The Back Page

MY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION

It’s been a gift to be here—and I promise to keep trying to deserve it

PAUL WELLS December 29 2003
The Back Page

MY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION

It’s been a gift to be here—and I promise to keep trying to deserve it

PAUL WELLS December 29 2003

MY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION

The Back Page

It’s been a gift to be here—and I promise to keep trying to deserve it

PAUL WELLS

YOU'LL BE HAPPY to know I found some art.

I’d been filling this page for about five weeks when I wrote about my new home’s bare walls. The walls demanded paintings. The walls were picky about what they would accept. I dedicated a whole column to my adventures shopping for art.

Then after eight months prowling the best galleries in Charlottetown, Winnipeg and Calgary, I found a painting at a gallery four blocks from my house. It’s by a guy my age named Daniel Ross, and it shows a man standing in a snowy field, wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket. The walls love it.

The art column was a kind of experiment. But then this whole job is an experiment. That’s the fun.

This page belonged to Allan Fotheringham for a quarter-century. Generations grew up reading him. I sure did. For a year after Dr. Foth left, the back page had no permanent resident. In May, when it became necessary to quit my old job in a huff,

Tony Wilson-Smith offered to put me up.

It all happened rather suddenly. Perhaps the end of the year is a good time to pause, at last, and explain what I’m up to here. There can be no finer precinct for an opinion writer to hang out his shingle than the back page of Maclean’s. It offers complete freedom to pick my topic and my manner; a modest budget to get out of Ottawa and see the world; and—a sad rarity in today’s news business—a proprietor who cannot be suspected of trying to make his journalists write what he likes to read.

Best of all, it offers a big audience of real Canadians. We are very good, here in Ottawa, at talking to ourselves. But whenever I catch myself worrying what some deputy minister thinks, an e-mail from Surrey, B.C., or Moncton, N.B., arrives to remind me of what matters.

Maclean’s readers don’t want me to get too comfortable here. George F. Will once wrote that a columnist should be gifted at changing the subject; my most offbeat columns have been the ones that drew the loudest and, for the most part, most enthusiastic response.

More readers responded to my October complaint about bad service in shops and restaurants than to anything I have ever written. Dozens thanked me for defending the rights of the ill-served. Others, clearly harried waiters, were mad as hell. Still others wrote variations on, “Dear Mister Fancy Columnist: Don’t you have anything more important to write about?”

Actually, yes. But when I wrote about wars and budgets and elections and cabinet ministers, I never heard a word from these folks. I wanted to ask: don’t you have anything more important to complain about?

But it was no surprise that columns about ordinary life would draw the most response. There is more to life than committees and bills. Every time I remember that, I hear from lots of happy readers.

A few earnest types did write to ask why I’d write about Cuban jazz musicians or my university experiments with cheese in the microwave oven. But way more readers wrote to discuss those pieces than responded to any of my attempts to peer into the mind of Paul Martin.

Maybe I should just stop writing about politics? Sorry, I can’t. Especially because some of the columns that drew the heartiest response were the ones that dove right into complicated public-policy debates. In the spring I contrasted France’s failed attempts to modernize its public pensions with Canada’s much happier experience. Now, it’s really, really hard to be funny about pension reform. I wrote the column anyway. Months later, people still mention that column more often than a lot of lighter pieces.

A detailed discussion of Mayor Glen Murray’s “New Deal” for Winnipeg led to two weeks of thoughtful debate on my Weblog, www.macleans.ca/paulwells. (These days most of my writing goes straight to the Web site; go check it out if you haven’t yet.) Too much journalism these days is about who’s popular or who’s in trouble. Readers are grateful for any attempt to explain how we’re governed.

Time for New Year’s resolutions. First, no more columns about my column. This will be my last attempt to explain what’s going on here. The column has to speak for itself.

Second—well, normally I’d promise to diversify the portfolio, to write less about politics and more about everything else. But 2004 will be the wrong year for that. With general elections in Canada and the United States, I’ll be stuck on the campaign trail for much of the year. It’ll be a blast, actually.

I ran into Allan Fotheringham the other day. He still has that glint in his eye. It has been an amazing gift to move into a great magazine that has featured, at various points in its history, Dr. Foth and Peter C. Newman and Blair Fraser. I promise to keep trying to deserve it. Happy holidays. I?!

To comment: backpage@macleans.ca Read Paul Wells’s Weblog, “Inkless Wells,” at www.macleans.ca/paulwells