Monday, January 2, 2017



A dishevelled Bill Marshall pushed through the crowd in the famous office, grabbed David Crombie, and promised to have welcoming remarks ready in minutes for the first visit by the Governor General to Crombie as Mayor of Toronto.
Crombie regarded his hung-over speech writer and aide with amused exasperation, turned, and said to the GG who had been there for some time, that he would like him to meet Marshall "who is said to work for me."
 Just a stumble in the warm relationship between a municipal song bird and the man who crafted an advertising campaign that made Crombie mayor after only one term of alderman.
Marshall has just died, and you're going to read a lot about his movie producer days, his feisty work with three mayors, and how he helped start the film festival with another wonderful character, Dusty Cohl.
 I was in on a lot of that stuff but I also remember strange anecdotes about a friend who you felt you could trust even when you doubted he would pay you back for that loan. A man filled with delightful gossip and stories and adventures and a brilliance with words and images that would awe conventional practitioners.
In my days of having to find a daily column, I often found it productive to loiter on two second floors - at City Hall outside Crombie's office, since Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey was right next door, and in the Legislature near Premier William Davis's corner suite.
Not only could you see who the leaders were dealing with, their aides tended to be floating around filled with criticism of what I had written and trying to lead me down the garden path to promote their guys. It was like being in the trenches with barrages of ideas showering down.
It was a cold January but I found Marshall wearing sandals, linen pants and a Hawaiian shirt leaning on the railing outside Crombie's office. Lunch, he suggested. Of course. A great dining companion. We went off to Hy's steak house. Nothing strange about that but Bill didn't wear a coat as he crossed the Square.
Finally he confessed that there had been "a bit of a problem" with his girl friend. When he returned to the apartment, he found she had taken scissors to all his expensive clothes, poured glue over his records and stereo, and hidden his Corvette (which he never found for two weeks.)
Just another stumble in the life of a man who seemed to audition daily for what the Reader's Digest called in its days of glory "the most unforgettable character I have ever met."
We were all part of the twinning ceremony with Amsterdam, an interesting time when Crombie discovered that he was riding the bus with the rest of us while the City Clerk had appropriated the limousine that the Dutch were providing for the mayor of the city that was now its official partner.
We had a great time. That happened generally when Marshall was involved. The final night he told us  that the Canadian VW organization had loaned him one of their nifty buses which he no longer needed and offered it to David and Heather Smith and the Downings if we wanted to drive around for a week.
We had no papers for the bus, which had a big dent, but unbelievably there was no problem crossing the borders of five or six different countries. We returned to find Marshall had told the VW company that he had no knowledge of the dent. The gall of that scalawag! Smith at the time was merely the president of council, second only to Crombie, and his wife was a federal Crown. So we indignantly howled him down. Yet then we decided to thank him with a dinner that Marshall for some scandalous reason never got to.
That was Bill!
As the film festival legend goes, and it resulted in an Order of Canada for him, Bill was great in waving a clever wand of fine words and finer imagery over any situation. He could make fish and chips seem like Dover Sole at the Tour d'Argent.
Crombie got city council to give the film festival its first grant in 1976, which I remember as only $500, which was a remarkable investment when you consider the tens of millions that later swirled around the festival no matter what it was called.
The first festival party was a humble affair in an ordinary suite at the Harbour Castle. I doubt if there were 200. I remember my heated discussion with Marshall in the kitchen of the suite about whether it was proper for taxpayers to have to pay for this festival scheme of his considering the conflict of him working for Crombie.
He was eloquent in his scorn of some tabloid columnist getting ethical on him. As many found to their horror, whether major actors or famous talking heads, Marshall gave a belligerent damn if he felt you had crossed him or hurt a major idea or cheated when you promised to show up in support.
But he liked a good argument, and he liked people, and if you hung in there his eyes would start twinkling and the party would begin again. Those TIFF affairs became famous even in Hollywood.
Thanks to those parties, and the flamboyance of Cohl and Marshall that impressed even in a make-believe world that thought it had invented the style, TIFF has been world famous for years, even if the founding stalwarts are dead or dying or like George Anthony retired except for Facebook.
The Toronto film mafia would descend on Cannes each spring. What a zoo! I discovered once that every nook was so crammed with famous names  and limousines that the only parking I could find was three illegal rows out from the sidewalk.
