Paying homage to a best friend

Barbara Amiel May 25 1987

Paying homage to a best friend

Barbara Amiel May 25 1987

Paying homage to a best friend


Barbara Amiel

I married George Jonas one Friday afternoon in October, 1974. There were only six people present, but Ontario Premier William Davis’s office sent us flowers because I was writing a profile of him. The blood-red roses were handed to me by Rabbi Gunther Plaut after the ceremony, and I swelled with excitement. Those roses augured recognition and acceptance. A friend lent us his house for a small celebration, and I was very proud that Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford and his wife came.

Jonas and I had no grand design, only a need to write. Gradually we came to be perceived as “neoconservative” writers, and later on we were branded as even extreme right-wing by the mainstream media that remain almost universally left-of-centre in its leanings. We did begin to see ourselves, I think, as slightly beleaguered, although I was probably more sensitive to this than Jonas. It disturbed me that we were never asked to contribute even guest columns to mainstream newspapers like The Globe and Mail or The Toronto Star, even as they were bringing more and more left-wing columnists on board.

It irritated me that Jonas would never be called to comment on Eastern European affairs or that the news and current affairs programs of the CBC and CTV would not ask either of us to appear as panelists interviewing politicians. We were game-show guests or interviewees; we were treated warmly by the folk in daytime programming or private radio. At the time of the 20th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution in 1976, Hungarian-born Jonas was on staff at the CBC. But the corporation flew a British Broadcasting Corp. producer to Canada to handle the CBC’s coverage of the occasion. It was Robert Fulford who quoted Jonas saying that experience was a qualification for speaking on every subject— except communism, where those who had actually lived under it were disqualified on grounds of “prejudice.”

Now I can look back on those days with some perspective. In the broadest sense we can only be grateful for the opportunities Canada gave us. Jonas can write his own ticket when it comes to getting a contract from a book publisher—not to mention what are among the highest advances in Canada. For my part, it was Maclean’s Peter Newman who gave me my start

when he decided to risk a column by me. How many journalists of any persuasion get such an opportunity?

As for the limitations on our access to the popular media, which continue to this day, well, this is in essence a social democratic country and we remain outside the mainstream. Fair enough. The CBC and the Globe will never court either of us. But I tell you, I think in all the years of writing, reading and travelling, I never met as fine a mind as that of Jonas. We were together for seven years, then divorced, but my estimation of him has never wavered. One Canadian writer, I forget whom, said in a book that I had “the finest secondhand mind” in Canada, referring to the influence on me of George Jonas. Perhaps the remark was meant to hurt, but it didn’t.

All this came to mind when last week Jonas handed me a copy of his new paperback book with the absurd title Croc-

We were branded as extreme right-wing bg mainstream media that remain almost universallg leñ-ofcentre

odiles in the Bathtub. As I began to read it, the past and the present tumbled together with astonishing resonance. We tried to move mountains as journalists and sometimes I thought we were only burying ourselves, but I was wrong. Jonas may not have rearranged Canada’s mental Rockies, but he has charted them in a unique way. The columns in his book span the 10 years from 1977 till the present and include work from Toronto Life, The Toronto Sun and Canadian Lawyer. Together they make up a stunning record of the absurdities of our times, and I think they document an alternative view of Canadian society.

Jonas is an old-fashioned dyed-inthe-wool liberal. His ideas are a synthesis of thinkers from Montesquieu to James Madison. He writes that every individual should be “free to speak, worship and trade according to his own lights and standards. . . .The only thing in this liberal world that an individual would not be free to do would be to rob, kill, cheat or enslave others, or to force them to act against their individual conscience and will.” Jonas is

concerned with equity rather than egalitarianism, with liberty rather than parity. He takes on every sacred cow grazing on the uncultivated Canadian landscape of ideas.

For myself, it is Jonas’s assessment of contemporary institutions that find so revealing. The imaginary dialogue Jonas creates, for instance, to illustrate the absurdities of Canada’s feminist no-fault divorce and community property laws is both hilarious and terrifying:

She: “Oh, and another thing, Harry, the kids and I are leaving on Saturday for good. ”

He: “Well, that’s a pity, Susan. ”

She: “I know. Don’t think I haven't agonized over it. I’ve hardly slept a wink for weeks. But we have to be honest. John is much better in bed than you. ”

He: “Yes, well, he might be a bit stronger in that department. ”

She: “I take it we’ll be totally civilized about the whole thing?”

He: “We hardly have any other choice, I guess. (With a laugh) I mean, I can’t very well start acting like a Neanderthal and shoot you or something. ” She: “Right. Now you agree the children are better off with me. ”

He: “Well, frankly, yes. ”

She: “It goes without saying you can visit them as often as you like. . . . John's too busy for that sort of thing anyway. ”

He: “He's a .. . student, I

understand. "

She: “Yes. Now, as far as the family assets, we just split everything fifty-fifty. Fair enough? ”

He: “Sounds fair. ”

She: “Trouble is, we have only two family assets, the house and your salary. We can't split the house because I need it for the kids. ”

He: “Of course not. ”

She: “So for the time being we 'll split your salary fifty-fifty. . . . Reasonable? Well, that settles everything. Actually, it may be simpler if you move on Saturday. Take all of your clothes and I’ll give you some of the dishes. ”

Oh, Canada! What monstrous ideas we have legislated in the name of progressivism. Thank God we have one writer who can see them so clearly. And thank God that unlike Barbra Streisand, who wept over the phone to Robert Redford in The Way We Were that her divorce meant she had lost her best friend, I managed to keep mine.