In Other Words
A Soft Landing
MY FIRST GLIMPSE of Canada was the highway from the airport to Toronto, early-winter grey, barren, treeless, with squat industrial buildings. It was gloomy even for an outsider with no plans to stay. The turbaned driver tried jolly small talk about his busier friends in Montreal and, when he heard where I’d come from, sang a bit of “England Swings (Like a Pendulum Do).” Unlike the suspicious customs woman, he made no comments about the battered blue suitcase with no handle that contained all my worldly possessions. He deposited it in front of a gold-braided doorman outside the Royal York Hotel and accepted a meagre tip in shillings. I had nothing left for the doorman but he liked my outfit so much he didn’t care. Nor did the next chap in a less fancy uniform who hefted the suitcase onto his shoulder with one hand. He had come from Munich, via Zurich and London. Like me, he wasn’t sure where he would go next.
I had arrived after Expo madness, after Canada’s Centennial celebrations, just before the end of the sixties. I came from swinging London: Beatlemania, Bee Gees, Wimpy bars, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Trafalgar Square happenings, hippies and free love, weed parties, “mod” counterculture, and late nights on the King’s Road.
I wore my white vinyl knee-high boots, a mauve minidress, a short bunny-fur coat, ironed-straight long blond hair—all perfectly acceptable
in London—and I thought I looked professional enough to rate being hired by the Canadian branch plant of the American publisher Collier Macmillan as a copy editor. I had worked for their London office as a college sales rep for a couple of years, travelling all over the UK and Northern Europe—none of which qualified me for copy-editing. Still, my erstwhile boss, the indomitable Fred KobrakI
at Collier Macmillan International’s UK office, figured if I could pass for a college rep in Scandinavia, I could pass as a copy editor in Canada. He advised me to look earnest, not one of my obvious attributes, and try to fit in. If it didn’t work out, he said, he would arrange for an interview at the New York office, and if that too failed, I could go back to Scandinavia and sell more copies of Samuelson’s Economics.
Prior to Collier Macmillan I had put in a few months pretending to proofread at Cassell’s on Red Lion Square, while they pretended to pay me. I suspect the reason I had taken the proofreading job was that Cassell’s published Robert Graves, whose poetry and fiction had served me well during sleepless nights. Needless to say, he did not frequent the proofreading department, though I did see him once in the lift (elevator). He was tall, wore a rumpled raincoat under a rumpled face framed by wispy white hair, and like everyone else, was staring into elevator space. I was so excited I could barely mutter that I had been a fan for many years. He looked at me briefly and said, “Really?” Just one word from the great literary giant and a missed opportunity for this memoir.
My New Zealand passport listed my name as Anna Szigethy and place of birth as Hungary, where my family had lived for several hundred years, though some of our homes had found themselves in other countries after the First World War. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon had distributed more than half the country among its neighbours, leaving many former Hungarians feeling like emigrants or exiles. Though there were plenty of other
traumas to talk about when I was a child, the tragedy of Trianon—a mere sideshow to the Versailles Treaty that ended the war—was still mentioned in tones of heavy mourning. It had been Hungary’s punishment for having allied itself with the Kaiser’s Germany.
As most of the beneficiaries of Hungary’s Trianon losses (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and so on) became our fellow Socialist Republics after the Second World War, my grandfather Vili was careful not to mention the unfairness of the treaty unless we were outside our apartment. Inside, as he never tired of warning me, “the walls have ears.” He explained that in the late 1930s, our country had gone somewhat crazy and joined Nazi Germany in yet another world war. That’s why we were invaded in 1945 by the Soviets, who then stayed.
In keeping with our conquered state, Hungarian schools taught Russian from about grade one on, and children were ill advised to skip those classes, particularly those youngsters with politically suspect backgrounds, such as mine. Soviet-trained Communists, who were in charge after 1946, were bent on reversing the old social order and kept a wary eye on everyone who had owned anything in prior years. Vili had been a magazine and book publisher and had dabbled in liberal politics. My missing father had owned some sort of factory (I still have no idea what). He had been scooped up in 1945 by a gang of Soviet soldiers with orders to fill quotas for Hungarians to work in Siberia. We rarely talked about him.
