OVER A WRITING career of 40 years Robert Collins wrote for, and edited, a variety of Canadian magazines, so that in Who He? Reflections on a Writing Life (GreyStone/Douglas & McIntyre, 259 pages, $16.95 paper) he is remembering his own part in one of the most interesting and formative periods of Canada's cultural life and growth.
A young man from the Prairies who studied journalism at the University of Western Ontario, Collins started out in newspapers, but felt the strong and romantic pull of the magazine world. He quickly capitulated to its charms, first freelancing for, and subsequently joining the staff of, Maclean's, Toronto Life, Imperial Oil's famous Review, and the Canadian Reader's Digest, among other landmark publications of the period.
Collins's work brought him into contact with most of the movers and shakers of the times -not to mention hundreds of unusual, charming, gifted, and interesting nobodies - whose lives and talents he chronicled. So his book is itself a wonderful gathering of gossip, insight, and reflection. It's also a source of surprise, not least in its score-settling and robust critique of several members of the CanLit fraternity (he is particularly exercised about Margaret Atwood, it seems), whose egos and feelings he does little to spare, and of colleagues in "the business" such as Peter Gzowski, Barbara Frum, Alan Fotheringham, and Peter Desbarats.
Was it realty like this, in those busy, exhilarating decades when Canadian culture was establishing itself - the persistent heavy drinking, the all-nighting, the flying-on-a-wing-and-a-prayer? Others will no doubt disagree with Collins's interpretations and challenge his memory; but if their memoirs, when they write them, are half as engaging as his, we may end up with a reasonably balanced view of the period, not to mention a storehouse of scandalous anecdotes.