A nerd from a young age, I began reading adult magazines in grade 6 or 7. No, not that kind of "adult" (though I admit I'd sneak peeks at my big brother's collection of smut when I got the chance), but the kind of magazines that grown-ups read.
While I was still buying up the latest adventures of The Batman or the Justice Society of America, I was also buying (or stealing - but never mind that; my early life as a petty thief is a story for another day) such magazines as Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, the late, not-so-lamented
Omni Magazine and other periodicals of either a scientific or science-fictional bent.
Taking a quick look at my shelf, I can confirm that I had broadened my intellectual range by the time I was 16 - the earliest issue of Harper's I have is the August 1981.
You may note that none of the magazines I've mentioned were Canadian. I would occasionally pick up an issue of Saturday Night, or This Magazine, but could never bring myself to buy them regularly; simply put, their quality was no match for their American equivalents and my meagre
resources would not stretch so far as to support my nationalistic tendencies. Besides, if the product's not that good, why buy it? I suppose I was already a free-trader at heart, in some ways (as I remain now: in some ways).
But it is Harper's that in many ways brings me to the topic at hand - a new, Canadian, magazine that is not a "lad's" mag, a women's magazine like Elm Street, or a wannabe New Yorker crossed with Esquire like the execrable Toronto Life. Rather, this new publication aims squarely at the small field dominated in North America by such magazines as the
aforementioned Harper's, The New Yorker, as well as The Atlantic and a precious few others.
And so, The Walrus, a name that will either create its own cachet or be perceived after-the-fact as emblematic of the publication's failure, should that be its fate.
The Walrus is consciously modelled on Harper's, up to the fact that it is owned by a non-profit foundation that promises sufficient resources to publish it for 5 years, paying word-rates unheard of in Canada; that Harper's editor Lewis Lapham was consulted about setting it up; and that he is one of the authors in the inaugural issue.
And what of the first issue? Does it live up to pre-publication hype, or to its editorial's claim to be a non-partisan magazine dedicated to contributing, "... real narratives to the public discourse," one that will help, "... to create a better-informed public and a larger cadre of writers and public intellectuals"?
At worst, The Walrus shows a great deal of potential. The first issue suffers from a lack of focus and from a few too many lightweight articles. That said, for a first issue, it is very good indeed.
The opening section, "The Observatory", is a series of short pieces - the Soviet-style "solution" to the problem of thousands of homeless children in Moscow; the lack of awareness of the European Union's draft constitution among the chattering classes in London's Islington district; a look at the political situation in Jordan; ethnic tensions in Croatia; John Geiger's adventures purchasing a walrus penis in Cape Dorset; the return of a scientist studying Bonobo Chimpanzees in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and a look at the upcoming Gubernatorial recall/election in California. All of these pieces are readable and mildly engaging; none of them are especially memorable. The section also suffers from marginal factoids that are mostly pointless and entirely irritating, as the reader (or this one, at least) found himself checking them twice, lest he missed one while trying to pay attention to the main article.
"The Observatory" is followed by a two-page chart providing a brief history of IQ tests (did you know that the Chan emperor in China used intelligence tests to award political positions in 1115 BCE? Neither did I). This looks as if it will be a regular feature, and works well. Easy to read, and kind of fun, it is also informative.
Next up is a one-page piece on Claude Simard, a Quebec artist who is shipping - in pieces - a number of churches, mosques, a synagogue, a Hindu temp and other buildings from India to Quebec, where they will be re-constructed as art galleries in the Saguenay. This is followed by another, and much less
interesting, meditation on trash, by Douglas Coupland, and then by what is likely the magazine's worst piece, â€œWhy I Writeâ€, by Neal Pollack, who manages to pack in an entire vanity website worth of self-indulgence in under 1,000 words.
Things pick up with Mireille Silcoff's report from Tel Aviv, and its citizens largely negative reaction to having had over 3,000 of its buildings declared a United Nations World Heritage Site. The unhappiness stems from the fact the buildings are mostly decrepit examples of the Bauhaus school of design, one I associate with ugly, minimalist concrete structures. Photos, rather than stylized drawings might be in order here, for those of us not up on the varieties of architectural experience, but the essay itself is interesting, in fact, almost compelling.
The cover story, on Paul Martin's business holdings and the conflicted position in which they place him as our soon-to-be Prime Minister is disturbing both from a Canadian point of view and - I think - fulfils the editorial's claim that the magazine's pieces will not be parochial. Martin's conflicts of interest could just as easily apply to any number of Western leaders who have feet in both the business and the political arenas. Any Canadian who wonders where our next Prime Minister came from and where he might lead us would do well to read Marci McDonald's story; any foreigner would likely find it of interest due to its expose of the byzantine ways of the globalized business
The Walrus' other centrepiece, "SARS, Censorship, and the Battle for China's Future" is a fascinating look at the political consequences that seem to be emerging from the Chinese government's initial attempt to hide from the world and from the Chinese people, the extent of the SARS epidemic that came close to spreading 'round the world last winter.
Things lighten up with a look at one of the world's stranger sub-cultures: from Bavaria, "... a German obsession with a past it never had". It seems that thousands of Germans spend a good deal of time pretending to be Native Americans, to the point of dressing up in buckskin and loincloths, and holding rodeos (though these are almost entirely bereft of horses or bulls).
Then Lewis Lapham discusses the legacy of Marshall McLuhan, arguing that McLuhan "...may be a better prophet for this century than for the last. Sadly, Lapham's piece lacks the passion of his editorials in his own magazine.
The lack of passion continues in "Resisting the Veil", Margaret Atwood's essay on 6 books about contemporary Iran and Islamic history. As one would expect, Atwood writes well, but there is an aridity to it that I hadn't expected.
The final piece, Adam Sternbergh's "Fairy Tale Ending", on American television's current fad for gay shows, argues that we may be seeing the end, rather than the beginning, of a genuine popular culture acceptance of gay-themed television. He compares the current crop with the prime time explosion of black-theme programs that ran its course from the mid-70s through the 1980s and suggests that gay programs too will lose their place in centre stage.
All in all, the first issue of The Walrus is a solid one and I have no hesitation in recommending it to those of you who don't find Maxim, or Elle satisfying intellectual fare.
But there is a bloodless sort of feel to much of the writing in the magazine, a strange sameness to most of the article, as if all of the writers were, perhaps, trying too hard to make a good impression, like a nervous debut ante determined, first and foremost, not to offend, not to make a fool of herself.
I hope it is merely a case of the jitters; I fear it reflects a lack of intellectual passion on the part of the magazine's editors.
Only time, as they say, will tell.