Vili was my childhood hero. He was a tireless and inventive storyteller, an amateur magician, a former champion sprinter, a wrestler, and one of the best sword duelers in Hungary. He was so strong, he could lift two of his daughters at once, holding only one leg of each chair they were seated on. He had no trouble winning every race he ever invented for me, though he gave me ample handicaps.
Vili taught me to listen to stories, to love hearing them and, later, reading them.II
Stories became my passion. I had started to read soon after I started to walk. Fantastic folktales about witches and dragons (my grandfather had insisted that there was a particularly fiery dragon still living in Transylvania, where our family came from); wily Turks and heroic Hungarians; then books by Karl May, Zsigmond Móricz, Vörösmarty, Arany, Jules Verne, Flaubert, Balzac, Molnár (I was particularly fond of The Boys of Paul Street), Stendahl (after defeating an army of janissaries, I planned to become a musketeer); and, from the top shelves of my mother’s library, Maupassant. In time, my Russian and English, German and French education would add to the growing lists of books I loved.
* * *
AFTER SOME YEARS as a slave labourer in the Soviet Gulag, my father was sent home. My memory of his return is a bit hazy but I do recall that he ruined my Christmas by interrupting what promised to be a lighthearted occasion. A complete stranger, he was shabbily dressed; he stank of stale tobacco and horse manure. He had yellow teeth and broken knuckles. I was surprised during the night to find a revolver under his pillow. He did not seem happy to see me.
I was relieved when he left a couple of days later. I was discouraged from talking about him even to my friends. Not only had he been in the Gulag, he would now manage to cross the border illegally into Austria. My mother, Puci, and I (I was only about five, too young to make my own decisions) attempted to join him, but we were caught, interrogated, and jailed in Szombathely. That was the first time I was arrested.III
I was there for only a few weeks but they kept my mother for eight months. Trying to leave a Communist paradise was punishable by jail.
Since we had failed to follow him, my father sent divorce papers and vanished from our lives. My mother tended to forgive him—he was so much older than she was, he had suffered in the slave labour camp, he could never hope to come home, and so forth. I had no interest, then, in seeing him again.
With such a suspect family history it was obvious that I had to shine in Russian classes in Hungary. My family wanted me to be seen as a perfect example of Communist youth, white shirt, blue kerchief, and all. Sometimes I could even carry the flag with the hammer and sickle. I was honoured to be hanging giant banners of comrades Stalin, Lenin, and Rákosi, our very own Communist leader. None of them was pretty, but Rákosi with his bald, sloping, neckless head and forced smile outdid the other two.
In spite of all our efforts to conform, the state caught up with Vili in 1954, tried him on trumped-up charges, and condemned him to eighteen months of hard labour. Though he and my grandmother were allowed to leave the country a few months after his release, I had become seriously discouraged about our future in Hungary. In 1956 when the anti-Soviet demonstrations began, I spent a lot of time in the streets with protesters. At first the crowds were jubilant, but then the shooting began. I was at Kossuth Square when the secret police shot into the crowd, and I saw one of my friends die. I saw Soviet tanks roll over people. In a doorway where I had hidden, a Russian soldier held my hand as he died.
When our tiny flat took a direct hit, my motherIV
decided it was time to leave. This time we crossed the border on foot to Austria successfully. New Zealand eventually accepted us as refugees, as we were sponsored by my mother’s oldest sister, Sari, who had also sponsored my grandparents. It was her brilliant idea that shortly after our arrival I should be incarcerated in a Catholic boarding school, where I would quickly learn English. She was right about the English, but I also learned that the Communists weren’t all wrong about religion. Vili answered my sad letters from school and sent me a few stories about very brave Hungarians who endured hardship in battle and were rewarded by kings. But there were no kings in New Zealand.
I decided it would have been far easier to be a freedom fighter than a refugee.
* * *
MY MOTHER SOON married a Dutch New Zealander, many years her senior, with three children of his own and no interest in more. Alfons was a handsome, charming, opinionated, argumentative presence. He had spent the war years as a Japanese prisoner and never recovered from the experience. Nor had his children. Later, after overcoming our mutual suspicions, his daughter Ines and I became friends and still are. She was vivacious, funny, warm, and adventurous, though she too had spent her early childhood hungry and afraid. She and her two brothers had been with their mother in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Java. She remembered scrounging for scraps of food in the garbage behind the guards’ quarters. They tolerated her because she was so tiny.
