When I was a new reporter in Peterborough and away from my hometown for the first time, Bill invited me to his home to have Christmas dinner with his family.
And the best part about any visit with Bill is that he’s got a lot of great stories about small-town newspapering. This is my favourite, though, and it involves a drunken former Duchess who was recently in the news for trying to sell access to her ex-husband.
“My first newspaper job – post graduation – was a summer position for a small then-independent weekly in the tiny town of Minden, Ontario. For a whopping $225 a week (and they didn’t pay mileage), most of my time was spent writing features about resorts and summer hotspots in the Haliburton Highlands. I also took a bunch of pictures, developed a lot of film and I even spent a few hours of week delivering papers as far north as Dorset. It wasn’t so bad. I used to keep swim trunks in my car and would often take a dip in one of the local lakes on a lunch break. And at the time, Minden was home to one of the best bars in Ontario – the legendary Rockcliffe Hotel.
Among the characters who worked at the newspaper was a Scottish woman whose name I don’t remember. But I do remember she was a big fan of the Royal Family. That summer, The Duke and Duchess of York – Andrew and Fergie – were making a visit to Canada. They had been married the year before and their visit was kind of a big deal. Officially, they were visiting Toronto and later, they were to go canoeing somewhere in Western Canada. But an unofficial visit got my attention.
When I got to work one morning, the paper’s owner, Jack, and the Scottish woman were talking about the royal visit. One of the stories on Canada AM made a passing reference to Fergie getting some canoe training in before she went out west for her official canoe trip. Scottish woman was speculating about whether that might include a visit to Minden. The area is home to one of the best white water reserves in Ontario. Jack said he saw a helicopter flying over that area in the morning so he asked me to take my camera up to the reserve for a look. It seemed far-fetched but it was better than inserting flyers so I jumped at it.
I get to the reserve and there’s not much going on. A few people are walking around, so I grabbed my camera and walked over to the water. A few minutes later, a local cop comes up to me and asks what I’m doing. Maybe he thinks he’s clever because he’s dressed in plain clothes… excep, he’s wearing a souvenir pin of the Royal Family. Smart.
So I was upfront about why I was there. He denied anything was going on but he asked me to leave. I pushed back. I just wanted a couple of pictures and I would be gone.
Just then, Jack drives up. He was friends with the cop and they walked away and talked it over for a few minutes.
Jack asked me to leave. He didn’t want to screw up the relationship with the local cops. We would get the story after the visit was over.
Jack drove away.
I was pissed.
So I’m driving away but it just doesn’t seem right. I pull into a farm down the road and decide to go through the bush back to the calmer waters below the rapids. As I get near the water, I see a couple in a canoe who appear to be practising falling out, and then getting back in. I also see several people wandering around the shore with what looked like machine guns. Stupid and stubborn, I took off my T-shift and wrapped it around my camera body so it wouldn’t make noise. Then I proceeded to take pictures. At one point, I had to lie down in a bush when one of the gun-toting guards walked near. When it was clear, I high-tailed it back to my car and returned to the office.
I was pumped.
My boss… not so much.
He was pissed. I told him that nobody saw me. I would develop the film and then he could decide what he wanted to do with it.
Twenty minutes later, I’m out of the darkroom and his mood has changed. There’s a British reporter in his office – I think from the Mirror – who was also chasing a rumour that Fergie might be in the area. He said he got drinking with a pair of Mounties in Toronto the night before and they spilled the beans. But he got there too late.
Jack, meanwhile, is bragging that we have photos and we might be willing to share them with the Mirror.
I can still picture him, minutes later, when the local cop from the white water reserve came in to thank him for leaving the scene. His head down, mumbling some sort of apology, he was stifling a bit of a grin.
Fergie has always meant a little bit more to me since then. And we have something in common. I was supposed to get a cut from the money the Mirror guy was to pay us to use the photos… money, I suppose, for sharing my access to a member of the Royal Family. I never saw a dime.
Didn’t Fergie just in trouble for trying to do the same sort of thing?”