Sunday, 24 October 2004
Reading Rafe's reflections
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER - For over thirty years, in various positions in the public arena, Rafe Mair has been a noteworthy personality of some consequence in British Columbia and beyond. Mair's political career began on the Kamloops city council, followed by a run provincially in 1975, that won him a seat in the legislature, and appointments to various cabinet posts in Bill Bennett's Social Credit government until he left politics in 1981.
Rafe: A Memoir, a new book from Harbour Publishing, is Rafe Mair's latest tome, offering insights into his political career, as well as the successful career that he fashioned in broadcasting, first at CJOR, then CKNW, and now at CKBD 600 AM, where he broadcasts weekday mornings. The book also offers thoughtful essays that expand on the popular subjects that he editorialises about on his radio program. There are chapters that deal with Mair's interest in sport, as well as fishing, on being an environmentalist, and on upsetting the establishment apple cart.
The first three chapters ably provide background on Mair's early life, especially his formative years in the burgeoning metropolis that was Vancouver, as well as his career in law, and his first forays into political life. The section on Vancouver's past is particularly interesting, especially if you'd like a sense of what this city was then. Mair's description is far more animated than anything you'd read in a history text. If you've read any of Mair's previous books, chiefly his 1998 part-memoir, part-political prescription, Canada: Is Anyone Listening? then these early chapters may seem like old hat. They're re-crafted and there are additions that make it readable now, as well as less dull, where his previous book was obviously sanitised for central Canadian sensibilities.
The chapter entitled "The Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs," is an extensive narrative on Mair's time as a minister of what was the most junior of posts in Bennett's first cabinet in 1975. It's an exhaustive précis of Mair's accomplishments as minister, where he shepherded remarkable reforms and legislation modernising BC's liquor laws, as well as providing consumers with more protection. If you're looking for as an exhaustive a look at his time in the environment or health ministries, read his previous books, as this chapter was written at the suggestion of his former deputy minister Tex Enemark. Mair largely glossed over his time as booze minister in Canada: Is Anyone Listening?, and Rafe: A Memoir rectifies that. However, in so doing it's a rather long chapter, with little interest to except those studying consumer affairs in British Columbia during that era, or the specific reforms enacted by Mair. If you've got the time though, it's worth reading; Mair makes that kind of political discussion actually interesting, written in his inimitable and animated style.
The book is divided into 25 chapters of varying length, each devoted to a specific subject. They don't necessarily read as a flowing narrative, such as a chronological summary of his life and times. They're extended essays, peppered with context, and his experiences throughout. They're written in Mair's enviable and recognisable style, and because it seems to be in self-contained chapters, it makes for a good bathroom book. In reading Rafe's written word, you can nearly hear him, which is one of Mair's gifts as a communicator-the ability to write as one hears.
As always, Mair's first and foremost a performer, and the book is no different. There truly is something for everyone in Rafe: A Memoir. Even regular listeners to Mair's program will learn something new. Here, you'll have discussion of Mair's fumbling through the computer age, as well as talk about fishing, his interest in sport, as well as electoral reform for political junkies, and thought-provoking reflection on religion. Discussion of his battle with depression and diabetes is thoughtful and doubtless valuable to readers.
The discussion of Mair's environmentalism is convincing, despite the fact he has the reputation of being a free enterpriser. What's a little more challenging to pull off is that in his latter years, Mair considers himself a so-called "new socialist." You wouldn't think a guy who loathes the NDP, or who once supported the Reform Party, and was a Socred, could be a socialist, but he makes a persuasive case. Anyone listening to Mair's programming, especially his last year or so at 600 AM, can detect a shift in Mair's thinking. He was always an environmentalist, but thanks to his championing of the pacific salmon against fish farming, his activism has become more steadfast. He has pitted himself against the Campbell government's wanton disregard for the environment, and even his opposition to the war in Iraq has coincided with thinking that is more progressive. The new socialism that Mair espouses however, isn't congruent to that which the NDP or organised labour would champion. In fact, he champions socialism without the NDP or powerful unions.
Rafe: A Memoir is also awash with gossip and anecdotes from Mair's illustrious radio career. Mair doesn't dish about his ouster at CKNW, due to his release agreement, however he does lament the station's decline and the shabby way with which he was treated. He covers his years at the station with fondness and gives the reader some history of the station, something that is fitting, as for many in this part of the world, CKNW meant more than just a mere radio station. That, along with a reflective and poignant chapter entitled "Is That a Swan I Hear Singing?" is particularly insightful, thanks to his years of practice, but also with the legacy which he is so obviously entrusted. He warns that more and more, muckraking, investigative and indignant journalism has given way to safe, stilted and deferential broadcasting. Mair laments the loss of shit disturbers like Stevie Cameron and Jack Webster, not to mention Claire Hoy, and chastises the emergence of the styles associated with Peter Gzowski and Bill Good.
Good, his opposite number at CKNW, who took over Mair's time slot, is given a hard time in this book; as are former talkers like Barrie Clark and Gary Bannerman. Mair criticises Good for his style of interviewing, which he considers devoid of the necessary tenaciousness that he uses or that which Jack Webster was famous. Mair also writes that when he accepted the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award last fall, Good is reportedly said to have sat on his hands refusing to join in the standing ovation for Mair. Good is said to have declared that he worked with Mair for 15 years, and that he "didn't like him." (An e-mail to Good for his reaction to what was written about him in this book came back with the terse reply: "I have no comment on Mr. Mair or his book.")
Rafe: A Memoir is a diverse blend of Rafe Mair's thoughts and recollections and make for interesting as well as entertaining reading. It is a memoir infused with pathos and reflection on a storied career that has pulsated through this province and this country's political life. His warnings for the environment and in the necessity for a courageous and tenacious citizenry against the establishment are timely and pertinent. It is recommended for Mair's quintessential blend of bluster and pathos, ranting and reflection.
Rafe: A Memoir by Rafe Mair is published by Harbour Publishing (ISBN: 1550173197), and sells for $34.95.
thecommentary.ca's Joseph Planta will interview Rafe Mair on Monday. Go to the On the Line page for that.
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