Plucking the heartstrings of the world
By Angela Long
Published July 28, 2016
Somewhere on Drag Lake, a man sits in a Muskoka chair sipping a single-malt scotch. He’s trekked the jungles of Rwanda to meet silver-backed gorillas, flown to Monte Carlo to meet Catherine Zeta-Jones.
He’s met the Pope (three of them), Elton John, Yasser Arafat. He was there when the Berlin Wall fell, when famine drove Somalians across the plains, when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. For more than 40 years, Emmy award-winning journalist Allen Pizzey has had what CBS News called a “front row seat to history,” but now he just wants to sit and listen to the loons.
He wants to wake at 7 a.m. and paddle along the shoreline. He wants to buy frozen meat pies at the farmers’ market. It’s been four months since Allen Pizzey relinquished his post as CBS News correspondent – based in Johannesburg for two years, Athens for seven, Rome for 27 – and now he wants to catch up on the news at Steve’s Wiener Wagon.
Since the late ‘80s, Pizzey has spent summers travelling from his home in Rome to his brother’s home in Haliburton. In 2007, he began to build something only a Canadian would understand, Pizzey says, a Canadian who grew up in Brantford watching friend after friend leave for an annual pilgrimage up north.
“I’m an Ontario kid,” he says. “You dream of cottages.”
All roads lead to Rome, but good luck finding Pizzey’s cottage. The road twists and rises, then twists again. Dust clouds blur the sky. Gravel pummels the undercarriage. But then there’s a clutch of wood lilies, of ox-eyed daisies. Then there’s the scent of lakewater. Then there is Pizzey himself, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, as far from Rome as anyone could get.
“Thank God for that,” he says.
He offers coffee or tea, a seat on the screened-in porch. His seat, actually, where every evening he flicks on a reading light, and sips, slowly.
Birds chirp. A chipmunk scolds.
“I love this,” he says gesturing toward the lake, the forest. “I just love the rock. I love the water. I love the pine, and I love the peace, and I love the people. I’ve been to a hundred countries and there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be but here.”
The road to Pizzey’s cottage is so symbolic of his life as a journalist, it should be renamed. Pizzey isn’t just a man who has seen the world – he’s felt it – the jarring, the joy.
“If you don’t feel it,” he says, “if you don’t feel people’s suffering, the horror that people are going through, you can’t report it properly.”
And what you feel day after day, war after war, natural disaster after natural disaster, is not as important, says Pizzey, as what the audience feels.
Humphrey Tyler, Pizzey’s first editor at the Argus newspaper, taught him this lesson.
“Humphrey said, if you can find a heartstring, pluck it.”
Pizzey tells the story of a woman in Ethiopia with a baby on her back, sitting down to die. “She was starving,” he says, “she was done.” His cameraman walked off in tears. “It’s not your job to cry, I told him. Let’s make millions cry.”
There are other stories. Too many of them.
“There are things buried in my mind that I won’t sit here and tell you because I can’t,” Pizzey says, “because you wouldn’t understand and I wouldn’t want to burden you with it anyway.”
But it’s worth it, he says, stopping to listen as two kayakers pass. It’s worth it because without journalists, the world’s stories would go untold.
“If you do it right, politicians and people can’t say they didn’t know, because they did. We told you so. You knew bad things were going on and people were suffering and dying, and unjust wars were being fought. You knew. We told you. We showed you.”
Pizzey showed us. He showed us war zones, genocides, terrorist attacks, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis. He showed us the face of a Bosnian refugee, Yasmina, a little girl who’d witnessed executions, whose father was imprisoned in a cattle shed with 1,500 others.
And Pizzey was shown something in return.
“I think my favourite person I ever met was Yasmina,” he says. “It’s the ordinary people that have impressed me most. The people who will just keep bloody going.”
A motorboat goes by. Waves lap against the shore.
“When you sit here on this deck and look out at all the things we have, it’s so far removed. They could never imagine this. You think, if I was reduced to that I’d probably just stick my head in the sand and stop breathing. But they don’t. They keep on going.”
Not only do they keep on going, they keep on giving, says Pizzey.
“Those who have the least give the most. They give you what they have.”
They offer you bread when they’ve just escaped the Serbian army and sit in the mud and the rain on a piece of plastic. They offer you a handful of gemstones when their livelihood has been washed away by a tsunami in Sri Lanka. They offer you coffee when their house has been “blasted to smithereens” by an Israeli shell.
“I think what impressed me most over my whole career is the indomitable human spirit and generosity,” Pizzey says.
It’s been a career that won’t be easy to walk away from. After so many years of living abroad, where home was “a place I came to change my clothes and repack my suitcase,” Pizzey says he retired “gently.” Five years ago he negotiated a deal with CBS to work a guaranteed 100 days a year.
“I knew I couldn’t go cold turkey and just quit. It’s not easy. You live on adrenaline for 40 years – it’s a hard drug to give up.”
From what Pizzey describes as a typical work day, he was hooked on something much stronger than adrenaline. Imagine when work means getting a phone call that begins “how fast can you get to –.”
Imagine when commuting means “riding in a rattletrap helicopter piloted by people who shouldn’t even be in charge of a bicycle,” flying 50 feet above the canopy during a tropical rainstorm, fuel tank leaking, chickens squawking. Imagine a boss who tells you, “If you get killed on the job, you’ve already been fired.”
But work also meant flying with Pope Francis to Cuba, spending the day with Andrea Bocelli, going on an elephant safari, learning how to make Parmigiano-Reggiano, and did he mention Catherine Zeta-Jones?
“God, she’s beautiful,” Pizzey says. “Just mesmerizing.”
Pizzey could never have imagined such a career when blasting rocks in Prince Rupert, or selling soap for Proctor and Gamble (“the worst job of my life”). If it weren’t for a 24-year-old guy following a girl he’d met hitchhiking in Europe all the way to a South African newspaper, Pizzey never would have learned that having a front row seat to history would mean viewing the raw footage of humanity.
There’s no stronger drug for a man looking to pluck heartstrings.
“I can’t think of a better way to have spent 43 years,” he says. “I just can’t.”
But now it’s time to sit back in a Muskoka chair, enveloped in birdsong and pine.
“It’s not easy to quit,” he says. “It defines who you are.”
Drag Lake glitters through the trees. After nearly three hours of talking, Pizzey grows quiet. This is how he’ll spend the next few weeks until his partner Dee and son Alexander arrive.
Unless he receives one of those phone calls – it’s already happened once.
“It was 59 hours and 10 minutes after my official retirement, which was March 19 at midnight,” Pizzey says. “The phone rang. ‘How fast can you get to Brussels?’ the London bureau chief said.”
Pizzey said he’d cover the Brussels terrorist bombings for one day. He stayed for 10.
“But it would take one hell of a story to get me out of here,” he says.