Saturday, November 24, 2012




Once upon a time, when happiness was the latest Life magazine, and Time journalists were legendary for their expense accounts and pay, magazines ruled the media.
How the mighty have fallen, but fortunately not all.
I picked up Reader's Digest in the dental office the other day and was startled at everything from the $4.25 cover price to the lean pickings.
And this is the magazine that used to be stolen from every dental office. Now dentists should just give them away, considering the charge for even cleaning your teeth.
Not that many would be read. The Digest has shrunk to bite-sized pieces, and the jokes have withered. And they're old, very old.
 For example, in the November issue, a reader from Dartmouth snuck through the old gag about being invited to dine with a VIP and deciding to copy all the table manners so you don't make a horrendous mistake. So when the Queen poured milk into her tea saucer, Jim, the guest, did so too. And then she put it on the floor and said "here kitty."
I thought it was really funny when a better version had some hillbillies dining with FDR and indeed I used it in a speech maybe four decades ago.
There must still be cubby holes stuffed with Reader's Digest condensed books, which all started in the magazine. Its regular feature, The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met was the fascinating equivalent of those Ma Kettle and Cheaper By The Dozen movies. Budding writers fattened their vocabulary through Word Power, which survives.
Condensed books vanished years ago, along with character yarns. Today it's not even a shadow of what it once was, when Life magazine ruled photography, and the Saturday Evening Post was like an ice cream sundae on a hot summer evening.
 I visited the Life offices in its glory day to study the latest darkroom techniques because I was in charge of the Tely photographers for a few years. It was my Mecca, but maybe you  can't say that these days without causing a riot.
I didn't renew my Time subscription because it is too often too lean and  dominated by American politics. I remember the first time I wrote for Time when the rewrite process put a mistake in every one of the seven paragraphs. But then my last piece ran over two pages and it appeared exactly the way I wrote it, which put me in such shock that I didn't mind the low fee.
Maclean's used to dominate the country's current affairs, sort of like  the CBC's National blended with several of those talking head panels based in Ottawa.
I thought I had really made it when I sold my first piece which ran under the headline and theme of "never trust a crooked politician." Then we were sued, by among others, Ontario's AG and a former B.C. cabinet minister. Maclean's ran a paragraph which satisfied Kelso Roberts in Ontario but told Phil Gaglardi and a corrupt big-city mayor that its lawyers were just aching to go to court with them.
So everyone in the end was happy but Maclean's didn't call me again for a while,.
Then it declined. I only skimmed it on line for a few years and then one of those promotions snared me, My son Mark and I really enjoy it today. Its resurrection is remarkable. Interesting, gossipy, opionated, it throw its news net from Pontypool to Mayo Landing.
Unfortunately, I get the Motorist magazine put out by the Ontario Motor League because it's part of the membership. What a puerile publication! And I say that as someone who wrote several cover stories for it, plus numerous editorials and accounts of the Downing Swiss Family Robinson road trips.
I still have an old teak bench that I cover with the latest attempts at print candy, although some of it is stale and, as in the words from that funny song in Les Miserables, there's not much there.
I reach first for The Atlantic, which lives up to its honourable rep most months. Love the old Monthly!
I hate Zoomer magazine because of its amateurish makeup and silly promotions, including all the pretentious crap about it that Moses Znamer makes his radio stations run. It gives info in the same bite-sized pieces that the Digest uses because of one of its silly make-overs. Trouble is, those bites aren't tasty. Now if the Editor spent more time editing and less time competing with Moses for the society photogs, Zoomer might have a bit of zing, but I doubt it.
 Love The Economist, which calls itself a newspaper but is the magazine that you have to read if you care at all about what happens outside the Don and Humber. And then there is Foreign Affairs if you really want some authoritative commentary although you have to struggle not to doze off.
Toronto Life used to be a Must Read for anyone intrigued about T.O.'s alleys and bistros. Then I lost interest, or maybe it did in the real city, drowning in ultra trendy froth.  Mark, who lives about half the time in China, subscribed again as a fast way to orient him to city changes. And, surprise, I found enough inside its phoney sophistication  to make it interesting again.
Cottage Life is a must read if you have a cottage. Unfortunately, too much of it is devoted to really expensive designer cottages decorated by people who seem to roam the world when they're not hunkered down in Muskoka. I now skim  it and then store it so if I have a problem, I rummage through back issues to see if it actually has dealt with my mundane crisis. Still, despite its environmental concerns that it takes to ridiculous lengths - like telling kids they shouldn't pee in big rivers or lakes - it does capture the soul, the mystique, about why we have cottages in the first place.
Other snapshots:
Interviewed Steve Forbes once, the editor-in-chief of the magazine named after his father, the founder, and found him just like his magazine. No zip! Like a supposedly hearty meal where the cook forgot the salt and pepper, garlic etc.
Still better than the Financial Post Magazine which you only glance at because it comes with the subscription.
MoneySense is lighter and brighter, a reminder that financial reporting doesn't have to be a headache in waiting. And Canadian Business  also is a mine of Canadian information.
My son Mark, who counts astronomy as one of his passions, takes SkyNews, which alerts you to anything interesting in the heavens. And he, as a classical music enthusiast, subscribes to BBC Music, a magazine noted for its fine glossy layout and the CD  that comes with each edition. There is the propaganda giveaway,Saudi Aramco,  that gives you the nice side of the Arab World, and Allah knows we certainly have to hunt to find that. I piggyback looks at all of Mark's magazines.
Lots of great reading stacked on my old teak bench. But you won't find the Digest there, or that advertising circular called a magazine published for the OML. It needs too much road service.


