Tribute: Larry Still, Journalist
Larry Still, the late Vancouver Sun courts reporter and the author behind the Limits of Sanity possessed old-school skills, a sharp wit and reliable shorthand that allowed him to write long about the law
By Rod Mickleburgh
We’ve lost another of those legendary reporters from what, in retrospect, was a golden age of journalism at the Vancouver Sun. You know, the days when newspapers told you everything you needed to know about your community, your country and the world at large, and more.
For 30 years at the Sun, Larry Still was perhaps the best court reporter in the land, undoubtedly the best in B.C. by a country mile. His immaculately-worded coverage of Vancouver’s many long, gripping, often grisly, trials in the last three decades of the twentieth century stand as a tribute to the craft – clear, concise, comprehensive and oh, so readable. As dramatic testimony and give-and-take from the city’s best lawyers played out in the courtroom, he put you right there.
Yet it says something about Larry Still that word of his June 25 death in Oak Bay (from an overdose of painkillers) did not trickle out until earlier this week. Outside work, he tended to be a bit of a loner, when he wasn’t at the Press Club across the street from Pacific Press. Still used to be a fixture at the Club, positioned in a corner of the bar in a haze of cigarette smoke, relieving the tension of the day’s work with what Pat Nagle liked to call “the grape”. He was never at the centre of glad-happy journos, yukking it up. Mostly, he drank alone, occasionally, when angered by some remark that he considered inconsequential, spitting out that he used to work “on Fleet Street”. He might then puff out his chest in a belligerent manner and boast, if the reporter was particularly beneath his notice at the time, that he could “write rings around” him. Much as I admired his work, I was always somewhat intimidated by him. He was, shall we say, not one to suffer fools gladly, and his definition of “fools” often depended on how much he had had to drink.
I never heard many details of his life before the Sun, other than his English background, time “on Fleet Street”, and an indeterminate tenure as a correspondent for Time Magazine. How and why he washed up at the Sun in Vancouver is a mystery, at least to me.
(Larry, his mother, and his brother Mike, as they were evacuated to the countryside during WW II)
As I drifted away from Vancouver, Pacific Press and “the Club”, I lost track of people and events. I heard that Larry mellowed in later years, lessened his drinking and became more convivial. I also heard that he had a son back in England, with whom there had been some sort of reconciliation. I hope all these things are true.
Certainly, some of the Facebook postings attest to his helpfulness as a colleague, without forgetting his acerbic reputation. Quipped Craig Ferry: “I can’t think of a single person I’d rather be insulted by.” Andrea Maitland wrote: “When I started at the Sun, he was very helpful. Crabby and always right.” Salim Jiwa recalled the pleasures of covering the extradition hearing of Air India bombing conspirator, Inderjit Singh Reyat, with Still in his old stomping grounds of London. Scott Honeyman summed him up: “An unforgettable character.”
In an e-mail, former Sun Business Editor George Froehlich said he often had Still over for dinner. “He was charming, witty and vey insightful….Larry, believe it or not, was quite an accomplished cook,” George elaborated. “He was often quite moody, especially when editors at the Sun did not give his court stories the prominence they deserved….He used to say: what can you expect from people who have never been anywhere, a reference to the fact he had travelled all over the world for Time.”
The last time I saw Larry Still was at the huge wake for Patrick Nagle (sigh) in 2006. He was in fine form, tearing a strip off long-time colleague Wyng Chow, in a jocular way, of course, for managing to be fired by the Sun. “You could piss all over the assistant city editor and not be fired. And yet you, Wyng Chow, you managed to be fired!” Wyng, now comfortably ensconced in Hong Kong and a friend of Larry’s till the end, took it in stride.
Still leaves an impressive legacy. In those days, there was space in the paper for long stories. If a trial was important enough, he was given copious room for his riveting stories on what went on in the courtroom the previous day. One of the last reporters with superb shorthand, he was able to quote sharp exchanges and compelling testimony verbatim. Still was also smart in the ways of the court, justly celebrated by the legal fraternity for his insight and knowledge. I heard once that his book The Limits of Sanity was regularly used as a key teaching tool at law schools on the issue of criminal insanity. The book is based on a one night, murderous spree by Kootenay logger Dale Nelson, who violated the bodies of at least two of his eight victims. Nelson’s lawyer, the celebrated Mickey Moran, argued persuasively but ultimately unsuccessfully that his client was not guilty on the basis of insanity. Still, naturally, had covered every moment of the trial.
Alas, his brand of court reporting is long gone. Today, court stories, no matter how critical the trial, are expected to be relatively short, containing only selected highlights of an entire day’s proceedings. That’s fine, but they don’t provide a reader with what Larry Still did. For historians and archivists, his copy is a treasure trove. When Aaron Chapman was compiling his excellent history of the colourful Penthouse cabaret, he relied heavily on Larry Still’s coverage of two famous trials involving the renowned nightclub: owner Joe Philliponi’s prosecution on a charge of living off the avails of prostitution and the murder trial of two men accused of murdering Philliponi at the club in 1983. What kind of record is left behind bythe abbreviated newspaper stories of today?
Larry Still, RIP. No one was better at what they did than you, sir.
F0r more Mickleburgh, please visit mickleblog.
THE EX-PRESS, August 15, 2015