BIG-CITY JOURNALISM: PART IV
By the time I arrived in London in 1960 to be the correspondent for The Montreal Star I guess I could say I was definitely in big-city journalism at last. We had two offices in the city, one for me in The Daily Telegraph building in Fleet street, the other in a building in Cockspur street, just off Trafalgar Square, occupied by two women, whose job it was to do whatever the publisher might demand, and to look after him and his needs on his fairly frequent visits to London.
As I settled into my surroundings it was borne in on me more clearly perhaps than ever before that The Montreal Star was a wealthy newspaper, run by a wealthy family. Although one would never have known it from reading the newspaper, we seemed to buy every news service that money could buy. The first one delivered to me, of course, was the service of The Daily Telegraph. I suppose if I had been interested in a quiet life, I could have just settled down to edit and send on to Montreal items from this service every day. But this didn’t appeal to me, since I regarded the Telegraph and all its works as the most reactionary newspaper in London, a worthy representative of the British monied class. (Years later, though briefly, Conrad Black or Lord Black as he became before becoming a jailbird, bought the Telegraph.)
But this was just the tip of the iceberg. The New York Times apparently had a staff of 13 reporters in London, and we bought all of their output. The Guardian had its own news service which was also available to us; as were the services of The Times, The Observer, and I believe, The Daily Express. Not to mention the regular news services from Reuters, Associated Press, United Press, and (I could be wrong about this) Agence France Presse.
Given this mountain of stuff pouring in to us every day, obviously we were covered for every conceivable news event without raising a finger, so what was a single reporter able to do that was of any use? I decided to ignore all of these services, and just do my own thing, follow my nose. And, as I soon found, any reporter in London who ran out of things to write about must be seriously inefficient, inapt or lazy.
The Epsom race meeting was about to be held, so I decided to look in on that, wrote a piece about it, and apparently the quidnuncs back in the office were really pleased, perhaps because I had started with such a quintessentially English subject, and one that might presumably be of interest to our anglophile publisher.
I quickly decided to abandon the Fleet street office, mainly to detach myself from the conservative influences of the Telegraph, and instead to take up residence with the two women on Cockspur street, who had a spare office I could occupy. I also quickly discovered how favorable were the deadlines for the sort of reporter I was, one, that is to say, not unduly interested in beating the competition. London is five hours ahead of Montreal time, which meant that if I could send off a dispatch at, say, 7.30 or 8 o’clock in the morning, they would receive it in Montreal at the latest by 4 a.m., which would give them plenty of time to edit it and get it into the first edition of the newspaper, that was published at around 8 o’clock, Montreal time.
This was ideal for me in more than just not putting any great pressure on me, but because I could, for example, attend the Prime Minister’s Question Period in the House of Commons, or any major debate on the current hot topic, whatever it might be, at 2.30 p.m. of an afternoon, London time, confident that any real news that emanated from these events would be in our office within minutes, allowing me to forget about that aspect, and allowing me also to wait until the following morning to write my own version of the events. This gave me time to whisk through the nine daily newspapers that were delivered to my door at 7 a.m. every day, so that my dispatch could be informed by what the best opinion of London journalism was saying on the subject.
This had a significant hidden advantage for me: on any subject of which my knowledge was, shall we say, sketchy, I could, by paraphrasing the opinions of experts in the various London papers, give the appearance of having some expert knowledge. These were not my favorite subjects, but it came to me so easily to knock off 500 or 1,000 words on the cable forms supplied by Cable and Wireless, the government-owned telegraphing agency, and writing them replete with every comma and stop and para indicated, that I was always able to get my stuff away by 8 a.m. or 8.30 at the latest, with time to drop off my kids at their school on the way to the cable office.
