Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down on It” fades out, and a relaxed Lister Sinclair begins: “For a moment there, I felt a sense of panic, meaning I didn’t quite remember what I was supposed to say next, but that isn’t real panic. Real panic is quite different.” He goes on, “Real panic is the unreasoning fear of the wilderness itself. It’s the fear of the great god Pan.” He continues: “One time I was driving … through the great redwood forest in California …. ” Sinclair expands on the nature of panic, his seasoned storyteller voice measured for effect. “It wasn’t that there were bad guys, or even good guys, out there. It’s that there was nothing in particular out there, but everything was inside me …. Panic is real.” A furious tambourine beat begins. “But is Pan real? Is the bogeyman real? Well, of course, if you believe in them; of course not, if you don’t.” The tambourine explodes as the horns begin and KC and the Sunshine Band erupt into a seductive “I’m your boogie man, that’s what I am.”
It was April 2005 and Lister Sinclair, at 84 years old and better known for his work on CBC Radio One’sIdeas, was hosting “The Masterpieces of Disco” on Go!. On the day they were scheduled to record the show, Sinclair worried associate producer Pedro Mendez by showing up with a stack of enormous volumes on various subjects, but no script and no acknowledgement that he’d listened to the 20 or so disco songs he was to talk about. A kid when Sinclair was already an old radio pro, Mendez didn’t yet understand the true depth of the man who sat before him in the studio that day.
The CBC legend was known for making connections between things seemingly unrelated. More importantly, he made those connections accessible to amateurs and connoisseurs alike, a skill he mastered during his 16-year tenure at Ideas. Fond of saying entertainment shouldn’t be a sneer word, he was amused by those who considered him highbrow because of his interest in classical music and the natural world. On the contrary, the man who hated chess and wine, and loved Diet Coke and Law and Order, referred to himself as “omnibrow.” Sinclair, who died after being treated for a pulmonary embolism in 2006, was a true public intellectual, someone who excelled at telling a new story through its ancient origins or an old story through its current developments.
Sinclair had a difficult childhood. Born in 1921 to British parents in Bombay (now Mumbai), where his father worked as a chemical engineer; at one and a half he went to England to live with an aunt. His early life in England was lonely, but he found solace in music and birdwatching. Eventually he attended the prestigious Colet Court for the lower grades, and then St. Paul’s School in London, where he often faced violent punishment. In the first part of the “Thank You, Mr. Sinclair” series on Ideas, he told producer Sara Wolch that he was caned 27 times in one day for what he called “an array of mild protests.” But the school’s administration was supportive when, at age 15, he and others protested the conduct of General Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War by lying down in front of London buses.
Another war changed Sinclair’s life. In 1939, he travelled to New York City with his mother to see the World’s Fair. While there, the Second World War broke out in Europe, so the two moved to Vancouver, where Sinclair attended the University of British Columbia. He soon found himself writing for The Ubyssey and discovered theatre and classical drama.
After graduating in 1942, he moved to Toronto, pursued a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Toronto and worked part-time as an actor for CBC Radio’s wartime propaganda plays. Sinclair confessed that he considered himself a “pretty good second-rate actor” in a series of interviews with Wolch, which ran on Ideas in 2005. “What could you not do?” she inquired.
“Turn into someone else.”
That wasn’t quite true. Sinclair was actually very good at turning into someone else and took on diverse roles with the same passion; what’s more, he was able to make a living doing it. “When you’re trying to get an acting part, you just say you can do it,” he once advised. “If someone says, ‘Can you do a Bulgarian accent,’ you say, ‘North or south?'”
In 1944, Sinclair began writing plays for CBC Radio. In one of his early productions, The Case Against Cancer, he used everyday language to help demystify the nature, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. It functioned as an intelligent public service announcement and helped build his career as a teacher and thinker disguised as a radio playwright. Six years later, Hilda Morgan aired on the popular CBC Stage Series. One of his most controversial plays, it follows the life of a young woman who, after the death of her fiancé, discovers she is pregnant and low on options. Though no character utters the word abortion, many listeners found the play objectionable. In the end, the protagonist decides to go through with the pregnancy and raise the baby herself. Nevertheless the piece caught the attention of some members of Parliament. Four decades later, Sinclair remained unapologetic. “Some people got up in the House of Commons and said never did they think the day would come when they would hear the word abortion on the public broadcasting system. And then various other people had to get up in the House of Commons and say, ‘And you haven’t heard it yet.’ Nowadays I think we would think nothing of it, and I’m glad we would think nothing of it.” This would not be the last time people talked about Sinclair’s work.
Over the next 17 years, he worked for various radio and television programs before joining CBC’s full-time staff in 1967. A regular on Front Page Challenge, he also named CBC’s longest-running documentary program, The Nature of Things, after a classical Latin poem by Lucretius. In 2002, he discussed the title with current host David Suzuki. “I was reacting against the heavy stress of politics,” Sinclair said. “I thought it was very important that people should begin to realize that there was a lot going on in the universe that didn’t necessarily have very much to do with human beings.”
The interplay between the universe and human beings had always fascinated Sinclair. On a three-part show for Ideas in 2002, he delved into his greatest influences and kept returning to the discovery of the new inside the old by shifting perspectives. Sinclair enjoyed the story of Newton looking at the moon and asking what could be holding it down, instead of what could be holding it up. “I admire the way his mind worked universally,” Sinclair said. From Newton he took “the firm belief that indeed the universe lies under order of a kind, of several kinds, and we ought to be able to get at it.”
