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Roy & Me

MINGLING VOICES

Series editor: Manijeh Mannani

Give us wholeness, for we are broken.
But who are we asking, and why do we ask?

PHYLLIS WEBB

National in scope, Mingling Voices draws on the work of both new and established novelists, short story tellers, and poets. The series especially, but not exclusively, aims to promote authors who challenge traditions and cultural stereotypes. It is designed to reach a wide variety of readers, both generalists and specialists. Mingling Voices is also open to literary works that delineate the immigrant experience in Canada.

Series Titles

Poems for a Small Park

by E.D. Blodgett

Dreamwork

by Jonathan Locke Hart

Windfall Apples: Tanka and Kyoka

by Richard Stevenson

The dust of just beginning

by Don Kerr

The difference between opera and life,
I’d noticed, was that in life
one person played all the parts.


LORRIE MOORE, A Gate at the Stairs
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 317.

Preface

In the summer of 1958, when I was growing up in Calgary, I was hired as a cub reporter by the editor of a local paper, the North Hill News. I was a sixteen-year-old Jewish boy. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the editor, Roy Farran — a British war hero who would go on to a become a member of the Alberta legislature — was widely suspected of anti-Semitic views and conduct, including the torture and murder of a sixteen-year-old Jewish boy in Palestine during the last days of the British mandate. The scenes that follow recall my relationship with this dashing, enigmatic man who, apart from my parents, has probably been the single most influential figure in my life.

That sounds like a memoir, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t.

Two stories are juxtaposed here. My remembrances of my early forays into journalism — Roy and his North Hill News, along with my adventures as founding editor of my university newspaper — run down the left side of the page. That much is memoir. But over on the right side is the kind of shameless fantasy that has no place in a self-respecting memoir. There I compose a Roy Farran out of other material — his novels, his memoirs (sometimes drawing on his words, sometimes using my own). The notes acknowledge my use of Farran’s published writings, which I habitually paraphrase. Thanks to my flypaper memory, in the conversations I recall, I quote him verbatim — his voice filtered, of course, through five decades of dead flies. Other scenes and speeches are entirely my invention. On his role in the Jewish boy’s murder, I’ve also drawn on David Cesarani’s revelations in Major Farran’s Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War Against Jewish Terrorism, 1945–1948.1

Given Roy’s politics, there’s a certain poetic justice in that allocation of space — my story on the left, Roy’s to the right. But I’m looking for another kind of justice. I’m trying to weigh the conflicting aspects of that remarkable man’s life, if only to renegotiate what he meant to me and how he influences me still. Nor should we forget the sixteen-year-old Jewish boy whom Roy apparently killed — Alexander Rubovitz. His voice still needs to be heard.

Of course there is no balance to the page thus divided. I may have more words than Roy has now, but my life is a Popsicle-stick raft beside his Hokusai wave. And the young Alexander Rubovitz has the fewest words, the shortest life, yet he casts the heaviest shadow.

So on the left is my memory, on the right my fancy. But even memory refracts through the prism of imagination. I wonder whether any memoir can be entirely free of fantasy. For even what I am confident is an accurate memory may still harbour traces of subjective intervention. We are all stuck in our own perspective. Often our memory skews to what we’d like things to have been. Like our favourite mirror, our hindsight flatters us, or we prefer the funhouse distortion that catches our fears. Conversely, our imagination is fueled by what’s real. Here my fantasy of Roy draws more on what I’ve been reading than on what I may have been smoking. Here each story, as well as the collision of the two, moves between those conventionally discrete poles: history and fiction. So this is not a memoir — or, rather, it is more than that. It’s an experiment in the genre, one that not only admits but exercises the subjectivity in our memories.

In approaching this work, the reader is requested to set aside any usual expectations of a history, a novel, a psychoanalytic study, a confession. As its slender heft may suggest, what follows is more akin to the classical closet drama. In the three hours’ traffic of the page, the interplaying voices — two main ones, a few supporting characters — address themes of memory, ambition and guilt, relationships and their influence, and responsibilities and how we rationalize them. Above all, the interwoven narratives explore an accident of history, in which an ordinary small life happened to engage with one much larger. For we are all living in some history — and who knows how many fictions. Finally, as in live theatre more than in prose fiction, the themes speak to the moment of performance as much as to the moment of the setting. The them, there, are also the us, now.

This work grew out of a short article on Farran, “Double Life,” published in the June 2009 issue of Alberta Views (pp. 37–39). The present title fought off a spirited challenge from Roy and I. My two main characters are the object — not the agent — of my creative recollection.

The author expresses his heartiest gratitude to Walter Hildebrandt for his understanding and encouragement, to Pamela Holway for her dedicated, constructive editing far beyond the call of duty, and to Natalie Olsen for a book and cover design that can only be called inspired. To my wife, Anne Petrie, my usual love and special thanks for suggesting this project and for unreservedly supporting me here as in all else.

Roy & Me

Roy & Me

I was in London when Roy Farran died. “Shit,” I said, when on my return I heard the news. “I missed his bloody funeral.”

I’d been looking forward to it. Not that I wished to see him dead; I just wanted to say hello to a few of the living. I hadn’t seen the guys from the North Hill News for some fifty years. Like the crew from the print shop, foreman Milt Knight, his successor, Dick, the pressman, Frank, the linotype operator, George Volk. No, he’s dead, his wife told me, a wonderful, funny man taken tragically young. But his brother, Bill, is still alive. Then there was young Billy, who would bellow “Mule Skinner Blues” (“Good mornin’ cap-tain”) to punctuate the boredom. Bill MacCallum is gone too. He did the leg work to start the Calgary Winter Club. Limp and all. There’s a legacy for you.

