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This ... is London.
— Edward R. Murrow M
Murrow was the prototype for a foreign correspondent. From a distance, his heyday during the war seems hopelessly romantic. Under fire with the rest of London, living intensely, drinking, smoking, working all hours. He drank with Churchill and romanced the PM's daughter-in-law. His resonant voice and powerful words evoked all the life-and-death drama of a struggle for existence. His brow seemed permanently furrowed in passionate commitment to his calling.
What young broadcast reporter would not want to be Murrow?
Many apply, but few are called.
After more than twenty years of local and national TV reporting in Canada, I had thought my time had passed. Overlooked several times for foreign postings, I was resigned to a comfortable and largely satisfying job covering the Ontario legislature, complete with my own modest, no-budget, political affairs talk show, which had won a few awards.
As I approached my midfifties, it seemed that my next move would be into public relations — perhaps making a bit more money than my journalism career had ever offered.
I would think sometimes that maybe it was time to grow up and get a real job before some new boss young enough to be my kid called me into his office to advise that he did not like my face on TV anymore and was calling security to escort me to the door.
Then the lightning bolt struck.
In early 2011 our London correspondent departed in favour of an anchor job back home. Do I apply one more time, I wondered?
"Go ahead," said Isabella. "Don't let me stop you."
For as long as we had been together she had known I wanted to live and report from abroad, with London my top choice. She had never liked it, never wanted it, but equally did not wish to be my obstacle.
When I announced that I was going to Kosovo for a week in 1999 to report on the aftermath of the war, she wept fearful tears when I left for the airport.
When it seemed I was headed to Pakistan in the weeks after 9/11, she was inconsolable. As it turned out I never went anyway.
That was all before we had Julia. She was now in Grade 1, attached to her friends and her nanny. We had a circle of close friends and relatives. Isabella had a job she loved, producing and directing an online design show. We had just committed to a major kitchen renovation, adding enormously to our debt, but finally finishing off our house.
Life was pretty good.
I sat at my desk at Queen's Park, staring off through the window. My stomach contracted.
Should I do this? If I get it, how will we do it?
Am I just too old for this?
Time to grow up and get a real job?
Fuck it. Not going to get it anyway. Give it one more chance and then give it up.
I applied, pouring my heart into the email to the show's producers, just as I had for so many other jobs before where I came close but missed.
The job interview was by phone, with me sitting in a deserted hallway of the legislature on a quiet day when most of the politicians were away. They asked me how I would get into Libya to cover the civil war.
"Well, I would just go to the border and start asking people for advice," I said confidently.
I had absolutely no bloody idea how I would ever get into Libya if the time ever came. And Isabella would certainly hit the roof if I ever tried.
The producers were kind and genial. I respected and liked them both. But this felt different from all the job interviews I had had before — all those times when I knew I came close but was not the choice.
They clearly wanted someone younger, more ready to go into war zones. Someone more conversant with Twitter (I would tweet once a week to a tiny list of followers to advise them of the subject of my talk show).
That's it, game over, I thought. In a way, it was a relief.
At least I tried.
* * *
A federal election was looming and I was angling to turn my provincial program into a national talk show during the campaign. But I was about to be banished to an early morning Sunday time slot that would make it impractical.
The producer who did the London job interview was among the executives I was lobbying to win a Saturday evening time. He sent an email asking me to give him a call. It was mid-March 2011.
"Hi. So, do you think we can find a time for this show?" I asked when he picked up.
"Well, we're going to take it off your hands because I want to send you to London."
A beat. I was the speechless broadcaster.
"Well ... uh ... good thing I'm sitting down," I finally mumbled.
"I feel really good about this decision," he said. "I've advised the vice-president and your boss that I'm making the offer and frankly they were both surprised, but also happy for you."
Naturally they were surprised. I'm the one who never got these jobs.
My head was spinning. I looked out the window that overlooked the front lawn of the legislature from our fourth-floor perch. The red-tailed hawk that nested in the tree at our level was ripping apart a small animal that had made the mistake of straying into its territory.
The producer went over the offer: a three-year contract, with both a much-higher salary and a living allowance to compensate for the cost of living in London. They wanted me to go as soon as possible because the Royal Wedding of William and Kate was just over a month away.
"Okay, then. I guess I'd better talk to my loved ones," I said, thinking that if it were fifteen years earlier I would already be calling a taxi to the airport.
I took a deep breath and called Isabella.
"Do you have bad news?" she demanded fearfully, sensing the tension in my voice.
"Depends on how you look at it. They've offered me the London job."