There doesn't seem to be a week when the postman doesn't bring me a subscription renewal for some magazine. They're all cryptic. Either I'm down to the last issue or there are a few to go etc.
Never hard date info. So you scrutinize the address label which actually used to state the expiration date. Now they read like hieroglyphics on an Egyptian tomb.  So I have started letting the subscriptions
run out and after a few weeks, renew, and note the renewal date in a book filled with such necessary trivia in a world where everyone is so efficient with computers, half the people don't know what is going on.

Thursday, November 22, 2012



So the Dracula now controlling the Sun newspapers has sucked more blood from the neck of the chain. I guess we're lucky he doesn't guillotine.
What can you expect from some robot who once fired me as Santa Claus (but that's another story) and had a wacky separatist father.
In the fallout from the latest eclipse, there has been a pimple of eruption by survivors about the Day Oners and the long-time infantry because they dare talk about the good old days in their retirement.
Good old days often aren't. Yet nostalgia salves the burn from the wounds of those who fought in the early days of any company that is larger or more sophisticated than a kennel. But we at the Toronto Sun did have a grand run before the financial jackals pulled us down.
This may be tiresome to those outside the business because we all have our memories and our inside jokes about our past at work. It's just that those in the media tend to be more interesting because so many of the participants are characters. It's not  easy to be reporter or editor when several other outfits are trying to screw you every day.
Rob Granastein, who got bounced last year as Toronto Sun Editorial Page Editor,  has just written about his 17 years and lamented about the latest slaughter of the innocents, the latest victims of a serial killer.  But he grumbled about some unnamed retired Sun staffer who had the temerity, apparently, to run a Sun Family blog.
It's true that John Cosway, one of those stalwart who are the spine of any real newspaper, did allow the glorification of the early days in the blog which he no longer runs because it was a lot of work and there are other things to do besides recording when the Sun was one of the largest and best newspapers in the land.
The blog had an apt name because we really were a family, with all the squabbles, suspicions, joys and sorrows of any family forced to live in an old patched shoe.
His contributors often wrote about Doug Creighton - the original Toronto Sun publisher who started the entire giant Sun chain and was raised to sainthood in the blog. This would amuse and touch Doug if he pays any attention to the earth now that he's busy running the Heavenly Sun Times and taking long lunches laced with a fiery nectar at the local Winston's while chatting up St. Peter to get his more suspect friends through the Gates.
Creighton, bless him, has received great tribute for his amiable stewardship. But there are many who have never seen the light of publicity, like Jim Thompson, just fired, a Day Oner who was already valuable at the Tely from which most of us came, from the shadows into the sunshine of Creighton and success.
We must never forget the contributions of the anonymous departed, like Cosway, who did, among other chores, the difficult job of rewrite. Or of those who remain, like Don MacPhail, who may well be the most important part of the Comment section.
I will listen to them because they have earned my respect, unlike some of those who skitter across the water and never really leave a wave.
I suspect that one of the things that bugs Granastein and the others who have accused me and others about being too negative about the "product" today is that we know just how the various roles have been diminished, along with the numbers. Even the publishers have gone from barons to just another punching bag for accountants.
Let me give you a windy example of another change in hierarchy.
The first Editor was Peter Worthington, one of the Three Mouthketers who created the paper and thus the chain. Worthington went his own way, which often bugged Creighton, and the concept that Worthington would clear or even tell anyone other than Creighton about the editorial thrust that was his primary job would be greeted with hysteria by him , the newsroom and the entire executive floor. Worthington was a true Editor, involved in everything, and he would have glared if you said he just ran Comment.
When Creighton brought in legendary newsman Doug MacFarlane to watch everyone and reduce goofs as we succeeded, Worthington went to the composing room and rewrote the editorial page masthead. He upgraded his title to make sure that no one, including JDM, thought he was subordinate.
Worthington was followed by Barbara Amiel, who apparently has a famous suspect as a husband and also thinks she really knew how a paper worked.
Then I took over for 13 years after being a sub from the beginning. And like my more illustrious predecessors,  I was listed second on the masthead and involved myself in everything, although there was some grumbling that I should stick more to Comment. Only Creighton and Paul Godfrey had any say in the editorial and it generally appeared without them even seeing it.
Over the years, the Editor's position has been diminished. One Executive Editor running the newsroom would only take the job if he appeared  above me in the Masthead. The erosion in the position and power now has something called the Editorial Page Editor who isn't even king over Comment and has assorted bosses.
The changes are also enormous in other areas, as Hugh Wesley, the retired chief photo conscience, was saying the other day. Long gone are the days when the Sun was a collection of silos of talents each headed by a personality/performer/politician. There was co-operation with the other papers as the chain matured, and there was sharing of columns, pictures, cartoons and beat produce, but not to today's extent where the chain is becoming a Canadian version that copycats U.S.A. Today as a homogenized national product where your local news only is mentioned if it becomes really major.
I liked the old Sun better. This doesn't mean I want to denigrate those who put out the "product" today under a souless management where dollars are more important than news.
I am sure that in several decades, the Sun journalists of today will also have victories and gaffes that they will chat about as they unfold their memories. They have extraordinary pressures on them that we only faced with our skeleton staff in the very early days. For example, when Editor Worthington went off to save the world for democracy, I continued to write my daily Page 4 column and also do his job.
Let's not forget, however, that long before computers and cell phones were even dreamed of, the complex act of writing news and the simple act of phoning the office were a lot more complicated.
Just the mechanics of producing the paper, from writing with old typewriters on paper to pasting up flats of copy, were far more time-consuming and frustrating than what happens now.
I only hope that there will be Suns still around for the present crew to criticize in their retirement, that the chain has survived under the Quebec boot, that it turns out that Dracula is not just drilling the neck to test for the guillotine.
Meanwhile, let those of us who survived in the business for many years, say 50 in my case, count our blessings and tell our yarns and remember how recording daily life worked before any nut could be a blogger, Twitter passed for snapshot commentary, Facebook pretended wisdom and the media obsessed about politics because it was cheaper than investigative journalism.
My thoughts about my friends in the Sun family past and present copy what Shakespeare wrote so gloriously about in King Henry V before that famous battle on St. Crispin's Day.
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." The Bard had the King saying that those asleep in Britain would rue the day that they were not part of the fight. And there must be those jealous that they were never in the battle with us.
Any writer of editorials or columns or routine paras or even cutlines for more than a few years is my brother even if they would like to kick me in the slats.
United in our memories, battle hardened with scars, whether mental or even physical, let us charge together into battle, brandishing our mastheads, with the war cry: "Don't let that bastard grind you down."
If I have to spell it out, the bastard is any publisher or fawning assistant or fatcat CEO who think they're more important than any writer or desk beaver or image technician who know every gimmick in computers and multi-tasking to make the Sun shine even when it's cloudy and the boss is an asshole.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012