After surviving the Sacred Heart Convent School in Wanganui, New Zealand, I started university, supporting myself with a range of jobs. I took English literature from an indulgent professor at Canterbury University in Christchurch. He had been impressed with my morning job cleaning toilets at Princess Margaret Hospital and my afternoon job modelling clothes for department stores. I wasn’t particularly good at either job (my only experience of being fired was when the New Zealand Wool Board ended my modelling stint because of late-night carousing with a bunch of former ’56 Revolutionary Hungarian poets in my Wool Board–courtesy hotel room), but the jobs fed me while I struggled through Old English with Beowulf and Sir Gawain; discovered I could understand Chaucer and Shakespeare; and enjoyed Coleridge, Shelley, and other assorted Romantics, Austen, Thackeray, James, T. S. Eliot, Woolf, and Joyce. The truth is I loved them all. I took a few French and German courses because they were easy and, less enthusiastically, I took Russian as my minor because, unlike others in the class, I already had a good working knowledge of the language. At the end of my second year, I got a job stacking books in the large Whitcombe and Tombs warehouse and was promoted to also entering the retail price, giving change to customers, and wrapping.
Thinking back on my early New Zealand days now, I realize that the people I had most wanted to be with were all members of the large Ward clan. There were six blondish, fair-skinned siblings and a very motherly mother who worked two jobs to support them all. I used to spend hours drinking tea, eating biscuits, and talking with her when she returned from her night job. My best friends were Mary and Dunstan, but I loved the feeling of blending in to a large, functioning family.
It was Mary Ward who had found me the cleaning job on the mental ward of the Princess Margaret Hospital. She had an “in” because she also worked there while going to university. Her brother Dunstan introduced me to the works of e. e. cummings, Robert Graves, and Alice Munro. Dunstan lives in Paris now, teaching English literature, writing poetry and books about the work of Robert Graves—the man I met once in an elevator.
After graduation, Ines and I set out from New Zealand together to see if we could make it in London, which is where young Aussies and Kiwis went almost as a rite of passage to adulthood. My jobs at Cassell’s and at Collier Macmillan were stopgap measures, not career moves. As Ines remembered, the only reason we worked was so that we could eat, drink warm beer, and make friends.
I had now arrived in Canada with a New Zealand passport, a British work permit, and an American publisher’s guarantee of work in either Toronto or New York. I was full of the bravado that young people felt at the end of the sixties when the world seemed to offer us so many options.
* * *
AFTER A SLEEPLESS night surrounded by florid wallpaper and dim lights, I set out at seven a.m. to explore the area around the Royal York. The young trees along Front Street looked as forlorn as I felt with the sharp wind blowing about my legs, scrunched newspapers flying along the pavement, a few half-frozen birds hunched over the bare branches. There was a small triangular park near the hotel. A man in an army greatcoat spread out on one of its benches, humming to himself, offered to share his sandwich. “You’re gonna be mighty cold in that wee dress, young lady,” he said, and
invited me to share his coat. He sounded Irish but told me he was from Newfoundland and trying to hustle up enough money to go home again.
Some years and many park changes later, he was still in Berczy Park—I have no idea why the city keeps remaking it—and still collecting bus fare for his return home. I had none to offer the first time we met but I used to give him money later. By then we had both stopped pretending it was for bus fare.
In no small part thanks to Fred Kobrak’s influence, Collier Macmillan decided to hire me despite my lack of experience. My beautifully printed degrees were not much help with adapting American children’s textbooks for use in Canadian classrooms, but they did need someone to do the job and, I assume, they figured I could learn. Sadly, my Russian was as useless as my knowledge of the Romantics.
I hadn’t the slightest idea what Canadian usage was, though replacing “as American as apple pie” with “as Canadian as maple syrup” was not very challenging. Such minor changes to an American reading series, I was told, would allow Collier Macmillan to submit the books for approval to departments of education in various provinces. If the selection committees liked the prototype, an “adoption” would follow. Adoptions meant that schools in an entire province would be obliged to buy the books, making the company a ton of money and providing bonuses all around.
