BIG-CITY JOURNALISM: PART II
When I decided to leave Winnipeg to try Montreal, Frank Walker, a friend I had made there, who was PR man for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and a former reporter on the Free Press, sent a letter of recommendation for me to George Ferguson, editor of The Montreal Star, who had been a much-admired editorial writer on the Winnipeg paper before being lured to the job in Montreal by J.W. McConnell, who owned the newspaper. As a result when we limped into Montreal midway through 1957 in our little third-hand Austin, which was about at the end of its tether, having broken down in Monterrey, Mexico, then again in Houston, Texas, and intermittently on the way back to Canada, and I presented myself to Mr. Ferguson, I was hired without any questions asked as a reporter at by far the best salary I had been offered so far in Canada. I made $40 a week at my first job in 1954, and I was making $110 a week three years later. ( I soon discovered that the French-language newspapers were unionized, and the Star kept its wages to within $10 a week to avoid the dread prospect of unions rearing their evil heads.)
Ferguson was a gruff sonofabitch, but underneath it as very nice fellow, who I knew had a sterling reputation in the west, and I always wondered how he could have accepted to preside over the feeble, right-wing, reactionary editorial policy imposed by the aged sugar-baron who bought the Montreal paper in the 1930s to serve his own business interests.
Maurice Duplessis, the right-wing authoritarian who ran the province as a one-man-band, with the help of the reactionary Catholic Church, and was reviled throughout anglo-Canada, was still in charge of Quebec, as he had been, except for the five years of the war, ever since 1936, and Ferguson’s Star was right behind him every step of the way. So my customary distaste for the politics of the newspaper I worked for was multiplied by several factors in this case. It didn’t take me long to discover, through my friendship with reporters on the French newspapers, that these people running the Star had no idea of the social storm brewing around them.
In Winnipeg we had heard some strange stories about how casual and unhurried was English language journalism in Montreal. One of the senior reporters in Winnipeg had a brother who worked on the The Gazette and he had told stories about how they started work at 10.30, took frequent coffee breaks, then had a long lunch after which they would knock off at 2.30 or 3 o’clock --- scarcely believable, any of it, but, as I found when I arrived, The Gazette was not taken seriously as a newspaper by any one.
Mind you, The Montreal Star was no great shakes, either. The Managing Editor, Ken Edey, had not long before arrived from the high-pressure environment of Toronto journalism, and it had taken him a year or two to sink into the torpor in which he seemed to operate by the time I arrived. There were stories about how the News Editor, the next step down, had got his job because, whenever the incumbent News Editor was away from the office, this fellow would sit in his seat. And when Edey was looking for someone to appoint to the post, he discovered our man sitting in the seat, and appointed him. This man seemed to be a classic case of --- what was it, the Peter Principle? That is, that there is a tendency in every organization for employees to be promoted to the level of their incompetence. Once appointed, this man’s priority was to try to hide his incompetence by establishing strict rules governing how he was to be approached by any reporter who might have a question. At one point he even installed a metal rail along which inquiring reporters were expected to approach him. His reign came to an end about eighteen months later following a very liquid party for the opening of the new Queen Elizabeth Hotel, from which he went home and shot himself. The first sign we had of it was the next morning when his secretary, a rather proper English girl, was seen to be looking extremely distressed while she was being helped out of the newsroom to the elevator. The lower level news executives also had that same air of having been promoted simply because they had stayed around long enough until they automatically stepped into the jobs when they came open.
Given all this one can imagine how the newspaper was not really one of those hard-nosed news organizations you read about. Rather, it tended to fill up its columns from agency copy, supplemented with stuff from our own “experts” on the labour beat, the shipping beat, the hotel beat, the crime scene, the court reporters, and so on, with columns from a New York columnist, London and Paris correspondents, some Parliamentary correspondents in Quebec city and Ottawa, and so on.