Marshall and Cohl had suites and famed lunches. The Torontonians dazzled with their entertainment and their encyclopedic knowledge of movie lore and stars. And of course Bill's stories about making movies. I remember watching some "rushes" with him about his movie shot in Alberta called Wild Horse Hank. The surprise turned out to be that not all horses are great swimmers, or for that matter, know how. So Bill's people drove some horses into this river and some had to be rescued, which is not a normal scene in a Western.
Bill had innovative ideas about everything. He had rented an old school house near Peterborough and decided to play farmer too. So he planted an expanse of vegetables and to keep the weeds down, because he was a clever fellow, carpeted the garden with newspapers.  Yeah, you guessed it. Two weeks later there were torn yellowing sheets of newspapers blowing in the wind as far as the eye could see.
I tried to kid Bill about it but embarrassment never scratched him. His attitude was today's failure was just a try-out for tomorrow's success. We all should learn from that, and not just because of the Toronto International Film Festival and those stark black signs that said MAYOR CROMBIE when the Tiny Perfect was still just a junior alderman who had started by teaching a course at Ryerson that he had never taken himself.

Thursday, December 29, 2016



That early Christmas present by the leaders of Canada and the U.S. to ban drilling for oil from great expanses of ocean is a great idea.
After all, we have just discovered we have more than enough oil and gas for now under our land.
And then there's the sun.
But it did prompt me to consider again just how vast are those oceans, and even in this wondrous age of GPS and satellites that can photograph the name on a golf ball from space, we often don't know just what's going on in the waters that cover most of the planet.
And I'm not just considering those eternal searches that went on in recent years for the wreckage of airliners.
 I once was perched behind the RCAF pilot on a surveillance patrol as we swooped low in our converted Lockeed CP-140 Aurora over the Beaufort Sea north of Canada.
There beneath us was a drilling platform that no one knew about. It was on no chart or map of Canada and apparently, as I listed to the radio chatter, it was a mystery to our U.S. partners in the venerable NORAD defence pact that guarded the skies over North America.
It was, I suppose, in international waters because no one seemed to think it was a big deal. Including Canada's defence minister, Perrin Beatty, who was behind me peering over the shoulders of some air force personnel at the screens that lined one side of the $25 million plane developed for anti-submarine warfare.
It was an adventure of a diversion 28 years ago that took me away from the Editor's Desk and the task of saving the world for democracy to being fitted with Arctic survival gear at the Downsview base and then flights by a Challenger government jet to Yellowknife and then Inuvik which is on the southern edge of nothingness.
Beatty made a congenial travelling companion. He handled about nine different ministries before he went off to head the CBC. The Sun liked him so much that I proposed him to be the next PM in an editorial. Beatty phoned to plead with me not to write that again because Brian Mulroney glared at him at the next cabinet meeting and no other minister would speak to him.
Even though I once had a taste of the north as the kid editor of The Whitehorse Star, I quickly discovered that any survival gear that the RCAF loaned me for this northern visit was not just for show when it's February north of the Arctic Circle.
I left a midnight beer party in Inuvik to walk back to the lodgings on the edge of town and found that my beard had frozen and I was skidding on the snow road? because it was 35 or 40 below (Fahrenheit.)
Stupidly, I didn't think I needed Arctic gear just to go for a beer. It was so cold that I needed to pee but I wasn't sure I wanted to risk exposure of a tender part.
I didn't think I would last long if I slipped into one of the deep ditches on either side. So I took baby steps. It certainly sobers one in a hurry into being able to pass any breathalyzer.
Before university, I had been in the RCAF Reserve as a radar operator so I was fascinated by the modern electronic guts of the Aurora as the flight droned on and on as we headed north and north and north.
(I was told that the history of such patrol flights by Canada and the U.S. had the Soviets often probing NORAD response by flying what we called their Bears directly at us and the Canadian and U.S. fighters and patrols would not veer away. At the last minute of the aerial game of chicken, the giant Russian planes would drop a wing and head for home.)
Hours had passed and we were flying in a swirling mix of snow and fog and cloud. Then technicians reported there was "something" far below us on the ice.  Probably they could have described
exactly what it was but civilians were aboard.
So we turned and kept turning in a laborious descent. Finally we found a large oil drilling platform, complete with mounds of equipment and gear piled all around it. Not only that, a goliath civilian  transport was just off the ice landing beside the only human sign that could be seen in vast expanses of white, as its pilot informed the "heavy" invading "his air space" in terse wotinhellisgoingon tones.
