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Ursula Maxwell-Lewis chats about life, travel, and her start in journalism

‘I always just managed to make it work’
Ursula Maxwell-Lewis chats about life, travel, and her start in journalism. (Photo: Malin Jordan)

Welcome to Cloverdale In Conversation, a regular feature with a local personality. This week, Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is our guest. Ursula is local writer and regular columnist for the Cloverdale Reporter. She is also the founding publisher/editor of the Reporter.

Ursula sat down for a coffee to chat about her life of travel—she had been to dozens of countries by age 11—her start in journalism at the age of 19, and how the pathway of her life has crisscrossed three continents.

Malin Jordan: These always start off with a little bit about yourself. Although, you’ve told me a lot about yourself already. So you have to kinda go back and start over.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis: (Laughs) Well, I was born in Scotland, but I grew up in various parts of Britain, eastern Canada, and South Africa. I worked all over Canada—central, east, west—and Britain. I worked in various places at various jobs beginning with journalism in South Africa and then aviation in Central Africa and UK and eventually Canada, transferring to Montreal during Expo ‘67.

MJ: You were well travelled very early in your life!

UML: I was. My parents were travellers. My father was a marine engineer and my mother was a writer, but they both travelled. Even back then, they had both been all over and we just continued to do so. In fact, we were living in Eastern Canada, and I was grumpy about being there for different reasons, and so my mother and father shipped me back to Scotland. I was 11. I had a layover in Gander—

MJ: By yourself?

UML: Yeah. So from Gander on to Prestwick where my uncle picked me up. But off I trotted. I sort of trotted around with them and changed schools and I was always kind of the odd one out, in a way. When I came to Canada, I was the funny little Scottish girl with the pigtails and the kilt. And so I rapidly changed that, as kids do. When I went back to Scotland when I was 11, I was the Canadian cousin with a funny accent. So I suddenly became very Ayrshire. I had a really strong Ayrshire accent and I had things like jeans that nobody had at that time because things were very different then. The world wasn’t as connected. So I was the odd one out again, so I rapidly got rid of all that and picked up an Ayrshire accent. Much to the horror of my mother who, when she came, said, “You’ll get rid of that Ayrshire accent!” (Laughs).

I got there in February and she came in about August and we left for South Africa in December in time for Christmas.

MJ: How did you get your start in journalism? Tell me a little bit about that.

UML: I was in my graduation year at high school in South Africa, in Benoni, and I had decided to be a nurse. I went to school for three months and then told the matron that I wasn’t going to do that anymore and went back and got a summer job at the Benoni City Times. The editor at the time said to me, “If you want to be a journalist, I’ll tell you whether you’ll make it or not.” He said, “I don’t care what kind of education you have.”

He taught me a lot. (Takes a beat.) And he was tough.

MJ: Do you remember his name?

UML: Sid Gill.

We used to write on print roll ends. Newspapers would cut up the print roll ends, so you’d type your stories on these little pieces of paper like this. (Holds hands up to form a small square.) Sid would throw these things and come back and say, “This isn’t right!” Or, “That isn’t right! Do it again! Do it that way.” It was the full school of hard knocks. But I enjoyed it. It was interesting. And I learned a lot and really learned on the job. In addition to my regular assignments, I wrote a regular Teenage Topics column and interviewed pop star of the day Cliff Richard in Johannesburg.

MJ: What sparked your interest in journalism?

UML: My mother’s a writer and some in her family had been journalists. Her brother, my uncle George, was a journalist on Fleet Street. George eventually became a noteworthy playwright. My mother was a writer, her family, or most of them, her brothers and sisters, were successful writers in various ways. So I knew you could make money in journalism, or you could work in it. Make money? I’m not sure (laughs). So, really, it was just something I’d grown up with: writing and reading.

MJ: You said you left Canada at 11. When did you first come to Canada?

UML: We came from Britain when I was six, it was my sixth birthday, my father couldn’t get a job, so he went back to sea. Everybody was immigrating and you couldn’t get new jobs, you couldn’t get anywhere to live, and you couldn’t get anywhere to live if you had children because they could actually discriminate.

MJ: There was a housing crisis?

UML: Yeah, there was, yeah. There was just so many people coming, especially from Britain, Holland, and Germany.

MJ: This was the post-World War II years?

UML: Yeah, and especially to Ontario because we were outside Toronto, many immigrants were coming to Ontario. And so my parents bought a piece of land and pitched a tent on it.

MJ: Wow!

