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

by Christina McCall; Stephen Clarkson, ed.

The most touching parts of My Life As a Dame, a collection of punditry and feature writing from journalist Christina McCall, who died in 2005, are the brief but heartfelt introductions to each chapter penned by the book’s editor, McCall’s husband and frequent collaborator, Stephen Clarkson. They read like love letters to McCall as both a person and a writer.

These notes add a nice personal touch to what is already a very readable collection. The collected articles, taken primarily from McCall’s long career writing for Saturday Night, Maclean’s, Chatelaine, and The Globe and Mail, include stories about the struggles of the feminist movement, profiles of notable Canadians from all walks of life, and the lifeblood of general-interest magazines – dubious trend pieces. The most amusing of these is a 1972 Maclean’s article entitled “The New Machismo,” in which McCall declares that the new macho costume includes “brigade boots, wristwatches with big wide black leather bands,” and “a safari suit in khaki.”

The bulk of the book, not surprisingly, is dedicated to the political writing for which McCall is best known. Her 1990 book, Trudeau and Our Times, co-authored with Clarkson, won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction, and she is considered one of the foremost chroniclers of Trudeau’s reign. The writing here, some of which is nearly 40 years old, is as good as anything being produced in this country now, and better than most.

Indeed, it would be interesting to know what McCall would make of Canadian political journalism today. Based on the most scathing piece in My Life As a Dame – a takedown of Ron Graham, the journalist turned Jean Chretien ghostwriter, who, McCall contends, gained access and lost his way – she probably wouldn’t be impressed.

Some of the articles here seem to have been chosen to show just how prescient McCall was. There are a couple of older pieces about Alberta’s increasing power, the challenges facing Toronto, and even the shopping habits of the growing ranks of Canada’s nouveau riche. The most enjoyable stories, however, are those that seem more firmly rooted in a particular time and place. Long profiles of once-important political figures such as Trudeau adviser Jim Coutts and Mel Watkins, the founder of the Waffle Movement, are examples of fine reportage that also serve as useful reminders of a bygone era.