Friday, December 27, 2013



A lot of years have passed since the word magician Dr. Seuss introduced us to the Grinch in 1957. But nothing happened this bad to Christmas until the Grinch seduced Mother Nature into freezing every last damn tree and Hydro pole in Ontario.
They became Evil Twins. I will never forgive them because Christmas is sacred magic.
 I love everything about it, even the bloody commercialism that starts just after Thanksgiving. Even when the politically correct jerks try to turn Merry Christmas into the offensively bland Season's Greetings, I can still smile while I contemplate shoving a large icicle where the sun doesn't shine.
To me the central message, which should be acceptable to all except arms manufacturers, of peace on earth good will to men, is one that we should all cherish, even the feminists, because peace on earth good will to persons just doesn't work.
I guess all the scribes drafting the wonderful language of the King James Version of the Bible just didn't think they had to kowtow to feminism because every woman thinks, starting at five in kindergarten, that they really run the world while the men wonder about other unimportant topics like is there enough beer to last through Boxing Day.
I had a few years after my cousins suggested it was time for me to live downtown in a rooming house when I really didn't have much of a Christmas. Both my sisters lived on farms with long, long, long lanes, and just getting there in my Austin Healey, which could get hung up on a snowflake, was an advanture. But I always managed to salvage something out of the day, which I guess prepared me for this Christmas which was so cold that I even forgot what day it was when I managed to get my joints bending enough for me to totter down the stairs.
I wasn't saying ho ho ho, I was saying uh uh ooh.
My tradition of staying close to the hearth hung with stockings and not doing much has worked, but unfortunately not all the time.
I have made it a rule never to go out Christmas Eve, which was ruined once by Immigration when they found in a refugee camp the husband of one of the boat people families I had sponsored into Canada and flew him here on Christmas Eve.
It would be, they thought, a great story for the newspaper on Christmas Day. Except newspapers don't publish on Christmas, something everyone knew except for the Immigration.
So I drove through a storm to Pearson, collected him, drove him to the eastend, reunited him with his family, who paid no attention to me for obvious reasons, and then went back home not having heard English spoken for several hours or having any nog.
 I got up on Christmas Day, wrote the story, skidded to the Sun in the slush, gave them the film and story, and was rewarded on Boxing Day with the Page One photograph being credited to a photographer who never even was forced to leave his blasted house.
So the Grinch has taken a few runs over the years. I would say warmup runs but there is nothing warm about the creature.
There was a sad time devoid of any humour,  the terrible night I left the house by the side door to play Santa to some neighbourhood kids. I emerged into the flashing red glares of emergency lights.  A neighbour on his way to his church to sing carols had been struck by a hit-and-run driver who was never found. He ended his life in a coma that lasted for years.
We start each Christmas Day with smoked salmon while we play John McDermott, my colleague from the glory Sun days, who becomes one of the angels bending down from the heavens with his carols.
No music this year. We ate the salmon  huddled around the gas fireplace, and then Mary said she had to be driven to Mass. I said hopefully that I thought the power was off at Our Lady of Sorrows but those Catholics faced down the Grinch and worshipped and even dared to use the word which derives from the first Christ Mass.
What I liked about the aftermath to the Grinch's tomfoolery with frozen water this year is that some radio stations were still playing carols on the weekend  in recognition, I think, that many of us were robbed of our carol fix this year by the blackout. Instead of playing carols nonstop for a  couple of days on the CD player, I was just trying not to freeze.
I am already looking forward to Christmas next year. I was going to look for generators in the Boxing Day sales but I suspect most of Ontario no longer trusts Hydro and are buying every generator, flashlight and battery in sight.
I have left the holiday with one grateful memory. At least my phone worked. All  those smug kids waving their smart phones at me and telling me that landlines are used only by silly old farts just learned a new lesson. Don't put all your faith in new technology until you are really sure it  will work all the time.
Look at the lesson we just learned about electricity. We have had it in homes for more than a century but obviously there are still problems. Give Hydro a few more decades and it may actually work all of the time, and the electricrats will work all, or most, of the time, especially when overbilling.


Thursday, December 26, 2013



I will not waste your time swearing about our ghastly Christmas when Mother Nature froze our Christmas balls and our limbs and our (good) will and any respect we might still have for the people who say they are in charge of our city and our province and our power.
After all, too many have experienced what the Downings endured. And you may have had it worse, not having a gas fireplace, which didn't put that much heat into the rec room because the blower, of course, was not working, or the fireplace in the living room which didn't produce much heat besides  smoke because it was built 70 years ago before heatalators were common.
So before the temperature on the thermostat gave up the ghost, our house temp may have been 11  (or 52 in the F temperature that I still use.)  And that was a hot spot. I thought our bedrooms would become ice caves complete with stalactites.  When our bones felt like frozen pork chops, we took baths because the gas water tank doesn't need electricity like the furnace.
I got a savage pleasure out of trying to burn some of the icy limbs from the giant Chinese elm on city property out front which savaged our power line and wiped out the neighbour  before Hydro turned off all the power east of Royal York and south of Bloor for  four days.
As I type, my fingers still stiff, I am waiting for the lights and all the electric gadgets of civilization to die again when Hydro finally shows up to help the neighour still in a frigid dark. (They came after eight days.)
Thank heavens we could escape to a crowded pub although most of the staff seemed trapped away from work. The trip was dangerous because most traffic lights were out and some idiots just drove through smaller signalized intersections without even pretending to stop. Probably Hydro bosses!
Firefighters blocked the street on either side of our driveway with yellow emergency police tape, but it was ripped down within a day by motorists or pedestrians who didn't give a damn.
It was heaven - but I would have settled for hellfire - to go to my son Brett's house, where after lovely dinners on Christmas Eve and the grand day itself, they seemed a trifle worried we may well be there into 2014.
However, I do want to make some points instead of just ranting at the people who are supposed to provide my house and cottage with electricity most of the time and have failed.
The excuse always is that it was the storm of the century or the worst ice storm in city history or the most rain that has ever fallen on T.O. since Noah tried to build beside the Humber. Maybe they could buy transformers that don't blow up whenever raindrops keep falling on my head.
I wrote a blog/column on July 10 headlined Drowning Remaining Confidence In Hydro.  Anyone who wants to spend an interesting time can meander via Goggle to columns I have written about blackouts and Hydro billing and general arrogance that even annoys Liberal premiers  - and gawd knows they're used to crap.
Why do they call them emergencies when they're routine?
Just in recent years at the cottage,  we have had outages that have lasted three and five days, and the only reason our food survived once is a nice neighbour who runs a grocery store put our food in its freezers. During this summer and the record excuse of a rain storm, our city food putrefied during the blackout for three days of hot weather. Now with the record excuse of an ice storm, it sits in drums out on the porch and we're not reloading the fridges until either March or some Hydro heads roll.
