BUZZon.com
Submit Event

From the Noticeboard

Creative arts and dance classes

Soul Play Studios is a new studio offering a wide range of classes for kids and adults in the Callbe [ ... ]

Birding classic

Bennett Fall Birding Classic returns on September 29 Each autumn for the last 23 years, Island Natu [ ... ]

Wherefore Art Thou?

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night.
Like softest music to attending ears.

Lines from one of the most famous scenes in the history of theatre, Juliet on her balcony, Romeo in the orchard below.

This spring, reading the memoirs of Alec Guinness, the British stage and film actor, I was reminded that it had been a while since we had seen any theatre off the Island. So in the course of arranging a trip to visit family in Toronto, I included an outing to the Stratford Festival. Our original intention was to see two Shakespeare performances in one day—one matinee, one in the evening—but as things turned out we were only able to get tickets for the evening performance of Romeo and Juliet.

The festival has set up a bus service from downtown Toronto to the town of Stratford, and it allowed us to do the trip conveniently without changing hotels or renting a car.

Once in my seat in the famous Stratford theatre it came to me that I had taken my place in the same theatre for the same play in the summer of 1960, more than 50 years before. I could remember that the young Bruno Gerussi played Romeo, that Kate Reid played the Nurse (both actors gone now), but after a half century I was uncertain about the rest of the cast. Later research would inform me that Juliet had been played by the famous American actress Julie Harris, and that Christopher Plummer was (of course!) Mercutio.

Back on the Island I found that my friend Fred Euringer, whose account of his young life as an actor and director, A Fly on the Curtain, offers a good deal of insight into the theatre of the time, was in the cast for that 1960 version of Romeo and Juliet, and he offered some interesting detail about how Michael Langham, the director, had given a suitable formal grace to a play in which, by the magic of first love, two young people breathe in rhyme and speak in sonnets.

The Stratford Festival was a central cultural phenomenon of my youth. Anyone with an interest in the theatre knew who was acting there each year and what parts they were playing. There was a small community of Canadian actors who had begun to make their way after World War II, and alongside some dedicated English imports, they formed something like a resident company. Stratford was the centre of theatre in Canada and offered one after another of the Shakespeare plays, along with some other repertoire of the English and European theatre.

Romeo and Juliet, always a favourite, and a play saleable for school trips, had been produced, I later discovered, eight times between the 1960 version and the one I had come to see. But the reviews of this year’s version were not good. A friend referred to it as “epically awful.”

The British director, Tim Carroll, is one of those who work at the new Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, exploring the original stage practices of Shakespeare’s time. The frequent presence of musicians onstage was perhaps his most appealing addition. I also found that playing with the lights up, as if in an open theatre on a summer afternoon, contributed a certain relaxation. Sara Topham as Juliet and Kate Hennig as the Nurse were lively and effective.

The heart of the play is in the verse—formal, decorative, graceful. Romeo and Juliet is a lyric tragedy, but sadly, this was a performance which too often abandoned verbal grace and youthful innocence for easy laughs. Still, the music was splendid, the Stratford stage itself elegant, distinguished, a fine piece of indoor architecture always worth a visit. And at least some of Shakespeare’s lines survived—the artless, exalted girl on the balcony, the voices of the intoxicated lovers in the imaginary night. Shakespeare once again created his memorable dream of life.

The Latest Gadgets

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Traditionally books are created and sold by publishers, and the author is sent an annual statement of how many copies were sold and paid a previously agreed royalty on those copies. This spring I received a royalty statement for Saltsea, my summer-on-the-Island novel, which was published in 2006, and to my surprise the statement included a small amount for sales of the story as an e-book. A door opening to a new world? Maybe.

More and more books, we’re told, are being sold in digital format to be read on the various readers—Kindle, Kobo, and what have you—that are now available. I’ve just had the first clear evidence that work of mine is being approached by means of this new technology. Somewhere between Tryon and Tasmania, electronic devices presented my story to new readers.

