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  • The life and times of journalist Jim Hume


    Stephen Hume
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    From driving a garbage scow to reporting for newspapers, Jim Hume had a rich and varied life. His son Stephen Hume shares some memories.

     

    JIM HUME, WHO COVERED POLITICS and politicians in this province for 70 years, starting with Byron “Boss” Johnson in 1952 and ending with John Horgan in 2022, died April 13. 

    He was well known to Victoria readers after more than half a century of writing about who governs us and how from the provincial capital, occasionally frustrated and mystified by an apparently widely-held idea that a democratically-elected  government is somehow not us but somebody else.

    He was also my father, so this is not an entirely objective account. And your narrator’s a bit unreliable, too, considering the self-serving way we all edit memory. 

     

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    Joyce Hume, Stephen Hume, Jim Hume — 1947 before emigrating to Canada.

     

    When public personages die, obituaries tend to focus on the official and often officious record of career achievements. 

    Jim had many of them: lifetime achievement award from the Jack Webster Foundation, lifetime member of the press gallery, Queen’s Jubilee Gold Medal for public service, a writing career that spanned eight organizations, some of which he outlived, including The Nanaimo Free Press, Penticton Herald, Edmonton Journal, Victoria Times, Victoria Colonist, subsequently the Victoria Times-Colonist. He was a go-to stringer for Time Magazine in its mass market heyday (circulation 3.3 million), recruited by the legendary Time correspondent Ed Ogle with whom he became friends. His celebrity trapline ranged from actor John Wayne to Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister Lester B.—“Mike” to his friends—Pearson.

    He, however, always urged the young reporters he mentored not to set much store by the official record. Every story has two sides, he’d advise, the official version and the unofficial version. 

    The official version is usually spoon-fed to you by bureaucrats, cabinet ministers, communications officers, corporate flaks and people with axes to grind, oxen to gore and secrets to leak to someone’s benefit or cost. It’s usually as smooth as soft ice cream served up for convenience of use. 

    The unofficial version, on the other hand, is most often found at the margins, in the dark corners and in the back eddies of events. It’s sometimes distasteful, prickly, irritatingly inconsistent and demands time and effort to verify. 

     

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    Jim Hume as a young reporter hamming it up in the Alberni office of the Nanaimo Free Press mid 1950s.

     

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    Jim Hume working (trench coat lower left) the street for The Edmonton Journal in 1963 during a tumultuous municipal election campaign.  

     

    He was a believer in knocking on doors, wearing out shoe leather and asking people what they’d seen, heard, felt, thought. 

    The official version is indisputably part of the record, he said, but that doesn’t discredit or obscure the unofficial version, the imprecise human rather than the precise institutional side of the story.

    Thus, his reporter’s alternate trapline included secretaries—a lot of secretaries; small town mayors; beat cops; barbers; third line hockey players; basketball referees; beer parlour waitresses; priests who didn’t mind an occasional dram, eccentrics like the Nanaimo black sheep of a famous family who made cannons for fun and whose moonshine rum made its way into at least one judges’ bottom drawer.

    That trapline consisted of all the folks who heard and saw what was said and what was done both off and outside the official record. 

    He wrote for readers, never to impress editors or premiers or corporate presidents. There are, he enjoyed pointing out, many more retail clerks than there are vice-presidents of sales—so he wrote for the clerks and left his publishers to deal with the complaints of disenchanted vice-presidents.  

    Perhaps in this context the human aspect of Jim Hume’s own story is more fitting than a list of benchmark achievements. 

    Jim was born in 1923 in the back room of a labourer’s brick row house in Nuneaton. A farm market town in the English Midlands whose history reached back to Mercia, it had transformed into a factory centre during The Great War when a famous regiment was mustered and barracked there.

    He, nevertheless, came into a world that didn’t yet have most of the technology we now take for granted. 

    The first self-contained household refrigerator was only invented the year he was born, not a trivial event—deaths from salmonella poisoning declined by 98.7 percent during his own childhood as cold storage took hold and food safety improved.

    Indeed, childhood was a dangerous journey when he was born. Of every thousand children born in 1923, more than 140 failed to survive, killed by poverty, malnutrition and communicable disease. Over his own lifetime, infant mortality fell by 94.7 percent. 

    He was born before antibiotics. Infectious diseases that are now easily treated claimed five of his own siblings before they left childhood. Both children, Edward and May, and his father’s first wife, Polly, aged 27, all died of TB between 1903 and 1907.

    “The White Plague” as TB was then called, claimed Phyllis, the first child of his own mother, Ann Startin, and father, Thomas Dodds Hume, in 1918. It took an older brother, Tom, whom he adored. It killed his little brother, Douglas, whom he cherished. Only Jim and an older sister, Doris, lived to see adulthood. 

