When I returned to Canada in 1968 after spending eight years in London working for the newspaper, my family circumstances had been transformed. We had gone there as just a thirty-ish couple, but we returned with three small boys, the eldest seven, the middle one about five or six, six I think, and the youngest one about four. They were a handful, but my wife had taken time off working as a teacher, which was lucky for all of us, because we had lived in a flat on Queen’s Gate road, South Kensington, a busy street right opposite the Natural History Museum, and it had required an expedition every time we wanted to get the kids out of the upstairs apartment into the fresh air. We had a huge central room, two large bedrooms, and in the back a small kitchen and a small room that was not heated; so the kids had plenty of space to ride their tricycles around the big rooms, scuffing all the skirting boards. But it wasn’t like having a backyard.
Our lives had been transformed in one other way as well: when we went to London we had only the $4,000 we had managed to save during our six years in Canada. But in the 1960s, the financial imbalance between Canada and the United Kingdom weighed very much in our favour. First, my salary, on average, seemed to be higher than what I could have earned had I been working for a Fleet street newspaper. Then, there was a reciprocal arrangement by which my salary was paid directly into a bank in Montreal, and I needed to bring into England only as much as I needed for living purposes, and I paid tax only on that part I brought into England. In addition to all that, I was paying only seven pounds a week for my apartment, which came about because of the peculiar leasing arrangements common in London. My employer paid a fairly hefty key money so I could rent the flat, a customary thing, but thereafter I simply took over from the previous tenant the long-term lease which was at a ridiculously low price. In further addition to all that, my newspaper paid for almost everything I was doing: theatre tickets, newspapers and magazines delivered to the door at 7 o’clock every morning, entertainment expenses, and so on. I was really living, compared with anything else I had ever experienced, on a gravy train. In further addition, although it was not customary within the newspaper, I took a month’s holiday every year. All I had to do on my side was keep up a non-stop flow of copy, which I did, writing, I figured over the eight years, at least four pieces a week on various subjects, week after week. I have always said I had the best job in all of journalism, because, as I have explained in a previous column, I was left to work without interference or even direction, trusted to produce the copy, and always aware of what might be acceptable, which in practice turned out to be almost anything I wrote.
I wasn’t aware of it until I returned to Montreal, but in the conditions outlined above, my bank account had grown and grown, until I found $56,000 sitting there, which seemed to me like an unimaginable sum. It is a measure of my disinterest in money that I had kept it all those years in a simple savings account which earned almost nothing, whereas if I had been a money hotshot I would certainly have been investing it to good effect and getting richer and richer.
Anyway, it meant I had enough money to buy a house in Montreal, and to pay cash for it. I had never had a house before, but with the three children, and enough to pay for it, I had to start thinking of myself as the sort of guy who might aspire to be a house owner. It was a pretty terrible process, finding one, and then choosing. When I returned to Montreal for a trip with the purpose of setting myself up for our return I found the newspaper full of ads for houses for sale, and so I began the laborious process of marking those that might seem of interest, and then going off around the town to judge them. Many of them I wouldn’t have been seen dead in. I wasn’t aware of the convention that even if you had chosen a house to make a bid on, you had first to hire an inspector who would report its deficiencies to you. I chose a house in Westmount, a smallish, unusual looking house, at around $30,000, but it turned out to have been booked by a quicker buyer. A house in Outremont brought a sharp, prosperous-looking, and foreign-seeming estate agent to my door intent on showing me the wonders that lay beyond, and when I saw the house in question I was truly impressed. It was a large house, very ornately decorated and furnished by a Jewish couple who were going to live in Israel. It not only had a beautiful ground floor with two large living areas, an immense kitchen opening on to a good-sized backyard, but also a large second floor, with a delightful sunroom in front, ideal for an office, and above everything a huge attic with two finished rooms. It seemed big enough to house an orphanage, one might say, and at $47,000 it was well within my price range. I had learned from my searching that most houses were under mortgage, but I didn’t want any part of a mortgage because a mortgage was a debt, I had never been in debt, and was determined never to go into debt.