Not too long after I got that royalty statement, The Writers’ Union of Canada held its annual meeting, and voted to accept, for the first time, writers whose work had been self-published. I wasn’t at the meeting but I suspect the reason for the decision was the recent radical changes in the publication and sales of books. Nowadays, with all the digital means of propagation, it’s not clear how many of the old rules can still apply.

Change and the increasing speed of change have created a new world. Digital technology is altering all forms of communication. With the internet, email, the invention of the blog, of YouTube, the cell phone, the i-Phone, the start-up of Facebook, then of Twitter, those of us of a certain age are left with the question of whether to try to keep up with these new fashions or to employ some new version of Occam’s Razor (see Wikipedia) to choose what’s valuable out of the new gadgets and processes.

I used to say that I would get a computer when they offered one free with a magazine subscription; only a joke of course, but to me it does make sense to wait until a device has proved itself before putting money and (more important) time into its use.

I sense that the personal blog, only recently grown popular, is now being replaced by Facebook and Twitter. Not all the new inventions will survive. I’m old enough to recall the invention of the long-playing disk, music in high fidelity we called it. More recently vinyl disks have been largely replaced by the CD, the compact disk very convenient for those like me who were not careful enough to keep our vinyl unmarked and playable. On CD, performances of classical music proceed uninterrupted by pops and clicks. There are those who have stayed with or returned to analog recordings on vinyl, and I am prepared to believe that the sound is richer and subtler to the best ears. But we have to live with our own weaknesses, so vinyl is no longer for ham-handed me.

But these days the CD is less and less the basis of a significant commercial business. Sam the Record Man and his colleagues are gone. A lot of music is found by downloading. Will the CD survive? How long will there be machines to play it? Have you ever found yourself wanting to play a 78 rpm recording? To find a suitable turntable is close to impossible. Technologies replace each other at high speed. So the e-book will survive for a while, but the smart money is on its eventual replacement by some new gimmick, or perhaps (sad thought) on the abandonment of reading as a pastime.

Surprisingly perhaps, no technology is likely to offer safer long-term storage for a given shape of words than the printed book. Decent ink on decent paper creates a simple but enduring mnemonic device. If you find the right library, you can go there today and read the Shakespeare First Folio, the original text of almost all of his plays, published in 1623.

Is this home?

by David Helwig

The Other Notebook

You’ll notice if you see me on the street that I’m not as young as I once was. Birthdays resonate with a slightly dire significance, numbers dropping into place like the black ball in the wrong pocket. Anniversaries prompt me to look back through the years I’ve spent on PEI, looking to set it down in words, to understand.

It was April of 1996 when I arrived on the Island. I had travelled overnight by train from Montreal to Moncton. Judy picked me up at the station, and we drove to Eldon where we had bought a house. Weather cold, as it pretty much always is on the Island in the spring. Jim Halliday, who farmed a mile down Halliday’s Road, stopped by to say hello. The Coopers, in the store across the road, took note of me as a new neighbour.

I was a newcomer, an outsider. Those who were close to me had been left behind in Montreal or Kingston or Toronto. Cold winds penetrated the house, which we shared with mice and rats and at least one skunk. But as spring came on, I set myself to patching plaster, painting, digging a vegetable garden. We met neighbours and a few writers and artists. In the first few months, I did what a writer does to make sense of a new world, I wrote—poems, a short story called “Missing Notes” and a novella, Close to the Fire. You observe what is urgent, unaccountable, take hold, digest it, spin out the lines, transform it into setting and plot and character. The first pages had their roots in the cold and silent old house where I spent my days while Judy was teaching.

Gradually the empty map of the Island began to be filled with familiar names. Judy taught me geography. The key point, as she explained it, was that on the Island you could never get lost. Every road led to another road which would eventually lead you where you were going. Lead you home.

Was this home?

Helwig. That’s not an Island name.

