Soon Norm started to throw me interviewing assignments with visiting writers that could be made into features. One of these with the decidedly dishy Barbara Amiel, netted me my first accredited plug on the back cover of the paperback edition of her Confessions and an inscription in my hardcover copy commending me for being so remarkably quiet.
“Determined to make my living as a writer in a one-newspaper town, I didn’t have to torture myself for very long in deciding which organ to sell my soul to.”
NORM IBSEN AND MY INTRODUCTION TO THE PROFESSION
NORM IBSEN WAS the first editor I encountered when I started to write as a freelance journalist in 1979. My literary background to that point was in fiction - novels and short stories, hundreds of bad poems and a couple frustrated stabs at play scripts. My ignorance of the newspaper world was just about total and my attitude toward journalism generally was probably pretty arrogant. I considered it a poor cousin to more creative literary forms and approached it with trepidation as a potentially talent-wasting trap. The maddening thing of it was journalism reputedly paid (fiction certainly didn’t) and determined to make my living as a writer in a one-newspaper town, I didn’t have to torture myself for very long in deciding which organ to sell my soul to.
To suss out my potential market, I bought a Saturday Free Press and giving it a cursory whip-through, I couldn’t relate to 97.8% of it. Stories about politics and wars, sports and business, collisions and robberies, fashion and cars . . . I couldn’t imagine writing about any of it. Then I happened upon the book review page; the same page where, four years earlier, I’d received a decently generous appraisal of the only book for which I’d managed to find a publisher. Heck, I bought and read books – lots of them – and I was loaded with opinions. This might be the place to try to hang my hat.
The next Monday I called and arranged to meet with Norm Ibsen, editor of the book review page. Stifling heat wave or not, I threw on the most business-like outfit I could assemble and, sweating and itching profusely, made my way into Norm’s air-conditioned office on editorial row. When I told him I was interested in reviewing books, he didn’t laugh or ask me to explain what made me think I was qualified to pass judgement on other writers’ work. Instead he plucked two books from one of the lower of the spilling-over shelves of new releases. As I got to know the lay of the land in Norm’s office, I learned that this is where the duds, orphans, long shots and total obscurities languished; unrequested volumes that no one had spoken for and which might never get reviewed at all and no one would much care except the authors. He told me he’d like two 1,000 word reviews in about four weeks if I could manage that.
I gave encouraging praise to Mrs. Job, a more-than-competent first novel in the key of Constance Beresford Howe by Victoria Branden and utterly savaged a megalomaniacal memoir by Justin Thomas - How I overcame my fear of whores, royalty, gays, teachers, hippies, psychiatrists, athletes, transvestites, clergymen, police, children, bullies, politicians, nuns, grandparents, doctors, celebrities, gurus, judges, artists, critics, mothers, fathers, publishers and myself – that was every bit as obnoxious as its title. To show him that I meant business, Norm received both reviews 72 hours later and our beautiful working relationship was up and running. Soon Norm started to throw me interviewing assignments with visiting writers that could be made into features. One of these with the decidedly dishy Barbara Amiel, netted me my first accredited plug on the back cover of the paperback edition of her Confessions and an inscription in my hardcover copy commending me for being so remarkably quiet.
By the end of the summer I twigged to the fact that Norm also edited something called the opinion/editorial pages. In addition to unsigned editorials reflecting the newspaper’s official position on timely topics, these two pages also featured opinion columns from a wide range of local, national and international writers, including such heavy hitters as Art Buchwald, George Will, William Safire and Bernard Levin. I’d never spent two seconds on those pages before and quickly surmised that – while all of it wasn’t top flight stuff – such columns were directly related to the literary and personal essays I admired by such great writers as George Orwell, Malcom Muggeridge, Keith Waterhouse, John Updike, G.K. Chesterton and good old Samuel Johnson.
With Norm’s blessing I took a shot at that page, starting out innocuously enough with a quasi-poetic celebration of Forest City trees. When I got my next cheque I happily discovered that editorials paid three times better than book reviews and so began my almost 35 year run of commentating in the Freeps, only interrupted twice at the behest of Free Press editors-in-chief – in the mid ‘90s when I edited Scene and now that I’m editing The Yodeller. London’s big daily seems to construe these ditzy arts bi-weeklies (and monthlies as Scene is now) as competition which is rather small-hearted of them I must say.
I’ll always be grateful that Norm served as my introduction to the profession if only because he messed so little with my inclinations and was so welcoming of my enthusiasms. At the heart of our working relationship always was the love of books; an increasingly rare quality in the upper echelons of the newspaper world. In those pre-computerized days when I had to cycle down to his office with every fresh burst of genius, Norm always found time to discuss what I was reading and made usually sound suggestions of other authors I might want to try. When I made my first book-buying safaris over to Britain, he went to considerable bother to draw me up lists and maps to direct me to the best second hand shops.
Perhaps his finest, fiercest hour as a bibliomaniac came in the early ‘80s when Norm was told his Saturday book page must go. It wasn’t paying its way in terms of ad revenue and one page once a week devoted to book reviews was deemed unjustifiable by the bean-counters upstairs. Norm refused to comply. He stood up against management and sacrificed one of his editorial pages every Friday to book reviews until they came to their senses and relented.
This May, scanning boxes of books that had just been purchased by Attic Books - G.A. Henty E.B. White, Maurice Baring, Hugh Kingsmill - I impressed the hell out of their sales staff by saying, “I’m thinking you must’ve just bought this lot from Norm Ibsen.” And that was how I learned that later this month Norm is moving out to Sidney B.C. to be near his daughter.
When I visited my own daughter on Salt Spring Island in the spring of 2014, the first place she took me after picking me up at the Victoria Airport was Sidney – a town of 11,500 souls with twelve (count ‘em, twelve) thriving book stores. Oh, wise, wise daughters. It’s going to be London’s loss but Norm will be right at home.
Herman Goodden / The London Yodeller / Sept. 10, 2015 / 3.18