Best Seat In The House

by Robert Fulford
260 pages,
ISBN: 0002154382

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Front Row Centre
by I. M. Owen

BERT FULFORD is the best of conversationalists. I'm a bad one myself, but whenever I'm talking to him the conversation goes swimmingly. In his memoirs he writes, as always, exactly as he talks, so that reading the book feels like having a conversation; all I have to do is fill in my side of it.

This is a professional autobiography, not a personal one. What he calls "the truly important events of my life" -- his two marriages, his one divorce, and the births of his four children -- are reported in six lines early in the book and rarely referred to again. The most personal parts are the first two chapters. The first is an account of his childhood and adolescence in the Beach district of Toronto, and especially of the dreadful high school from which he dropped out. He interprets his early career as being driven by his need to escape from the Beach.

The second chapter is an extended essay on the closest friend of his childhood and youth, his fellow dropout Glenn Gould. It's extremely interesting, not least because he gives an impression of Gould's parents that explains the puritanical side of his nature.

Fulford started his journalistic career, at 18, in the sports department of the Globe and Mail, of all things. He stuck it for more than two years, until "I faced the dreadful truth. I was a sports writer who didn't like to watch people play games." He nerved himself to ask for a transfer, and a spot was found for him under the city editor.

That was in 1952, when he was 20. From then until 1968 he went from job to job and back again, holding eight different jobs (but with only four different employers), spending a year as a freelancer, and for much of the time moonlighting as the Toronto correspondent of Down Beat, the jazz magazine. Thus he spent his life, as he says, "dashing through the same revolving doors again and again," yet paradoxically always occupying "the best seat in the house" -- the best for observing both the world of journalism and its subject matter. It's good to have it all set down with such grace and truth, and with convincing portraits of so many of the people he knew. He's especially good on Nathan Cohen, the formidable theatre reviewer of the Toronto Star in those days. Nathan, one of the most lovable people I ever knew, was loathed by theatre people for his damning reviews; it's only now that he's safely dead that they have canonized him. The fact is that he was a terrible writer and a poor judge of plays. Only twice did I see plays that he had actually praised: they were The Hamlet of Stepney Green and The Fantasticks, both sugary, sentimental comedies.

I'm incompetent to share Fulford's devotion to jazz, but I enjoy his writing about it. Another thing I can't share is his enthusiasm for painters like Michael Snow; but then, when he wrote art reviews for the Star I read him faithfully and never understood a word he said. But his chapter on this part of his life is distinguished especially by his clear-eyed description of the pornography trial of the Dorothy Cameron Gallery in 1965, with the respected expert witnesses one after another solemnly assuring the court that the works in a show called Eros 65 were just arrangements of lines and shadows and not erotic at all.

The film reviews Fulford used to write under the name Marshall Delaney were among, the best things he has done. It's a disappointment that there's little about film in this book, and hardly a reference to the reviews beyond an explanation of why he used a pseudonym and where he got it from.

If I remember correctly, somebody once wrote in this magazine that Fulford couldn't write a book because his limit was about 1,500 words. Well, it's true that this is less an autobiography than a collection of essays about people he has known, arranged in roughly chronological order. Nevertheless, it's a book.

The chapter on Margaret Atwood is also about Fulford's movement from cultural continentalist to nationalist and back to a middle position. (In 1973 he co-edited a book called Read Canadian which included this remarkable advice from David Godfrey and James Lorimer: "If you're a student, refuse to buy books published by branch plants." In 1988 he has a book published by Collins.) The portrait of Atwood is just, and brings out what is often ignored by more solemn writers, her marvellous comic gift. I wish he had reprinted here the funniest thing she has ever written, a letter to Saturday Night after the extreme nationalist Robin Mathews had called Fulford "the wartiest toad of them all." The letter was a stout and closely reasoned defence of toads against the imputation.

It's only in the last two chapters that Fulford tells the story of his 19 years at Saturday Night. The first of these is called "Turning the Comer" because that phrase was invariably used by the many businessmen connected with the magazine over the years -- a prophecy that never came true. The first phase of his editorship, with Arnold Edinborough -- his predecessor -- as publisher, succeeded by William Nobleman, ended in 1974 with the suspension of publication. The second phase began in 1975 when the magazine reappeared with Ed Cowan as publisher and Bernadette Sulgit as managing editor. Under the latter's relentless efficiency the issues were soon appearing on time -- a startling innovation. I'm surprised that Fulford found this middle period the least satisfying. 'Me magazine was at its liveliest then. After the third phase began in 1979, with the Webster family as owners and John Macfarlane as publisher, it became rather stodgy for a few years, many of us thought. Presumably Macfarlane, himself a successful editor, and Fulford were taking a while to mesh their styles, though Fulford shows no consciousness of this. Anyway it did return to its best form in a short time -- a form that has happily survived the departure of Fulford and Macfarlane in 1987.

The last chapter, "Meeting Citizen Black," tells amusingly and on the whole good-naturedly the story of the Black takeover. I had hoped against hope that Fulford could shed some light on the incredible final meeting between Black and Norman Webster, when these two grown-up millionaires came to an agreement that a quarter of a million dollars was to be paid -- and completely misunderstood each other about who was to pay it to whom. But no, Fulford is as much in the dark as the rest of us.


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