Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds died Sunday, in Ottawa, of cancer at the tender age of seventy-two. I had & retain a special regard for him, as well I might. For he was the only Canadian newspaper editor who ever gave me a steady job. Had it not been for him I would never have participated in the MSM at all — except “abroad,” where my services were always more welcome. My mourning for him is thus perfectly sincere: “There goes my last meal ticket.”

Peter Worthington died the week before. He was Canada’s other “crazy” newspaper editor. True, they were both rightwing, in an undogmatically libertarian sort of way. But their reputed craziness had nought or little to do with their politics. Instead what marked them was complete freedom from the dictatorship of mediocrity. Each in his own way advanced the notion that newspapers were for readers; Worthington more the news hound, Reynolds more the man of letters; but both went recklessly for “the story,” propelled by a force prior to & larger than modern journalism.

Paradoxically, these men presided over extremely profitable newspapers. Each of Neil’s, even before the Reign of the Internet, began sliding down the plughole from the moment he left. Yet he ran editorial departments that were, even by the standards of previous decades, rather overstaffed, filling more space than might seem strictly necessary to a bean-counting mind. More revenue poured in from circulation, then advertising, until they became cash cows.

The late Richard J. Doyle could also be mentioned: once editor of the Globe & Mail, when it was an interesting newspaper. (Died 2003.) He kept promising me jobs, but never delivered; he was effectively vetoed by his section editors, & I never pressed. (Did work for him as a copy boy for a few months when I was sixteen.) I have written in praise of him before, of what he was able to accomplish even within the deadening environment of “Canada’s national newspaper,” where the mediocrity is encased in the cement of intellectual pretension. He was able to put cracks in it, here & there, by hiring men (& the odd woman) of real talent, who acted as if they didn’t know the rules.

The trick, as Neil Reynolds discovered, is not to hire professional journalists. His instinct was to hire writers, & see if they could handle reportage; or hire people who knew something, & see if they could write. His habit was to throw people in the deep end, & see if they could swim; then ruthlessly fish out those who couldn’t. It is understandable why he was loved, or hated.

At the Ottawa Citizen, I had the most wonderful job, from 1997 to 2000. Neil sent me all over the world, to cover the most unlikely subjects. He loved length & depth — he had this counter-cultural theory that readers would be willing to slog through thousands of words, even on an unfamiliar topic, provided the piece was interesting. The reader to him was Everyman, not “our market.” He thought it made sense to let a writer spend the time necessary to investigate, preferring the big splash to the endless dribble. Therefore I was several times given a whole newspaper section to pursue a topic such as, “Looking for Christ under stones in Israel.”

It was the sort of topic that appealed to him. Self-educated (like the other two editors mentioned), widely read, & full of curious arcana, he was the son of a Free Methodist preacher in Kingston, Ont. He wore this comfortably in his self-understanding. Over coffee & a smoke we once agreed that his heritage was the Free Methodism — “of Bruegel.”

Among his favourite expressions was, “the sacred & the profane.” Possessed of the notion that human beings live once only, that the universe is not intrinsically boring, & that it cannot easily be explained away, he felt it the task of a newspaper to wander gratuitously back & forth, across that essential divide: to wander profanely into the sacred, & sacredly into the profane. Journalism was “literature” to him; it was not to be circumscribed or narrowed by professional convention. It was not “a branch of literature” in his view; it was literature. Therefore it ought to be well-written, & to employ imaginative devices where required, & to be set out in fine typography.

He hired me twice: first at the Kingston Whig-Standard, in its glorious last days under Davies family ownership before tax rules forced its sale to a big chain, & the remarkable quality of the paper was immediately gutted. He kept offering me a job when he was editing the St John Telegraph-Journal, under Irving family ownership, but I would not move to New Brunswick.

When Conrad Black installed him at the Ottawa Citizen, I think I was his first hire. By that time we had some mutual understanding, & when I heard the news of his appointment I stayed patiently by my telephone, waiting for his call, which duly came several hours later. A man of Humphrey Bogart charm, & equally laconic, he said when it rang, “I’m going to be in Toronto tomorrow, & was wondering whether I could drop in on you for a cup of tea.”

