Bob-bob-bobbing along

I didn’t get a chance to write about Robert Fulford the first time he faked his retirement so I’m doing it now.

His first retirement was in 1987 when he stepped down as editor of Saturday Night. His nineteen years at that magazine, culminating in its hundredth anniversary, were probably its high-water mark, and maybe the high-water mark for any Canadian magazine.

Saturday Night wasn’t everyone’s idea of periodical perfection — it had a tendency to disappear up its own ass — but it was better written, better edited, better designed, smarter, and pound-for-pound more influential than anything else in the field. Bob wrote the opening essay in each issue and was the magazine’s leader in every sense.

He resigned from Saturday Night in ‘87 rather than work for its new owner, Conrad Black. A number of writers and editors left the magazine at the same time, either out of loyalty to Bob or dislike/fear of Conrad. It was one of those high-dudgeon moments that in retrospect looks faintly ridiculous but the Toronto journalistic community was consumed by it. Bob fanned the flames, writing a piece comparing Black to Charles Foster Kane.

The blow-up was probably inevitable even without the pressure of public scrutiny: Fulford couldn’t give an inch to Conrad without diminishing his role and disappointing his crowd; Black was never going to be a passive owner. John Fraser was appointed the new editor and for seven years he labored in Fulford’s shadow, as did I, for four or five years following Fraser. (That’s no slight on Fraser, who also produced an excellent magazine. It’s just that Bob left a lot of shadow).

Sidebar 1: Black, around this time, had been certified as Canada’s most admired businessman by the Globe. He purchased the money-losing Saturday Night from Norman Webster, a media executive and Rhodes Scholar. The two men left their final meeting agreed on a purchase price of $250,000, but confused as to which of them would receive the sum.)

L to R: Peter Gzowski, Bob Fulford, Gary Ross, Derek Ungless, someone else. He was only fifty-five when he “retired,” but Fulford already seemed to have done more than enough for one career. A native Torontonian, born in the Beach in 1932, he’d started in journalism while still in high school, reporting on amateur sports for CHUM radio. He dropped out in 1950 to join the Globe & Mail as a sports reporter, and by 1959 was a columnist for the Toronto Star. He produced a daily column about books and the arts for the Star, a crazy feat of productivity, especially given his high journalistic standards, his prodigious research (he read all the books, watched all the shows, attended all the galleries), and the fact that he was also hosting the weekly arts show This Is Robert Fulford on the CBC and freelancing for Down Beat and Saturday Night.

His productivity remained high during his Saturday Night editorship. In addition to the lead essay in the magazine, he produced film reviews under the pseudonym Marshall Delaney, and continued to write weekly for the Star. He and Richard Gwyn co-hosted the TVOntario interview program Realities.

The only thing Fulford seemed not to do particularly well was books. He wrote one about Expo 67 in which he ventured that multi-screen films would do for cinema what The Wasteland had done for poetry, a notion shared by Norman Jewison who used multi-screen techniques in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), from whence they went nowhere. The book was a miss.

Fulford developed a reputation of being best at short and middle distances. There’s no shame in that: he’s a brilliant columnist and essayist, with seventeen National Magazine Awards to his credit (Saturday Night regularly cleaned up at the NMAs). If you had asked a hundred journalists in 1987 to name the most respected journalists in Canada, Fulford’s name would have topped many lists.

I first met Bob through the mail. I’d written a sniffy review of Best Seat in the House, a brief memoir he’d written on leaving Saturday Night. He returned a sniffy letter thanking me for my provincial view of his book.

I sat across from him for the first time in the bar at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto on a rainy afternoon in 1993. I’d been offered the editorship of Saturday Night after John Fraser’s not-quite-voluntary resignation. Contemplating uprooting and moving my family from Edmonton to Toronto, I asked Bob his opinion of the magazine’s prospects. He said Saturday Night would be dead in a year or two. I gulped and signed on regardless.

I’d see him around Toronto in the nineties. We’d talk a bit and it was always pleasant, although we weren’t close. Different generations, different circles, but I read and admired him. He was writing in the Globe in the nineties, a weekly arts column, and freelancing here and there, which is to say that he was under-employed by his usual standards.

As the decade progressed, I admired him more. In 1995, he buried the notion that he was “only” a short-distance writer, publishing Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto, maybe the best book written about the city. And his columns improved.

Always intelligent, erudite, fluent, and reliably strong in his choice of subjects, Bob appeared to be adding new weapons to his arsenal. He was funnier: I remember a hilarious column (no available link) where he tried and failed to establish the ages of Wayne and Garth in Wayne’s World. He was also more inclined to drop his gloves: when Shiftmagazine proclaimed itself the harbinger of a new global culture and announced its expansion to the US, Bob advised its editors in the pages of Toronto Life to first aim for intelligibility.

