Harry J. Boyle is a burly, cheerful, self-contented, and very intelligent man. He is a creative man. He is a fair, Christian-minded, honest man. I came to this conclusion before I found out that in addition to being the best executive producer in radio, at the CBC, in its historic, beautiful building on Jarvis Street, he is a published author. I was somewhat puzzled by his egoism in naming — or agreeing with his editor’s suggestion — one of his novels, The Great Canadian Novel. What, after all, was the great Canadian novel? When Harry J. Boyle abrogated to himself this questionable honour, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Laurence, Marian Engel, Farley Mowat, David Lewis Stein, Hugh Garner, Honest Ed’s best-selling brother, whose name I cannot remember, and Morley Callaghan, were at that stage in their careers, all writing the “Great Canadian Novel” … although they did not, with smaller egos, say so. It is true, if not indelicate, to say so, that their “great Canadian novels” might have outstripped Harry Boyle’s.
But the honesty of his achievement lies in the honesty of his endeavour, and in its treatment of all those ambitious, quarrelsome, cocksure, creatively talented young men and women (Howard Engel, Dita Vadron, Elizabeth Barry, Alex Frame, Max “Rawhide” Fergusson, Allan McPhee, Barbara Frum, Robert McNeil, Phyllis Webb), and the two very skilled radio technicians who dedicated their brilliance to the CBC, in the producing of shows, such as Glenn Gould’s piano recitals, and “Ideas”, and the “Project Series.”I feel that Harry J. Boyle, was to the radio documentary, which he took to its highest limits of excellence and relevant subject matter, every Sunday night, what Robert Weaver is to Canadian literature. They were both pioneers, with a profound confidence in struggling freelance broadcasters and writers. Their generosity of spirit helped to launch many careers in broadcasting, and in writing: Alex Frame and Alice Munro, to name just two.
In 1966, I have this conversation with Harry J. Boyle, in his office, cluttered with audio tapes waiting to be used in tape recorders — Nagras and other models — and audio tapes for the machine on which recorded interviews are edited. Harry is smoking a hooked Peterson of Dublin pipe. I think of Irish goblins, I think of Father Christmas, I think of James Joyce. I think of myself imitating Harry-J. No man, artist or layman ever looked so impressive as Harry J. Boyle with his Peterson of Dublin pipe, with its band of silver, certified to be silver by the things, letters and figures, and numbers etched and stamped into it. It looked like a very elegant wedding ring. His secretary, a beautiful, European woman, an immigrant from Hungary, is outside in greater chaos of tapes and scripts and yellow-paged transcripts of interviews, proposals of programmes for the Project Series, and a few young idling men who want to be taken seriously as freelance broadcasters. Howard Engel is across the hall, trying against time, to reduce a verbose interview to two minutes, the greatest space he has to spare.
“Well,” Harry J. Boyle says.
“What can I do for you?”
“I want to be a freelance broadcaster, sir.” (I had just been fired from the stagehand crew, for “lateness”, arriving too late with my hammer to pound nails part-way into the wooden “flats.”) “Ever done any broadcasting?” “No, sir.” “How do you know you can be a broadcaster?” “I just feel so.” “Who would you like to interview?” “James Baldwin.” “James Baldwin? We already have about twenty hours of tape on Baldwin, and …” “I can do a better job.” “Why you think you can do a better job?” “Because I am black, and I am a writer.” Great, thick, whitish-grey clouds come billowing out from the silver-bound Peterson of Dublin pipe. Harry-J sucked on the impressive pipe with its sparkling silver ring, for a few more minutes, in silence. “Tell you what!” The pipe is still billowing white-grey clouds. I can hear his breathing; and I can hear the puff each time he explodes the very aromatic smoke into the ceiling of his cluttered office … Condor? Erinmore Flake? Amphora, in a brown plastic pouch, mixed into the two Irish flavours?
Even if this is not his home-made blend, I want it to be so. “Tell you what! You go down to New York — you’re on your own. You interview Baldwin. I’ll even let you do the interview in our New York studios on Sixth Avenue. Our woman there, Dorothy McCallum, will assist you. By the way, have you ever used a tape recorder?” “No, sir.” “She’ll give you a few lessons.” “Thank you sir.” “You go and interview Baldwin, send it back to us through Miss MacCallum, we’ll listen to it, and if it is any good, we’ll pay you … your travel, plane fare to and from New York, per diem, hotel, and the regular fee for a Project documentary.” “Who do I report to in New York, to learn how to use the tape recorder?” “Miss McCallum.” The pipe is smouldering. “Ever used a Nagra tape recorder?” “Never used a Nagra, sir.”
This conversation has returned to me, inhabiting my head, in its detail, an exact recapturing of the words we exchanged that morning And I feel that if the roles were reversed, and I was interviewing a young black man, and he had told me that he could do a better job than those already done by established CBC freelance broadcasters, without having studied those interviews, and if he had insisted that he could do better interviews, principally because he is black, I would, I think, have thought of throwing him out of my office. Might even have said, “Mafucker! Leave my office!”
