SAVE THE HOITO!

Okay, Canadian trivia fans. What’s the only restaurant in this great country where, depending on your palate, you can order mojakka, suolaka, lohiperunalaatikko or kalakeitto, finished off, if there’s room, with a delicious dessert of karjalapiiraka? A free canoe trip to the nearest Hudson Bay Company trading post if you correctly answered: The Hoito, Thunder Bay’s renowned landmark eatery that has been filling bellies with traditional Finnish food for more than 100 years.

But now, as if there were not enough bad news, word has come through that the beloved institution is at risk of keeping its doors, already closed by COVID-19, shut forever. Faced with renovation debt and a refusal by the RBC to defer loan payments in spite of the pandemic, members of the Finlandia Association, which owns both the Hoito and the heritage Finnish Labour Temple that houses it, voted May 20 to liquidate. Ugh.

The end of the historic restaurant would be a terrible loss, not only to my ancestral Swede-Finnish roots, but to Thunder Bay and lovers of heritage everywhere. It’s no overstatement to call the Hoito a national treasure.

And just to be clear. We are not talking about some forlorn vestige of a once-thriving enterprise falling victim to changing times, preserved in nostalgic amber. Before the lockdown, the Hoito was way popular, with weekend lineups and high marks on all those Yelp and Trip Advisor sites from charmed tourists. I was there for Sunday brunch last summer and, the place was packed. Orders for its thin Finnish pancakes, which our family calls Swedish pancakes, kept the friendly servers run off their feet.

(Rod Mickleburgh photo)

Not surprisingly, news that the Hotio may have served its last lätty has prompted a wave of dismay in Thunder Bay. Local Finnish-Canadians have banded together to explore a new, cooperative direction for the beleaguered Finnish Labour Temple, itself proclaimed a national heritage site in 2015. And a GoFundMe drive has been launched aimed specifically at saving the Hoito, which had been the major revenue producer for the Labour Temple. It didn’t take me long to donate.

Besides the Hoito’s long culinary tradition, the restaurant has a fascinating, working-class history. It was launched in 1918 as a workers’ cooperative by supporters of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW was the union of choice for immigrant Finnish loggers cutting trees in the rugged, isolated bush camps of Northern Ontario. In the early years of the 20th century, the camps had some of the worst working conditions and poor pay in Canada. So perhaps it was only natural that they came to be populated in large numbers by tough, independent immigrants from Finland, used to hard work and drawn to the bush by the same conifer forests and cold weather that prevailed in their hardscrabble homeland. Their urban base was Port Arthur, which amalgamated with adjacent Fort William in 1970 to form present day Thunder Bay.

Many were radicals, already politicized by the state of affairs in Tsarist-ruled Finland or driven leftward by the harsh capitalism they found in Canada. They shared a strong cooperative spirit, preferring collective action over individualism and leaders. To fight back against the lumber camp bosses, the loggers shunned centralized unions in favour of the IWW, the legendary Wobblies, even as support for these warriors of the working class waned in the rest of Canada.

By 1910, Port Arthur had an imposing Finnish Labour Temple, which quickly became a hotbed of socialist and cultural activities for the city’s growing Finnish community. A few years later, IWW organizer Armas Topias Hill heard from men in the lumber camps of their pressing need for a place to eat inexpensive, home-cooked meals when, they came to Port Arthur. The Labour Temple’s board of directors agreed, and the Hoito restaurant opened in the building’s lower floor on May Day, 1918.

It was a cooperative from the start, financed by 59 member shareholders, who each kicked in $5 “comrade loans”. The name was chosen from the Finnish word for ‘care’: hoito. Customers ate at long communal tables. With Hill, the IWW organizer as its first manager, and all restaurant staff members belonging to the Wobblies, the workers were in charge. The Hoito advertised itself as “the only restaurant in the city owned and controlled by the (customers and workers) themselves”. When revenue eclipsed costs, prices came down. The restaurant’s communal policies were vital during the dark days of the Depression, as its hastily-established food kitchens helped feed many of the impoverished unemployed that crowded into the city.

The Finnish Labour Temple upstairs, meanwhile, buzzed with political and cultural activities with a socialist slant. Where else could you see such plays as Luokkaviah (Class Hatred), Yleislakko (The General Strike), or Tukkijoella (The Lumberjacks)? The Wobblies maintained office space there for years, including the Canadian bureau of the Industrialisti, the Finnish-language IWW newspaper that did not cease publication until 1975. All this reflected the fact that the large majority of Finnish immigrants to Northern Ontario were “Red Finns”, as opposed to the right-wing “White Finn” faction that emerged triumphant from the vicious civil war that convulsed Finland, after the country’s independence from Russia. One of the women cooks at the Hoito had spent a year in jail in Finland for her Red Finn activities during the civil war.

LIke the IWW labour martyr Joe Hill, the Hoito never died. It survived the economic ravages of the Depression, World War Two, the gradual disappearance of the radical left and anti-capitalist loggers who provided its base for so many years , changing eating habits, and a decline in the city’s once-significant Finnish-Canadian population. And let’s say it one more time: it was revenue from the still-popular, bare-bones Hoito that helped keep the Finlandia Association going, not the other way around. Let’s hope it doesn’t go down with the ship.

Five years ago, the last time the Hoito’s future was threatened by the financial predicament of the Finlandia Association, local filmmaker Kelly Saxberg, a great grand-daughter of Finnish immigration, issued an impassioned plea on its behalf: “It’s time to say, ‘listen, this is an historic landmark, this is a unique restaurant, this is the only living monument to Finnish immigration in North America.’” That hasn’t changed.

My Canada includes the Hoito. There’s no place like it. Please help, if you can. You can donate here: https://ca.gofundme.com/f/save-the-hoito?utm_source=tbnewswatch.com&utm_campaign=tbnewswatch.com&utm_medium=referral

 

 

 

THE BALM OF POETRY #2

For all of us who don’t know

 We can read what we want to read

 Believe what we want to believe

 Hope what we want to hope

 Say what we want to say

 Eloquently, beautifully, compellingly, persuasively

 Presidents, prime ministers, dictators

 We can blog, tweet, post, proclaim

 Reach thousands, millions

 We can want what we want

 Do what we want

 COVID-19 is not impressed.

