GOD HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT
Gordon Sinclair, at 75, has no regrets
When Gordon Sinclair joined the Toronto Star in 1922, he was 21 years old. Since then, he’s been around the world three times, written half-a-dozen books and earned an international reputation as a journalist, broadcaster and television panelist. He has been often irreverent, always blunt, but in his 54-year career no one has ever accused Gordon Sinclair of being dull. Here, in this excerpt from his forthcoming Memories (to be published by McClelland and Stewart in the fall), Sinclair reminisces about his early days on the Toronto Star, recalls previously untold incidents from his world voyages and — looking back across the decades — offers a kind of summation and celebration for the life he has lived.
Lots of yarns have been written about Ernest Hemingway and the Toronto Star. My memories concern Hemingway’s inability to answer any direct question.
“Hey, Ernie, did you hear the fight last night?”
“I wasn’t there.” We knew he wasn’t there, because the fight was in Omaha.
“Mr. Hemingway, have you finished an itinerary for the Havana trip?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Look, Ernie, this assignment about picking up girls on the boardwalk ... are you sure you want to do it?”
“The boardwalk? Oh, the boardwalk ... the one at Sunnyside?” It made no difference what anybody asked him, he didn’t give a “yes” or “no.”
He’d be alone, watching, in a trench coat with boots. Manure on the boots, sometimes horse, sometimes other. He walked heavy, never seemed light on his feet. When Morley Callaghan knocked him out boxing in Paris, and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about it, and Hemingway didn’t even mention it in A Moveable Feast, some people seemed puzzled. Not me. The guy had no grace on his feet and he never, even as a joke, put the knock on himself.
Hemingway went to Childs cafeteria in the mornings, where you lined up to buy breakfast. But Ernie got service in the morning. He’d go over there with his manuscript and sit down at a table for six and he’d start making notes on his manuscript; a girl would bring him cinnamon toast and coffee. He got butter and cinnamon on the manuscript and new orders of toast would be brought. Often he wore a hat, and always the heavy boots and heavy dark moustache, no beard. The book was The Sun Also Rises.
Other people would join him, but if anybody asked Hemingway a question he’d get that evasiveness, as if it was the natural way to reply to anything.
“New York says you’re doing a novel about Spain ... is this the novel?”
“A man got hurt bad. Good man; bad hurt.”
“Do you need a license to fish in Spain?”
“Good trout; fast streams high up. Dark trout; nearly black.”
It went that way. No answers... more cinnamon toast.
The oft-written anecdote of Hemingway’s modesty about the medals he won in Italy as an ambulance attendant in World War I was a bore. The guy carried those medals in his pocket — just happened to have them there.
Hindmarsh of the Star had a hatred for what he called prima donnas, anybody who was bigger than his breeches. These were phrases that he used, and they certainly fitted his attitude toward Hemingway. He didn’t want Hemingway on the Star. Hemingway was on the foreign staff working in Paris, and when they decided to build at 80 King Street West, and needed to retrench financially, they called him home to Toronto. Hindmarsh wasn’t very keen to have him on staff and so he gave him pretty insignificant assignments. I remember one where he was to go to Sunnyside with a stooge — that is, a girl from the Star. She was to walk along the boardwalk and let somebody ogle her and pick her up. It was considered very daring in those days, and Hemingway was to be a little behind and write the story of how it happened ... a pretty insignificant story for a man of his reputation and name. Remember, at this time, he had written his good short stories — The Killers, Men Without Women, and several of those real good, punchy short stories. These were behind him, and yet he was drawing small assignments.
No, Hemingway made no impression whatever on the Star. The top historian with a microscope could find no Hemingway story worth a damn. His best was about fighting the Austrians in the mountains. That page later turned up in A Farewell To Arms.
All through the paper there are classics by Greg Clark, who adored Hemingway, and by Morley Callaghan, who did not. But Hemingway himself, either through boredom or inablity, was only going through the motions, with little passion or fire.
I am sure Hemingway was affectionate toward Greg. In fact, I don’t know anybody in the whole world who was not. Greg Clark is a fellow who warms toward people, and people warm toward him. And certainly Hemingway found in him a confidant. If you were to ask Greg today how he feels about Hemingway, I think he would be slightly, but only slightly, less enthusiastic about him than he was when they worked together. But there was an affection between the two and Hemingway’s son, born in Toronto, was called Gregory. He is named after Greg Clark.
No picture and no words can properly do justice to the joy of seagoing travel on the great passenger liners of the Thirties when you moved in the time, the age and economic milieu that I did.
