In 1945, at the age of 17, I left high school after four years and got a job in journalism. I suppose my education was okay, but it was nothing to write home about. I began to think about this when, this morning, I was shuffling through the daily newspaper, and reading stories about subjects that I have taken an interest in for many years, or have written about for what seems like generations.
That made me realize that this acquaintance I have had with the affairs of the world has been my real education, that it started only after I left school, and has continued until the present day. As I have often said about learning how to write, it is a lifelong occupation: in the same way, getting an education never stops.
I have made a list of some of the events that have marked my personal and professional life over these decades:
1. Marriage:. I married young, at 22, my wife Shirley and I set off around the world together, and in spite of my many peccadilioes, perhaps because the many remarkable experiences we lived through made us the best of friends, my wife and I somehow or other managed, one way and another, to hang together for 56 years and nine months, raising a family of four, until her death 12 years ago.
2. Poverty: The first huge experience of my life happened when we arrived in the port of Bombay early in 1951, and were disembarked (and discombobulated) into the first, and so far the only, immense culture shock I have ever experienced. A couple of kids coming from the prosperous, measured life of a small south Pacific nation, overwhelmingly Euro-populated, we saw for the first time how a majority of the world’s people were forced to live: three years after India was partitioned, millions were still sleeping in the streets under crude cloth and cardboard shelters; tens of thousands were living on railway station platforms; emaciated children, all bones and no flesh, could be seen breathing their last. So this was the result of generations of colonial rule! We got there by reading the much-admired books of Gandhi and Nehru: what a cruel joke! After nine months we ran out of money, and retired, our tails between our legs, to Britain.
3. Brexit: I have worked around the edges of this seemingly ever-present political issue since its origins in Britain’s attempt to join the European Economic Community, just on 60 years ago, when, as a reporter, I wrote dozens of pieces about the problems of joining, just as I have in recent months been writing repeatedly about the problems of leaving. Joining was a controversial move by Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, that was eventually shut down by a stubborn President Charles de Gaulle. Leaving is a controversial move that may nor may not be settled by Macmillan’s Conservative Party successor. The whole issue, taken first to last, provides an illuminating platform from which to examine the age-old concept of perfidious Albion. With us, but not with us, for the Commonwealth. With you, but not with you, for the EU.
4. China: This vast nation seems to have been under attack, first by the Japanese, now by the Americans, for almost my whole life. I had the good fortune to spend three months there on a job in 1978. Perhaps because of my Indian-induced sensitivity to global poverty, I have always sympathized with the huge effort the Chinese have made to overcome a poverty that was originally even more intense than that I observed on the streets of Bombay. And nowadays, as the Chinese are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes, showing the world how adaptable and smart they are, I am amazed at the ceaseless warnings of our Western world leaders about the dangers (imaginary, in my view), posed to our peace and security by China, and I thoroughly oppose the effort of the United States to bring to an end China’s growth into economic, social and global respectability. Forcing them back on to their knees. This is just one among many fields in which I find myself out of step with prevailing opinion.
5. Elections: I have never taken elections too seriously, perhaps because I have only once helped in actually electing a government, as, in all other elections, my chosen candidates and their parties have failed miserably. I remember as a cub reporter going into the streets to question electors, and finding that many did not even know the names of the Prime Minister or his leading opponent. Recent similar interviews with electors in the world’s most prosperous countries, makes it apparent that this has not changed. But is this sufficient reason to doubt the qualifications of the average elector for his or her immense task of choosing a government? Does it really matter? I have for many years told people, I don’t care about the elections, I vote every day…. By which I mean that I have tried in my working life to broaden the knowledge and understanding of events by the ordinary man and woman, who have always been my readers.
6. Cities, and how they are built: I have always been interested in our cities, how they have grown, what makes a city successful, what leads to failure. This has always been an amateur interest. It is a field with many specialists: financiers (suffering from the disadvantages of their usually considerable wealth, and the preconceptions that imposes on them, primarily their desire to make more money); planners (following an arcane field of knowledge); citizens (their indifference, lack of understanding, and, when once aroused, their flashes of dazzling inspiration); and not forgetting politicians (bound within traditional jurisdictions, prey to the temptations posed for them by the wealthy, yet persons who work for minimal reward in the interests of their cities and its citizens); and doubly not forgetting, developers (a particular breed of financial experts, those snakes in the grass, always with loads of money to spend, always responsible for the development of the best and the worst of what is being built..)
And quite above and apart from all those categories, the architects, those masters of an art that imposes itself on the daily-lived lives, for generations to come, of every person who uses or just walks by and looks at the buildings they design and bring to fruition, authors of our greatest treasures, our most scandalous horrors. I have to admit that some of he most interesting people I have interviewed, people with great insight into human affairs that have stayed with me for years and years, have been architects.
