Books

‘If I didn’t do this, I’d have to get a job’

Allan Fotheringham October 11 1999
Books

‘If I didn’t do this, I’d have to get a job’

Allan Fotheringham October 11 1999

‘If I didn’t do this, I’d have to get a job’

How a reformed sportswriter from the Left Coast found himself gracing the back page of Maclean

Allan Fotheringham Excerpt

Allan Fotheringham and Roy Peterson have been fixtures on the back page of Macleans for more than two decades. In this excerpt from his new book— titled, appropriately, Last Page First— Fotheringham explains how it all began.

One day in the autumn of 1975, Peter C. Newman, who was about to morph stately old Macleans into a newsmagazine, sent a letter across the mountains to me in Vancouver. In it he offered me “a job of your choice.” I told him I couldn’t move, for family reasons, to dreaded Central Canada but would do a national column for him from Vancouver. I sent off my first epic for the Oct. 6,1975, debut, and rushed out to the newsstand on Tuesday morning, when the mag arrived in Vancouver. A man of small ego, I instinctively turned to the opening pages, expecting my brilliant tome to be on page 2, if not 3. It wasn’t there. I leafed through the mag with sinking heart; it wasn’t in the first 20 pages. Nor the next 20.

Crushed in the realization that my first effort had been rejected, I finally— completely deflated—turned to the last page, there to find my orphaned piece. It turned out to be the most inspired positioning ever in Canadian journalism. There isn’t a self-respecting journalist in Canada today who wouldn’t give his left one for that spot.

It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve never done anything else in my life. If I didn’t do this, I’d have to get a job. I wrote a

Reprinted with permission from Last Page First, copyright Allan Fotheringham with Roy Peterson, published by Key Porter Books, Toronto.

column in the Chilliwack High School Tatler—in the Fraser Valley, an hour or so as the typewriter flies (flew?) east from Vancouver. The first one was a satire on the then-famous John L. Lewis, as head of the United Mine Workers’ Union, a towering figure who annually brought the White House to its knees (hello there, Monica) with economy-breaking strikes. I made the analogy in my debut column, God save us, to Chilliwack High’s student complaints about cafeteria food. I apparently liked understatement even in my callow youth.

At the same time, I was asked to write a column for the Chilliwack Progress, a weekly sheet owned by the best of all bosses—someone who is rich and eccentric. His name was Les Barber. He had noticed my manic rantings in the Tatler and invented a weekly pulpit for me: High School Highlights.

He had on staff at the time one Stanley Burke, who had graduated from the University of British Columbia in, for some strange reason, agriculture and had started a turkey farm outside Chilliwack, featuring a large sign: “Come to Burke’s for Tender Turks.”

I His birds instantly expired from ail1 ments hitherto unknown to the breed, “ and Stanley, to exist, had become the star reporter of the Chilliwack Progress.

Stanley moved on, as you will recall, to be CBC’s star correspondent in Biafra and, eventually, the successor to Lome Greene and Earl Cameron, as reader of the pre-Peter Mansbridge, terribly respectable evening’s news.

And I began my own move, inching carefully from Chilliwack to the wilds of Vancouver.

As a one-talent 18-year-old, on my first day on the campus of the University of British Columbia, I went down to the Brock Hall basement quarters of The Ubyssey, the most celebrated university paper in the country.

It was “the vile rag”—so described by a disgusted professor—that had produced Earle Birney, Lister Sinclair, Pierre Berton, Justice Nathan Nemetz, Ron Haggart, Val Sears, Jack Wasserman, (John Turner was the sports editor), Joe Schlesinger, Helen Hutchinson, Peter Worthington, Alexander Ross and Eric Nicol, who won so many Stephen Leacock Medals for Humour that I understand he was asked to desist so someone else could have a go.

On that first day at The Ubyssey, I was

sent out to do a news story—something completely foreign to me. On the second day, I was sent out to do a news story. Thinking this ridiculous, as well as boring, I sat down and wrote by hand, in pencil, a column mocking the alleged sexual prowess of the rollicking engineering faculty on campus.