I listened while screaming curses at 680, the all-news station, where the first advice was to dump food from the fridge if power had been out a few hours. I observed to Mary and most of Elsfield Rd. that if the dumb so-called expert promulgating that advice actually lived in the real world of Southern Ontario, they would be throwing good food into the garbage on a regular basis because outages have become too common.
If power is out for part of the day at Burnt Point on the Trent north of Campbellford, we don't really notice.  I don't get as mad as at the current corrupt billing of Ontario Hydro where its so-called "smart" meters are so crazy, I have actually paid much more for electricity to our second cottage than for the main cottage. And the "bunkie' wasn't being used.
(I know the hydrocrats tried to distract us by renaming themselves Hydro One, but it's the same outfit which can't run an electric system without huge debts and absurd overbilling.)
My son Mark urged me to write about the obvious discrimination in what areas get power restored first. Last summer, when Toronto had the worst rain fall since the earth crust cooled, it seemed every last street got power before we did. They probably restored power to Martians living along their canals before us.
So this time lights from the junior school across the road shone into our chilly bedrooms, and the streets south and north of us even flaunted Christmas lights, while the press conferences told us vaguely that power had just been restored in some vast areas or maybe above the Arctic Circle.
Hydro had these maps you could see on your computers which never seemed to change. Of course most of us couldn't use our computers and smart phones were going kaput every second as batteries died. Yet Hydro urged us to report downed power lines via the Internet not the phone.
Do I really have to tell the bloody fools at Hydro, and the banks and Rogers which are charging for paper bills, that there are still a substantial number who don't use computers, particularly when there is no electricity, and compulsory use of the Internet should be against the law, particularly when there is a blackout, and telling people to use computers at such a time does not constitute "service" or "response".
Such emergencies should be golden opportunity for the forgotten medium of AM radio. Instead 680 recycled general info, for example that the premier was going to speak in careful generalities, and 1010 was in its usual talk-show hangup where callers have no info but just want to yammer so they can tell friends they actually inflicted their views on a few more people than just suffering neighbours.
What I would have found useful is a press conference for the first 10 minutes of every hour where experts - not Rob Ford telling us it wasn't an emergency - told us where power was about to be restored to specific streets. And they would group them into north, west, centre, east, etc, and you could listen and learn whether you were about to get the same electricity being enjoyed  by the richer neighbourhoods around you which apparently have more clout with the councillors.
There must have been plans. Surely they weren't fixing randomly. Since the electronic media give us info only in shallow bites where a whole minute is an eternity, the newspapers should have stopped firing people and started listing plans by the pages. They could have listed major intersections and told us what was happening there: Nothing? Maybe by Friday? Maybe by June?
Surely there were listings of needs besides the obvious ones of hospitals. There was an impromptu flavour to too much of it.  I know of  one nearby street that had power except for a few houses.. One man who had been told he would have to wait until the weekend stopped a Hydro crew heading to another street and persuaded them to fix his house first.
I realize a lot of constables, firefighters and Hydro crews spent long, dangerous and frigid stretches of what should have been an easy holiday time helping the rest of us. Good for them! God bless them, merry gentlemen (and ladies too.)  But I just wish more bureaucrats and politicians supposedly in charge realized that what the public yearned for was real information. Surely those battalions of PR flaks and officials whose main function now is to sanitize messages and block the routine flow of useful info could actually earn their keep and figure out how to get useful info to the public.
Instead we were told, for example,  that 115,000 homes were still without service, and it was believed that they were located somewhere on the north shore of Lake Ontario.
Useless as tits on a bull! Which is an expression dating from the earlier days where great expanses of the city without power for days because of rain and snow would have had the utility commissioners elected to supervise the supply firing bosses and telling the spokesmen that they sure as hell better have something to say more useful than it might get normal some time this century.
Never has this city had more ways to get real messages out. Never has this city and its power agencies and the provincial government failed so utterly in telling us exactly how long we would have to suffer.
For shame! If I was one of those men and women who had to work so long helping us and restoring power in such difficult conditions, my bosses would embarrass me.
If I was Canadian Tire, I would stock up on a lot more generators, and make them big ones. Maybe we should bring back Civil Defence. The first enemy we would guard against would be Hydro.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013



The Year of the Marathon has become one of THE Downing dates.
Every family has a special calendar warmly etched in their memories. It starts with Mom and Dad but then the kids no longer sluff events off and start circling dates in their growing nostalgia too.
The first time you saw her or him. The day you married. The day of the first real job. The day you moved to your house. When you found the cottage. The birthday of the first child, then the special days of Number Two and Number Three (who you never refer to that way if you're smart.)  The days they made you proud.
 Then the birthdays of the grandkids. And the great circle of life begins again.
And of course you mark the good years and, sadly, the disastrous ones.
As 2013 slips into the memory banks, which occasionally are more memory blanks, I remember the Marathon. Boston, of course, because it has always been THE race for me. And my oldest son who ran   in memory of my mother, which brings tears twice. And the bloody finish this year which is bludgeoned into the calendar  of the world too.
On April 15, two makeshift but deadly pressure-cooker bombs exploded there, killing three and maiming more than 250, many standing near my daughter-in-law Marie and grandson John Henry Francis waiting for my son to finish.
My family will not believe what I write now, because they claim I never miss a chance to tell a story again. My defence is I used to get paid to do exactly that. There was the time my son Mark wrote in a Toronto Sun feature on me that the family don't mind listening to the good old stories because they want to hear how they turn out this time. (I thought that hilarious but the editor wondered whether he should cut it.)
 So instead of waxing eloquent here in case you don't have the time right now,  I direct you to what I wrote about John Henry training for the race and then the awful time as he approached the finish line and the bombs. I think you will find them interesting whenever you get around to it, no matter what the family thinks.
 On Jan. 18, I wrote, nostalgically, a blog/column titled Marathon of a Vanished Life. And then, sadly, on April 20, Surviving The Bloody Marathon.
John Henry has decided to run again. He didn't finish Boston in the conventional way but he got the medal and organizers want him back. So he's training, when the 2013 race was supposed to have been his grand finale at 51 to all the marathons he has run, the proof of which is shown above
The Boston medal is in the centre, as unique as the unicorn on blue, one I can cherish since John Henry gave it to me.  Maybe in memory of the first great adventure when he and brother Brett and I walked further than a marathon in the second of the great charity ordeals that started it all in Toronto, Miles for Millions.
The "finisher" medals start in January, 2007, and include 30 events:  5 marathons, 7 half marathons,  5 century bike rides, 5 triathlons, including the Iron Vineman and the St. George Ironman.  The legendary iron endurances total 140.6 miles in one brutal day . That is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and then the 26.2 mile marathon.
