Friday, November 23, 2012

My Log 328: 37 years later --- Montreal’s charm and corruption intact, apparently, the city’s heart still worn on its sleeve

Avenue McGill College in Montreal,
Avenue McGill College in Montreal, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(This piece was published in The Gazette, Montreal, on Nov. 23, 2012).

I first came to Montreal in 1957 when Papa Duplessis was still in full charge. One of my enduring memories is of the night he was taken fatally ill in Schefferville. A fellow walking ahead of me on  Ste. Catherine street, picked up a newspaper from a kiosk, tossed it back on the pile and said, “When he dies, I’ll buy one!”
I came directly from Winnipeg, where I had arrived by way of  Kenora,  Kirkland Lake, London, Coventry, Dalkeith, the Punjab, northern Queensland and ultimately from Invercargill, my hometown in the far south of New Zealand, a city we all referred to as “the southernmost city in the British Empire.”
In Winnipeg we had heard a lot about the lackadaisical nature of English-language journalism in Montreal in those days, and when I arrived it turned out they were all true. My first job on The Montreal Star was the hotel beat, which  involved mooching up Bleury towards downtown, a half-hour pause  most mornings at Archie Handel’s Diamond bookstore to chew the fat, on up to the larger hotels, Sheraton Mount Royal,  Laurentien, Windsor, Ritz-Carlton just long enough for the desk clerks to say they had no guests of interest,  then to the Pam-Pam on Stanley for a cup of coffee over a book for an hour or so, while keeping tabs on the middle-aged, East European waitresses on each of whose faces was written a lifetime of experience that a young innocent reporter could only imagine.
I have returned to the city after 37 years away, have taken to recalling the good old days, boring my friends to tears  ---   and when I described the above routine  one friend remarked, “Sounds like a great gig!”  He could say that again.
Although by this time, having worked in four different countries, I had never met a newspaper whose politics I agreed with, I was enchanted with Montreal. Peripherally, my hotel gig put me in touch with people who loved good food and drink, including members of the Quebecois bourgeoisie, people with genteel old world manners and a French joie de vivre, many of whom seemed to me to be consummate crooks. When I got to know the journalists on La Presse, I discovered an underworld of seething resentment  and political awareness, radicalism of a kind I had been accustomed to elsewhere, and which in Montreal soon developed into a movement that only three years later threw out the old guard of Quebec politics, and began the transformation of this society.
When The Star sent me to London to represent them, I found myself deeply grateful I worked for an old-fashioned, conservative newspaper  that was quite happy to leave me alone to do my thing so long as I sent them plenty of copy, something I had no trouble in doing. (This really was a great gig!)  I developed into almost a fine art, how to hold the guys back in the office at arm’s length. I made the occasional visit back to the home base, on each occasion once again being bedazzled by the vivacity of Montreal, and was only mildly disappointed when, after eight years, I was finally recalled to home duty.
I didn’t have much time for Maitre Drapeau and his way of running things, so, after a few embarrassing skirmishes, the newspaper decided I would better serve its interests if I was despatched to far-flung places like northern BC,  the Northwest Territories, even Alaska, to report on the parlous  condition of the indigenous inhabitants. Back home  what was happening was the FLQ insurrection, troops in the streets, but my enduring memory of that time is being phoned by a newspaper in Vancouver asking for a red-hot  account of life in the very heart of the storm. “Afraid I can’t help you,” I said. “I am sitting here writing a learned piece about city planning in Vancouver!”
I left in 1975 to return to my home country, a big mistake. But 37 years later the Montreal I have returned to still seems beautiful, busier than all hell, the charm and the corruption undisturbed, apparently, and the heart still visible, beating away on its sleeve. I can’t keep up with the intense level of cultural activity.
And those students who throng the streets around McGill --- are they ever young! Was I ever that young?  I doubt it.

1 comment:

  1. WoW! Je me souviens - tu me done le mal du pays!