Let me tell you of the times when I screwed up Grey Cup coverage in the second-largest newspaper in the country. One time I blame the fog, another drugs, or something, and then there was the time I was tired.
When I joined the Toronto Telegram in 1958, only two days out of Ryerson, I was cocky enough to think I had been hired because I was smart and a good writer.
The truth, I finally figured out, was that I was hired because I was big. And the publisher, John Bassett, the legendary managing editor, JDM, and City Editor Art Cole, a catankerous former war photographer, were all big.
Turned out I was the fastest typist in the newsroom, which wasn't hard in a world of two-finger hunt-and-peck typing.
 I also had a background that only the Tely would love.  I played a lot of football: all 60 minutes on a high school championship team, very brief stints with the Parkdale Lions (junior Argos)  and the Rams (yes Ryerson had a football team then coached by Ted Toogood who had led his Argos to a Grey Cup in 1950 and is carrying the ball on the Grey Cup postage stamp.)
My CV also showed that I had been Ryerson student president. Cole may have been more impressed by that than my fellow students. Maybe I had something going for me, even though he wasn't sure about that journalism school.
And so I worked at the Tely where knowledge about the CFL was very important, even above knowing about politics at all levels, particularly City Hall. After all, Bassett owned the Argonauts and a chunk of the Leafs and Channel 9, we had a good football reporter, Bob Frewin, and the iconic columnist, Ted Reeve, had played in the Grey Cup and was known by everyone in sports.
By the time the Tely sank in a golden sunset of nostalgia in 1971, and the Sun rose in its first  home, the Eclipse Building, I had been to Grey Cup games in every possible way. I had run film out of the stadium to a motorcycle courier. I had written the play-by play for the special Saturday editions (never then on Sunday, until the fog.) I even sat on the players' bench for a story. Then, in a grand climax, I was in charge of one of the most flawed Grey Cup specials ever to be hawked downtown.
I've been to World Series and Stanley Cup games and various All-Sar games but put them all together and I've been to more Grey Cups.
The Tely had a great sports department but they always had to borrow from Cityside for game coverage. Frewin, to the anger of his bosses, always was too busy doing CFRB interviews to be stuck with such mundane chores as recording what happened on every play.
And Reeve, with his giant hands gnarled from sport and arthritis, couldn't type that fast even if the editors screwed up their courage and asked him.
Ted had won one Grey Cup while playing with a broken collar bone. He jumped off the bench back into action when the opposition lined up for a short field goal. He burst through the defenders and blocked the kick, saving the game. He wrote Monday in the Tely, this being long before Sunday papers, this lovely doggerel: "When I was young and in my prime/ I used to block kicks all the time / Now that I am old and growing grey / I only block kicks once a day."
My first  Cup I was belting out of Exhibition Stadium with a film holder from a Speed Graphic to hand to Mad Sale, a one-handed photographer/motorcylist. The presses were being held for this picture of the ceremonial kickoff. They were playing the national anthem and a small commissioner wearing his medals shoved his hand in my chest to prevent me from jogging out the gate. I didn't protest because there was fire in his eyes.
My next Grey Cup I was running out of the stadium with film, this time more modern 35 mm stuff, when the crowd roared and I turned to look. Bernie Faloney's errant pass hammered me right in the solar plexus and knocked me flat and almost out. The crowd thought it was funny.
Writing play-by-play on an old typewriter with paper and carbons sucked the energy out of me.  We didn't even dare to dream then about writing on computers or calling the office on cell phones.  I  would be shouting "did he go over tackle or guard?" and then try to figure out whether it was a draw or a plunge or a broken play. And then the paper would rip or the ribbon would jam  and my spotter would be muttering incomprehensibly.
 That, dear reader, is why the Tely almost came out with the wrong score in the giant Page One headline because Winnipeg scored a meaningless TD in the final seconds and I missed it because the copy paper, damnit, had torn again.
Which brings me to the 1962 Fog Bowl between the Tiger-Cats and Blue Bombers. It started on Saturday and it ended on Sunday. The ends and punt returners couldn't see the ball most of the time which meant that I sure as hell didn't see it. And the announcer didn't either.
So when the game was suspended on Saturday, I ended my summary with a synopsis that turned out on Sunday to be completely wrong. I had the wrong team with the ball on the wrong yard line. There had been a fumble somewhere in the gloom
I was so revved up that Mary and I drove from Etobicoke through the fog to a party on Hamilton Mountain thrown by the Hamilton trainer. At Oakville, I started going north because the QEW disappeared on me. Mary said I was nuts because friends from downtown Hamilton didn't make it up the hill. And there I found I had missed a TD by running back Garney Henley on a reverse. His Cats lost by only one point.
It didn't seem to matter to the Managing Editors because even though I was now a junior editor, I kept being brought back to write the blasted play-by-play.
And then I became City Editor and finally the Assistant Managing Editor in charge of, among other things, the largest edition on Saturday. So I inherited the Grey Cup Special Edition which cost us a small fortune but Bassett insisted.
The day started well even though my assistant, Peter Marucci, showed up late. And he was my guy to do the layout and "size" the pictures in the heat of the news battle to beat the Star and get out a better special. But I had most of the paper away so it didn't much matter to me when Marucci asked if he could return to the Grey Cup party.
He looked okay when he returned, and didn't smell of booze or suspect substances. Except he moved as if he was swimming in molasses. I told him that we would lead with a game story, put the play-by-play on Page 2 and put five pictures on Page 3. The pictures were a special problem because the plates were made a few blocks away in a vain effort to save money and keep the Tely afloat.
When Marucci didn't move quickly enough, I found myself kneeling in the paper's lobby and doing the necessary measurements on the 11 by 14 prints. And then we got the presses started. The first copies showed that Marucci had screwed up royally. The play-by-play was now the headline story, the main story was inside and the pictures left a lot to be desired.
So I did what any young Assistant Managing Editor would do. I stopped the presses - and the pressmen were on overtime -  rejigged the paper, and started the presses again. I  took the new better copies around personally to all the executive offices, dumping the flawed copies in a garbage bin.
Didn't work. Doug Creighton, then my boss, and the founding publisher of the Sun, found me out. And Creighton, a former Tely sports editor, cared about football. (Indeed, one of the most famous sideline incidents in Grey Cup history came when a Montreal player was tripped by a spectator on his way to an easy TD. The spectator became a famous judge, Doug Humphreys. He was only there because of a pass provided by Creighton. They changed the rules next year but it was many years before Humphreys and Creighton were unmasked.)
Creighton gave me hell on Monday. He said when Marucci hadn't shown up, I should have brought in another major editor on overtime because heaven knows, Creighton said, I was not skilled at layout. But Marucci was there, I said. He insisted to his immediate boss, Ed Monteith, the other Assistant ME,  that he wasn't, But an entire newsroom had seen him, so he was suspended two weeks without pay, and my bosses wondered about just how smart I really was when I couldn't spot an editor who was so bombed on something or other that he didn't even know he was at work.
After the Tely sank, Marucci left the business behind that had driven him to a lot of drink, or something, and ran a country restaurant. And I became a daily Sun columnist and associate editor, wandering from City Hall to Queen's Park to the Hill, even around the world, until 1985. I only came back inside because by then my frantic Grey Cup days and torturous attempts at layout had become, ahem, rather grey.

