I feel that just about everything in my life has changed. I have settled in Montreal, having arrived back after three months in Dubrovnik, Croatia, visiting a friend. I left Montreal (where I arrived to live first in 1957), in 1975 to go back to New Zealand, the land of my birth. When I returned to Canada in 1976, disappointed in New Zealand I guess you could say, I went to live in Ottawa, where I have lived for the last 35 years.
Accustomed though I had become to Ottawa, the suggestion of one of my sons, Thom, that I might find Montreal more interesting prompted me to make a move. I had thought about moving back to Montreal when I had sold my house a few years back, but decided that it would be one move more than I could comfortably handle at the time. So two moves later, through apartments in Ottawa, I have finally made the move, and promise to be well contented with it.
My wife Shirley died in 2007, after almost 57 years of marriage, and I have found a new partner, Sheila van Bloemen, a woman of my own age, with whom I have been exchanging visits for the last couple of years, and she is proving to be an excellent, indeed, irreplaceable and indispensible companion in my old age. She has a gift for display and interior house arrangement, and she has by some miracle managed to fit all the stuff I have hung on to during these three moves into a one-bedroomed apartment on the fifteenth floor of a building overlooking downtown Montreal. We sit on our balcony every morning watching spectacular sunrises, and today we walked on what is laughingly called The Mountain --- Parc Mont-Royal --- which is only two or three blocks above where we live.
I have unreservedly happy memories of my first 18-year domicile in Montreal (although eight years of that were spent in London, England, where I was correspondent for The Montreal Star. Still, during those eight years I was in constant touch with the city of Montreal, in one way or another, and these were the best working years I have ever spent. I was extremely fortunate that The Star was a newspaper of a conservative bent, that was prepared to accept copy from its correspondent, the content of which didn’t bother them unduly, as long as it arrived on time and in a regular fashion. I have often remarked since that the job in London was the best in journalism: the office never bothered me, allowed me to write about whatever subject took my fancy, the deadlines were totally favourable, giving me the leisure to write at my own speed and in my own time, and in those days, the money was good because of the imbalance at the time between the Canadian and British currencies. There was also some sort of reciprocal arrangement between the two countries which allowed me to pay tax only on the part of my salary that I brought into the UK, which turned out to be an immense advantage.
Added to that was the sheer delight of writing about London in the 1960s, years of experimentation and change in Britain, as it struggled to come to terms with its declining influence in the world.
I have to say, however, that the moment I returned to Montreal, where I was directly under the thumb of bosses who were worried about what appeared on the subject of Montreal and its politics, the freedom of action and expression I had enjoyed in London no longer applied. Fortunately, I got interested in the subject of native people in Canada, was given the freedom to travel anywhere across the country that took my fancy (partly, I think, because they were happy to see the back of me in the office: once in Alaska, I couldn’t be upsetting the Montreal city fathers, in those days synonymous with Jean Drapeau, the man who said the 1976 Olympics could no more lose money than he could have a baby.) Anyway, although I no more liked the owners and bosses of The Montreal Star than I had of any other paper I worked for, when I look back at them they seem like a lot of decent, bumbling vicars compared with the thugs who run the media these days. And the existence of the Star as an independent newspaper was an important element in the life-style of English Montreal. In summary, if I now carried any sense of animosity towards the paper that employed me for 14 years in Montreal I would deserve to be called a monstrous ingrate. And I carry no such animosity.
I quit the paper, not in the happiest of circumstances, in 1971, a parting of the ways that was written in the sky, inevitable, given my attitude towards newspaoers and all their works. It was a risky thing to do, since I had four small children, and little prospect of making a living as a freelance writer. To my great good fortune, a chance encounter with Colin Low at the National Film Board got me started doing research for them, which developed into their unaccountable and ultra-generous offer that I should become involved in the actual making of films, and henceforth, for nearly 20 years, I managed to eke out a living making films, writing books, and writing other things, doing research and the like. I left Montreal to fulfil the foolhardy and age-old dream of immigrants, that is, to return to their country of origin, an enterprise that, I am sure fails in more than 90 per cent of cases, as it did in mine.
While in Montreal I had subjected my children to what was, in essence, a political experiment, which was to place them in the French Catholic school system, in the belief that that would be their best and surest method of learning French. They were tossed into it, almost the only English-speaking kids in their schools at the time, without knowing a word of French, and they had a hard time of it. The stories of being locked in rooms with the janitors as punishment for their unresponsiveness, of being beaten up in the playgrounds, and so on, still bother my conscience to this day. When I returned to Canada, I decided I did not want to subject them to more of that, so I relocated to Ottawa, from which, only two hours drive away, I could commute to work in Montreal. (I may say, in parenthesis, that my children all still speak French, which is evidence that some good came out of the experience I subjected them to, though at a rather high cost, to them, although not to me.)
Okay, so here I am back in this wonderful city. I am slowly exploring the many new things that have been built, and feeling once again, that warmth of the people, which never failed me in the past, and has delighted me in my first two weeks back. I came across one wondrous change in the city block that lies alongside Place des Arts on the west side. The whole block has been refashioned as an open-air spot for concerts and performances, and in those moments when it is not so engaged, it has been made over into a fantasia of fountains, stretching from one end of the block to the other. It is fascinating to sit beside these fountains, dozens of them, most of them small spouts of water coming up and down according to some preprogrammed timetable, at one point turning into a joyous, jumping cornucopia of fountains that look as if they have lost control in their delight in living, while a huge tower of water in the centre rises, surrounded by these jumping, wild smaller fountains. This installation is a veritable fantasy, amazing, and whoever visualized and created it deserves the utmost credit.