This rather sombre poem about the relentless of COVID-19 was written by Ken Dryden, if not his first published poem, certainly the first I had come across. It appeared April 1 in the National Post. Dryden, of course, is the legendary Hall of Fame goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, best-selling hockey author and former federal Liberal cabinet minister, who has been so consistently impressive over the years with his intelligent, considered and caring response to just about everything that attracts his interest. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have considered posting a poem like this, given that I have been turning to poetry as a way to help soothe the soul in these unprecedented, perilous times. But if we are going to get through this, I found it a reminder of just how much all of us need to come together, regardless of ideology, income, rank, instant expertise and on down the list. From jet-setters to Boris Johnson to the frail elderly in our long term care homes, COVID-19 is a threat to all, a leveler of the direst nature. Dryden said he had written his poem in late March “after much thought”.

Plus, in a more cheerful vein, it gives me a chance to relate my one encounter with Ken Dryden, way back when we were oh-so-young, Martha. Somehow, perhaps with the help of me sitting on the bench, the Newmarket Pee-Wee all-stars had managed to make it to the final of an annual baseball tournament in Listowel, Ont.

Our opponent was North Toronto, and their pitcher was Ken Dryden. That created a buzz on our team because somebody knew he was the brother of Dave Dryden, who played goal for St. Michael’s Majors in the exalted ranks – at least to us – of Junior A. Who cared about his younger brother? We felt touched by fame because of his connection to brother Dave. Little did we know…

(Dave Dryden, during his time at St. Mikes. He subsequently played in both the NHL and WHL, but is best known for devising the first cage-style goalie mask, which remains the norm today.)

The other player on the powerful North Team who created a stir before the game started was their second basemen. It was none other than Rossie Armour, one of my first best friends when I moved to Newmarket. He lived just up the street. Until his family departed for Toronto, we bonded over our love of sports, even at our ridiculously young age. Of course, as was common in a small town like Newmarket, us kids pretty well knew everybody of the same age, if they played sports. “Hey, it’s Rossie Armour,” we nudged to each other.

As for the game itself, we were totally in over our heads. I mean, North Toronto against little old Newmarket. They clobbered us 9-0. Ken Dryden was overpowering on the mound. Our only hit was a slow dribbler down the third base line. (“Looks like a line drive in the box score!”). Most of our batters struck out. The only time one of them reached the outfield was a drive to left field by Gary Toporoski, who managed to time a Dryden fastball just right. Unfortunately, the new bat Toporoski used was broken an inning later by Lloyd Harris, as he managed his squib of an infield hit. I don’t think Toporoski ever forgave him.

When the shellacking mercifully came to an end, I think most of us felt a bit embarrassed by the lopsided score, but also a tinge of pride that we had been in the presence of such prowess. It was a feeling that only grew over the years as Ken Dryden made his mark in the NHL as one of its greatest goalies ever.

Years later, after a stop in Victoria during his federal Liberal leadership campaign, I asked Dryden if he remembered that game in Listowel against Newmarket. He said he did, but I think he was just being nice to a reporter. However, he did have firmer memories of his North Toronto team-mate and my early buddy, Rossie Armour. As I tried to prolong the conversation, he looked impatient. A moment or two later, he was gone, bundled away by his aides, leaving me with my memories and he with a look of anticipation to the next campaign stop.

One final note: the coach of the North Toronto team was some guy named Roger Nielsen*. Ever heard of him?

Be well.

* You can find his statue outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

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OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW — IN FINLAND

Well, here we are in yet another decade, And, like much of the previous 10 years, with a few exceptions, so far so bad. As the outside world turns increasingly partisan and dark, I found myself seeking some spiritual sustenance from the past. I fastened on a similar passing of time 30 years ago: the last days of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, a decade which proved pivotal in my life and career in a way I never thought possible. My reflections were likely heightened by the fact that it all took place in the country where my mother was born, Finland.

I was lucky enough to be living in Paris that year, so it had seemed only natural to spend Christmas and New Year’s revisiting my ancestral roots. It was wonderful. Sparkling snow covered the fields and country roads of the coastal farming village that had anchored my grandmother’s side of the family for countless generations. Cheeks reddened in the biting cold. The night of the winter solstice, we made a moving visit to the gravesites of those who went before us, clearing away the snow and lighting candles.

Days were spent in a never-ending round of housecalls, warmed by festive, mulled “glogg” that miraculously improved my rough Swedish. Or so I thought. (My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, living along the eastern edges of the Gulf of Bothnia. Their first language remains Swedish.) And, of course, everyone wished everyone a hearty “God Jul!” (“Merry Christmas”) at every possible moment.

(Moster Signe at the head of the table)

On Christmas Eve, we gathered for the traditional feast at the red, wood-frame home of Moster Signe, my great aunt. There are pictures of my mother as a young girl playing in the snow outside the same house more than 60 years earlier. The Jultomten did not forget us, arriving just as dinner concluded. With his red coat, elfish hat and white beard, he sent the youngsters into paroxysms of excitement, as he handed out presents.

The next night, as we headed out along the rural, snow-packed road to my cousin’s house, the skies suddenly erupted into the most magnificent display of Northern Lights I have ever seen. They seemed to pour from the heavens in a stunning array of kaleidoscopic reds, greens and whites that took our breath away. They moved, they danced, they shimmered against the pitch blackness of the starless sky. Like most Canadians, I had witnessed the Northern Lights, but nothing like this, nothing like the way they seemed to be raining directly down upon us. We felt humbled, insignificant. I am a non-believer, but at that moment, it really did feel like God, or something supernatural, was speaking to us, as we stood, silent and alone amid the surrounding fields and forests.

There were also visits to those members of my grandfather’s side of the family who had migrated to nearby city of Vasa from their native Sideby, a fishing and farming village further south. Each was accompanied by serving after serving of pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and cardamom-flavoured mamas bröd, washed down with endless cups of kaffe – anything to fill the pauses when my Swedish wasn’t up to the conversation. “Varsågod!” (“Welcome to eat and drink…”) echoes still.