 Not exactly a welcoming party, perhaps because we opened our bomb bay doors and photographed the site in case they were making a mess of it. Northern pollution is eternal pollution that ruins the landscape as it poisons the seas, even if they were, perhaps, in international waters.
My story seemed to go unnoticed later by everyone but it certainly made a lasting impression on me, that hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent by some giant international corporation in frigid waters on the edge of nowhere and the nearest governments didn't seem to know.
 Or maybe they did.
Promising to protect our waters from billion-dollar entrepreneurs is easy. Actually doing it well will be hard.

Friday, December 16, 2016



I was built to play Santa Claus, from my pot belly, beard and pipe to my love of everything about Christmas.
So I've played Santa many times over several decades, even though I've never looked quite as merry as the Santa in the iconic image that Coco-Cola first made famous in its ads of long ago.
It allowed me to continue to live in that enchanted Christmas world of great expectations and greater nostalgia long after I should have been just another cynical newspaper guy.
It's the nicest part of the year. Even brats are almost tolerable. How can you beat Silent Night, angels, a baby, Twas-the-night-before poetry, camels, wise men, stars, the eternal story...and Santa too?
I treasure the happy memories. I was a clown in the Eaton's Santa Claus parade, a yearning visitor to the vanished department store's famous Toyland and faithful listener to its radio broadcast, and I stood in the smelly halls with the rest of the school and sang along with the broadcast of carols from shoppers on the first floor of Simpsons.
But nothing matches my years as Santa.
I always took being his doppleganger seriously, thinking that if I was to screw up the charming illusion for some child, I would be punished by such torture as a year of reading Toronto Star editorials.
I can't pretend it has always gone smoothly.
Friends asked me to play Santa for their little girl without a future. Mary had not yet made me a great costume so I said it would be safer if I ran across their backyard. Don't have the lights on because the mystique of the legendary figure would be aided by the shadows.
I was in mid-flight when an older brother turned on all the lights, which so startled me that I blundered into a small tree and a branch knocked off my glasses and poked me in one eye.
I fished through the snow for my glasses, which I really needed, and finally figured out from the lack of blood and innards that my eye had not been damaged. I croaked out a feeble "ho ho ho," bit back a curse and disappeared into the night.
Next stop was a curve of a suburban street that looked like a Christmas card. An anxious tot waited in the picture window with her parents. It was a command performance where I knew my friends would be caustic if I screwed up.
So there I was at 6.15 pm. on Christmas Eve walking down the street loudly ringing a bell and boisterously yelling "ho ho ho" when a cruiser with two young cops pulled up and asked what I was doing.
I leaned in the passenger window and bellowed "fuck off."
From the watching window, an older sister squealed in mock horror to the tot that "the cops have just busted your Santa." The dad, a university dean whose father had been a beat cop in Edmonton, reassured the tot, saying it was obvious to most of Etobicoke that Santa had just told the police where to go.
I related the anecdote in my Boxing Day column, prompting the police chief to call and say I just had to have made up the story because he doubted he had two cops, even raw rookies, that could be that stupid.
In the young days of the Sun, I prompted the publisher, Doug Creighton, and our marvellous promotion wiz, Linda Ruddy, to organize a carol sing at the Ex. There was a carillon there, not used much, but I found someone who could play those bells, and we publicized it as a readers' event for singing and hot chocolate and candy canes and Santa.
I arrived at the carillon on a stage coach so small that I couldn't fit inside with the bags of candy. So the ponies delivered me riding on top. Unfortunate, there were large decorative balls at the corners of the roof, so when I jumped off, I "grounded" my groin on one, meaning I couldn't utter even one "ho" for minutes.
I then staggered up between the hundreds of carollers to be confronted by Norm Betts, an ace Sun photog, who yelled that he had to get back to the office with a picture for Page One right away. He grabbed the nearest kid and thrust him into my arms.
Unfortunately, it was my youngest son, Mark, then 4. I figured Sunday Sun readers wouldn't exactly be thrilled by Santa holding his own kid on Page 1 in glorious Betts colour, so I told Betts we needed another child.
"This one's fine," Betts said. I shoved Mark away, causing him, naturally, to feel teary at being rejected so vigorously. And I grabbed another boy, whose father turned out to be a pain in the ass.
Mary and I finally managed to soothe Mark after the event when we headed home with hundreds of left-over candy canes. Mark's brothers went to school for weeks armed with enough candy to rot the teeth of entire classes.