It’s not just the old jokes that defined my separateness. Before moving to the house in Eldon I lived alone in Montreal, reading, working, the centre of my life a superb church choir. In the summers I passed my days in a haunted house in Eastern Ontario. Before that I had lived for many years in the city of Kingston, Ontario, raised children there.

In university I once spent the summer tutoring a difficult and damaged teenage boy. Established in a cabin on his family’s small island on a lake in eastern Ontario, I wrote a poem with the lines “There will be no home for my pilgrim bones/When I go down with the western moon.” Highly romantic stuff, but professionally, at least, I did keep moving on. Now I left my tracks on old Island roads.

“But that’s where your soul lives!” A friend said that a few years ago when I told her that we had sold the ancient, ghostly house on Wolfe Island at the eastern outlet of Lake Ontario. While she had never seen the house, she had drawn conclusions about its place in my life. I once wrote a column about how summers alone in that Wolfe Island house, renovating, accumulating odds and ends, wood, metal, stone, had been a means of rebuilding something. My soul, we say, having no other word for some complex wholeness of being that we can’t quite apprehend.

And now I was rebuilding once again in the old, cold house in the village of Eldon. I wrote about what we found in the neighbourhood—John Macpherson’s water-driven sawmill, the harness-racing track at Pinette. More than one poem was inspired by the long quiet beach we discovered just a few minutes away. We must have walked there on hundreds of summer days since.

As you stand facing the water, the red sand curves off to the right. Behind the beach grows marram grass and beyond the tall grass you see land-locked ponds. Like any northern landscape, especially any landscape on water, the beach has a wide range of moods. In an autumn storm the fierce wind sweeps over the water and the sand and walking even a few steps is a struggle. On rainy days water and sky are unrelieved grey, nothing visible over the strait but the line of horizon where sea meets sky, but on a spring morning, or a still summer evening, the range of tints and shades of water and sky is subtle and complex, washes of blue, grey, green, white, the blend intricate and intense.

As our house was renovated, eventually lifted and put on a concrete foundation, we hung its walls with more and more pictures, some with family connections, some by a variety of Island artists. Gradually more and more of the ground was dug up and planted with flowers. Once Judy retired from teaching, we both spent a lot of time planting and weeding and trimming. We shaped the yard to make it more fully our own.

I make no claim to be an Islander, but what I saw over the passing years, ploughed fields, woodlots, a stream in a valley, the red and white barns, the glitter of light on water, were seized by the imagination and became landmarks, signs. You become part of a place; it becomes part of you. Spring returns. I play golf on a course a few minutes away. The gardens make their demands. I find myself writing columns about politics and architecture and my own various moods.

You live in a place, and you own a corner of it. Saltsea is the only novel I’ve written that takes place on the Island and most of its characters are from away. I’m still an observer here, but what I’ve learned to love is reflected in memories, habits. So is this home? I suppose certain circumstances could lead me to move away, but it’s unlikely. My parents are gone; my children and grandchildren live in Ontario and Quebec. My friends are scattered across the country, the world. I can’t help but reflect that all our homes are short term rentals. I’m in no hurry to go down with the western moon, but chances are that someday I’ll end my life here, and maybe they’ll toss my ashes into the sea.

Dave Helwig is…

David HelwigDavid Helwig was born in Toronto in 1938 and lived there for most of his first ten years, then moved with his parents to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario where his father ran a small business repairing and refinishing furniture and buying and selling antiques. He attended the University of Toronto and the University of Liverpool. He published his first stories, in Canadian Forum and The Montrealer, while still an undergraduate. His CV lists 44 published bookes up to 2012 —poetry, novels and novellas. He has also edited numerous editions of Best Canadian Stories. From 1976 to 1980, he taught part time at Queen's while doing a great deal of freelance work, and in 1980, he gave up teaching and became a full-time freelance writer. He has from the beginning written both fiction and poetry as well as a wide range of radio, televison and journalism. Vocal music was for many years his avocation. After abandoning this for some years, he returned to it in his forties and sang with a number of choirs in Kingston, Montreal and Charlottetown, as a bass soloist on occasion. He currently lives in an old house in the village of Eldon in Prince Edward Island. Helwig served as PEI’s Poet Laureate in 2008 and 2009.

