Allan Fotheringham

Presented by Helle Kraav to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
April 9, 2019

Allan Fotheringham or Dr. Foth as he is also known is a Canadian newspaper columnist and magazine journalist who at 86 has pretty much disappeared from the pages of magazines, newspapers and bookstands. He is the father of “Fothisms” such as The Natural Governing Party, The Holy Mother Corp., Pierre Elliott Himself and The Excited States of America among others, the author of 9 books and for 27 years writer of a back page column in Maclean’s magazine. He wrote about local, national and international politics, travel, sports and anything else that took his fancy. He was at his best though, in my opinion, when he wrote about Canada and politics. In his prime, he was funny, sarcastic, ironic and spared no one, pricking many an ego and pretension.

In my adult life, I have been fascinated by politics and politicians probably because the consequences of their actions have played such a large part in my family’s life. In politics humour, irony and sarcasm are inevitable, intentionally or totally by serendipity. Kingdoms and rulers have fallen when people began to laugh at rather than fear their leaders. We lived in Montreal from 1970 to 1996 through the October crisis, the kidnappings of James Cross and Pierre LaPorte, the subsequent murder of M. Laporte, the implementation of the War Measures Act, various French Language Bills, the referendums of 1980 and ’95, and all the political scandals and circuses. When I read Allan Fothergham during those years, he wrote about what was happening around me daily. He made me laugh out loud, nod my head and sometimes wonder whether to laugh or cry. Those were different times, for both journalists and politicians, harder drinking times, coarser of language, sexist, and much rougher as to what was printed but I think perhaps in some ways more honest times. The gentle, equal, genderless and inclusive society we strive for today was but a faint shadow on the horizon. As we now have an offspring of P.E. Himself installed in Ottawa, I thought it was time to reexamine the writings of a man who in his prime was called by Time magazine “Canada’s most consistently controversial newspaper columnist… a tangier critic of complacency has rarely appeared in a Canadian newspaper.”

In 1968 Pierre Elliott Trudeau became Prime Minister and Allan got his own column at the Vancouver Sun. The Sun columns and commentaries brought him national attention, a wider syndication and a broader subject base, resulting in Peter Newman of Maclean’s magazine offering Allan a job in Ottawa in 1975. For family reasons Allan refused and wrote the column from Vancouver. The 1st one appeared in the Oct. 6, 1975 issue on the back page making Allan’s reputation and supposedly making Maclean’s “a magazine people read from back to front.” It is titled, “That Trudeau’s Such a Lovely Guy, So Loyal to Those Who Work for Him.” It begins, “The British have a lovely word called nouse. Nouse means intelligence combined with common sense. Horse sense. It is useless having a burnished intellect that sends out its own pure beam of light if there is no sense attached to it at the lower end. The lack of nouse is the outstanding feature of the Trudeau government. People with nouse do not grant themselves 33 1/2 percent pay increases while attempting to exhort the grubby unwashed to a policy of restraint. People with nouse do not slip back into arrogance, with the ease of pulling on fireplace slippers, as soon as they achieve majority government once again…” Allan moved east in 1980 and in 1983 Malice in Blunderland or How the Grits Stole Christmas was published, an exquisite dissection of the Liberal Party and its Ministers and minions. This, along with 1984’s Look Ma… No Hands, the same on Conservatives, and 1999’s Last Page First, a selection of Maclean’s columns are, in my opinion, his best books because he was writing about the people I read about daily.

A certain aspect or weakness in Allan’s writing becomes more and more evident as time passes. Allan himself has written in an introduction, “Some faint traces of outraged thought may be recognized from previous angry periods in both newspaper and magazine scribblings, but no one should be alarmed. Exquisite assessments are too precious to throw away… and deserve a second glance…” More and more “exquisite assessments” are repeated verbatim or in edited form in his books and articles. For example, his first Maclean’s column was repeated in Malice in Blunderland, in Last Page First and also in Boy from Nowhere. There is a limit to how many times these “exquisite assessments” can be reread without losing their impact even for the most loyal reader. It’s sad to watch when an author falls victim to his own prose and unfair to the reader.

A medical emergency in 2007 resulted in a 2 ½ year hiatus from writing and his final book, the 2011 autobiography Boy from Nowhere – A Life in Ninety-One Countries was born of that near-death experience. Since it is a summary of his almost six-decade career, there are in it a lot of “exquisite assessments” again and sadly none of the sardonic wit nor striking metaphors that characterized Allan’s writing in his prime. To quote Ken McQueen’s review, “Foth is a storyteller, a dancer, a lover of women. He lunches well, dines better, and remembers every detail.” Allan himself writes, “Life is a collection of memories. They pile up, connect together, disconnect and make in a scrambly way, what life is all about.” This is true, but the examination of Allan’s life is best left to a biographer.

Today, more than ever, we could use more humour, sarcasm and irony to keep politicians and people in the public eye on their toes. We are forgetting how to laugh at ourselves and our foibles, we take ourselves too seriously, we are too intent on not stepping on anyone’s toes. A lot is written which no one dares to challenge for fear of ending up being accused of heaven knows what. Allan, we miss you!