As safe as … a game of hockey

In a hundred years of hockey in Canada, kids and skates and pucks belong together.

It didn’t matter how early on a Saturday, he still came with me. Even if he’d worked half the night getting his last newspaper column of the week finished at the Globe and Mail, and even if we played the first game of the day at 6 a.m., my dad was always there. He helped me tie my skates, made sure my Butch Goring helmet was in place, and sent me onto the ice to play house-league hockey. I felt secure too, seeing him at the end of the outdoor arena, through the chain-link fence, cheering us on.

“Go, Agincourt, go,” I heard him shout between puffs on his cigarette.

Having a parent take me to the rink felt supremely comforting. And, as I remember, we had a couple of coaches – volunteers – who made sure we had sticks, pucks and jerseys. It was always reassuring to have those familiar people there for us. A virtual security blanket.

Locked into vinyl

As background to where and when I work, a favourite LP on my retro turntable.

It happens about 15 minutes and 30 seconds in. It’s happens after the flugelhorn introduction from the leader of the band, Chuck Mangione. It follows the entry of the full Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the spontaneous applause. Just about the time soprano sax player Gerry Niewood comes in. Right in there, kind of unexpectedly, there’s this short stutter in the recording. No, not in the recording, but in my pressed version of it.

“It’s a locked groove,” I once explained to my daughters, “an imperfection in the pressing of the vinyl disc.”

Precarious or preferred?

1930 Lewis Hine photograph depicting "skywalkers," steelworkers atop Empire State Building, is often used to symbolize "precarious work."
1930 Lewis Hine photograph – depicting “skywalkers,” steelworkers atop Empire State Building – is often used to symbolize “precarious work.”

We hadn’t seen each other in awhile. We stopped to catch up. My friend told me it had been a tough summer. His father had passed. He’d had to put a favourite pet down. So, his work as an artist had suffered. We’re about the same age and we talked about whether the idea of stopping work or even retirement had entered his thinking. He pointed out, while it might be appropriate and healthy to slow down or even retire, that it wasn’t feasible.

“I can’t just decide to stop working,” he said. “Working artists can’t afford to do that.”

We talked a while about what retirement might look like for him. He sensed that he might do more work of his own choosing, as opposed to the work that customers needed or wanted done. But ultimately we came back to the kind of work life he experiences.

“Freelance work never stops,” he said.

A time of evil

Dalton Trumbo's smile was deceiving given the prejudice he endured.
Dalton Trumbo’s smile was deceiving given the prejudice he endured.

I watched an entertaining and important movie at The Roxy Theatre in Uxbridge this past week. It reminded me of a very scary time in the world. It made me wince at the lunacy of the fear mongering. It saddened me to think that people lost their careers (and in some cases their lives) for their political views in a democratic country … in my lifetime. The hero of the story, Dalton Trumbo, summed it up late in the movie.

“No one on either side (of this feud) who survived it, came through untouched,” he said. “The blacklist was a time of evil.”

Add water and stir imagination

Flooding a backyard ice rink the old-fashioned way.
Flooding a backyard ice rink the old-fashioned way.

It was like that 1981 movie, “Cannonball Run,” in which a bunch of fast-car addicts get a telephone call and immediately drop what they’re doing to join a cross-country auto race. Well, even if you don’t know the movie, suffice to say a couple of Saturdays ago I got a phone call from one of my hockey pals to assemble a work party.

“My house,” Mike MacDonald texted, “about 10 a.m.”

When I first arrived at Mike’s place, just after 10, nobody was there. But within seconds several of Mike’s neighbours, Kirk Buchanan, Scott Clayworth, Jamie Steele and Jim Sproxton emerged from their homes and converged on Mike’s garage. In seconds, they’d rolled up the door and were rifling through a pile of wood in the garage. Since this was my first time, I just offered to assist.

A writer life

Kayla Czaga at a poetry reading.
Kayla Czaga at a poetry reading.

Her name is Kayla Czaga. She’s a young Canadian poet. And last Saturday night during a gala, I attended in Winnipeg, her peers announced she’d won the annual Gerald Lampert Award… Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of her or the prize. It was awarded by the League of Canadian Poets at the first ever joint conference of the LCP and its new sister association, The Writers’ Union of Canada, of which I’m a member. In fact, she commented on the new relationship between the LCP and TWUC.

“I want to thank this big, new, strange family,” she said. And the 200 or so writers present – poets, novelists, short story writers and non-fiction writers – all laughed and applauded in appreciation.

Origin of words

Marjorie Doyle
Marjorie Doyle

In the introduction to a book, “A Doyle Reader” by Newfoundlander Marjorie Doyle, CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers described a get-together between the two longtime friends. Shelagh said, on this particular visit, that she presented Marjorie with a couple of ceramic coffee mugs with the title (of the show Shelagh was then hosting) “Sounds Like Canada” on them.