Being born in 1900, I was then in my thirties — perhaps the best of all one’s decades. Because of the Depression and its aftermath, you could get the best accommodation and service at reasonable or even abnormally low prices. Nothing was crowded — neither ships nor trains nor hotels. You could get aboard the lie de France or book a room at the Grande Bretagne in Athens without advance reservation. When you arrived at a European railway station, lines of porters in uniform, each with a colorful motor or horse-drawn van, were there to meet you in almost any language.
I was of working-class background, public school education, and on a salary that ranged between $90 and $125 a week I lived like a sheikh.
Two girls were selected for my sexual needs, but despite some kidding and references to my masculinity I turned down both
Let me tell you about my first trip around the world, a voyage that probably — although I’m not certain —made me the first reporter ever sent around the earth by a Canadian newspaper...
One morning, I was having breakfast on the side veranda of the Trocadero Hotel in Bangkok. Next door there were a lot of kids playing. I didn’t pay much attention until they started speaking English. The more I listened, the more I wondered who they were, so I sauntered into their play area and saw a brass sign on the side of the house — CONSULATE OF THE REPUBLIC OF FRANCE.
I asked the kids what time Dad came home, and they told me he came home at different times, but he always went away at ten in the morning. A car came for him.
Next morning I intercepted him and said I was anxious to get some visas and would it be necessary to go into his office in the city or did he ever arrange visas at the house? Rather frostily, he spread the word that he never did business at home. I was tempted to ask why, then, did he have a brass plate on the door, a flag over the porch?
Good job I didn’t, because the consul was all charm at the office, suggesting that I add Indo-China (now Vietnam), Morocco (then a French protectorate), Madagascar and Algeria to the visa for which I’d come. Then I remembered that for several years the Star had been trying to cover the penal colony, Devil’s Island, off French Guiana. Visas had always been refused or, as they more delicately put it, “held in abeyance until a more suitable time.”
So I asked this consul in Bangkok if there were such a thing as an all-inclusive stamp to cover all French colonies? He looked up a lot of papers, called the Embassy and said, “Why not?”
There was no rubber stamp to cover such a visa, but he used paper seals and something embossed into the pink page, and I came away with a visa that made the newspaper more money than anything else I was to write.
The “All Colonies” visa was good for three years, but I was in no hurry to use it. This could be insurance for some day when escapist stories might be scarce. However, I decided to leave Thailand and that offered a temporary problem. I planned to cut south through the jungles and rubber plantations of Malaya by rail, but when f went to buy a ticket, I was told I needed an exit visa.
The Foreign Office was nearby so I walked there and handed in the passport for an exit permit. A slim young man went through the pages and asked when I’d arrived. I didn’t know the exact date. “How did you arrive?”
“By Blue Funnel Line from Singapore.”
“Your passport shows no place or date of arrival. Where did you stay?” “At the Trocadero and at the home of Reginald Jackson.”
“Did you not see the immigration officer on arrival?”
I couldn’t remember.
“Where does this Mr. Jackson live?”
I didn’t know that either, but said he’d be in the telephone book.
The young man didn’t bother to look that up, but went away and came back with another man who said it appeared I was illegally in the country and would have to go to a detention centre while enquiries were made.
This proved to be a crowded, wooden building on the outskirts of the city and I was put into a cage of sorts, a small room with carved wooden bars. It was evidently not meant for long detention because there were no couches, toilet facilities or kitchen. After a couple of hours, I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy about the missing passport when a clerk, real cool, came along to say, “Big man, you make trouble for yourself.” I’m five-foot-seven. . . hardly big.
“You have money. Money works wonders. A small token for arranging your departure. A simple thing.”
The simple thing came to about seven dollars, plus a cab ride into town and I was on my way.
Bhamo, in Burma, sat in a basin surrounded by high green hills. There was a wharf of sorts and a couple of buildings from which floated the Union Jack. A group of young men, who looked like musical comedy versions of tennis players, stood on the jetty to welcome the once-every-week ship which brought mail, stores, fancy gear from the shops of Rangoon, or even London, and, occasionally, a visitor.
This time I was the visitor and I was hailed with enthusiastic welcome. The two officers from the ship and I were taken up a winding path to a combination office, club, halting bungalow (like a motel), and restaurant. For the staff, who must have had many lonely weeks, it was a clinical example of making the best of a bad deal.
There were servants galore: shoeshiners, launderers, drivers, cooks, dishwashers, gardeners and lots of nubile courtesans. Each of these young men seemed to have one or more mistresses, petite, mini-breasted, obedient and very feminine. I was assigned a room and someone went about the business of selecting a girl, or two girls, for my sexual needs. I had never been much of a hand for this sort of thing. Although the father of three children, I was a shy lover and probably capable of blushing. The girls offered were attractive enough, if you like dolls without a hint of character, and there was a spot of kidding and reference to lack of masculinity when I decided against any choice.
