Protest in paradise
In a province of individuals Vancouver’s Ben Metcalfe is a little more individual than most
If your memory goes as far back as September and October of 1971, you might remember that an 80-foot halibut packer named the Phyllis Cormack, renamed Greenpeace, sailed off with a motley crew for the Alaskan island of Amchitka to protest an American five-megaton underground nuclear explosion. My name was on the waiting list to join the crew. There were about 50 ahead of me, but I was in my suicidal phase and hoped. The boat left without me, but the real disappointment came when it turned around. Then Greenpeace Too set out, too late to make it for the blast — it left without me also. I became a spectator, convinced the whole thing was an all-male conspiracy. I sat back and waited for the blast. It came. I felt it in my spine. The house didn’t even twitch, but the earth shuddered. I was glad those too small ships of fools, male chauvinists or not, had done what they could do, which wasn’t much, but it was symbolic and beautiful and it was courageous.
Less than a year later, last June, a third Greenpeace set off from New Zealand, headed for the site of a French nuclear test in the atmosphere near the South Pacific atoll of Mururoa. On June 25, an unconfirmed report announced that the first of seven scheduled nuclear devices had gone off. Greenpeace III, a 38-foot ketch, was out there somewhere with three vulnerable human beings aboard, testing their own device: the thesis that the world is our space and “they” can’t put it in jeopardy.
I was still in Vancouver. Listening to the radio, watching TV. The French government wouldn’t talk, but Ben Metcalfe, propaganda minister for Greenpeace protest mission, would. So Greenpeace was getting the news.
Every time you turned on the radio or TV it seemed Metcalfe was making another statement. It ought to have been enough, but I wanted to know more. My curiosity was piqued by the man behind the Greenpeace mask. At the age of 52, with a handful — or two — of dedicated people, he had stagemanaged a remarkably successful people’s protest, first in New Zealand and Australia, on the doorstep of the tests, then around the world. He’d sailed 2,100 miles in 14 days on Greenpeace III, jumped ship at Rarotonga and continued his mission through Peru, Mexico and the South Pacific islands.
He’d been arrested in Paris and deported from France, leaving behind him a guerrilla group that made instant collaborators of fashionable Parisians with a black pin-on button, reading MURUROA MON AMOUR. He’d met the Pope, who blessed the Greenpeace flag, and gone on to agitate at the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment — all in time to be back home near the telephone during the tests scheduled for June and July.
But I’d seen Metcalfe, or rather more often heard him, wear other faces before. I knew enough about him to suspect a disguise, but not enough to be sure. I’ve been a radio fan of his for years, treasuring his wit and wisdom (he might call it whiz and witdom), heard the scratchy, compelling voice. Occasionally we appeared on the same radio program together, Critics On A ir. I was intrigued by the incompatibility of his outrage and acerbic cynicism. What was it, I wondered, that had turned Ben Metcalfe, drama critic, admittedly growing increasingly social in his interpretations these last few years, into Ahab in pursuit of the white whale?
So there I was, one warm early rainy morning last June, knocking at the door of Metcalfe’s greenly guarded home in West Vancouver. I arrived on time and got Dorothy and Ben out of bed. Their phone had been ringing all night, calls coming in from Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, Paris, London, New York. The Greenpeace protest was arousing interest "around the world, though Canadian papers were giving it only minimal coverage.
Despite the sleepless night, Metcalfe was looking well and greeted me warmly. We got coffee and went to his den to talk. A handmade sign near the door told me that I was entering THE EGO’S NEST.
While I was setting up my tape recorder, Ben announced with a gesture of self-mocking theatricality, “I am the leader of the Suburban Guerrillas.” Here we were in an attractive upper-middle-income-bracket home, complete with swimming pool. But if the leader of the Suburban Guerrillas could chuckle over his coffee at his own expense on that particular
morning, I knew his balance was sure,
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BEN METCALFE from page 38 The Greenpeace crew was in the test site at Mururoa, and in a large way Metcalfe was responsible for getting them there. He was worried.
To distract him, I asked him to tell me about himself.
Ben Metcalfe was bom in Winnipeg, Hallowe’en 1919, lived and went to school there until the age of 14 when he was taken to England by his parents. Until he came back to Canada in 1953, those years were his only credentials as a Canadian.
