BIG-CITY JOURNALISM: PART III
Unexpectedly, my friend from Winnipeg, Frank Walker, turned up in Montreal, and stayed with his old friend George Ferguson. He had quit the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he hung around so long that Ferguson, desperate to have him off his hands, persuaded the Publisher, John G. McConnell, son of the original robber-baron, to appoint him Assistant Publisher of the farming weekly, The Family Herald.
The way I heard the story from someone who had worked with Walker in the HBC, he had always had an easy relationship with the head of the company, Philip Chester, who left him to do his own thing, and supported him in everything. For example, if there was a Picasso exhibition in New York, he was able to go and check it out. But when Chester retired in 1959, Walker went into a funk. He began to turn up every day for work, but he shut himself into his office and never emerged. This went on for some months before he decided to go to Montreal.
From the moment he took up his new responsibility, he sought me out, and we had coffee together almost every morning. Walker was a sardonic man, with a wicked sense of humour, and in these coffee chats we ran our ruler over most of the senior members of the Montreal Star staff, especially the senior staff, and he left no doubt that his opinion of them was no higher than mine. He immediately began to make vast changes in the Family Herald, enormously improving it, to such a point that a member of the staff who was familiar with the magazine said it could not be too long before it went broke and closed up shop. This, in fact, is what happened to it, at which point Walker moved over to become head editorial page writer of the Star itself, under Ferguson, a job for which he was well qualified. By that time I was working in London as full-time correspondent.
Before I left Canada to undertake that plum assignment, a couple of interesting things happened to me. One was that I was assigned to cover the 1959 Royal tour, picking it up in Montreal, crossing the entire country up to Dawson City and back to Halifax. I undertook the assignment because it gave me a good look at a country I had only glimpsed in passing before. I was the most unlikely person ever selected to cover a Royal tour, because I had always abhorred the Royal family, and considered myself a convinced republican. Never mind: I had managed to accommodate myself to the vagaries of the newspaper’s antediluvian demands before, so I could no doubt do so again. I picked up the Royal travellers as they entered Montreal. A ceremony at Place d’Armes turned out to be rather sparsely attended by the public, which I mentioned in my report, but that came out in the paper as, “Lines of soldiers around the square were needed to hold back the enthusiastic crowd.” Ho, hum, I thought, here we go again.
The Montreal Star’s owner Mr. McConnell was such a slavish Royalist that every day we published the court circular detailing the day’s Royal engagements in London. His family had, for years, held themselves in readiness to greet and entertain and accommodate any Royals visiting the city, an activity that must have ranked as high for them as their millions of dollars of gifts given to McGill university.
It followed, ipso facto, that any criticism of Royalty remained foreign to our pages; that even the suggestion of a critical evaluation of McGill would never see the light of print; just as it was well known that no reference could ever be made to the soubriquet “Sugar Ray” in writing about the champion black boxer Ray Robinson, in deference to the owner’s also owning a sugar company. (There were a lot of these stupidities: a notable one occurred when I was assigned to interview a man who had just turned 103, with instructions to ask to what he ascribed his longevity: I handed in some copy with his answer in the first sentence, that he had never eaten meat. Our dear old City Editor, Dick Haviland, one of those who seemed to have been promoted beyond his level of competence, considered the matter gravely before returning to my desk to ask for that particular jewel to be omitted: “After all,” he bleated, “We’ve had trouble with Canada Packers before.”)
During these days I really began to polish my skill at trying to indicate by my tone something more than I was actually writing on the paper; a subtle form of self-censorship, I suppose you could call it, but I gloried in it when it worked. It probably reached its apotheosis when I covered the visit of newly installed ruler of Cuba, Fidel Castro, who visited the city to pick up some toys that had been donated as gifts for Cuban children. He was an amazing figure, fearless it seemed, ebullient, always defying the caution urged upon him by his --- and our --- security advisers. In his press conference, as was usual with him --- this was the month of April, four months after he marched into Havana --- he insisted he had no wish to undertake a position of power, denied vehemently that he was a Communist, and generally charmed the pants off everyone who came in contact with him. My report, I thought, was as favorable as I thought I could get away with under the not-too observant noses of our sub-editors, but I felt sure anyone who knew me would understand what I was trying to say. The following day the Managing Editor, Walter O’Hearn, a long-time Star employee as a theatre and cultural critic, on which he wrote rather elegantly, another of those who had been promoted to his level of incompetence when Ken Edey resigned, said to me in a self-satisfied tone, “I see you didn’t think much of our friend Castro.” Some of my friends, on the other hand, said, “How the hell did you ever get that piece on Castro into the Montreal Star?”