I was not so much embarrassed as uneasy. I could speak no Burmese and, as had happened before and was to happen again, saw no enjoyment in intimate sharing with someone to whom I couldn’t speak. Nevertheless, one of these girls, scented and slim and always smiling like a robot, followed me to the room assigned to me, poured water into a basin, turned down the bed, unpacked my kit and laid out a dinner jacket.
Downstairs there was a long table with impeccable linen, silverware, softly moving servants and pictures of King George V and Queen Mary. I went into the bar looking for a familiar face and saw the two officers from the ship. I seemed to be in a gentlemanly oasis far, far from home, but secure.
That was a false impression.
For a reason that is not clear to me to this minute, a group of young customs chaps decided to bait me. “You coloniais don’t like our women, eh?” 1 tried to grin a bit sheepishly. Drinks were handed my way; gin pahits, which is pretty well straight gin.
The Rangoon cop was looking for my gun, but stupidly I denied having one
As the gin flowed more freely, verbal abuse grew more pungent: bloody swine, money-grabbing assholes, Canadian riffraff, ignorant sods.
There was no way I could understand this. A few hours earlier I’d been the central figure of an apparently sincere welcoming committee. Now they seemed to be taking turns calling me and my countrymen bastards. Eventually they got their ritual reaction.
I let fly with a bunch of crap about them being incompetent misfits who couldn't make it at home so they were out here as Somerset Maugham caricatures of the British raj, carrying the white man’s burden. I even branded the two British generals most-famed in my country, Wolfe and Brock, as incompetents who in minor skirmishes managed to get themselves slain.
The Burma-China customs patrol had probably never heard of Wolfe or Brock, but bigod these were British generals and no colonial son-of-a-bitch was going to insult them.
I was thrown out. No dinner; no nubile maiden. Out!
There was no dak (government bungalow), let alone a hotel, so this could have been a lonely and awkward situation unless I chose to sail downstream again the following morning.
So I asked questions and poked around to find that there was a Buddhist monastery that took in strangers. It was a long walk but 1 had no choice.
The apprentices at the monastery seemed eager to take me in. They were all young, most in their twenties, and while my greeter couldn’t communicate with words a cell was soon found for me. This was small, in a row of similar rooms, most of them empty, the others occupied by Chinese. There were two wooden bunks on top of each other and a pillow on one of these — no blanket or sheet. The young men clustered around to look at me, then went away and 1 slept well.
They got up about four, and I could hear the pleasant tinkling of bells as they went to prayer. Nobody disturbed me until nearly eight — late for that part of the world — when I was invited by hand motions to a dining area where there was a long teakwood table and teakwood benches.
They gave me a bowl of what looked like dough, smelled like sour bread and was covered with thick buffalo milk.
Young men who had been in the bazaar begging for food came back with an abundance of things to eat in brass containers. Every Buddhist youth of that day had to go begging for at least one of his daily meals to learn humility. They found me an interesting curiosity, gathering around in the customary clusters several times each day.
That night, they brought me a blanket. It was tartan, but of no particular clan; gold and black with fringes and quite warm. I was quite touched near the end of this visit when the young monks invited me to take the blanket as a gift; I have it to this day.
Occasionally, in parts of India, I’d been required, even ordered, to be armed. So I carried a Browning .32 automatic which was never fired even in target practice. On the day of my second visit to the Strand in Rangoon, I’d docked in early afternoon, cleared customs with one bag, left other gear aboard and checked into the hotel.
I was wearing the typical gear of the pukka sahib and carried this smallish pistol on my hip. In my room, there was a tall bureau so I put the pistol on top and covered it with my hat. Covering the pistol with the hat was not a plan of concealment; it just happened that way on a hot day when you wanted to change into fresh clothes after a bath.
I’d just started to undress when-there was a knock on the door and a man was there, in civilian tweeds. He said he was from the police and had been told I’d come ashore with a loaded pistol.
“Is this true. Mr. Sinclair?”
Why I blurted that stupid answer. I’ll never know, but I said no, no pistol, even though the weapon was less than four feet away, still loaded.
“My information is usually reliable.” “Not this time, I have no pistol.”
“I have no warrant to search these premises but I have information that you came into this port and into this hotel with a pistol.”
Here I was lying like a fool for no sensible reason whatever.
“I must warn you, Mr. Sinclair, that bringing a pistol into Burma without a permit is punishable with two years of hard labor, and hard labor here is very hard indeed. There is no option of a fine if you are convicted.”
“I have no pistol.”
I’m pretty sure this police inspector knew exactly where it was. He was giving me every chance.