As John Henry recalled the other day, with a touch of irritation,  only a few of those events were in ideal weather. You always hope that the weather is not going to be an added problem to the question of your endurance.. He did have ideal weather for his Vineman in Sonoma Valley, California, and that would have been his best overall time but he broke his big toe and that became a big problem over 140.6 miles. But he finished.
Then came the great crush of Boston. The weather was great. The cause of leukemia research was a grand one. His family was with him. It was going to be his best marathon until those bombs sent a wave of anguish and police to block his official finish. So he went to next street over from the chaos, because there was nothing he could do there, and painfully finished, then made his way, shivering, some distance to the hotel to be reunited with a terrified Marie.
Since January, 2007, John Henry had trained over a distance equal to most of the way around the world. That's 18,153 miles in swimming, running, walking and spin/biking. That  means in the last five years, his time out there pounding the streets while I'm shifting to a new position as a couch potato has averaged just over 65 miles a week.
And now he hopes to break four hours in Boston "if I don't injure anything else."  John Henry and his charity team have to buy their "bibs' for the Marathon, which is something now done around the world to keep out the phonies and pretend runners. If you would like to help, the link is

Wednesday, December 11, 2013



Many of you have seen a variation of this picture/cartoon which pokes fun at how a municipal  works crew appears to the passing taxpayers. One man working while 10 watch.
If you think it's exaggerated, take a longer look at work on our streets.
The picture is also ridiculing the tendency of all work to be bureaucratized into too many silly compartments with lofty titles, especially in government. The work of management consultants and those useless HR departments staffed by those who can't do real work.
The private sector is guilty too, but at least there the victims are those who pay too much for the product or the service. not the taxpayer, so the flabby corporations filled with lazy titles and lazier workers runs the risk of going broke.
I suggest to you that what this picture illustrates is disappearing from private companies because of tougher competition and will be assaulted everywhere soon by all the young men and women with good education and no real jobs who figure that if they have to endure a life not as prosperous as their parents, they'll be damned if municipal, provincial and federal workers continue their fatcat existence without angry condemnation and revenge at the polls.
Newspapers daily report on the obscene compensation for CEOs, but at least we don't have to use their companies or buy their stocks if we are offended.
Unfortunately, it is the exceptional week that doesn't have some similar scandal about stumblebum managers inflicting on us an enormous waste of taxes. Look at the latest concerning the provincial utility monstrosity called Ontario Power Generation. What do we do now? Pay the higher electricity bills and grimace and bear it?
It is astounding that the awful Liberal government still exists at Queen's Park, considering how inept it has been in spending any sum greater than one buck and in supervising outfits like the OPG.
And the Tory government in Ottawa seems to have forgotten it is a conservative government because it  has been too liberal in spending. Clinging to power is more important than being good stewards of our taxes.
Ontario residents have been upset for years about high power bills, especially those charges for servicing debt caused by past stupidities. The OPG  has been found guilty by the provincial auditor-general of driving up the prices of electricity through, and I quote the National Post lead para, "rampant nepotism, high labour costs and one of the province's most generous public-sector pension plans."
That the respected provincial watchdog would come to that conclusion is no surprise. In fact, I would be amazed if she didn't. But what really shocks, and after five decades of watching governments as a journalist I am not easily shocked, is the ugly reality that 62% of the utility staff make more than $100,000 annually. (I added annually just in case some thought such a sum would be for two years.)
This is happening in a province of record unemployment. I don't care what the official estimate of jobless is. I include all the people who have given up looking for work, all those who don't have real work, all the work that is really part-time, all the kids being screwed by companies who don't pay them as interns, all the people who would like to retire but can't afford to, and all those who hate their jobs but can't find a better one.......
Many would settle for half the salary of these OPG fatties.
The great defence, supposedly, of the huge salaries paid to CEOs of public and private companies and agencies is that you have to pay them that much to keep them. Why? When you consider all the talent sloshing around every country, it is just plain silly to pretend that you have to overpay to keep some guy just so he can lose hundreds of millions in gold mines, buy the wrong helicopters for medical evacuation, or not save a phone company, to name just three of the recent examples.
There there are the giant public service unions who say it is important to pay handsomely -  or should that be pay ugly - or the men and women will just go and work in the private sector. Oh really? You mean where there are mass firings and layoffs 365 days a year.
Union membership has been shrinking in the private sector. The only reason it hasn't in the public sector, where obese unions like CUPE seduce our taxes from politicians, is the pols never act like it's their own money.
Consider after all the incredible crap that Rob Ford has pulled that he still has a large minority of support. In a world where taxpayers were content, 125% of them would like to see him being chased by police dogs through Nathan Phillips Square.
Ford is a champ of tax cuts. That is such a rare thing these days that he could be spaced out on every strange substance in the world and he would still have some support.
What a terrible indictment of urban politics today!
Too many people are furious at their politicians at every level. They are cynical about their every move. Mistrust in government has become an epidemic. No, make that the Black Plague of the 21 century that will destroy more politicians and more people and more belief in common sense democracy than any great pestilence that decimated London or decimated the world with Spanish fly.
It's so bad that in a debate in support of the famous Churchillian phrase about democracy being the worst form of government save for all the others, victory would not be certain for Winston's side.

Saturday, December 7, 2013



In four fascinating trips to the South Africa of contrast and contradiction, hatred and hope, murder and mystery, I watched the jail walls of apartheid crumble as the terrorist became the saint.
The man who forgave even those who stole his life
This deserved outpouring of grief over Nelson Mandela dwells more on myth than man.
But underneath it, when you separate cunning - he could have given lessons to Machiavelli - from a compassion that could make you weep,  you end up confronting the eternal question that baffles the world.
When does the menacing revolutionary become the praised freedom fighter?
I remember wandering through the cooking fire smog in 1987 in sprawling Soweto  - it's not an exotic name but  SOuthWEstTOwnship - one notorious black home for the feared African National Congress, and listening to endless debates among the shacks about whether the ANC was beating racism and what would happen next to the Mandela who had been jailed for more than a generation
The reality had not yet been wiped by success. Mandela, tribal royalty, had become the lawyer and charismatic leader who also had been, the court was told before he was shipped to the island quarry, a special saboteur controlling an arsenal of 210,000 grenades, 48,000 mines and 50 tons of explosives.
Before Mandela became Mandiba, father of his country, he never denied founding and leading an armed wing of the ANC that blew up people. He never disowned violent resistance. Close to Cuba not to Gandh. He didn't think nonviolent disobedience worked. By Canadian law, still a terrorist.
Every great revolution has been born in blood, but the wonder here, the miracle that silenced a world  arsenal of redneck and savage right wing critics, is that more blood flowed and more hatred festered  before the fight against apartheid was won, than afterwards, thanks to the wisdom of Mandela that saw revenge would not be sweet.