Upon appearing at the little studio I then occupied, he lit a cigarette & examined a dozen author photos I had pasted above my work table on the wall. He named every one of them: a remarkable feat, for several were obscure poets. (He sometimes gave evidence of magical powers.) Then he took his seat, declined the tea, & stared at me without speaking.

Finally, I cracked. “So, Neil, you have been appointed editor of the Citizen, & you’ve come here to offer me a job.”

“How much will I have to pay you?”

I named a sum that seemed a little extravagant, to which he nodded, adding, “When do we start?”

With that sorted out, he asked what I’d be doing.

“How about we invent a Sunday magazine for the paper?”

“Good. Let’s do that.”

The rest will be largely untold history, not all of it happy. I was received in the Citizen office as one of a delegation, from Mars. People to whom I was speaking would turn their backs & casually walk away. Sometimes I was allowed to overhear rather hateful grumbling about Conrad Black, Neil Reynolds, & someone named David Warren, peppered with obscenities. Efforts were made to sabotage everything I did, & gossip about me was “leaked” persistently to Frank, a local scandal sheet (enhancing my reputation). Neil naturally left me to sink or swim. When I moaned about my managerial difficulties, he gave me a little fatherly advice.

“There are four basic principles of management, David, & you will just have to master them. The first is to delegate everything. The others all deal with resource allocation & they are: lie, cheat, & steal.”

Finally he rescued me for plain writing tasks, entirely outside the office. The job description became: “wandering scholar.” That Citizen’s Weekly (the Sunday magazine) was now on its feet, & didn’t need me any more.

Alas, for me, Neil was moved on in anno 2000, to “save” the Vancouver Sun, & my days of adventure & world travelling for the Citizen were promptly over. I was now one of a champing stable of columnists, writing mostly of international affairs, from my apartment with an Internet connexion. The need to keep up spousal support payments kept me at this for another twelve years.

Kingston had been even more fun than Ottawa. That is where I had the opportunity to absorb Neil’s eccentric ways, & worldview. One remembers things like a long editorial meeting, that consisted almost entirely of Neil lecturing the staff on the works of Matthew Arnold.

Or of another moment when I thoughtlessly barged into the morning news conference in his office, turning the heads of all news editors there assembled. Neil’s secretary had tried to warn me it was in progress, but in my wrath at some petty oversight I had ignored her.

“I’m a prima donna, gawdammit, & I expect to be treated like one!” I declared, to all these blank faces.

Without bothering to ask what the problem was, Neil picked up the phone to his editorial page editor, & barked, “Whatever you just did to Warren, never do it again.” Then turned to me & said: “Get out of here.”

One could still smoke in the greasy spoons in those days, & often we would fill a booth to chat. I got to ask him things like, “Why are you a Libertarian?” And, “Are you a Christian?”

He assured me that his libertarianism had nothing to do with free enterprise or economics. His view was that the bureaucracy & all other false security must be stripped away, until the real questions of human life become visible again. It did not really matter whether this would make us richer or poorer in material terms. The important thing was to be alive. And as for whether he was Christian, “That isn’t a question for me but for God.” His own calling in the world, as he conceived it, was to be “oppositional.”

“Oppositional to what?”

“To everything, more or less. Everything ought to be exposed & opposed.”

He was an aloof man. He could manipulate through charm, show sudden great empathy, & as suddenly withdraw it. He let very few people get close to him, & even they could not always be sure he cared. My impression was sometimes of a kind of autism, with remarkable acting skills. This went with nerves of steel.

Walking once across a parking lot in Ottawa — to a place where we could smoke & chat — we left behind the cries of some office convulsion. Neil had just done something typical, to cause complete emotional disarray. “What was that all about?” I asked him, as we walked past all the cars.

“I tend to run a fairly chaotic newsroom.”

He got the best out of people; often better than they themselves thought they could do. And he did this shamelessly, at the expense of their nice feelings. People who claimed to hate him would risk their very lives to please him; & this without having been told what he wanted.

“Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be a psychopath?” I then asked, for it was a moment when I truly wanted to be fired.

“Yes,” he answered. “That is one of my little foibles.”