Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion, and Power

by Peter C. Newman
ISBN: 0771067925

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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."

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