 But they still cry in that beloved country. There is actually more crime than under apartheid,  even though more blacks are killed on a percentage basis than whites in their gated communities.
If only Mandela's tolerance could be honoured by a new revolution by all against routine corruption in government and the danger on the streets. Back when I made such lists, before medicare tethered me to Canada, it was one place I would have loved to live, up there with the quiet paradises.
But not now that a fifth of the whites have left and the rest have retreated to suburban ghettos. Although, according to the respected Economist, it remains the biggest and by far the most sophisticated economy on the continent.
The country has always been pinned under the media microscope. There have been countries with which newspapers were preoccupied. Before the latest invasions ruined the expression, Afghanistanism was a joke, meaning that on quiet days you dashed off another editorial on Afghanistan because it sounded important even though few knew where it was, and fewer cared.
That was never true about the beautiful home of diamonds, gold and the great park. It  has fascinated and baffled since the Boer War made a hero out of Churchill. Table Mountain was pictured in every geography text. I had to visit it, My son Brett's picture looks down from its cable car house to Cape Town, an urban jewel on every must-see list. Tales of Zulu battles and explorers captured the imagination of every boy.
I found on my first trip as Sun Editor in 1986 that it was not just another hit for the media. I arrived in JoBurg at a conference on the ANC struggle to pry open the fists of the Afrikaners. I felt  like a deer in the headlights because all around were media elite mixed with heroes of the struggle. At my front table, I was the only one who hadn't written a few books, and media queen Katharine Graham of the Post was in her accustomed position.
Yet I remember more what went on outside. The Editor of the Star, the largest newspaper, which was the sponsor, assigned me a handsome, tailored  man, Sam Mabe, as my guide to the Soweto where he had lived with eight brothers in a shed before he escaped as a reporter. His brothers didn't.
Mabe made sour common sense, bitter yet realistic and hopeful. He and all the other young blacks who had bucked the ANC and got an education - that was said to be siding with whitey - were the future. No, make that the other blacks because Mabe was murdered, and the police didn't even nvestigate because they said he had been fooling around and a husband got him.
The Mabe who escorted Mary and me talked endlessly about his PTA and whether Montessori would work for his three sons. He talked fondly of his wife. Now he is another hero of his country because they know he was killed by whites who worried about having too many uppity blacks.
Mabe showed us the Mandela home, which was more of a fortress than mansion because of the improvements his wife Winnie had made. Reports said she had spent $65,000 just on windows. Probably just Afrikan propaganda but it did stand out in a suburb the size of Etobicoke where two families often shared a hut the size of a garden shed,
There were squatters beside outhouses. But once again, the plague of South Africa, the obvious huge gaps in incomes. There were streets where no one had work, then just around the corner ,a nice house owned by a millionaire, complete with witchdoctor strutting by looking for customers.
Mabe demonstrated the gulf between words and actions that poisoned their politics. We talked by the hour. He was reasonable and agreeable. Yet the next day at the conference, it was angry rhetoric that pleased his watching comrades at the back, and would have pleased Marx too.
We didn't talk much about that, or about the yawning gulf between countless poor blacks and the fewer richer whites, at the reception in the house rented by the Star for its Editor where its size and servants easily handled several hundred guests in a luxurious garden tended by an illegal immigrant..
What we did discuss was Mandela's stubborn refusal to deal with President P.W. Botha two years earlier to win release from a "life" sentence. An action that  symbolized his party refusing to co-operate on anything the government did, even in education and local government.  A moderate cabinet minister, Stoffel Van der Merwe, explained to me that it just didn't suit the ANC's purpose. Instead it was intimidation, bombings and rebellion, with "necklacing" tossed  in, where blacks said to be traitors had tires jammed around their neck and burned.
The government was trying, because of universal newspaper condemnation, to build democracy from black councils up, but the ANC spread such terror, some councils couldn't get a quorum. In the last election in Soweto before my visits, the ANC so frightened those wanting simply to vote that the turnout was only 4%. We were taken at night to the first new business in the township, a rudimentary night club. We were the only whites. It was surrounded by a high metal fence, huge spotlights drenched every inch outside, armed guards paced everywhere, and the atmosphere reminded me of a prison.
I talked to B.Z. Ndlazi,  black mayor of Mamelodia, a prosperous alternative to Soweto, He said things were getting better and he was getting his citizens to work with government. Blacks replied hat  those were lies and he was a stupid, crooked puppet. So his house had been burned down twice - he joked he no longer bought furniture - and the family's two cars had been blown up. The employee whom he assigned to guide me had had his house fire bombed twice because he dared to have the civic job.
So terror blanketed the country just a few years before Mandela and the ANC won.  In Durban, an accountant said it was his Christian duty to get kids to go to school despite the national boycott by the ANC that left a generation uneducated.  He was suspect because he was from India and classed as coloured. He told me he would continue to do this work even though sugar was dumped twice in his car's gas, tires were slashed twice, and it was only because of a phoned anonymous warning that he wasn't blown up in the local grocery store.
It didn't start well when Mandela was freed in 1990 when the new president, F.W. de Klerk, became statesman enough to work out an"understanding" with him.
When he arrived in April, 1991, in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, the world wanted a progress report  from the deputy ANC leader. He was the keynote speaker at the 40th International Press Institute assembly. The IPI is one of the world's oldest, largest and most respected press institutions fighting for freedoms of speech and the press.
He was very much the star, even though other speakers included Robert McNamara, the former  U.S. Secretary of Defense. Famous journalists queued for a handshake. The magic of Mandela was in full majesty.
He played hooky from the adulation to visit Ryoanji Temple with its celebrated rock garden, a walled rectangle of white gravel and 15 carefully positioned rocks. For 500 years people have come  to meditate.
I was strolling the elevated walkway, trying to experience the peace of the centuries, when a man coming the other way, also looking to the side, collided head on with m. Hard! I grabbed this man as he was falling off, pulled him back, found out then  I was holding Mandela, and said "migawd I just wiped out the guest speaker." A shock but at least we didn't bruise or break or bleed.
 He then was 73, but hardly frail.  I am a big 6' 2" but he seemed taller. He was as hard as the rocks that he had to crush for most of his 27 years in prison after he had been a heavweight boxer.
I was mortified. He gave that big warm smile, waved off my apology saying it was his fault, and ignored his furious bodyguards. He walked on, I guess in another attempt to find a little peace, with  guards still trailing and glaring.
The buffet lunch was in one of those tailored Japanese gardens which seem borrowed from Heaven.  When Mandela queued for food, I got in behind, figuring there was no need for an introduction. We stood under a tree and talked and ate, surrounded by irritated guards.
