Christmas is one of those religious impositions that personally I have always hated. It is supposed to represent the probably fictional birth of a man accepted by millions of people around the world as their Prophet. But to me it is a total farce: a celebration that has been so grotesquely commercialized by businessmen and customers --- those two essential characters in the human lexicon of capitalism --- that I cannot understand why it doesn’t sicken everybody. As soon as, a few decades ago, I realized it was to be punctuated by the plummy upper-crust voice of the queen expounding her bromides, I have made every effort to avoid at least that indignity. So for years I have just tried to live through the Christmas holidays as if my eyes and ears were closed to all stimuli.
I know we are constantly told that we must respect everyone’s religion, that we must respect the freedom of anyone to practise the religion he or she follows. I am okay with that, I don’t want to deprive anyone of such freedom; but I do draw the line when told I have to respect the fact that millions of people believe absurd things, like those Moslem suicide bombers who believe they’re headed for a heaven where they will be surrounded by 72 virgins, and who use this as a cowardly excuse to blow up hundreds of innocent people; or like those Christians who believe their saviour was the result of a virgin birth; or who seem genuinely to believe that he ascended to heaven after X (I’ve forgotten the number myself) number of days, a huge rock having been rolled aside miraculously to enable him to make the ascension. Pu-leez! And while I am at it I think in return for my abstention from imposing my views on religious people, they could perhaps not impose their views on me. Unfortunately, this is where the matter becomes serious, for everywhere in the world we see religious people trying to impose their views on the rest of mankind, and being so serious about this that they are willing to kill, imprison, maim and excommunicate anyone who does not bow to their wishes.
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Today I came across a piece of bad news hidden away in the business section of a Toronto paper, namely, that the Saturday editions of La Presse, which ceased to publish its weekday editions on January 1 two years ago, will cease as of December 30 at the end of this week. In other words, this means the disappearance of the number one newspaper published in French on the North American continent. Of course, it will continue as they say these days, online. But that is no substitute for a real live newspaper in the hand.
It was only after I arrived back in Montreal five years or so ago that I became a regular reader of La Presse. I had gotten into the habit in Ottawa of going to a coffee shop to read the morning newspaper, and so I continued the habit Montreal. I took an internet course in French to facilitate the business, and I quickly found I could read the newspaper easily, and soon developed an appreciation for the newspaper that I had never had when previously living in Montreal between 1957 and 1975.The first blow came two years ago when La Presse ceased to publish a printed paper on weekdays, thus forcing me to transfer my reading to the Toronto Globe and Mail except for Saturdays.
In those old-time days, of course, when I first made the acquaintance of La Presse, I had a healthy contempt for all newspapers, for which I had worked as a daily journalist since 1945. And I had as well, a searing distrust of all my bosses, the only exception being a man called Albert Boothe, who had been my City Editor in the Winnipeg Free Press, and was a prince of a man.
The basis for my distrust was that in my observation most of my bosses had attained their positions not from any real merit or skill at the job, but simply from having stayed in the same place so long that they rose to the top through inanition.
I had, however, in those days a certain connection with La Presse which came about from my friendship with one of their reporters, a charming and loveable woman called Celine Legare, who 20 years later contracted a deadly cancer that ended her life prematurely. On one of my first jobs after joining the staff of the Montreal Star in 1957, I sat next to her when covering a luncheon speech at the Canadian Club, and as we wandered back towards our respective offices she told me she realized I must have come from some other place, because “the English reporters never talk to us.” From that moment on she treated my wife and me as if we were among her closest friends, and through her repeated invitations to meet her friends on Fridays at her house, she introduced us to a French-Canada of which as far as I could tell, my colleagues of the time on the English paper, appeared to be completely unaware. A French-Canada of young men and women who had already shaken off the tentacles of the reactionary Quebec church and all its works, who were progressive in their political outlook, enthusiastic members of the journalistic union that had transformed their profession from one that was traditionally riddled with corruption into one that stood proud in face of their bosses, and were longing for the day when people of their mind might take over management of the entire political system of their province. Many of these people had been members of the Communist party or fellow-travellers, and they did not shrink from anyone about their aggressive disbelief in all the shibboleths still hanging over from the traditional forces that had dominated Quebec society.
Their union in La Presse was in marked contrast to the situation in the English-language paper, whose reporters benefited from the existence of the French-language union to the extent that our newspaper had elevated our wages to something like 10 per cent below those paid to the unionized reporters along the road in the French newspaper, a measure taken in the hope of stalling the arrival of a union.
My close connection to these people --- I once walked on the picket line with them when they were on strike, an action that, if it had become known to my employers would probably have led to my instant dismissal --- was an absolute gift to me as I settled down to try to make sense of what was happening in Quebec. And it was a matter of astonishment to me to see that their strikes resulted not only in wage settlements but in the overthrow and replacement of editorial bosses more to their liking. I was pretty good at my job, and was promoted to become the newspaper’s correspondent in London before the election of the Liberal party government that began to overhaul all institutions in the province in 1960. Even though I was far from it, the election result did not surprise me, nor did the fact that it gave rise to a province that today, in terms of social welfare, is still is ahead of the rest of the country, a province that has been remade very much in the direction desired by my unexpected francophone friends of the late 1950s.
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Watching TV as I pondered what to write, I heard a character dying of AIDS croak to someone sitting beside him, “I used to be afraid of death. But I am not now.” I looked around at my empty house, thinking that my death cannot be so far away, maybe a few years, maybe shorter, maybe longer. It stands to reason when you are 89, I thought. There’s not much time left.
I have never been afraid of death, and am not now. I suppose the most likely thing is that I will die unexpectedly, while alone, and be found some time afterwards when someone perhaps misses seeing me around. That doesn’t bother me: I will be, after all, dead. The world will go on just as if I had never lived. I can’t say I will can’t say I will welcome death; I enjoy mooching along through these last years, nowadays doing nothing particularly useful.
I wonder how long any of the millions of words I have written will be read by anyone after I am dead. I have no illusions about that; not long, I am sure.