About the same time as I was debating whether to take another tranquilizer, I’d read about how cocky and self-reliant I was
He then stood up and moved toward the bureau. I thought I was in for it to be sure. He moved my hat indicating beyond doubt he had seen the pistol, then faced me and said, “If you have a pistol here, illegally, there is a way for you to redeem yourself without penalty. If you should be mistaken and have a pistol, you still have luggage aboard your ship of arrival. You could take the pistol there, put it in the luggage and not clear the luggage, but send it on to the next port, or straight home to Canada. It could save you a lot of bother.”
Within an hour the pistol was in the luggage, bound for Canada. The luggage arrived after I was home. But the pistol was missing.
As I write this, it’s about five-thirty on a misty midsummer morning and I’m poised on rocks overlooking Lake Muskoka, some 140 miles north of Toronto.
Down the lake, two loons are crying their lonely salute to dawn. We used to have many loons, then they gradually disappeared until last summer when two came back. These may be the same ones. They are loners and remind me that nearly all my travel was done alone. Like those loons I seem uncomfortable around others.
And it seems to me that learning, education — finding one’s way in the world — can only be done alone. Not in solitude, I don’t mean that. Gaining and having the strength to make one’s own decisions and choices independently, that’s what I mean. And “education,” as it’s academically understood, does not strengthen a person’s independence.
I had a conversation with Pierre Trudeau on that very point. I don’t know what it was I said to him — something to the effect that we could certainly not carry on a debate. He was a professor of law and the Prime Minister of Canada, and here I was with limited schooling. He said, quite explosively, “Ignorant, hell! You’re one of the best educated fellows in the whole damn country. You’ve gone around and done things and seen things.” And in a way that’s true.
And yet, so many jobs now demand a degree before a person will be even interviewed as an applicant. In my own field, journalism, you couldn’t get into a proper big newspaper today with a grade eight education, such as I have, and such as the better reporters of my generation had. Today you wouldn’t even be considered without a bachelor’s degree. But education isn’t doing all that much for students; it’s taking something important away from them — independence, individuality. Whatever it is they gain, they lose contact with the world.
If you’re going to become a veterinarian, or a physician, any of these skilled professions, you must of course go to university. Anybody would be a fool to say you could learn that on your own. But over-education for the generality has gone just too damn far. A BA, what good is it? You might just as well be me. I was rigidly controlled, both at home and in my work. If you missed a day and were sick, you were looked on as a piker. I missed what they call freedom today, but on the other hand I enjoyed discipline, and I think the young fellows of today would enjoy some — having to do certain things.
And I don’t attach as much importance to possessions and money, either. You reach a certain point. I’ve got boats and cars and summer homes and all the rest of that jazz. It can become a burden. A burden of possessions — that’s one of Greg Clark’s slogans.
A lot of people go to psychiatrists and run to their pastors or somebody to be straightened up in their own minds as to what they are, or where they’re going, or what they want. I went through that period and it was horrible. I didn’t seek any professional advice but I used to try and feel out people to see if they were having the screaming meemies too. I read books that contradicted each other, tried tranquilizers and the bottle. Both helped temporarily but afterward selfdoubts grew worse.
During this period I sometimes read about myself as brash, cocky, selfreliant, and there I was debating whether to take another tranquilizer.
One day I dropped into a pub used mostly by drovers and truckers. I thought they’d be fatalistic and unworried. Wrong: they talked about bad roads, costly repairs for their trucks, unruly kids, nagging wives, and how prices kept on getting higher an higher.
I went back to that place several times, gradually beginning to see their problems and thus forgetting my own, which were largely imaginary anyhow. One day a guy came over and said, “Hey are you Gordon Sinclair?” I said I was and he bought me a beer. After that several others bought me beers and the next time I went in half the place wanted to buy me a beer so I didn’t go back anymore. I had to live with myself and growing old was part of it.
You’ve got to be yourself; to live with yourself, and you’re never going to get rid of yourself. No matter where you go, and I’ve been lots of places, you’re still there. You can tell when you’re being sort of a bitch or a bastard, as I have certainly been at times, and you don’t have to be told that. And certainly I don’t hold any grudges against anybody. I have probably been criticized and slammed about and found fault with as much as anybody in Canada outside of politics.
The interesting thing about it is that when people call you a fink, a pisspot or worse you don’t have to do anything about it. There is nearly always a defender, and the older you get the warmer the defense, or at least the acceptance, by others.
When these words are read, if at all, I’ll be 75 or more. A bit shaky, sometimes timidly frightened of my own shadow, but still a journeyman reporter. I’m the oldest broadcaster regularly seen or heard on Canadian TV or radio. My wife has been an invalid for about a year and is not likely to walk again, but we’ve had a truly wonderful life. No king could have had better.
The world has always had its doom criers, calamity howlers and pedlars of pessimism and now they are in full cry. But the human race is invincible and always has been. Down deep in the human spirit there is something eternal and you and I are part of it.