    The other invention of his birth year was the traffic light—a curiosity since few people yet owned automobiles. When he went to visit his grandfather’s farm in Weddington, another farm village, one that hadn’t yet industrialized, he rode there sitting on the tailgate of a pony cart.

    He earned spending money delivering coal to neighbours in a wheelbarrow but dutifully turned his earnings over to his mother to supplement the small wages of his disabled father, who had been severely wounded in a 1915 First World War slaughter that yielded 600,000 casualties.

    In his future, awaiting invention, lay the reporter’s spiral notebook, the ballpoint pen, the polaroid camera, Scotch tape, tape recorders, television and television news, the atomic bomb—he would later visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Auschwitz, Dresden and he’d revisit Coventry, where all that remained of the 900-year-old cathedral where he sang as a choirboy was a charred shell.

    He’d been in Coventry the night its cathedral burned. The bombing mission was code-named Moonlight Sonata, one of the Orwellian euphemisms of slaughter that he came to despise. 

    He had been present, he later said, for the advent of a new concept in warfare: total war, in which unarmed civilians became the front lines. Cities themselves became targets to be incinerated in deliberately induced firestorms, at first during weeks of bombardment then, on August 6, 1945, vaporized in a split second.

    And he wrote about the strange selectiveness of memory in the official record—how Hiroshima’s 70,000 dead are engraved into our collective sense of the past because they died in a flash but the 100,000 who died the night of the Tokyo fire raid, code-named Operation Meeting House, another of those banal euphemisms, recede from our recall.

    What he saw and was called upon to do as a teenager—abandoning the wounded in precarious circumstances because a living stretcher crew was deemed more valuable saving others than being risked for a dying bomb casualty; stepping over the body of a neighbour’s little daughter in the rain-filled gutter because getting to the living wounded took precedence over the already slain—confirmed his belief that making war could never be reconciled with his deeply Christian beliefs. 

    He became a pacifist and a conscientious objector, secure enough in his convictions to go to prison for them and doing field labour. He never wavered in that conviction.

    When he was born, electric lights were still a rarity. On misty winter nights he watched a lamp-lighter bicycle through the streets, igniting the gas lights with a wick on a long pole.

    The internet wasn’t invented until after he had qualified for his old age pension, yet there he was at the time of his death, managing his own website, www.jimhume.ca, posting to social media platforms and exchanging e-mails with his editor, contacts and readers.

    He was thought, at the time he died, to be the oldest working journalist in Canada, maybe the world for all anyone knows.

    At 98 he wrote every week about life in Victoria, British Columbia and Canada, the country he chose to make home in 1948. 

    He loved all three deeply and although he travelled widely, he never doubted his decision as a young man to emigrate from war-shattered England, where he’d watched whole cities burn, to what he once thought seemed the tranquil Eden of Vancouver Island.

    His view of Eden changed dramatically in later years as he dug into the racist, imperialist, colonial history of greed, avarice, plunder and cruelty that he came to see as the unacknowledged stain upon the many progressive triumphs of the place.

    “In the face of injustice,” he liked to say, “to be silent is to acquiesce to the crime.”

    The crime, which he came to see as BC’s original sin—he was never entirely separated from the biblical oratory of a world view shaped in a deeply religious youth—was the brutal dispossession of the people who already lived here by newcomers arriving from Europe and Asia .

    The residential schools and what they represent—an attempt by an occupying government, enabled by religious leaders, to eradicate culture and language; to separate children from their parents spiritually as well as physically; to crush the soul of whole social groups; all done in the prideful rationalization that this would improve their lot—came for him to epitomize that sin.

    And to his mind nothing exemplified the sin of the residential schools, he said, so much as the casual indifference of police, priests, school authorities and government to the disappearance and deaths of four little boys who froze to death at Fraser Lake one January night trying to flee a school that had opened there in 1922 and was characterized by brutal corporal punishment, sexual abuse and maltreatment. More than 40 children died there before it closed in 1976.

    He wrote about residential schools, about his awakening to the cruel reality of that past, our shared past, which arose from his education by—and lifelong friendship with—Tse-Shaht elder George Clutesi, whom he met while he was a reporter for the long-defunct Nanaimo Free Press and George was working as a janitor at the notorious and also long-defunct Alberni Indian Residential School. 

    Jim was not a pessimist about the possibility of reconciliation or about the need for it. Without reconciliation, he came to believe, British Columbia and Canada could never be whole. To forgive and to be forgiven requires facing the truth, he said.

    When he visited Coventry again shortly after the dedication of a new cathedral, built in part with the help of men who had flown the bombers that destroyed it, he came back with the Litany of Reconciliation adopted by the congregation. 

    I have it on my desk, a reminder from him that our future salvation comes not from anger and retribution, but from forgiving those who wrong us and from forgiving ourselves for the wrongs we do while being strong enough to acknowledge them and striving to make them right.