I don’t recall exactly how he shook loose from the Globe in 1999. Richard Addis had been flown in from London to replace William Thorsell as the paper’s editor. This was in the early innings of the newspaper war between the Globe and the upstart National Post, to which I had moved from Saturday Night as founding editor. Addis failed to appreciate Bob’s work and started burying his column, which had been a front-of-the-arts-section feature for years. Suddenly Bob was back amid the TV listings. It feels quaint now but front-page real estate was then a hill to die on for many writers.

It might have been Fraser, who became Bob’s friend and gossip partner, who alerted me to his dissatisfaction with the Globe’s new management.

It was a no-brainer to offer him a column at the Post. I envied his work in the Globe.One week it would be Saul Bellow, then Ayn Rand, then Elmore Leonard, and the unlikely genius of Law & Order. There wasn’t another arts writer in Canada who could compete with him.

But I wanted Bob to write in the front section of the newspaper, not the arts section. We could have used him in our arts section but it was obvious he could do more. I’d been struck by his occasional deft wanderings into political subjects at the Globe, including this piece on the “boobery” of the Reform Party. He also had a rare ability to write intelligently on big public moments, such as the new millenium, and on popular trends, such as nineties irony. I thought he’d be a nice addition to our op-ed page.

Sidebar 2: I had asked Bob, when we were courting, if he would have any problem writing for a paper owned by Conrad Black. He said he admired what Conrad had done with the Post and the other newspapers he owned, and would be happy to serve. I also advised Conrad that I was going to sign Bob. It wasn’t something I was in the habit of doing, but given the history between them, it seemed politic. Conrad praised Bob for his style and his eminence and congratulated me on the move. So much for the dudgeon of ‘87.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity to spread his wings, Bob wrote on national affairs, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, American politics, cultural subjects, and whatever else caught his eye. His opinions were always worth reading in their own right but they served a larger role on op-ed, raising the tone of the page, bringing wisdom and experience, and an unusually broad outlook to a daily collection of views that could err on the side of youthful hammer-and-tonging.

I was going to attempt here a list of Bob’s greatest hits from the National Post but there are too many to choose from. By rough count, two thousand columns. Instead, I’ll give you a few samples from 2001, which is when I thought he got comfortable and demonstrated the full range of things he could profitably tackle for the paper. There was George W. Bush as a Shakespearean character. This piece on mendacious libel litigation. This one on dinosaur discoveries. This about draft dodgers in Canada. And this on lying. Here’s the first of a three-parter on the historian Niall Ferguson.

You get the idea. There’s an inexhaustible curiosity about public life and the human experience in Fulford’s journalism. He’ll go anywhere and everywhere, and he approaches each subject with intelligence, a wealth of reference, and enthusiasm. That last quality is crucial. Ennui is an occupational hazard of newspaper columnists. Bob was always writing in the spirit of I-can’t-wait-to-share-this. And he meant it. He never mailed it in.

Fortunately, I did get to know him better over the years. He was invariably in good spirits, thoughtful and gentle in his personal interactions and generous with his time and advice. It was a delight to run into him anywhere and hear what was buzzing around in his ever-active mind.

I left the Post in 2003 and was happy to see that each successive editor of the paper appreciated Bob’s value and made his or her own choice to keep him on. He was sixty-seven when he joined the paper. He wrote through his seventies. He wrote through his eighties. The Post became the longest continuous home of his career, beating Saturday Night by a year. A couple of weeks ago, his column was “retired.” Bob is 88. It has been seventy years since he started at the Globe, which is almost a record.

Bill Deedes, the legendary editor of the Daily Telegraph and model for the character Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, started journalism as a teenager in 1931 and ended his illustrious career by publishing an article in 2007, his 94th and final year.

Sidebar 3: I met Deedes once while sitting in on an editorial meeting at the Daily Telegraph, then edited by Charles Moore. As things were winding down, Deedes went on a heartfelt rant about how Hollywood was killing James Bond by turning him into a pitchman for Omega watches and BMW automobiles. He was outraged that screenwriters thought a man as independent and self-assured as Bond needed a corporate badge to sustain his self-worth. Moore, who invited the octogenarian Deedes to his editorial meetings for precisely these perspectives, directed him to turn the rant into an editorial. I read the editorial page the next day and there was Deedes’ rant, almost word-for-word what I’d heard in the room. The man spoke in editorials.

Bob needs six years to catch Deedes (although he’s already beaten him on consecutive years of service to journalism — Deedes detoured to parliament for a long spell in mid-life). I’m betting he gets there. It’s clear to me that his departure from the Post is another fake retirement. As if to advertise his availability for future assignments, he has also released a new book, A Life in Paragraphs, an ingenious collection of his essays that manages through clever arrangement to tell the story of his life and career while also highlighting the people, events, and ideas that have preoccupied him over time. You can buy it here.