LONDON, ONTARIO – London lost her unofficial and utterly ubiquitous town crier earlier this month at the age of 66. Though he was not a man I ever came to know well and (other than a love of London lore and the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan) shared few interests with, Bill Paul did me a good few favours over the nearly fifty years of our acquaintance; favours which I did a singularly crappy job of acknowledging, let alone repaying.
I think we both thought at first that we were going to get along better than we did. That I was three years older needn’t have been an obstacle to friendship, even when we first met in our twenties; never mind later in our lives when such a tiny gap doesn’t signify at all. But somehow I always did feel significantly older than him. Though I liked him and admired his energy and drive – and though I hardly thought of myself as Sammy Sober-sides and have had certain dour souls counselling me all my life to ‘grow up’ or ‘get serious’ – an awful lot of what he got up to didn’t appeal to me very much and, when you got right down to it, struck me as kind of frivolous.
He first sought me out in 1978 to pick my brain about some consulting work he was doing with London high school students involved in publishing school newspapers. Bill had been the editor of Central’s newspaper back in the day. I had edited South’s newspaper a few years before that and by the time we met, I had written a whole whack of fiction (and even published some) and, newly married, was making my first inroads into the wonderful world of newspaper and magazine journalism in the hope of being able to earn my living that way. At that time he was lavishing most of his attention on what struck me as rather crudely compiled fanzines about comic books and science fiction novels and movies.
The only child of wealthy parents, Bill never married and wasn’t so focused on finding a way to earn his crusts. His father was a psychology prof at Western and a researcher and campaign adviser to the Liberal Party in the ‘60s. Many years later I would hear Bill’s story about the time when he was seven or eight years old and was pressed into serving canapes to a bunch of Liberal party worthies who were assembled at his parents’ home. In a herky-jerky moment with a generously laden platter, Bill managed to knock a shrimp onto the floor and spill cocktail sauce onto Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s trousers. Picking the shrimp up and wiping it off, he assured Mr. Pearson that it was “still good”; luckily eliciting a laugh from the PM and an ‘I’ll-talk-to-you-later’ glare from his mom.
Bill had a coterie of young enthusiasts who worked with him on those fanzines and they would travel all over the province and into the States to attend conferences and trade shows and every summer he would host the London Annual Fantasy Festival (LAFF) at his parent’s thirty room pile, Hazelden Manor, which backed onto the bluffs across the river from Springbank Park. Actors (never the A-listers) from shows like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek and creators of cartoons like Howard the Duck would be featured at these weekend-long house parties that drew hundreds of people and must’ve been a lot of fun if you were into that sort of thing.
When there was a requirement to supply some kind of security personnel for a function that Bill and his pals were hosting, he dubbed his crew the Laff Guards and under that name they hired themselves out – or, frequently donated their services - as combination entertainers, security guards and masters of ceremony for all kinds of parties and charity events and openings. For a period you could even call the Laff Guards when you wanted to send somebody a singing telegram.
Bill had a weekly radio gig for thirty-eight years; an interview program called Straight Talk on the Fanshawe College station, 106.9 FM. And for twenty-five years he hosted a weekly interview show on the Rogers Cablecast channel and had me on whenever I had a new book to flog (and Bill, God bless him, was that rarest of interviewers who would actually read the book) and once to showcase one of my rather desperate musical consortiums (singing all our own songs that featured the same six chords) called Little Kenny & The Spit-Ups.
My relationship with Bill suddenly went pear-shaped in 1980 when the horror movie spoof, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, was screened for the first time in London at the New Yorker repertory cinema on Richmond Street. That screening occurred during the very first year of my three and a half decade run as a regular freelance columnist with The London Free Press. As that deliberately cheesy movie had already achieved a milder semblance of the cult status which attended The Rocky Horror Movie Show from a few years earlier – where rowdy fans turned out in costumes inspired by the film and made lots of noise throughout the show – I decided to trot along to the New Yorker with reporter’s pad in hand and see if I couldn’t get a column out of the spectacle.
