Tuesday, February 6, 2018

My Log 596 Feb 6 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade:33; I finally make it to big-city journalism in Canada, only to find myself surrounded by amiable eccentrics

                            BIG-CITY JOURNALISM: PART I
When I finally did arrive in 1955 at what I might call big-city journalism --- although the Winnipeg area in 1955 was just over 400,000, not huge by today’s standards ---- the first thing that impressed me was their inefficiency. A little guy had been given a job from off the street, it is true, but he had since been sitting at a desk for almost two years listening to the police radio, not, I would have thought, the ultimate way to use the talents of any youngster, if he has talents.
The Winnipeg Free Press was a newspaper with an immense reputation throughout Western Canada, achieved almost entirely because its long-time editor, J.W. Dafoe, had occupied the editor’s chair from 1901 to his death in 1944, during which time his thunderous editorials had the capacity to make or break Liberal governments in Canada. Dafoe had at various times been offered a seat in Parliament, a knighthood and a consular position, but had rejected them all in favour of practicing journalism. He had given rise to a family of journalists, some of whom are still active to this day. I have worked with a couple of these in various capacities, and they are certainly excellent practitioners of their craft.
The Sifton family owned the newspaper when Dafoe was hired, and  still owned it in 1955 when I became a member of its reporting staff. Clifford Sifton had an office on the editorial floor, and whenever he was scheduled to make one of his visits to the newsroom, word was quickly spread among the staff to make themselves look busy, or, if that was impossible, to go and hide out in the library.
To me, the newspaper seemed to be a very ordinary daily, unexceptional in any way, and I used to tell my friends that it was regarded as a great newspaper by more people who had never read it than any other newspaper on earth. The editor, and the man who hired me was an Englishman, Tom Kent, a graduate of the famous Manchester Guardian who had been especially imported from the old country to help revive the standards of the newspaper. I have to hand it to him: he was a brilliant editorial writer, could put together a reasoned piece in double-quick time, but it seemed to me his talents ended about there. I was never impressed by his management of people.
As I discovered later was also the case at The Montreal Star, this well-established Winnipeg newspaper had enough revenue from its advertisements, especially its classified ads, that it really seemed not to need any management: it just kept ticking over. It had a staff of literate editorial writers, and some good journalists who covered local affairs very thoroughly, and it had inherited, effortlessly, it seemed, certain eccentricities that made me feel more friendly towards it than I might otherwise have been. Best of all, from my point of view, the City Editor, Albert Boothe, was a prince of a man ---I think he was the only boss I ever had for whom I had a warm personal regard.
The newsroom was on the fourth floor, if I remember correctly, half of it filled with banks of noisy old-style typewriters. At the key corner of this quadrangle of machines sat an old man, Diplock, who was seldom known to do any work, and who suddenly, one day, disappeared, no one knew where.  Eventually the word came that he was in England. After a year or so, he turned up one day at the usual starting time, took his seat as usual at his accustomed desk and sat reading the opposition newspaper, the Winnipeg Tribune, that had just appeared. Albert Boothe, spotting him, grabbed a clipping from the Tribune, took it over to Diplock, put it on the desk before him, and said, “Give us a para on that, would you?”  And so his return to work was consummated.
The Free Press also published a farming magazine, the Free Press Prairie Farmer, at one time the most widely circulated farming newspaper in Canada, which was written by some fellows occupying the back row of typewriters in the newsroom.  They had to be careful, however, not to get in the way of Jeannie, a Winnipeg woman who came into the newsroom once or twice a week, swathed in the heavy clothing necessary  for a Winnipeg winter, ceremoniously disrobed, sat down, and typed away for an hour or two each time, then gathered her clothing and disappeared. No one ever talked to her, and it was never too clear exactly what she was doing, but she had been doing it for years, uninterrupted, and our general impression was she was working on a novel.
Winnipeg was an interesting city, standing further from the influence of any neighbouring American city than did any other major Canadian city, and that alone gave it a certain je ne sais quoi.  It was the centre of the grain trade, and one of my first jobs was to cover the Grain Exchange for three months, from October to December. I used to walk along Portage avenue in the intense cold, and by the time I had reached the intersection with Main street, at which the Exchange stood, I had had as much as I could handle of that dry Manitoba cold.
