A mood

A score of years, at least, has passed since I had my last glimpse of Richard J. Needham. This was in the old Harvey’s hamburger franchise (since bulldozed) opposite Varsity Stadium along Bloor Street. It was where we met for our dinner dates, at his insistence.

Needham was once a celebrated columnist in the Globe & Mail (once an important Canadian newspaper). It was he who renamed it the Mop & Pail. The Wicked Paedia entry on him says, “humour columnist,” which is a euphemism for any writer of serious intention appearing in the mass media. His heyday had been in the 1960s, when Richard Doyle (the last of the Globe‘s talented and courageous editors) had saved him from immolation by a staff mob. He did this by moving Needham’s works from city news to the lower right corner of what was then unquestionably Canada’s most distinguished editorial page.

According to highly probable legend, Needham had been caught, as a reporter, making up news stories from scratch: ludicrous, satirical stories in which every name, title, place, and institution had been invented. At least one of these creations had made it into print, under a stone-faced headline. The entire editorial horseshoe was calling for his head. Doyle observed that the man had been miscast as a factual reporter, when he was an imaginative and entertaining essayist. Rather than fire him, the answer was to promote and move him to the more exalted slot. A man who, as most great journalists, had no college education, Doyle was widely and well read. He was thus acquainted with the higher journalistic traditions.

The droll and refined George Bain, who presented himself occasionally as a hayseed from Saskatchewan in his sometimes versified and ridiculously lyrical “Letters from Lilac”; or wandered into considerations on fine food and wine; or provided telling vignettes from forgotten history — anchored the lower left corner on that page which, with its op-ed, maintained literary standards unimaginable today. Bain was by designation the chief commentator on national, or as we used to say, Dominion affairs; the doyen of the country’s most august Ottawa bureau. The op-ed often carried essays, including quite scrurrilous ones, by major cultural figures. Letters from readers aspired to the old Times of London calibre; and as only those with something penetrating to say, and some wit to express it, were published, it was a delight to read them. (The now long-defunct Ottawa Journal was then the principal competition, for editorial-page class; but there was some to be found in most major broadsheets. Today there is none, anywhere.)

I was briefly in a Canadian high school at the end of the ‘sixties, when I was reading those pages with close attention, and Needham and Bain became heroes to me, and to my delectation for their very conceits. I’d distrust my own juvenile judgement, had I not gone back much later to look over them again. Such writing, well-informed about the world and not just the affairs of municipal departments, was what had made me think that journalism could be worthwhile as a trade; too, the reason why my first full-time job, at age sixteen, was obtained as a copy boy on that newspaper.

Needham was already a model to me, and the honour of meeting him and even fetching him coffee is unforgotten. Once abroad in that newsroom, I found that he, along with that editor, Doyle (“Dietrich Doppelganger” in Needham’s published allusions), were among the few who could actually find time to talk to an earnest sixteen-year-old about matters of importance, and provide some thoughtful guidance. I noticed that the mediocrities on staff were always too busy, and anyway too self-important.

Needham’s columns were often cast in the form of comic tales, often traditional folk tales re-cast in modern urban environments. Other columns, under the continuing title “A Writer’s Notebook,” consisted entirely of aphorisms and asides. His “beat” was modern man, and human freedom; the modern woman and her unhappiness, owing to the decline of men; the ages of man, from infancy to codgerdom; the raw philosophical questions. It would be too simple to call him a libertarian or an anarchist; he was radically opposed to falsehood, and allergic to all schemes of social organization, and a connoisseur of personal eccentricity and aloofness.

After each night’s shift I would leave a sheet of my own proposed aphorisms, anonymously, in Mr Needham’s mail box. Upon guessing I was the source of them, he summoned me into companionship. Though he posed in his columns as rogue and reprobate, and tried modestly to dress the part (kept bottles of whisky in his office from which he never actually drank; pretended to be paying a tart as his secretary), I discovered that he was secretly respectable, patriarchal, an attentive husband and father, utterly reliable and fastidious on the finest conventional points of honour, and many other paradoxes. Accused by feminists of misogyny, for instance, he had perhaps as high a regard for women as I have ever encountered in a man. Marked by leftists as a shill for the established economic order, his contempt for large corporations went vastly beyond theirs. (It was just that his contempt for “government” went farther.) And old as he was becoming, he was an inspiration chiefly to the young, and the genuinely sceptical in all walks of life. Dismissed as “the first hippie,” he was at close quarters quite the opposite to that; rather a disciplined old soldier. Indeed he was a pioneer of sneering at hippie conformity.

By the later ‘seventies (when I wasn’t around in Canada) he was being hounded out of the Globe by the swelling progressive faction within, alternatively mocked and demonized as “a dinosaur.” They were almost rid of him when they realized that he sold a lot of papers, and would have to be brought back and “phased out” more carefully. Finally, with the installation of an entirely new generation in the editorial suite, the Globe had editors willing to get rid of him regardless of cost. After years of fighting to hold his trench, he gave up and went away. By this time he must have been the last journalist on the Globe of any substance or integrity, and his own audience was finally drying up.

That was when I began meeting him for hamburgers at Harvey’s. I had founded a magazine entitled The Idler at the end of 1984, specifically to supply what had gone missing from Canadian journalism — the intelligence and the style. He noticed it immediately, and sent letters of encouragement. I was determined to land him as a regular contributor to the magazine. He made polite excuses about being old and senile, belied by the sharpness of every uttered sentence. I persisted in my begging, from meal to meal. He seemed flattered, and remained affectionate, but finally gave me his definitive response. It was an unforgettable tirade, touching upon his whole later experience of Canadian journalism, and the encroaching sleaziness of all our public life. It concluded:

“I have nothing to say to this city any more. Nothing!

There was real fire and brimstone in the declamation; I could give up my begging. Needham’s only concession was that, “Those who remain curious about my views on contemporary life, may read my silence.”

It is not good to end in bitterness. It is not Christian, and so far as I could tell, Needham was never a Christian. He was an old Stoic. Christ for him was another Socrates; the parables were astute but the “mythology” was expendable. I had, both before and after my own Christian conversion, asked him about such things. The more direct my question, the more evasively he replied. On the Church, and churches, from bishops to televangelists, he did have clear opinions, along the lines of, “pigsties of self-seeking hypocrisy.” His pleasures were simple, and founded in people and in nature. There were no “invisibles” to him. He had never craved power. A pigeon in the park was worth feeding, the more if there was a sign that read, “Do not feed the pigeons.” Truth and love were fleeting, but worth clinging to, as he did to wife and family. Nevertheless, in the memorable words of his own proposed death notice, left years before in the obituary files at the Globe: “Richard J. Needham’s tiresome and repetitious column will not appear today, because he is dead.”

Call it a mood: one which can be maintained by the true Stoic over decades. I can easily understand it, especially at this moment, having been in a mood like that this past week or two, with nothing whatever to say to my own tiny shrinking public, or to the world at large, beyond, “Go to hell.” But of course this won’t do. If one is a writer one must never agree to shut up; not so long as there is one more reader. Force the smug, “enlightened” bastards to silence you.

“Faith is not feeling,” as a correspondent reminded us a fortnight ago. It is not a good mood. It is not a bad mood, or any kind of mood. Hope is not a virtue that requires circumstances that are hopeful. Nor, especially in this season of Lent, is Charity an option. It is instead the right kind of defiance. In the words even of the pre-Christian, but more than stoical Wallace Stevens: “Place honey on the altars and die, you lovers that are bitter at heart.”