I raised a painful subject since his wife was going on trial the next day and I wondered just what he was doing in Japan at the same time. "We have good lawyers," he said quietly. I pushed a little, because rumour already said that  the passion had died and he was going to divorce Winnie, an awful woman who slept around and had her gang kill a youth who had annoyed her. She was as nasty as he was nice
He gently steered back to safer grounds, like food,. He confessed that such buffets never had his favourite food, a maize or corn porridge that he had loved since he was a baby..
Then the crowd flooded in, and he was surrounded until that speech, which was an explanation and defence of the ANC. No apologies for the armed struggle which occasionally distressed even stout supporters.
 I  recall his flat delivery when I look at the copy I have kept. Few lines are underlined, there are no notations about oratory or applause interuptions. But who would applaud a recitation of the terrible toll of  apartheid.
They were still "passing through extremely troubled times" because of racial violence. He said that because of the "social distance apartheid has created between black and white, it seemed most whites were oblivious to the horror." He estimated that 600 people had died in the first three months of that year and 2,900 had died in 1990 "although most white South Africans are unaware of these shocking figures."
Mandela asked for "no favours from the worldwide fraternity of newspeople," and pledged that the ANC was "not going to withdraw from the cut and thrust of politics. We have the confidence that we can engage any of our critics on the strength of our record."
Of course they would, and they won the election just two years later as a result.
An old journalism trick is to figure out how a speaker is going to leave and just stand by that door. So I did. As Mandela swept regally out in the centre of a posse, he stopped and asked "what did you think of my speech, Canadian- who-hits-so-hard?" Few leaders ever do that, but Mandela was always different.
 I said I had been disappointed, that I expected to hear him answer the wide-spread criticism that he hadn't met with the Zulu chief minister,  Buthelezi,  even though the Inkatha party could be a big player   in any new government.. Jealousy between major tribes?  "I talk to him all the time," he said. No one knows that, I said. "We talk on the phone," he said, which was news to right-wingers who had been urging this in editorials around the world.
Picking my words carefully, because this was a man of steel used to millions parsing every phrase, I said it was unfortunate he hadn't written such a major speech. "How do  you know I didn't," he said?  Because you didn't know when you got to the end,  I said. You turned the page and stopped because there wasn't anything else. He gave a rueful smile and a shrug. The man from solitary with endless time was now too busyl
Mandela continued to fascinate the media. Naturally when the IPI met in Cape Town in 1994 just after he became president, we asked him back.
Another star at the conference was Donald Woods, the white editor who was the international hero of the hit movie Cry Freedom about his friendship with black martyr Steve Bilko. It was his first time back since he fled the country in a famous escape.
 I took him to lunch to get his opinion on just how dangerous the country was now that the ANC had won and its terrorism could be stopped. Woods said he urged his BBC crew filming his visit to take him back to Cape Town before sunset because he figured he would be killed in the dark if he was caught in the country. . "The blacks would kill me before they found out I was Donald Woods and the Boers would kill me if they found out I was Donald Woods."
This speech wasn't  memorable, yet Mandela was mobbed as he left by those pushing to get closer to their Mandiba. As he passed this time,  he looked curiously at me and nodded. Mary was impressed but I doubt he had remembered.
He and four burly guards jumped into the big car and just sat there as the driver ground the starter again and again. The crowd surrounded the stalled car. Nothing. So Mandela jumped out, laughing, and found another car.
Just a tiny incident, yet it symbolized  his determination to smile past every hurdle and not just sit there, whether it was a minor problem or the awful memories of being mired in a sadistic past. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013



Despite its home sprawling along a costly stretch of a major street, there is almost a hush around giant St. Paul's Bloor Street, which some call our national cathedral.
 It has an aura of greatness and history.
 A suitable setting for a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for William "Bill" Henri Stevenson who reported with insight, dash and diligence on the shadows of espionage and the famous on the world stage, from the royalty of throne, politics and theatre to cruel dictators.
Inside the huge Gothic cave that seats more than 2,000, the flags and banners above in the gloom, and the marble plaques on the wall of past Toronto "worthies." signal that this is our colonial answer to the Abbey of royalty in London.
Outside is the "cross of sacrifice" monument of The Queen's Own Rifles because this is the mother church of the regiment with a name from past wars.
The Empire still lives within these soaring walls and arches. One of its magnificent voices thunders from the famous century-old pipe organ. The "new" church is also a century old, with the first two "low" Anglican churches that began in Toronto's baby days joined like stone Siamese twins. They are the creations of John Howard, of High Park, and Edward Lennox, of old City Hall and the Casa Loma built by a St. Paul's parishioner.
Yet we come not to remember the rich who could fund a regiment for the War To End All Wars but a man who lived such a rich life in war and peace that no one knows all his stories, just the ones he chose to share in best-sellers and in yeoman's service as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto media.
The service follows a 500-year-old tradition in the chapel under the Maple Leaf and Union Jack. There are only about 100 here, because Bill was 89, an age when you have outlived friends and colleagues, but not your fame. Yet there are those in the modest gathering who have won a Nobel, married into the Supreme Court, been a major councillor, and have been midwife to famous books.
We begin, naturally, with the Royal Naval Hymn, written in 1860 (after the first St. Paul's was built here in 1842) a prayer in music based on Psalm 107 that is uttered by all who love and fear the sea.
"Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee
 "For those in peril on the sea!"
Bill was 17 when he became a pilot in the Royal Navy. The appeal of those repeated lines made this his favourite hymn, and when he sang, he remembered when his comrades in arms burned below him in the wreckage of  Spitfires in the cold Channel, when all that stood between England and Hitler's deadly insanities were that Channel, the ringing words of Churchill, and the sacrifice of kid pilots.
We sing quietly, even the mighty organ is muted. Then friends and family speak, but their words are swallowed in the expanses.
There is some Kipling, of course, because we are honouring a man whom Kipling would have treasured. His wonderful lines may be corny to some because they don't understand his era. Yet many of us this afternoon can recite those lines even if we can't quite hear them.
"...walk with kings, nor lose the common touch..." could have written about Bill.
He did walk with kings and just about everyone of note for several decades because he had the curiousity and even the impertinence of the great journalists. He covered the greats. He was always surprising with an anecdote about that. Like the time he told me about being a kid wandering East London looking for the orchestra conductor whom he thought was great. He knocked on the door. A pretty 16-year-old girl answered and was floored when Bill said he was really there for her father. After all, Dame Vera Lynn, the Sweetheart of the Forces, one of the most distinctive voices of war, was already famous because she had started performing at 7.
Somewhere, I suspect, Bill right now is humming We'll Meet Again, her anthem of hope, probably encouraged by another veteran of two wars, Peter Worthington, his old friend.  That is if they have stopped yarning.
When Bill wandered the world as foreign correspondent, manoeuvring around officials who hated the free press as much as they feared their "beloved" leaders, he kept bumping into the famous, literally.