(Foster Mia, my great aunt on my grandfather’s side, 3rd from left. That’s me on the right, clowning around to avoid speaking Swedish…)

On the last day of December, drowning in coffee and stuffed with goodies, it was time to travel back to Helsinki — or Helsingfors, as we Swedes call it — for the grand finale of the 1980’s. It was unforgettable, though not in the way we expected. Arriving from Vasa by snail train at the city’s magnificent railway station, we eventually made our way to the heart of Helsinki’s historic Senate Square for the anticipated New Year’s Eve festivities.

Helsinki Cathedral at Senate Square, Finland in winter in the evening.

But my god, it was cold, one of those bone-chilling, deep freezes that go right through you, no matter how warmly you dress. We took refuge in the massive Cathedral looking out over the Square, at the top of a long flight of steps. No pew was ever more comfortable. Alas, with the clock ticking ever closer towards midnight, we forced our shivering selves to re-join the throngs of revelers waiting for the big moment. Many had clearly been fortifying themselves against the chill by consuming large amounts of alcohol.

At the stroke of twelve, Mayor Raimo Ilaskivi (thank you, Google) stepped before a mike at the top of the Cathedral stairs and proclaimed the New Year, with a few added homilies. He could barely be heard over the din of loud, jumbo firecrackers being set off everywhere in the crowd. A thick pall of smoke from the many firecrackers quickly drifted upwards, virtually obscuring the mayor, who beat a hasty retreat.

With all the explosions and smoke, the scene might have come from a war movie. Firecrackers set off on streets or back alleys at Hallowe’en are one thing. Large, cannonading firecrackers lit by well-oiled celebrants in the middle of crowds of people is quite another. It was frightening. A small band played something or other, before they, too, disappeared. And that was that. Hyvää Uutta Vuotta! Gott Nytt År! Happy New Year!

Our valour vanished with Mayor Ilaskivi and the 1980s. We opted for good old Canadian discretion over good old firecracker mayhem and made our way back through the frigid Finnish streets to the peace and quiet of my cousin’s apartment.

The first morning of 1990 dawned bright and beautiful, without a cloud in the sky. There was little evidence of the previous night’s boisterous partying, except for empty vodka bottles littering the streets. That afternoon, we took in the showdown match between Canada and the Soviet Union in the World Junior hockey tournament held that year in Finland. Marvellously, the young Canadians stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to topple the mighty Ruskies, who were led by future Canucks superstar Pavel Bure.

(Yes, that is an autograph from the former premier of Saskatchewan, Grant Devine, but that’s another story…)

It was an auspicious way to mark the end of the 1980s and my time in Finland, and begin to contemplate the decade that lay ahead. I had no idea they would be life-changing – hired by the Globe and Mail, co-winner of a Michener Award, marriage and four years as the Globe’s China correspondent in Beijing. But perhaps, looking down from somewhere, my ancestors saw it coming all along.

 Three decades later, as I fade further into retirement, I have a fingers-crossed wish for the next 10 years, despite their rocky start: may the 2020s be just as roaring as the storied 1920s. They might even prompt me to return to Paris and resume my search for the ghost of Hemingway.

FUN TIMES AT THE PRINCE GEORGE CITIZEN

I wish I could say it was a surprise. But the disheartening news that the Prince George Citizen was halting more than 60 years of daily publication to become a free, weekly giveaway was hardly a bolt from the blue. It’s yet another telling sign of the media’s frightening decline that a city the size of Prince George can no longer support a paid, daily newspaper. As advertisers shift online and the patience to read a newspaper seems increasingly rare in this age of short attention spans and partisan social media, there are undoubtedly more disappearances and downgrades to come. And my newspaper heart takes a hit every time.

Yet there was more to my general mourning than that. The Citizen was also the paper where I first cut my teeth as a young news reporter. Though I was there for only three months, before being lured away by the mighty Vernon News, they proved pivotal in “my brilliant career”. Cut free from my initial sinecure of writing about sports, I showed that I could function as a news reporter, too. Luckily, the Citizen was a good paper, part of the long-lamented Southam newspaper chain, which believed in quality over maximizing profits. How quaint.

The smallish daily had a solid newsroom. In addition to a handful of reporters, there was a photographer or two, sports editor, wire and front page editor, city editor, Home and Family editor (the wonderful Bev Christensen), editor Tony Skae, and publisher Lou Griffith, who showed up occasionally to glower at all us young people who somehow managed to find employment at his newspaper.

(Yep, that’s me!)

It was fun. With three pulp mills, several sawmill, plus other offshoot industries, Prince George was bustling. In the humming downtown, a young guy could dine on a beef dip or a hot turkey sandwich at the busy lunch counter of the Hudson Bay department store, or choose a steak at Mr. Jake’s for $1.49. On Friday nights, the place to be was the cavernous watering hole of the Inn of the North, reputed to be the largest pub in British Columbia. It was always packed. One night a guy rode around on a bicycle. Few bothered to give him a second glance.

And there was all this newspaper lore, the kind you get from a combination of young reporters and a community 500 miles north of Vancouver that still had a lot of frontier about it. At one point, the Citizen seemed to be a farm team for the big league Vancouver Sun. Scott Honeyman, Marian Bruce and Larry Emrick were among those who went directly there from the Citizen. When I eventually joined the Sun, I kept hearing about all the wild parties they had, topped by Emrick riding his motorcycle up the steps, through the house, and out the back door. Why not? The theme of the beer fest was Easy Rider.