In accepting the gift, Rogers said Doyle immediately ran to her office, returned with a thick black Magic Marker pen and crossed out the word “Canada” and scribbled in “Newfoundland.”

“Now I can use them,” she told Rogers. “I’m stuck with what I am, who I am,” Doyle recently told a panel discussion I attended in Newfoundland. “On an island, borders are intractable.”

Back in May, The Writers’ Union of Canada gathered its executive, its administrators and several hundred of its members (myself included) in St. John’s for its annual general meeting. Traditionally, TWUC holds workshops on the first day the union meets. Marjorie Doyle appeared on the panel entitled “Writing From My Centre.” She admitted that her home province did not appear in her earliest work as a journalist for the Globe and Mail, the National Post or even on her late night CBC Radio show “That Time of the Night.”

But eventually – perhaps because she often worked away from Newfoundland, in Toronto, Montreal or on Vancouver Island – she realized how much her home island affected her.

“When I was away,” she said, “ I was very aware I wasn’t from that place.” Newfoundland shaped her taste in music, in travel and in language, so she embraced it and celebrated it. I suspect place has a lot to do with the works of many Canadian writers.

Pierre Berton
Pierre Berton

As well as Marjorie Doyle, author Wayne Johnston has always captured the political and social bloodlines of Newfoundland. The writings of Earl Birney, Dorothy Livesay, George Woodcock and P.K. Page have almost always been associated with British Columbia, just as Pierre Berton’s and Farley Mowat’s works of non-fiction are often linked to Yukon and the Northwest Territories respectively. Think of some of this country’s best fiction or poetry with Montreal as a setting and you read Mordecai Richler, Gabrielle Roy or Roch Carrier. Similarly, W.O. Mitchell, Margaret Laurence and Guy Vanderhaeghe are Canadian writers with their feet and creativity firmly planted in the Prairies.

Over the weekend I joined the 18th annual Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. For a time – back in the 1970s – I lived and worked in Saskatchewan; I have enjoyed a following there and have twice presented at the festival. But a new generation of Prairie writers has emerged in recent years. They too have found their fictional characters, non-fictional stories, plot lines, settings and even their muses in what one character described as “this dry and barren landscape.”

In her adopted home, Regina, Gail Bowen has written 15 books known as “the Joanne Kilbourn mystery series.” Six of her books have been adapted to television movies; she has also written stage plays and radio dramas. Throughout, she has remained in content and in voice a Prairie writer. Nor has Bowen ever shied away from dealing with contemporary Prairie urban issues, such as the poverty, prostitution and low-rental housing in a Regina neighbourhood known as North Central.

“I always try to portray my locations accurately,” she told a writing panel about the Prairie landscape. “When I write about North Central, I write about it warts and all.”

Anthony Budulka
Anthony Budulka

Seated next to Bowen on the panel was celebrated crime writer Anthony Bidulka, known best for his mystery series featuring detective Russell Quant. On his website, Bidulka describes his hero as “a world-travelling, wine-swilling, wise-cracking, gay PI.” He remembered a unique moment when Quant’s origins suddenly emerged as an issue during a Q & A session in the U.S.

“This big Texan got up to the mike and began to speak,” Bidulka said. “He said, ‘I would like to know how you can write a series about a detective who is … from Saskatchewan?’” That’s when Anthony Bidulka realized how powerfully his home in Saskatoon affected his personality and writing. “We’re a fly-over province,” he added, “but I’m driven to write about Saskatchewan.”

Signal Hill just outside St. John's is a reminder of just how rugged this island province can appear.
Signal Hill just outside St. John’s is a reminder of just how rugged this island province can appear.

Similarly, as I pointed out in the beginning, Marjorie Doyle is a proud Newfoundlander. She writes critically about her home. She writes passionately about her home. She has strong feelings about its past and its future. She’s even been known to profess that her island province should eventually secede from Canada and return to Dominion status (as Newfoundland was prior to its joining Confederation in 1949).

However, Marjorie is realistic enough to recognize where she is and from where she writes (at least for now).

“I’m the only member of my family born in Canada,” she said at the St. John’s writers’ conference. “The rest of my family was born in Newfoundland (before 1949). Still, I’m rooted to this place … in all I think and write.”

His microphone as witness


Knowlton Nash addressed journalism and broadcasting students at Centennial in 2001.
Knowlton Nash addressed journalism and broadcasting students at Centennial in 2001.

In his time, the man reported on the Mau Mau uprising in Africa, race riots in the southern U.S., and a near nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis. He interviewed popes, presidents and just plain people. In the middle of times of upheaval and change – the 1960s – he met and reported on Che Guevara, James Meredith, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Finally, in 1978, he won the battle for the most coveted seat in broadcasting – the host’s chair at “The National” at CBC TV – and stayed there a decade. But Knowlton Nash was perhaps most drawn to reporting on a war in his very own backyard.