“I went to school briefly in England and worked as an office boy in a brewery. At 16 I joined the Royal Air Force and went out into the Empire gunning and bombing Waziris on the northwest frontier of India. It was a war in the tradition of the British Empire, an annual punitive expedition that would get maybe six lines in the Times.'"
During World War II he served as an armorer/air gunner in the RAF, and he got around. Eventually he landed in Paris, where he began work as a reporter and sports editor for the Continental Daily Mail. He stayed four years.
“I’d got married a couple of times.” He drops it casually. “This time to a Frenchwoman, and I have two daughters by that marriage. Ironically enough, their stepfather, André Messiah, is a nuclear physicist with the French Atomic Energy Commission. There’s nothing personal, I mean . ..” and we laugh our brittle laugh in this morning’s distant fact of a mushroom cloud.
He left the Daily Mail and devoted his time to more serious writing. Soon he was broke and came back to Canada to pick up his postwar veteran’s grant. He joined the Winnipeg Tribune, but after two years returned to Europe to work for Reuters and free-lance in Spain, France and London for English-language papers around the world.
“All this time I was writing books,” Metcalfe continues. “Not publishing books, but writing them. Novels, plays, journals, dramalogues, diaries that wouldn’t go away. My writing at that time took a very personal turn. It was all very ' fragmented and totally undisciplined. I am basically untutored, you know.”
Well, no, I wouldn’t have known. He comments with authority on almost everything: education, architecture, topless restaurants, public relations, the constitution, fishing, pollution, deerslaying, Dominion Day. The CBC gives him that kind of space. The world is his oyster and though Metcalfe is no pearl he’s certainly an irritant in search of one. He is also in search of himself. Or so I’m beginning to gather. The mask is cracking. Something like confession appears.
“I escaped all the alphabetical fallout, like BA, MA, PhD, and for a long time
this was a factor in my identity, because I was different from the people I mixed with. I was an intellectual waif, but a voracious bloody reader. I ate everything in case there wasn’t any more Rabelais at 16, Maugham at 25 - that sort of thing.” The life of the reporter assisted the scatter-effect, and yet the impression he gives now is of someone who has things very much together. There’s a consistent philosophy informing all his utterances, and the toughness, wit, courage to drive his messages through loud and clear.
“I used to be frightened by the num-
ber of facets of myself, my facility for camouflage. I was a sort of quick-change artist.” For instance, he could be at a cocktail party at the Canadian Embassy in Paris and end up in jail overnight. He would persuade the officials to let him out because he had to be best man at a posh wedding the next morning, where he would turn up wearing a top hat, ascot and frock coat.
“Hugo Manning, an English poet who worked with me at Reuters, used to say that I was essentially a comic figure and the sooner I realized it the better. I could
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BEN METCALFE continued see the comic side of myself and even considered being a stage comedian or someone who wrote funny things. If something passably witty occurs to me now, I don’t resist it.” As an inveterate punster he has referred to the Senate as a “taskless thanks” and the TV series Jalna as the “Hindsight Saga.”
A crusading propaganda minister, a comic figure, a quick-change artist. But isn’t that a problem for a man whose intelligence is so keen, whose private conviction is that he is a serious writer? I don’t know.
“Have you caught up with yourself?”
“Almost. Perhaps in the past three years.”
The phone rings. We have stopped laughing. It seems enough for one day.
By the time I returned to The Ego’s Nest, radio contact with GP III had been lost. And demonstrations were sprouting around the world. France was being pressured by most of the Pacific Rim nations to stop the tests. Australian highschool students were refusing to study French! And the best the Canadian government could do was a pale imitation of a diplomatic protest note, which began, “The Canadian Embassy presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has the honor to inform the Government of the French Republic of the concern with which the Canadian Government views indications that France will resume nuclear tests in the South Pacific in the near future . . .”
Once again, we were thankful for the past. Ben returned to Canada for the second time in 1955. He came back with a big Tolstoyan novel in his head. “I saw Canada as a canvas of those dimensions.
We’ve never had that kind of novel. Porter’s Vertical Mosaic had to come first. In Russia you get the novelists preceding the social analysis. Maybe in Canada it has to work the other way around. I see Porter’s book as crucial.”
I asked him what period he placed his head book in.