On “funny hat” days at the Citizen, reporters wore outlandish headgear as they went about their duties. One day the humourless publisher came in and saw several reporters with army helmets on their heads. Outraged at this affront to “his” serious newspaper, he stormed into the office of editor Harry Boyle to complain. There was Boyle typing away, wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

Boyle was a legendary character who had come to the Citizen from the Whitehorse Star. He was forever doing chin ups on the door jam of his office, his feet swinging out towards the newsroom. Sadly he left the Citizen before I arrived, to make a lot more money as a lawyer. He eventually wound up on the BC Supreme Court, where some of his judgments remain renowned for their wit and empathy for the hard up. He is still with us, at 93. (https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/ian-mulgrew-former-judges-lively-letters-evidence-he-wouldnt-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down)

In the late 1960’s, before I arrived, Prince George had two papers: the daily Citizen and a weekly publication called the Progress, owned by the city’s wealthy, off-the-wall industrialist and brewery mogul, Ben Ginter. But in a city like Prince George, those on both papers were friendly, despite the competition. Over lunch, grousing at having to cover a routine plaque unveiling by Mayor Garvin Dezell, photog Dave Looy of the Citizen and Pete Duffy from the Progress concocted a prank to produce a better picture. When Dezell pulled the string, , what should he see but a Playboy centerfold affixed to the plaque. Duffy was quickly identified as the culprit. The photo of Dezell gaping in astonishment went around the world, including Manchester, where Duffy, quickly identified as the culprit, was from. His mother let him know she was not amused. Nor was the mayor. Duffy was fired, only to be hired immediately by the ever-impish Harry Boyle, perhaps to atone for succumbing to Dezell’s outrage by not running the photo in the Citizen.

Looy, whose role in the centerfold caper went unpunished, was another of those guys living on in media lore. Totally addicted to his police scanner, which he had on ‘round the clock, ‘the Batman” was known for driving at frightening speeds in his “Batmobile” to any potential police story. At night, some inner sense would rouse him from the deepest of sleeps at the least crackle of an incident over the scanner. Within minutes he would be off, often arriving before the police, his clothes having been laid out before hand. It was said that he delayed his honeymoon to dash to the scene of a car crash. Once, with a terrified reporter in the front seat, Looy roared at breakneck speed out to Ben Ginter’s rural estate, where a gunman was holed up. Ignoring police lines, Looy inched so close, he and the reporter were overcome by tear gas used to flush the gunman and missed the takedown. Police complained. Nothing changed after Looy moved to the Lower Mainland. (“He’s helping fight the fire,” said the assigned reporter, as he requested the dispatch of another photographer…). But that’s another story, or nine…

(Dave Looy, in a rare down moment. Photo by Vladimir Keremidschieff)

As for me, I had ended my seven-month gig as sports editor of the Penticton Herald, bundled a few boxes of my meagre belongings onto a Greyound bus and headed north to Prince George. I found cheap digs on Ingledew Avenue and took up the cudgels of news reporting. I learned how to write a lead from the wire/front page editor Duncan Cumming. The loveliest of Scots, he told me: no matter how dull the assignment, look for some personal angle or good quote to jazz it up, rather than just string together a few boring facts. It was good advice.

The city editor, forever chewing on a pencil, was the frenetic Joe Cunningham. One day, on deadline, he got so excited whirling around in his chair that he fell off it onto the floor with a loud “thump”. He looked up at us with a big grin on his face.

Competition added to the mix. Ben Ginter, whose burly bearded mug decorated every bottle of his popular Uncle Ben’s beer, had folded his weekly Progress, not long after firing editor Mel Rothenburger for running a photo showing someone with a brewskie that was not Uncle Ben’s. Bizarrely, he then decided to challenge the Citizen directly with a rival daily newspaper called the North Star. I relished going head to head, trying to beat the other guy during working hours, then going for beers after work to laugh and swap “war” stories. But I was crushed when my first big story, the burning down of the old McDonald Hotel, was overshadowed by the North Star. As the Citizen’s fire reporter, I got an early morning call that the landmark structure was going up in flames. I did a terrific job, if I do say so myself, interviewing anyone I could find at the scene, including a heroic waitress who had rushed upstairs, pounding on doors and hollering “Fire!”.

I hustled my dramatic yarn into the paper, pleased as punch I had killed the North Star reporter. Alas, when one of the hotel walls collapsed, the Citizen photog was off shooting freelance for BC-TV. The North Star’s Pete Duffy, he of centerfold pinup fame, was right on the spot. He got a tremendous photo of the great burst of flames and billowing smoke, which the paper splashed all over its front page. Hardly anyone noticed my rip-roaring story, proving once again that a picture really is worth a thousand words. Sniff.

When the sports editor took some time off, I even got to cover sports again (“…you could have boiled an egg on the blazing pitching arm of Pat Pratt….”). And there were other stories, like being rejected as a blood donor, interviewing a dog, and cheekily quoting the city’s “tourist of the week” complaining about the stench of the pulp mills. “I’d recognize that boiled cabbage smell anywhere.”

Being young and fancy-free, however, the bright lights of Prince George couldn’t hold me. There were jobs everywhere in those days. Why stick around? The Vernon News offered me the city editor’s job, and I accepted. I loaded up my boxes again, and rode the bus to Vernon. Another town, another challenge. How I loved it all.

 

 

 

 

MICHAEL KESTERTON, THE YOUNGER YEARS, AND A BIT MORE. RIP

The unexpected can hit you in the solar plexus. Such was my feeling late December, when I received an email from a former colleague at the Globe and Mail giving me the sad news that the one-of-a-kind Michael Kesterton had died. He was best known to Globe readers as the genius behind the assemblage of arcane facts, news, trivia, miscellanea, humour and occasional bits of string that made up the paper’s beloved daily feature, Social Studies, which ran for 23 years. In the midst of all the superb journalism and writing that filled the Globe in those days when I was on the paper (smile), many readers turned first to Social Studies. A hit from the beginning, his unique creation – Twitter before its time – took up much of his obituary in the Globe. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-social-studies-columnist-michael-kesterton-inspired-deep-loyalty-in/

But for me, the news meant the loss of someone I’d known for more than 50 years, and someone high on my list of unforgettable characters. We met at The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s thrice-weekly student rag. We quickly took to each other, bonding over a mutual love of quirky humour, irreverence and particularly, the “highly-esteemed” Goon Show, that wacky, BBC laugh-fest rebroadcast on CBC and a radio forerunner of Monty Python. To discover someone else addicted to the cult-like Goon Show was an unexpected joy, like the time I discovered a fellow Montreal Expos fan in a Chicago chocolate store. We revelled in our favourite lines. “Hold him up to the light, not a brain in sight.” Or: ”German prison camps were filled with British officers who’d sworn to die, rather than be captured.” Okay, one more: “Warm yourself by this woman. She’s just coming to a boil now….(sound of kettle whistle)…..There she goes!” Laugh, we thought we’d die.

