dryers in public washrooms, and the more traditional paper towels. Why anybody would be bothered to write either article, let alone read them, is slightly beyond my comprehension, but I have to confess: I did read them.
It reminds me of what one of my sons, an omnivorous reader of internet material, is always reminding me. Louis C.K. one of his comedy heroes, apparently has a routine about how false is the indignation of the air passenger who calls the stewardess to complain vociferously when his internet reception is interrupted while he is being transported around the globe at 36,000 feet  and flying along at 550 miles an hour.
Or, to give another example, as my son says, there seem to be two major complaints in the city, usually made by the same person, the  one being constant bitching about the terrible conditions of city road surfaces, and the other about the endless delays caused by road construction when the potholes are being fixed.
I myself can add an example: I read the article on the cleanliness or otherwise of public washrooms, which emphasized that power-driven hand-dryers send out health-destroying bacteria throughout the washroom (something that never even occurred to me before, and that I still hardly think is worthy of public notice), with an appropriate amazement because I will never forget having experienced the terrors of a genuinely dirty public washroom when, at the age of 23, I roamed the streets of 1951 Bombay suffering from an attack of diarrhoea. The attack itself was unpleasant, but to find myself in a confined space whose walls and the seat of which were completely covered with human feces, was the greater punishment.
As essayist Mark Crispin Miller writes in a satirical comment on a recent vapid article by a journalist, introducing herself to the readers of The New York Times, who reveals that she was brought up in Liberia, and had been attracted to the profession by her delight and interest in all the weaponry of the American forces, leading to her to deliver this remarkable paragraph:
I’ve flown for hours in the co-pilot seat of a B-1 bomber, including during midair refuels. I’ve done the catapult takeoff and abrupt landing on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. I’ve been in Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters over Baghdad, Kabul and the DMZ, on the border of North and South Korea. I’ve been on an American naval destroyer in the South China Sea while it was being shadowed by the Chinese. That part of the job is just pure fun.
As Miller comments acidly,  the journalist might be better employed trying to find out where the $21 trillion that the Pentagon could not account for during a failed $900-million audit had gone, and, he writes,  that
if (she) were to look into that mind-boggling disappearance, and the Pentagon's decades of stonewalling as to where their money (that is, our money) goes, it could be the "most challenging" investigation of her whole career.
So, to return to my theme, the reiteration of shallow, meaningless articles about shallow, meaningless aspects of capitalist society is as likely to sicken an attentive readership as to delight them. Or maybe even more likely.
 But wot the hell! Wot the hell! to quote my mantra.

Friday, May 17, 2019

My Log 730 May 17 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 165; Vandalism or an act of protest? I can recall only a nodding acquaintance with vandalism, when I had to cover the throwing of a brick through a Royal Bank window --- in Trinidad