He told me that when he was on the Great Wall filming some official function as the first western reporter inside Communist China, he was helping his CBC camerman back up to get a long shot. Bill kept bumping into someone and finally, exasperated, he swore and whirled  to confront a startled Mao.
Bill's wife Monika has a variation, which happens with a writer with 70 years of anecdotes stored in his head and in the study and attic of their lovely big house. Her story has a figure continually blocking the camera shot and when Bill remonstrated loudly the man turned and it was Mao.
 The confrontation ended with polite bows, because Bill could be a diplomat as a correspondent. He needed to be to arrange for the Chinese to release Andy Mackenzie, a Canadian squadron leader who they had pretended was dead and not a prisoner there. He rewarded them in his Page 1 Star story by praising their help.
He persuaded Tito, the boss of Yugoslavia, to help hundreds of former immigrants from his country to return to Canada even though Stalin had had their passports confiscated.
Bill spent years with King Bhumibol of Thailand coaching him with his memoirs and later writing one of his 20 books about the experience. His tale of the "revolutionary king" was controversial, which was nothing new when it came to the torrents of words from his typewriter. Those words were translated into many languages, for example his long interview with Ho Chi Minh in the middle of that war  has been translated into Vietnamese and is on the school curriculum there.
At one point, as Toronto Sun Editor, I hadn't heard from Bill for some time even though he graced our pages for about a decade. When I tracked him to the royal suite in the International Hotel in Bangkok, he explained he hadn't written because he had been advising the king about how he should handle a "difficulty" with the army, an incident reported widely. He didn't think it appropriate to comment in print when he had played such a role. We settled for him writing in general terms which didn't praise what the king had done.
The last words of remembrance this day come from Monika. She speaks in a clear and firm voice, just what  you would expect when she had been an award-winning TV producer with 60 Minutes. Her words do not float away.
She emphasizes "the most important influence in Bill's life, (the) one that made him such an extraordinary human being. That influence was his experience as a naval pilot during WWII when he saw most of his comrades killed. When a pilot died there was nothing to do but drink to his memory and get on with the job." Bill had written, she said, that this drove him 'to justify being alive.  I swore to the memory of lost comrades.' She said proudly that Bill "kept that oath. It became part of his psyche and guided his life and work - guided it when he took on the most dangerous missions - something he never talked about, not even to me, because he never broke his personal secrecy oath."
Monika's description of how Bill had been marked by war  returned me to my first years as a Telegram reporter, when I was surrounded by men who had been to war. There was a steely determination to them. They had hearts of fire
Monika tells a war story I have never heard, a true thriller that would make a book and movie better than the last fiction written by Bill's friend and diving buddy, Ian Fleming. She said "Bill singlehandedly blew up a ship of high level Nazis trying to escape to South America just after WWII ended. The details are hair raising. No one expected him to survive."
Monika only knew because Sir William Stephenson, the Winnipeg millionaire who was the espionage spymaster genius behind the Allied victory, told her. There is no mention in Bill's huge bestseller, A Man Called Intrepid, which became the movie with David Niven playing Sir William. ( I blogged about it on Nov. 10, 2012.)
She had asked Intrepid about an elite private honour that he had given Bill. He replied that it hadn't been awarded for the reason she thought. It had to do with Bill donning the SCUBA gear that was developed in World War Two (but was not yet perfected) to dive to fasten a limpet mine to the hull of the ship commandered by the Nazis..
There is some stirring along the pews. It is news to us, and almost to Monika.
The Second Lesson is read by Linda Maybarduk-Alguire who broke down as she tried to give memories after the scripture. Once she had danced with Rudolph Nureyev and later dined with the Stevensons in their lovely Roxborough home at a dinner party I have never forgotten.
The Stevensons, Mary and me, and the Thai ambassador to Canada, watched Nureyev in The King and I, the musical  about the king when Thailand was Siam. Then Nureyev came back to Rosedale for dinner.
I asked Bill how he became friends with the famous egotist  who had once been the world's leading ballet star. He said cryptically that he had helped him defect from the Bolshoi and the Soviet Union. (Monika knows no details. )
Bill then suggested I pretend I had something to do with books because Nureyev was furious with his Sun review.
Nureyev held court, talking easily about the greats. There was a knock, and since everyone was busy, I answered and found Liona Boyd, the noted guitarist who was dating Prime Minister Trudeau. She told me she had been at a Rolling Stones concert at the Ex and invited Mick Jagger   for dinner too. (She uses his tropical retreat.)
Jagger never showed. Turned out when his limousine drove up, he demanded to know who was using the limousine already there.When he was told it was Nureyev, he cursed and was driven away.
I never knew why the singer hated the dancer. So I asked Maybarduk-Alguire at the reception after the funeral. Her explanation was that the two had been lovers, and she knew that because once at an exclusive Parisian club, she had watched them in a lengthy close encounter..
Just another dinner at the home of Bill and Monika where once, she said, Nurevey had summonsed by phone most of the Kirov Company who showed up later in the evening after flying in.
Bill was so used to the intricacies of the shadow world, of agents, Enigma, ciphers, and deadly secrets, that he seemed to talk in code. If he shared, a sparse anecdote might emerge in dribbles.
Some of this grew from that time of slogans like "loose lips sink ships." when gossip could kill. Later there were the doubters, and problems he blamed on stolid bureaucracy and surveillance by the CIA, for example when he and Monika were writing about war prisoners, whether POWs or MIAs, that the Americans left behind in Vietnam. In their book, they talk about the official pressures and thank those, including me, who weren't intimidated.
 His friends and some editors thought they were paranoid, except after the most recent revelations, it is obvious they would be early targets of that massive American electronic spying.
Bill called one hot summer weekend to invite Mary and me to a barbecue but I begged off. I just wanted to go to the cottage and drink and swim. He arrived in the office Monday to say I missed a grand affair but he couldn't tell me on the phone. Ross Perot, the billionaire that President Reagan had appointed to look into the POW question, had flown in on his private jet and told the Stevensons that just two days before, he had briefed President Reagan in the Oval Office. Only Colin Poewell was present, yet the president pulled file cards from his pocket and read his greeting to Perot and comments on the weather and the Rose Garden.
You're telling me that the president is wiped out by Alzheimer's, I asked? Bill said Perot was convinced.  A huge world scoop that Bill never wrote, because who would believe us. Now, because of what followed afterwards, it is probable that even before his second term ended, the president was burdened, if not  wiped out, by that dread aging of his memory. His aides and Nancy were running the country, just like the wife had acted for Woodrow Wilson.
And now we also realize it is probable that the Stevensons were being wire tapped in Toronto because of what they were researching about the U.S. military. Ironically, Bill was better connected to more spies than most of the snoopers.