For this anniversary issue of The Buzz, David Helwig wanted to pay tribute to the late Joseph Sherman. This piece was originally published in the Globe & Mail and then adapted for The Buzz as Joseph Sherman: A Cultural Life.

Joseph Sherman

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Republished from February 2006

To picture Joseph Sherman’s situation on Prince Edward Island, imagine Woody Allen at a clan gathering of Highland Scots all in kilts and tossing the caber. Yet Joe became a loved and valued local figure, a Jewish intellectual with myopic eyes and bad feet, at ease among all the Scots and Irish and Acadians who farmed or fished lobsters and cared about hockey. He loved Celtic music and owned a boran drum suitable for ceilidhs.

You’d see him at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning, talking, laughing, talking. Joe loved to talk, to put things in order, to marshal all the details, to express them accurately and subtly in words, indulging a love of language that surely went all the way back to childhood when the other kids called him Dictionary Sherman. If he’d seen a movie or read a book, he had a huge need to express and refine his critical perspective, what he’d felt or thought or read about it.

And he was a worrier, such a worrier. Probably the impulse to express things out loud was partly an urge to see them properly placed, set in order, a way of fretting the world into an acceptable pattern. He called the book that appeared a couple of weeks before his death Worried into Being, and in it he recounted, in stylish and charming prose vignettes, some of the shiny bits of his life, back to his birth and upbringing in Nova Scotia, a childhood with two centres, Whitney Pier, where he lived with his parents, and Bridgewater, where he spent summers with his maternal grandparents. He was born in Bridgewater in 1945, and until his family moved to Fredericton in the Sixties, they lived in Whitney Pier, near the infamous tar ponds, a place where the snow fell white in the winter evenings and by morning was blackened with the soot that dropped from the chimneys of the steel plants.

The synagogue in Whitney Pier was small, but with a devoted congregation and a rabbi who was learned in the old-country way. Joe’s first full-length book, Chaim the Slaughterer, published in 1974, contained poems about characters from Jewish Cape Breton, as well as other local figures of the very mixed community, including a Ukrainian priest who liked to stop him on the street, grab him by the shoulder and ask if he was being a good boy. He was quick to say yes to the terrifying figure.

Joe was a serious man, but he had a wonderful, sometimes anarchic sense of humour. Oberon Press, his publisher for many years, was run by Michael and Anne Macklem, and it was their practice to sell books while traveling coast to coast, mostly by car, Michael driving or reading manuscripts, while Anne went to the libraries and bookstores to get orders. Came the day when Joe was walking along a street in the centre of Charlottetown, and there, in a parked car, reading, was Michael Macklem. Joe opened the car door, got in the passenger side and sat in silence. Now Michael Macklem is a high strung man, always on the lookout for threats, and there was a long terrified silence before he turned his head and discovered that the mugger who was about to murder him was a small, amiable poet.

Poetry began, for Joe, at the University of New Brunswick where he took a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree and first thought of being a writer. His friends from that time remained important for the rest of his life, as presences, or in the case of Alden Nowlan, as a lost but inspiring spirit. Kent Thompson, Robert Gibbs, Bill and Nancy Bauer, a gang of young writers that included Brian Bartlett and David Adams Richards, these were the colleagues of his student days. A lover of popular culture, he delighted in being on air at the university radio station—which broadcast on a land-link to various university locations—though he realized one day as he was performing that there was a good chance that not a single person was listening.

