It’s his voice that gets to you first. That clear, unhurried voice that manages to convey a sense of urgency with just enough of a clipped British accent to make it sound authoritative. It’s a convincing voice that still demands attention. Even now, more than 40 years later, coming over a speaker system in a listening booth in the CBC archives, it grabs you and takes you to another place, another time.
“Berlin on VE Day-May 8, 1945 Four out of five buildings…had been destroyed-that is, completely leveled or completely gutted. This did look like the end of the world. Through the rubble and ashes of Berlin I didn’t recognize famous streets I had known well. We were lost for a few minutes in that utter ruin and silence, in the end of the world. I was afraid.”
Suddenly I am no longer sitting in that safe little cubicle at the CBC listening to old tapes. Instead, I am moving with Matthew Halton into the “still-smoking and burning” city of five million people. His fear becomes my fear, his pain mine. The voice hypnotizes and the script-it is more like an essay-mesmerizes.
Today, three decades after his death, this journalist who was once venerated by a generation of Canadians is almost forgotten. His voice has become silent except for occasional Remembrance Day programs, when the CBC airs short clips from his reports. Halton-of whom it has been said, “Canadian journalism may never see his like again”-deserves more. His broadcasts document the role Canadians played in World War II as graphically and as eloquently as any movie or book.
As I listen to these tapes, carefully transcribed from the original glass discs, the years roll away and I am in the presence of a great storyteller. I picture the owner of the voice to be a tall, imposing figure, not unlike a stern English master at a British boarding school. In fact, Halton was slightly built, about five foot nine, with thinning hair that he often covered with a battered forage cap.
He was a man to whom image and appearance were important. There is a story, probably apocryphal, told to me by Kenneth Dyba, a CBC archivist, about how Halton once spent much time searching for the perfect trench coat for a foreign correspondent. After finding it in an exclusive store in London, he carefully mucked it up to make it look authentic. Writer and close friend Charles Lynch says that Halton wore his clothes with that air of casual chic that some men have, and many women find attractive. Pierre Trudeau has the same aura-an almost effeminate quality, adds Lynch.
“There was a streak of ham in him,” Lynch recalls. “In the heat of battle we would hear him spouting poetry or muttering that it was not a time to work, it was a time to live.” Sometimes when he was especially pleased with one of his broadcasts, he would repeat it over and over again to his colleagues. One of them finally became fed up with this posturing and suggested that if Halton kept re-fighting the battle of Carpiquet, one day he was going to get killed in it.
It was this flair for the dramatic that gave Halton’s broadcasts such depth and emotion. And his war lent itself to that kind of treatment. For him and his fellow journalists, reporting on the Second World War was a holy crusade. Today their reports might be considered somewhat less than objective. All the correspondents accepted censorship and discipline. They were accompanied to the battlefront by army officers. The army set up press camps, supplied communication equipment, transportation, combat uniforms and rations, in the hope reporters could get the home front to contribute to the war effort. Halton himself flew back to Toronto to participate in victory bond campaigns that featured such Hollywood stars as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon. Halton would appear in full uniform-a glamour figure from the battlefield. “It was all considered part of the job,” says Lynch. “Often we were more of a cheering section than we were journalists. There were only good guys and bad guys-our people were the heroes.”
“The Germans were demons; the Canadians were possessed by demons,” Halton began his February, 1944, broadcast on the fighting in the Italian town of Ortona. “The more murderous the battle, the harder both sides fought. There was something different there, something heroic and almost superhuman and, at the same time, dark as night.”
The drama that Halton injected into his broadcasts was not always appreciated by members of the press corps in Europe.
“Matt either aroused affection or scorn,”says Lynch. “The top dog doesn’t always get a hell of a lot of sympathy from envious colleagues. Remember, this was the era before celebrity journalism, and critics felt Matt was prostituting journalism by turning it into entertainment.”
But Halton didn’t pay any attention to this criticism-he wrote and spoke exactly as he felt, says his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1932. “Matt was also awfully lucky. He always wanted to do just what he did. He loved words. He could quote poetry at a moment’s notice. In fact, he considered himself a failed poet.”
To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
It can be purchased online here.