Friday, 18 September 2015

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Stop les Presses!

An endearing and enduring image of my grandfather is him sitting in his favourite chair beside his pet canary George and reading in the natural light of his second-storey apartment’s living room window. I walked under his window on my way to school for years.

Papa Moore was a retired Bell Canada engineer when I knew him. He explained fractions to me when my arithmetic teachers and my math-genius friend Marty could not. When Universal Product Codes began to appear with increasing frequency in the mid-70s, Papa Moore studied the patterns and thicknesses of the black bars under a magnifying glass trying to discern their correlations to the human-readable numbers printed along the base lines. Had he lived into our Digital Age, he would have been a fascinated, septuagenarian adaptor and I often wonder what he would make of the evolution of his former employer, for tucked among the personal papers he left behind was an unfinished history of Bell.

Papa was an English √©migr√© from Bristol who settled in Montreal prior to the First World War. His family’s haberdashery business in suburban Fishponds was strangled by the 1910 introduction of a bus route into downtown Bristol and a high street rife with competition: everything for everybody changed almost immediately or perhaps according to the bus schedule.

One of Canada’s best newspapers announced Wednesday that it would cease publishing weekday print editions come January 1, 2016. Montreal’s French-language La Presse began publishing in 1884. The broadsheet found its legs in 1894 under its second owner, Treffle Berthiaume, a typographer and lithographer by trade. I know this because when Canada Post honoured M. Berthiaume with a stamp in the early 80s I wrote the tribute essay (and at $1 per word you can be sure my research was extensive) which appeared in the corporation’s monthly Philatelic Bulletin and annual collection. This 19th century visionary could never have imagined his newspaper transitioning into a more profitable and free tablet-only form (the Toronto Star has since paid for the technology and required training), fat and tactile weekend editions excepted.

When I picture my grandfather in his comfy club chair, I always see sections of La Presse on his lap. Papa Moore had no facility for any other language beyond his mother tongue, although he could speak enough French moving around Montreal to at least be polite. But he read La Presse every day, determined to learn the language of the majority. I copied Papa’s example and struggled through editions of La Presse attempting to improve my own impoverished French. I learned quickly enough that my ability to recite baseball’s nine fielding positions en francais did not constitute full-blown bilingualism. I gave up and moved to Alberta.

La Presse was designed to appeal to Montreal’s middle class, an incredibly broad spectrum. While it has always competed against the Montreal Gazette for engaged bilingual readers (and scoops), its French-language newsstand competitors represent two extremes: Le Journal de Montreal is an icky, lurid mix of sex, murder and hockey; the august Le Devoir a musty, skimpy oleo of separatist intellectualism. La Presse is now betting its 131-year history on a new reality: its loyal readership, especially those under the age of 40 and so seductive to advertisers, wants properly reported news but not newspapers. The future doesn’t quite look the same way I remember it.

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