Growing up in cosmopolitan Toronto, rather than in staid, nearby Newmarket as I did, Kesterton was hipper than yours truly (an admittedly low bar). He it was who first introduced me to the brilliant, satirical British weekly Private Eye, which I still buy every time I’m in Old Blighty. He was ahead of me in music, too. When, for some forgotten reason, Kesterton decided to shed his record collection, I wound up with some of his vintage blues records, Woody Guthrie’s classic Dust Bowl Ballads and the very first LPs by the Rolling Stones, when they were far more into covers of American “black” music than being the bad boys of rock and roll. I hadn’t hitched on to the Stones bandwagon until High Tide and Green Grass. Kesterton was there from the start. At the same time, he was forever coming up to me with some new bit of information about something interesting that had completely passed me by. There was little his curious mind missed.

Kesterton also stood out as an oasis of amiable, old-fashioned civility among all us wild and crazy Varsity types plotting to bring down the established order. (PS, we didn’t.) He was polite almost to an absurd degree. “Uh, Rod, I’m going over to Mac’s (a local student hangout) for something to eat,” he would say in his singular, low, quiet voice. “Is there anything I can bring back for you?” That cornball decorum qualified him as the kind of eccentric – in a good way — that student newspapers attract, and appreciate. And he was so funny. It was not your broad, belly-laugh humour, but rather a dry wit, full of quips and wry asides.

Kesterton was a fine reporter, but it was not his forte, even though we were all aware his uncle Wilf had written the definitive academic tome, A History of Journalism in Canada. He excelled at the off-beat, which was basically anything that let his drollery shine. Not many would start an art review as Kesterton did: “The expression ‘neo-classicism’ in most people’s minds conjures up a picture of a bunch of nude guys running around the French stock exchange, but it wasn’t like that at all, according to Hugh Honour.” Later in the review, he wrote: “The neo-classical movement was the first in history to have art critics. Enraptured by visions of a Greek and Roman world populated by naked youths who busied themselves with throwing the discus, they went into fits of praise over the ‘nobility’ of classical stonework.

“It was a great embarrassment to all concerned when Herculaneum was dug out of volcanic ash and it was found that the male phallus was omnipresently used in sculptures as a lamp stand, good luck charm, etc. This was a little less than noble.”

He was jack-of-all-trades – reporter, features editor, paper manager and art critic (see above) for the Varsity’s weekly Review, edited in 1968-69 by some wise guy named Michael Ignatieff. Another fine fellow, Bob Rae, did Books. The late Kaspars Dzeguze (also a good friend of Kesterton’s) presided over Film, once submitting a review of John Wayne’s The Green Berets that said only: “Shit.” It was, and we ran it. Design editor was Len Gilday, who went on to direct the acclaimed documentary Final Offer, featuring autoworkers’ union leader Bob White, as he took on General Motors across the bargaining table, with a strike hovering in the balance. I was assistant Review editor. Among all those stars-to-be, Kesteron and I had a lot of fun.

Unnaturally short in stature and socially very shy, he used to joke about suffering from dwarfism. Coupled with what seemed a fascination for gnomes, I could never tell how much he was kidding.

I left the Varsity in 1969 to seek my fortune in the same mainstream media we all railed against, securing an exalted position as sports editor of the Penticton Herald. Kesterton stayed on for another year as Varsity manager. “To this day, I have no idea what that meant,” confessed then editor Brian D. Johnson. But it was a perfect fit for Kesteron. He could do what he wanted.

Still, from afar, I wondered how he would fare without the relative safety net of university, which had safeguarded his social awkwardness, while protecting him from the need to earn a regular paycheque. In a typically Kesteron manoeuver, however, he did find employment at a newspaper, but not in the newsroom. He went to work in the obscure proofreading department of the Globe and Mail. Eventually, he emerged from its shadows to toil in the Globe’s business section, where he took on a number of mostly mundane responsibilities. That is until one day, Globe editor-in-chief William Thorsell, after a glance at Kesterton’s cubicle littered with clippings of abstruse items and funny stories, realized this was a mother lode to be mined. And Eureka! Social Studies was born.

Looking back, all those qualities he showed at the Varsity — eccentricity, lover of trivia, oddball facts and the offbeat, plus his quirky humour — came together for the success that was Social Studies. It was a wonderful case of someone who never quite fit in finding the perfect job for himself. By the end, he was one of the most cherished columnists at the Globe, complete with his own Wikipedia entry and two books featuring the best of Social Studies.

In 2007, the master of esoterica told a young journalist from Ryerson University’s annual Review of Journalism: “There are hundreds of reporters who can do a better job at [news stories] than I ever could… The light-hearted hack work that I am doing isn’t hugely important and will never win journalism awards, but I’m better at it than anyone I know and readers often love the columns and tell me so. There are worse ways to earn a living.” (The resulting feature is here: https://rrj.ca/social-studies-101/)

Kesterton was a throwback to the old Globe, a rather informal, easy-going place to work, where there was room for whimsy and characters, besides the paper’s terrific reporting. Kesterton would likely have felt adrift in today’s button-down, more serious version of Canada’s national newspaper.

Over the years, distance and different jobs inevitability loosened our friendship, but whenever we emailed back and forth, there were always the same old Kesterton jokes and wacky tidbits about people we knew. And I was relieved to learn from longtime Globe writer John Allemang that he lost none of his trademark peculiarity. Kesterton was part of the long-running baseball pool among number-crunchers in the paper’s Report on Business. Every year, he only selected players who were left-handed, as he was. He never came close to winning.

When I circulated news of Kesterton’s passing to some people from those Varsity days of long ago, they were, like me, shocked and saddened. Of course, part of it was nostalgia for our youth, but we also knew that Kesterton had been different, the kind of person you encounter maybe once in your life. He was, said Brian Johnson, “one of the most delightfully idiosyncratic characters I’ve ever met. He was a sweet soul.”