While still digging for that order and presenting his findings with his “golden-honeyed” voice, Sinclair became executive vice-president in 1972, which sent him to Ottawa. He was the first CBC producer to reach that level. He toured the country, holding open houses to discuss the corporation and the future of broadcasting with staff. “Nobody ever had the brain that Lister did, not even close,” says Eric Friesen, then an announcer in Ottawa. “The programming brain, the knowledge that was stuffed inside that head that could just come out in this lovely creamy English accent, this gorgeous intimate voice. It was just so unusual for someone like him to suddenly be running the damn place.”
Too unusual, perhaps. Sinclair was demoted to vice-president for program policy and development in 1974. He kept that position for two years, then returned to Toronto. Though he’d seen few of his ideas picked up, he didn’t regret the experience and getting back to the creative side of radio- “Where the fun is,” he would say-was exactly what he wanted.
An aural magazine, Ideas began in 1965 as an amalgamation of two programs: University of the Air and The Learning Stage. “A lot of shows were lectures-panel discussions. Ideas came out of an adult-education background,” says executive producer Bernie Lucht. For most of its first two decades, the program lacked an identifiable host. But by the early 1980s, Friesen was the department head in charge of the show and wanted to take it in a new direction. One of his first tasks was to add a signature host. “When I looked around, I thought, who could possibly do this job? Who could possibly front this incredible variety of materials?” he says. “I just kept coming back to thinking that if anybody had the intellectual depth and breadth and substance, it would be Lister. So I approached him and he leapt at it.”
Already 62, Sinclair did more than host. He participated in editorial meetings, acted as an unofficial mentor for co-workers and helped write some shows, in addition to narrating them. “He gave it a cultured, informed touch with the leavening of humour,” Lucht says. “He brought that type of classiness to the show, which it hadn’t had before.” And it wasn’t long before all of the producers had internalized their host’s voice and could write to match his speaking style.
When Sinclair wrote shows, he often cut close to deadlines. In 1991, he wanted to do a five-part series on the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. Lucht okayed it, but as the days wore on and no script materialized, he gave Sinclair an ultimatum: turn in a script by tomorrow noon or the series gets cancelled. “He took all of this in his stride, came in the next day with a handful of handwritten foolscap pages. There must’ve been about 50 pages. Handwritten! And not a word had to be changed. It was perfect.”
In the mid-’80s, Sinclair travelled to Calgary to host a series of shows featuring Gloria Saarinen, a classical pianist originally from New Zealand. At first she saw Sinclair as a distraction because he wouldn’t stop asking her questions while she rehearsed, and convinced her to improvise in front of an audience. Eventually, though, he won her over. They met again in Vancouver and, while strolling along the seawall, he told her his life story. “If I wasn’t listening, he walked backwards in front of me to see that I was really taking it all in. I knew everything about him by the time-well, however long it takes to walk seven miles.” Saarinen soon moved to Toronto to be with him. When she had to travel, he sent her postcards. “He wrote masses of these things, with all kinds of anagrams, riddles, puns,” she recalls with a smile. “One of them, I’ll never forget: ‘My heart is a-bleedin’ for the gal in Dunedin.'”
Sinclair’s earlier close relationships were frequently strained. His personal history included three ex-wives and rocky relationships with his children, in part because he often chose to work rather than spend time with them. Sinclair continued working on Ideas well into his old age, even discussing the program with Wolch while he was in the hospital.
When Ideas ran a three-part series on Sinclair for his 81st birthday, the producers invited his colleagues, friends and famous well-wishers to share something about the man who’d synthesized many of their ideas for the world. Mathematician John Conway wrote, “What I remember was giving rather incoherent answers, but somehow Lister’s erudite interpolations made them into wonderful sense. What does this tell us? Well, he obviously knows his job very well indeed. What surprised me was that he seemed to know my job just about as well.”
That was a common reflection among experts he spoke to, but Sinclair often urged co-workers to keep moving the goalposts. “I’m pedalling as hard as I can, all the time. Stop pedalling and you fall off. I don’t wish to fall off. I don’t wish to rust out. I don’t mind wearing out-wear out, yes; rust out, no.”
Though he’d been taking on fewer projects, Sinclair and Wolch continued working together right up until his death. “There are few times in life where you can feel, as you’re creating a program, that you’re using up everything you have,” Wolch says, drinking tea in her North York home. “All the creative possibilities that you have at that moment are called upon. I definitely felt that way when Lister and I made programs.”
While working on a show about Newton, Wolch was once again exposed to the depth and range of Sinclair’s “ferocious genius.” They were drinking lots of coffee and, as usual, he let it sit for an hour before drinking it. “How is it possible for you to drink coffee so cold?” she asked him. It was like a light bulb had suddenly gone off above a cartoon head. He later opened the show by saying, “Good evening, this is Ideas, and I’m Lister Sinclair. The cup of coffee that’s sitting on my desk is a little too hot to drink right now, but it’ll be cooling, according to Newton’s laws of cooling, and up in the sky, the spacecraft Voyager is on its way to Neptune.”