Fotheringham’s Fictionary of Facts and Follies

By Allan Fotheringham

The first thing you have to know about Allan Fotheringham is that he is a great recycler. He does not write “new” books. The Fictionary is a collection of pieces cribbed from columns he has written over the years, most of them appearing on the back page of Maclean’s magazine (hence the title of his last anthology, Last Page First).

As a result, and despite the attempt to get all the verbs in their proper tense, a lot of the Fictionary is old news. The recycled feeling is especially strong when we come to yesterday’s politicians. Under the heading “Respect” John Crosbie is quoted as saying that former politicians don’t get any. But is it any wonder? Who remembers Sharon Carstairs today? Mitchell Sharp? Jimmy Coutts?

The second thing to keep in mind when reading Fotheringham is that he is a Canadian journalist who likes to take care of his own. Reading the Fictionary, one starts to wonder if the Foth has ever met a journalist he didn’t like. Indeed, one wonders if he ever met a journalist he didn’t adore.

The Fictionary is filled with glowing tributes to members of the Club. Peter Newman? “The man changed the face of political reporting in this country.” Robert Fulford? “The reigning intellectual in Canadian journalism.” Barbara Frum? “A national treasure.” Peter Gzowski? “A great treasure.” Larry Zolf? “An icon.”

The value of these dubious assessments is compromised by the chummy context. Newman, after all, made the “most inspired positioning ever in Canadian journalism” by giving Fotheringham the last page of Maclean’s. And Joe Schlesinger (“a mind so swift he can’t stand those who can’t keep up”) stuffed the ballot box to ensure his pal would become editor of the University of British Columbia’s student newspaper.

Thanks Pete. Thanks Joe. Back at ya.

Is it any wonder the one negative comment Fotheringham does make about journalists is that there are getting to be too many of them? The Club is getting crowded. How is a promising young reporter supposed to get ahead?

The answer to that can be found under “Sawatsky, John.” In short, you approach an established member of the Club and offer yourself as their apprentice. “I don’t expect any money,” you say. “I just want to do it for the experience, for what I can learn from you.” Such an approach is guaranteed to melt the heart of even the most cynical hack. From here it’s a short step to being “generally considered the best investigative journalist in Canada.”

Despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, Fotheringham is not a very harsh critic. He really is in love with Canada (except Ottawa) and Canadians (especially journalists). Even Peter Jennings, the prissiest of all the American network anchors, is called a reporter. He is, after all, one of us. The only truly hostile character sketches to appear in the book are of Americans: Roy Cohn, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon. These are bad people. Canada has nothing like them.

Fictionary is warm, familiar stuff. The dictionary form makes for a handy reference, and is perfectly suited to Fotheringham’s penchant for coming up with alternative names for public figures and institutions, like the Gliberals (or Natural Governing Party), the Regressive Convertibles, and the Few Democrats. The best observations in it are borrowed, but that is to be expected from a raconteur recycler. While he may not be a national treasure or an icon, the Foth is still a genial guide to the follies of our native land.

Review first published December 1, 2001.


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