On my first weekend, if I remember correctly, my job was to drive to Mont Tremblant, where I was to pick up some copy from our Ottawa correspondent, James Oastler, an amiable and extremely likeable oldish fellow who couldn’t write for sour apples, but who was kept in Ottawa to deal with any business old McConnell might need attended to vis-à-vis the government. Later I had occasion to test Jim Oastler’s power to move things in Ottawa. A friend of mine, an Indian immigrant to Canada, had been offered a job at John Hopkins university medical school in the US, but he was having difficulty establishing that he would be re-admissible to Canada should he need to return. I put the dilemma to my superior, who said, “Why don’t you have a word with Jim Oastler?” I phoned Jim, told him the problem, and he said he would phone me back. He did so a couple of hours later. “Your friend is going to be okay,” he said. And so he was. Oastler has gone down in the history of the Ottawa Press Gallery as the man who, when TV cameras were first admitted to press conferences, would stand with his back up against the lens to prevent them from getting any pictures. Way to go, Jim Oastler!
We had a few people whose work was admirable. Outstanding among those was Noel Mostert, a South African from a high-level Boer family who, disgusted with his family and their politics, had quit the country at the age of 17, never to return. He was New York correspondent when I arrived at the paper. He had been brought up in Capetown within sight of the ships coming and going around the Cape, and had become an amazing expert on ships, their operation, their schedules, indeed on anything about them that was worth knowing. So attached was he to ships that, without telling his employers, he would from time to time write enough columns for a couple of weeks, arrange for them to be sent in sequence to Montreal, and then take off for a trans-Atlantic voyage on the s.s. Queen Mary or s.s. Queen Elizabeth to London and back. So much did he know about these ships that when they were withdrawn from service, he wrote a panegyric of them that was published in a New York magazine, an essay so eloquent that I swear not another person on earth could have written it.
Eventually he was recalled from this sinecure job and assigned to the shipping beat, a job ludicrously beneath his talents. As if the minimal talents running the editorial side of the paper cared tuppence about that! He became a friend of my wife and myself, and many’s the evening we would spend chortling over the inadequacies of our superiors in the hierarchy.
Eventually I was sent to London to replace the correspondent there, who had to return to Montreal because of a family problem, and Mostert quit either just before I left or soon after. He settled in Tangiers, Morocco, where he lives to this day. He lived well from the handsome figures paid him by the Reader’s Digest for various assignments, a magazine, which, on receiving one of his beautifully written pieces would have it re-written to make it seem like it was written by whoever wrote everything else in that very pedestrian magazine.
Mostert used these assignments to write a book, called Supership, published by Knopf in New York, in which he went into detail about the operations of these newly commissioned super-tankers that were carrying oil around the world. The book became an immediate best-seller, allowing him to obtain a handsome advance for his next book. That one, 18 years in the researching and writing, is his masterpiece, called Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People, a beautifully written work whose prose matches the grandeur of its subject. Unfortunately, the book of 1140 pages was too large, too unwieldy, and too expensive to sell well, and it left Mostert in a difficult situation, for his handsome advance was long since gone on the considerable travel needed for his research. This book has taken its place among the first mentioned in any list of books about South Africa and its history, but I don’t believe he has ever been rewarded as he should have been for such a brilliant work. He embarked on a series of naval histories, the first of which A Line Upon the Wind, published by W.W. Norton in 2008, was another definitive work, this time of the last great naval battle fought by sailing ships as Britain and France duked it out on land and sea for 22 years from 1793, in the Napoleonic wars.
I first fitted into this rather flaccid reportorial structure on the Hotel Beat, into which I put only as much effort as I believed was expected of me, which wasn’t much. I spent a lot of time drinking coffee in the centrally-located Pam Pam coffee house on Stanley street, or chatting in Archie Handel’s Diamond book store on the way. I was next asked to write something about the development of Montreal’s suburbs, that had been growing like Topsy since the war, so my wife and I spent a good six weeks tooling around the West Island in our Volkswagen, investigating its little hidden places, like Ile Bizard, at that time almost empty of inhabitants, and talking to the odd functionary in Point Clair, Beaconsfield, or Kirkland, suburbs that were beginning to bust out at the seams, and eventually (but in my own good time) putting together a series that the news editors seemed to think filled a long-neglected gap.