Friday, October 31, 2008



Tis the season to be jolly about the past in newspapers.
The National Post has been flaunting its decade of putting out a very readable, attractive newspaper.
And on Nov. 1, the Sun is 37 years old - I was going to say 37 years young but the Sun lost its bounce, its edge, some time ago.
Robert Fulford, the insightful writer who shows you don't need to go on from high school in education, took a passing swipe at the Sun in his celebration of the Post decade.
It's time to remind Fulford that the thin tabloid he disparages revolutionized newspapers in Canada. Not only did it show that new technology made newspapers a lot easier to produce than the old hot-metal days of printing, the Toronto Sun became the flagship that at one point was the second largest in the country in circulation and readership. It daily walked the tight rope between the profane and the profound, and often fell on either side in the same column.
We had Mountie investigations and for a time were boycotted by city council and the Toronto Board of Education. I was the editor who put the offending column by McKenzie Porter in the paper and never heard a peep of criticism from the brass as we lost those bureaucracies ads for months.
Even though the Sun has set on its former gigantic energy and cheekiness, the Sun chain is now the largest in the country. Hardly an eclipse.
But enough about the Post. As it demonstrates daily, it's used to blowing its own horn.
I want to recall the birth of the Sun from an unusual perspective, the editor who was in charge as the presses produced the last Telegram and then the columnist who was in the first Sun edition that Monday.
That column talked about stadiums (we didn't much go for affectations like "stadia" at the Sun) and how this was one of the perennial municipal issues that was going to have to be settled.
I had an unusual ringside seat on what happened to stadiums, and just about anything else in the city's affairs, because I wandered from City Hall to Queen's Park to Ottawa. The amateur historians of the Sun persist in calling me a municipal columnist. Basically however, I was a political columnist who wrote about everything out of sheer desperation at having to produce a column five or six times a week for Page 4. I occasionally even wrote the editorial too when Editor Worthington was away.
Turn to my column and you might find anecdotes about the family, the cottage and fishing, or a rant against City Council - even though it was a thoughtful highly-tuned political machine compared to the modern clutch and grab of Millerites - or what happened in Question Period.
I recall the day I almost forgot about the provincial budget. My column was our main coverage of that major political instrument. Or I would be off for the Throne speech in Ottawa. Thanks to the gigantic presence in Ottawa of Doug Fisher, and the bitchiness of Claire Hoy when he started at Queen's Park and wasn't being repetitious, no one noticed just how few editorial staffers we actually did have.
Bill Denison, a speech therapist, was the grey mayor when the Sun began. Then came the Pillsbury doughboy, David Crombie (whose nickname of the Tiny Perfect Worship was coined on Page 6 by Gary Dunford) the municipal goliath of Paul Godfrey, and a series of mayors and councillors that were superior to the current crop.
Too often when we grow nostalgic about the good old days, we forget that the good old days really weren't. But it's easy to say after this turbulent fall that the stock market was better then, and so was traffic, city services, movies etc.
Of course nostalgia does cloud the senses, but I remember when people had a substantial down payment before they bought their homes, and cautiousness and frugality were not scorned by the conspicuous consumers.
Perhaps Toronto's history with stadiums illustrates the decline in prudent stewardship of taxes.
Godfrey as Metro chairman (and the regional government worked better than this one, something I thought I would never say) was responsible for a tweaking of Exhibition Stadium that allowed the Blue Jays to play here, after one day when we thought it would be the Toronto Giants stolen from San Francisco. It cost only $17.5 million, and that was the last time anyone used "only" about stadium costs.
Contrary to the myth, the first cost for SkyDome was not $150 million. Godfrey and his aides picked that figure out of the air to shut me up, as the columnist who kept bugging them about costs. The first estimate was around $228 million, and then the madness took over that resulted in a final figure of $628 million.
In the end it was such a tangled confusion of fact, fiction and fibs that how much the taxpayers eventually lost is a smeared mess. Let's just say it was at least a third of a billion dollars, which used to be good enough to be a major scandal, but the players in this debacle had all moved on. I would like to take part in any public debate where I would argue that over the years the cost was half a billion for the savaged taxpayers.
Stadiums continue to bedevil Torontonians. The establishment tore down Exhibition Stadium, using the $5 million that the users had contributed for its upkeep. Then they built a $72 million stadium only a few meters away, where Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which control this soccer stadium, has already got twice its money back after contributing the smallest amount to the pot.
Another scandal!
As I've said, how our politicians have handled stadiums here is almost as bad as how they've handled our garbage. Remember when you put a couple of cans at the curb and they took our crap away and burned and buried it without ever escalating costs. Now we have giant awkward cans to store and manoeuvre and the prospect of special payments which will go up and up like our water costs.
Oh yes, things have certainly gone all to hell since 1971, although, for a time, the Sun really did shine all over this town and filled all the ordinary people with warmth and gave a sunburn to all the jerks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008



The bullet train glided into the curve at close to 300 km/h. And David Wilkes, a stockbroker from central Etobicoke, looked out happily at the Japanese scenery whizzing by and said "you've just got to write about this when we get back. We need one of these."