 

ME AND WILLIE O’REE

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Every now and then, the National Hockey League, even under Gary Bettman, does the right thing. So it was with the recent selection of Willie O’Ree to the Hockey Hall of Fame. O’Ree, 82, was chosen under the hallowed institution’s “builder category”, as the first black to lace ‘em up in the NHL and a long-time ambassador for youth and hockey diversity. In recent years, the honours have piled up for the likeable O’Ree. Banners raised, arenas named, ceremonies, inductions to other, more local halls of fame, and in 2008, the Order of Canada. O’Ree has taken it all in stride, evincing little bitterness over the setbacks and racist taunting he experienced at times during his long hockey career, which lasted until he was 43 years old.

Most of that time was spent in hockey’s minor leagues, a respectable place in those days to earn a few dollars, followed by a summer job to fill out the year’s earnings. Back then, there was nothing pejorative about being “a career minor-leaguer” like O’Ree. And he was a good one. All told, he scored more than 400 goals over 17 seasons, most of them in the Western Hockey League, which included the Vancouver Canucks before they jumped to the NHL in 1970.

Willie O’Ree played only 45 games in the National Hockey League. I was lucky enough to have been at Maple Leaf Gardens for one of them, and I have very clear memories of that magical night. It was my best friend’s birthday, and, baby-boomer parental indifference being what it was, (“go out and play”), we went on our own to the Gardens to watch the Leafs take on the Boston Bruins.

That meant taking the mighty Grey Coach bus from our sweet home town of Newmarket all the way into the big city, about 30 miles distant. This was different from daytime trips with the parents. As a young teen-ager, I remember being awed, and slightly intimidated, by the bright lights and nighttime crowds swirling along Yonge Street, particularly outside the legendary Brown Derby Tavern. But we made our way to the nearby Gardens and plunked down $2 each for standing room tickets. That was the only way to get in, since Leaf games were always sold out.

At the Gardens, you could stand behind the blues, which were best, the greens or the greys at the top of the rink, which were worst. From there, you could barely see the distant players through the haze of cigarette smoke.

 

We lined up in the cold with the other standees. An hour before game time, they opened the doors. Everyone rushed through the turnstiles and dashed frantically up the stairs to get a good place. Rather than risk being crowded out behind the blues, we opted for the lesser greens. We may have been the youngest guys there, but we didn’t care. We were at the Gardens seeing the Leafs, our hockey heroes, for a paltry few dollars.

I also knew that Willie O’Ree would be in the lineup for the Bruins. His historic first appearance had been the year before, but he suited up for only two games, before being shunted back to the minors.. Now he’d been called up again, and the Toronto hockey scribes had been writing about O’Ree and what a curiosity he was, a black player in the NHL. So I was curious, myself, to see him, in addition to rooting for the Leafs.

I watched him closely in the warm-ups, noticing what a fast skater he was. He also seemed to have a good, hard shot, based on the noise the puck made cannonading off the boards when he missed the net. It was fun to see him on the ice. But the Bruins were a last-place team, and the game went well for Toronto. As an added bonus, Johnny Bower, my all-time favourite player, made one of the best saves I’ve ever seen, Despite losing his goal stick, Bower hurled himself full length across the net to deny the Bruins a sure goal. The crowd rose as one in a roaring salute to the greatest custodian of the pipes the Leafs ever had.

oree_willie_action3But back to O’Ree. He didn’t do much in the game. Indeed, during his 45 games in the NHL, he amassed only four goals and 10 assists, which was not enough to keep him in the league beyond the 1960-61 season. Watching him, you could tell he had the speed to be an NHL-er, and he didn’t shy from mix-ups. Yet, he had trouble hitting the net and making those key passes to set up scoring opportunities.

Only much later in life did O’Ree reveal that an early injury had left him virtually blind in his right eye. He had kept it a secret, figuring, probably rightly, that few teams would want him if they knew he had full use of only one eye. No wonder he missed the target so often. I wasn’t the only one to notice it.

Boston teammate Don McKenney recalled a magazine article on O’Ree headlined “King of the Near Miss”, which highlighted the number of his shots that sailed wide. “I’m sure his eye problem was the cause of that because Willie O’Ree was an excellent hockey player in every other regard,” said the skilled McKenney, who occasionally centred a line with O’Ree and Jerry Toppazzini. In the same 2007 interview, McKenney noted exactly what little ol’ teenage me noticed from my perch behind the greens: “He was extremely fast and had a strong shot.”

So not only was O’Ree the first black to play in the NHL, he might have been the first one-eyed winger, too. Remarkable achievements on both counts.

Playing left wing, as he did, forced him to turn his head over his right shoulder to see a pass clearly. In 1963, however, while with the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades, wily coach Alf “The Embalmer” Pike, an off-season mortician who presumably knew something about the human body, sensed something was wrong with O’Ree’s eye. He switched him to right wing. O’Ree began to score like gangbusters. His 38 goals led the league that year, followed by four more 30-goal seasons, including one at the age of 39. One is left to speculate how good Willie O’Ree might have been with 20-20 vision in both eyes.

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As hockey’s black pioneer, O’Ree is often called the Jackie Robinson of the NHL. It’s a poor comparison. Taking nothing away from O’Ree’s breakthrough, the two situations are miles apart. Whether NHL owners were biased against blacks is an open question, but there was no rigidly defined colour bar as there was in baseball, forcing some of the best players in history to play in the Negro Leagues. Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers caused a sensation. O’Ree’s first NHL game was treated as more of an unusual footnote than anything else.

Outside of the Maritimes, from where O’Ree hailed, few black Canadians played hockey. A handful did well in the minor leagues and might have been denied a chance because of their colour, but there were no obvious stars. O’Ree deserves every credit in the world for preserving in the sport he loved from boyhood (“I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew along the ice.”) and making history by making it to “the show”.

Back in Toronto, after the game ended, my friend and I streamed out of the Carlton St. Cash Box, as sports writers liked to call it, into the late-evening crowds, and headed to the bustling, grim bus terminal at Bay and Dundas for the return trip to Newmarket. We sat quietly in the darkened bus, as the miles flashed by, tired but happy. , It had been a wonderful night. The Leafs won 4-1, with the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, and a young rookie, Dave Keon, among the goal scorers. My hero Johnny Bower was the first star, and I had seen Willie O’Ree.