    The Litany of Reconciliation asks forgiveness for “the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,” and for “the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,” and for “the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,” and for “our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee.”

    All those things were much on his mind as he contemplated the changing political, social, economic and environmental landscapes of his beloved British Columbia toward the close of his life. 

    Actually, the truth of it is that the decision to come to British Columbia was not his, but his young wife Joyce’s—my mother’s—and in an odd way I was the cause of her insistence.

    I was born one bitterly cold night in the midst of an epidemic. He wasn’t permitted into the hospital for fear of spreading contagion to the newborn. The hospital itself specialized in treating severe burn patients, my mother told me shortly before she died, and there were still wounded soldiers convalescing in its wards.

    Those soldiers asked to see the new baby. So I was wrapped in a tiny blanket and, while my mother slept after a gruelling labour, I was whisked away by the nurse. When she returned, my mother said, my feet dangled, blue with cold. She remonstrated. The apologetic nurse explained: She’d taken the baby to the wards and the men, so far from home, some grievously injured, had all wanted to hold my tiny feet in their hands. A glimmer of new life, perhaps, for those who had been marinated in the opposite.

    The next day, those men collected their special fruit rations, Choice Grade red delicious apples from Canada—I got one every Christmas until I turned 12 and never wondered why—and gave them to my mother as a gift. 

    When my parents discussed where to emigrate—Australia or New Zealand where she had relatives; South Africa where he had relatives—she made the decision for an unconsidered (by him anyway) option: Canada, from whence the apples had come—the Okanagan, to be precise.

    And that’s how they, and I, arrived in BC on the first train down the Fraser Valley after the 1948 floods, then across the moonlit Strait of Georgia on the midnight CPR ferry to Vancouver Island.

     

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    Jim Hume with Joyce and four of their sons on a fishing trip on Saanich Inlet ca. 1953.

     

    The only job my father could find was driving a reeking garbage scow from the foot of Johnson Street out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca to deposit the city’s overnight garbage on the outgoing tide under a halo of squawking gulls. Each morning in the wan winter light he’d motor past the stately legislature buildings where he would later spend much of his working life sifting through the detritus of politics.

    “Same job, different location,” he liked to quip after a dram or two.

    And he did like a nip of scotch. If he’d been religious, self-righteous and stuffy in his early life, he told me, work as a reporter and with working people had knocked all the starch out of his attitudes.

    One of his oldest friends told me the story of my father’s first drink. He was a young sports writer with the Nanaimo Free Press covering the Timbermen, a lacrosse team which was starting a successful run for the Canadian championship and the Mann Cup.

     

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    Jim Hume, kneeling far left, with Velox Rugby Football Club, which now competes as Westshore in BC’s premier league. Hume founded the club with coach Gordie Hemingway in 1968; it had an undefeated season on Vancouver Island in 1970, the year this photo was taken.

     

    In the protocols of sports coverage, the reporter rode with the team, the coach got to ride in his own car.

    Driving home from a win, the slightly prudish young religious reporter was offended by the coarse language, off-colour jokes and locker room bragging about women. During a “leak” stop by the side of the road, he asked the coach if he could ride with him the rest of the way.

    The bemused coach agreed. The rest of the way led to a pub and a postgame beer. 

    “Look,” the coach said. “If you’re going to cover this team all the way to the Mann Cup—and we are going to win the cup—you’re going to have to come in here and listen to what they have to say. You don’t have to drink beer, drink tomato juice.”

    So, he went in. The team drank beer—a lot of beer—and he drank tomato juice—too much tomato juice. Another round came and he said no more juice, too acid.

    “Look,” said the team captain, “we’ll just cut your tomato juice with a bit of beer to make it less acid.”

    As the night progressed, less tomato juice and more beer. The team won the Mann Cup as promised. The coach became a lifelong friend and so did the team captain. And he went on to discover the pleasure in a good scotch.

    Indeed, when I was moving things from his apartment after his death, my brother Nic found his earthquake bug-out bag in the hall closet. In it was a high-end First Aid kit, no rations and half-a-dozen mini-bottles of booze. If the old stretcher-bearer was ready to step into the breach with First Aid supplies if needed, it wasn’t going to be without a nightcap.

     

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    Jim’s 91st birthday: L-R, sons Nic, Stephen, Jim, Andrew, Timothy, Mark, Jonathan

     

    Every year, until he was too old to drive, he’d climb in his car and travel to a different, distant part of the province. He knew somebody in every community—horse loggers, town administrators, retired and near forgotten lacrosse stars, hereditary chiefs, rodeo cowboys on the way up and hockey players on the way down. 

    He’d like to think he was one of them. And so he was. The official witness to their unofficial stories. 

    Stephen Hume, following in his dad’s foot steps, has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. 

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