COLUMN

Black ties, running shoes and gossip

Allan Fotheringham February 5 1990
COLUMN

Black ties, running shoes and gossip

Allan Fotheringham February 5 1990

Black ties, running shoes and gossip

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

The thing about Ottawa, as you know, is that it suffers from a surfeit of talk. Talk and paper are the only products produced by the town that fun forgot. Verbal flatulence envelops the city like a thick layer of smog. Chaps who couldn’t attract a crowd to a church basement in Wawa are allowed to stand on their hind legs in the House of Commons and emote on chicken subsidies to an extent that forces even their best friends to retire to their offices to watch Oprah on the square eye. The whole capital suffers from slack lips.

What you perhaps don’t know is that— because of the above—Ottawa dies to hear intelligent talk. People are willing to pay $200 a plate (or their expense accounts are) to listen to Canadians who can actually string together a full sentence containing a verb and a nonoffensive adjective. Few members of the Tory backbench (or cabinet) need apply.

The occasion for this rare outburst of English-as-she-is-spoke is the annual bun toss thrown by the Writers’ Development Trust gang, a looseleaf organization dedicated to raising funds for indigent authors who may in their dotage require sustenance and a tiny touch of gin. There was the now-famous evening, last year, when celebrated CBC wit Larry Zolf sat down to talk and, what seemed like several days later, was driven from the stage by a hurricane of wildly waving white napkins, spurred on by suspects who cannot be named for fear of prosecution.

This evening was decorous, even sedate— perhaps due to the absence of Richard Hatfield. Even Zolf did not return for his revenge. The format was an alleged debate between Jack Pickersgill, Charles Ritchie, John Fraser and Hughie Segal on whether Canada had indeed a “golden age” of politics and diplomacy in some distant past around about the 1940s, when even Elvis Presley was not dominant.

The puckish Pickersgill, at 84, still exudes the playful Liberal arrogance that has so marked his party through this century. He is the author of the statement that a Conservative government is something like measles—

you get it once in a lifetime and that’s enough. Former Canadian ambassador Ritchie, at 83, has the appearance of a cadaver and a tongue with the energy of a teenager. Fraser, the magpie who is editor of Saturday Night, is the second-best gossipist in Canada. Segal, with the regal countenance of a youthful Alfred Hitchcock and the vocabulary of Evelyn Waugh, is a walking advertisement for the Tory equivalent of Grit arrogance.

The gathering, in the gilt extravanzas of the Château Laurier ballroom, attracts most everyone in Ottawa afraid to be accused of not being able to afford $200. Dalton Camp has mushed in from Jemseg, N.B. Bernard Ostry, who has never met a black-tie dinner he didn’t like, peers through his Ben Franklin glasses— the ones that so annoy the voters when Brian Mulroney wears them. Pickersgill says, of course, that the Golden Age ended when John Diefenbaker came to power.

Fraser refers to his elders on stage as “two titans of the old Dominion” and describes Pickersgill (accurately) as “the grand puppet master” of Liberal regimes past. He tells the throng, “I am the only one you can trust” since the others are hopeless partisans and therefore he is equivalent to the role Judy LaMarsh played in a storied Diefenbaker campaign— “the Truth Squad.” The most smashingly presented lady in attendance is Pierrette Lucas, Mila Mulroney’s friend, who is Ottawa’s chief of protocol. Ritchie, describing the present-day external affairs department, quotes Sam Goldwyn: “They’ve improved it worse.”

Senator Finlay MacDonald, with a Saskatchewan beauty on his arm, is unaccustomedly subdued. Ritchie says External Affairs is somewhat like Alice in Wonderland: “Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow but never jam today.” The beautiful young wife of an ambassador wonders why Ottawa, which seethes with gossip, does not have a decent gossip column. Her seatmate can only shrug in equal wonderment. Hughie Segal is telling the audience how “Mackenzie King, as we know, played no part whatsoever in World War Two.”

Sandra Gwyn has flown in from London. Clark Davey, in the red bow tie he has been wearing since 1952, has come all the way from The Ottawa Citizen. Ritchie, the star turn of the evening in the hornrimmed glasses he bought in 1938, is explaining that External was definitely not sophisticated during the Dief days. External Affairs Minister Howard Green, “on meeting the West German defence minister, Mr. Strauss, confided to me later that it was the first German he had ever met since he killed one in the First World War.”

Moderator Robert MacNeill, the Halifaxnative Wordstruck wordsmith of the MacNeill/ Lehrer News Hour, after a long, witty and shrewd introduction to proceedings, seems absolutely bemused on stumbling on the playful display of speech by four fans of it—he is now residing in the land of Dan Quayle. Diana Filer looks terrific. New CBC chairman Patrick Watson, 10 years after Woody Allen pioneered it, wears white running shoes with his tuxedo. We still retain hope for him.

Pickersgill is maintaining that the Golden Age ended with Liberalism. Segal says the true Golden Age started in 1984 and is soaring ever onward. Fraser says the Golden Age is whenever you happen to be in power, the most seering comment of the evening.

Some women wear short skirts, which are now a political statement. I guess you had to be there.