Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.
In a lifetime of listening to journalists trying to explain the idealism that afflicts them, I’ve just once heard someone frame his or her views in terms of the “Areopagitica.” That was Bill Currie, who in recent years held court at Savories, an Old Town coffeehouse, for more hours of his life than were necessarily good for him. Currie’s mention of Milton impressed me, just as Currie had been impressed when Dr. James Carey, former dean of the journalism school at the University of Illinois, invoked Milton during a lecture in 1964. Currie recalls, “I had been a lowly copyboy at the Sun-Times, and it was interesting to see newspapers on a loftier plane.”
Currie haunts Savories no longer. Early last fall he went off to work at a paper that puts to the test Milton’s proposition that knowledge forms when strongly held opinions collide. Kissing his wife Susan good-bye at their Old Town apartment, he carried a bag and his bagpipes aboard a westbound North Avenue bus that took him to the Blue Line, which he rode to O’Hare. He then flew to London and from London to Glasgow, from which a bus delivered him to Dornie, dropping him off in front of the famous Eilean Donan Castle near his flat. He drove the rest of the way, nine miles to the modern Skye Bridge that now binds the Scottish mainland to the Isle of Skye, and another seven miles along the isle’s eastern coast to the town of Broadford, home of the weekly West Highland Free Press.
What’s Currie doing there? “That’s a complicated question,” he told me during a trip home for Christmas. “There’s a certain amount of pride and ego involved in it.” Currie is 59, and the Free Press is his dashing response to a familiar quandary journalists face: that of getting older and steadily less suited for a profession that favors youth. Currie did tours with City News and the U.S. Army, then spent 14 solid years as a Tribune reporter. In 1982 he left the Tribune to work for Mayor Jane Byrne as deputy press secretary, and his life has been in flux ever since.
I asked him why he quit the paper. “There was a lot of politics going on, and I felt footsteps behind me. Eventually I’d be out in the suburbs like anybody else. You know, being a reporter in many ways is an adolescent job. I kind of bit off my nose to spite my face. I had fantasies of meeting Mr. Green.”
Mr. Green is the wallet stuffing that even reporters who read Milton aspire to. Currie spent a year with Byrne, and then, he says, “she got de-elected, much to my surprise.” He caught on with a PR firm, did a stint as an editor at NBC, and flacked for Sheriff James O’Grady, who faced corruption charges in 1989 and was defeated for reelection a year later. “I’m ashamed that I tried to quit when the going got tough there–probably to save my reputation,” recalls Currie, who admired O’Grady and believes he was brought down by subordinates. O’Grady talked him out of quitting. In the wake of that debacle, Currie allows, he “didn’t approach jobs in the media in Chicago with much confidence. Especially after an esteemed writer approached me in Riccardo’s and accused me of being a crook and a disgrace.” For a time he helped a friend edit a paper out in Wheaton. He also freelanced. “I flailed around for years and years,” he says, “trying to meet Mr. Green.”
But a plan began to form. Of Scottish descent, Currie has long been a figure of note in Chicago’s Caledonian circles, donning a kilt on ceremonial occasions, hosting a Robert Burns dinner, staging Highland games on the lakefront, and playing bagpipes. He was a frequent pilgrim to the motherland, where some 20 years ago he encountered the West Highland Free Press, a paper founded in an abandoned schoolhouse by four radical friends in 1972 to champion the crofters, the endangered small farmers of Scotland’s north. A year ago he heard that the Free Press was advertising for a reporter.
Currie, anticipating the freedom he’d enjoy come fall, when his youngest child departed for college, fired off a letter to the Free Press. “I said something like, ‘I’m not a crazy American fantasizing about the romance of Scotland.’ It’s safe to say I was lying to them and myself.”
The Free Press showed interest, and Currie “begged, borrowed, and finagled my way over” for an interview. A few weeks later the paper offered him the job. “And then the long slog to get a work permit began.” During this limbo Currie drove a limousine at night for income, blowing into a bagpipe chanter as the limo idled at O’Hare.
Fortunately for Currie, the most impressive young journalists don’t line up outside a paper such as the Free Press. “They told the government they couldn’t find anybody as qualified as myself and thus they could hire me,” says Currie. So now he’s reasserting himself as a reporter at a weekly whose circulation of 10,000 is scattered over 6,500 square miles of desolate highlands and islands. “One half of one percent of the population of the United Kingdom lives in what is three-fifths of Scotland,” he says. “It’s pretty sparse and acidic up there. You can’t grow anything but heather and some pretty poor grass.”
In exploring that terrain, he’s been learning the local conflicts and contradictions. The crofters survive on government subsidies, which owe more to a conviction among the British that an ancient, romantic way of life should be protected than to any economic logic. But as this sentimentality isn’t necessarily shared by the region’s big landowners and businessmen, the crofters feel in constant peril. They are haunted by the “clearances.” From the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, landowners exiled whole villages to Canada or New Zealand and turned the land over to grazing sheep. To quote at random from “The Highland Clearances,” an on-line chronology:
“1851 (August)–The clearance of Barra by Colonel Gordon of Cluny. The Colonel called all of his tenant farmers to a meeting ‘to discuss rents,’ and threatened them with a fine if they did not attend. In the meeting hall, over 1,500 tenants were overpowered, bound, and immediately loaded onto ships for America.