Saturday, November 10, 2012



The release of another James Bond thriller and the sad rites of Remembrance Day feed memories  of the Second World War when the Bond fiction was born near Toronto and all those SCUBA movie scenes of barely clad girls in warm seas began as dives in chilly Lake Ontario.
The fictional Bond began for real just east of Toronto near the forgettable city of Oshawa in the now forgotten spy centre called Camp X on the shore of Lake Ontario.
This is where Ian Fleming, Bond's creator, honed his spy craft that blossomed into the Bond books and the later movies.  And Fleming was hardly the most famous Camp X resident because by the time the training there finished of soldiers, sailors, tinkers, spies, magicians, assassins, pickpockets, safecrackers, all-purpose crooks and espionage experts, such notables as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA godfather Wild Bill Donovan and Prime Minister Lester Pearson were involved in the secret camp set up by Sir William Stephenson on land he bought an acre or a bit at a time.
Of course Stephenson, one of the most famous espionage geniuses in world history, was A Man Called Intrepid, the title of the noted book on him by Toronto author William Stevenson, once my valued colleague on the Sun and a journalist and fighter pilot.
When Fleming was interviewed about the history behind Bond, he said: "James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is William Stephenson."
If you won't take the word of writers like Fleming and his biographer about how Intrepid was a key to the Allied victory, there is always Ronald Reagan. Before he became president, he was an expert in the illusions of Hollywood movies which mimic the shadow games played at Camp X to prepare its graduates for the deadly reality behind enemy lines,
Reagan said: "As long as Americans value courage and freedom there will be a special place in our hearts, our minds and our history books for the 'man called Intrepid.'"
Intrepid had roamed the world for years in the fight against facism, using his resources and ingenuity as a self-made Canadian millionaire. He was a confidant of Sir Winston Churchill and vital to the secret help that President Franklin Roosevelt gave the PM and Great Britain as they stood against Hitler's evil.
This is laid out for us in stunning detail by Bill Stevenson. I reread his Intrepid saga after my son Mark and I were arguing with someone about Stephenson's role in breaking crucial German code during the war. American writers and supposed historians have often downplayed or ignored Canada's huge contribution to the victory, and Intrepid is forgotten or scorned as someone who exaggerated his role.
I thought I knew about Camp X. As the Suburban Editor of the lamented Toronto Telegram, I would come to work at least once a year to find a feature on the camp volunteered by a freelancer or my Oshawa reporter. It was tantalizing stuff, but there wasn't much there. It would melt like candy floss when you mouthed it looking for substance inside the romantic lore. The pictures didn't show much. It didn't even resemble an abandoned base, and later there was just a park and picnic bench and sign.
Often there were mentions in the media but once again, there was nothing much beyond a few paragraphs about spies training there during World War II.  All that changed for me, but many Torontonians didn't seem to notice, when Bill Stevenson's book on Intrepid came out in 1976 and fleshed out the skeleton that had been X. Later it was turned into a movie, like several of his books.
He worked as a columnist when I was Sun Editor and told me about visiting Fleming in retirement on the north shore of Jamaica. They went diving together since they both loved SCUBA. Any fan of Bond can see Jamaca's influence in his writing. And, of course, Bermuda. Its spy centre was linked to X. After the war, when much of what they had done was still classified, the island was their escape. Bill Stevenson and Fleming visited often and Intrepid (his code name)  retired there and lived honourably to nearly 100. He got his Order of Canada belatedy there after he couldn't travel to Canada.
In his book, Bill Stevenson wrote about the dominance of the British counter-espionage centre Bletchley. Then came Bermuda. Camp X was a "dramatic contrast" to Bermuda and its warm waters filled with war action, because X, where the Allies would build towards "aggressive intelligence operations," had a huge cold lake to the south, a strip of bush to the north, and was guarded by fierce scrutiny on the sides.
It was easy to protect and its location,  close to highways to Toronto and Montreal and the border, was ideal. Quick trips from Manhattan and Washington were possible. FBI agents, American spies and pardoned crooks often crossed clandestinely at Roosevelt Beach just east of Niagara Falls while guarded by commandos. The location allowed Americans to help without breaking laws or alarming Congress before it entered the war.
At Camp X,  guerilla devices were tested along with training in how to kill with everything from a hatpin to thin copper wire. Stage-set buildings were constructed that imitated important Nazi hideouts that were going to be taken by parachutists trained to kill important generals.  A famous magician built a mirrored device that made it appear there were several warships out on the lake, a deception that astounded Hoover.