Now it was her turn to be stunned into mumbling.
"Oh ... well, I'm glad you finally got it. I'm really, really proud of you."
"We need to figure out how we're going to move there ... how to get Julia into school."
"Oh ... well ... it's about time they recognized you, Sean."
I said I would be home early and we could start to plan. We hung up.
The news was slowly sinking it, causing a mixture of euphoria and terror.
The cellphone rang. Isabella. In tears.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't do this! I can't tear Julia out of school ... can't leave my mom and dad ... can't leave my job. WE'RE DOING A KITCHEN RENOVATION!
"HOW COULD YOU THINK WE COULD JUST GET ON A PLANE AND GO TO LONDON? WHAT WOULD JULIA DO?
I'm so sorry, but you can't do it."
She was weeping uncontrollably. Every point she made was utterly pertinent. Here I was, finally being offered the job I had wanted my entire adult life and my wife was telling me I could not take it.
I stalled, telling her to wait until I got home and we could speak about it in person.
"You would have to just go yourself and maybe we could come in the fall. Julia can't just leave her friends behind," she said, tears abating slightly.
It was a slight opening.
"Okay. You make a good point," I said. "I haven't really thought it all through yet. I didn't expect this to happen."
Thus began two weeks of intensive research, bargaining, pleading, raging, calculating, and soul-searching.
Isabella called her mother, who enthusiastically told her, "Go, go!"
Her sister, a former colleague of mine, was sympathetic to both of us — understanding Isabella's fears and my ambitions.
"Well, he is a reporter boy," she observed to Isabella — i.e., he has always had these dreams, and they are hard to abandon.
We did not tell Julia yet.
I pulled out a yellowed map of London from my backpacking trips thirty years earlier and tried to visualize the location of the bureau — a place called Camden Lock. Could not find it.
We started looking online for apartments to try to get an idea of the costs. Whole notebooks were filled with calculations. I was going to be paid almost double what I had ever made in my life. But we would be losing Isabella's substantial salary.
Within hours it became clear: we could not afford it.
"We'd be $50,000 in debt after one year," Isabella observed in a prediction that proved eerily accurate.
"Maybe you should just go on your own and Julia and I will stay here."
It was not a good scenario as either a spouse or parent. I insisted that they come, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"I don't care about those kinds of experiences. I don't need to live in another country," she said.
"But it's London! The world's greatest city! Open your mind to the possibilities," I pleaded.
"It's another city. I DON'T CARE."
Isabella had travelled to Japan and Europe during a period when she worked as a model. When she was a teenager and training to become a ballerina she moved first to Winnipeg, then Montreal. She had had enough of moving cities. More than that, she also admitted that she was scared and that she did not deal well with change, particularly big change.
This was going to be rough.
I reached out to Tara, the previous correspondent, who had returned to Canada to take an anchor job. She was both kind and informative — patient with my repeated phone calls asking for information and advice.
"It was a great experience," she said. "But we lived modestly."
On days when she was filing a story, she generally got out of the office at around 8:00 p.m. On average she was on the road once every six weeks.
"So, you'll work late every night and then travel regularly, leaving Julia and me alone in London where we know nobody," said Isabella in an accusatory tone. "You're wrecking our lives."
Our days settled into a dreary routine. I would go over the numbers for the umpteenth time. Isabella might offer a tiny window of acceptance, which I would jump through only to have it slammed on my neck.
Could we rent out our house to help with the economics of it?
"Absolutely not. I want a place to come home to when I'm visiting."
I put off giving my response, saying it was more complicated than I had expected.
Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa was poised to fall and I was dispatched to cover the confidence vote — a historic moment, but my head was spinning between London and Toronto and an angry, hurt wife.
I declined a chance to go out for dinner with my Ottawa colleagues and stumbled back into my room at the Château Laurier. There was a voice mail message on my phone. It was my brother Eddie, voice grim.
"Hi, Sean, sorry to tell you this in a voice mail but Aunt Sheila passed away this morning. Give me a call."
She had been our mother's companion for many years in retirement. Mom had died three years earlier and Sheila's condition had been in steady decline. She had no children. Eddie and my sister, Theresa, had been overseeing her affairs and care.
It was a sad moment, but in a way a relief. Her last days had not been pleasant.
I stretched out on the hotel bed, closed my eyes, tried to breathe, and wondered what could be next.
But as the days unfolded, it seemed my dear aunt, in passing, had opened a door for me. She left what she had to my sister, two brothers, and me. A small inheritance that could help finance my London project.