It was always more difficult to play Santa for family and friends since older kids who knew me are already hunting for inconsistencies because of their doubts. One family Christmas out in the country, I got tired tugging on the costume in a barn so I didn't bother changing my distinctive boots. I didn't even manage to make one pass sauntering by the house before a nephew said "that's Uncle John because he has those snow boots."
I learned the hard way not to get too cute with the kids. I was performing at a Sun staff Christmas party when I noticed that the next child coming to my lap had been launched by our Queen's Park columnist.
"So here's a Blizzard," I said and scooped the tot up. He returned to his mother and informed her that "Santa must work with you because he knew my name."
I liked kids with long shopping lists and not the little indoctrinated girl who wished for "world peace." I liked kids who got so awestruck they didn't know what to say. In fact, there is something mystical about the little child who still believes. If only more did.
I played Santa at Queen's Park in the middle of the Tory reign. Naturally I wore a blue Santa suit because I said that everyone knew that it was the Conservatives who brought the goodies.
I gave the Lieut Gov. a rubber bill because I said that everyone knew that under the Tories, pensioners really had to make a dollar stretch. One opposition leader was given a hunting knife so he could protect himself from his own caucus. Bill Davis, not yet recognized as one of our best premiers, and various ministers, were given assorted rude gifts dreamed up by the most malicious members of the Queen's Park Press Gallery.
At the party afterwards, a midget-sized Tory backbencher came up to a group of reporters that included me without the Claus costume and asked them to point out Downing because he had been such a rude jerk about the Tories as Santa that he was going to beat the crap out of him. "That's what we do up north," he said.
I assured this partisan bantam rooster that Downing didn't seem to be around anymore but not  to worry too much about him because everyone knew he was a jerk.
And we all laughed as the drunken MPP wandered off on his vain search, not realizing that Santa can't be thrashed because he comes armoured with the wonder and fantasies of generations of children who have made him one of the great legends in a world that has never needed his message more of peace and good will and kindness for at least one miraculous night of the year.
The strangest setting for my Santa impersonation was a Cuban resort where after staff and guests kept calling me Santa as I walked the beach with rum in hand, because of my size and my beard bleached whiter than normal by the sun, the management rented a Santa suit and made me part of the evening entertainment.
It was going to be a lot of fun, I thought, and it was until the next few days when I noticed pint-sized figures scoping me out suspiciously at the swim-up bar and at meal time. So I acted as prim and proper as I could be at a Caribbean resort, not wanting to send some kids home with a nice myth exploded.
As I've learned, parents can be nastier than the kids if you screw up any part of the act, from the
"ho ho hos" to not dropping a squirming wet infant.
I confess as a back-sliding Baptist that I still love the Biblical Christmas, the Christ Mass that started it all,  cherish the carols after years in a choir, and can still recite everything about the birth story, but to me there is also a giant part of the holiday that has nothing to do with Christianity.
Santa is part of the commercialization, the secularization of Christmas, that I welcome because it allows everyone to celebrate without getting their knickers in a twist on the grounds of religion.
The two warm halves of Christmas can exist without this contrived nonsense about saying "season's greetings" instead, and concerts devoid of Christmas, and the elevation of the minor festival of Hanukkah to please our Jewish friends, and the contrived Kwanzaa invented to publicize black culture that is more an activist propaganda message than a celebration.
When aided by Sun readers I sponsored 43 "boat people" into Canada and then looked after many of them for a year, I kept religion out of it. No mention of church or Christmas to the men and women and kids who had grown up without any form of worship except honouring ancestors. Christ was just as unknown to these immigrants as Santa. They were still adapting to their first snow.
Then I came to one of the houses I rented for them and found a decorated Christmas tree and the kids happily going off to Christmas concerts at a church and their school. They loved everything about the commercial Christmas that too many love to pontificate against. Their modest east-end community had embraced them and folded them into the Christmas merrymaking which helped ease every single one of them into their lives as successful Canadians.
Another gift from Santa!

Sunday, November 27, 2016



My strangest interview ever, both in setting and in rudeness, was with Fidel Castro.
I suspect this happened to many, whether diplomats or columnists trying not to fall off the couch.
It was January, 1976, and Pierre Trudeau, led by Margaret featuring the most famous nipples on the island, was visiting Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.
 I have never covered a more remarkable state visit, mainly because Cuba was wrapped in a steel cocoon of brutal state terrorism, gnawing secrecy, empty beaches and traumatized citizens.