Intrepid said Fleming "was exceptionally good at underwater demolition. The water there is ice cold even in summer. Ian had a flair for the work. He had to deal with his own vivid imagination though."
He said that Fleming failed at an exercise known as "disposal of the tail," where an enemy agent is trailing an Allied spy and is killed. Fleming was told the supposed agent had returned to the mockup of a hotel near Toronto and he was supposed to kick open the door to the  room and shoot the enemy with a Smith and Wesson 45 which Intrepid handed him outside in the corridor assuring him he had "tested it on the range just yesterday." Fleming just couldn't do it, saying he couldn't shoot a man in cold blood even if he knew it was just a training exercise
Intrepid described to his biographer all the "factories" at Camp X that produced everything from forged documents to clothes that would be acceptable in occupied territory because they were copied from clothes spotted on immigrant travellers in and around Toronto. Their luggage would be stolen and they would be quickly granted generous compensation to end their questions.
Toronto played a major role as a large city and travel centre that was just 40 miles away. But the camp dominated every spy activity in Canada.  Sir William's general description for Camp X came in boxing terms because he had been a noted boxer.  He said that if "Bermuda was the outthrust defensive arm, Camp X was the clenched fist preparing for the knockout."
Naval pilots were trained at a nearby landing field, so any heavily guarded hangars in the area would not tip off any German spies to the camp. One-man subs and demolition devices were tested in the lake. Aspidistra, the largest radio-communications unit in the world was built to go with an underground  transmitter nicknamed Hydra which could link with any British spy in the world. The CBC provided a cover for all this, explaining to Oshawa residents that it was just putting up new radio aerials.
I urge you to read this book. Anyone with the slightest interest in the war and British/American politics in the 1930s and 1940s will find Bill Stevenson's details fascinating.  You will find intriguing names popping up like Mike Pearson, the future PM, whom Sir William asked to be a "King's messenger" carrying secret documents. Why we even learn that King George V was not just the name on the latest battleship but inspirational royalty playing an important role in the early secret war.
On Oct. 20, the Toronto Star, which once had Bill Stevenson, roaming the world as its foreign correspondent, did a major feature on his latest book Past to Present: A Reporter's Story of War, Spies, People and Politics.
You can tell the Star-lings were impressed by all the major leaders and personalities that Bill had interviewed. I know just how they feel. He invited me to a small dinner once that had Rudolf Nureyev at the head of the table. How come, I asked? He had helped Rudolf outwit the KGB in 1961 and defect when he was the most famous ballet dancer in the world.
 Liona Boyd, the guitarist who was dating PM Pete Trudeau, sat beside me and explained that she had asked Mick Jagger to come from his afternoon concert at the Ex but he didn't come in when he found Nureyev was there. Their egos collided like a bomb.
Bill Stevenson's books and conversation bring to life a world when actors and journalists like Noel Coward, Leslie Howard, Somerset Maugham, Roald Dahl - and Bill himself - were famous performers and writers but were also spies. This world of moles, snoops, spooks (before it became a bad word) and fifth columnists may live in the fiction of John LeCarre (who was a spy before he was an author) Len Deighton and others, but I find what really happened to be more stirring than any thriller.
Bill Stevenson phoned me once to chide me for not coming to a small backyard barbecue at his nice Rosdale home with the book-lined study where he could hold you entranced for hours. Why hadn't I shown up because billionaire Ross Perot had flown in on his private jet to tell him about the latest Oval Office briefing he had given President Reagan on all the American POWs in Vietnam.
Bill and his wife Monika Jensen, an Emmy-winning producer while at 60 Minutes, wrote a book about that, called Kiss The Boys Goodby. They confided that there had been a lot of Establishment pressure against them as they researched but in the book credited me and others for standing up for them.
I don't know about that. All I know is that Bill Stevenson is a great story teller, and he has great stories to tell, like giving military advice to the king of Thailand and bumping into, and cursing, Mao, during a TV shoot.
I can't think of anything better some evening than for you to pick your favourite chair, sip a martini which is shaken, not stirred, and descend into a world where the spies are real and the sea is warm and the good guys triumph after a few of the enemies are garroted in the basement.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012