But Harry J. Boyle could not have said that to me, not because of race, but because he was a gentleman willing to give a chance to a young black man, with “no Canadian experience,” but ambitious and confident enough though unskilled in the profession he sought to enter … to be rude! I had never even seen a Nagra tape recorder. But my more pressing problem was transportation to New York. How was I going to get to New York? I had no place to stay. I had no money. Not even enough to buy a one-way bus ticket on Greyhound. I had no money for food. And if I could not get the loan of the Nagra tape recorder, which I soon learned was used for the audio in Hollywood movies, it was such a brilliant tape recorder. I was buried in my own boastfulness. But I was determined to interview James Baldwin. Baldwin’s novel Another Country had just been published. I had read it in Toronto.
When I read it the second time, in New York, part in Harlem and part in a hotel downtown, I had a stronger feeling of its pulsing power of violence barely restrained. I identified with Rufus, the main character, who committed suicide by jumping off a building in downtown New York. That manufactured violence coursing through Another Country I transposed into my first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing. Where there was no natural violence, not the same violent confrontations: lynchings, brutal beatings of Negroes (the term used at the time), where there was none of this occurring on my Island, I invented it, and showed a tension to exist between the two races, and made them live, in what Frantz Fanon calls, “a psycho-existential complex.” Where, in my contemporary landscape in the Island there was no violence, no action, no brutality, I invented riots and strikes and beatings. Baldwin therefore was my spiritual brother.
Notes of a Native Son would warn me, however, that Baldwin’s treatment of Richard Wright, and his comments on the latter’s novel, Native Son, that Baldwin was mean-spirited and vengeful, and had mastered a facility with patricide. “Mafucker, what you mean bringing your ass in my office telling me a lot o’ shit ‘bout you’s a black man so you could do a more better job interviewing James Baldwin? Eh?” “Eh? Mafucker?” Out of the blue, a Trinidadian friend of mine, who was at university with me, was going to New York, by car, for the weekend. His Canadian girlfriend owned the car, and would be doing most of driving; and he would share the driving with her. This is a very important detail, more important than any superficial meaning given to it. She would make sure she was driving when we stopped to face the U.S. immigration officer. “Toranno! … Toranno! … Toranno!” The words were repeated until they came close to the proper colloquial pronunciation of a person born in Toronto. The reason?
At the Niagara Falls border, the American immigration officer will ask this question, first: “Where were you born?” This is an absurd question now that I think of it. You are black. A Negro. A nigger in the way most American immigration officers look at you. What chance then is there that you were born in Canada? In America, more likely! And you had better have learned the proper pronunciation of Toronto. “To-ranno!” you will tell the immigration officer. But we are still on the 401 West, still on Canadian soil, and this soil is important to you, because in your short time in Canada, you have heard all aspects of the symbolic meaning in the term, “Underground Railroad.” In Canada, slaves from just across the same border you are about to cross, illegally … because you have no visa to enter the United States … slaves found freedom by merely landing on Canadian soil.
But in your short time in Canada, in Toront-to, you do not because of your experience, associate Canada, in a personal realistic sense, with the same freedom the runaway slaves found. So, you practise the pronunciation with the Canadian woman, as she is driving the car, and who is acting as your tutor. My friend is arrogant. He is a Trinidadian. He is convinced he knows the correct pronunciation. And he is characteristically, and culturally, self-assured. He knows all about everything: Biology, in which he gets only A’s. And immigration matters: he is here, illegally. “What the ass is this, eh? Eh-eh!” “You have to learn to say it correctly,” she tells him. “What the ass is this, eh? Eh-eh!” I practise the word, to myself, repeating it, with her guidance, over and over, and I think I am getting it right and can pronounce it with ease, like a real Canadian. “Toranno! … Toranno! … Toranno!” I become so good at it, that I say it with an added nuance, that only “real Canadians” can imitate. “Tranno! … Tranno! … Trannah!” We are at the border. He has by now convinced his Canadian girlfriend to let him drive. He is stubborn. He is a Trinidadian man. He is macho. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto in Biology, first class honours. His student visa is expired. She is a first-year student, in a general B.A. degree course. He is a know-it-all. His Canadian girlfriend does not argue. She remains quiet. She has right on her side. I become nervous; for my career in broadcasting rests on the tip of his tongue, should he mispronounce “Toronto,” and cause us to be sent back across the border, into the cold, dark blackness that is a Canadian night in November. But I am practising my pronunciation, just in case the immigration officer should ask me first — “Where do you live, sir?” — since we do not have the visa necessary to enter the United States. “Trahnnah! Tranno! Trannah!”