As an assistant to the assistant editor I didn’t rate an interview with Vern, who ran the Canadian operation, but he did meet me on my way to the washroom one day and nodded acknowledgement that I had been successfully transferred. By then I had acquired sheets and pillowcases from a co-worker (Morty Mint, who years later would run Penguin Books Canada) and a small room in an apartment-to-share on Broadway Avenue across from North Toronto Collegiate, a high school celebrated for its vigorous sports and music programs. Even with my window closed, I rarely missed an evening practice.
The assistant editor was a transplanted Englishman called Peter. The “editor” was somewhere in New York: he had no interest in supervising our work in Canada. Peter found the whole notion of adding a u to or words such as harbor, changing sidewalk to pavement, eliminating all signs of gotten,
and demanding changes in drawings of policemen and mailmen (different uniforms) utterly amusing. He encouraged me to insert the occasional shall just for the hell of it, though he was sure some “committee” would object on the grounds that certain words had fallen out of usage here. Peter had never met a member of any “committee” but thought of them as groups of exceedingly pretentious retired schoolteachers with British aspirations.
Wide-shouldered, pot-bellied, pink-cheeked, he was glad to be rid of the “old country” and its fusty ways. But he still had a lingering fondness for pubs with warmish beer and pianos they let him play. He was quite a virtuoso, singing along to tunes he remembered from his youth. He knew fine versions of “We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover” and played a toe-tapping, irresistibly tinkly “Greensleeves.” Late afternoons he would announce that we needed to do urgent research, so we went on pub crawls that included the Jolly Miller, the Black Bull, and sometimes the Brunswick House. Peter’s idea of a great pub was one teeming with people, bad bar food of the Scotch egg variety, and a piano. I knew all the words to “Farewell to Nova Scotia” long before I had any idea where Nova Scotia was.
Strangely, I had a formal letter of introduction to a Canadian journalist from a British character actor who had distinguished himself playing a Dalek in Doctor Who.V
My actor friend, ironically, was a very tall, hefty guy with sandy hair and a mellifluous voice. He was optimistic that a part more interesting than a Dalek was bound to come along soon.
The Canadian journalist, David, another English expat, was a slim, cheerful man with sandy hair that curled above his ears, a narrow face that creased all the way up when he smiled, and opinions on everything, including parking tickets, public transportation, and the quality of food in the eatery he had chosen. He talked of the current political fiasco—as he saw it—of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s over-the-top popularity, his
suspiciously easy wit in two languages, his swift turns of phrase, his appeal to the ladies, and the certainty of his becoming Canada’s next prime minister.
As minister of justice in Lester Pearson’s Liberal government, Trudeau had introduced a bill in Parliament that decriminalized homosexuality. The papers, David said, had been full of Trudeau’s casual but clever statement that “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” I started to read the local newspapers and listen to CBC radio.
Trudeau’s reception at public appearances was somewhat like that of the Beatles: adulation, some screaming and shouting, a few tears, all of this met by his self-deprecating smile that succeeded in making his opponents seem fuddy-duddy. He would run for the leadership of the Liberal Party in April 1968 and win easily. A large number of us gathered in David’s living room to watch the Liberal Party Convention. The others were all journalists, some with spouses, who knew everyone vying for the top political job in the country. Needless to say, I knew none of the candidates, but it was easy to see that Trudeau was the star. He was charmingly superior in interviews, physically attractive, and a verbal gymnast.
He became the most dashing, least long-winded, most talked-about prime minister not only in Canada but in the world. When I travelled back to New Zealand, everyone wanted to talk about his many lady friends, his famous shrugs, his talk of “the just society,” his Marshall McLuhan quotes, the rose in his lapel, his sandals, his self-possession, his “cool” demeanour. Even cynical David found “Trudeaumania” enjoyable, and he thought that Trudeau was the man to put an end to Quebec separatism. He was, after all, a fellow Quebecer; he knew all there was to know about the province. He understood it instinctively.
It was David who first explained to me how different Quebec felt from the rest of Canada, but it took much longer for me to understand the ideas driving Quebec’s desire to be a country, or the notion of two nations in one. The country where I was born has one language—Hungarian. New Zealanders have only one country; and while the South Island may bitch about the North, they both bitch in unison about Australia with a
combination of superiority and envy not unlike, as I learned, how English Canadians feel about Americans.