Now Graham Smith, who took over from Roy as editor, he has just passed away too. And the soon-to-be cartoonist Ben Wicks, who briefly worked in the print shop when he first alit from England.2 He’d been referred to Roy as a key figure in the expatriate British community here. Ben’s gone. This “Going, going, gone” motif is sadly unrelated to auctions.

I looked up the report in the Calgary Herald. Dead at 85, Roy Alexander St. Thomas Farran.

Alexander? Yes, Alexander. And St. Thomas.

I’d only heard him called “Roy,” and I only spoke to “Mr. Farran.” If I call him “Roy” now, it’s because I’m sixty-eight and he’s gone altogether. Well, out of earshot.

Quite a funeral I missed, too. Soldiers from the Strathcona Regiment came from all over to give Roy an artillery salute. That’s rare. A procession ten blocks long slow-marched from Saint Anthony’s Church to the McInnis & Holloway Funeral Home. Calgary had never seen that before. Military representatives came from France, Greece, Italy.

Roy’s military record allowed nothing less. He was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in World War ii: Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross (twice), stars for the Africa, France-Germany, and Italy campaigns, Queen’s Gold and Silver Jubilee medals, both Officier and Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, American Legion of Merit, Italian Medaglia d’Oro and Partisan Star of the Garibaldi, Greek War Medal, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. All those medals. Had he been Jewish, he could’ve opened a pawn shop.

A genuine war hero. And . . . I knew him. For a while there, I would say I idolized him. And now I’m left to wonder.

Image

My high school principal, Mr. (a.k.a. Gordon A.) Foster, gave me permission to take an afternoon off from school for my job interview.

The North Hill News was at 310 16th Avenue nw. Today, the building, now sandwiched between a Vietnamese and a sushi restaurant, houses an equipment rental outfit, a mortgage company, and a tattoo parlour. Publishing has changed.

I pretended confidence when the receptionist pointed me to the first office on the left. I strode down the hall as if someone were watching.

“Mr. Farran?” I offered from the doorway.

“Yes?”

“I’m Maurice Yacowar? The lady in the front said I should come through? We have an appointment?”

“Of course. Come in. Take that seat.”

There were two desks in the room, at a 90-degree angle, each sheltering a wooden armchair. Mr. Farran sat in one; I took the one on the right. A Calgary street map was the only item on the walls.

Roy was a very handsome man. He had a full head of silver hair, a firm jaw, an aquiline nose, a clear, ruddy complexion, and a husky, solid build that his striped suspenders failed to demean. He usually spoke with a chuckle, but over the years I would see that he could also flash steel.

“I have your letter here,” he rummaged. “Some-where. If you’re going to be a journalist, you will have to learn to master mess. Aaah. So, it’s Morris . . . how do you pronounce the rest?”

Yac-owar. Maur-ice Yac-owar. My father’s from Odessa so it was originally Ya-kov-er. It was anglicized to Yacowar.”

I didn’t say we anglicized it. Everyone covers some tracks, passes some buck. If that omission was a lie, it was little and white.

“You’re sixteen. But with previous employment! Usher at the Hitchin’ Post, one year now. How is that going?”

“Well, I’ve always liked movies, especially Westerns. But last weekend I got to watch Storm over the Nile six times. Excellent film. Do you know it? With Laurence Harvey?”

“The remake of The Four Feathers? A fine book. I believe there was an earlier film version, with Ralph Richardson.”

“Could be. The job is good, but East Calgary’s a bit rough. I had to lie about my age, but I need that 60 cents an hour.”

“Do you wear the blue uniform?”

“Yes, sir. It’s very itchy. My chemistry lab partner, John, he ushers at the Capital.3 He says his suit doesn’t itch.”

“So even here there’s a class system, what?” That ready chuckle.

“I guess. Anyway, now I’m sixteen and legal, I thought I’d try for a real job? I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”

“Here’s your first lesson. You can’t be a writer on a newspaper. There’s no room for flowery prose. Get down the facts. Like Dragnet. You’re writing for a thin column on the page so you can’t run on. You need discipline. Precision.”

“That’s good to know, sir.”

“Do you type?”

“Not very fast.” I demonstrated with two fingers in the air. I probably managed a typo even there.

“You don’t want to type faster than you think. That’s like a soldier who shoots before he sees. What are your career plans?”

“I’m going to UAC in September.” At that time, the “University of Calgary” consisted of the University of Alberta’s Calgary branch, housed in a wing at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (known locally as “the Tech”). “I’ll major in English, then do either journalism or law. Maybe do a minor in commerce, so I could go into corporate law.”

“That sounds sensible. I see you’ve edited school papers. Grade Nine. Grade Eleven. The yearbook. Oh yes, your Sputnik editorial.” The Herald, Calgary’s afternoon daily, had reprinted my school paper piece on their editorial page. I had subtly included a copy in my application.

“To be frank, I find it a bit overwritten. Purple prose will see you through school but not here. Still, you’re off to not a bad start. Why didn’t you apply to the Herald?”

“I did, sir. And The Albertan. You were the only one who replied.”

Roy smiled: “I appreciate your honesty. It says here you’re Jewish.”

“Yes, sir. I’m president of the Jewish fraternity this year. The AZA. That doesn’t do much for my writing, but it gives me experience in public speaking.”

“Yes. Well, Morris, that was a very good letter. It was . . . complete. I suppose I could use some help. Oh, you’re at Central, not Crescent Heights. You live on the south side?”

“Yes, on 36th Avenue at 11th. But I can bus here early every morning. Just one change, at The Bay.”

“Around nine is fine, when the phone calls start. But journalists don’t punch clocks. Some days you leave early; some days you work late. More often the latter. As it happens I live in Mount Royal, on Hillcrest Avenue. We’re closer than you’d think.”

Image

My parents were newly arrived to Mount Royal.

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