The smiling receptionist for Dr. Bernie Gosevitz and I exchanged alleged witticisms about our chances of winning Lotto 6/49. But then I hit a downer.  She announced my OHIP card had expired.
"No," I said. "It's an original. It's eternal."
She fixed me with a look that indicated I was in premature senility and said that TV had been filled with ads saying that original cards had to be refreshed by Nov. 1.
I said I hadn't seen any ad, and I really am a consumer of the media beyond resonable levels, although too much of it these days is about politics.
So that is why I found myself at something called Service Ontario, sort of one-stop shopping  for provincial red tape/licences etc.
This particular bureaucratic outlet is in the rambling new building at Islington and Bloor that looks like it should be downtown. After walking in circles and hunting for interior maps etc. I actually found the red tape palace.
A formidable lady guarded the entrance. I handed over Mary's  renewal of her disabled parking permit (which is golden) and that went smoothly. But when I announced I had to renew my OHIP card, things went off the rails. She handed me a form and said I needed three pieces of identification.
Let's see, I told her, I have the old OHIP card and my driver's licence and my birth certificate etc.
Apparently I wasn't armed enough.
So I announced that what I had would satisfy the police, whether Toronto, OPP, RCMP or Interpol, but she stood like a wall between the counters and the street.
I returned the next day armed with enough identification to earn me security clearances, which I have had for royal visits and high-level military briefings (which once included a session with an Israeli spy colonel.) I even had my income tax return and an American Express card with my picture on it.
The wall wasn't there and a different lady welcomed me agreeably after I flashed enough identification to sink a battleship. She pointed to rows of chairs and I took a number. There were two clerks moving with glacial speed and 18 people waiting. Just before my eruption, several more clerks appeared and the wait shortened, sort of.
My clerk couldn't have been nicer. And I thought that even before he recognized my name as a blogger/columnist/editor that he probably had read.
I grumbled mildly about my ID that was now spread in a mound before him. He told me about all the fraud which meant that the number of cards in Ontario were double the population. Then he remembered my history and said that I had probably written about it.
I have. I told him about the eye specialist for whom I had waited five hours who then spent another hour lecturing me about OHIP fraud, saying he had sent the health ministry documentation about all the cheating in Windsor from the claimants who were actually Americans living in Detroit.
He never really got a response, he said. And then he squuezed powerful drops into my eyes and blinded me for a few more hours.
There are three long lists of documents suggested by Service Ontario for a new OHIP card - and you need one from each list to prove citizenship, residency and identity. There are some weird comparisons. For example, a union card, student ID or credit card are as good as a passport.  School report card, utility bill or income tax assessment match a lease agreement or insurance policy.
And one of the documents that would help you qualify is an Ontario Photo Card which costs $35 and  you get in four to six weeks AFTER YOU PRODUCE SUITABLE IDENTIFICATION AT A SERVICE ONTARIO centre. Am I the only one who finds that curious?
It might appear easy, a slam dunk, for most of us to find three acceptable documents but I know a man who was blocked and had to go to a lot more effort than the day it took me because he lived with his parents and didn't have utility bills, school report card, union card etc that Service Ontario would accept.
He finally qualified, but his experience reminds me of the old lawyer's saying about you have to be careful when creating rules 'n' regs that they're not a guide for the guilty and a trap for the innocent.
Queen's Park would argue that you really have to demand assorted documents because of all the crime today, and I'm not just talking about what the Liberal government wasted on electronic medical records and power generation.
Service Ontario has just announced that it is scrapping its 72 automated kiosks which have been around since 1996 to give you speedy access to something like 40 government services including licence plate renewals.
 It says it would cost $8.5 million to install enough devices to baffle the hackers and crooks who want your credit card and debit card numbers. Instead, you'll have to get by the screening receptionists and wait, and wait, until you get to one of those counters where the staff seem quite pleasant and not bothered by all the waiting people.
Not quite the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but in a hectic city it will have to do. After all Service Ontario says it has 46 million transactions  a year, which is a lot of transactions, and a lot of waiting.