“Nowhere in the world has the battle over the kind of broadcasting we hear and see been fought with more ferocity than in Canada,” he told one my journalism classes in October 2001.

I have been proud to use as textbooks some of Knowlton Nash’s published writings about broadcasting, including “The Microphone Wars: A History of Triumph and Betrayal at the CBC” and “The Swashbucklers: The Story of Canada’s Battling Broadcasters.” Indeed, in 2001 he addressed my students at Centennial College about his research and writing of history versus his work on air.

“Writing books about broadcasting,” he told us, “is more challenging, more demanding (but) more satisfying.”

Knowlton Nash started writing his own newspaper at age 10, sold stories about collegiate football to the Globe and Mail as a teenager, thrived as a Washington correspondent, and then shaped the flagship nightly newscast at CBC TV through one of its most critical times – the 1980s. Under his guidance as anchor and senior correspondent, Nash helped to move the broadcast from 11 to 10 p.m. each night. And in so doing, he earned the trust and adoration of the Canadian public; often his viewers referred to Nash as “Uncle Knowlty.” Then, in retirement he turned to documenting Canada’s broadcasting roots – the birth of both private and public radio. He had completed nearly a dozen books when he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease last weekend at age 86.

As a fellow broadcaster I watched his more than smooth delivery from behind those over-sized glasses each night at 10. I admired his command of the historical context of the times, seeming to have at his fingertips every milestone relevant to the day’s news. I applauded his calm demeanor, though all the world seemed half-crazed and running in circles.

think Knowlton Nash’s even greater contribution to the airwaves came after his celebrity on The National, when he wrote about the earliest days of broadcasting, when he said for example, “radio became the poor man’s theatre… a God-send during the Depression.” In his book about the CBC, he worshipped the two co-founders of the Canadian Radio League – Alan Plaunt and Graham Spry – attempting to move the Depression-era governments of Mackenzie King and R. B. Bennett to create a public broadcasting network, while the private-enterprise radio station owners of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters lobbied to prevent it.

“The idealists (Plaunt and Spry) wanted to use the airwaves primarily to educate and … strengthen Canadian unity,” Nash explained to my students, “while the Swashbucklers (private radio interests) wanted primarily to provide entertainment that was popular and most of all profitable.”

Knowlton captured the essence of those cut-throat battles both on and off the air. He showed us how the CAB called public broadcasting “international conspiracy… communistic and promoted by intellectual snobs.” But equally critical of the public interests, he showed that they plotted to “strong-arm the federal government” into establishing a public radio system in Canada. Typical of Knowlton Nash’s sense of balance and fairness in the telling of a story, he said, “I hasten to say that the Swashbucklers were not all avaricious philistines … nor were the idealists all ivory tower dreamers.”

Knowlton Nash and Barris at Centennial in 2001.
Knowlton Nash and Barris at Centennial in 2001.

In the end of his analysis of the birth of broadcasting in Canada, Knowlton Nash recognized – like so much else in this country – there had to be a great Canadian compromise. He said that Canadian broadcast pioneers forced a “demassification” of media in Canada and “a tornado of change” that allowed a blend of both private and public cultures in order for Canada’s listeners’ needs to be met.

After Knowlton Nash delivered his broadcast history talk to my students, back in 2001, I asked him privately if he’d have preferred to broadcast in those pioneer years. He smiled at the notion, but then recognized that his career had been the best any broadcaster could ask for. Just what you’d expect a trustworthy TV anchor to say.

Peace, order and good information, please

Centennial College in Toronto recently asked me to organize a roundtable discussion during several days of lectures, study and debate on human rights. I agreed and have approached several acquaintances of mine in the federal civil service to participate. I was hopeful, in one case, that an expert on federal law might join the roundtable to offer a Canadian perspective.

“I’d love to, Ted,” he said. “But I’ve been told not to speak publicly on anything.”

“Not you too,” I responded. “Not like the scientists.”

Ted Barris writes Foreword to new book Syncopated: Black Stories

In a new book of biographies (compiled by author Ed Brown) about Black musicians in Canada, Ted Barris was invited to write the Foreword.

The star attraction was not in the house that night. While many others – the luminaries of the Canadian jazz scene – performed on stage, perhaps the country’s best studio and jazz concert drummer of the day was absent. In fact, it was because he was absent, that all the stars came out. It was in 1967 when Toronto-born musician Archie Alleyne suffered serious injuries in a car accident. He was not able to work … at either of his jobs.

“I didn’t have a car, so I had to carry my drum kit on streetcars and the subway,” he told my father, Alex Barris, back then. “I’d play from 9 at night to 1 a.m., get home with my drums by 3 a.m. and be up four hours later to go to my day job.”