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DODGING DANGER IN PARADISE

It’s a while since I’ve been caught up in a world-wide news event, especially one where I MIGHT HAVE DIED. But there we were, after a five a.m. wake-up call by Kauai’s ubiquitous red roosters, on the first day of our holiday, groggily sipping our coffee in the Saturday morning sunshine. All of a sudden, the island quiet was pierced by an urgent loud buzz on our cellphone. It sounded like an Amber Alert on steroids. “What the heck was that?” I said out loud to other breakfasters gathered on the patio of our inn. No one looked up from their buttered toast. Thinking it was just some sort of glitch, we didn’t investigate further. Then, my companion reported back from the office. The woman behind the front desk had said something about a missile threat, as she busied herself with the office routine. The patio remained an oasis of calm. I glanced at the sky, saw nothing and continued with my coffee. Nobody, it seemed, including ourselves, was going to be bothered about a little thing like nuclear annihilation. After all, we were on holiday.

When I subsequently checked the Globe and Mail website, I discovered that the alert had actually been pretty scary, the nonchalance by our front desk clerk notwithstanding. ‘SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Yikes. And the Hawaiian missile alarm was at the top of the Globe’s story list. We’d been part of history, bad coffee and all.

A little later, when we traipsed in to nearby, sleepy Lihue, I asked some of the locals how they’d dealt with the alert. Unlike reports of panic elsewhere, people seemed to have taken it in their laid-back stride.

Our cab driver said she’d been stuck in an unrelated traffic jam. She did what anyone would do facing an incoming ballistic missile. She phoned her supervisor. Her boss told her not to worry. The boss’s husband was in the military, and he’d confirmed it was a false alarm. The volunteer at the local museum said he’d slept through the whole thing. “If it was real, that’s the best way to go.” I agreed.

A genial, bearded Uber driver was the only person I talked to who actually reacted to the alert. He’d been at his Saturday men’s Bible class (I refrained from asking whether he thought the Apocalypse was coming at last…). All their phones went off at once, and everyone rushed outside. He immediately phoned his wife with specific instructions: “Stay inside. Don’t go to that garage sale!”

As we talked, he noted that some of those who hadn’t taken it seriously questioned why anyone would launch a ballistic missile towards Kauai. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility is on the island, right by the wonderfully-named Barking Sands. The PMRF’s latest mission is to track incoming missiles and shoot them down. “So we could have been a target,” he said, cheerfully.

Another fellow I spoke to further up island was rational about it. His community tests its emergency sirens once a month, to ensure their readiness in case of an incoming tsunami or other calamity. He got the alert, poked his head out the door, heard no sirens and went back inside, figuring he was going to see the sun set on another day in paradise, without a mushroom cloud obscuring the view. Plus, as many observed: “Seek shelter? Like, where, dude?” This is Hawaii. According to a local newspaper round-up, one guy took refuge with his son behind a palm tree…

I particularly liked a few other reactions. Who should be a longtime permanent resident of Kauai, but Samantha Geimer, the victim in the Roman Polanski child sex abuse case? On Facebook, noting the blasé indifference around her, she posted: “I guess panicking in Hawaii is making coffee and shrugging our shoulders.” A youngster phoned his mom to tell her a ballistic missile was coming their way. “OK, I’m at the farmers’ market,” she replied. And finally, a tourist from Utah sent a text to her kids, saying: “This could be it. I love you.” They texted back: “Send us a picture.”

And that was that. There were reports of understandable panic elsewhere, but overall, on beautiful Kauai, the response to possible nuclear annihilation seemed to be: keep calm and carry on. It’s probably not real, and if it is real, what can you do?

On reflection, I am little less sanguine about the bizarre incident. First of all, the frightening alert was apparently put out by an employee “during a shift change”. Hey, we’ve all experienced shift changes. Issuing a ballistic missile alert is just one of those things that can happen, right?….But I mean, really??? And then it took an unforgiveable 38 minutes to issue a cell phone correction. (Many got the news much earlier from Congresswoman Tulsi Garbbard, who posted her own “all-clear” message a mere 12 minutes after the alert.) Those twin incompetencies are truly beyond belief, particularly given the two nutbars allegedly in charge of North Korea and the USA, who make anything seem possible. (In the winning way that is coming to characterize society these days, the unfortunate who put out the alert has received “dozens of death threats by fax, phone and social media,” officials said.)

Meanwhile, for us veterans of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this brought back a lot of unwanted memories, from a time when “Duck and Cover” exercises were very real. During crunch day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we went to school, not knowing if we would be coming back home. It was truly an eerie and frightening feeling. But of course, we still did exactly what many Islanders did on Saturday. We went about our normal routine. If the bomb was coming, so be it.

So for now, ballistic missile dodged. Slap on the sunscreen.

 

A TOAST TO FINLAND!


(Mårten Beijar photo)

You may have missed it, but the land of my ancestors recently celebrated it’s centennial. On Dec. 6, 1917,   small but mighty Finland officially severed itself from Russia, becoming an independent country for the first time. Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers did not protest. I remember leafing through one of my great aunt’s photo albums and seeing a grainy picture of the raising of the Finnish flag in their small community for the first time. A bit more than two and a half years after independence, my mother was born in the fishing/farming village of Sideby. When I first visited “the relatives” in the winter of 1971, I was given the very room where her birth took place. Under the mountain of blankets my two great aunts supplied, I remember going to sleep that night looking at the same walls that oversaw my mother’s first breath of life and pondering the chains of existence. Because my great-grandfather August Jossfok, a rough-looking, bearded fellow in big boots, and a young woman down the road, Ida Mathilda Karlsdottor, found favour with each other 130 years ago, I am here today. (My grandmother’s family was from the small farming community of Karperö, further north.)

