FOR SOME AUTHORS autobiographical writing is a high-art form. Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, the Canadian poet John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse, and the short-story writer Norman Levine's Canada Made Me come to mind. These books, like compelling novels, are a series of panels that still, years after they were written, pulse with carefully observed life and carefully crafted language.
Leaving aside political memoirs, there's another sort of autobiography, more ephemeral, more colloquial, less ambitious, sometimes more entertaining, but by its nature less durable. This kind of autobiography is often penned by people who are natural raconteurs, or natural hobnobbers and name-droppers. Or they're written by what the media call "high-profile personalities" who believe they have Something Important or Witty to Say. And sometimes they're written by self important, medium-height-profile people who are trying to make themselves look taller.
Arnold Edinborough's life story isn't a powerful literary work, but it's not an amusing gossip-fest either. It's not a book with a message nor is it the literary equivalent of platform shoes - Edinborough doesn't puff himself Lip in these pages, though he can't be called diffident either. Readers may be disappointed in the flat, earnest writing and the matter-of-fact recitation of events from cradle to retirement. A competent book devoid of any noteworthy ideas, any striking language, any memorable portraits of people, it reminds me of the kind of unpublished family memoir we find in Uncle Ted's attic after he's passed away - a nice family heirloom, but of little more than sentimental value.
That said, Edinborough's chronicle, because of the positions he's held in Canadian journalism over the past 35 years, is an interesting source of social history, particularly to the clan of Canada's working writers. Born a farmer's son in England in the 1920s, he won a scholarship to Cambridge, and emigrated to Kingston, Ontario, in 1947 after taking his degree. As a teacher at Queen's University, an extramural lecturer, and an organizer of amateur theatre, Edinborough quickly made his mark on that closed-minded, culturally backward little burg. In 1954 he moved into journalism, becoming editor of the Kingston Whig-Standard, and in 1958 he was made editor of Saturday Night magazine, where he stayed - with one short break - for a decade. Thereafter he wrote a regular column on the arts for the Financial Post and co-founded and ran the corporate-linked body that plumps for culture, the Canadian Council for Business and the Arts.
In the '50s, Canada was virtually a tabula rasa to an Oxbridge-educated Englishman with a taste for language and theatre. Edinborough romped across the empty plateau, leaving a verbal blue streak behind him as he fed with gusto on every opportunity that popped up - and there were many: CBC scripts to be written, cross-Canada lectures to be given, television talk shows to sound off on, a newspaper and then a national magazine to edit. This sort of meteoric media career seems unreal now with thousands of middle-aged baby-boomers viciously clawing and kicking for the relatively few jobs available; but 40 years ago the shortage was not in jobs but in cultivated people, and Edinborough was in the right place at the right time.
Well, sort of The resume looks impressive, but the mans life was damn near ruined by Saturday Night, which has had a troubled and precarious existence since before Edinborough's time. He tried to rescue the title by buying it himself - by the early 1960s Canada had made him a very prosperous immigrant. But the magazine continued to founder and took the editor down with it. By 1969 he had lost, he says, all the money he'd accumulated in 20 years, and he soon lost his house as well.
Not enough people cared about the country, he implies, for this sort of magazine to flourish.
That may be the most pertinent bit of history buried in this book. Twenty-five years ago, when we were on an unprecedented roll of optimism and prosperity and artistic accomplishment, cultural malaise and defeatism in English Canada were already quietly sharpening their knives.