7. Games: I have always been interested in games. In fact, one of my sons attributes my having been in good health into old age to my having lived an active adolescence, physically speaking,. But, as with cities, mine has always been an amateur interest, which is to say, I have always valued the game above the prize, as I was taught in high school. In fact, where money dictates that a game be a profession, where money predominates, my enthusiasm dwindles. Of course, I follow the course of certain tournaments, especially those of tennis, Rugby or cricket, and I love the races in track and field. Yet here again I find myself out of step with my confreres. Competing images struck me just yesterday as I sat entranced by the spectacle of the British House of Commons, in an atmosphere of intense drama, in a constant upoar. wrestling with the Brexit dilemma. At the same time, in stolen flashes on another station, I watched an excited crowd of 20,000 yelling at every shot as Monfils went down to Berrettini in five sets. Two crowds of people, both in an uproar, but going about very different purposes. And in yet another web site they report that on September 20, just 15 days away, “millions of people all over the world will walk out of school and work as a united force. This will take place just days before the United Nations begins a major climate action summit on September 23rd, making this a key moment to put (their) movement in the global spotlight. Together (they) will disrupt the expected day-to-day functioning of society, sending a message to politicians around the world that (they) refuse to wait any longer for them to act.” Just another action, cause or event about which people get super-excited, and of which, in spite of my sympathies, I never feel like more than a mere spectator.
8. Environment: The destruction by human beings of the biosphere, that is, the air, water, soil, and faunal and flora diversity, is a huge issue, or number of issues, nowadays recognized as the biggest existential challenge confronting us, to which no one, least of all me, can easily claim to have the answer. I first touched on this subject in the late 1950s, when I wrote about what my editor said I should think of as just “pollution”, a little-discussed, just emerging public phenomenon at the time. Soon after I wrote an account of the disgraceful pollution along the Ottawa river into which every town and city (including Montreal) poured their untreated sewage. It could be, I suppose, that the remarkable capacity for recovery that the Earth has shown whenever the destructive pressures are lifted from it, would themselves be enough to solve this problem, and especially the related but even more severe problem of global waming, if only we could find the way to leave it alone. A sure way of achieving this, although it is a long-term solution, would be to limit population growth, which would require, if it is ever to succeed soon enough to have any measurable effect, some fairly draconian measures. (The one-child family was underway in China when I was there in 1978, and it was far from a democratic solution, however necessary it may have seemed at the time. The country is now suffering severe after-effects from that policy). I have often said to friends that one has only to go to Toronto to watch the non-stop pressure of cars entering and leaving the city by the 401, to realize what a seemingly hopeless task lies before the environmental movement. One has only to overlook a major city at night to have the same feeling: it is blazing with light, and the pressure that those lights and buildings, and people, are putting on the ecosystem is more than obvious. Multiplied by tens of thousands of similar scenes in similar and even bigger
cities, it is obvious that the task is almost beyond solution. Indeed, the latest opinion from the scientists who study this subject is that we have only 12 years before our impacts will be irreversible, confronting us with a future of disturbed and violent weather patterns that will so interrupt human behaviour and population centres as perhaps to make life, if not exactly unliveable, at least extremely difficult to sustain.
9. Old age: I have reached that time that many poets have celebrated: in the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “I have lived long enough; my way of life has fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.” It was on December 22 in 2017 that I started to write these Chronicles, for I was coming to the opinion that I would never survive the three months to my tenth decade. Of course, I am one of nature’s pessimists, always choosing the negative in any discussion, and my prognostications proved to be very wide of the mark, for I have lived almost another two years of my tenth decade, and am surviving so far fairly well. I have seen nothing that contradicts the conclusion I had already come to that as one progresses through the ninth and tenth decades of life, one’s physical condition deteriorates exponentially, as they say. The only possible response is to adjust to these changes that overcome you so unexpectedly. For example, until about a month or so ago I was able to walk about 1500 metres over to the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke to my favourite coffee house where I would read the newspapers and have my morning coffee. With the arrival of a tweaked groin muscle --- I don’t know what caused it --- I am not able to walk so far now, so instead I go downstairs to a closer coffee house and do the same thing. I miss the really excellent quality of the pastries they sell at the Peel street place, but to coin a phrase, Wot the hell, wot the hell, I’ve got nothing to complain about. To revert to the beginning of this post, I could have been born into an Indian village in the 1920s, instead of into the comfortable environment in which I was raised, so maybe I should hold my fire. Indeed, I have often insisted that I have had an almost charmed life: I was too young to be gravely affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s, too young to be conscripted into the Second World War, and when I set out into the world I found it to be a place that compared with nowadays, was remarkably open to travellers, even to travellers who might have intended to stay forever, which is certainly not true in the modern world. Now that I am approaching old age, I find my medical expenses are taken care of by the community, an ultimate success for the idea of socialism, surprising, and warmly encouraging in a capitalist country like Canada. I have often said I emigrated to four countries. I lived in the fourth of them, Canada, for 26 years before deciding I might as well become a Canadian citizen. I have never regretted it, although I am not sympathetic to any country’s flag nor its anthem. These are nationalist symbols that don’t commend themselves to me. But I know they have plenty of adherents, and the loss of one adherent, me, is insignificant.