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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Witty and Wise

A great Canadian journalist leaves a lasting legacy

Trina McQueen

My Life as a Dame: The Personal and the Political in the Writings of Christina McCall

Christina McCall; edited by Stephen Clarkson

House of Anansi

384 pages, hardcover

Her writing was gorgeous, and so was she. Her words came, not trippingly, but precisely. Clear, fresh; on the rocks with a twist. She liked to set the scene in a first paragraph, and she could put you exactly where she wanted you to be.

Here she is musing on style and class in the Toronto of 1971:

One day last spring, I was standing in the reception area of a fashionable hairdresser’s in midtown Toronto, waiting to pay my bill ($12 for a stark haircut that made me look exactly like one of the Presbyterian aunts I’d spent most of my life avoiding looking like). Ahead of me in the line was this very slick, chic lady of maybe thirty-eight or so dressed exactly as such a lady should be when she is going to spend the morning at the hairbenders (that’s what chic ladies call all those rickety-cheeky Cockney boys who’ve taken over big-time women’s barbering in the last half-decade) and then on to luncheon with an old friend from school, and maybe a meeting of the women’s committee of the symphony.

Well, I bet Christina McCall’s haircut looked amazing. She was beautiful in the Katharine Hepburn–Rosalind Russell–Greta Garbo style of natural beauty made radiant by redoubtable character. On the cover of My Life as a Dame: The Personal and the Political in the Writings of Christina McCall, she is wearing a capital-H Hat. I think the Hat is a sort of fedora, a tall, felt flowerpot with a large tilted brim. On 93 percent of the world’s female population, this Hat would be a terrible, shuddering mistake. But Christina McCall’s spirit inspires the Hat, and makes it glorious and perfect.

Can she do the same for this collection of journalism and essays, written between 1957 and 2005, but mostly in the 1970s and ’80s, edited by her husband, Stephen Clarkson? The journalism has much more going for it than the Hat: Christina McCall was an eminent writer on politics and society at a time in Canada when profound change was transforming both; she was a dedicated (and often wry) feminist; she was a smart dinner-party insider who could speak like a friend to the hard timers and the outsiders. The books she wrote, particularly Grits: An Intimate Portrait of the Liberal Party, co-authored by Clarkson, defined the political age she lived in. Those books will endure. What of the journalism?

Journalism has oxymoronic qualities. It is often crude, but it is always delicate. It badly needs the active involvement of its readers. Journalism is written in the expectation that it will be read in the heat of the moment, when the subjects are alive, roiling, powerful and disturbing. The readers insert their own context and their own excitement. The writer and the readers are in the middle of the story; we are figuring it out together. Thirty or 40 years later, that dynamism is gone.

When McCall reported on the launch of Mel Watkins’s Waffle manifesto in 1969, many thought, and she wrote, that “Watkins may have launched … a whole new era in Canadian politics. It’s somehow satisfying to imagine that future patriots may mark September 4, 1969, as the day when we crossed our Rubicon, put out more red and white maple leaf flags, spat in the eye of the American eagle, and maybe even declared our positive existence after one hundred and two uncertain years.”

But reading this now, we future patriots know how the plot turned out: we have seen the whole movie. Mel Watkins himself reflects on the piece in a short comment at the book’s end, and writes “today the Waffle is a fading memory, its legacy more problematic than Christina thought.” 

When she writes about Peter Lougheed in the 1970s, she writes of a provincial, easily offended, red-meat capitalist. There is no hint of the graceful and generous wisdom, or the solid Canadian statesmanship of the later years.

The difficulty with pieces like this is not that she got it wrong; mostly she did not, and anyway, getting it wrong can be interesting. It’s that we read these intense writings with either no idea or only a dim memory of what it was like then and there. What on earth were they thinking? a reader might ask, crossly or curiously. To me, it is a shame that the question is not answered. Present-day reflections on the articles were shortened and shifted to the back of the book, and commissioned introductions were dropped. The book would have been richer, more alive, if they had stayed; and if this had meant the exclusions of a couple of the more relentless political insider pieces, okay.

Nevertheless, this is a nourishing book and a tasty one. The editing allows the reader to customize his or her own Christina McCall. For me, her pieces on society and feminism, especially, were fascinating, provocative and great fun to read. Allan Gregg said at the book launch that McCall could be “pants-pissingly funny.” Her writing on the opera buffa adventures of Pierre, Margaret and the Ottawa press corps in Russia definitely was, even with its undertone of skepticism about the mission.

McCall was an unwavering feminist, generous and constant in her support of the cause, and of many individual women. Although she was both successful and greatly loved, her empathy for those who were not was clear. In 1975, she remembered how it was for women when she was growing up. Although she yearned to be Rosalind Russell, she knew that 

in real life, in Canada, the ideal role for women was to be a wife and mother with an impeccably run household, its food cellar stocked with preserves, its laundry whiter than the neighbours’, and its children better than good. Any woman who didn’t fit this circumscribed pattern was an “old maid.” No grace of gesture, quality of mind, freedom of spirit, or worldly accomplishment could possibly make up for the horror of being identified by that phrase, which clearly damned a woman to be unloved, asexual, and lonely forever.

It strikes me that the “ideal role for women” has not changed much if you add a phrase such as “and to be the top litigator in her firm.” McCall’s writing is still provocative, still capable of stirring emotion.

This is nowhere more true than in the personal sections of a book whose subtitle is “the personal and the political in the writings of Christina McCall.” Some of the political or journalistic pieces may be dusty, but the personal writings are as gripping as any novel. These include the only completed chapter of her memoirs. She chose the title My Life as a Dame, and she begins with her last year at the University of Toronto, when she was engrossed with anxieties “not the least of these was my need to distance myself from my classmates, all those good girls with shiny hair and diamond engagement rings, taking careful notes around me … preparing themselves for worthy careers as school teacher or librarians who would mutate before long into stay-at-home wives and mothers in the prosperous Ontario towns from which most of them had sprung.” 

It is absolutely entrancing, as are all her reflective writings about herself and her personal time and place. How sad for us all that she could not finish her assignment. How fortunate for us all to have at least a glimpse of the story of this fabulous dame. 

Trina McQueen, a broadcaster and journalist, sits on the boards of the Canadian Opera Company, McClelland and Stewart and the Banff Centre for the Arts. She has served on numerous other cultural boards, including Canadian Stage, the CBC and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.