Note- This article was originally published in the island WORD on April 2009.
by Danny Zanbilowicz, April 2009
Charles Cherrington is one of those people of whom one thinks- “This guy has a perfect voice for radio”. It is deeply resonant, still rich with British tones, sounding like it comes from inside an echoing building, or from a mountaintop. And in fact, Cherrington twice had a radio – show on the west coast.
Trouble is, Charles also has a face for television- chiseled, dignified and dashing. And a mind for the intricacies of the stock exchange. And the charm of a natural born salesman, not to mention the discipline and courage of a soldier, or the curiosity of a spiritual seeker.
And therein lies the dilemma – a plethora of gifts has enabled Mr. Cherrington to enjoy a remarkably eventful and diverse life, but with so much possibility, it has not been conducive to settling down.
A self-admitted “gentleman adventurer”. Cherrington has been at or near the centre of many of the last century’s decisive events.
Born in Singapore in 1933 of a British colonial service officer, and a woman who was part Malaysian, Cherrington’s family traces its home in England back to the year 960 in the village of Cherrington, Shropshire. From his early years growing up privileged on the Malay Peninsula, he remembers elaborate “birthday parties with elephants and snake charmers.”
With war raging in Europe, Charles was sent to a boarding school in Perth Australia in 1940 – Guildford Grammar School, where “I was bullied. My response was – do I run or fight? It became a model of zero tolerance for bullying, abuse and injustice that has stayed with me all my life.”
The next year, 1941, he returned to Malaya, as it was then called, during the Christmas/summer holidays on a boat with hundreds of colonial kids. On Dec. 7, the day of Pearl Harbour, he saw waves of Japanese bomber pilots flying overhead, close enough to see their fur-lined caps. His father was conscripted by the Australian army, and sent away as a captain in the intelligence division- “Dad put mother and me in a taxi, and we joined the throng of refugees going to Singapore. There was all kinds of smashed military stuff on the side of the road.”
This was the traumatic collapse of British forces in Malaya, which left a lifelong impression-.”The British- were complacent, thought ‘it will never happen to us’. But I know how bad it can get and how fast.”
When they arrived in Singapore, his family stayed at a friend’s house. His dad showed up, and got them on a Dutch tramp steamer which made a hazardous trip alone to Perth, where they were met at a train station by bands and speeches. Soon his father was captured in the fighting in Singapore, and his family did not know whether he was dead or alive.
Late in 1944 Charles went to England to go to school. His ship was part of a huge armed convoy with destroyers, snaking around South Africa, stopping in Casablanca (his favourite movie).
In England at a time of “extreme austerity”, Charles heard through the Red Cross that his father was alive. The family reunited for a short time, and returned to Malaya when the war was over.
In 1948 a new war began in Malaya- the war of the Communist Insurgency. Back in England, at age eighteen, Cherrington began National Service, was fast-tracked through officer school to an infantry regiment training troops as young as himself for the Korean war. Volunteering for “Special Forces”, and passing the elite SAS selection he was soon in the jungles of Malaya as a troop commander. He was twenty.
Cherrington was sent on missions he is still reluctant to discuss in the jungles of Malaya. He was evacuated to a military hospital three times with near fatal jungle diseases, each time returned to special operations where the stresses caught up with him and army doctors finally diagnosed him with battle exhaustion. Decorated… “ for Distinguished Services”, his army term was coming to a close after three years. Reluctant to return to Britain to work in a bank or a grocery store, still keen for adventure and the calculated risk, a headline in the Singapore Straits Times reading – “Two Plantation Managers Murdered” caught his attention. He thought- “Ah- a job opening!”
He applied for and got the job.
When a field manager was murdered – executed in front of the workers, Cherrington had had enough and returned to England.
From there, “I had heard good things about Finland,” still occupied by the Soviet Union, and worked his passage there on a Finnish boat.
