Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Log 438: Dear Jillian, anyone who catches me on my bike has to confront a torrent of words. What else? I'm a garrulous old devil...

Dear Jillian Glover

I am the cyclist whom you photographed and rather loftily described in a caption as “this guy” in your charming blog describing your admiration for and love of Montreal.
(Check this out at:

Like you, I  have a blog (that I started in 1996, long before the word blog was invented). And this gives me a good opportunity to endorse your enthusiasm for Montreal. I thought briefly of suing you for invasion of privacy, but I have resisted the temptation and instead have decided to ask your indulgence to allow me to explain to your readers how I fell for Montreal a year or two before you did. I arrived in here in 1957, at the age of 29, by way of New Zealand (where I was born and raised), Australia, India, England, Scotland, Ontario and Manitoba in all of which I had plied my trade of journalist. I began that trade in December, 1945 fresh out of high school and worked in it until 1971 with only occasional interruptions --- factory worker in Melbourne and London, social worker in the Punjab, student in Scotland --- before I quit to become a freelance writer, and later (a sheer accident this) a documentary film-maker. I have travelled and worked in many countries, but somehow Montreal has maintained a grip on my heart.
In 1957 we dusted off Winnipeg and drove our third-hand Austin A30 to Mexico (for the second time), but the car broke down in Monterrey, and we limped back to Montreal, where I hoped to land a job. I was lucky and began a 14-year stint with The Montreal Star.
 In Winnipeg we had heard a lot of colorful stories about the haphazard nature of English-language journalism in Montreal, and when I got here I found they were all true.
The first interesting thing that happened to me was on almost my first assignment, to cover the weekly luncheon speech at the Canadian Club. A bubbly, talkative and vivacious young woman sat down next to me at the press table, and we got into conversation. She worked for La Presse, and, the luncheon over, we decided to walk back to our offices together. She told me, “I knew you came from somewhere else.”  Why was that, I asked. “Because,” she said, “the English journalists never talk to us.”
I had found my first friend in Montreal, and she became the dearest friend of my wife and myself until she died young of cancer of he jaw. Before that  she invited us to her house many times to meet her friends,  a group of extremely progressive-minded young journalists, with whom I spent many an hour drinking brandy at Chez Son Pere, the sort of restaurant-bar I had never met elsewhere in Canada, which had been an indispensable home for hard-up journalists right through the depression and after.  These people were fed up with the Duplessis regime (supported unquestioningly by the English-language papers). My pals on the French paper were unionized (which I thought everybody should be), went on strike, overturned their administration, and were a sort of vanguard for the immense changes that overcame Quebec within just a few years.
I was present on the day that a foolish Chief of Police arrested Rene Levesque (at that time a well-known political commentator), and Jean Chartrand, (the union leader who later accompanied Pierre Trudeau and Gerard Pelletier into Ottawa politics), during a demo in front of the CBC building in support of a strike of French-language TV producers. This producers’ strike was front page news in all the French papers, in fact, for day after day it took up the whole of most front pages, but in the Star it merited only a single column on page 18 or thereabouts (although we managed to change that later).  That’s how out of touch the English community was with what was really happening in Quebec.
It was the era of afternoon bank robberies, and unfortunately, when the City Editor looked up to find someone to cover them, he usually found me sitting idly there and ordered me out on to a job I had little interest in. By a sort of legerdemain that I find it hard to recall now, I managed to go on 15 bank robberies without writing a word about any of them, before the penny finally dropped with the editors that I really  wasn’t the guy to send.
I was assigned to the hotel beat. This was a cushy job. I would set off up Bleury street at about 10 am, drop in at Archie Handel’s used bookstore for a quick hour-long chat most days, ask the hotels uptown if anyone notable was in residence, and when they inevitably said no, I would retire most days to the Pam-Pam on Stanley street, for a coffee and an hour or two over a well-thumbed book, while watching the mysteriously attractive European women who ran the place. It was a tough life, but it had its rewards:  I got invited to lots of riotous hotel parties, and even to a magnificent gourmet dinner staged by the Club Gastronomique Prosper Montagne, a club maintained by the haute bourgeoisie de Montreal, whose meal was prepared by Edouard Lelarge, the 400-pound chef and owner of the 400 club, whose motto was “je mange chez moi.”   One of my sons said to me, "Don't forget to tell the story about the five-course meal for $1.75," recalling a story I have told so many times the  family are sick of it. But in fact, it did exist at a beautiful little restaurant kept on Clark street by a skilled French chef called Abel Banquet, who taught his trade at the cooking school.         
Well, I could go on for a long time about Montreal. I used to love equally the Ritz cafe, with its wonderful American singers, and the Chez Paree, a night-club that attracted some of the finest bar bands and most raucous floor shows on the continent.  This was before Jean Drapeau got re-elected, and began to clean up the town.
After three years they asked me if I would like to go to London to represent them. Would I? I left on the first available boat, and found myself in the perfect job.  At a time when a Toronto correspondent there told me she got nervous if she didn’t get four telegrams a day from head office, I spent eight years in London and can remember receiving only two telegrams, one of which was an apology for underpaying my expenses by $5.45. In other words, the Star, not being an excitable paper, left me to do my own thing. Before landing in Montreal,  I would usually quit my job after three years and move on, but this London job was one I didn’t have the guts to quit.
Back in Montreal in 1968, eventually my discontent with the politics of the paper got too much to bear, and in 1971 I quit, expecting to make a living from the CBC. Lucky for me the NFB came to my rescue, for the CBC hired me only twice in the next 40 years. 
 I left Montreal in 1975 to return to my country of origin, but I returned to Canada the following year, and fate took me to, first, Kitchener, then Ottawa, from which I commuted for several years to work at the National Film Board on Cote de Liesse, making the two-hour drive two or three times a week for several years. So I continued to be in touch with Montreal, and after my four children left home and my wife died, I had to make changes in my personal lifestyle, and two years ago fate again landed me in Montreal, where I now live in a high-rise building in a small one-bedroomed apartment from which I have a great view of the city.
Nowadays I am content to trundle around on my old bike, taking in the superb coffee at Café Castel, the Lebanese café on Peel and Sherbrooke, or the relaxed French-Canadian atmosphere at Café Imagination on Parc and Sherbrooke.  Any one of them, even today, beats any such place I have encountered in other Canadian cities, and on the way home I drop in to Adrian King-Edwards's superb second-hand book store on Milton which, although small, seems to have almost any book one could want.
It’s amazing what you can come across through photogaphing a guy on a bike. But that’s Montreal! What a city!

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