Shavian success

Never take seriously what a theatre critic says. That's never been more true than it is about The Philanderer, now playing at the Shaw Festival. Robert Cushman of the National Post tells chapter and verse about the plot but never quite gets around to saying whether he likes the play or not. At one point he even says he's going to plagiarize himself from a 2007 review by joking he "would never have joined any club that would have me as a mentor." Of course, Cushman is also sampling Groucho Marx, not just himself. 

Globe and Mail critic J. Kelly Nestruck's review calls the play "so-so" with only Richard Ouzounian of the Star giving the play four stars out of four. Shaw had a jaundiced view of critics. In The Philanderer, Shaw puts these words in the mouth of Leonard Charteris (ably played by Gord Rand), "He's a dramatic critic. Didn't you hear me say that he was the leading representative of manly sentiment in London?" Replies Julia Craven (Moya O'Connell), "You don't say so. Now really, who'd have thought it! How jolly it must be to be able to go to the theatre for nothing!" 

My daughter and I headed for The Philanderer worried that the critics were right. They weren't. The nine-member cast was superb, the staging excellent, and the repartee and wordplay were marvelous, just as you might expect from Shaw, who also said, "Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance."

Make mine sugar-free

My problem with Sugar Beach is not the three dozen pink umbrellas that cost $11,000 each or the $500,000 spent on decorative rocks. No, my problem is that you feel like an idiot sitting in one of those white Muskoka chairs with nothing much to do and even less to look at.

Mind you, I'm fair-skinned so sun tanning is taboo, but what kind of a beach has no access to nearby Lake Ontario for wading or swimming? Moreover, since there's no place to walk, there's no way to admire bikinis going by, either.

Depending how early you arrive, your view is most likely to be to the west, directly into the Redpath Sugar refinery and the pier where ocean-going ships deliver raw cane. As for the smell of production, let's call it sickly sweet with a touch of sewage. And at sunset, your view is blocked so you can't watch the sun slipping into the water while someone plays Amazing Grace on the kazoo.

Sugar Beach is nothing more than a 2-acre sandbox. Just another dud destination on Toronto's wasteland waterfront.


Consider the alternative

A while back, when Kentucky Fried Chicken updated its logo and began calling itself KFC, they also altered the presentation of founder Colonel Harland Sanders. He now wears a chef's apron and, I swear, looks younger than he used to.

Or maybe it's because I'm getting older. I recently celebrated my 70th birthday so I've now had my biblical three score and ten. I know I'm no spring chicken, but I don't feel 70, either. Until some young man in his early 20s offers me his seat on the subway. I always accept. Might as well enjoy the fruits of my years because I can't say I've become any wiser with the passage of time. But I can still walk for miles, do my daily yoga and continue to get up at 4 a.m. to write my books as I've done for the last thirty years.

A few things, however, have changed. I cry at movies. I no longer read stories about the sudden death of a child; I've had enough heartbreak of that sort. I'll give a book 50 pages and if it doesn't grab me I'll start another. 

Meanwhile, let others worry about aging. No hair dye for me. Unlike George Burns, I buy green bananas. I could die in twenty hours or live another twenty years. Not knowing which outcome will prevail adds a certain frisson to your life and reminds you to enjoy every day to the full. Which I do. 



Right time, right place, good luck

Donald J. Savoie has written an excellent book about an entrepreneur who deserves to be celebrated. The book, Harrison McCain: Single-Minded Purpose (McGill-Queen's), tells how Harrison and his brother Wallace, built McCain Foods from a rural startup in backwater New Brunswick to a global powerhouse that makes and sells one-third of all the french fries in the world. "One world, one fry," was the company motto. From a profit of $1,822 in its first year of operation in the 1950s, McCain Foods has annual revenues of more than $6 billion today.

Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at l'Université de Moncton, was a long-time friend of Harrison McCain who died in 2004. Savoie declares his involvement up front in an almost apologetic fashion, but in fact, the relationship is a strength. No one else could have seen as deep inside McCain as Savoie. He vividly relates the beginnings of the empire and the government mindset of the day when grants and loans were first becoming available in helpful amounts.

Throughout, McCain is portrayed as unstoppable, focussed on helping his community of Florenceville, New Brunswick, and a visionary with a self-effacing manner. When asked the reasons for his success, he always said, "Right time, right place, good luck."

Only in the middle of the book, when describing expansion to various countries, does the story drag. As long as Harrison McCain is on the page, his impatience, focus and folksiness keeps your interest. Drawing on Harrison's personal papers, Savoie adds new details to the family feud that eventually drove Wallace away from the business. But to my mind, the best comes at the end when Savoie tells stories about Harrison's interest in public policy, his genuine love of farming and farmers, and his integrity. At one point, for example, an employee trademarks the name 5 Alive to stop a U.S. competitor from bringing the drink to Canada. When Harrison learns of the dodge, he orders that the name be sold back to the U.S. company for one dollar. "We are not goddamn crooks," he said. "This is not the way for us to do business."

Savoie concludes it is unlikely another Harrison McCain will rise from rural Canada. The focus is all on big cities now and governments are unlikely to help a little guy from nowhere. Too bad. We need more Harrison McCains in this country. 

Borderline personality

I have a confession to make. When I was bureau chief (and all the Indians) for The Financial Post in Washington, D.C. from 1989-93, there were occasions when I would make news happen. Here's how it would work. If by 11 a.m. I couldn't see an obvious story that would interest my editors, I'd phone around. There were three sure-fire calls. One was a guy I knew at a U.S. organization that had a long-standing trade fight with Canada. I won't name him. It's OK to embarrass myself, but I'm not going to snitch on someone else.

I'd ask him if there were anything happening on his file and, sensing my need for something to be happening, he'd come up with a poll that was about to go into the field or a hearing some no-name member of congress was thinking about considering, and pretty soon I'd have a trade story concerning a pox on Canadian exports to the U.S. that I knew my editors would like.

If he wasn't available, there was aways Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) who was forever trying to slap duties on Canadian wheat or lumber or anything else that moved from north-to-south. Canada's former Ambassador to the U.S. Derek Burney used to kid Baucus that he appeared on CBC-TV 's The National more often than some Canadian cabinet ministers. If Baucus's staff weren't cooperative there was always Byron Dorgan, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from North Dakota whose particular problem with Canada was the quality (or lack thereof in his mind) of meat coming across the border.

You get the idea. These were all serious trade issues but readers might not have read about them quite as often as they did if people like me didn't get in there and stir the pot. I got thinking about all this when I read a story in the Globe and Mail this morning about long-simmering Canada-U.S. issues such as Keystone, the Windsor-Detroit bridge, and Buy American legislation. Maybe if journalists would stop hyping these topics, some so-called irritants might go away or even get solved. Or would such behaviour be too much to ask?