The Canadian group ended up one night at the Canadian embassy and quickly degenerated into a warm haze of cigar smoke and rum, lots of rum.
It was so crowded, you couldn't have slipped a rumour past the security bullies who invited themselves in so they could watch us better. Each of us had our own clutch of thugs. Mine had warmed up to me earlier when I traded five portions of my little rationed steak for their five plates of seafood.
There was a commotion and a surge of new arrivals which lurched against me until I stood on a couch so I didn't get trampled. Pushed up with me was some soldier in green fatigues who straightened himself angrily and materialized into a teetering Fidel.
People shouted questions at him but he, several feet higher, ignored them, puffing on a Cohiba (it was decades later he stopped smoking the famous and expensive cigar) and swigging what I assumed was product from Havana Club, the distillery he confiscated from the Bacardi family.
I thought I can interview him and it will be exclusive because who else can hear us in the noise of the party.  I would soften him up by asking if it was true he might have pitched in the majors if he had  a curve. (I wrote about this on Nov. 25, 2014, in a Downing blog titled Don Hunt, Fidel Castro And Me.)
He ignored me.
I then ventured some minor question and he roared "speak Spanish." I replied that since I knew he had studied law in English, his English was better than my Spanish.
He waved the cigar  to silence me.
This was going nowhere so I thought I might as well go for broke. I asked why he hadn't told Cuban parents that their sons coming home in body bags had actually died in an African war to which he had committed his army without telling the country.
He stared at me. And puffed. And drank. I stared back and slowly and deliberately, since I had had a lot of rum and was just trying not to fall off the couch, which wasn't a stable platform, repeated my question.
He glared at me. And puffed. And drank. Then he yelled at the people beneath us to get out of his way and left, with me muttering about why was he acting like Trudeau who did the same when Sun writers like me asked a question he didn't like... usually all of the questions.
It was the closest I got in several days of wandering through crowds and factories. Bizarrely, he often was not the centre of attention since Margaret, mother of our PM, generally wore a Liberal election T-shirt that was so tight it looked like she was launching rockets. And she and Fidel were always very close. As was Trudeau.
The body language showed  a bromance between the dictators. Justin in not calling a brutal dictator a brutal dictator is just carrying on the family tradition of fawning over their pet killer.
Pete Trudeau, the father, could get quite enthusiastic in his praise. I found that out when I  took advantage when I was in a knot of reporters with the PM  to ask, as a fellow SCUBA diver, that I understood he had gone diving with Fidel. For once, I thought, he won't ignore me.
Trudeau rhapsodized about the experience, saying that he had never gone deeper than with Castro and his bodyguards, and how they had just butchered live fish with their knives, not caring at all about how the blood in the water around them might attract sharks.
Not what they teach you in diving 101 but it was the longest and most genuine chat I had ever had with Trudeau so I spun it out.
When we left, the Trudeaus, Castro, and some figurehead president gathered outside the Canadian plane while the security thugs pushed the rest of us aboard.
I saw Boris Spremo, the great Toronto Star photographer, sneak away so I did too. Obviously the final pictures could be controversial - Castro wrapping Trudeau, and of course Margaret, in great bear hugs.
As I raised my camera, a security thug pushed me towards the plane's stairs. I dug in. There was an angry cursing confrontation which the official group ignored. So I yelled at Castro to tell the security jerk to leave me alone before I punched him. This panicked the thug and he backed off, so I got one picture.
The Star used Boris on Page 1 but I couldn't get my pictures back home to the Sun in time from our next destination, Caracas, having no resources with me for that.
Years later I was telling James Bartleman, who did such a wonderful job as our lieutenant-governor, about the encounter. He detailed some of his experiences as the Canadian ambassador to Cuba in one of his four fine books and he told me some more.
Castro used to drop in on him at the embassy and talk all night. Bartleman was pleased until he figured out that the garrulous Castro was looking for an audience, any audience. (I related some of this in a Downing blog headlined Castro, Trudeau and Bartleman on Dec. 27, 2014.)
When I told Bartleman about Trudeau diving with Castro, he said that when he went diving with the Communist dictator, he went to the surface to clear his mask and to his amazement had a burly body guard come up underneath and hold him above the water so he could do it in comfort.