Well, being convinced that my wife, still in London with the kids, would love the house, or at least warmly approve of it, I skipped the inspection --- I liked the place, what was the inspection going to tell me to nullify that? ---- entered into a deal with the owner, and was ready to sign up when he announced he had a modest $7,000 mortgage that he could transfer to me. No, sir, I said, why should I go into a $7,000 debt when I had enough money to pay for it, cash on the line? What? cried the owner, who was a businessman, and couldn’t understand my thinking, “I am going to have to pay a penalty if you don’t take the mortgage, so I am afraid I can’t agree to do that. That’s a deal-breaker,” he said. (I can’t be sure he used this last expression, but that was his intention, or so he suggested.) Faced with either losing the house or taking the mortgage, I decided to surrender --- this was an early example of what became my negotiating style in the four later house sales I have been involved in. I surrender at the first whiff of grapeshot, especially if money is involved, which it always is. I remember the last house I bought: the fellow had asked for $155,000, a ridiculous sum for such a small, semi-detached house, and I went to see him to sort it all out, determined that I could maybe compromise between his figure and $50,000 less.
I asked if he was firm on $155,000. “Yes,” he said. “And I have already agreed to throw in the curtains. That is a sore point with my wife, she wants to keep the curtains. I have no idea why the curtains are such a big deal.”
The poor guy, so keen to compromise that he was already in trouble with the wife. “Well,” I said, “I guess it’s a deal then. $155,000 it is, with the curtains thrown in.”
So, back to Outremont. I bought this beautiful house for $47,000, which today would certainly be worth more than a million. If only I had stayed there I could be a millionaire today. But then, if only I had stayed at any of the newspapers I worked for, I could be an editor today. It has never been my style to be ruled by “if only I stayed” anywhere. And I suppose that is why I have ended up living in a 15th floor one-bedroom apartment overlooking Montreal, just to squeeze into which I had to jettison not only most of my furniture but most of my books as well.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but just to have moved into Outremont marked me out in The Montreal Star as a little bit unusual. Montreal Star guys seemed to be concentrated in or around Westmount, the Anglophone enclave, whereas Outremont was the Francophone enclave. It was only now that I began to appreciate the complexities of bringing children into the world, and seeing them through it. The first thing is schooling. My eldest son Ben had already learned to read and write from the excellent teaching he received in London, and my second, Robert, was well on the way. The schools could not have been more different from those in London. Guy Drummond school, the first they attended, was an English-language school, whose pupils were only 10 per cent from English-language homes. I remember they tended to regard Robert, who is black, as a kid who might be started off lower than the level he had already reached in London. I had to write to the principal in London to ask for a letter assuring the Montreal school that Rob was well up to his age group. She obliged, and he was promoted. But the whiff of racism put me on guard.
Then I did something that I have always felt guilty about ever since. I enrolled them in the French-language, Catholic school system, believing that was the only way they would ever become perfectly bilingual. At first they refused to take them, and my wife taught the two younger children at home for a year. The ingrained parochialism that seemed to govern French-Canadian life (this was before the breakthrough of the modern world that occurred following the change in government in Quebec in 1960) was illustrated by the fact that the Francophone schools would not accept the French-speaking children of Moroccan Jews. But, finally, our kids were enrolled, put at the back of the classroom, and forgotten about. Both Rob and Thom had a hard time of it, since they had not had a complete grounding in their first language, and they knew not a word of French when they began in the French school. They did get to speak French, but they learned it from the other kids in the playground. This was one reason why, when my wife wanted to return to New Zealand after seven years in Montreal, I did not object. In New Zealand the children --- we had four by now --- were extremely happy, loved the easy-going schools, and were able to establish the ground they had lost through their French schooling in Montreal.
Apart from that, I found the life led in Outremont rather strange. Opposite us lived a Jewish family whose three children went off to their confessional school every day, and never appeared in the street to play with the other kids. Next door lived a French family whose children were friendly, but for the most part, unilingual French since they went to their own schools.
To bring up children living in the same street in this way, to teach them in different school systems to distrust their neighbours, seemed like a lunatic system guaranteed to create social turmoil. When I went on TV to argue this case, the newspaper was rather embarrassed, and began to look for things I might write that would not upset the local political bosses.
So I was assigned to wander the country, going as far abroad as Alaska, and Western Canada, a genuinely interesting part of my life which merely solidified my feeling that I could not stay as a newspaper staff member for too much longer.
But the big plus for my family was the space: I remember looking out on my backyard in the middle of winter. The kids were playing there, hour after hour, not at all worried by the cold. I remember thinking of my own detestation of the winter cold: this is all in my head. I am going to try to forget it from here on. The most valuable thing a family can have is plenty of space in which to move around.