The 1970 October Crisis—the kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte by the FLQ and the murder of Laporte—would harden relations for years.
* * *
SOMETIME DURING MY first several months of Canadianizing American textbooks, I decided to look for another job. I am not sure where I learned about an opening for a researcher at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I suspect it may have been David who first mentioned it. Since I had no experience in television or research, my application must have been a work of art, because they offered me an interview.
I was interviewed by Moses Znaimer, a young man about my age, with longish dark, curly hair; soft brown eyes; and a fleeting, somewhat lopsided smile. He spoke so quietly you had to lean in to hear him. Thin, with stylish clothes, he was so laid-back that at one point I wondered whether he had stopped the interview and was thinking about something much more interesting. He seemed to have a short attention span; later he told me he had a low boredom threshold. As I went on about my education, I was sure I was losing him. He mentioned that he too spoke five languages, but unlike me, I assume he did so without resorting to a dictionary. One of them, luckily, was Russian. He had been born to Eastern European Jewish parents in Tajikistan; like me, he had been a refugee. Having come to Canada via Shanghai without much luggage, he had worked as a stevedore before getting a gig with the CBC.VI
He was working at that time for a show called Take 30, which I had not yet seen, but I swore it would become my constant study from that day on, if only he considered me suitable for a job.
He said that he was thinking about what television could and should
be. He wanted a different way to use the new technology, one that would attract rather than repel viewers. He thought that most TV on offer in Canada was dull and that the CBC was particularly moribund.
We had tea in a Japanese tea place on Queen Street West where the waitress made a great fuss over tea pouring and even more fuss over Moses. It seemed like an odd ending to an interview, but I thought it best not to comment on it. After the tea, Moses drove me home in his Jaguar.
He said he’d let me know about the job.
I didn’t hear from Moses until much later. By then, I had resigned from Collier Macmillan; been to Mexico with my roommate, Lou; flown to Lima to visit an old boyfriend from London who had taken over managing his father’s liquor import business; gone up to Cuzco and Machu Picchu; contracted typhus; and flown home to Christchurch, New Zealand, to recover. Moses’s telegram to Christchurch suggested that there might be a job for me, but I was too ill to come back for another interview.
We stayed sporadically in touch after he left the CBC, while he was making plans for his new television channel.VIII
Launched in 1972, Citytv soon became the most innovative, most talked about, most imitated kind of television in the country. Moses went on to launch MuchMusic, CityPulse24, Bravo!, FashionTelevision, and MusiquePlus. Then he took over VisionTV, CARP, and Zoomer magazine and eventually incorporated ZoomerMedia. As his early media ventures had been aimed at boomers in their youth, the new venture aims at the same people, now older. Moses calls them “Zoomers” (Boomers with Zip). Marketing magazine named him one of the Top 10 Canadian Media Moguls of the Past 100 Years. His website features a tuxedoed Moses and, my favourite, a barefoot Moses with closed eyes and ponytail, meditating.
He never mentioned a job to me again and I had become so enmeshed in publishing that, except for a passing thought in 1978, I didn’t ask. But
I sometimes wondered how life would have played out had I worked at Citytv. How long would it have taken before I stopped acting as if I had an abiding interest in television and applied again for work in publishing?
Some years after our first lunch, my journalist friend David invested a bit of his hard-earned dosh in a new board game invented by a couple of his equally impecunious fellow journalists. It was called Trivial Pursuit and it has a brilliant history of its own. I
. After he retired as president of Collier Macmillan International, Fred went on to work for the Frankfurt Book Fair. At last count, he had attended fifty-six Frankfurt Book Fairs, consecutively. II
. My book The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies is about Vili and his profound influence on my life. III
. The second time was in late 1956 when we spent two nights in jail. IV
. My mother, though she had married again after my father left, didn’t have any more children because of the political turmoil. Her second husband was a Communist engineer who arranged Vili’s release. V
. Daleks were the ubiquitous squat robots with mechanized voices proliferating in Doctor Who episodes. VI
. Moses also had many degrees, including an MA from Harvard. VIII
. Moses worked for a while for Ben Webster, an imaginative entrepreneur who believed in animal communication, holistic medicine, and the spirit world. Ben became a friend of mine and a millionaire.