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

by Peter C. Newman

Published by Douglas Gibson Books

733 pages, 2004


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Survivor

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

I was once introduced to Peter C. Newman at a function. I'm sure he would not remember if you asked. It was the kind of shindig where people stand around with glasses of wine in one hand and lovely little snacks in the other and ostensibly talk about Very Important Things when really they're just there to promote their latest project and stuff their faces with excellent food.

Now, understand: I have chatted -- and even broken bread with -- many famous and famous-ish people. I've had comfortable conversations with Douglas Coupland, Margaret Atwood, Michel Faber and many, many others without embarrassing myself even once. But meeting Peter C. Newman was different. He greeted me politely, even warmly. I barely touched his hand, am not sure if I met his eyes, and melted as quickly as I could into the assembled mass.

The person who had made the introduction could not understand this. In fact, he found it quite funny. "But Peter C's a great guy," he assured me. "And you're both writers. I thought you'd have a lot to talk about." There were two things my friend -- Peter and my mutual friend -- did not understand. A/ To people of my generation and beyond Peter C. Newman is an Icon. (And that capital "I" is intentional) and B/ I know Mr. Newman's work well, have read many of his books and was sure he had much more important things to think about than what to say to someone as inconsequential as me.

I tell you this brief tale now not to show you what a complete starstruck geek I can be (though I'm sure I've done that here, as well) but to illustrate the veneration that Peter C. Newman inspires in at least a percentage of Canadian's hearts and minds. To us, he is incomparable. The chronicler and conscience of a country often confused by its identity, he has been perhaps the most influential journalist Canada has ever known. And talk about breaking bread: he has interviewed every prime minister since St. Laurent, has written 22 books that have collectively sold more than two million copies (and in Canadian numbers, that's a great deal), he was for a time editor-in-chief at one of Canada's most important newspapers, The Toronto Star, and was a founding editor of Canada's most respected -- and sort of only -- newsmagazine, Maclean's.

Here Be Dragons is Peter C. Newman's autobiography but, considering the writer in question, it can't help but be so much more. He begins, as you'd suspect he would, at the beginning: with his family's escape from the Nazis in war-torn Europe:

We had been a prosperous bourgeois Jewish family living out a golden epoch. Now we were homeless, huddled on the shore of a strange sea, dependent for our lives on the rough mercy of displaced soldiers. Once we'd had servants and silver; now we clutched a suitcase each, and had nowhere to hide.

Though he gives us a great deal about his private life -- growing up a stranger in a strange land, his career moves, his marriages -- four in all -- and other personal tidbits, at its soul, Here Be Dragons is not only a deeply personal portrait of Newman through his own eyes, it's also a single, informed view of Canada's coming -- not always painlessly -- of age.

What comes clear -- if doubts were ever had -- is that, despite the other things he has done, Peter C. Newman is first and foremost a journalist, for better, as it were, or for worse.

I found so much of Here Be Dragons poignant or moving or brutally honest or all three at once that I have been tempted to quote more generously from the book: there's just so much that is wonderful here that I'd like to share. But I won't. I will, however, tell you that the writing is pure Peter C. with flashes of brilliance, dollops of wit and dashes of the type of sharply-shared clarity that has, over these many years, become Newman's signature. It's difficult for me to imagine a more clearly written and honestly shared autobiography.

I will, however, let the last words here be Newman's, because I found them moving, and because he says it all so much better than I ever could:

We non-fiction writers are like sailors, infected with the germ of distance, who can never be tamed or domesticated; only rented on occasion, but never bought. Those of us who have gained some measure of credibility practicing this mad craft thrive on a pretend intimacy that spawns betrayal. However friendly an interview, however intimate the revelations, we writers remain temporary sojourners in a strange land....

I grovelled to pry open the Canadian Establishment's secrets but I never told them mine.

It was easy. I never had a dynasty to lose. Besides, survivors get the last word. | November 2004

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.