This job required me not only to gather the prices during the week --- they were double-Dutch to me --- but to write a learned article on the grain trade every Saturday. For this I became dependent on yet another pleasing eccentric, Alex Aldred, who for as long as anyone could remember had run a small daily bulletin he distributed to Exchange members. This man was more expert in music and matters artistic than he was in grain, and it was no secret that several wealthy members of the Exchange depended on his advice before splurging on their latest acquisition of Picasso or whoever. A small, untidy little man, always smoking a huge cigar, expressing himself always in a string of obscenities, he was full of stories about his acquaintance with some of the greatest musicians of our age. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz was a particular friend, Myra Hess another, I remember. None of us ever doubted that his stories were true. But what could have brought a man like this, so cultured, so odd and assertive, to Winnipeg, to bury himself in the Grain Exchange?  I never discovered the answer to that.
For most of my two years in Winnipeg I covered the school board. It had a majority of Conservative members, and the only elected Communist in Canadian politics at the time, Joe Zuken, a local lawyer, as abrasive as he was clever. I was always fascinated at how he would manipulate even the Conservative members as he argued smoothly, but in a certain sense surreptitiously, to get things approved that he alone seemed really to support --- a central political skill, I began to learn ---getting people who don’t agree with you to vote with you. His only problem were the NDP members who usually agreed with him, but on whom political nuance was lost: they were more likely to undo Joe’s silky manoeuvrings than to help them.
Another prime eccentric of whom I have a somewhat less fond memory was Ted Byfield, one of our reporters.  Presenting himself always as super-religious, he was always trying to convert atheists like myself to his creed, whatever it was. In spite of his religion, he appeared not to apply a strict code of ethics to his work life, giving as a reason that it was not work that he could take seriously. He covered the city hall, adopted an attitude of chuckling nihilism to the work, and was not above listening through key-holes to in-camera conversations about which, without a line of notes, he would write a sensational account on demand. His father had been a journalist, and he used to regale us with stories about how, during his lean days, the father would take his family into a restaurant, watch for other diners leaving, and attach himself to them, thus managing to get out without paying.
Ted was virtually responsible for the election of Steve Juba as mayor of Winnipeg. Steve was an ordinary guy, certainly no orator, and Ted played him expertly, running back and forth between him and his opponent,  George Sharp, the incumbent who represented the sedate Anglo side of the city,  telling each of them what the other had just said, and getting quick responses, most of which Ted thought up himself. Steve was the first Ukrainian Canadian to have such a high office, which he occupied for 20 years from 1957, my last year in Winnipeg.
Ted left the newspaper to set up a religious school based on tough love, that predictably enough was embroiled in some sort of disaster through pushing its pupils too hard on cross-country treks; and years later he emerged as a minor magazine tycoon, publisher of the extreme right-wing Alberta Report, fortunately no longer with us, but which provided the underpinning for the right-wing Alberta-based Reform Party that eventually gave us the much unloved Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Ted is still active today, writing books, and propagating the values of the Orthodox church, which he joined when the Anglicans turned out to be too lax for him.
Before I left the Free Press I got into a stand-up yelling disagreement in the newsroom with Tom Kent. He had asked me to phone a friend James Coyne, head of the Bank of Canada, who, he said, was rumoured to be getting married. I phoned and the man hung up on me. I phoned him back, my New Zealand egalitarianism at full throttle, and told him he shouldn’t have done that, whereupon Kent, having heard from Coyne, came into the newsroom to berate me. Ah, well, these Englishmen….
In Winnipeg I interviewed many visiting celebrities, such as John Grierson, founder of the National Film Board, Osip Zadkine, the Russian sculptor, Richard Neutra, famous Los Angeles architect, Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, later revealed to have been the fifth British spy from Cambridge University, Esther Williams, unsurprisingly going around selling swimming pools, and quite a few others. But they can perhaps be left for a later Chronicle, if there are any.

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