The next big event was the October Crisis, and many of those same
journalists sent here because of their previous Montreal experience sought
me out. My status was enhanced by the fact that I had been one of those
arrested under the War Measures Act and, arguably, I knew as much about the
radical movement as anyone, police included.
Nick Auf der Maur, Gazette, April 27, 1996
Rooted in a sprawling house on Kingston Hill, Surrey, in 1970, one evening
I took a phone call from Life magazine in New York. Could I leave for
Montreal immediately? I flew into town two weeks after the funeral of then
Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, who had been kidnapped and murdered
by the FLQ. Those copycat revolutionaries were still holding British Trade
Commissioner James Cross. The evening of my arrival in Montreal
enthusiastic friends drove me past consulates, public buildings, and
certain rich private mansions, where battle-ready soldiers stood guard.
"There are a lot of people who are insulted," I was told, "because they
aren't considered important enough to have troops posted outside their door."
Strolling through Westmount it was impossible not to note the plethora of
mountain mansions for sale, seemingly unmovable at fire sale prices.
Everybody knowledgeable, according to the gossip, was going liquid. A
French Canadian novelist I had known for years invited me to lunch at his
house in Outremont. "It is no longer a question," he assured me, "of if we
separate, but when. Our children no longer call themselves Canadian, but
I met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for lunch in Ottawa. I ate breakfast
with Claude Ryan at the Ritz-Carlton and the admirable Senator Thérèse
Casgrain gave me an hour of her time. John Scott, who was then editor of
Time Canada, arranged for me to meet René Lévesque for drinks in an East
End bar. "I should warn you," said Scott, "that he will be at least an hour
late." But Lévesque, who was still running in place on the political
periphery in those days, turned up on time&emdash;not for me, certainly, but for
On first meeting, I took the chain-smoking, obviously high-strung Lévesque
to be an authentic people's tribune. As I wrote in Life, he struck me as a
man effortlessly in touch with the bookkeeper with sour breath, the wasting
QLC clerk with dandruff, the abandoned mother of five, the truck driver on
welfare, in fact with all the discontented lives. Later I did learn that
the man had many sides to him. But, back in 1970, we were hardly into our
second drink when Lévesque, determined to dissociate the Parti Québécois
from the FLQ, dismissed them as "a bunch of bums." At the time, I had no
idea that seven years earlier, when the FLQ was much given to planting
bombs in mailboxes that could explode in the faces of children, Lévesque
had had said to André Laurendeau, "You've got to hand it to them, they're
courageous, those guys."
I read off a list of political notables already interviewed to an old
friend. He was unimpressed. "I think you should check things out with Nick
Auf der Maur," he said.
"Auf der Maur. It means 'Off-the-Wall' in German."
"He's a German?"
"Of Swiss origin, actually."
So I became another one of those reporters, who, taking the Montreal
pulse, made sure to consult Dr. Auf der Maur. In those days Nick's surgery
was the now defunct basement Le Bistro on Mountain Street, and that's where
we first got together. Terry Mosher was also there. At the time Nick and
Terry were both involved in producing an irreverent political monthly
called The Last Post. Nick was both entertaining and informative that
evening, but I took him for an unreliable charmer, quick but lightweight,
and it never occurred to me that one day we would become good friends.
After I quit England and settled in Montreal with my family in 1972, I did
run into Nick from time to time&emdash;at Au Cépage, Woody's, Winnie's, or other
stations of the imbibers' cross&emdash;where I had usually gone to shoot the
breeze with other journalists who were already good friends, Ian Mayer or
Doris Giller; and I continued to keep my distance from Nick. But slowly,
inevitably, I did succumb to his irreverence, his gifts as a raconteur, his
sure eye for the absurd, his jaunty manner, what I took to be an
unacknowl-edged inner sadness, as well as his unmatched knowledge of
Montreal lore. To come clean, in need of confirming some recherché Montreal
factoid, I sent a bucket down Nick's memory well more than once. As he was
a compulsive peddler of inane jokes, I also came to rely on him for
knee-slappers that would make an intelligent reader wince, if I required
one for a novel-in-progress.
Nick was a throwback. An atavism. One of the last of a breed of
hard-drinking, honest but cynical reporters, usually divorced and
scrabbling to keep up with child support payments, who&emdash;when Nick was still
a bright-eyed copy boy&emdash;used to seek succour from their sorrows in the
Montreal Press Club in the old Mount Royal Hotel. If an irate wife or
girlfriend phoned the club, asking for somebody called Ian or Sam, Joe
Servant, the incomparable bartender, would cover the mouthpiece, look
directly at whichever delinquent was wanted, and ask in a loud voice, "Is
Ian/or Sam here?" As a rule, Ian or Sam would respond with a throat-cutting
gesture, and Joe, uncovering the mouthpiece, would report, "Sorry, he isn't
Those, those were the days when the tabloid Montreal Herald had already
folded, but the Star was still with us, as were Weekend magazine and Time
Canada. Reporters from La Presse and Le Devoir were also Press Club
regu-lars, as were Tim Burke, Bobby Stewart, and many a CBC hack who then
laboured downtown in the old Ford Hotel.
