My rating: 8.5/10.
Here’s another well-read paperback from my late father’s bookshelves, boxed up and brought home six years ago as my just-widowed, elderly mother was preparing to downsize from a huge, rambling three-story house to a much smaller bungalow. Both homes, incidentally, were built in their entirety by my father, who was a foundation-to-roof master carpenter, among his other jack-of-all-trades and master-of-many accomplishments and interests.
One of his interests was books. Dad did love to read, and I like to think that this collection of mostly humorous, often over-the-top satirical, sometimes sincerely thoughtful short essays made him smile as they did me when I finally read this briskly paced book over the course of this potentially dreary day spent recovering from a brief bout with the latest flu bug.
Being a random collection of satirical essays, rude remarks, used anecdotes, thumbnail sketches, ancient wheezes, old nostalgias, wry comments, limp doggerel, intemperate recipes, vagrant opinions and crude drawings …
So says the front page, and it describes the ensuing contents well. Most of these short pieces appeared as columns in the Toronto Daily Star in the 1950s, and they are definitely indicative of the time in which they were written. As a cynically humorous portrait of the era, this book is an excellent little period piece, but it’s an enjoyable read even for those of us not familiar at first hand with the context of some of the references. Berton’s opinionated prose is seldom dull, and the shortness of each entry makes it good for dip-into reading as well. I read the whole thing in one go, and that likely wasn’t such a great idea, as I’m now feeling a bit light-headed, but I’ll blame that on my current bug as much as on the flippant nature of my reading matter.
The book is arranged into groupings of similarly themed articles and essays. These can be read in order, or sampled at will.
Five Modern Fables ~ Pure over-the-top satire starts us off. Berton skewers modern advertising techniques and ploys in his first three fables, lampoons the vicious cycle of competitive Christmas card lists, and ends with a cautionary tale about not heeding the omens and building too close to the volcano.
Seven Men and a Girl ~ Brief character portraits of eight people Berton met and interviewed: Ex-convict John Brown, pianist Glenn Gould, aviator Russ Baker, evangelist-turned-politician Charles Templeton, Canadian Communist Joe Salsberg, poet and writer Robert Service, entertainer Milton Berle, and call girl Jacqueline (no last name given).
The Wayward Periodical Press ~ “Six periodical publications deserving of comment” – Vogue, Time, Mayfair, Playboy (and the rest of the Bosom Books), Mad, and Justice. What an interesting combination of companions these are. Vogue is, well, Vogue, and it apparently hasn’t changed much at all.
My favourite magazine, next to Screen Stars and Mad, is Vogue. The day it appears, I rush eagerly to the newsstand and, with the help of a couple of weightlifters, lug it off to my den. For sheer escape reading it beats the old Blue Fairy Book hollow. It chronicles a world so foreign and unreal that I would not believe it existed, if there weren’t photographs to prove it.
The women who grace Vogue’s pages are like no women I have ever known. I have tried to sketch one or two of them here, but my brush does not do them justice for their absolute and utter sexlessness defies reproduction. If they came from a far corner of the solar system they could not be more different than the blousy creatures one finds romping through Esquire and Playboy.
Am I all wet in my theory that a bosom craze is sweeping the country? In Vogue, there isn’t a bosom in a carload. These women are all eyes and cheekbones, and they do something with their necks that I haven’t seen since Leona, the Giraffe Girl, went into retirement.
At the end of the neck one finds a face that has overtones of Buchenwald about it – chalk-white and haggard, Vogue women do not have noses, only nostrils. Their eyes are enormous and decadent, their lips are thin and solemn. Their hair is always quite odd. They are shown thrust forward in inscrutable positions that suggest some curious doe-like animal at feeding time.
Time sets off a passionate diatribe in defense of Canadian content in “Canadian” versions of American magazines; Mayfair is a “high society” periodical seething with anachronistic class consciousness. Playboy and the rest of the “men’s magazines” are investigated as to the number and degrees of exposure of female body parts posed artistically for masculine delectation; Berton claims to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
The Cult of the Bosom has now reached its zenith in this continent, as a glance at any newsstand will show. In the seventeen magazines I examined, there were 503 photographs of well-endowed young women displaying their endowments.
In 125 of these photographs, many of them in glowing colour, the young ladies’ torsos were entirely exposed. In the remaining 378 photographs there was a certain roguish attempt at concealment.
I did not bother to count any photographs of women dressed for the street, because there were so few.
I did not bother to count any photographs of flat-chested young women, because here were none.
I did, however, make a count of the numbers of photographs of women with no pants on. There were sixty of them.
Mad magazine receives an enthusiastic nod of approval, for the “sophistication of the humour”, while Justice, an arcane periodical dedicated to the practices of sadomasochism and corporal “discipline”, garners strong words of scorn.
The Broadcasting Arts ~ Television and radio – including the already-venerable C.B.C. – come in for their turn in Berton’s critical spotlight.
Verse, Blank and Otherwise ~ Several parodies in verse of current events of the time. The Sixty-Five Days of Christmas struck a modern chord, though nowadays it would need to be retitled The Ninety Days of Christmas to approach a closer accuracy!
Christmas began last Tuesday Just three days after Hallowe’en, By which time the big emporiums, Having disposed of the comic ghosts and candy pumpkins And having burned all the second-hand witches, Replaced them with more seasonal symbols: A reindeer with a crimson nose, A talking snowman and a terribly cute bear, Fifty-seven varieties of Santa Claus, And here and there, an inconspicuous plastic replica of the Christ-child, Entirely non-denominational.
Intemperate Recipes ~ A plea for a return to real cooking versus the pre-packaged growing norm in the titular Just Add Water and Stir, and a heartfelt rant against instant coffee, obviously a newly popular abomination in Berton’s world. Plus four quite decent-sounding recipes – or, more accurately, anecdotal instruction pieces on how to best prepare these Berton standbys - Tomato Soup, Baked Beans, Corned Beef Hash, and Clam Chowder. Pierre Berton in the kitchen – what a grand thought!
The Passing Show ~ A satire from the viewpoint of the future, and musings on the status significance of offices and office furnishing, smoking, and divorce. Shopping for a Coffin is thought-provoking and quite serious, while Several Openings for Novels will make the aspiring writer nod in rueful recognition. A few more observations – paying to be published, the confusion of children’s toy assembly instructions, and a modern Red Riding Hood round out this section.
Certain Vagrant Opinions ~ Full rant mode! On Dick and Jane (Berton is against), On Advertising and the Press, On Racial Origins (none of the government’s business), On Thought Control (shades of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four), and most passionately, On Flags and Anthem and On Modern Torture (prison reform), which is the most serious piece of the lot, and describes an execution by hanging which Berton was assigned to attend as a young reporter.
Some Old Nostalgias ~ Memoirs, 1927 to 1941, of Berton’s earlier days. Fascinating and charmingly written.