UML: So I was the most easy-going kid. We came from a big house in the Highlands of Scotland to a tent in a field in Ontario. I can remember waking up and there being snow crystals, the light twinkling through them from the sun, on the roof our of our tent. We were in it for several months and into the winter. And then they built a shell of a house around it and we lived in the tent inside the house. And then they’d improve the shell some more and the whole time it was just “carry on.”

Then my father had to go back to sea because he couldn’t get a job. He was a marine engineer. He went back to sea with Imperial Oil and then we didn’t see him for a year. But my mother just kept building, she had never done such a thing, just kept on building a house (laughs).

She was a writer and I can still see her now, sitting on an orange crate perched over her Olivetti typewriter. She had been an “elegant London lass,” according to her family, and here she was in dungarees and a plaid shirt typing stories that she’s selling here and there, which was adding a bit to our income.

She wrote an article, which I’ve still got, replying to the newspapers of the day which were printing articles about how all these Britishers couldn’t take it and how they were all going back to Britain. And many were going because they couldn’t get jobs or places to live. But her article said “Some can take it, look at Jean Conway and her six-year-old daughter.” And she got paid $100 for it, which was very welcome at the time.

So my mom’s family were all writers and dreamers and travellers. It wasn’t foreign to me. Writing was always there as a possible career. And I was always interested in people and places. But I got my start in Benoni and I was there for three years before someone talked me into working for Central African Airways as an air hostess.

MJ: Tell me a bit about that.

UML: Well, it was great because I got to see a lot of the continent and we went overseas. So I always found a way to travel and find things out and be paid. And pretty much carried on that way. I guess I’ve always been interested in travelling and always sort of thought I could travel and write. I saw a lot of African leaders, especially from southern African countries. And eventually a friend of mine told me to come work for Air Canada for the summer and so I did. I eventually got transferred to Montreal and was there for Expo ‘67. And that’s how I got back to Canada.

MJ: Let’s talk about the Cloverdale Reporter. You founded the paper in the mid-90s. Starting anything can be daunting, let alone a newspaper. Was there a moment when you started it that you said, “Okay, this is going to work. I can do this?”

UML: No. I can’t say that. As a matter of fact, just as I started the paper, I remember sitting in my house with my head in my hands, crying, saying “I can’t do this.” I remember that feeling because I thought, “I just can’t do this.” I created an albatross and I can’t do it. I was working 24-7 and I went to every event there was. I did absolutely everything. But I eventually came around and thought, “I just have to do this.” Not that I hated it, but it was a lot of work. And I had no money, no resources to go into it. So I had to keep on fighting for it and myself. But you keep on going, you know, with life, until all of a sudden the problems stop and then you have to deal with the next segment. And I just had to keep building the paper.

Eventually, people liked the paper and started looking forward to it. And after a while I started making some money and I was able to hire a salesman and someone to do layout. But I just had to keep going because I needed to pay my bills and I just kept slugging it out.

MJ: Do you remember the day you sold it to Black Press?

UML: It’s funny, when Bruce McAuliffe [publisher of the Surrey Leader from 1999-2008] brought me the cheque for the Reporter, he came in and he said, “Well, congratulations. Here’s your cheque.” And I thanked him and put it on my desk and just went on talking. And he stopped and looked at me for a moment and said, “Aren’t you going to open it? How often do you get a cheque like this?” (laughs). Oh he was really funny. A nice guy. But it was a really funny moment.

MJ: What type of stories do you like writing the best?

UML: I like writing what I call people stories, because people will say, “My life isn’t interesting.” But when you talk to them, there’s always something interesting in their lives: good, bad, or indifferent.

MJ: Any final thoughts on your life, or journalism, or travelling, or Cloverdale?

UML: Well, I thought I was just passing through Cloverdale (laughs), but here I am all these years later. Cloverdale grows on you quickly.

Umm, I hate the fact that I’m getting older, but it could be worse. I could be dead, or I could be infirm. But having said that, I look back at a lot of these things—when it comes to the aviation industry, whether it be Africa, Britain, or Canada, and journalism and my family, and living here in Cloverdale—and I think I’ve been really blessed. I really do. My life has been interesting.

We can all get down at times. And then I think about the interesting people that I’ve met, both here, and internationally. And all the travel that I’ve done. And the world has changed. And I’ve seen a lot of those changes and I’ve been a part of it because of journalism, both here and in Africa. The world has always fascinated me and I’ve tried to see as much of it as I could. And I never had any extra money in my pocket. I always just managed to make it work.

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Malin Jordan

About the Author: Malin Jordan

Malin is the editor of the Cloverdale Reporter.
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