Arriving in Helsinki, he went to the employment office, was offered work as a dish-washer, or as a labourer on a communist farm cooperative. Choosing the latter, he remarks on the irony-“I was working for the communists instead of hunting them down.”
At the farm, life was difficult- there was “as much cow milk as you could handle” but little else. Cherrington and a Swiss agriculture student would steal potatoes from the chickens, and left-over beets in the fields to make soup.
After awhile, when winter set in, the farm let him go. He returned to Helsinki, walked into the Berlitz language school and said- “Here I am – I speak English.” “Okay”, they answered- “you’re hired.”
He quickly learned how to teach English, and realized: “I loved it, I’m a good teacher.”
Soon, he left the school and set himself up as a private English tutor, with many dignitaries among his clientele, including a diplomat from the Soviet embassy, a woman from the Belgian embassy and others. He also wrote ads for Metex, a Finnish government advertising agency, and wrote and narrated industrial films. In 1955. He put on a parachute and did his first sky dive from a Russian biplane, thus introducing the sport to Finland.
In August of 1957 one of his student: in the import/export business arranged for Cherrington to work his passage again on a boat heading to Canada. Cherrington was very seasick, but was given the chance to pilot the ship as it inched its way through icebergs in the St. Lawrence River.
He landed in Montreal on September 7 1957 finding a place near McGill University.
The employment picture in the country was terrible at the time, and Charles couldn’t get a job. Eventually he connected with Maclean Hunter, moved to Toronto, and got work as an industrial copywriter, but was laid off because his typing was just too slow.
In Toronto, he liked the looks of the Procter and Gamble head office. He walked in and got a job in consumer research, travelling across the country and filing marketing reports. Realizing this was going nowhere he was attracted by the sight and sound coming from the commercial television production department. He joined them.
P & G sent Cherrington to Ryerson Polytechnic for a one-year course in commercial TV production, and he worked as a TV producer with leading advertising agencies in New York for the next four years. The top gun ad agency MacLarens hired him as one of their senior producers, until in 1963, he had “enough of the bullshit.”
Realizing that he could employ his television production experience in educational film Cherrington decided to go to the University of Toronto, completing a degree in cultural anthropology in 1967. Impressed by his TV production experience, the Geograph) Department hired him in the summer of 1964 to film an expedition to the Barnes ice cap on Baffin Island. He had never held a movie camera before. Through many adventures which suited his penchant for severe conditions, he completed the film. They liked and used it for PR across North America.
As a student, summers found him working as a wine steward on CN trains, as a pipeline labourer, part-time copywriter for the Eaton’s catalogue, and proofreader at the Globe and Mail.
In 1968 Cherrington caused a national sensation when he took out an ad in the Toronto Star, titled “The Game is Over.” The story was – “The world as we know it is headed for the collapse of all systems. Let’s get some people, head west, pool resources, and learn to live off the land.”
Four hundred people showed up at the Royal York Hotel, but only eight were interested in actually signing up for the Canada New Pioneer Foundation, not enough to proceed. Nevertheless, Cherrington piqued the interest of the media; rated an editorial in the Globe and Mail, and was interviewed by Pierre Berton. Here’s an interview on CBC TV:. http://archives.cbc.ca/economy_business/agriculture/clips/15386/ , where he uses his earlier name-Angus Cherrington.
He was the only one who headed out west, in a red Mustang drive-away from Toronto to Vancouver, where he took on a bunch of “nothing” jobs.”
Sitting in the bar of the Sylvia Hotel in his sandals, he was chided by the waiter. The disturbance caught the attention of a guy at another table.
This was Paddy Greer- a rough Irish prospector trying to develop a copper mine near Smithers, who told Cherrington- “I need a back-up guy.” So Charles took a six-week night course in prospecting and went north to the Telkwa Mine for two to three months.
In 1970, Charles returned to Toronto to complete a divorce from his first wife.
His commentary on marriage/kids/ divorce is – it’s “basic training”.
