Nations Need Rebels

I was pleased to accept editor Chris Champion’s suggestion that Richard Mayne reply to my article as all earlier attempts to elicit a response from him were ignored. When a scholarly portrait of one’s father is published without consultation or even courteous notification, one is naturally curious about the method of its creation, especially when it bears so little resemblance to the man himself.

But my criticism of Betrayed is not simply based on my relationship to Andrew Dyas MacLean. Inescapably, the fact of that relationship makes it difficult to be objective, something Richard Mayne acknowledges. By the same measure, I might acknowledge Mayne’s personal and professional interest as author in defending his published position when new research turns up in the archives.

Richard Mayne has become an eloquent government historian. I can never begin to match his learning on RCN history or the depth of his knowledge of Vice Admiral Percy W. Nelles. But six inaccurate points or misleading assertions in his reply need to be addressed.

First, I do not express displeasure with today’s Department of National Defence. I do believe that the use of opinion as fact in Betrayed undermines the otherwise impressive Canadian War Museum series published with UBC Press (a series which is perceived to be official history by the general public).

Second, Richard Mayne has not understood the gravity of divorce in mid-20th century Toronto. At that time, divorce was an almost unthinkable act. Unhappy couples were expected to appear at society parties, then swan off to Bermuda with their lovers. My father was unwilling to play this sort of game. He broke the rules, and Old Toronto turned on him. Equally he would not play the game with Ottawa, using his newspaper and connections to advance the cause of the war and protect our fighting men. In both cases Richard Mayne seems to unable to look beyond what he calls “hard evidence”. The fact that someone is gentlemanly and a professional does not make him a shrewd judge of character, or unbiased in his appraisal of other men’s motivations. My point is that there was a lot more to the man and the story than Mayne seems willing to contemplate, and his narrow vision ultimately blocks his understanding of the people he is writing about, affecting the accuracy of his portrait and the validity of his speculations. Knowing something more about his sources might have helped.

Third, despite his protestations, Richard Mayne does question Andrew MacLean’s patriotism. Across a dozen pages he asserts that he cared more for self-promotion than national security.

Fourth, there was nothing artificial about the controversy. In the early years of the Second World War there was a real need both to end discrimination of the reserves (actual or perceived) and to modernise Canada’s fleet. It’s beyond me why a researcher of Richard Mayne’s stature can find no mention of this in Andrew MacLean’s papers. As I pointed out, my father first wrote to the private secretary of the Minister of National Defence about the need for modernisation in October 1939, a letter subsequently published in the March – April 1943 issue of Boating Magazine to which Richard Mayne refers above.

Nations need rebels. Rebellion grows out of stale convention; it’s the correlate. Respecting the accomplishments and commitment of generations of hard working citizens, the free thinker criticizes the status quo, goads conformists to question, to re-imagine, to be try different approaches, and lashes out at complacence. Andrew MacLean was rebel and a member of the establishment who turned on his own class when it came to a matter that he felt betrayed the national good, and he was outspoken about it.

Betrayed is a young man’s work, begun as a master’s thesis. Its literary experimentation – especially narrative technique and the polarisation of character for dramatic effect — while compelling is one-sided and one-dimensional. I say this as a writer and as a writer I defend absolutely Mayne’s right to his opinion and to his interpretation of events as an historian. As writers all know, once published our words will find readers who find meaning in them we didn’t intend. In this case, I think the reputation of a veteran of two world wars who cared passionately for Canada became unintended collateral damage.

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