For example, he was an ardent defender of Israel. He was able to call anyone at any time, from the Mossad commander to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, he had written  90 Minutes at Entebbe detailing how the PM's brother, Yonatan, became a national hero as the only Israeli who died in the raid. He wrote how the PM is a wounded veteran of several special forces operations.
 Once when Bill was being given the lengthy difficult interview that anyone different gets entering Israel, he brought it all to a sudden halt when he noticed the security official had the Entebbe book open on his counter. He thumped his picture on the back cover. No wonder he was able to produce that best-seller so quickly that the entire world  noticed, including, again,  the New York Times.
After the funeral, I didn't forget that mystery of Bill blowing up Nazis. Few would! I probe Monika for details. What date? Where? Was it a Greek ship? Whose waters was it in? How many Nazis? How many died? How did Sir William and Bill find out? I am not alone in my questions since a noted professor and historian, Irving Abella, is intrigued too and joins in. There are no details.
There is a familiar verse from Timothy in the funeral program. "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave,  and the Lord have taken away."
Bill has not carried anything away, but he has left behind secrets, some known to few even inside the worlds of intelligence. And there, in the official intelligence establishments, there are hot jealousies over success because there are so many failures. There are firestorms over what is reality and what is myth. Blowing up that ship in the finest James Bond tradition is just one mystery that I hope is fleshed out. I wonder if even Fleming knew about it, whether it came up after the day's dive by the two experts off of Jamaica's north shore, when the neighbour, Noel Coward, came over because, as he had revealed to the world in the early 1970s, through Bill naturally, Fleming had trained him as a spy.
As this sad day ends, there is a solemn moment, a return after seven decades to the mournful custom that Bill and other survivors followed after every dogfight. They drank a fiery shot of British navy rum to the memory of dead comrades.
Monika asks me to give this toast. I keep it simple. It is not a moment for eloquence because none is needed in such a tradition. You select words with care when you honour a word warrior.
 I joined the RCAF reserve when Korea flared because I thought, as in Revelation,  that it was always going to be war and rumours of war. Just in case, I wanted to be in planes, not trenches. And here I am in 2013, 60 years later, from the lowest rank, honouring a man who was being shot at when I still was playing tag.
As Tennyson wrote, "the old order passeth."

Sunday, December 1, 2013



It was a marvelous death notice in the Toronto Star, which didn't make up for the dismal fact that Canada's largest newspaper couldn't be bothered running an obituary on a retired employee that any Editor would be honoured to have as a key in the stalwart team you need to actually cover the news.
Ken MacGray had 25 years of service in a variety of Star jobs, from smart City Hall bureau chief and reporter to various posts inside as an editor. But not a breath about him in the news pages that once were as much a part of him as his arteries.
News is as slippery and cantankerous and difficult as the men and women who cover it. And their bosses often fail at second thoughts about what actually went on.
Ken could regard "his" Star with exasperation rather than the usual loyalty or even affection.  He was a fierce competitor but he would shake his head as he confided even to the opposition what dumb thing his colleagues and bosses had done now. Then he would give a wintery chuckle.
But fortunately, his faithful Martha, and Sara and David, have given us a nice taste of the renaissance man in their death notice.
It began like one of the Horatio Alger stories of old, with an air of tough times wafting around the words.
"Born in the vicinity of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Raised in an orphanage by an Anglican priest and his own bootstraps. Worked from childhood selling newspapers on trains, delivering groceries by bicycle, driving a fish truck and at any job he could get."
It was a long death notice but MacGray had such a busy life as sort of an all-purpose performer and leader, whether you were talking about cooking "his" spiced beef, or sailing, or just fixing the bloody screen door, that there were all sorts of accomplishments that just didn't make the cut.,
Plus many stories.
I recall Ken being part of the Toronto group that went to Amsterdam in 1974 at the official twinning of the Dutch city with Toronto. Ken started to chafe at all the ceremonial stuff devoid of real news and ended up one night in the room of Karl Jaffary, a bright alderman who didn't much care for all the flimflammery either.
Much drinking took place and there was a little crowd as a result. Ken then roused himself, saying he had spent too much time in the army and as a Spitfire pilot in Holland during World War Two and it was time to go home to Martha. He didn't bother telling the Star.
So he flew home with most of his luggage and was stricken with feet so badly swollen that he hobbled through Pearson in his socks. Meanwhile, back in Holland, the usually dapper brigadier-general who ran the Toronto Historical Board, J. A. McGinnis, was sloshing around in black Oxfords that kept falling off his feet because they were two sizes too large.
Yes, you guessed it, an accidental switch of shoes. But Ken, being Ken, probably didn't apologize that much to the "silly bugger."
As any reporter/editor/alleged journalist who has worked for a few years on a busy newspaper will assure you, every tomorrow is interesting because without any preamble you could be in England or the courts or working a double shift.
And Ken was a veteran of such surprises after all his years in Thunder Bay, Kitchener, and the monolithic Star.
 One quiet period, the MacGays decided to have Shirley and David Crombie for a barbecue at their Etobicoke home. And Mary and I were invited too, because we three couples got along and we all could relax and there would be no nervous prattle by strangers in the presence of the popular mayor.
I arrived to be told there was a hostage taking and Ken was the editor running the desk that night and couldn't get away. Ken cared about meat. So he phoned with instructions about where the spices were and how long to cook per side and with a gentle hint that he would appreciate it if as a political columnist I didn't use the time at his house for an exclusive interview with the mayor.
 But he was coming, he said.
So I lit the barbecue. And we waited. And we waited. So then I cooked. And we ate. And we waited.
The Crombies left at 2 a.m. and said that Martha and Ken gave a great dinner and it was too bad that Ken never got to it.
Sadly, he won't get to another of his marvelous Christmas parties where he produced a great spiced roast bought at some secret butcher somewhere in Bloor West Village and we all crowded together and told great yarns about scoops that might have been.
Martha had a tattered copy of Ken's recipe at the funeral parlour. And Mary and I and others made copies. And I will be cooking it this Christmas, while trying to ignore that sepulchral whisper than I am doing it all wrong.. Trouble is, Ken always did it right!



I haven't thought of Billy McGuire, the scamp from the famous police desk of the Toronto Telegram, for years. Nor the story that he didn't write which would have sent shock waves through politics if it hadn't shredded the Tely first.
McGuire, a long-time-yarner at the London Free Press, died the other day. His obit and his friends recall his stories, his good humour and his National Newspaper Award in 1983. Hinted at but not dwelled on, because you don't betray the recently departed, is that McGuire did a lot of things with gusto, from smoking to drinking to working to enjoying life.
When Bill and I were the kids at the Tely, we had a certain bonding because we worried a trifle about how we stood with the laconic veterans, grizzled pros and preening hot shots around us. After all, Doug Creighton, the king of that police desk, would ascend to founding a great newspaper chain. Others, including Howard Rutsey, were like Jocko Thomas of the Star where when you listened to them, all the seamy and bloody stuff of kidnappings, murders and grisly crimes, plus a rapport with the cops, just oozed out of every sentence.
