“I’m having some wine. Join me,” Murray Allan (né Scott) Fotheringham instructed as I met him in the cheerful living room of his turn-of-the-century Toronto home that he shared with his wife Anne. I did as I was told: clearly, turning down this offer was not in the cards. He explained that Anne would love to have been part of this conversation but duties at an art gallery had taken precedence. “Too bad,” he offered, “she’d make sure I wasn’t spouting bullshit!”
And that’s just how a wonderful afternoon began, one spent in the engaging company of Dr. Foth while I interviewed him for my book “Why Being Happy Matters” (whybeinghappymatters.com).
We’d been introduced by mutual friends who’d warned me Allan was not always the most easy chap to talk with: “You’d better be prepared.” I’ll confess I was somewhat intimidated. After all, Fotheringham had written, “I prefer the company of females to the male species. I find most men dull.” While I wasn’t there to become Allan’s buddy or lighten up his day, I nonetheless wanted our conversation to be less than tedious. So I launched my opening gambit hoping to at least demonstrate I’d done my homework, a fact a career journalist should surely appreciate.
“Allan, you play tennis three times a week, you write and blog for various publications, you are a public speaker, you travel frequently to visit family and enrich your love of discovering the world – 91 countries so far. I’m wondering about those journeys that you obviously delight in. In your travels, have you learned any cultural lessons about happiness, perhaps what creates happiness in some people across the world but not in others?”
“I’ve learned something from every one of those countries I’ve visited,” he replied without hesitation. “But it’s Italy that stands out: great food, great drink and they know how to laugh. Who wouldn’t be happy in a place like that?”
“How about you, Allan,” I asked. “How would you describe the Fotheringham brand of happiness? Is it like the Italians?”
“You know, until you contacted me about this, I never gave it any thought,” he told me. “In fact, many people I’ve met over the years are surprised to find out I’m not a goddamned grouch! They think because I belittle politicians and call a spade a spade that I’m some kind of curmudgeon. But you know what: I’m the happiest pig alive!”
Allan Fotheringham passed away yesterday, just 12 days shy of his 88th birthday. He’d been dealing with the tragedy of dementia, so it was time. Still, I’ll miss him… as will millions of others, even his “enemies” who nonetheless respected him for his cutting sense of humour, often aimed at prime ministers and other public officials as he held them to account. It was an acerbic wit, to be sure, but always dispensed with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
“He was such a craftsman,” said former Vancouver Sun reporter Tom Barrett. “He could describe things so beautifully. He could make politics really interesting and he had sources like nobody. He knew everything that was going on.”
I do recall that when I asked Allan to tell me about life on the prairies, where he was born in the Saskatchewan town of Hearne, he replied, “My mother was a widow at age 26. She was left with four children in the middle of the Depression living in a town with 26 people, a blacksmith, a church and two grain elevators. Hearne, Saskatchewan it was. People who lived there were called Hernias. The town was so small, we couldn’t afford a village idiot, so everyone had to take turns!”
For those who described Allan as being “heavy on the ego”, I discovered he was more than capable of offering complements. “You know, I never thought about this happiness thing before,” he told me. “Peter, I think it’s brilliant that you’re writing this book because people are so down and they do need to think about happiness.” Allan went on to add, “You’ve made me look at my own happiness, and that’s why I say I’m the happiest bugger in the world. It just keeps getting better. Life’s worked out for me pretty well.”
When I asked, “You’re a writer, so what would you choose as the one word to describe happiness?”, Allan replied “I find your questions very interesting”. (His answer: “serenity”).
One last thought. You’re likely aware that Dr. Foth graced the closing page of Maclean’s magazine for an impressive run of 27 years. What’s really neat is when my son Charlie, then 20 years old and enjoying the subscription to Maclean’s I’d given him, told me how he always went to the last page of the mag first to see what Allan had to say. I mentioned this to Allan, suggesting that to have readers in their teens through to their senior years is a pretty nice accomplishment. Indeed, he was pretty proud of that.
And you know, for anyone, an almost 88 year run ain’t bad!
Here’s to the next chapter, Dr. Foth!