Isabella was still adamant, still saying no. My tactic was to listen, commiserate, and stall. In the morning I would think it was never going to work and resolve to say no. During the day I would have moments of optimism, where I pictured my saying yes.
I confided my dilemma to my officemate, Randy, a cameraman who had seen it all at the legislature in more than twenty years and who had a profane way of cutting through all the bullshit to get to the nub of an issue.
"You'll always regret it if you say no," he said, tellingly.
We asked Julia what she thought about moving to London for a year.
"NO," was her definitive answer. She did not want to leave her friends.
Slowly Isabella's resistance cracked, without ever crumbling. Finally she gave a qualified concession: "It's up to you. You do not have my permission, but you do what you want."
She did not want to go, but did not want to definitively veto.
She insisted I could only sign for a one-year contract, not the three on offer, and I had to have a break clause that would allow me to quit and come back to Toronto if it all crashed around our ears. And there had to be more money.
I made a counter-offer. They came back with a bit more cash and a fifteen-month contract.
We had little sleep. Yes. No. Yes. No....
Finally, the morning dawned on the day of my self-imposed deadline.
A bleak sunny day. I was leaning toward a no. My stomach contracted into my spine.
Isabella was weary of the whole thing. There was nothing more to say. It was my decision and I had neither her veto nor her support.
As the day wore on, the yes side seemed to shift the balance. There was no good reason, other than perhaps Randy's words that kept resonating in my brain.
"You'll always regret it if you say no."
Nighttime. It was going to be a yes.
"Okay," said Isabella blankly. "It will be up to you to tell Julia."
I went into the basement to call the producer privately.
"That's great!" he said with what appeared to be genuine pleasure. Papers to be signed in the next few days. Somehow it felt right. My stomach released from my spine and a rush of blood went to my head. After all these years I was going to be a foreign correspondent. And I needed to move to London within a couple of weeks in order to cover the Royal Wedding.
Seconds after I hung up, Julia came downstairs with a quizzical smile on her face.
"Are we going?" she asked.
"Yes, sweetie, we're going to London."
Without a word she ran away upstairs to her room. I took a deep breath and followed. My little girl was weeping uncontrollably into her pillow.
"WHY ... WHY?" she pleaded.
I really had no good answer other than it was something I had always wanted to do. I tried to assure her that I would make sure she had fun in London and that it was an experience she would always appreciate when she was older. Barren arguments to a six-year-old who could only see that she was leaving her friends, her beloved nanny, and her school.
I went downstairs and hugged my wife.
"Thank you," I said for no obvious reason.
"Don't thank me. Don't feel good about this. I don't want it. It's not going to be easy."
The plan was that they would stay in Toronto to finish the school year and to spend the summer at home so that Julia would have her friends for a few more months, Isabella could continue working as long as possible, and the kitchen renovation could carry through. They would hold down the fort while I embarked on my London adventure.
* * *
Suddenly there were a million things to do. In a flash my old job was set aside as I started to make preparations. The easy part was signing the contract.
The announcement was to be made on the afternoon of April Fool's Day. As it happened, I was to be taping my final Focus Ontario show at the same time — an opportunity for a bit of drama.
I wrote a one-minute script of goodbye to close the program, and waited to insert it in the lineup until the moment I walked into the studio, calculating that even the diligent production crew who worked hard to make me look good did not always necessarily read the content of my scripts in advance.
I tried to make it warm and wry, and not mawkish — thanking the guests, even the grumpy ones; the production staff; and the loyal audience.
Upon completion, the director, the always sunny and genial Amy, came into the studio and opened her arms to give me a hug. With typical grace, I tripped over a cable and nearly did a face plant as she approached.
Back at my desk, I saw that the email had gone out and the congratulations were pouring in ... many shocked, but all genuine and fine. A good day.
One hard part over. Now another hard part was set to begin. I just needed to rip up deep roots and shift my life to the other side of the Atlantic.
* * *
As I was about to learn, Britain was no longer so welcoming to immigrants as it had once been. I was not even going to be an immigrant, just a visiting journalist, of which there are hundreds if not thousands in London. No matter.
The website of the British High Commission office in Ottawa made it clear that they answered no questions about visas. All advice and processing services had been farmed out to a private outfit called WorldBridge. It was reached via a 1-900 number that charged a couple of dollars per minute for the call, so I phoned from my office desk. Someone with a heavy accent answered. They asked me to spell my name, which they then repeated back painfully slowly. A couple of bucks earned for WorldBridge just to identify myself.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Falling for London"
Copyright © 2018 Sean Mallen.
Excerpted by permission of Dundurn Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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