One day McGuire told me that he got a tip from some rounder about a floating crap game for big shooters which wandered around the west end after you were collected in a Chinese restaurant near Spadina and College late in the evening and driven around while blindfolded.
McGuire said he was going to infiltrate the game. It took some time to persuade the City Desk to let him change shifts and then approve this foray into the underbelly
After all, the desk was run with a big fist by the formidable Art Cole who viewed the excesses of McGuire and other blithe spirits who pretended to be bossed by him with a mix of blazing anger and a contempt that could be felt a block away.
However, if you hung in long enough, you also dug down to the resignation that only a World War Two war photog could have, that this was the way life really was, and you needed all the energies that only real characters could bring you for the war with the Star where the Globe was an occasional snooty observer.
So McGuire set off for Spadina and College to sit nursing a coffee wishing it was a beer until he made contact with a seedy looking character. After a strained conversation where McGuire made it plain he wanted to gamble, he was taken outside, blindfolded and driven around and around, although he thought they were just going up and down the same streets.
They went to an old building, which he couldn't see distinctly in the night, and then into a big room where craps was being played without much talk. McGuire hung at the edge of the circle until he got acclimatized and then pushed in.
And this is what happened, as he told me an hour or so later when I waited in the old Tely newsroom with the afternoon reporters to hear his great scoop.
He got his wallet out and looked around at the others, and then he looked across the dice into the face of Metro Chairman Frederick Goldwyn Gardiner, Q.C. , now just the name of the workhorse expressway, but then the most powerful municipal politician in the land as well as being such a power in the Conservative party that he was the key to John Robarts becoming premier in 1961 rather than Kelso Roberts. (I know, I wrote Kelso's memoirs.)
Oh yes, Big Daddy, or Bullmoose, or all the other things we called the formidable leader to his back, but never to his face, was also a member of the police comission, as he was of any other body of importance in the Great Toronto Area.
McGuire took one strained look and then got the hell out of there. And that was that.
I was too junior then, not yet on the track to be an Assistant City Editor, to know what happened after McGuire wrote his memo  or what exactly was said after he talked  to Cole. And, of course, the sighting of Gardiner would then be reported up to J. Douglas MacFarlane, the legendary Managing Editor, and then, of course, up to the publisher, Big John Bassett.
Three tough guys at the controls of the most important Conservative paper in the city, for that matter as important in Ottawa as the Globe arrogantly pretends to be today. Three guys who could so lash you with words that burly men would shake and later cry. Three guys tempered in war who were no
strangers to carousing and gambling in the middle of the night themselves.
I have been thinking of such anecdotes a lot lately because of the Star, and other media, being so preoccupied with huge coverage of Rob Ford's stupid antics, familiarity with banned substances and even, if  you can imagine, booze. As a former mayor whispered quietly to me the other day, "Heavens, there is apparently drinking in the mayor's office these days."
I wrote a blog/column  on Nov. 15 about the rogues we have had in the mayor's office since 1834. No need to repeat it. Unlike the Star, I don't believe in saying the same thing ten thousand times.
Yet there is another untold story about Gardiner that shows Toronto's leaders haven't always been candidates for sainthood or WCTU veneration.
One hot summer in the early 1960s, the Metro licensing commission decided to have a formal hearing into whether two restaurants near Jarvis and Dundas, Norm's Grill and the Spot One, should lose their licences because of all the criminal activity there.
Naturally Gardiner was a commission member. The first morning, a prostitute gave herself a shot in the washroom reserved for women aldermen and then collapsed during testifying in the committee room beside the old council chamber. Gardiner became emotional about the poor woman's plight, ordered a halt to proceedings, and shipped her to a hospital via his limousine and driver.
The noon edition of the Tely headlined my story where I described every convulsion and tear drop. The Star story, inside, by a reporter being punished for being too much of an old fart in Ottawa, didn't mention her but said instead that lawyers argued the hearing was unconstitutional.
In the next edition, the Star scalped my story three times, running the three versions in one hilarious stream, while I reported more on the poor girl who had become addicted in the restaurants under review.
I had a great run for days, even dubbing the area the "Sin Strip." The Star always kept screwing up. One night, Gardiner decided to tour the "Sin Strip" himself. So he had his usual bowl of pea soup at the National Club along with a good steam and too many scotches, and off he went to the Spot One.
The horrified patrons looked up to see the most powerful politician around staggering in the front door. They went out the back, and when they couldn't all make it, went up over the tables and chairs around Big Daddy. He grabbed the last woman by the arm, said with tears that he just wanted to be friends, and presented her with proof, the big gold serpent ring that he always wore that had jewels for eyes. She, not spaced out enough to be stupid, ran away clutching her prize.
Of course some stoolie trying to build up brownie points reported this to the cop who ran him, and every possible cop went searching for the prostitute and the ring.
The next morning, Gardiner showed up his office with quite a hangover. The press knew the office well because, conveniently, we shared an air vent. Apparently there was nothing on his desk but a sealed envelope. And inside was the valuable ring.
All these tidbits of info were shared  by various sources trying to curry favour with the Tely City Hall bureau which I say modestly was the stuff of legend. We were led by Ray Hill and Bob MacDonald. Hill was a wonderful writer who didn't worry much about facts. MacDonald was one of the toughest reporters I ever worked with. This was before he stopped drinking so he didn't care much about facts either, or what anyone thought about anything.
They terrorized City Hall, and by that I include police and TTC headquarters, because their sources were legendary. But in those days, even that terrible tandem never dreamed that the Tely, which craved exclusives, would write about the off-hour escapades of a giant leader who combined a ferocious intellect and huge ego with a rascal's knowledge of reporters and the finer enjoyments of illegal life.
What a man! He would have dismissed the disaster of Ford and the breast-beating of the Star with a curl of the lip and a few cutting remarks. And then moved on to really running things.
He was beyond intimidation. I asked him one day, while we were standing beside each other at urinals, why his phone number was still listed in the book. "Young man," he glowered, "I know more swear words that any bastard who dares call me at 3 a.m."
Gardiner started the giant Metro government with just two employees, a faithful secretary and an accountant, Johnny MacDonald, who lived across the street from me. After a busy day doing such things as borrowing $100 million to keep Metro afloat, he would summonse MacDonald and be driven every evening to inspect Metro construction projects.
Those were the days, my friends, when Gardiner and a few others built the basic infrastructure of the huge city and, afterwards, maybe a few drinks, and some gambling, which didn't always happen in the posh clubs. They weren't saints, just politicians that made things work better than the present mess spawned by our dysfunctional council.
Come to think of it, throw in Queen's Park and Ottawa too!