And the entire group from Humber Valley United Church agreed. Maybe for the first time. We were an agreeable mixed bag - nurses, teachers, architect, lawyer, consultant, writers - and some were used to running big operations. We all longed for such a bullet to be flying around home.We did all the normal things on our visit, from solemn quiet at Ground Zero to drooling at the prices in Akihabara, which bills itself as the largest collection of electronic appliances and devices in the world.
But we always came back to talking about the Shinkansen, those famous sleek trains which the envious world has oogled for 44 years.
If only we had those in the transportation corridor from Windsor to Quebec City. Maybe Air Canada would actually be civil because of the huge loss of its business,
Now it's not news that various governments have thought and consulted and procrastinated about having fast trains across the bottom of Ontario and along the St. Lawrence. Maybe even with a siding to Ottawa. Any columnist who wrote occasionally about transportation, as I did, used to mine the endless reports on that topic because it made so much sense, particularly Toronto to Montreal.
But nothing's happened, even as the wait times at airports increased, along with everything else. The price of aviation fuel. The fare. The security, which seems to be the Third World revenge on the middle class, which has become so onerous and dumb I would rather drive on short hops.
Or take the train.
My introduction to bullet trains came in Kyoto 15 years ago. I learned, almost to my sorrow, that all those stories about jumping aboard as quickly as possible are not exaggerated. If I hadn't pushed aside some chap lumbering out the door, I would have been a day late for Mt. Fuji. (And I actually did see it, which many tourists can't say.)
You queue where numbers painted on the platform say your car is going to stop. And it does, precisely on the spot and on time. And you get aboard ASAP. Actually the trains this time seemed to give the traveller more of a pause, but then I wasn't about to test the system.
And there you sit in comfort, munching, drinking, reading, getting to your destination often in the same time as it takes to clear most airport gauntlets.
We took the Shinkansen train to Yakayama from the lovely resort area of Hakone, and a stay at the costly Prince Hakone Hotel, which is worth most of what you pay. We transferred once for the 412 km trip, which took four hours and nine minutes. Talk about arriving refreshed.
We also took local trains, including one which was a glorified subway, and then the Shinkansen Nozomi 005, which travelled the 381 km. from Kyoto to Hiroshima in one hour and 44 minutes, and then the Nozomo from Hiroshima to Osaka, a 324 km trip that took one hour and 29 minutes.
We stayed in several railway hotels during our gawking, grand structures with giant train sets in the basement. Remember when Canada's railway hotels were world-famous. Why in Toronto, we can't even convert Union Station to anything worthwhile after four decades of fights and lawsuits.
We stayed in two Granvia hotels where you could look down on the bullet trains speeding in to unload a few hundred yards from the lobby. One Granvia had a huge lobby and a cascade of escalators that rose to the stars. Actually they went up and up and up to the roof. It was such a shining hillside of escalators that at one landing, so help me, they hold outdoor concerts.
Remember when railways and the other side of the tracks were the stuff of seedy movies and cheap mysteries. In Japan, and in other countries, such land can be the anchor for grand developments.
The bullets started flying in 1964, and the trains did around 200 km/h. Now they claim 300 km/h and the Japanese say they hold the word speed record. But I was in Paris the day a TGV train from Lyons hit 350 km/h and the French said that was a world record.
It's unimportant to me because any of those speeds dwarf what we see in Canada. Just look at the dregs of the Canadian passenger train service which once knit a sprawling country together like it was a warm shawl in winter. I've gone to Vancouver and back by train twice, but that was decades ago. I don't fancy the trip now.
Actually, I was a witness when Canada decided to try to match the bullet trains and launched its version in December, 1968.
The Turbos began with great flair. On the first day, they filled one Turbo with media in Toronto and sent it to Montreal. And the Quebec media filled another Turbo to Toronto.
The driver of an empty meat truck near Kingston was used to beating trains across a level crossing and tried to outrun the Turbo. I had just been standing behind the engineer and saw his speedometer at 97 mph. So we cut the truck in two, like a hot knife through butter, so cleanly the driver wasn't seriously injured.
I ran to a nearby farmhouse to phone a story to the Toronto Telegram. When I walked back to the Turbo, with its damaged nose, I saw that the Montreal-Toronto Turbo had stopped beside us. Overhead were the planes and helicopters of the international media recording the maiden trip of what was going to be the super train for all of North America.
Some farmers in pickups, with bales in the back, were waiting for the trains to leave so they could cross amd go to town. One eyed me and my notebook, and all the planes and cameras and tape recorders, and said "you fellows sure get to the scene of an accident in a hurry."
All the networks were there. It was really was the last time the Turbo was big in the news because it was never a success. Its brakes kept freezing and so did its passengers.
It stopped around 1982. And that was Canada's last real venture into super trains.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could have another maiden train trip, with the media perched overhead in wonder, and have a Canadian version of the Shinkansen speeding between Toronto and Montreal.
We can always dream, can't we? As we did a few weeks ago in Japan as we flew between cities almost as fast as if we were in a plane. And without the hassles.