My Times:

by Pierre Berton,
448 pages,
ISBN: 0385255284

Post Your Opinion
The Great Recycler
by Anne Denoon

Pierre Berton's sixtieth published book picks up where Starting Out, his first volume of autobiography left off, and begins with his arrival in Toronto in 1947. The postwar metropolis he evokes in My Times was still essentially the Good, with delusions of worldclassness decades away. The journalistic band Berton joined may seem equally quaint to younger readers: an alcohol-fuelled, almost all-male, visible-minority-free milieu in which only the widespread anti-Semitism of the time allowed personal tolerance to be put on the line.

(The modern types, including Berton, who formed a co-operative community in rural Kleinburg in 1948 inverted the then commonplace "restrictive" clause to exclude known bigots, but he does not record whether any Jews joined.)

In the book's engaging early chapters, one of which is aptly entitled "Hustling," the young Berton is driven to extraordinary feats of journalistic endurance not only by innate ambition, but also by rapidly escalating domestic responsibilities. He became, as he puts it, a "jack-of-all-writing-trades," churning out magazine articles, film and theatre scripts, government pamphlets, and anything else that paid or kept his name in print. Add his first books, his daily(!) newspaper column, the start of his enduring career as a radio and television personality, and you have the familiar, ubiquitous Pierre Berton of the 1960s onward.

Unfortunately, once success arrives-by his reckoning, about ten years after his arrival in Toronto-My Times turns into a sometimes tedious chronicle of triumphs. Berton's unabashed enjoyment of fame and notoriety is rather endearing; after all, honest arrogance, to which Berton candidly admits, is more appealing than false modesty. But, over more than four hundred pages, the accumulation of such blush-inducing quotations as "he is one of the most fascinating, talented, and interesting persons in Canada" does take its toll. And while a certain amount of "and then I wrote" is unavoidable in a journalistic memoir, perhaps only the Great Recycler (an epithet he cheerfully accepts) would reprint a newspaper column from the early 60s almost in its entirety.

Another minor irritant is his refinement of the art of namedropping, in which well-known people are introduced by their familiar diminutives (Pat Watson, Bill Mitchell, Bob McMichael, Betsey Kilbourn.) so that the reader may miss a beat before belated recognition comes.

Still, memorable anecdotes (visiting Robert Service in his Monaco villa, for one) and snappy writing counterbalance such annoyances. Although most of My Times is short on introspection (a defect in an autobiography, but probably an asset in a career like the indefatigable Berton's), the epilogue finds him in elegiac mode. For Berton, as for other liberal crusaders of his generation, being publicly called a racist during the brouhaha surrounding the 1994 Writing Through Race conference was an experience that seems almost to have broken his spirit. But only almost, for he leaves the final verdict on his achievements to his faithful readers and fans, and My Times is really for them.


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