Other stories weren't so nice, like the Cubans poisoning the Bartleman dog, wiretapping him and harassing his driver even though Bartleman represented a country used by the U.S. as a secret channel in dealing with Cuba despite the official boycott. In fact, Bartleman later was sent secretly by PM Jean Chretien to meet with the Castro brothers to see what could be done about that boycott.
It seems that the Grits have always had a yen to deal with the Castros no matter how many citizens they imprisoned on phoney charges. No wonder Justin apes his father.
I have visited Cuba since that grand adventure at least a dozen times. It started off as such a difficult experience that you had to fill out a form detailing all your spending or they wouldn't let you leave. I remember going to an "underground" church service when there was a chance that the worshippers would be jailed.  I  wrote about being held and questioned for hours just because a homosexual under surveillance had talked to me for a minute or so.
Then there was the poor soul from Quebec who appealed to me after a young "'lady" seduced him and got him to marry her so she could get into Canada.
I couldn't help him. Or the orthopaedic surgeon stuck doing resort back rubs in 1997.
And now the bully is dead, who used communism rather than the Catholic religion he was taught as a boy to seize power and throw out the diseased lackeys of the American mob.
And all the tourists who think all that cloak-and-dagger brutality was just media malarkey can continue to ignore a murderous past and guzzle their Cuba libres. To them Fidel was just a myth.
Sure he was, a myth who imprisoned you if he didn't like your views, if you were lucky.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016



I have graduated to the punch line of what's claimed to be one of the world's oldest riddles.
What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?
Of course the answer is us - from crawling baby to adult to those stumping around on a cane because of age or problems with the undercarriage.
I came late to this world.
Faithful readers have no need to be reminded of my hospital hell of five years ago when I was incarcerated for three months in four hospitals and had to learn to stand again before my first steps from wheelchair to walker.
That's behind me now, along with the deep scars from bedsores compliments of the worst hospital around, St. Joseph's.
But I never have returned to the days when a stroll could go from Royal York and Bloor to High Park and then to the lake to return through the Humber Valley.
Long gone are those days when the first Miles for Millions walk came to Toronto and I finished the 32 plus miles with a flourish, carrying an elf named Danielle Crittenden on my shoulders long before she was a best-selling author.
Those were the days when a walk was enjoyed, not endured like a death march by Napoleon.
A few months ago, I reminded myself that I wasn't exactly a shrinking violent in my relations with the world, thanks to being 6" 2" and 260 and somewhat pugnacious in the face of rudeness.
So if I wanted to carry a cane and use it much of the time since even the sidewalks have holes like 105% of the roads, what was stopping me.
I still tire early but I find that with a no-nonsense cane, I can walk twice as fast consuming half the energy, and even the math-challenged know that is a worthwhile equation.
Besides, I don't fall over as much even in winter when the roads are lined with high curbs of ice and indifference.
All this has given me just a taste of what many have to endure all the time because their physical disability is 99% more serious and debilitating than my experience which has come at the end of a  healthy and physical existence.
I was reminded of this the other day when my son Brett and I attended the 23rd annual induction luncheon of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame which is chaired by David Crombie who has set a national record for likability.
I have been a member of the selection committee from the start, representing the media, and also because of experience with such boards ranging from the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame to chairing an advisory committee to Toronto city council on civic honours. (Mel Lastman killed the idea.)
It has been a wonderful board with such members as Linc Alexander and Jack Donohue. And we picked some great recipients from Edwin Baker, Jeff Healey and David Onley to Whipper Billy Watso, Bob Rumble and Rick Hansen, and if I have to explain who they are, you just haven't been paying attention to Canada.
The luncheon was an opportunity to reflect on three decades of the great improvements in this city in becoming more accessible. It really has. I watched from the sidelines for much of the time before stairs and heavy doors and moms with massive stroller tanks became careless obstacles even for me in the face of a society that now knows better.
It is hard to remember but it wasn't that long ago when there wasn't special seating for pensioners and the disabled on the TTC. The idea actually grew out of a councillor going away for a convention, so there is some value to some freeloads.  Brian Harrison of Scarboro returned with an account of how an American city, I think it was Atlanta, actually had transit seats near the front reserved for the disabled. And the TTC copied and expanded.
I find that most days on the subway, 98 % of the passengers see my cane and accommodate. Quickest to do so are young ethnics. Slowest are women who haven't lost their baby fat or their attitude.
I find the cane useful on the street and in stores because most people defer to the cane to the extent that if I pause, I get offers of help. Show up at a government agency like Service Ontario and the cane shoves you to the head of the long queue.
