Twenty Eight

When I was in my twenty-eighth year, in March 1971, I became the first newsman to tell the radio listeners of northern British Columbia that Canada’s 51-year-old bachelor prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had secretly married 22-year-old Margaret Sinclair, the daughter of a former federal fisheries minister. 

In the process, I committed a no-no. I cut into Ernest Manning’s popular Back to the Bible evangelical broadcast to read the wedding bulletin. That bible program, the station owner had decreed, was never to be interrupted. Not even if the Vancouver Canucks won the Stanley Cup. Not even if a tsunami engulfed Vancouver Island. Not even if a forest fire destroyed all of northern BC’s pulp mills. Not ever.

But I just couldn’t resist. It was my natural instinct as a journalist to want to tell the world about Pierre and Margaret. Guess what I just heard?

As I wrote in Leaving Dublin, my hastily-read wedding announcement caused some consternation among the listeners. But I had no regrets. How often does one get to deliver such a juicy bit of gossip on air?

I had been working in radio, for Prince George’s CJCI-AM, for six months when Pierre and Margaret tied the knot. Before that, I had worked for two years as a reporter with the weekly Interior News in Smithers, B.C. Before that, I criss-crossed Canada for a year, singing and playing piano in hotels and bars with a fellow singer from Dublin, Shay Duffin. I have written extensively about this period of my life in Leaving Dublin so I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice to say I was living my Canadian dream. 

Michael Murphy and I had immigrated to Canada, as planned, in November 1966. We lived together in a Vancouver apartment for seven months before going our separate ways. I hit the road with Duffin, and Michael spent eight years in Africa as a CUSO volunteer.

By the time I quit the road, in the summer of 1968, I was tired of making music for a living. More specifically, I was tired of living out of a suitcase. The life of a wandering minstrel, I finally discovered, was not for me.

That said, I did suffer a relapse of sorts in early 1972 when I quit CJCI and accepted the job of resident pianist-singer at Teddy’s Pizza Parlour in Prince George. Yes, I was now back in the music business again, but this time it was different because I was no longer on the road. And I was no longer  playing the Irish ballads of my year with Shay Duffin. Prince George was a country-and-western town with no appetite for Celtic music. I evolved into a pop-country singer, entertaining the audience with hits from the CJCI playlist.

After six months playing at Teddy’s, I finally saw the light. Became cured of my long-time obsession with making music for a living. Struck it off my to-do list and vowed to dedicate the rest of my working life to becoming a competent newspaper journalist. But I didn’t abandon music entirely. One picture on my office wall shows me playing guitar and singing for a group of pre-schoolers at the Prince George public library. Another shows me at a house party in Prince George, jamming on guitar with Al Cherny, the featured fiddler from CBC television’s Tommy Hunter Show. A third photo shows me playing harmonium for the patrons of a museum in the Cariboo gold rush town of Barkerville, B.C. Whenever a musical opportunity presented itself, I still couldn’t resist. 

I’m glad Canada gave me the opportunity to work full-time as a musician. It showed me the upside (appreciative audiences, steady work) and downside (lumpy motel mattresses, mediocre restaurant food) of the business. The downside eventually took precedence, but it took a couple of years. During that time, I came to accept my limitations as a performer. I was never going to be a recording star (didn’t have the vocal or pianistic skills) or a concert artist (didn’t have the fan base) or a television personality (didn’t have the charisma). So, if I had stayed in the business, I was always going to be restricted to working the nightclub circuit. But if I hadn’t ventured into full-time performing, I would have lived a life of what ifs. So, I’m grateful to Canada for letting me give it a try. 

I’m also grateful to Canada for giving me the opportunity to work in radio. This wasn’t on my to-do list when I arrived here in 1966, though I had once auditioned (unsuccessfully) for an announcing job with Radio Éireann, the Irish national broadcaster. Still, in Canada, I had a chance to work full-time in radio and I grabbed it. I did it for eighteen months and – as with the music business – soon came to accept my limitations as a broadcaster. After sending audition tapes to radio stations in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., I discovered that my Dublin accent – while rarely a problem at CJCI – was an unsurmountable obstacle if I wanted to work in a market bigger than Prince George. Things would have been different if I had waited twenty years, especially if I had set my sights on working for the CBC. Diversity is omnipresent at the CBC. It sounds like Canada. Australian, Scottish, South Asian and other “foreign” accents abound. But in commercial radio in the 1960s, if you didn’t sound like you had graduated from the Lorne Greene School of Broadcasting, you said goodbye to the chance of ever working in a big city. 

Thirdly, I’m grateful to Canada for giving me the opportunity to write for a living. When I started working for the weekly Interior News in 1968, it wasn’t so much because I wanted to cover the news but because I wanted to indulge my passion for writing. After dropping out of journalism school, I learned my craft in Smithers by studying the best writers – Steve Handelman, Marian Bruce, Rod Mickleburgh – who worked for the daily Prince George Citizen up the road. When I moved to the Citizen, in 1972, my teachers became the best writers – Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham, Marjorie Nichols – who contributed to the Vancouver and Toronto dailies. Similarly, when I wrote for the Calgary Herald’s Sunday magazine from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, I learned how to do long-form writing by studying the works of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion. For me, it was always about literary journalism, never about getting the scoops. I never won any newspaper prizes for my work – aside from an in-house writing award from Herald – but I did manage to pick up a few national and regional magazine awards along the way. 

Finally, I’m grateful to Canada for giving me my beloved wife Zelda and and our wonderful daughter Nico. They are the best gifts Canada could have given me. More important by far than anything that has happened in my chequered career. I am reminded constantly by their presence that when all is said and done, family comes first.