He bumped into Macleans writer Alan Edmonds, with whom he had had a conversation about a secret commune on Lasqueti Island headed by the mysterious Ted Sideras. Cherrington appears in Edmonds’ Macleans 1970 article as “Angus”.
Heading west again, he joined the commune, which moved from Lasqueti to Calvert Island off the north tip of Vancouver Island, and he was with the commune for two years. The rules were strict- no drugs, no booze, no illicit sex.They were “living in 9′ x 12′ tents., lots of rain, we cut down trees for corduroy roads., bought pigs that quickly turned feral.” Paradise soon started to unravel. Some parents of American draft dodger kids came up and thought the whole thing was a cult.
A disgruntled ex-member spilled the beans to the RCMP, saying commune members had been rustling cattle on Lasqueti. There was a show trial in Parksville, which rated front page news in the Vancouver Sun. Cherrington says- “they were guilty as hell, and an expensive lawyer got them off scot-free for lack of evidence.”
Back to Vancouver, Cherrington tried to ease back into film production and advertising. No dice. Needing money, he took the plunge and become a stockbroker for Sansai Securities, specializing in domestic oil stocks. He also narrated the Tokyo Stock Exchange report for radio station CKNW.
A top performer, he soon “got sick and tired of lying for a living.” One of his stockbroker friends had gone to Calgary, and made a killing in real estate. Cherrington went there too, took a week-long real estate course, and went to work. On his first weekend, he sold a house every day. He stayed there for nine years, from 1973-82, he married again and had a second daughter.
In Calgary, after real estate, he took a job selling cheque fraud protection and covered the province dealing with small businesses – farmers, welders, etc.
Things were going well in Calgary. With another associate, he was one of the first to introduce Alberta real estate to the Chinese Canadian market. He bought property in Montana, and a house in Mill Bay.
Then came Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy, and “business went bust in Alberta.”
He lost his properties, and his livelihood. He moved to the house in Mill Bay, went for a job as adishwasher, and didn’t get it. It was a time when there were “lots of over-qualified people looking for work.” He delivered pizzas in Victoria.
A difficult period followed, with unemployment, welfare, and a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He found work as a house painter.
Eventually he wound up in a seniors’ residence on Fairfield Avenue in Victoria, which he says was grossly mismanaged by the Anglican church.. Fighting “abuse” by the minister and the management board, he “hauled them over the coals” in a front page expose in the Victoria News. He soon left.
In 2000 he went to Vancouver to spend time with the author/philosopher/guru Eckhart Tolle (“The Power of Now”). Before that, Cherrington had spent many years intensively studying the teachings of Gurdjieff, and then later a Course in Miracles. Oh – almost forgot – he hosted two radio shows, and wrote a food column for a west coast lifestyle magazine.
For the last while, Charles has been caretaking a California couple’s property on Cortes Island, in a tent set up on a platform covered by a roof – Tired of island life, he plans to leave, and is looking for a new life in the Courtenay area.
Now in his mid-seventies, and still in excellent health, Cherrington wants to secure a spot for himself in which to spend his remaining years. With a limited pension, but no lack of ideas and guts, he has put together an innovative and plausible plan to build a decent, small house on leased land, which he believes might be a model for others, and thereby make a dent in the intractable problem of homelessness.
He has determined that while he spends his winters teaching English at a university in China, his pension over two years can pay the $18- $20,000 construction costs of a one-room building modeled somewhat after Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond. He needs a visionary landowner to lease land on which to build. Over the winters when he is in China, the building could be rented and when he “checks out”, the building becomes the owner’s.
Of course a man as interesting as Charles Cherrington is unlikely to be all sweetness and light. In recent years, he has had some conflicts with landlords, mostly over issues of noise. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from his military service, and its accompanying depression has dogged him for many years. He needs a quiet environment.
But if he gets the place he needs and richly deserves, he will be quite the neighbour. If you offer him a cup of tea – you may hear a story or two to remember.