Flipping to the preface of Outlaw Journalist, a book about the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson, I read the following quote:
Word of his death was a shock to me, but not particularly suprising… More than anything else, it came as a harsh confirmation of the ethic that [he] had always lived but never talked about… the dead-end lonelines of a man who makes his own rules…
I don’t even know where he’s buried, but what the hell? The important thing is where he lived.
It’s not only a perfect introduction to a fascinating book about a great American writer, it sums up what I’ve been feeling for two years now about the death of a dear friend.
A few days before Christmas, 2007 I also got a shock. I learned from a mutual friend that an old friend I’d met in my first days as a student reporter had died, found in his ramshackle house along a stretch of road across from a farmer’s field about a mile outside a very small dot on the map. As the police put it, he’d passed away “on or about November 15,” so I guess he’d been there in the Quebec autumn cold for a while even before someone found him.
I’d heard about Malcolm Stone a few weeks before I met him. Our journalism school teacher, Peter Scowen, simply called him Dr. Feelgood.
Malcolm Stone was the man who went out with me on my very first assignment for a real newspaper: the kind that people actually pay money for. I was on a summer break from school in Montreal, and at the suggestion of that same Peter Scowen – who was also the paper’s owner – I spent a week in the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships working for the Stanstead Journal in Stanstead, Quebec.
“You know Ian,” he told me as we were hanging out in his kitchen my first day there, “there’s this horse-breeder fellow I know who’s just started breeding elk. Elk! Can you believe it? You’ve got to get out there and do a little story on this guy.”
And he leaned back and slowly broke out in his wide smile. “I’ve already got the headline for it!” he said, tobacco-stained right finger waving in the air.
Stanstead farmer breeds horses of a different elk
That was back in the day before Google Search Engine Optimisation killed pun-filled headlines.
Malcolm was someone I deeply admired. He came up in conversation I had one morning in the kitchen of a prominent Montreal television personality, the wife of the journalism school teacher whose paper I worked on.
“So is living in the middle of nowhere on the edge of poverty some sort of lifestyle you aspire to?” she asked. It wasn’t a challenge, just an off-hand remark about how the man obviously had very little money to spare, but I said, yeah – if I can live my life enjoying what I want to do where I want to do it without having to answer to anybody and not have to wait ’til I’m 67 to do it, then sure.
Malcolm’s career path abruptly stopped somewhere in his mid-30s, about 25 years before I’d met him. He was working as a flack, er… public relations officer and mouthpiece for one of the two schools that merged to form Concordia University in Montreal, when he got into an ugly mud-fest with his employer. He was going to quit, but before he got a chance to, they offered him a whack of cash if he’d just leave. So he took their money, bought an old two-storey wood-frame house on a plot of land near a farmer’s field outside a tiny town in the Eastern Townships, and lived out the rest of his life.
Not many retire at 37, but he knew what he was doing, that’s for sure. The town was smack on the border with the States. When Malcolm wanted to stock up on Camel cigarettes and cheap gas for his beater car, he’d head over the line and be back home within 20 minutes, pushing a bit of blue all the way. If he needed to see a doctor, he ‘d of course stay on the Canadian side of the border and go to the guy in town.
He lived alone, so if the house hadn’t seen a spray of paint inside or out for the past 30 years, if the floorboard cracks in his kitchen were caked black with grime the dog brought in, if newspapers were piled to the ceiling at the top of the stairs leading to his scatter-house bedroom, if he walked around barefoot everywhere in an old shirt hanging out of his pants, if he got up at nine to walk the dog, tend his garden, listen to some jazz or NPR talkshow on the radio, have another smoke while contemplating his next move, he’d nobody to tell him to do it any differently.
I admired him because he had absolutely no need for the very things most of us strive for, yet was the happiest guy I knew.
“I want to leave The Record,” I told him one day after another of our rousing games of Scrabble. “Two hours into the drive down from Quebec City last week I looked out the window and thought, if I’m going to start earning some real money, I’ve got to get out of here.”
“Ian! Money is meaningless!” he shot back, slapping the table and, in a way, me upside the head. “Fuck it!” he said. “Fuck ’em. I’ve got everything I need here – a place to go when I feel like writing or doing a bit of farting around, friends who come loaded with tunes, toots and juicy local gossip. What more do you want?”
Part 1 of 2 (or maybe 3)