We are silent in the car. And we extinguish our cigarettes, as if this act would save us. The radio, WLIB, a Buffalo station popular among black people in Canada, that plays good jazz and better rhythm-and-blues, is turned down. We do not want to appear as uncultured, shady, illegal students skipping across the border, to live in the luxury of American wealth and full employment and generous unemployment benefits. “Turn the radio to CBC. The classical programme.” I do not know who has said this. “Why?” I do not know who has said this. “Sounds better.” And suddenly Beethoven’s Symphony Number Six, the Pastoral, comes through the speakers, like a tin, or a large grater, being scratched by a nail. We can see the border. It is dark, and foreboding, meaning the cement structure, and the stalls and the Stars and Stripes; and the music coming through the tinny speakers does not help our mood, and before we know it, the three of us shaking inside the darkened car, and beside us, bending down, to see who sits in the darkness inside the car, and making a sign with his hands that the window should be rolled down, is an American, an immigration officer, shivering in the Canadian cold to which he has been exposed in his eight-hour shift.
And when the Trinidadian has succeeded in his fumbling to lower the window — it is a manual window — we hear the foreboding question … “Where were you born, sir?” Silence is no measurement of time, or of fear, or of success. Beethoven is no longer soothing to the nerves, no longer the symbol of our sophistication. Beethoven is now like the night: cruel, and silent and no longer effective for the case of nerves. We sit in the silence. We know the American is losing his patience. It is cold outside where he is standing with his hand on the cold side of the car. The loss of voice, becomes the fear in our bodies that the Trinidadian, the man at the wheel, has now forgotten his coaching in the pronunciation of a simple word, like Tranno. But he regains his voice. “Toe-ron-toe!” Under different circumstances, the two of us would have applauded his repossession of voice.
We would have cheered that he had not lost his vocal chords, completely. But in the unbelievable coldness, in the unbelievable Trinidadian pronunciation of the word … “Toe-ron-toe!” … following the miles and miles on the 401 West, and now into this winding road, no larger than an alley, after all these hours driving in a rickety car with faulty steering, faulty speaker system, and faulty windows, and having to return to Toe-ron-toe … “Where, sir, do you live?” And we prayed that he would ignore the immigration officer, and refuse to answer, and not put us deeper into the jeopardy of his egotistical attitude with the pronunciation of strange words, especially cities. “Toe-ron-toe!” I cannot remember if the immigration officer said, “Turn round, sir.” I cannot remember if his words were, “You are refused entry,” and we therefore knew that we had to turn round and retrace our steps. I cannot remember if the immigration officer said anything, at all. But I do remember that since we were in the hands of the Trinidadian, and since the Trinidadian had sunk the carload of us by uttering one word — “Toe-ron-toe” — all of us probably would be better off had we made the wrong turn and had fallen into the roaring falls just outside our window; and by his recalcitrance and bad pronunciation of a simple word, the name of a town — in which we had been living for four years! — we were metaphorically, over the falls. “Erie!” my friend said, in a voice pronouncing cheerfulness that was not understandable. “Let we try the border at Erie?”, he said again, unnecessarily. “And why you don’t drive, girl? You are a better driver. And you know how to say ‘Toe-ron-toe,’ the right way!”, he said, pronouncing it the wrong way, again.
In silence, but in a silence of a different thickness, the car was pulled over to the side, and he got out, and she got out, and when they passed each other, she placed her lips on his lips, and passed her left hand on his back, as if she was massaging him there; and then she fastened her seat belt, and he settled himself in the seat beside her; and in this silence of declaration and surrender, we rambled, and made the wrong turns, and corrected those mistakes in the same silence, and then we saw the name, in lights: Erie, U.S.A. “Where were you born, ma’am?” the immigration officer asked. She had the window rolled down before the American official had reached the car. There was a smile on the American’s face. He looked past her to the back seat, and saw what he saw, and I did not know what it was that he saw; and with his eyes, he asked me the same question he had asked her, and she, in whose hands we were now languishing, she answered for me, and she answered for him, her boy friend. She answered for the three of us. “Trannah!” “Have a good weekend.” “Incidentally,” she said, “the best way to get to New York?” “Take the 95-South, then the 96, then the 93, then back to the 95-South, ma’am, and after that, plain sailing,” he said, calling out highways as if he were calling out numbers at a bingo game. “Thanks very much, sir!” “Drive carefully, y’all. And y’all have a good weekend, now …” “You’re welcome!” she said. In our boisterous self-congratulations, with the window closed, we rocked in the rocking car, and Beethoven was switched off, and the Buffalo radio station WLIB, was tuned in; and turned up; and through the tinny speakers straining under the volume, came the voice of James Brown. “Let we stop at the first bar, and celebrate.” But we did not find one from amongst the maze of streets and roads and lanes which all seemed to be one-way streets, going in the direction away from our thirst for a sip of celebration. And like this, buried in the silence that came back and inhabited the car, in our regained confidence, we headed in this interminable, black, cold Friday night, to New York City.
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Excerpted from ’Membering by Austin Clarke. Copyright © 2015 by Austin Clarke.