I have received a kind note from an old friend in Vancouver, Rhoda Rosenfeld, emerging out of the mists after 50 years, telling me she has enjoyed my reflections on journalism, and hoping I could write some more. (She has also passed on a cure for my aching upper arm: get a tennis ball and roll it around over the muscle. I am going to try it.) Rhoda hails from Montreal, but she wound up in Vancouver in 1966, where she has lived as an artist and activist ever since.
When Vancouver is mentioned it makes me think of the time that Montreal was in lockdown in 1970 after the FLQ kidnapped the British trade commissioner, James Cross, and PM Trudeau activated the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties and brought the army into the streets. At the height of the tension I received a phone call from Pat Nagle, a former colleague who was working on the Vancouver Sun, asking me if I could write a piece telling how it was to be living in the heart of the crisis. “I’d like to, Pat,” I said, “but the fact is, I am sitting at home writing a series on city planning in Vancouver, and I know nothing about the crisis.”
This was happening because my bosses in the newspaper, having discovered after my return from eight years in London that they couldn’t trust me to write about the one-man rule of Montreal by Jean Drapeau without creating problems for them, had hit upon the method of sending me off to write about anything that took my fancy, never mind where, in British Columbia, Alaska, Northern Alberta, in Edmonton, Calgary, Yellowknife or Inuvik, anywhere really, so long as they didn’t have to defend my stuff to local politicians over lunch in their clubs. Well, it was all the same to me; I was getting a good knowledge of Canada, I enjoyed discovering stories about the things going on across this remarkable country, and I used the opportunity to throw some light on the harrowing condition of the indigenous people, whose communities I visited all over the country
I might as well confess, I guess, that I had never really been attracted by the news that most journalists consider to be their life’s blood, and the guts of their business --- bank robberies, murders, tragic fires, suicides and so on, stuff they usually think of as News. When I first arrived in the Montreal paper in 1957 I was assigned to the hotel beat, and I found, given the loose work habits common among the news staff at the time, that this was an ideal vehicle for goofing off. So I would goof off around town in the mornings, but would have to put in an appearance after lunch, and it was at just about this time that reports of bank robberies would come into the news desk from around the suburbs. The city editor, looking for someone to undertake the investigative task, would look up and find me sitting there earnestly reading the newspaper as if I was involved in some important work. He would call me over, I would reluctantly approach his desk, and he would send me off, usually with a photographer, to some godforsaken hole in that area of the city that one never penetrated, some place like St. Leonard in the far north-east, where the Italians lived, or Pierrefonds in the north-west. We would arrive at the bank, recently robbed, and closed as a result, usually to find a scene of some confusion, of local cops full of self-importance trying to disguise that they had arrived too late, and didn’t know anything more than we knew, refusing to talk to the press; and of a bank staff scared out of their wits by the sight of the bandit’s guns.
It didn’t seem like much of an idea to add to their confusion by injecting my unwanted presence, so I would sit there with the photographer, waiting to see if anything developed, aware that by now it was after three o’clock, and the night staff would be coming on within an hour. Eventually, as the witching hour approached, we would decide nothing much to be gained by hanging a round, but to take the local cop’s suggestion that we could check up for details at headquarters later in the day.
I returned to the office, usually at around 3.30, and I did it, at a rough estimate, on as many as fifteen such assignments, and always with the same note for the night staff: a slip of paper giving the address of the bank, and with a notation that no information was available yet, but they should check up at their convenience. It took the city desk a while --- they were not the quickest thinkers in the world --- but eventually it did dawn on them that I was perhaps not the man to send out on bank robberies.
I was equally averse from intruding on the grief of, say, the family of a shooting victim, whose picture we wanted to get for the next day’s paper. I usually reported that the family was not at home when I called, for I didn’t at all approve of any family that would interrupt its grief to hunt around for a picture so their murdered son or brother could be exhibited on the following day, for everyone to see, as possibly the victim of a gangland shooting. I didn’t like the idea at all.
Even before I got to Montreal I had been through a few dodgy assignments that offended my sense of propriety. I remember being asked to go with a photographer into the countryside somewhere not far from Portage la Prairie, a small town on the way to Brandon from Winnipeg where I was working. It was a gruesome assignment. A young mother in a farm house in an isolated spot a few miles south of Portage la Prairie had left her three small children in the house while she took something to a nearby barn. When she returned after a few minutes, the house was on fire so fiercely that she was unable to enter, and had to stand and watch while her children were burned to death. When I arrived some hours later, the house was nothing but a jumble of burned wooden struts, and the bodies of the children, burnt to a crisp, were still in their burned out cots. What the hell could one write about such a scene: and why? It was the why? that bothered me the most.
On another occasion I was despatched from the office one Saturday morning with a photographer to a farm just south of the southern shore of Lake Winnipeg, a low-lying, swampy area of land not given to successful farming. Our report from the police radio was that a farmer had been found dead in his barn. When we arrived to the usual confusion, a yard full of cars of neighbours who had gathered, people standing around talking quietly in groups, I tentatively approached someone who looked in authority to ask what had happened. ”I’m the brother-in-law,” he said. “There’s my wife over there,” indicating a woman who was talking in a group. .”Well, I don’t want to bother her,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “She can tell you the whole story.” He took me over and introduced me as from the Winnipeg Free Press, and the wife broke away from the group and said, “I suppose you’d like to know about it from the beginning?” “I am just wondering what has happened,” I muttered.
“Well,” she said, “we got up this morning at the usual time…” and she was off, reciting her morning in all its horrific detail. After breakfast, her husband had gone out to the barn with the children. She had thought nothing of it, then she heard some shots, and when she went to investigate she found her whole family lying on the floor of the barn, dead.
I reeled away with my story, wondering why we should have to write anything about this, why I couldn’t find some way to save this woman from herself, from her lack of discretion, but knowing full well that my editors would be expecting something.
I discussed it with the photographer, who was equally of my mind, and as we drove back to the city I decided on a strategy that I was sure would result in the paper not using anything. I could tell the story just as I had experienced it, quoting everything they old me, which surely would mean that the editors would kill the story stone dead.
That is what I did, handed in my copy, and was dismayed to see it appear in the newspaper just as written.
The following day, complaints were received from the family as to the propriety of intruding on them in this way: they had evidently forgotten that this was exactly the way they had behaved, exactly, and if it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t my fault. Nevertheless the newspaper felt obliged to publish an apology, and a black mark went against my name.
Fortunately, I was good at my job, and they didn’t want to fire me, so I escaped the ultimate sanction. But they were careful, henceforth, to direct such assignments to others whom they knew to be less idiosyncratic.
My justification was that I objected to exposing personal tragedy to vulgar public gaze, even when it was laid out for me on a platter, so to say, especially since the farmer in question had reason for his drastic action, and surely deserved to be accorded the minimal respect due to the dead; he had been having such a tough time making a living that he decided to end it all, and took his children along with him.
I really don’t know what business it is of any strangers when life overcomes a man so that he can no longer carry on.