My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, part of the predominantly Swedish-speaking communities that line the Gulf of Bothnia, left over from the several hundred years when Finland was part of imperial Sweden. In the old days, Swede-Finns spoke only Swedish. When the family left for Canada in 1928, my mother didn’t know a word of Finnish. Few outside Finland realize that the country remains officially bilingual, although mixed-marriages and migration to Sweden have reduced those for whom Swedish is their first language to barely 6 percent of the population.

In fact, there is probably much else people don’t know about Finland, besides saunas, Sibelius (a Swede-Finn, incidentally), the prowess of its hockey players and its remarkable education system, which consistently produces student results among the best in the world. Herewith, in honour of Finland’s 100th birthday, are a dozen things you might like to know about a country that has punched above its weight for a long time, and continues to marches to its own drummer. (Even before independence, Finland had been the first jurisdiction in Europe to give women the right to vote, in 1906–10 years before good old Canada.) First, some history.

 

  1. The fierce polarized politics of early Finland were frightful. Immediately after independence, conservative Whites and socialist Reds duked it out for ascendancy, resulting in a short, brutal civil war that claimed 36,000 lives in a country of just three million people. With the critical assistance of several thousand German troops, the Whites were victorious.

 

  1. The bitterness of the civil war had a tangible impact on far-away Canada. Thousands of “Red Finns” left their divided homeland, now in the hands of the vengeful Whites, and emigrated to Canada. Many found work in the logging camps and mines of northern Ontario. The new arrivals did not leave their politics behind. A number became political activists and radical union organizers. In 1929, Janne Voutilainen and Viljo Rosvall “drowned”, while trying to organize some nearby loggers. Most believe they were murdered by anti-union thugs. Their funeral was the largest ever held in Thunder Bay, which retains a Finnish flavor even today, most notably with the venerable, 100-year old Hoito restaurant, still on the bottom floor of the Finnish Labour Temple. My grandfather was also among the “Red Finn” contingent, but thankfully, he brought his family to Vancouver.

 

  1. In World War II, Finland was an ally of Germany. Hitler made a brief visit in 1942 to wish the country’s military leader, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a happy 75th birthday. The previous year Finnish forces had attacked the Soviet Union to regain territory lost to the USSR during the Winter War. After some initial success, the venture ended disastrously. After the war, the Soviets exacted heavy reparations, claimed a chunk of border territory, and took jurisdiction over a strategic peninsula not that far from Helsingfors (as Swede-Finns call the capital) until 1956. Finland was also required to remain “neutral” in world affairs, a position they scrupulously maintained until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

  1. During the post-war years, Finland established one of the most extensive state social services systems in the world, believing, along with other Nordic countries, that governments have a duty to intervene on behalf of their citizens. Shredding the neo-con argument that taxes and government get in the way of economic development, Finland’s per-capita income has more than held its own among other Western industrialized countries. In 2016, the World Economic Forum ranked tiny Finland first in terms of World Human Capital. Other international reports found Finland the most stable country in the world from 2011-2016, and second best in terms of the gender gap. As baseball broadcaster Mel Allen used to say: “How about that?!”

 

  1. Finland has military conscription. All my male cousins, on turning 18, had to interrupt their education to serve at least six months with the Finnish army.

 

  1. Coalition governments are the order of the day. For many years (until 2015), the small Swedish People’s Party (Svenksa Folkpartiet), supported by just about all of my relatives, was part of the government.

 

  1. In 2014, Finland became the first, and so far, only country to put homoerotic drawings by a gay artist on its stamps. They were the work of the artist known as Tom of Finland (Touko Lasksonen), subject of a recent bio-pic this year by director Dome Karukoski. (The one below is the mild one.)

 

  1. Of course, Finland isn’t perfect. Alcoholism remains a big problem, no doubt contributing to the country’s relatively high homicide rate, while youth unemployment is stuck at around 20 per cent. And, as in most European countries, anti-immigration sentiment has become an issue, fueling the growth of a worrisome, nationalist party. The good news, however, is that political leaders banded together in June to freeze out the Finns Party, after it elected a hard-line, anti-immigration leader. Twenty elected members of the party left to help the coalition government maintain its majority. “This decision will likely ruin our political careers, but we are determined to do this,” they said in a statement. “Today, we are not politicians, but we are doing this for the fatherland’s sake.” How rare is that in today’s political world?

 

  1. In the final of the world hockey championship in 2011, playing against their loathed, arch-rivals, Finland whacked neighbouring Sweden 6-1. It was the greatest triumph in the history of Finnish hockey.

 

  1. Believe it or not, the national sport of Finland is not hockey, but baseball. However, banish any thought of the North American version of rounders.  The Finns call it Pesäpallo, and the rules seem to come from outer space. Would anyone else other than the fun-loving Finns have three designated players on each team called “Jokers”? You think cricket is complicated? It takes this guy more than five minutes to explain all the ins and outs of Pesäpallo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yom1_q8WRck Unlike any sport you’ve ever seen.

 

  1. Well, maybe not. There’s also the Finns’ fondness for fen football, otherwise known as swamp soccer. The august New York Times had a hard time taking it seriously, headlining their story on the  competitive bog slog: “Finland has a sports screw loose.” This from a country that relishes bowling. But never mind. Read about it here. Try hard not to laugh. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/sports/finland-has-a-sports-screw-loose.html

12. Last, but certainly not least: according to the Guinness World Records, the 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias (a soapstone vendor), is the world’s longest palindromic word in everyday use. That prompted my friend Lorne Slotnick to ponder: “Why would the word for a soapstone vendor be in “everyday use”?” And the answer is: Because it’s Finland!

Happy 100th birthday, land of my mother’s birth, and a Merry Christmas/God Jul/Hyvää Joulua to you all.

 

His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett and Eliot

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In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.

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(Lucie McNeill photo)

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan, who changed the face of music. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) At 75, Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.

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A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. A reverse chameleon, changing to ensure he does not fit it. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

 A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

 Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

 Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

 The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

 Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

 The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

 To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

 It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

 Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

 Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

 Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

 I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

 Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

 On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

 Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

 Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

 Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

 When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

 Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

 What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

 Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

 Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

 Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

 Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.

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THE GREATEST

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A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the ring are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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(The famous cover from Esquire.)

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

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Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with thefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

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Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.

 

But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.

 

In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.

 

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.