Friday, November 2, 2012

THE $169,530.42 VISA MISTAKE


I have become accustomed to errors on too many bills. And simple financial transactions are often screwed up. If it isn't some clerk, it's the computer being fed gobbledygook . But some sort of dismal record for the Downings happened in just a week.
We go to the drycleaners less and less because of all the fabrics that have been developed that can just be washed, but Mary found herself at Kingsway Custom Cleaners near Royal York and Bloor collecting two pairs of pants.
The elderly gentleman handed her the VISA bill to sign and Mary glanced at the total. Migawd! It read $169, 547.47. So the slip was cancelled, because the real charge was $16.95, which still seems a mite high but then, as I say, we don't visit drycleaners much.
It shocked me when Mary told me because occasionally I don't check a bill completely. After all, looking at every item on a Costco bill at the check-out counter might cause a riot.
I know, I know, that's stupid, and after this week of figure confusion, I am going to scrutinize every transaction above a nickel. Maybe using a microscope. After all, I have rich friends who look at every listing on a restaurant bill and often find errors. I guess that's why they're rich.
I was across Bloor later at the TD Branch for a rather simple transaction. I had two passbooks updated, deposited a cheque for $312 and asked for $100 in cash. The teller didn't give me a copy after I signed the slip.  Later, when I was listing all this at home, I found that the cash had been deducted but there was no listing for a deposit.
So I phoned, angry. The bank had the teller phone me back. Her explanation was that she had entered my cheque into the system after she had balanced the passbooks, and I could doublecheck that via Internet banking. Okay, I said, but you put the cheque into the wrong account.
Chicken feed compared to what happened next . I  phoned my stock broker because it appeared I had a nice profit on Johnson and Johnson. That is a great company, especially a good defensive one to hold in the coming storms, but I am a great believer in not having all your eggs in one basket. And I had too much money in J  and J, especially if I had a profit.
After several baffling phone calls, the profit evaporated. Because I had bought some of the stock when the Canadian dollar was much lower than the U.S. dollar, my acquisition price in Canadian terms was actually much higher than what had been shown for several years in my monthly reports. My acquisition price of $67.43 was actually $77.79.  I was told the big brokerage computer refused to accept my real cost price so I would have to keep track myself.
So my big profit became a loss in roughly the same amount.  A swing of too many thousands. There is nothing like finding one afternoon that your retirement nest egg has been fractured like Humpty Dumpty to give you an Excedrin headache.
Then I sort of perked up. I did have a profit on the new giant Canadian drug company, Valeant, which started life as the controversial Biovail. (Eugene Melynk, the founder who had his problems with the securities commission, owns the Ottawa Senators.) It had gone from $18 to $58 while paying billions for assorted smaller companies. It now dominates  medications in such areas as acne and eye drops.
I figured that here was a chance to get some money for Christmas. After all, remember the old saying from the stock market that pigs get slaughtered.
It was the final financial puzzle for the week. The stock sales slip had a large deduction for currency exchange. So I went into my files, which can be riddles at the best of times, and found that I had bought that stock on the Toronto exchange but for some reason the broker had sold it on the New York exchange. I don't know whether it was that bloody master computer again or some trader wanting to leave early for drinks with the boys but it got straightened out after more perplexing explanations. I got more money and the broker, perhaps embarrassed, also reduced the fee.
I ended the week irritated and poorer. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, as Alexander Pope said several hundred years ago. (That's one reason people still buy stocks despite the disasters of a few years ago.)  I can only pray that a lot of people start skinning elbows and knees when they ski and buy bandages and Band-Aids so J and J will actually get back to what I thought was my profit.
Meanwhile, I am shopping with a calculator and a magnifying glass.


Read an article by Garry Marr in the November issue of the Financial Post Magazine about how checking your financial statements can help you spot fraudulent charges.  Good advice, but my column above details expensive mistakes that hurt me but they weren't, in my opinion, deliberate fraud.
Marr quoted an American firm spokesman specializing in financial crime who says it's "impossible to say for sure whether some charges are fraud or just accidental."
But the company, Actimize, warns that real fraudsters test a card by putting through minor charges. If these charges aren't caught, they go for the "big score." A retired cop said mystery charges aren't that unusual but sadly the credit card companies, if the charges are caught, don't often make complaints to the police.
How true! I remember the car rental company in Milan who tried to nail me with several hundred dollars in phoney charges even though I had caught the scam in their office and complained. They put through the charges after I left. I blew the whistle on them to American Express, and the charges were deducted. I then blew up when Amex said they had no intention in going after the car rental agency for fraud. The argument was that they did too much business with the rental chain.
It happened to me once in Paris too. That is when I became, like Marr, the Post writer, my own internal auditor.


I get some comfort over my strained dealings with banks in that Canada's famous gift to the world of satire, Stephen Leacock, the economist/ humourist, obviously didn't much like banks either.
If only I could write about it like he did on the famous sketch when he blundered into the vault and then withdrew his petty deposit in frustration.
Mary and I had an hour-long session with an agreeable chap at the same TD-Canada mentioned above.
During the course of wrapping up all sorts of lose ends and getting questions answered, it turned out that Mary's U.S. dollar account is now being nicked for $2.50 a month as a fee for passbook updates. Not that we update that much (it had been going on for seven months) but just the possession of a passbook on that account makes you vulnerable.
I protested and was proud that I didn't swear about money-grubbing bankers. Then I sent two e-mails, pointing out that we had banked at that corner for 49 years as banks came and went and merged and learned all the tricks of dreaming up fees to nick their customers.
Never heard of a passbook update fee, I said. But the bank rep hung tough, saying that TD had posted information about the new charge in its branch and also had sent notification to its customers.
I pointed out that TD and other banks have gone out of their way from discouraging us to actually enter their premises and to pay our bills on the Internet and use exterior machines. I also said that the area around Royal York and Bloor is a desirable prosperous community and that junk mail from banks, realtors, stores, renovators and just about every huckster outfit known to man come cascading in daily.
Since I wrote my last e-mail on the subject, I have kept track and we have received 30 general mailings in  four days, most of which justify the nickname of "junk mail." It's amazing that Canada Post still isn't making a profit.
The bank killed the last charge as a sign of "good faith." I'm not mollified. I wonder about all those TV ads by Don Harron, the famous Shakespearian actor turned rural comic. What would his old character Charlie Farquharson have to say about such penny pinching?
Did TD extend hours as a convenience to its customers or because that would give them more hours to operate on new charges?
Next they'll charge for use of the pen, which often don't even work.
My conclusion? If you really want this money so badly, why don't you spend some of it on more new ribbons for the printers because that passbook had printing so faint, it was hard to read the $2.50 charge.

TD, my dental office and all the companies wanting us to bank on the Internet and pay accounts onEasy Web and be notified of appointments by e-mail should remember that there are still many people around who don't have or use computers or find computers to be a daily galling frustration. What's so wrong with the telephone, but then they would probably leave that to a computerized voice system?