I had been a big fan of horror movies as a twelve and thirteen year-old and faithfully collected, assembled and painted up all of the Aurora monster models including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong and Godzilla. But all that had been half a lifetime ago and any innate enthusiasm I might once have entertained for even a clever send-up of the horror movie genre had drained away. This grotesquely labored turkey of a movie – which might have made a decent seven-minute skit on Saturday Night Live – bored me sideways and I was straining just as hopelessly as this movie’s director to imagine how I was ever going to be able to crank out material of any interest whatsoever in my review.
Being early days in my life as a columnist, I didn’t yet recognize that there are indeed times when a proposed subject turns out to be such a dud that you need to cut bait and go focus on an entirely different fish. But my editor was expecting copy later that night and I’d already invested so much psychic energy into priming my pump for a raucous take on this zany movie that I was determined to see it through. There was clearly no way to spin out a thousand words on this insipid film, so I turned my withering gaze to the audience instead:
“Who are all of these people and what are they doing here? About a fifth of the audience seemed to be comprised of Bill Paul and his Laff Guards, a local, self-proclaimed comedy troupe most famous for having endured a long and collective existence without once managing to amuse anyone who wasn’t a member of the troupe. Bill and his squad of aggressively inane adolescents warmed up the pre-show audience by waddling around like drunken ducks and yelling ‘hello’ to one another, sporting a level of mindless merriment which is their immensely irritating trademark.”
Out of mercy to me - as much as to you and the memory of Bill Paul - I will spare you the next couple paragraphs of my ill-tempered snark-fest. When I read the printed copy the next morning, I felt sick at what I had done to a man who’d always treated me with generosity. I heard through the grapevine that – surprise, surprise – Bill felt hurt and betrayed. And it was in the wake of that unworthy outburst that I formulated a policy I’ve tried to live by ever since. Whenever I find myself writing a piece where I'm really laying into somebody, I ask myself, “Would I be willing to sit down with my subject face to face and read out what I’ve written?” If not, then fix it up so I would or deep six it altogether.
I would estimate that it was two or three years later that I met Bill again and we talked; The circumstances of our re-encounter were surreal and shocking, threatening and poignant. It was about 10:30 on a weeknight and I was standing at the bus stop at Wharncliffe and Mt. Pleasant, on my way in to my job as a night attendant at the Salvation Army Children’s Village, when I heard Bill's voice approaching through the parking lot behind me. “Is that really you?” he asked, in a most untypical voice laced in anger and what I would soon discover was pain. He’d been in to pick up something from the Laff Guards’ small office next to what is now the West Side Restaurant and chucked it into the back seat of his car before coming across the lot to confront me.
“Of all the nights to meet you again,” he said, walking right up to me as I turned around to face him. I could see emotion tugging at the corners of his mouth but I didn’t know the half of what he was going through. “My mother died today,” he said and collapsed sobbing onto my shoulder.
Perhaps it was easier to not have to see his face when his sobs had subsided a little and, my hands still set on his back, I said my piece. “If it’s any consolation to you at all, Bill, I know it’s the shittiest thing I’ve ever done as a writer and I’ve always regretted it.”
“Good,” he said in a voice of gruff satisfaction, which he raised a little to be heard above the sound of my bus racing past; not about to stop for either of these two weirdos hugging at the side of the road. “It looks like I’m going to have to give you a ride,” he said. “Where are we going?”
We had a good healing talk on our way across town and in all of our subsequent encounters over the next forty years, Bill never alluded to my shabby stunt once, never treated me any differently than before; even had me back on his TV show to flog more books. One of his qualities that sometimes made Bill a little difficult for me to relate to was what seemed to be his lack of any kind of interest in religion. While he may never have talked with me about striving to uphold any of the Christian virtues, few people I've personally known have been more charitable and forgiving.