“The middle days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, up to the time the North West Company began to compete with them, the formative years of the Canadian idea. Canada was a way station for the British. In their search for the riches of the Orient, they ripped it off as they went by. It’s still a resource colony, but not for the same people necessarily. That period was replete not only with people — real characters — but with affairs, politics, adventure, opportunism, exploitation. It seemed ideal material for a novel.” The novel got written but the creative powers were exhausted in a return to journalism. At first, Metcalfe went prospecting in the North, but, almost accidentally, he became editor of the Flin Flon Daily Reminder for a short time.
“From Paris, to Winnipeg, to Flin Flon. Then Ross Munro, the editor of the Province, asked me to come to Vancouver. The old opportunist in me responded, and I was quickly very deeply involved. This has always been a problem of mine as a journalist, that I became involved with the things I was writing.”
While he was with the Province, Metcalfe’s by-line was synonymous with grabby front-page human interest stories. Many will remember his copyrighted 1957 articles on Christian George Hanna, the stowaway without a
country who had been sailing around the world on a Norwegian freighter for 16 months with no hope of getting off unless some country offered to take him. Arthur Hailey’s novel In High Places is based on that episode and the reporter in the book, Dan Orliffe, was sketched from the Metcalfe model. The Hanna story aroused sympathy around the world and was taken up by the UN ; although Hanna later became an embarrassment to his supporters, Metcalfe still feels that the stand he took was justified.
“For me,” says Metcalfe, “the thing about the Hanna issue was the idea that Canada ought to be big enough to let this guy off the boat and give him a country.” Although the figure of the engaged, compassionate reporter is familiar in fiction and films, Ben says his involvement alienated him from his fellow journalists. “They were suspicious. ‘You can’t trust Metcalfe.’ Just as they are leery now about the Greenpeace mission. After Greenpeace I and Too, the Vancouver Sun stood back and looked at the space they’d given the story and were appalled. There was hardly room for the horoscope and crossword puzzles. I’m always under suspicion, but the jury is still out.”
By 1960 he was associate editor. Though he continued to do the occasional investigative feature story, he had to give up his theatre and art reviews. He approached the CBC to do a short daily commentary on theatre.
“I covered anything that claimed to be theatre, especially amateur theatre. This meant going out to darkest Richmond or West Vancouver, but I like to think it contributed to the development of professional theatre in Vancouver.” Metcalfe no longer has the daily drama commentary, but he’s regularly heard on Critics On Air, a regional program. He travels across the country often to keep his eye on Canadian theatre and, since Nathan Cohen’s death, is one of the few drama critics who grasps the national scene. But his reputation remains chiefly regional. “Do you realize there are almost no books on drama criticism in this country?” He hopes to fill the gap and bring the dialogue about drama to the level of importance that poetry, even more than fiction, enjoys here.
“And then I’m also writing this book on cane fishing rods.” Quick-change artist? I shouldn’t be surprised; everyone knows he is a fanatic fisherman, and he is often heard on BC Outdoors. “Of course, the LSD experience was crucial.” The double take again; and then he explains. It involves the involved reporter routine.
In 1959, Dr. J. Ross MacLean, director of Hollywood Hospital in New Westminster, BC, invited Ben to observe the new clinical treatment for alcoholics, LSD. The experiments were pioneered
with mental patients by Dr. Abram Hoffer at University Hospital in Saskatoon. Metcalfe observed, made notes, and was then administered a massive dose of LSD. He thought it would make a great story. It did. The public result was a series of articles for the Province, later put together as a booklet which gained a certain underground currency. Privately, the experiment was a revolution.
“I wasn’t able to put my finger on it intellectually, but it was like breaking through into the human experience rather than the literary experience. I can’t pretend the LSD experience didn’t change me.”
