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Michael Ferr

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 thirty-five pages.

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

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 8 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-03-03