Monday, December 5, 2011

Fotheringham a lucky man living with tragedy

Allan Fotheringham has penned a memoir of his journalistic career, ranging from his beginnings on the Ubyssey student newspaper to seeing the world on the publisher's dime. Rafel Gerszak photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 16, 2011


An obituarist does not often get to meet his subject four years after the assignment, but here was Allan Fotheringham, hale and hearty at 79.

The self-described “humble scribe” is on tour to promote his ninth book, the first in a decade and a return to form after an escalating series of ailments and medical mishaps left him near death in 2007.

Thinner, his voice reedier from damage to vocal cords caused by a breathing tube, he still carried on his face a familiar, smart-aleck impishness.

On a quiet fall afternoon, an attentive audience filled 70 chairs in a room at the central branch of the Victoria library, seeking a few moments with a writer who has been poking the pomposity of the powerful for more than four decades. Most had aged with him, from the must-read column in the Vancouver Sun, to 27 years of caustic commentary at Maclean’s, to being a wiseacre on a prime piece of real estate in the Globe, to many seasons of wit and irreverence on television’s Front Page Challenge.

“Even I cannot believe the life I am living,” he said.

Dr. Foth, as he also describes himself, read two anecdotes from his memoir, one about the marriage of Pierre Elliott Himself (a coinage known as a Fothism). The other was about another prime minister replacing the first syllables of the columnist’s family name with a venerable expletive in verb form. When an editor removed the swear word in an earlier book, Mr. Fotheringham slowed book signings by turning to the offending page to scratch out his name to replace it with the vulgarity. The crowd howled at the story.

His wife collected $32 cash for each copy of Boy From Nowhere, which he then signed. Some of the audience brought with them ancient copies of a magazine from whose pages he disappeared eight years ago. He was praised for using such phrases as “the Excited States of America.”

It was like witnessing a solo rock act, long fallen from the charts, being feted on a nostalgia tour.

“Gratifying doesn’t express it all,” he said. “It’s amazing. As I said, it took me 79 years to write this book. All the twists and turns in 91 countries, (trips) paid for by somebody else, I’ve had a remarkable life.

“I’ve got my health back and play tennis three mornings a week at 9 a.m., after almost dying four years ago. I’m the luckiest bugger around.”

Except when he isn’t.

He was in the final editing stage of the manuscript in late June when he received terrible news from overseas. His eldest son, who had been living in South Korea for seven years, had died suddenly.

“He was the bravest man I ever met,” Mr. Fotheringham said. “As a child, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. He had to take 20 pills a day to lead a normal life. He tried to follow his father and travel the world, not by expense account like me, but on a bike.”

The younger Fotheringham spent three month following the ancient silk road across Asia, a 4,800-kilometre cycling odyssey that included encounters with Tajik farmers and Afghan tank commanders. He fired an AK-47 on offer from an arms dealer, managed to twice elude a long stay in the hoosegow after being arrested by Chinese authorities.

He recounted his adventures in a book, On the Trail of Marco Polo. As one reviewer noted, his writing combined Gen-X jargon with cool understatement, as in this passage about camping in the mountains: “This is the life I thought. I just hope I don’t roll over the edge at night into the river. That would bite.”

The reviews were generally favourable, though they all seemed to compare the son’s writing to the father’s.

Allan Fotheringham at the Ubyssey.
“A good little book,” says a proud father. “The reviewers weren’t very fair to it, because they said, ‘This is a pretty good book, but it doesn’t have the wit of his father, or it doesn’t have the political depth of his father.’ We never discussed it, but I’m quite sure that’s why he decided to move out of Canada. He could see that whatever he did as a journalist, he would be compared to his father.”

In Korea, young Fotheringham taught English as a second language and wrote several reading and vocabulary books for beginners.

He was a curious man, a good quality for a journalist, and while he liked adventure he had to be careful about his health. The end came unexpectedly.

“His heart just gave out,” he said. “He fell in the bathroom and was dead before he hit the floor. It was a tragedy.”

The loss “wiped me out for a couple of months,” Mr. Fotheringham said. “My wife, Anne, the strongest person you could ever meet, got me through it.”

Dr. Foth has funded an annual $20,000 scholarship in his son’s name for the top graduating student in English at the school in Seoul.

Brady Delbridge Fotheringham, named for the great Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, was 47.

A newspaper clipping of a rare Fotheringham defeat in a libel suit.

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