“1853–Knoydart is cleared under the direction of the widow of the 16th Chief of Glengarry. More than 400 people are suddenly and forcibly evicted from their homes, including women in labor and the elderly. After the houses were torched, some tenants returned to the ruins and tried to re-build their villages. These ramshackle structures were then also destroyed.”
“This is probably the most unspoiled part of Europe,” Currie says. “But now it’s clear to me that I’m sitting in the middle of a remote wilderness that’s not remote at all. It’s a village in a global village. There are no malls up there, but kids will be kids and will congregate. And now that the European Community is in there”–importing the fruits and vegetables the crofters long did without–“they all hang out in front of the supermarket, and they have cellular phones, and a large percentage have computers and are wired into the Internet.”
The agenda of the West Highland Free Press is narrow, specific, and unwavering. Its slogan is An Tir, an Canan ‘sna Daoine–“The Land, the Language, the People”–and its Web site asserts, “For the first time in decades there is a newspaper in the Highlands which actively opposes the grotesque maldistribution of land ownership that still characterises the region, and stands up for the rights of local communities and individuals.”
Shortly before coming home for Christmas, Currie covered a meeting of some 80 crofters who’d gathered at the Sligachan Hotel on Skye to hear a delegation from the Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department explain a new subsidization system, one based on head of livestock instead of acreage. This scheme, in the Free Press’s view, was designed to take money from the crofters’ pockets. “There was very little pounding and screaming because the people were totally befuddled as to how the figures worked,” Currie E-mailed me. His lead, which called the crofters befuddled, was altered by editors to describe them as “anxious.” Currie took the point.
“I didn’t argue about that, though everyone knows that Skye-men rarely show anxiety,” he explained. “I think the reason for the change was probably that ‘befuddled’ might be interpreted as condescending. Probably true. Sensitivity to the reader–if not the politicians–is always of prime concern in such a small community.”
Another of his front-page stories–on recent criticism of the member of the Scottish parliament in charge of rural affairs–was rewritten in order to blast the MP right from the first paragraph. “I didn’t argue,” Currie acknowledged. “It was a learning experience for me. I just said, ‘I will do better next time.'”
Currie told me, “They’re up there duking it out for the people against the landowners and the politicians who’d encroach on these very stringent laws about tenantship. They’re standing at the ramparts, and they don’t make any pretense about it. I kind of wish they’d keep the editorials on the editorial page–but you know what? The paper’s not big enough. They have so many rows to hoe they use the whole paper.” The Free Press, he’s decided, is what “our friend John Milton was referring to when he talked about a free press in a democratic society. I said, ‘I’ll go out and report this story. Just aim me where you want to aim me. I’ll go out and get the facts, and we can look at the facts any way you want to look at the facts.’ They’re not blatant about it. They just want to protect the interests of the community.”
Currie returned to Dornie after Christmas to two inches of snow. The locks to his 1986 BMW 320i had frozen, and he broke his only car key trying to open the doors. “I am waiting today for the bus to arrive from Inverness with a key the dealer finally got from Bavaria,” said his E-mail. “Meanwhile I’ve been begging rides and using the company delivery van. The whole community is oriented toward helping each other. It’s extraordinary.”
The big story in the Free Press when he got back concerned two fishermen from Tarskavaig, on Skye’s Sleat Peninsula, who’d been out in the Sound of Cuillean in separate skiffs when a blizzard hit. “Both drifted their separate ways and survived miraculously,” Currie informed me. “All stories referred to them as lifelong friends. But several people told me later that they are mortal enemies. Wouldn’t that be a nice little gossip item in a big-city paper? Not here. There’s no way the WHFP could take the heat for revealing such a personal item.”
Next, which is the Sun-Times’s new “cutting edge” Sunday supplement, has its moments week by week and deserves a look. Unfortunately, this week’s issue, which featured stirring Skrebneski portraits of Steppenwolf members, appeared without a single ad in its 24 pages. Now there’s nowhere to go but up. Or out.
Maxim’s, which in its day offered the toniest dining experience in Chicago, lies discreetly at the foot of a Near North apartment house on Goethe, virtually invisible from the street. So the Sun-Times found itself at a disadvantage last week when it came to illustrating Fran Spielman’s report that the children of Maxim’s late owners had turned the establishment over to the city for use as a lecture hall and for consular receptions. But the paper found a way. It ran a file photo of the unrelated Maxim’s Restaurant at Clark and Madison. The suspicions of whoever wrote the caption calling Maxim’s “the epitome of elegance and fine dining” might have been raised by the short-order eatery’s garish awning and the big “HFC Loans” sign over the door.
If you’d enjoy a high-grade conversation on the movies, search around www.slate.com until you find Slate’s David Edelstein, the Sun-Times’s Roger Ebert, the New York Times’s A.O. Scott, and Vogue’s Sarah Kerr going at each other on the state of film and film criticism in a virtual roundtable that lasted three days. Their discourse was brought to my attention by the Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wasn’t at all displeased that it was framed in large part by the premises of his own recent book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See.
The Associated Press reported the other day that former Reader writer Neal Pollack narrowly escaped arrest in a men’s room of Philadelphia’s famed 30th Street Station. Pollack, who now lives in Philadelphia and has a new book to promote, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, chose the venue for a reading. An audience of some 15 men and women had gathered in the toilet to listen when police, who’d been summoned by Amtrak, arrived.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.