COLUMN

A brief history of misspent youth

Allan Fotheringham October 17 1988
COLUMN

A brief history of misspent youth

Allan Fotheringham October 17 1988

A brief history of misspent youth

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

The best journalism school in Canada turns out a strange breed of product. There is such as Earle Bimey, the poet. And Pierre Berton, the historian. But there is also John Turner, the politician. And judges. And archeologists. Doctors. No house painters that we know of. But stock market watchdogs and mothers of eight and architects and university perfessors. There are actually one or two who have stumbled into newspapering.

The best journalism school in Canada isn’t a school at all—unless you could classify a pub as a classroom. It is The Ubyssey, the punningly named student newspaper of the University of British Columbia, which has a campus perched on a peninsula looking across to Japan that could have come only from a postcard. (How anyone at UBC ever studies is a constant marvel; you can’t take your eyes from the seagirt mountain view to lower them to the books.)

The usual suspects, some 300 or so, gathered last week to honor the vile rag, as some puffed-up student politician once called it. The Ubyssey was celebrating its 70th anniversary as an incubator of genius, and the products of its womb flew in to tell fibs and check hairlines. It’s the closest the vile rag has ever come to respectability.

Every so often some academic, looking for a safe retreat from reality, comes up with a plan to establish a journalism school at UBC, pointing out that—unlike the University of Western Ontario, or Carleton in Ottawa, or the University of Regina—poor, bereft British California does not have a school for scribes. His droppings fall on barren soil. No one dares challenge the primacy of The Ubyssey, which has been the best college paper in the land for so long they threw away the trophy.

You can’t teach journalism, any more than you can teach sex. You’re either good at it or you’re not. It’s not that the irreverent little paper turned out outstanding people; it’s that outstanding people wanted to work for it. The basic anarchic soul of Lotusland, com-

bined with a long tradition of freedom from administration babysitting, produced a sheet that proved how much fun irresponsibility can be.

The anthem of the paper (suspicions as to author point to Berton) is a scandalous thing called The Illegitimate Children of the Publications Board. That is the way Ubyssey staffers are regarded, rather as lepers would be in another society. Students point at them as they cross the lawns and whisper behind their hands. One walks around them as you would someone thought to have a strange skin disease. They have an aura about them—unclean! obscene!—that if you must know follows them through life.

It’s rather like “the few” who flew Spitfires in the RAF in the Battle of Britain: people stand up when you enter certain saloons. People like Larry Zolf and Barbara Frum go through their entire lives tom with the re-

gret that they did not graduate from The Ubyssey. It’s a cachet, a privilege handed out only to some of the lucky. Fraternity boys (membership in the frat rat circuit being banned to any Ubyssey staffer by edict of the editors) used to attempt to buy their way into one of the famous parties, their own by comparison being mere crocheting contests.

Eric Nicol, the shyest man I’ve ever met, the natural successor to Leacock, was so beloved by his postwar fans that they erected a bronze plaque—still on campus—to “Jabez,” his pen name. Mr. Justice Nathan Nemetz, just retired as B.C.’s top judge, used to be editor in the days after Bimey ruled. Joe Schlesinger, the CBC’s courtly man in Washington, stuffed the ballot box to ensure the democratic election of his successor as editor, who cannot be identified other than the fact his initials are A. F. As well, Patricia Carney, late of the Mulroney gang, honed her wit on the upright Underwood.

There was a fecund period in between the time when the war vets such as Berton left and the time when us pups arrived. Along with sports editor Turner, there were such tyros as Ron Haggart, now having deserted columnwriting for the smoke and mirrors of TV to run the CBC’s the fifth estate. There was The Toronto Star’s Val Sears, Canada’s answer to People magazine. And Jack Wasserman, who died with his Guccis on as Boswell of the Vancouver martooni set.

Peter Worthington, now the mild-mannered editor of the new Ottawa Sun, was baptized there. As was Stanley Beck, now chairman of the Ontario Securities Commission and a tennis pupil. Helen Hutchinson, an elfin charmer, was there. As was Alexander Ross, the finest banjo player ever to escape Broadway. It goes all the way back to the tradition of Hal Straight and Himie Koshevoy, the guys who recreated “The Front Page” days of Vancouver journalism; a time when reporters on the Sun used to hire bulldozers to block the road to following Province reporters—and then put it on the expense account.

Journalism schools don’t turn out the quirky mavericks and stars of the trade, because the quirky ones, who turn into columnists, don’t enter them. They wobble into the trade by other routes, such as the one who stole type from the Vancouver newspapers to put out a satire edition of The Ubyssey, and was hired by an amused publisher and put to work for the sports editor, who was suing for libel the said perpetrator of the deed. I guess you had to be there.