#50 Make it up as you go along
None of This Was Planned: The Stories Behind the Stories
by Mike McCardell
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2016
$29.95 / 9781550177787
Reviewed by Bill Engleson
First published November 27, 2016
In None of This Was Planned, veteran newspaper and TV reporter Mike McCardell reveals his MO for gathering stories. Reviewer Bill Engleson teases out “Retro Man” McCardell’s methods: the Saturday night prowl down Main Street, the hunt and peck pursuit of found stories, the creative digressions and free associations that produce a light but compelling narrative — Ed.
Mike McCardell’s None of This Was Planned is a delightfully rambling and free-floating memoir with moments speckled with dollops of darkness and faint traces of childhood trauma.
In the foreword, McCardell relates the sudden move made by him and his mother to Germany when he was fourteen. Left alone for a time, his acclimatization unfolded as if he were in a Dachau dream or treading the water of adolescent angst. Then, one day in his sixteenth year, half way through the school term, his mother announced, “We are going back to New York.”
More revealing, and a clue to his lifelong search for stories yearning to be told, is his uncertainty as to why his mother suddenly chose to begin life anew in Germany, and just as abruptly left. Though he suspected love to be her motivation for the initial move, the truth is, he wistfully laments, a mystery. “Don’t know, of course,” he declares. “Will never know.”
The stories that he does tell, that charm and brighten our day, come both single and clustered in None of This Was Planned. Most are straightforward sketches of the found lives of others. Many expand on stories told over the years on his popular television broadcasts. They are, as the subtitle puts it, “the stories behind the stories.”
Unlike the frenzied disgorging of hockey rioters on the streets of an innocent city, Mike McCardell’s yarns are not destructive in the least. While some stem from nothing more than outings with his family, or some impishly funny, seemingly spontaneous home improvement project such as digging a hole for a pond, most are gems hidden in plain sight, waiting to be found and burnished by storyteller, cameraman, and editor.
One that ignited my interest and illustrates McCardell’s free-form modus operandi is “The Truck with the Wishing Well.” This story takes two pages to get to the first point, and is replete with erratically illegal driving as McCardell and his driver/cameraman chase down their quarry, a decommissioned postal truck with, as you might have gleaned, a garden wishing well on it. They discover that the target vehicle is driven by a woman. This strikes the reviewer as an unfortunate and uncomfortable antic with overtones of stalking and sexist cliché.
But the truck and the woman behind the wheel are only part of the story. They are merely the stimulus. The story then morphs back to CTV central where the editor, Vinh Nguyen, is the son of a boat refugee who spent six years getting his family to join him in Canada. McCardell takes Vinh’s father’s story and schlepps into a brief rendition of one of Canada’s lesser moments, the sorry tale of the SS Komagata Maru in 1914.
McCardell covered that story in a previous book, he admits, but offers a snippet here. One of those who stopped the Komagata Maru from docking, he reports, was hockey legend Cyclone Taylor. I file that under depressingly interesting.
Bear with me as I bear with McCardell, who then leapfrogs to New York and Oregon to the fascinating account of David Stoliar, whose obituary he read in the New York Times early in 2016, two years after Stoliar’s death in Oregon.
Stoliar was the only survivor of 790 Romanian Jews whose ship, after an epic and failed attempt to land in Palestine in 1942, was sunk by a Russian submarine. It is a powerful ending to the chapter. Getting there seemed to be unnecessarily convoluted. Convoluted — but moving.
How does McCardell find most of his stories?
His search technique is surprisingly simple. Like hunting and pecking on a typewriter, he and his crew, usually just a camera person, and not the same one by any means but a variety of talented sidekicks, scour the streets, the countryside, in search of the odd, the suggestive, the plaintive, the whimsical.
I try to convince myself that there must be more of a method at play here, but McCardell regularly disabuses the reader of that notion. For example, in “How Does It Happen,” he describes his story-gathering strategy:
“Where should we go?” Todd Gilchrist [his cameraman that day] asked. “Left, then right, then left, then straight. Or go somewhere else.” We had a goal, not a destination. We wanted to find something nice, happy….”
So, to get his stories, he engages in what appears to be an aimless, almost nomadic quest, a quest with the quality, frequently, and poignancy of nothing much more than hanging out, American Graffiti-like: a Saturday night prowl.
It is all very Retro. And McCardell is very much a Retro Man. This is a good thing in my book. And, I think, in his.
As for the stories, if you haven’t guessed, if I haven’t been clear, they cover a potpourri of topics, a medley, a dog’s breakfast — and dogs appear frequently. But what does a reader have at the end of the book? Hmmm! Most of his stories, as I have mentioned, have ended up as brief human-interest pieces on Global News and, for the past three years, CTV News.
They are feel good tales, quirky snapshots of Vancouver and the surrounding area.
Often, McCardell and his Sancho Panza lensman find their way to one of the many parks in the city. He likes parks, it seems. He intimates, from time to time, that he doesn’t like Parks Board bureaucrats. But I could be wrong about that.
There is a Runyonesque quality, minus the gangsters, to the stories he harnesses. McCardell grew up in New York, climbed the ladder of the New York Daily News doing a lot of what reporters do in such film classics as His Girl Friday and Deadline USA. His immersion in that world, and his escape from it, was covered in his first book, Chasing the Story God.
Some might not appreciate McCardell’s latest book. If you prefer not to savour a sampling of the eccentric and quotidian lives of relatively ordinary people, musicians, quirky elders, children with dazzling imaginations, and those who fiddle with scams or can’t control their guinea pigs; if you prefer, instead, to know only about celebrities and their ilk, well then, you might want to steer clear of None of This Was Planned.
Occasionally, McCardell revisits stories he has told before. He gives fair warning. As most of the stories were new to me, I took no issue with the repetition.
A religious man, McCardell pays homage to the Story God for watching over him and guiding him in the direction of pleasing pathos and heartfelt humour. His latest book riffs on an appealing score of irrepressible parables.
One of them struck a personal chord, possibly because I am a retired social worker. His story of young Reilly and the lesson he taught Mike many years ago, that gave him an unshakeable optimism in the future, is a lesson worth repeating over and over.
Bill Engleson is an author and retired child protection social worker. Born in Powell River, raised in Nanaimo, he spent his first year of life trapped aboard his parents’ leaky fishboat. He resided in New Westminster for most of his adult years, retiring to Denman Island in 2004. He writes fiction, essays, poetry, and letters to the editor. He has been writing most of his life and his first couple of poetic efforts were printed in the sadly defunct Nanaimo Daily Free Press. He self-published his first novel, Like a Child to Home (2013); his second book, Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul (Silver Bow Publishing, 2016), is a collection of humorous literary essays. He is working on several new projects including a prequel to his first novel entitled Drawn Towards the Sun; a mystery, Bloodhound Days; and a collection of home grown, satirically tinged essays, DIRA Diary: Tall Tales of Democracy in Traction. His website/blog is www.engleson.ca