Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion, and Power|
by Peter C. Newman
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|A Review of: Here be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power
by Clara Thomas
In his epilogue, "Child of the Century" Peter Newman
attempts an understanding of his often hectic, work- and fame-obsessed
life: "I was in search of a hero alright. But the hero, I blush
to admit, was me....The not inconsiderable task I set for myself
was not only to search for heroes in my adopted Canada, but to
become one of them." One cannot doubt his statement or his
resolve. From the spoiled only child of a wealthy and influential
Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, to, in 1940, a refugee in Canada,
with his life and his way to make in a strange land, he had a burning
ambition and the ability to achieve his goals. His situation was
far different from that of most of the war's displaced people. His
father did not lose everything and was able to buy a farm in the
Niagara district to fulfil the obligation to the CPR's land-marketing
scheme he had undertaken in return for the family's safety.
After the obligatory five years on the farm, the family moved to
Toronto where Peter had been a boarding student at Upper Canada
College since 1943. There are no happy memories of UCC-on the
contrary his report is damning. But summers working in a Val d'Or
gold mine taught him, he says, "to differentiate between real
life and its hoity-toity imitations. The miners, who had nothing
to give except their muscle, were not only decent and unpretentious
but, being mostly immigrants themselves, recognized me as a fellow
bohunk-one lucky enough to be getting an education."
He does admit to a few lessons learned at UCC: "I learned how
to speak English with a Canadian accent. I seized on the idea that
I could become a naval officer. I learned to play drums and went
loco when I first heard the sounds of the Stan Kenton orchestra.
All that and something else. Because the school stretched my potential
at an early age, whether it had intended to or not, it pushed me
to the invaluable discovery that the harshest limits we have to
overcome in life are those that are self-imposed." By this
time in his narrative, when Newman is twenty-one, his method
throughout the book has been well established. In all his work, he
has been above all, a story teller and he tells a good story-fast
paced, packed with dramatized incident and above all, personalized.
Here Be Dragons is the latest in a line of popular histories of
which he and Pierre Berton have long been acknowledged the masters.
More than Berton, however, Newman depends for his effects on the
telling, personalized anecdote often with a sting in its tail:
"George Galt, the master who tried to teach John Craig Eaton
grammar recalls that the young inheritor couldn't differentiate
between their and there, finally deciding to spell both as thair.
He later flunked out of Harvard before helping to run his family
business into the ground." Newman's is the smart, fast,
"take no prisoners" journalism, very much dependent on
his public's taste for debunking their notables.
In twenty chapters he describes his life's journey, its many
successes, and its constant anchor, a passionate Canadian nationalism.
He was flourishing in a time of intense nationalism and was one of
the founders of The Committee for an Independent Canada, whose prime
movers included Walter Gordon and Mel Hurtig. Chapter headings often
demonstrate his predominant goal and method. "The Making of a
Renegade: The secrets behind Canada's all-time political best-seller"
and "The Gun-Slinger: The dark side of Pierre Elliott
Trudeau", for instance, recount the writing and reception of
his best-selling works on Diefenbaker and Trudeau. Always entertaining
to read, his many works were unfailingly successful, though their
present recounting has an after-taste of sameness that becomes
tedious. Newman has been endlessly enchanted by power, whether held
briefly by political figures, establishment tycoons or historic
builders of Canada. The trajectory of his accounts of their lives
is always the same; a climb to a pinnacle of power followed by the
inevitable downfall. The fact that many of his titans managed lives
of varied achievement beyond the requirements of his story-line is
trivialized in his telling.
Of course he finds the presently emerging catastrophe of Conrad
Black ideal subject matter: the chapter called "Black Magic:
How Conrad Became a Weapon of Mass Destruction" illustrates
his methods perfectly. He assesses his public's attitude shrewdly;
no lingering respect, no granting Black the dignity of his full
name-just "Conrad", now vulnerable to every negative
judgement that his former power deflected. To Barbara Amiel, Mrs.
Black, he is pitiless : "She left me with the impression that
her opinions were swallowed whole, undigested, to be defended with
unsheathed claws instead of mental effort. I could never escape the
feeling that, despite her claims to be a champion of unfettered
freedom, she stood mainly for the glory of Barbara Amiel." We
all have a streak of schadenfreude, the unbecoming but all-too-human
impulse to enjoy the misfortunes of our fellows; in Newman's work
this miserable streak is indulged repeatedly. Whereas in single
works, as they appeared, his methods made for interest-packed fast
reading, this wrap-up of all his work finally fails to hold its
purpose and pace. Here be Dragons indeed, just far too many!
With all that however, there is no doubt about the sheer concentrated
effort that has fuelled Newman's career. His working habits, which
might better be called obsessions, have been inhuman. One major job
was never enough: whether Editor of the Toronto Star, or of Maclean's,
engaged in his Naval Reserve projects or any of the constant
challenges undertaken, he was always writing as well, getting up
to begin at 4.30 am before going to the office to welcome the current
day's objectives. Reading of his several marriages the question
becomes not how long they lasted, but how did they last so long? A
more absentee husband both in spirit and in person it is hard to
imagine. To a woman, his years of partnership with Christina McCall,
whose work certainly did much to establish and consolidate his
successful writing reputation, reveal that most dangerous of all
male personalities-the man who honestly believes that he is without
male bias. Now safely in harbour with Alvy, "the love of my
life", he enjoys the mobility of travel, success and contentment.
No one has worked for all of it more frenetically. Alvy has provided
this lifelong driven man "with a loving and happy home and
family, which is beyond price and was, for me, beyond hope."