In the middle of the McGill University campus is a little sign saying that it marks a spot close to which Jacques Cartier discovered the native town of Hochelaga in 1535.
The sign lies just outside a path leading to the immense tent under which the McGill graduation ceremonies are held. Appropriately, someone --- I imagine probably some indigenous students --- have left some notices in two plant boxes under a sign that says:
A very pointed reference to the privileged position occupied by McGill graduates, compared with many others whose parents cannot afford university education for their children.
But by the time I saw the sign it read:
Evidently, vandals had been at work.
I have never understood vandalism, or the motives that could lie behind it. As much as I would welcome it if we were able to bring the whole structure of capitalism crashing down around our ears, I have never really thought that an efficacious way to do that would be to throw a brick through the window of the Royal Bank. I suppose even vandals must have a reason, probably a sub-conscious one, buried somewhere, deep in the history of their nurturing, or lack of it..
I did once have a nodding acquaintance with such an act of vandalism, but it happened in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I think it was in 1970, and I was whistled off as a reporter to cover the indignant marches undertaken there by the Black Power movement, in the course of which someone actually had thrown a brick through the window of the Royal Bank of Canada (an action with which I felt  an instinctive sympathy, although I would never have had the courage or sheer chutzpah to do such a thing myself.)
I was delighted with the assignment, because ten years before, I had begun one of the best holidays of my life in Port of Spain, where my biggest pleasure had been to give lifts to some of the greatest calypsonians of all time, back across the mountains to the capital city, after spending a day at the superb beach of Maracas Bay. I always felt deeply honoured that such famous performers held in such immense  esteem by the whole of Trinidad society, as these men were, were willing to cram into the back seat of the little car I hired, and to strum away and sing softly some of their calypsos, as if  in payment for the lift. I was always conscious that in spite of their great artistry --- these were the men who had virtually invented a new art form ---  they had been royally shafted when their original compositions had been pirated by the music industry of the western world without any acknowledgement or payment (I remember Lord Melody, still probably remembered as one of the top calypsonians of all time, as one of those to whom we offered this slight service. Twenty years later, in Antigua, I was having a lunchtime drink at a bar when a heavily-set, elderly man sat down next to me, and while chatting I started to tell him about this experience with Lord Melody. When I finished, he revealed himself to be none other than the Lord himself --- I didn’t know he was appearing that evening at a night club --- and  I would have been in a tough spot if I had been making it all up. Twenty years before, his great hit had been Boo-boo Man. Now, his hit was Rasta Man, an equally tuneful and amusing ditty about social conditions in the islands.)
So, whenever I had been there, I had found Trinidad, a small nation, newly independent, pulsating with vigorous life.  And during the week or so of my  1970s assignment, I tended to hangout with the Black Power leaders who gathered by day in Woodford Square. On the Friday before I was to leave, the Black Power movement had held a march into the sugar fields, which could have been interpreted as either an encouragement to the mostly Indian sugar field workers to join them in their protest, or as a provocation by which they were demanding the support of the Indians. 
By pure happenstance, it was during this march that the verdict was delivered in Montreal to the case in which black students at Sir George Willams College (now Concordia University) had, in a fit of rage at perceived inequities in the system for marking their papers,  smashed the computers provided for their use. The Black Power marchers were waiting for the verdict, and there was a certain amount of tension in the air. The New York Times reporter, with whom I was hanging out through most of the march, happened to be a black man, and I --- unless my memory has failed me --- was almost the only white man accompanying the march.
Fortunately for me, the verdict, when it was announced by the marchers, who heard it on their cellphones (or whatever small gadgets they were using in those days) was for acquittal, so they didn’t turn on me as the representative of the oppressors, which they might have supposed they had reason to do, had the verdict been for conviction.
I never actually covered the case, but I seem to remember that the Montreal students had a complaint  against one professor in particular, whom they accused of marking them down on the basis of race.  So, although their action did seem very close to an act of vandalism, in the final reckoning it escaped that charge by reason of having been provoked.
The Black Power march was on a Friday. On the Saturday, the day before I left for home, I went to a cricket match between Trinidad and Jamaica, where I was called down by some of the Black Power leaders who said I seemed to be a reasonable person, and would I sit with them. I had to defer, because I had already been invited to partake of a beautiful Indian feast during the luncheon interval by a fellow from San Fernando in rhe south of the island, who was sitting in front of me, and who had already supplied me with copious draughts from a bottle of Scotch. I do believe I have told that story in an earlier Chronicle, but I still think of it as one of the most pleasurable  experiences of my life.
It is many years since I have been to the Caribbean. Not long before I left the newspaper in 1971 I was assigned to visit Jamaica because Princess Alice, who had been a royal personage living in Canada in her younger days, and was thus a friend of the proprietor of The Montreal Star, for which I worked, had made a gift of a chapel to the newly-established Jamaican campus of the University of the West Indies, and for this picayune reason, the opening ceremony of this chapel, I was assigned to visit the island and report on it. I had no objection at all. I always loved the heat of the Caribbean, and I found the vigour of the people refreshing, although it could sometimes appear slightly alarming if, as very occasionally could happen,  someone could turn on us, as representatives of the former colonial powers, with a touch of hostility. Jamaica, in psrticulasr, always semed to be as place full of tension.
I could never blame them for that, because most of the people in these small islands were living in conditions of poverty, a state into which their colonial masters had firmly reduced them. The fact is, when slavery was abolished, huge reparations were paid to the slave masters, who subsequently built almost the entire wealth and might of the British Empire on the proceeds from their unpaid slave labour. All I can do now is to hope that the last thirty or forty years have at least modified substantially their poverty.
My abiding memory, however, is of the pleasure of their night clubs, where one could feel the floor and walls quivering from their vigorous dancing, and from the intense, blasting power of some of the best trumpet playing I have ever heard anywhere in the world.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

My Log 729 May 14 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 164; The old-time newspaper proprietors; for years, they held the fear of life and death over me; but now they are gone, are things any better?