Thursday, November 1, 2012



Three old friends and colleagues, accompanied by our resilient wives, have celebrated the anniversary of the foundation of the Toronto Sun almost since it began 41 years ago.
It's often an adventure. Suitably it's on Halloween.
One year a man living across the street from Yvonne and Peter Worthington threatened to punch me in the nose because he didn't like the way I had parked.
Another year, Diane and Andy Donato, the noted golfer, arrived more than an hour late, blaming the traffic. I wondered if they had dallied along the way.
So now we take care with arrangements. Donato phoned to say they had picked a restaurant in the centre of where we all lived. "It's just north of the Sun on Ontario Street and it's Italian and on the west side. Called Mangez and something. 7 p.m. " he said. He kind of slurred the name and I asked him to repeat it.
 Mary and I set off early. After all, it was raining, there were 20,000 people going to the first Raptors game, and there would be strangeness on the roads, most of it by drivers and not the trick-or-treaters.
I slowed on King at the mouth of Ontario St., which was one-way against me, but could see nothing. And then we entered the special hell for parking downtown at night when it's raining and pedestrians and cyclists scuttle in dark clothes along one-way streets. And Ontario is one of the more frustrating destinations because it has a jog in it and also just isn't there for a block.
We drove north on the first parallel street, Berkeley, and then the one-way streets kept interfering. Finally we arrived after circling at a restaurant that Mary had glimpsed in the gloom and felt triumphant to see its name, Mengrai. Inside, we were assured by a woman glancing at the reservation book that there was a table for six booked by a Donato.  I had had a twinge of misgiving because it was Thai.
Amazingly,  we were 20 minutes early. And we waited.  Finally had some excellent lemon grass soup, and a spicy Caesar. And waited. About 7.30, we ordered some tasty prawns. And waited. At 8 p.m., I said this was late even for Andy. And we summoned the waitress to double-check that reservation. Turned out it hadn't been made by a Donato.
She knew of no other restaurant with a name like Mangez but I went out in the rain and walked up and down and found Mangia Bevi two blocks to the south. And the Donatos and Worthingtons inside wondering impatiently where Mary and I had been for more than an hour.
Andy,  being Andy, insisted I had screwed up. Yvonne indicated my spluttering denials were tiresome. Peter didn't care as long as there was sausage. Dianne was dubious, And Mary, bless her, assumed that as usual I was wrong.
You would think Donato would show a little respect because I'm older. And I had been his boss, although that was hard to tell. But I have 30 of his paintings, prints, montages and cartoons collected over 40 years despite his insults, so many that a friend suggested I call my house the Donato Gallery. (And I have five gentle glowing watercolours by Diane to make me feel better after all the cartoons which ridicule me. One even calls me an Ass, something I was trying to conceal from the world.)
It was a great occasion after that hiccup.  The anecdotes flowed with the red and white wine, and our stories have aged longer, more than five decades of journalism going back to the old and lamented Toronto Telegram.
"Remember, " Yvonne said, "the Tely Walking Team in the first Miles for Millions for 32.8 miles.  There were seven of us.  I remember how impressed I was when Pete left for an hour or two and had a tooth pulled and came back to walk and didn't tell us. And John carried Danielle on his shoulders as he and Pete and I made it all the way to Nathan Phillips Square."
Of course Danielle Crittenden , who I called the "elf,"  is now a big boss at the Huffington Post, a best-selling author and TV personality. She's married to famed pundit David Frum,  making them one of our power couples with parents who were also power couples.
Peter recalled Ben Wicks, the cartoonist, pub owner and TV personality, calling it quits in the charity walk and grabbing a cab even though Ben had once marched in a military band. And then Peter recalled the great newspaper challenge with him trying to match a professional walker in hiking huge distances to Toronto. He set a blistering place but had to quit when he was way ahead because of all his blisters. Then the pro dropped out of the stunt and a little police reporter from the Star, Dot O'Neill, finished the walk and won a VW even though there were suspicions, later confessed to, that she had cheated to such an extent that her photographer Eddy Roworth gave her lifts and at one point they had gone off bowling.
And we kept telling anti-Star stories, where, as Peter told Sun readers in this year's anniversary column, he had considered working after the Tely's death despite Yvonne's warning that he would be ground down.
Worthington, the editor turned columnist, and Donato, the editorial cartoonist when he isn't golfing,  are still stalwarts at the Sun, being among the best in their trade/profession in the world. I departed finally last year because I didn't do as well at negotiating payment above a pitiful sum.
They won't like me going public with this but Andy and Pete love what they do so well and would probably work for free because columns and cartoons have been flowing from them like Niagara Falls when lesser journalists and artists have been falling out of their rocking chairs.
We didn't have our anniversary dinner last year. There was an unofficial Day Oner party paid for by the dearly departed. Then the Sun finally broke down and had an official party where editor-turned columnist Mike Strobel MCed and asked me not to speak because they only had several hours.
Two years ago we met in a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant down in warehouse country after Peter checked out of hospital that morning to come and still had blood trickling from a hole in his chest.
Actually we all have the same doctors, from the able and well-connected Dr. Bernie Gosevitz, the best GP in the world when you can get an appointment,  to Dr. Heather Ross, the best cardiologist in the world who is about to ski to the South Pole with a retired Thunder Bay firefighter in whom she planted a new heart.
That's to prove that there is real life after your heart is replaced. They've also skied to the North Pole and sort of climbed a mountain in Antarctica. It's a heavy-duty vacation from Dr. Ross' incredible workload which even has her being the singer and leader of a good band filled with medical specialists who can put you under if you complain about their playing at a charity gig. .
Andy talked about meeting me at Ross' fundraiser and Peter wondered why he hadn't been invited.  He announced he was going to complain via e-mail. Imagine! He has been writing for 60 years and wandered the world and hobnobbed with the famous and even a mass murderer or two, and here he is, nearing 100 probably, and still so competitive he doesn't like being left out even from a fundraiser.
There's hope for all old farts like me who are only in our 70s.
I hope our dinners last a long time. I just won't ask Andy again for directions. It's a wonder he can find the greens.