It also changed his face. He was still the involved reporter, and that initiation led to a very bad trip for Ben. By 1963 he had left the Province and was free-lancing, about to set up his own public relations firm. He had been invited to an
LSD “cocktail party” in North Vancouver and arranged to do a story on it for the Toronto Star. By this time the underworld had hooked into the LSD trade and what happened at that “very respectable party” should never have happened to a nice guy like Metcalfe, although, as he puts it, “they intuited I was a fink.” They were two men, both called Barney, and in the drug trade. That night Ben didn’t take the stuff, but it’s hard to fake an acid trip. He was under suspicion but the jury came in. The result was that he was viciously beaten up and nearly killed. His face was wrecked and his jaw and eye socket shattered. “Somewhere in a North Vancouver ditch there’s an inch of lower mandible with two teeth on it — mine.” After 36 hours and some pretty psychopathic behavior from the two Barneys (one was apprehended a year later and confined to an institution for the criminally in-
sane), he was dumped on the doorstep of Hollywood Hospital. He underwent plastic surgery, which resulted in the beard he now wears. It suits him.
Was this tumble with the underworld an inevitable outcome of his kind of journalism? That’s part of it, but Ben also thinks he has been rightly accused of playing the naughty boy, of delighting in testing the springs of authority. “Maybe there’s something of that about Greenpeace,” he says. And maybe that’s what motivates some of his critics. Most of us are ambivalent about authority, we love it and hate it. And we love and hate those who choose to flout it. Such people can appease our desire for action or revenge, but they can also breed unconscious guilt in us that makes us hit back.
Around 1970, Ben Metcalfe was talking a lot about ecology. The flooding of BC’s Skagit River came up as an issue. It
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BEN METCALFE continued happened to be his favorite fishing river. He was righteously indignant and went directly to the heart of the matter. In a radio commentary he said: “The Skagit is our river, and we don’t have any more reason to flood it than we have to flood Stanley Park. We don’t have to explain anything to Seattle City Light company. We don’t have to tell them why we don’t want it destroyed. We don’t have to come up with alternatives for them. All we have to do is tell them not to touch our river, that’s all.” (The NDP government in BC seems to agree with that alarmingly simplistic but convincing point of view and have announced that they will not allow the flooding of the valley.)
When they were getting the Amchitka protest under way, this kind of reasoning appealed to the founders of Greenpeace, Irving Stowe, Paul Coté and Jim Bohlen. They approached Metcalfe to get their case across. What the Greenpeace people wanted to do with their “counter-propaganda” was to undermine the official propaganda that claims the environmental problems are too big, too complex to solve. Greenpeace, on the contrary, says most of the problems can be solved with the word “No.” They try to strip away the nonsense from the official line to reveal the destructive, meaningless core hidden in it. Metcalfe says they are a kind of stripping knife.
“That first boat ride was a fantastic experience, a floating encounter group and all that. Maybe it began like an ego trip. Ego trap might be closer. When we had to make that terrible decision to return we were sailing on the edge of farce. The Atomic Energy Commission kept delaying the test, and we had been so naïve in announcing our parameters beforehand. We were so institutionalized, we actually believed that, when the AEC announced they would explode the bomb on October 2, they would do it. The boat was held together by paint, the
weather was getting worse — the waves could be 40 feet high. We had laid in supplies for six weeks, we were running out of fuel, our charter was almost up, we didn’t have a spare rudder or steering gear. The decision to turn around was not mine, though I thought we should. If we couldn’t go on, then we should not keep saying we were going on.
“Greenpeace Too was created and that saved it. When we arrived at Alert Bay the Kwakiutl Indians took us in. They made us brothers. We couldn’t believe it. We were so humbled by that time, so stripped down, humiliated. We couldn’t believe anyone would accept us. The Indians said they-would like to do a dance for us in their longhouse. Suddenly Daisy Sewid, the daughter of the chief, told us they were going to make us Indians. That was rather beautiful — they didn’t ask us or invite us, they told us they were going to make us brothers. They did this dance of the ego flight, which was the most apt thing they could have done. Their philosophy is that when the ego is in total command man reaches his basest state, that of the cannibal when he devours fellow men. They dance away the ego and when this goes the man is perfectly free and at one with everything. They annointed us with water and dove feathers.”
Oddly enough, this experience of brotherhood which graced the crew of Greenpeace I led to a split in the Vancouver movement. The Trip I people were accused by the Trip Too people of being elitist. Ben admits they are an elite, because together they went through that sobbing humiliation of return, together they were made brothers with the Kwakiutl. As chairman of Greenpeace International, however, Ben couldn’t spend much time on infighting.