When I picked up The Ubyssey next morning, the column—Campus Chaff—was on the front page, where it remained for three years. The onetalent career remained in the rut.

I joined The Vancouver Sun in 1954 as a sportswriter. Sportswriting, as opposed to ordinary journalism, is a free-swinging, imaginative gig—all the circus acts you want to try, without a safety net. It was the natural haunt for someone from Chilliwack High who wouldn’t know a news story if he tripped over one, who needed a lot of elbow room and had lots of space to fill— miles away from the poor typist at the next desk in the newsroom who would get eight paragraphs for the mayor’s latest pronouncement.

My hero in life, a man I had never met, was Red Smith’s sports editor at the New York Herald-Tribune, Stanley Woodward. A legendary figure in New York journalism, he was remembered at his death by one friend who recalled that he “was unfailingly kind to his underlings, barely tolerated his equals and was openly contemptuous of his superiors.” I would like that on my tombstone.

I wrote a travel column for the paper, jetting around the world on an expense account, proving—while all my friends justifiably hated my guts—the old adage that you will never be a millionaire as a newspaperman, but you can live like one.

I wrote editorials, the most irresponsible act of all since they are never (except in sensible places like Quebec) signed. Useless nostrums, always ending with either what the government

“should” do or “only time will tell.”

“Should” is the most useless word in the English language. You “should” wash behind your ears. Or you “should not” go out with that boy who rides a motorcycle. It is nonsense, which is why almost no one ever reads newspaper editorials.

While wasting my time writing editorials, Erwin S. Swangard—who was managing editor of the paper—muttered one day in his guttural way that I shouldn’t be writing under someone else’s name (i.e., the paper’s official voice), but my own.

I had an idea. Most serious columnists,

it seemed to me, came to the office, puffed on their pipes, looked out the window and then delivered Olympian overviews of the world’s ills. A columnist, someone once said, is simply a good reporter who has strong views. I thought I should get out of the office.

Where did “Dr. Foth” come from? I did not, as imagined, make it up myself. It came about years back through the inventive mischief of Nick Auf der Maur, the legendary Montreal boulevardier who smoked himself to death, succumbing in early 1998 at the ridiculous age of 56. In my Ottawa days, he began to refer to me as “Dr. Foth” in his column. I never asked him why, but I presumed it was in reference to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the crazed American who invented “gonzo journalism” and once, when the press secretary for presidential candidate Hubert Horatio Humphrey lied to him—as all press secretaries are paid to do—went up to the man’s hotel room and set fire to his door.

At The Vancouver Sun there was a young lady, a lively reporter, who apparently had a great party act that she displayed before fellow reporters at late-night gatherings when the grape flowed freely. It involved said female imitating a certain columnist you might recognize who rushed into the newsroom in great agitation, shouting, cursing, on the edge of apoplexy, and finally throwing himself on the floor, kicking his heels in rage and screaming: “THEY CHANGED A COMMA!”

It was apparently a great show, highly applauded (and not too far from the truth). I jealously guard my copy, and am disliked by editors because of what they regard as an unreasonable attitude. At least two Macleans senior editors (that I know of; there may have been more) have refused to handle the copy, because they regard me as too “difficult.” Their actual words would frighten horses and children and won’t be repeated here. I plead guilty as charged. I am difficult, but it’s my baby, it’s my column and my name—no one else’s—goes at the top of it. George Bain, who wrote the most brilliant column in Canada for The Globe and Mail from his Ottawa eagle’s nest, said it all in his final effort: “A regular column, more than anything else in a newspaper, depends on a relationship developing between the writer and reader. What a columnist depends on is the reader returning most days, at least to have a look, to see what is being said, and perhaps to stay on to have a read. There is something personal about it, like conversation, although the columnist does most of the talking.”

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I think I’m being faithful to the reader—to make sure said reader gets what the reader is paying for. The Full Monty, as it were. E3

The young lady did a great parody, throwing herself on the floor and screaming, ‘They changed a comma!’