I don’t know if it was the ‘80s or the ‘90s when he started turning up - clanging bell in hand and bellowing out his quite melodic cry of "oyez, oyez oyez' - at every downtown festival or parade or cultural event; spiffily decked out in a tri-cornered hat and flamboyant waistcoat as London’s town crier. Sometimes I think he was hired for those jobs but usually he just showed up on his own accord so as to call such public occasions to order. And somewhere in that period he also started extending more personal greetings as well. Most years he’d phone me and literally thousands of other Londoners (even those who’d moved away to other locales) on our natal day to sing Happy Birthday.
It is said that in a good year, he’d place nine thousand of those calls, trying to get it up to ten thousand so he’d make it into the Guinness Book of World Records but then losing another one of his booklets with lists of names and numbers and having to build up his data base once again. Playwright and theatre impresario Adam Corrigan Holowitz said that Bill once told him, “It's really hard to stay down if you spend two or plus hours a day singing Happy Birthday over the phone to people."
I had the most to do with Bill in an ongoing way when he joined the Baconian Club about ten years ago. This last surviving men’s club in London which now meets eight times a year is known for the sardonic interplay of its members as they get together to listen to and critique one another's papers and readings. Bill gave a talk a few years ago, working from scribbled notes on a single page, that gave a wonderfully detailed history of radio in London; reminding me once again of the wealth of London lore he carried around in his noggin. And his more miscellaneous observations and comments were always good humored and notable for their utter lack of malice.
It was also at those regular Baconian meetings that I came to realize what a physical and financial struggle life had become for Bill, though you’d never sense it from his demeanor which was unflaggingly cheerful. Something awful was going on with his legs as they started to bow out more and more, making it increasingly painful to walk which, in turn caused him to move as little as possible. And that, of course, spurred on an alarming gain in weight which then put more pressure on those poor messed up legs; a truly vicious circle.
Even in his heyday one never knew how much of the work that Bill undertook actually paid but coming from a well-off family, that wasn’t such a concern; you knew he’d be all right. But in these last several years one didn’t get the sense that any safety net remained in place. His clothes were becoming shabby and he was living in a modest apartment in an old downtown house that no one but Bill ever saw the inside of.
After Baconian meetings one of our members would drive him over to a pub on Richmond Row where he’d situate himself on a chair near the door until the wee hours of the morning, selling balloon animals to patrons for spare change. And doing so with such humour and charm that the desperation of it all probably didn’t occur to any of his customers. The last nineteen months of Covid lock-downs and social distancing wiped out that revenue stream for Bill. But, dying in his 67th year, at least he had the old age supplement to mitigate the poverty of sixteen of those isolated months.
Two major revelations regarding Bill came to light for me at his funeral. One was his inclusion of a short prayer and scripture reading ("'I am the resurrection and the life'," saith the Lord . . .) before people went up to share their testimonials. The other. regarding a bequest he made decades ago was attested to by Bill’s friend and pro bono lawyer, Ed Corrigan, and radio announcer Skye Sylvain who got her first job in the biz working with Bill at 6X FM. When Bill’s full inheritance from his parents came through, he gave a cool one million dollars to the United Way of London. “He probably should have kept some more for himself,” Skye observed, acknowledging the dryness of his well by the end.
Bill’s funeral was held at O’Neill’s, the same funeral home that handled Roy McDonald’s funeral in February of 2018 where – who else? – Bill Paul served as master of ceremonies. It’s a little uncanny how frequently these two gregarious, bearded renunciants - who each did without so many of the common conventions and comforts to live out their lives in their own ornery way - have been bracketed together in Londoners' reminiscences and reflections these last couple of weeks.
For any sort of crowd to be accommodated in this time of the batflu pandemic, Bill Paul’s mourners had to assemble in the parking lot. Also there to kick things off by activating every tear duct in the lot, was music director David Weaver and the H.B. Beal High School marching band playing – but of course! – Happy Birthday.
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