This final lesson popped me right out of the cultural left where I had made my home. It was now clear to me that our contemporary story tellers were telling lies. They had utterly corrupted our idea of our country and culture, religion and past. They misread the very ground of human character. They had taught us that with few exceptions, we came from exploiters, oppressors of natives and blacks. All the “great” writers of our time read to me now as depressives caught in an almost demonic fiction, charlatans who had seized the criminal and disaffected and made of them the norm that must be defeated and replaced by another system. And that system was inevitably command and control socialism.
I blame it on the dining room table. When my mother died, I couldn’t get rid of it; no one in the family wanted a mid-Victorian mahogany table that could seat ten in considerable luxury. Bad karma I thought, remembering the spectacular arguments, wherein every night the most controversial subject imaginable was introduced for debate. We children were expected not only to have an opinion, but to argue it with force. There was a lot of un-WASP-like shouting, and a cavalcade of slammed doors.
I grew up in Westmount, with a father who more than belonged, but who had married an educated prairie girl who decidedly did not. I hated the snobbery, the cruelty, the exclusion she was all too often shown. Further, why didn’t anyone know any French people – barring, of course, the staff. No Jews, no Americans, no people of any colour but ours, all pink and tailored and sporty, in the same semi-grand houses, eating the same food, living a year bound by the Anglican calendar refreshed by a procession of some pretty glorious parties. Class and position were identified by a thousand tiny signifiers. To others it was the most foreign of languages, with no lexicon. Deliberately so. What I didn’t understand was that I was growing up in a pre-modern clan, like every other of the time, cloistered within its intricate cousinage, being trained like a SWAT team member for leadership in business, the battlefield, or charity. By 17 I declared myself at war with all of it, and marched through McGill’s campus with the French students, the anti-war left, and any other protest that was going around.
By 22, I was dating a philosophy teacher, an Indian from Trinidad whose parents had been indentured labourers. He had been sent to Oxford by the Anglican church, was satisfyingly ink-black, and a pal of Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich. My beleaguered parents were suitably horrified, more by his ideas than his colour. For good reason; every Saturday we would go to lunch in Chinatown, and thence to the Communist bookstore, where a new pamphlet would be pressed upon me. The paranoid right is correct about the fate of their kids at college; I was being indoctrinated. But, Mao’s On Practice inspired me. Rather than spend my life reading in the cloister, for which I was far too restless, I would throw myself into the stink and chaos of real life.
My first “action” was the founding of a feminist theatre company, called the Women’s Theatre Co-op, where decisions would be made by consensus, and all the plays were written by women, and all the parts played by women. The nightmare of consensus decision-making gave me pause, but apparently not enough.
When I finished graduate school (leaving as a thoroughgoing Keynesian), I moved to New York and got married. I wanted to write, and a red diaper baby opened the first door. Shaun was the daughter of Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party and Umkhonto We Sizwe, the terrorist arm of the African National Congress. Her mother was Ruth First, Minister of Education in Mozambique, before she was blown up by a letter bomb, sent, it was said, by the South African police. Shaun got me a job at legendary filmmaker Arthur Penn’s office in New York. Arthur wanted someone who could spend the days in his office writing, because the office was a shell, used a few times a year. Shaun worked for Robert deNiro, Martin Scorcese and Al Pacino, all of whom were greatly impressed by her Communist activist parents. When people say Hollywood is left-wing, the cliché masks the deep penetration of the hard left into film and television.
I learned to spell my name before saying it, because of the dumbfounded silence on the other end of the line from people like Warren Beatty or Elia Kazan when I said “Nickson”. But in those years I did teach myself how to write, and another red diaper baby (whose most recent book was a celebration of Fidel Castro) got me my first job writing for the LA Weekly. When my marriage broke up, I moved from New York to London, where Shaun now lived in her family home in Camden Town. My best friend was a young punk musician, who lived in a squat on Fernhead Road. Brer’s father was a poet, an Earl and a Minister in Thatcher’s cabinet. This breadth of acquaintance made me catnip for the Time bureau chief in London, since most of his reporters moved almost exclusively within the expat community.
I moved between Brer’s squat and Shaun’s, kicked out of the latter whenever Joe Slovo came to town and MI6 was parked outside the door. Joe had been on Interpol’s ten most wanted list for a decade, but finally had been allowed to travel around Europe. I met him one night. He sat in the shadows and interviewed me for a few minutes, out of politeness perhaps, and the possibility that given my job at Time, I might be useful. I was thrilled by the favour; to me he was a great man and access to him sharply limited. I was a happy swimmer in the cultural left and everyone I met – and it seems now as if I met everyone – was unhappy only because the right political system, socialism, had not been established. With few exceptions, every publisher, columnist, artist, great and small, thought the world would be made right, if that happened, and most cultural product was deemed to have gravitas only if it moved the cause along.
Time hurled me into hundreds if not thousands of interviews with politicians, artists, deposed kings and princes, scientists, torture victims, blood-soaked IRA chiefs, crooks and Nobel Prize winners. These encounters established a larger reality for me and hairline cracks appeared in my world view. I became European bureau chief of Life magazine and one day Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, Ismail Ayoub, walked into my office and offered me the rights to Nelson’s autobiography. Tout London wanted to know how an obscure Canadian girl with no political heft got the rights to Long Walk to Freedom. There were a couple of reasons; Mandela was familiar with Life which had long treated him as a hero, and one of Time’s South African stringers was a one-time lover of Winnie. The clincher, I suspect, was that I had met Joe Slovo, and was friends with his daughter. I was safe.