Naturally there are exceptions, like a few big louts used to bullying through crowds who actually have pushed me out of their way. Like the guy stampeding up the stairs from the basement washroom at Roy Thomson Hall. He was deliberately going against the flow and then shoved hard into me. I pushed back. Hard! He swore. I called him an asshole, shocking the symphony crowd, and then brandished my cane.
A perplexing bad side to a city becoming more flexible and caring with the disabled is that this disdain for the elderly still percolates just under the surface for too many yahoos.
 It is so bad in all of North America that this attitude against the elderly has been called the last great prejudice in employment.
Perhaps what feeds this ageism is the fact there are so many of us now that science has kicked the hell out of the Biblical promise that we would live for three score years and ten.
It can flare in just one sentence into an argument.
I had to shove by a big guy sprawled in the centre doorway of a bus to get off and he muttered about pushy old farts. So I cursed him. Cottage fishermen wanting to spend the day anchored up against my point are quick to swear about age too when I confront them. I don't recall that from when I was younger.
Obviously what I need is a cane that is more a shillelagh with a great wooden knob of a knot on top. I would never use it, of course, but it would make the damnedest assault case if it was used to make a dent in an attitude.

Sunday, November 6, 2016



Just two poppies grew this summer from the seed  from Flanders Fields that my son Mark gave me.
Yet I tended them like they were the rarest orchids. For they bring back my lifetime of worry and fear and mystery and doubt about war and its music and its savage waste.
There used to be more poppies. I dug up a couple and gave them to people whom I thought would treasure a flower from Flanders Fields. They didn't say much but then the blossom really honours remembrance and not a gush of words.
But the main enemy of the flowers in the big bowl of  an ancient cream separator has been the west wind that always pounds my cottage point and some determined daisies.
If there are none in the spring, I will have a reason to return to Flanders Fields which has been seared in my memory since I first heard that simple but grand poem as a kid.
Hanging in my house for decades has been one of the rare original colour print copies of In Flanders Fields that was produced and sold by the American Red Cross in its war relief drives in Manhattan in 1917 when the U. S. finally got off its ass to join the slaughter to end all slaughters.
Lt. Col. John McRae, who in death became the pride of Guelph, had his poem published in Punch in 1915 when it was a world-famous magazine.  Only several inches of type. There are several versions of how it was reprinted into fame, most of them concluding that the big push came when it appeared in a book in 1919 in New York City.
So collectors used to praise that "first" edition, not realizing there was this sombre black-and-white poster two years earlier showing a few crosses under a giant tree with poppies nestled in the grass. It is up to you and I to add the red of spilled blood.
Some years ago, John McDermott, whose lovely tenor takes on a heavenly sweetness when he sings about peace and war and its human wreckage,  recorded a CD called Remembrance about war songs.
He asked me to write the liner notes. There was a sold-out concert afterwards at Roy Thomson Hall.  I  worried that he might not just introduce me but also get me to participate in the traditional recitation of Flanders Fields. It is a poem that wallops my emotions every time. I didn't mind a few tears before a crowded hall but would I be able to start again?
McDermott had Cliff Chadderton of the War Amps, who died in honourable old age in 2013, read the legendary words in a flat steady tone, almost relentless like an advancing tank, and it was just great.
It is a poem where the poppies and the words are the stars, not the speaker, even one like Chadderton  who left the prairies to leave part of a right leg behind in Holland.
 I have written about the jerks who trash the red poppy, like a Canadian senator, or steal the Legion's collection box, which should be a hanging offence.
There even have been people who have criticized me anchoring my poppy with a Canadian flag pin, because I tired of having them fall off.
I don't mind, just as long as everyone wears one to mark the incredible sacrifices made by so many.
If only I could keep them growing in the garden, not that I really need them because they carpet my memory as far as the eye can see when I think of war and how fortunate I was that I didn't have to fight.
I thought I would as the Korean "action" flared when I was in high school. So I joined the RCAF reserve. It was a great experience. Years later, in those periods of journalism when it was not much fun, I wondered what it would be like to go back as an air traffic controller, but then some story would grab me.
The air force experience made me think a compulsory military year would be good for everyone, providing there were no new military cemeteries.
I have several medals now which I never wear because the ones that come from battle and military service so outrank them.
