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Launching A Walrus

The walrus is an almost noble beast, and almost a grand one: slow-moving, seemingly reflective, unafraid and slightly cranky. As such, it’s pretty much as the ruling classes ought to be, and in Canada, often were until David Frum demonstrated that wealth and privilege is no longer incitement to moderation and civility.

That seems to be what Ken Alexander and David Berlin’s new magazine would like to be: moderate and civilized, but smarter than David Frum. Since The Walrus intends to pay its writers generously and promises to research its articles, it is something that hasn’t been seen in Canada since before Saturday Night fell into the penny-pinching ideological clutches of Conrad Black and his successors at the National Post. Hard not to like such a rare animal, and here’s hoping it survives long enough to become a modest cultural institution.

There is much in the magazine’s first issue that is good. Marci McDonald’s icily careful delineation of all the things about Prime Minister-to-be Paul Martin Jr. that should have Canadians scared shitless is first rate, as is Murielle Silcoff’s hilarious account of UNESCO’s designation of Tel Aviv as a World Heritage Site. Margaret Atwood’s review of three new books by Iranian women (backed up by an analysis of three backgrounders, is as quirkily insightful as we have a right to expect.

But it isn’t all good news. The other lead articles are disposable, and there’s far too much flaccid prose in the “insider” pieces. In one we have people standing in dugout canoes for four days on the Congo River, a trick that superman couldn’t perform, but does qualify as a feat of sloppy editing. Some of the other pieces in the section are better, but none are as sharp as they need to be.

Another raspberry goes to the magazine’s subscription department, which invites subscribers to write their visa card numbers and expiry dates on a postcard and mail it in. This is so stupid It made me wonder if the U.S. military isn’t running yet another intelligence test on unsuspecting Canadians. I suppose there’s some comfort in the thought that a few upper middle class boobs will be donating new stereos to enterprising postal workers, but along with the fact that most of the first issue went to Chapters/Indigo and that the independent booksellers had trouble getting hold of The Walrus, to sell, maybe a few heads ought to roll in the marketing department, which needs to be at least as innovative and unconventional as the magazine itself.

That said, I do like The Walrus, and wish it good luck in both the literal and cynical sense. I hope it gets sharper as it grows, and learns to gore a few of the country’s overly abundant sacred cows as its tusks grow, and truth be told, I can’t see much reason why it won’t. Beyond that I have just one other quibble, and along with it, a piece of advice: The quibble is that I was disappointed to see a somewhat used book review by Lewis Lapham signaling the intellectual peaks The Walrus aspires to. That leads to the advice: If we’re going to emulate an American magazine, can’t we for Christ’s sake make it The New Yorker, which has truly unpredictable politics, tighter editorial, and sharper prose.

November 6, 2003 500 words

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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