“If you want to talk about an elite I can tell you where to look. The beginning of the radicalization of Ben Met-
calfe was the Pierre Laporte funeral in Montreal during the FLQ crisis. There we were, the people, the machine guns and video camera turned on us, the cops on their motorbikes running over our toes to keep us in line. We were the enemy. Trudeau and his entourage were the haute couture of the pompes funèbres. They were allowed to mourn. We weren’t.”
As I walked out of his study, the little sign THE EGO’S NEST caught my eye. It had been put there while he was away on Greenpeace. He hadn’t taken it down.
My third visit was less formal. I didn’t take the tape recorder and we lounged like good suburbanites by the swimming pool, drank Scotch and chatted. Ben talked about Stockholm. The Greenpeace contingent joined the freaky but powerful counter-conference. They pressured the Pacific Rim delegates to make sure they would vote for the resolution against the French tests. They distributed MURUROA MON AMOUR buttons, they postered, and they nagged the Canadian delegation to vote against the tests. When the vote came up, Canada abstained. Ben says the GP contingent made so much trouble over the vote that Jack Davis, the Minister of the Environment, had to reverse Canada’s position in plenary session.
By this time I felt I knew Metcalfe well enough to ask a question that had been on my mind all along. “The tests, it seems, will go on, but will you?” He didn’t pause. “No. I’m so — what’s the word? I was going to say sickened. I hate to use the word despair. We’re rock-bottom people — we eschew hope — but let’s say — why be coy about it? — I don’t want to go through this administrative thing anymore. I have become slightly reluctant to spend myself on this any further. You can make people feel guilty and make them compact their toothpaste tubes and pick up their candy wrappers, but that’s not where it’s at. It’s not the amateurs who are polluting the world. It takes real experts to kill off a lake or a planet. I agree that it has something to do with changing the system, like recycling politicians instead of bottles. Maybe it’s time for me to take the artist’s route to the ivory tower.”
Part of his depression comes from his battle with the Canadian government. His metaphor for the insincerity of the governmental approach is the moratorium on whale hunting taken at the Stockholm conference. “Canada was boastfully associated with the United States and France who are both blowing off bombs in the water where the whales live. There’s the inconsistency, the cynicism, the PR gesture. It’s like that garden of nasturtiums and geraniums and marigolds that grows around the Co-
mineo plant at Trail, BC. The garden fits very nicely into a postcard and that’s what the Comineo PR sends out. The whales are our postcard.”
I decided to take a dive into the pool.
Was Greenpeace a postcard too, or a ship of fools? Nuclear contamination is the ultimate pollution. The amateurs can’t stop it. Governments can. During his travels people were always asking Metcalfe, “Does your government support you in this action?” His answer was that governments don’t support people; people support governments. The people, the amateurs, have now elected governments in Australia and New Zealand that will at least try to stop the ultimate contamination. Now, when France says, “Get off these waters, we’re going to blow off a bomb” (a test zone can cover as much as 100,000 square miles of ocean), there will be at least a couple of governments saying, “We have a right to be on the high seas, and furthermore we are defending ourselves and the world against your madness.” Pierre Trudeau wouldn’t do that for diplomatic reasons, otherwise known as the United States of America and the Republic of France.
Earlier this year, Ben Metcalfe moved to Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. There he is going to write those books he has been promising himself for years. Although, with a quick-change artist, you never know. He likes action, he likes publicity, though it hasn’t done him much good; there was the money problem and the writing problem; his family was practically smashed up by his Greenpeace involvement; a lot of people are suspicious of him or think he’s a fool.
I learned a lot in The Ego’s Nest and more outside later. I learned that his ego needs a nest. Now he’s feathering a new one at Shawnigan Lake, but he may fly to Paris, persona non grata or not, if the French go ahead with new tests. Above or below ground. You just can’t tell.
During the three days I interviewed Metcalfe, I realized we laughed a lot. Gradually we laughed less. But there is a resilient gaiety in Ben Metcalfe that reminds me of Yeats’ line, “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” He is not a tragic or a comic figure. But, like the Greenpeace organization’s will to remain immediate, flexible, creative and alive, Metcalfe’s multiple personality reflects organic strength.
My own suspicion is that the quickchange artist will change less and less quickly. He is determined to write. His gaiety makes me believe in the depth of his commitment to whatever cause he may engage in, and in his ability to work the changes in his own personality, until all his bells, books and candles ring out. ■