Occasionally this method of working could rear up and bite me, as it did during one of my infrequent return trips to touch base with home office, when George Ferguson invited me to lunch with him and Eric Kierans. Kierans was a remarkable man, of modest beginnings, who became President of the Montreal Stock Exchange, then Minister of Revenue in the Lesage provincial government that transformed the face of Quebec, and later still was a member of Pierre Trudeau’s federal Cabinet. (As proof of his independence of mind, he once suggested Canada should leave NATO, which he said had outlived its usefulness. More than half a century later, amen to that!) In the face of such a giant of the financial world, I had a distinct feeling of inadequacy as the conversation ground on, and more and more difficult questions were asked me about British financial affairs. I liked Ferguson and he seemed to like me, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he put me through this just to get a chuckle at my expense, knowing full well that like most journalists, although I might know a little bit about a lot of things, I was no expert on the economy.
One of the surprising things about the newspaper I worked for was that although its publisher was an alcoholic, and a rather hopeless one at that, when his family decided to move him aside and replace him with one of these men-in-the-grey-suit businessmen, the newspaper immediately took a dive. Within a few years it had been sold to a chain, and a few years after that, it folded. At least the alcoholic publisher cared about the paper, which is more than could be said for his extended family, who wanted money from it.
Mind you, John McConnell’s forays into London were rather distressing to witness. He would normally stay at the Dorchester, but on one occasion he left the tap running so that water cascaded down their stairs, and thereafter they refused his booking. He had to stay at the Hilton on Park Lane on the first occasion I was summoned to his presence. He was gravely irritated by the lack of service, for example, that there was no pencil beside the phone for making notes. Such are the problems of the mighty among us. He was amiable towards me, venturing to say on one occasion that he thought from time to time I had a rather leftist orientation in what I wrote, which was putting it mildly enough. On that occasion he had been under some kind of treatment programme in Montreal, but he broke clear of it, took a plane to London, and en route drank a bottle of whisky. Thus when he arrived he was a sorry spectacle, his ankles swollen monstrously, his speech slurred, his thoughts rambling. An acquaintance arrived with his teenage son, hoping to set the boy up with a job in Montreal, but what they could have made of McConnell’s performance when they met him I could not even imagine. I would have sworn he could not last another two weeks, but in the event he far surpassed my dolorous prognostications.
On another occasion he set up to interview Max Aitken, the inheritor of the Beaverbrook empire, and, like himself, a man who had problems with drink. Both were sons of powerful capitalist-robber-barons. I was assigned to take the notes and write up the interview which would, of course, be treated in the newspaper as the day’s number one item on the front page.
I performed my duty as best I could, drawing on my rather inadequate note-taking, which was a mixture of Gregg’s shorthand with my own inventions on top (and using my excellent memory, which was my number one asset in the job), and I sent it off by cable as usual, having been punctilious to the nth degree, to ensure its accuracy.
The dispatch began (in the publisher’s own words): “I interviewed Max Aitken in his office in The Daily Express….” Unfortunately, when it was published, the interview began: “I interviewed Max Aitken in his office in The Daily Telegraph….” A worse mistake one could hardly imagine, but, fortunately for me, the mistake was not mine. To ensure complete accuracy, they had had one of their best typists in Montreal take my cabled copy and retype it, and therein the mistake was made. Presumably among the sub-editors handling the copy, none knew the difference between these two British newspapers. All I can remember of the interview was that it was completely anodyne in tone and information, and had it been written by anyone else, it would have been immediately spiked as unusable.
In London I reaped the advantage of working for a newspaper that had a conservative attitude towards the news. As long as I provided them with plenty of copy, they left me strictly alone. It was like working for myself. A colleague who worked in London for The Toronto Star told me she got nervous if she didn’t receive four telegrams a day from her superiors in the office. I knew, in fact we all knew, that this kind of thing was completely unnecessary, merely expressions of office-holders’ ego, since their reporters were experienced people, knew what news was, and knew how to write articles on any given subject. In response, I was there for eight years, and I received only two such telegrams in all that time. One of these arrived when I was at lunch one day, and the woman in our office phoned me to tell me there was a telegram from Montreal for me. I hurried back to the office, and tore open the dreaded document. It was from the secretary to the Managing Editor: “Deeply regret your expenses underpaid this month by $4.95…”