No such ambiguity was allowed to occur in relation to the coverage of the Royals. I figured when it was all over that the sub-editors had chuckled over my amusing tales of Mayoral daughters and their battles to be presenters of flowers to the Queen, and then summarily spiked them. I figured about 40 per cent of my pieces had been used, but in some cases they had used perhaps one line under my by-line, and substituted the safer agency copy for the rest of the story.
It was on the Royal tour that I finally came into close contact with what I would call big-city journalism, that is to say, the London press. I became matey with two fellows, Don Iddon, a New York columnist for The Daily Mail, and Graham Stanford, of The News of the World, old school chums who just sat around the bar on the Royal train, never venturing out to an actual function, but always on the lookout for that sensational element that might land their piece on the front page. They were two of the most cynical veterans of Fleet Street, and although their cynicism towards the news was utterly deplorable, I have to admit I warmed to them both, especially to Graham Stanford, and couldn’t help but find their antics amusing.
Their moment arrived when the Queen begged off the trip up to Dawson City, her publicists giving some anodyne excuse. A younger Fleet Street guy, Peter Moorhouse, of The Daily Herald in his piece speculated that the Queen was really sick, a front pager that left his competitors at the gate. (The fact was, she was pregnant). At the next press briefing, Stanford begged the PR man for the tour to come clean. “Our young colleague has speculated that the Queen is ill,” he thundered. "Rod, what in God’s name is the situation?” he asked, only to get the customary muttered response.
That was enough for Don Iddon: he wrote a sensational piece in which he said the Queen was the victim of an ambitious Prime Minister, Diefenbaker, and the bungling Canadian officials running the Tour. He received immediate congratulations from his office on his great front-page scoop. The next day Diefenbaker, a mere babe-in-arms compared to these Fleet street hangmen, denied the rumour, giving Iddon a hook on which to hang yet another denunciation of the Canadian Prime Minister. Iddon had never moved from the bar, yet he was the star reporter at work on the story. I couldn’t help laughing…
The reporter for The Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook’s right-wing mass circulation rag in which every news story if possible had to reflect the peculiarities of the owner’s views, was Tom Stacey, an upper-crust Englishman who had previously worked for a year or so in Montreal, where he had been thrown off a balcony when he tried to interfere with the ballot-stuffing that was customary in municipal elections in Quebec. Like Iddon and Stanford, he was governed by the need to find that edge that would put him on the front page; without it, nothing was worth reporting about this dreary tour. For them, if not for us. When the Queen visited the Woodbine race track in Toronto, Stacey reported that the stables were sprayed with perfume before the Queen’s inspection of them. Many congratulations your splendid font-pager, came back the cables from head office. Of course, he had made it all up, we all knew that. My best friend among the Fleet Streeters was Anne Sharpley, an amusing sob-sister for Beaverbrook's Evening Standard. I remember as we stood at the foot of a plane ramp, awaiting the Royal arrival, her saying, "She's going to be the last, you know. There'll be no more of them after her." A slight misjudgment, I would have thought, on a par with my high school teacher's assurance that "there'll be no millionaires in the future, you know. That's over."
As we flew out of Whitehorse, the capital of the Northwest Territories, Graham Stanford came and leaned over the seat to attract my attention. He wanted to tell me about a gesture he and Iddon had made towards the wife of the man who drove them everywhere. They had decided to give her a gift of flowers, a rare and expensive item so far north. “Just one of those acts of gentility that make life worthwhile, old man,” he said. He did mention that as they were approaching the front door, they got into a quarrel, no doubt stimulated by the 40-proof rum they had been drinking, and began beating each other over the head with the flowers, so that when they got to the dear lady, their gift was rather the worse for wear. “It’s just these little gestures that give life some meaning,” Graham said. The dear old fellow meant it, every word.
I think I have recorded earlier in these Chronicles how my long hours worked on the Tour resulted in my being given six weeks off, and a $600 bonus, which we used in a six-week holiday in the West Indies. We returned from that in the middle of January, and our first thought was, why the hell are we living in this hellish climate? We decided then and there to return to England, with the probable intention of returning, possibly overland, to New Zealand. Noel Mostert actually booked our steerage passages on the s.s. Homeric. But as the time approached we began to think the $4,000 we had saved really wasn’t enough for the plans we had, that we should stay until September. So Noel cancelled the passage, and two weeks before the ship was due to sail, Walter O’Hearn called me in and asked if I would like to represent the paper in London. I could hardly believe my ears. Noel re-booked, but in first class this time.
A story that will have to await another day, I guess.