Yesteryear’s News

A Time at The Globe
By Richard J. Doyle
Macmillan, 528 pp.

To those outside the charmed circle of its staff and devoted readers, there’s probably nothing more infuriating, more pompous, more preposterous than the Globe and Mail‘s exaltation of itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper.”

National newspaper? A journal written and read in only one of the two official languages? A paper reviled in both the West and the Maritimes as a megaphone for Ontario’s interests, ignored in Quebec as an Upper Canadian irrelevance, and dismissed by folk of all political stripes as the club newsletter of the lunch bunch at Winston’s?

To its detractors, the national vision of the Globe and Mail has never been more than an insistent Toronto-centrism; the paper is no more a “national” symbol than the CN Tower or the Skydome.

And yet, for all its meager circulation (a paltry 135,000 subscribers outside the environs of you-know-where), the Globe is exactly what it says it is: the pre-eminent journal of record and comment in the (anglophone) nation. It’s a paradox, yes, but so is the country for which it purports to speak.

Hurly-Burly is not a history of the Globe, but a memoir – a record of the world, the country and the newsroom as they looked from behind the desk of Dic Doyle, the man who went from copy reader to editor-in-chief.

An operation as elaborate as the Globe can never claim a single architect – its character is the product of its staff, its readers and its history – but probably no one is more responsible than Doyle for the prominence the paper now commands. For two decades, until 1983, and under a succession of publishers, his was the steady hand on the editorial tiller.

To read Hurly-Burly is to be vouchsafed an entry into the otherwise closed universe of big-league journalism. The book reads like a walk with a genial and loquacious grandfather, his mind still alive with the names and escapades of colleagues dead or retired or still soldiering on. It’s also to confront head-on the multiple paradoxes of the Globe and Mail, of which its quirky “national” status is only the most obvious.

For example, the Globe is almost universally seen as a paper that prizes the sober over the flamboyant, at the price of excruciating boredom. Right down to its Gutenberg-gothic front-page banner and its steadfast refusal to let color seep onto its pages, the paper strives for the semiotics of the staid. “The grey old Globe,” Doyle calls it.

And yet, Hurly-Burly reminds us that throughout its recent history the Globe has been a safe house for some of the most talented, original and engaging writers in Canadian journalism: Trent Frayne, Scott Young, George Bain, Alastair Lawrie, Martin O’Malley, Dennis Braithwaite, Allen Abel, Rick Groen, Jay Scott … Hardly a roll call of the soporific.

(Doyle himself writes with a mannered elegance that has all but disappeared from newsprint these days. Here he is describing my current boss, Tony Westell: “No one I knew was better equipped with voice or countenance to convey impending disaster. It was his talent to conjure up The Flood with a mere mention of dew.”)

As well, there’s the reminder that the grey old Globe harbored as colorful a set of characters as any raucous city newsroom. In the late ’30s there was Jack Smith, the photographer, who spoke only in rhyming verse. In the ’60s there was Gerassimos Svoronos Gigantes (alias Philip Deane), who had spent time in a North Korean prison camp, went out on assignment in spats and with walking stick, became among other things an aide to King Constantine of Greece, and wound up (like Doyle) in the Senate of Canada.

Probably the most delightful tidbit in the book is that Oakley Dalgleish, publisher until the early ’60s, wore a patch over the eye he had lost in his youth; once, in New York, he was introduced to an ad executive who not only appropriated Dalgleish’s look for the Hathaway man, but borrowed Mrs. Dalgleish’s Christian name (Delsea) for a toilet tissue.

Other paradoxes? That the Globe, supposedly the house organ of heartless capital, has not only fought consistently in its editorials for social justice, but has retained more than a few left-leaning writers, June Callwood and Michael Valpy being only two. That the Globe, ostensibly above being soiled by news of the seamy side, hired the rough-hewn former street punk Victor Malarek and turned him loose on Toronto’s underside.

In the end, however, Doyle’s account preserves the decorous, circumspect tenor of the paper he guided. Readers looking for the inside dirt – who was a drunk? who was a scoundrel? – are going to be disappointed.

When he eventually gets round to the recent changes in the paper’s upper echelons, he does so in a brief epilogue that merely sighs with regret at the way things were done.

Still, if a nation gets the press it deserves, this one could do a lot worse than the Globe and Mail. And likely it would have, if not for Dic Doyle and the people he assembled around

  • Montreal Gazette February 17, 1990