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Writer Allan Fotheringham takes in the gala opening of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 22, 2008. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Writer Allan Fotheringham takes in the gala opening of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 22, 2008. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Allan Fotheringham

Canada: A comfortable springboard to a far wider world Add to ...

Allan Fotheringham has been writing columns for Canadian newspapers and magazines for more than six decades.

It’s a struggle, on Canada Day, to retain the title as the finest Canadian of them all. Well, actually, it’s easy.

I was born in 1932 in Hearne, Saskatchewan – one grain elevator, 26 people, my mother one of 11 farm children. People from Hearne are called “Hearnias.” In fact, the town was so small that it couldn’t afford a village idiot. Everyone had to take turns.

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I was named after James Allan, my great grandfather. Here is his story. In 1845, James Allan, 17, and his brother, William Allan, 15, lived as orphans with an aunt and uncle in Antrim, Ireland.

They suffered a miserable existence that prompted them to run away to Belfast and hide themselves as stowaways on a ship. The younger brother was found, but James Allan wasn’t and arrived in Canada penniless and homeless.

Great grandfather started a career in lumber, hauling logs by oxen, then eventually had his own sawmill powered by steam. He died in 1905 and was buried in a cemetery in Shelburne, Ontario, wherever that is.

Me? The family moved to Sardis, British Columbia, a little town an hour east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley. Sardis is in both the Bible and Shakespeare.

After university, there was the Vancouver Sun, full of sour-faced old men who had never been anywhere – great role models for any youngster who spent his time reading the world atlas.

So dismal was the pay scale this scribbler decided after three years to prepare for law school, where his buddies had found the route to monied Valhalla.

God in Her Wisdom saved me. At 24 I was offered the sports editor’s job. Hallelujah! I could make it in this most crazy trade. I immediately quit and set out to discover this most wonderful world.

London was the obvious base. Full of all those Aussie kids, fleeing from their Pacific Ocean isolation. American fraternity rejects, with more money than common sense. A Canadian boy has to outdo them. The first insanity was to conquer Poland on a Vespa scooter. And to meet, on July 1 – Canada Day! – a copy girl of Polish blood from the Vancouver Sun at the Warsaw railway station clock at high noon.

I waited four hours and the next time I saw her, years later, she was an editor of a magazine in Palm Springs, California. She apologized.

Next? Conquer Russia. With two buddies in a Volkswagen, we are met at the Finland-Soviet Union border with the official Soviet Intourist guides, a gang of large, fat old Russian women dressed in black to their ankles – and one beautiful young woman.

We three stood in wild anticipation. Surely we wouldn’t have the luck? The last fat old lady dispatched, we were introduced to 25-year-old Ella Dimitrieva who would be our company in the tiny Volks for three whole weeks on the way to the Black Sea.

As we drove to Moscow, Karkhov and Kiev, and we took her dancing at night in the best hotels, She suddenly discovered lipstick and silk stockings.

Final night in Odessa, overlooking the sea from a beautiful restaurant, we had dinner and fond words for Ella. Much wine, much laughs, and she took us down to the dock, kissed us all goodbye, and then turned us over to the police, who seized all our cameras and photographs. Ah. Russia.

And the there were the five years in Washington. Highlighted by the fact the Canadian ambassador was Allan Gotlieb. Which is why at any given evening at the Canadian embassy, I might find myself sitting down to dinner with Henry Kissinger across the table. Defense Minister Caspar Weinberger beside him. David Brinkley might be lingering about, with Meg Greenfield, the op-ed editor of the Washington Post and Katharine Graham, the Post’s owner and publisher. Peter Jennings and Dan Rather wouldn’t be far away, either.

In 1998, I married Anne Libby and we discovered an equal passion: travel. It took us to 26 countries over the next seven years. Ireland, Italy, France, China, Bali, Australia. Peru, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines. We went to the Hong Kong handover in 1997, a cremation of one of the kings of Bali and Antarctica for the millennium. We are happier flying somewhere than being at home.

In all, I’ve been to 91 countries. All because of the greatest invention in history: the expense account.

And so, last week we were driving in virgin country in Ontario and two hours north of Toronto came across a town called Shelburne, with the largest cemetery I have ever seen. Anne, sharper than me as always, remembered the great-grandfather connection and insisted we stop.

We thought we might stroll for an hour in vague hopes of finding him. We got out of the car, walked 10 yards and – Irish luck – there was the Allan tombstone.

The reason this boy knows that Canada is the best country in the world is that he has seen all the rest. He has all the required credentials.

 

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