Pierre Berton, Eric Nicol: the Columnist's Art

Debt one: Pierre Breton.

It's the late 1950s. I'm a high school student in Toronto. I don't think I even read the papers, maybe the sports. We're a Star family, it's one of the ways people define themselves. I'm dimly conscious of a paper called the Tely, but I'm no more aware of the existence of The Globe and Mail than I am of a street in Toronto called the Danforth.

One day for some reason, I open the Star to Page 1 of the second section (there are only two). Down the right side is a column called by Pierre Berton, with a headshot that looks like the bad guy in a western, though perhaps he himself thinks it's more like William Powell in The Thin Man. It's his first column for the Star, a "contract" between him and his readers. It's got clauses, his obligations and ours. He, for instance, will try to write something interesting every day (every day!) and we will accept the occasional column that doesn't quite succeed. It's so ... interactive.

His column next day is about a walk along St. Clair Avenue near Avenue Road, not far from where we live. He talks about the Peter Pan statue in the little park near the corner. It never occurred to me that you could write lovingly, and read absorbedly, about streets you live on.

Sometime later comes a column on Canadian magazines and how they are barely allowed to survive because of pressures from U.S. publishers such as Time Inc. The Star sends him to California to cover a political convention, the sort of thing that always titillates Canadian journalists. He's so disinterested that he goes to Disneyland and writes on that, instead. During the debate over a Canadian flag, he writes that the issue will finally be settled when there is no need any more to discuss it.

One day, his operatives begin to appear. He sends them, undercover, to explore rates charged by TV repair shops or auto mechanics. I've never heard of such a thing. Shortly after, I go with two friends to meet Pierre Berton himself, at the Star, and ask him to write about a worthy project involving fundraising for refugees. As we're shown into his office, my little brother Lorne walks out! He, too, is a Berton operative - perhaps investigating some scam over ads in comic books. We go in and are interviewed. A few days later, a column called A Visit from Three Typical Teenagers appears, mocking the Rebel Without a Cause stereotypes of those years. He describes our earnest concerns and the serious books and magazines we read, such as Foreign Affairs and Commentary. But I seem to recall, when I added Mad magazine as an afterthought, that he glanced up from his notepad as if thinking, Maybe there's hope for this kid.

Last night in Toronto, people honoured Pierre Berton for the half a century he has been writing books. But I wanted to add a word on his contribution, not just as a journalist but also as a columnist, and thank him for the role model he gave me, forty years ago.

Debt two: Eric Nicol.

It's the mid-1950s. I'm about twelve, home sick with the flu. There are few books in our house, but I find one somebody gave my dad when he was in hospital with appendicitis. It's called Twice Over Lightly, by a guy named Eric Nicol. I open it. The dedication reads, "This book was written for the money." I crack up. It's the first time I realize you can be funny in print.

It contains columns he wrote for the Vancouver Province, and continued to write for decades. They crack me up, too. There's one about cops in unmarked cars pulling each other over and another on Columbus reaching America, sighting Indians, and telling the ships to form a circle with the women and children in the middle, who, of course, splash around and drown.

I try it out on a school assignment: review Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments. I say Edward G. Robinson played the biblical character, "good old reliable Dathan," with "a built-in sneer." The teacher writes on my essay, "Talk about built-in sneers." It worked! She even gets in the spirit, noting beside a chocolaty smudge on the page: "Food for thought?"

When I begin writing, in the 1970s, my first regular work is for a CBC radio show of topical satire. The credits at the end of each show go, "And written by ... Eric Nicol and Rick Salutin." One day in Vancouver, I go into the Province newsroom and introduce myself to my - colleague!

In February, Eric Nicol received the Order of Canada. It's a little late, but I wanted to add my congratulations.

An addendum on globalization: I'm particularly happy to give these testimonials about journalism since I consider it the least globalizable form of writing. But, you say, what about CNN? Exactly. CNN hasn't created a global form of journalism; it's transformed the worldwide audience for news into a faux suburb of Atlanta. Who else do you think Bobbie Batista and Flip Spicer picture as they do Talkback and the weather? Speaking of globalization, for those not sated with Quebec City, my own experience of that inimitable event appears in the Focus section of tomorrow's Globe.

Originally published by The Globe and Mail. Rick Salutin's column appears every Friday. Posted on rabble.ca with permission.

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