So Very Near: The Political Memoirs Of
Donald M. Fleming, Volume One: The Rising Years; Volume Two: The Summit Years,
McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1985.
The Honourable Donald Fleming P.C., Q.C.,
made a valuable contribution to Canada in the true spirit of dedicated public
service. He began his public life as an alderman and rose to be the most senior
minister in the Diefenbaker government. Three times he contested the leadership
of the Progressive Conservative Party without success, obviously inspiring the
title "So Very Near".
In Volume One, The Rising Years, Fleming
takes the reader slowly through his early life, details the rivalry he had with
classmates through law school, recreates many debates he was involved in on
Toronto City Council as an alderman, and finally takes long excerpts from
Hansard to elucidate his work as a member of the Opposition and later Cabinet
Minister in the 195758 minority Parliament.
In Volume Two: The Summit Years, he relies
heavily on the public record; with impeccable accuracy and slavish attention to
detail, he takes a full six hundred and forty-five pages to describe the five
years he remained in the Cabinet.
Historians have always been skeptical of
political memoirs and for good reason. Memoirs often rely on personal
recollection at the expense of research, produce self-justification in place of
reasoned arguments, and because of the time at which they were written, produce
little new insight except into the character of their author.
It is clear from his introduction that
Fleming was aware he was susceptible to this kind of criticism. His research is
obviously extensive and his arguments, in keeping with his character, are well
reasoned. Unfortunately for the historian, to whom he seems to appeal for
justification in having taken the liberty of putting pen to paper, Fleming does
not add significant insight into the time period he reviews.
Fleming's devotion to historical accuracy, is
in part responsible for his seriously flawed writing style. A lawyer by
profession, the former Minister's attention to the minutia would suggest that
he missed his calling as an accountant. Throughout So Very Near Fleming
meticulously records, in the body of the work, the results of trivial votes in
the House of Commons, and unrelentingly details the figures involved in many
major government actions. Any editor of a business history would recommend that
this type of information be relegated to footnotes. In a political memoir this
detail should have been expurgated for the seemingly ignored cause of brevity.
In an autobiography it is expected that the
author will provide the stage for a number of obscure curtain calls for those
he or she has to "thank". But particularly in The Rising Years,
whatever flow exists in the prose is interrupted by Fleming's attempt to add
just one more name to the roster.
Donald Fleming, throughout his public life,
was an honest, fair and hardworking public servant. In describing himself he
comments in Volume One, I had always avoided alcohol in any form, tobacco, tea,
coffee. I was careful of what I ate, both in quality and quantity. I walked
when I was not obliged by time or distance to ride. I daily practised the
calisthenics that I had learned as a boy at the YMCA in Galt." As
admirable and laudable as these character traits may be, they do not lend
themselves to an exciting autobiography.
When telling stories about themselves, many
statesmen have used, to advantage, a self depreciating sense of humour. Humour
in any form would be a welcome addition to these one thousand three hundred and
Most political memoirs in Canada sell on the
basis of the stature of the author rather than the lucidity of the prose or their
great historical insight. Nevertheless the dry prose and questionable content
of these Memoirs may well diminish the wide readership that would have been
expected from a politician with the once strong following of Donald Fleming.
Michael Ferr, Ottawa