But a poppy always blooms on my chest...and in my memory, along with a line from Tennyson about "the blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire," and, of course the words from the doctor who didn't grow deaf when he heard the brazen throat of battle.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016



It's the night after All Hallows' Eve but the ghosts of half a century ago still dance in our memories of what was.
Our numbers are shrinking but not the warmth as the gnarled knot of Telegram and Sun survivors gather in our traditional salute to the death of the grand old lady of Melinda, The Toronto Telegram, on Oct. 30, 1971, and the surprising launch of the Toronto Sun two days later.
It is a weekend seared in my memory, and also with my friends in our anecdotage, as we gather to yarn and fib and drink great drafts of nostalgia.
It's suitable timing because Halloween, before Big Business stole it from the churches and trick-or-treaters, was the legendary time to contemplate mortality.
And I certainly felt mortal 45 years ago as I put out the final Tely. The building was empty except for the pressmen and me. I look up from my keyboard now at the flag of the Telegram that I ripped up off the front page form, along with the little FINAL bit, a name that would never be used again by the paper that had been a vital part of Toronto's history since 1876.
I remember carrying the metal name out of the empty newsroom as I wondered how I would support the new baby and two other sons and Mary.
Would the gamble by Doug Creighton and Peter Worthington work?  Or was my life as the bright young editor over and I would be forced to become a government flack?
That was 6,000 columns, 3,000 editorials and hundreds of blogs ago. So the Sun did shine on me.
I have written about our annual dinner over the years in, such as Donato's A Wonderful Pain In the Ass on Nov. 1, 2014, and Fighting Toronto's Sun Eclipse on Nov. 2, 2013.
And my talented colleagues at our dinner, like Joan Sutton Straus and Yvonne Crittenden Worthington, are informative posters of Facebook items just as they were provocative writers and columnists and personalities and friends.
Kathy Brooks didn't have a persona outside the newspapers but inside she was known for her great skills as the entertainment editor. Any good newspaper needs key Kathys no matter how many cantankerous stars they may have as columnists....or cartoonists.
Then there is Dianne Jackson, a gifted artist, and last and certainly least, her husband Andy Donato, a fine painter who whips up funny cartoons before playing another round of golf at his beloved Hunt Club where members must grumble about all his playing time.
I have so many graceful paintings by Dianne and lovely paintings and funny cartoons by Andy - most of them with insults about me - hanging on my walls that the joke is it could be called the Donato Gallery. (Admission any time providing you have a bottle of an aged Appleton or mellow Mount Gay.)
These days Andy makes up for all the rest of us in public production, intending to paint and cartoon for another few decades. Which means I can look forward to more torment since he has this serious misconception that I was difficult on him as the Editor supposedly approving his cartoons, and he is justified now in revenge.
This year I journeyed downtown to the York Club, because he indicated to me that our dinner was Sunday,  to find instead a silent stone mass, sort of like Andy's excuse.  I should have expected that because several years ago Mary and I ended up at the wrong restaurant following his directions.
A couple of years ago, we went to a pub because one of his relatives worked there and my credit card was compromised. Didn't cost me unlike the anniversary dinner when the restaurant put the charges for the Creightons and Worthingtons on my credit card and Worthington thought it was a great joke when I tried for a refund from him.
Now Peter loved those reunions. He showed up for one bleeding slightly from a hole in his chest after he checked himself out of TGH.
So what did we talk about? Mostly scandalous and libellous stuff and wonderful gossip. Nothing about the recent Suns or Posts or Godfrey. A lot about the old Tely. We passed largely on Clinton/Trump even though Yvonne would have insights since David Frum, the noted Republican writer, is married to her daughter, Danielle.
Nothing is more boring than taking potshots at the dismal clutch-and-grab of politicians now screwing up the entire world when you can talk about whether that photog really was sleeping with that girl on the Picture Desk.
I confess, and I bet Andy would too if he didn't know I had the same view, that the greatest part of these celebrations of the past is that you actually get a chance to tell your stories again to an appreciative audience.
After all, Mary and the sons tend to have eyes glazing before I reach my punchlines, although Mark once wrote a piece on me for the Sun at the suggestion of malicious editors that the family really didn't mind listening to my stories because they wanted to see how they turned out this time.
I probably have written that before (and Andy would say I always repeat myself) but there is nothing finer when you march on to the inevitable than gathering with old friends to remember the wars of survival when two other newspapers were determined to make you look like an idiot.
The Sun will shine forever, if only in my dreams.