By common consent the most respected Press Club regular was Dink Carroll,
sports columnist for The Gazette. I remember once sailing into the club for
a nightcap in the early morning hours, and joining Dink at the bar at a
time when airplane hijackings were our daily dread. "Three things worry
me," said Dink.
"Terrorism. Inflation ... and Peggy," who was his wife.
"Why Peggy?" I asked, concerned.
"I promised her I'd be home by 7 o'clock tonight."
Nick, of course, seldom got home before 4 a.m., if then.
Item: Retired MUC detective Kevin McGarr once told me that, years ago, when
he and his patrol car partner wanted to know where the illegal after hours
drinking clubs were they relied, in the absence of a bird dog, on Nick.
Parked near whichever watering hole Nick favoured in those days, they would
wait until he emerged at closing time, usually accom-panied, said McGarr,
by a fetching young woman. And, inevitably, Nick would lead them to a blind
The unelected spokesman of after dark downtown Montreal, Nick was alert to
its pulse, his ear attuned to its voices. He seemed to be on convivial
terms with everybody, from the city's movers and shakers, through its nuns,
detectives, and professional athletes, to its layabouts, felons, pimps,
drug dealers and call girls. All of them, it seemed, responded to his
appetite for fun.
Item: Nick once told me that years ago he and Conrad Black, out on the
town, inadvertently repaired to a gay bar for drinks. Taken for unwelcome
intruders, they were asked to leave, but an irate Black insisted on their
democratic right to stay as long as they pleased. And so they did.
Nick had a real gift for writing fluent, anecdotal columns, but too much
should not be made of them. He never threatened to become Montreal's
Mayhew. So I sometimes scolded him for not working harder at his stuff. For
being guilty of clunky sentences. For being satisfied too often by prose
that was no more than functional. For accepting the first adjective that
came to mind. His laziness irritated me.
Item: Seated on his customary bar stool at Winnie's with his usual stack
of newspapers, sporting what had become his signature Borsalino, one day
Nick asked me: "How many hours a day do you work?"
"Three," I said.
His eyes lit with glee. Nick said, "I only work three hours a week."
The truth is Nick knocked off his columns on the fly, and I gradually came
to accept he put most of his energy and art into being Nick. Endearing
prankster. Boulevardier. Bar-room raconteur. Bottom-pincher. But beyond
what came to be role-playing of a sort, Nick was also a serious reader and
an intelligent observer. A reporter with a forgiving feel for the human
Florence and I had Nick out to our cottage on Lake Memphremagog more than
once, but he seldom ventured outside where there was no asphalt, no
intruding traffic, no twitching neon signs. Instead, all those goddamn
flower beds. Intimidating trees. A threatening lake. Unlike Crescent or St.
Denis Street at 3 a.m., it could be dangerous out there. Hedgehogs and
porcupines were not unknown. A guy minding his own business, nursing a
vodka and cranberry juice, just might be confronted by a deer.
During the summer months when Florence and I are rooted in the Townships,
we spend one day a week in Montreal. We usually drive into town early
Thursday morning, and then I would look forward to catching up with Nick at
Winnie's late in the afternoon. I could count on finding him seated on his
customary bar stool, fielding phone calls. Or pronouncing on our fevers for
a reporter from Stockholm or Madrid. Or sifting through his stack of
newspapers. Or trading insults with our mutual friend Richard Holden. The
two of them hollering. Eventually, in dire need of exercise, we would cross
the street to Ziggy's Pub, where we would continue to mull over the day's
political idiocies; and I saw no good reason why our enjoyable Thursday
afternoon bantering should not go on forever. Then, a week before Christmas
1996, Nick wrote in The Gazette, "...while in the shower, I felt a small
lump in my neck, near the jawbone." It proved to be a malignant tumour,
squamous cell carcinoma, in the back of his left tonsil, near the larynx.
So Nick had to be zapped with some heavy duty radiation treatments, which
left him with no taste buds and only a 50-50 chance of survival. He gave up
his 40-to-60 Gitanes-a-day habit and found it all but impossible to swallow
one vodka and cranberry juice, never mind his daily ration. His manner,
once boyishly reckless, was now tentative, under-standably apprehensive.
Then the carcinoma recurred, and the following autumn Nick was obliged to
endure a 14-hour operation in the Montreal General, and he was hardly over
that ordeal when he was struck by a brain tumour. And lung cancer.
And a tumour pressing on his spine.
I phoned Nick from our flat ln London last spring to say we would be home
in a few weeks. "We both hope to see you then, Nick."
"I will no longer be here," he said.
Nick went to an early grave, his departure from this world&emdash;for which he
had such appetite&emdash;protracted, punishing, but managed, on his part, with
uncommon grace. Nick was a cherished friend. An original. And the columns
collected here are as near as we will ever get to a self-portrait of an
endearing, if sometimes exasperating, man, blessed with all the right
instincts and prejudices.
When Nick's death was announced our two truculent cultures were in
agreement for once: Montreal was diminished.