It was mid-May of 1991 and I was fresh off the plane from Vancouver, sitting in a Queen Street West restaurant eating Thai noodles with Globe and Mail editors John Cruickshank and Phil Jackman and explaining the cognitive indignities I had planned for their readers in the coming year. After nearly a year as the Globe’s Friday Fifth Columnist and semiofficial house communist, I was beginning to feel like an institution. And why not? I’d been largely uncensored, and better, I’d been having fun.
Judging from the hate mail, I’d managed to morally offend most of the Canadian right wing with columns suggesting that the stock market is run by irresponsible hooligans betting on the productivity of real participants in the economy. I’d called all those BMW owners who drive around with cellular phones stuck in their ears “dickheads.” I’d invoked the ire of the CanLit industry by suggesting that its most beloved writer (or location for intellectual strip mining) is merely a minor antiquarian miniaturist. I’d attacked the Nike corporation for counselling exercise-induced psychotics to “just do it” and for selling people running shoes filled with air, and I’d been, well, unkind to several other advertisers.
Only once had a column been canned. A reader wrote in to express his consternation that an obscenity like dickhead had been permitted to appear in the august pages of The Globe and Mail, and I responded with a column that used the term 21 times. A dickhead, I explained, is any person whose political character and private behaviour emulates that of Richard M. Nixon. I went on to give a list of eminent dickheads that included Brian Mulroney, Jacques Parizeau, George Bush, Barbara McDougall and people on both sides of the then-current Oka crisis. Noted non-dickheads included Pierre Trudeau, Rene Levesque, Clyde Wells and Elijah Harper. Cruickshank phoned to say, gee, no, that was going too far, and couldn’t I please concentrate a little more closely on media analysis?
I was having far too much fun to quit over a single word, so I said okay, I can live without that column, but really, John, wasn’t everything media? I was, in short, a columnist out of control, and here I was having lunch with my personal wardens proposing to spin out still further.
Somewhere in mid-lunch (and midflight) Cruickshank shot me. He seemed a little embarrassed about being the one to pull the trigger, but with power, as they say down at corporate headquarters, comes unpleasant responsibilities. He discharged his well, although not gleefully.
I didn’t fall off my chair when he did it. I didn’t splatter Thai noodles around, throw a tantrum and I didn’t grovel or threaten to commit suicide. But I’d never been fired before from anything, and I was stung. I managed to squeak out just one interesting question. “Was it,” I asked carefully, “because my columns weren’t as good as the others?” Cruickshank glanced at “Facts & Arguments” page editor Jackman before he answered, also carefully, that, no, that wasn’t the problem. They wanted me to go on to other things-a euphemism, it quickly turned out, for irregular articles on assigned topics. I said I wanted to think about it, and that he should call me in a couple of weeks when I got back to Vancouver. We both knew he was blowing smoke up my ass, that I wasn’t going to write like an Anglican Church deacon, and that he wasn’t going to call.
I did get a phone call a couple of weeks later, but it was from Frank magazine. By then, I’d stopped feeling stung, and was just plain pissed about being fired. Frank asked some questions and I gave some silly answers that the “journalist” on the other end of the line either mis-transcribed or creatively interpreted. One thing he asked me was who I thought was behind it, and I told him I didn’t know. “Thorsell?” he demanded. “I dunno,” I answered. “Maybe.” I went on to relate that I’d heard that an editorial think tank held two weeks before I was fired had decided to move the paper’s news section further to the right, and the arts coverage toward “popular” culture-fewer book and theatre reviews, and more video and gossip. Since I was on the left (in their minds, anyway) and an outsider without Toronto connections or close friends in editorial, I was, my source told me, the easiest to shoot. The item that eventually appeared said that Frank was sad I was gone, but then reported that I’d blamed it entirely on Thorsell, making it sound as if I was the victim of an editorial sweep that had the whole Globe and Mail turning into an agitprop sheet for the Hitler Youth. That, interestingly, was the first-and only-lesson in journalism I received during the whole year.
Am I still pissed off? Not really. I got a year of columns in, which is about six months more than I or anyone who knows me expected I’d last. Losing the column isn’t even a professional blow. I’m not really a journalist, you see, and my interest in daily events and matters of “fact” is marginal. What gets reported in the media as factual verity most often strikes me as a smoke screen to hide whatever it is the business community, the government and whoever else has access to the media are really trying to do to us-and to distract us from the long-term consequences of the horrible things we’re all guilty of doing to one another and to the planet just by living in consumer heaven. A couple of years ago, for instance, the federal government had the whole cultural community tied up in knots over a patently ludicrous censorship bill while cultural funding was quietly being frozen and the cultural elements of the Free Trade Agreement (which froze funding permanently) were negotiated. Now the Mulroneyites are dithering around with a self-inflicted constitutional crisis to hide the increasingly obvious fact that they’ve been consciously and systematically dismantling the country for the past seven years.
As a writer I’m interested in metaphors and in ideas, and at those points where “the facts” interface with metaphors and ideas. Writing the column forced me to develop a whole lot of skills I didn’t really have when I started and generally sharpened my weapons as an anecdotist. The first columns took three to five days each to write, but toward the end, it was down to four to six hours.
After a deadly earnest summer, The Globe and Mail has hired two competent left-of-centre columnists for its arts section, Rick Salutin and Stan Persky. Persky is capable of being at least as funny as I ever was, and Salutin is always interesting to read. Meanwhile, the column that replaced mine is stinking up the page.
As I said, nobody had more fun with that column than I did. It was so much fun, actually, that if someone offered me another gig on the same or similar terms, I’d probably take it. But I’m not holding my breath. …
Brian Fawcett is the author of 14 books. Unusual Circumstances/Interesting Times and Public Eye are his two most recent works. He’s recently moved to Toronto.