I guess that as far as Canada is concerned, the era of the newspaper mogul is more or less over.
When I got into Canadian newspapers in the 1950s, I first went to work for Roy Thomson, who owned a string of small, indifferent newspapers, that in the next ten years he transformed (by moving to Britain) into a string of international newspapers and TV stations, of which the flagships were the newly-established Scottish TV (he said it was like “a licence to print money”), the long-established quality newspaper The Scotsman, a brief reign as owner of The Times of London, (legendary among British newspapers) and The Sunday Times, which under his ownership became one of the best newspapers in the world. I never met him, and never really wanted to.
Next I worked for the Winnipeg Free Press, owned and published by Victor Sifton, a member of the long-established newspaper-owning family of western Canada.. When he was expected to walk through the newsroom Albert Boothe, the city editor, would warn those of us who were sitting around to make ourselves scarce by going into the library, or to find some way of looking busy.  I never met him, and never really wanted to.
Finally, I worked for The Montreal Star, owned by a business tycoon John W. McConnell, and published by his son John G. McConnell. I never met the father, and especially never wanted to, but I did have occasion to meet the son a few times, when I was the paper’s correspondent in London in the 1960s. He would escape from his intermittent rehab for alcoholism, grab a bottle of Scotch, drink it on his flight to London, and be in really poor shape on his arrival. He once favoured me with the remark, “You seem to be a bit on the left side,” the only thing he ever said about my work.
When he came to London he seemed to be usually interested in buying something by the artist Augustus John, which no doubt he could well afford to do, if he could find one for sale. On one occasion he complained bitterly to me about having to stay at the Hilton, on Park Lane, instead of at the posher Dorchester, because on his previous visit he had left the bath running and the water had cascaded down the stairs, so they no longer welcomed his custom.
I always thought that the newspaper, which I never thought was  really well run, but was ticking along  profitably, was in good hands so long as the alcoholic son was in charge. When others in the family, uninterested in the newspaper, wanted more money from it, everything went to what I might call rat-shit. The paper was sold to the Free Press company of western Canada. After a few years, The Star, which under the McConnells had been determined never to have a union, especially of journalists, allowed a  strike to drag on for months. On returning to publication, they found they had lost their readership, which for some years had made it the highest circulation newspaper in the country, according to Wikipedia, although I don't believe that was so during the years I worked for it.  In 1979, eight years after I had left the paper, The Star folded. John G. was the only ultimate boss I could say I ever had some sympathy for.
I have been somewhat chided by one of my sons recently about having expressed a lifelong  detestation for bosses, because he said, I have not lived an especially  praiseworthy life myself and could perhaps have been more understanding of their problems, lifestyles, and pecadilloes. Well, I guess that is just the way I was raised, or if not raised to be like that, it is just the way I am.
I was once or twice in the same room as Lord Thomson, as he became, when he was riding high as the world’s greatest newspaper proprietor --- and the firm he founded still is one of the world’s biggest companies, although they have long-since moved out of the newspaper business. On that particular occasion I had been delegated to attend a meeting of the Commonwealth Press Union. This plump little man was sitting in front of me when I made some no-doubt slightly irrelevant remark that occasioned him to turn around, gaze at me for a moment through his terrifyingly thick lenses,  just long enough to gather that I was no one of moment, and then turn back to the business of the meeting. I think that is the only occasion in my life I ever mixed as more or less an equal with any tycoon. Both sitting in the same room, conducting the same business. I was really glad to get out of there.
It used to bug me when I was younger that a man had the power to order me what to write or to do, just because his father had made a lot of money. Of course, the occasions when that sort of thing were specific were few and far between, and would occur only when, for example, the proprietor’s wife was irritated by some potholes in the road, and the word came through from on high that I had to write something about the disgraceful state of the roadways.
Still, I always knew that their orders were always there, although in everyday life they were oblique, even if usually unstated. One of the distinguishing things I found about journalists in high positions was that they always said they believed they were following their own inclinations, never had to receive orders about what to think or write, but I always knew that was because only that sort of believer in the system was ever hired for those kind of jobs.
J.W. McConnell, the father, was a major contributor to McGill University, about which it was impossible to write a negative word. (I did manage on one occasion to get a whole-page article into the paper, ever-so-slightly critical of the behaviour of the university administration, about the hearing granted to a lower level professor who had supported the student movement to turn McGill into a French-language university, and all my friends said, “How the hell did you ever get that into the paper ?”)
I always heard that J.W. had made his money originally by cornering the sugar market during the First World War --- I don’t know if that was true or not --- but he certainly owned the St. Lawrence Sugar Company as his major business,  and we were never allowed in the paper to refer to the boxer as Sugar Ray Robinson. It used to gall me from time to time, that just because he had made money in sugar, he now had the power of life and death over what I wrote. (I felt the same about all of the eight newspapers I worked for, all of whose owners were wealthy men.) He used The Montreal Star as a portal for his business interests, to such a point that our correspondent in Ottawa was frankly regarded as John W’s point man with the federal government.
In addition, of course, old McConnell and his wife were crazy about the Royal family. I had to cover them when they came to town in 1959. Here again I experienced the truth of our oft-repeated claims to be defending freedom of expression.  I wrote, for example, that a few soldiers ringed Place d’Armes when the royals arrived, before a small crowd.   What came out was that soldiers were needed to hold back the crowd. .grr-rr…. On the Royal tour I conducted a kind of underground guerrilla opposition, writing only about the people the royals met, and  trying to write funny pieces. But it was only partly successful. The desk men laughed at my funny pieces, spiked them, and then would use my by-line over a piece of agency copy. 
Great days for the freedom of the press. Now gone, like the old-time proprietors?
Wot the hell, wot the hell!