It's Toronto's first snowfall, and British journalist Robert Fisk is standing at the curb on Victoria Street talking into a cellphone, arranging a book signing in Dubai while a Harper-Collins publicist tries to hold the cab she hailed five minutes ago, which is now double parked.
"Sure, I'll go," he says cheerfully. "But the ticket's over $2,500. As long as you're okay with that..." He then proceeds to tell the caller where he'll stay when he gets there; he'll book the hotel himself.
Then, finally feeling the bitter winter wind blowing through his scarf, he steps into a waiting cab, exclaiming with a laugh, as if he hadn't noticed until now, how "bloody freezing it is."
Unfortunately, the cab he is now in isn't the one that has been waiting.
The veteran Middle East correspondent for Britain's Independent has a habit of staying in battle zones longer than anyone wants him to and then making a hasty exit via the most immediately available transport.
Today, though, he's not dodging car bombs outside his home in Beirut or fighting off an angry mob in Afghanistan who are beating him up because he's the closest white guy around.
No. Instead of racing a NATO ground-to-air missile on a bridge over the Danube in Belgrade, we're heading up to Yorkville to grab a quick lunch before his next interview.
"Can we go somewhere good?" he asks as the publicist gives the driver directions. Fisk is here as part of a year-long book tour promoting his doorstoppingly large account of recent Mideast history, The Great War For Civilization. Nearly 800 people crammed into U of T's Macmillan Theatre the night before our meeting, many of them young Muslim Canadians, to hear his unembedded take on Iraq.
The core of his message is pretty simple: the violence is so intense that no one really knows who is who in Iraq right now, and the Yanks will only reveal info if it works in their favour. While Fisk still moves around Baghdad, other journalists don't. If he can barely grasp what's going on, they sure can't from their hotel rooms (see sidebar). What's worse is they don't reveal this to their readers.
I'm sitting in the front seat watching our Muslim cabbie look into his rear-view mirror, sizing Fisk up as he talks excitedly about his upcoming book signing in Beirut. (Fisk is one of the few in the Western media who speak Arabic fluently.) The book has been published in over 15 languages and is selling very well throughout Europe, with 50,000 copies in print in the UK and the French edition number three on the bestseller list.
The cab pulls onto Cumberland. We're heading to a place I've never noticed before right next to the Pilot. It's called Empire, ironic since Fisk has made a career of writing about the ravages of empire building, covering Northern Ireland and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in addition to Iraq and the Mideast.
His book, which is part memoir and part history, is named after the caption on the back of his father, Bill's, first world war British army medal. The elder Fisk was obsessed with that war, and the young Robert grew up visiting its battlefields on family vacations. Not only was there a lot of battle talk in his family, he was also at war most of his childhood with his father.
"Once when I was about 14, I argued with him and told him he was talking rubbish," he says as we wait for the glass of Merlot he's just ordered. "He was having tea at the time, and he picked up a knife and threw it at me. I remember it hitting the door." While he did not visit his ailing father before he died at the age of 93, he dedicates a full chapter to him in the book. "It is my apology to him," he says.
Unlike most of the places he frequents in the Middle East, there is little likelihood that Empire will be bombed or he'll being kidnapped here. "No one goes out to lunch in Baghdad now, but I still do," he says, assembling some salmon on a piece of bread. "Everyone still wants to know what I learn, but if I get kidnapped it will be 'What an asshole. Why would anyone be going out in Baghdad today?'"
A harsh critic of what he calls "hotel journalism" (foreign correspondents who file stories based on official briefings without leaving the safety of the lobby), he has incurred the wrath of other reporters as well supporters of the Iraq invasion, who say that his anti-American, -British and -Israeli position has sunk his credibility.
Last night he answered his critics by saying the role of journalism is to challenge authority when it goes to war, kills people and lies about it. "In the efforts of objectivity, do we give the S.S. 50 per cent of the story of the Holocaust?" he asks. But now, when I bring up his solitary confinement from the collegiality of fellow journalists, he cuts me off with a sharp reply. "I don't care what they think."
There is no doubt the guy is brave. Anyone who's done the job that he has for 30 years - he'll be 60 next year - is at least that. But as I watch him across the table, his slight frame in the same rumpled cardigan he wore on stage the night before, he looks very much like a beleaguered Michael Caine, wisps of grey hair askew across a balding head that can only get scorched regularly in the Iraqi sunshine.
The night before, he mused about foreseeing darker days ahead for Iraqis. Today I hear a sense of personal regret lying just beneath his grand tales of interviewing Osama bin Laden and dining with King Hussein and Queen Noor.
"It is lonely for me," he admits. "The danger that I face frequently every year is so great that the concerns that most people have are different than my own. I don't care about having medical examinations when I'm facing death all the time. Having something like cancer is the least of my worries."
We leave the restaurant and walk east on Cumberland toward Yonge. The snow has turned to brown slush on the curbs. I ask him where home is, and he says he divides his time between Beirut and another home, the whereabouts of which he would rather not divulge. "Whenever it is mentioned in the press, I get robbed as soon I'm back reporting from Beirut," he says.
I ask him if he has any family in England or elsewhere. He says no, his parents are both dead and he was an only child. I ask him if he has ever married or has children, and for the first time in an hour he's silent. Then, looking straight ahead as we walk slowly, the cheerfulness gone from his voice, he says quietly, "I'll pass on that question." Then more silence. The interview is over.
We cross Yonge. We smile, shake hands and say goodbye. I head to the subway, thinking it was a good thing I didn't ask him that question first.