D’Arcy Marsh incarnated the Good Old Days of newsroom journalism
In 1971 I went to work as a reporter at the Ottawa Journal. The newspaper depended for much of its copy on a roster of freelancers who would get their assignments by phone and drop by the office to deliver their articles. One of these contributors was D’Arcy Marsh.
D’Arcy, who was in his mid-sixties at the time, wrote art reviews for the Journal to supplement his pension. He would lounge about the newsroom reading the papers that came in from Vancouver, where he used to live, and since that was where I was from, we struck up an acquaintance even though he was forty years older than I. He had immigrated from England and looked the part, always immaculately turned out in a three-piece tweed suit of greenish hue and a wool tie, and he still spoke with a posh British accent although he had spent his adult life in Canada. Divorced from a wife, estranged from a son, he was pretty much alone in the world.
D’Arcy was at the tail end of a knockabout career in journalism. During the 1930s he had written a couple of books—a biography of Sir Henry Thornton, president of the CNR, and another about the mechanics of government called Democracy at Work—but most of his career had been spent in the newsroom. He incarnated the Good Old Days when reporters wore press cards in their hat brims and kept a bottle of booze in the bottom drawer. I knew that the Old Days had never existed outside the pages of fiction, but hanging around with D’Arcy gave me a sense that I was part of a tradition, not just a hack writer filling the space between ads.
D’Arcy mixed an old-world charm with heavy doses of alcohol. We met at the bar when my workday had ended, and there, fuelled by beer and gin, we played our favourite game. I would throw out the name of a poet and he would declaim from memory several lines of verse, much to the amusement of drinkers at surrounding tables. He was particularly long-winded on Tennyson, but he was never at a loss for any poet, at least none that I could name.
“Hardy,” I said one evening.
“When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,” he answered. “And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings.”
“William Carlos Williams.”
“So much depends upon / the red wheel barrow.”
At one point, when D’Arcy was temporarily short of cash, he came to live with me and my wife in our one-bedroom apartment. He bedded down on a couch in the living room. Every morning we woke to the sound of clinking beer bottles as he lined up his pre-breakfast empties on the window ledge. After a few days we agreed that he had to leave and, back in funds, he moved to a hotel downtown. Finally D’Arcy’s ship came in. Somehow he managed to beg or purchase a plane ticket back to Vancouver. He called excitedly to invite me to a farewell dinner at Café Henry Burger, one of the swankiest restaurants in the area. It was located in an old house on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River opposite the Parliament Buildings and was the kind of place frequented by cabinet ministers and powerful bureaucrats with business to discuss over plates of escargots and glasses of Pouilly Fuissé. An atmosphere of wealth and discretion prevailed.
D’Arcy had sounded sober on the phone, but when I arrived at the hotel to pick him up it was clear that he’d been drinking all afternoon. At the restaurant he demanded to see his old friend Madame Burger; she sent back word that she was indisposed. We chatted about his impending return to Vancouver, which led to reminiscences about his early days there. D’Arcy was his usual entertaining self, but he talked in a loud voice that attracted the notice of the other diners. Embarrassed, I kept excusing myself to go to the bathroom, hoping that when I returned he would have miraculously disappeared. But each time there he was, a fresh gin and tonic at his elbow, ready to launch into another story.
The high point of the evening came when he fixed me with his rheumy gaze and bellowed: “Did you know that Hitler had only one ball?” (I didn’t.) There was a clatter of silver spoons being dropped into soup bowls at neighbouring tables. Then a deep, astonished silence descended on the room. It was quickly broken by D’Arcy, who continued to talk, pondering what impact this physical anomaly might have had on the Führer’s personality and on the course of human history.
At last dinner came to an end. D’Arcy admitted that he hadn’t enough money for the tip, which I contributed, and we left the restaurant in search of a cab. He departed for Vancouver the next day. Periodically I received news of him and was saddened, but not surprised, to learn of his death a couple of years later.
Café Henry Burger lasted another three decades, but earlier this year it too passed away. I’ll remember both of them as part of my own Good Old Days.