Suanne Kelman reviews a new biography about Peter Gzowski by R.B. Fleming that explores the off-air life of a talented and intelligent radio journalist – one you’d probably prefer never to have met.
In Elizabeth Hay’s novel Late Nights on Air, a veteran radio broadcaster falls in love with a woman’s voice on the radio. He rushes to the studio and finds a tall, big-boned brunette when he expected a slight, short blonde. Nonetheless, he stays in love.
There will be a large audience for R.B. Fleming’s Peter Gzowski: A Biography, most of them fans of the Peter Gzowski of This Country in the Morning and especially Morningside. They may not find him here. Many Gzowski fans still expect that tiny blonde – in this case, the warm, empathetic voice they heard for so many years on CBC radio. Let’s call that Gzowski Uncle Canada – and let’s hope their love will survive this book.
Now, plenty of writing has already been devoted to the abyss that separated Gzowski off-air from good old Uncle Canada: his drinking, his insecurities, his anti-social moroseness, his killer competitiveness. But this is the first full-length biography. While no one could call it a simple hatchet job, the man that emerges from its pages is an intelligent and talented journalist – but one you’d probably prefer never to meet.
Until the final chapter, that is not a serious problem. In real life, Gzowski could indeed be mean and exploitive. Many Canadians already know that the man who sounded so warm on air could not look his guests in the eye. He drank too much and smoked his way to death. His non-fiction writing, especially when it concerned himself, often skated far from the facts. He was, like many white men of his generation, sexist, acutely uncomfortable with homosexuality and generally unaware of his own privileged position. He was a thoughtlessly negligent husband and father.
Now, perhaps somewhere in Canada (the real one or Morningside’s caring, reasonable and largely imaginary one) there still lives a maiden aunt too sheltered to take this in her stride. But I doubt it. And I would say, from my own very limited acquaintance, that at times Gzowski was generous and warm even without a microphone.
But Fleming does have one devastating revelation, which he saves until the final chapter, Epilogue: A Secret Long Guarded. In the course of his research – which appears to have been almost excessively tireless – he discovered that Gzowski fathered a son whom he never acknowledged publicly in any way.
That chapter has a narrative wallop wholly different from the rest of the book, which often suffers from a surfeit of guest lists and swathes of plodding amateur psychoanalysis. Its strength lies less in the scandal than in its largely one-sided love story. The child’s mother, Cathy Perkins, behaved with a self-sacrifice and restraint that are deeply moving. To avoid disturbing Gzowski or his then-wife, Perkins took herself off to England, registered her son’s father as “unknown” and returned quietly to Canada to raise him herself, with the irregular help of outrageously meagre child support. Rob Perkins did not learn who his father was until he was 11, and he apparently kept the secret even when he met some of his half-siblings. It is a great story that would, without Fleming’s research, have remained untold.
That epilogue casts a new light on the pages that precede it. These have enormous value as history, especially of Canadian journalism. If you loved CBC Radio (or worked there), this is a most welcome saunter down memory lane. There are many tiny gems, my favourite being a poem submitted to Maclean’s in 1960 from Baie-Comeau by one M. Brian Mulroney: “I think that I shall never see/ A sadder sight than my MP.”
But they don’t have much narrative force. Fleming tends to worry Gzowski’s flaws for microscopic shreds of meat: The evidence that the man’s mother was unfaithful, to choose one example, seems to me unconvincing tittle-tattle. Fleming himself displays some of the flaws he deplores in Gzowski’s writing. As has been mentioned, there are lists of guests that would be of interest only if you’d heard the original radio show or produced it. Some readers will tire of Fleming’s search for Gzowski’s Rosebud: Did he drink so much and behave so badly because his mother died when he was a teenager? Because he came from a decayed aristocratic family? Because of his adolescent acne and its scars?
That’s the irony here. Several quotations in the book laud Gzowski, correctly, for working obsessively to sound spontaneous and effortless on air. But you can see Fleming trying all the time, sometimes too hard. To take just one example, it is an impossible stretch to see Stuart McLean – that lean and abstemious workaholic – as Gzowski’s Falstaff. Tom Sawyer to Gzowski’s Huck Finn would work better; every week, McLean offered Morningside‘s host the chance to be a little boy again. (But let’s be clear: The two giggling Peter Pans were performing carefully crafted scripts.)
The story of Gzowski’s secret son will hog most of the attention this biography receives, and that’s a shame. The enduring value of Fleming’s book is the saga of a very imperfect man who told stories, and a reminder of just how magical radio can be when its creators are willing to slave in the service of work that serves and unites its community by entertaining it.
Suanne Kelman was interviewed by Peter Gzowski three times on Morningside; he never once made eye contact. She is the interim chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. This story was originally published by the Globe and Mail.
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