Joe Sherman’s generation was one that came of age in expansive times, when jobs fell into your lap. He was offered a teaching position in Edmundston, and a few years later he accepted an offer to move to Charlottetown to edit Arts Atlantic. He continued as editor for more than 20 years, one of the central figures of the arts scene in the maritimes. As a poet and editor he spent time in Ottawa and Toronto and Halifax, involved in regional and national arts issues.

Over his years at Arts Atlantic he covered the visual arts in particular, and all the arts as the opportunity emerged. He developed it into a stylish and well-designed magazine. Joe was a generous and loyal editor, and he cast his net wide. Laura Brandon, Curator of War Art at the Canadian War Museum said of him, “I owe my career to Joe.” A young woman at home with a new baby, she sent a letter to Joe saying she wanted to write about art, and he responded enthusiastically and began to hire her. She wrote for him for next 20 years. With a child or two or three in tow she would drop in to his welcoming, disorderly office, as a break from domesticity, and a chance to look for art books she wanted and might claim for review. The list of his regular reviewers is long, inclusive and notable for the number of women he hired. He believed in his writers, kept them working and was loyal to them.

But the expansive times ended, as for many of those in the arts, and the later years at Arts Atlantic were full of stress. The Confederation Centre of the Arts, which had been the publisher of the magazine, withdrew much of its financial support, the bullyboys at Revenue Canada refused to give the magazine charitable status—Joe recalled being imprisoned in an office where two of them played good cop, bad cop with him—and finally members of the board pushed him out, believing that they could do the job better. What they did was run the magazine into the ground.

Joe repackaged himself as a freelance writer and editor. He copy-edited a book about an American football team—though I’m not sure he’d ever seen a football game. He invented the Writing on the Wall series for the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, a number of local writers choosing works from the permanent collection and writing about them. He began a similar project for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. He kept up his regular column for The Buzz. He was involved in the negotiations to establish the position of poet laureate for the Island. He was the first to suggest a series of pamphlets by new poets that became the Saturday Morning Chapbooks. He wrote a column suggesting a biennial P.E.I. book award; the idea was picked up by the P.E.I. Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs, and the award was created.

It seemed no more than fitting when he was given the Order of Canada for his services to the arts and received his decoration at the same ceremony as that other Canadian Jewish poet, Leonard Cohen.

Then in the spring of 2005 he felt a pain in his leg. No surprise. He’d been going to the gym with his wife, Ann, and after all he was about to turn sixty. What he most feared was a recurrence of serious eye problems, the threat of blindness. Joe had belonged to the League of Canadian poets for 35 years, twice served on the League Council, so he went off to limp around Toronto at the annual meeting and came home to more tests, and suddenly he was told that he had terminal cancer, perhaps only months to live. It made no sense; he appeared to be healthy, was mentally active, kept busy living his life.

After the manuscript of Worried into Being: An Unfinished Alphabet was sent to Oberon Press, he discovered that he had notes and unfinished poems enough for a further book, and he made creative use of his insomnia by revising page after page in the silence of a sleeping house at 2 am.

So he worked on, and Ann began the delicate act of balancing encouragement and comfort. They got to the Farmer’s Market most Saturdays, where he could meet up with his wide circle of friends. He was still articulate, still funny, but he knew what was coming, and it came, although he had completed the new manuscript, and copies of Worried into Being, possibly his finest and most accessible book, were put in his hands on December 23.

Joe died on the morning of January 9, 2006 with his family gathered round him. His friends last saw him the previous afternoon, all the words silenced as he slept under the influence of the drugs given him to stifle pain. His funeral was held on January 11, 2005. The funeral home was unable to accommodate the large crowd that attended, and many were forced to pay their respects by standing outside in the cold for the duration of the ceremony.

Religion and Morality

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Religion and morality: it has often been assumed that the two are closely linked, but with changes in social attitudes and the fragmentation and decline in religious belief, newly complicated questions have arisen. Current in Manitoba is disagreement about the government’s Bill 18, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Act, which is designed to reduce or prevent bullying.

One point at issue is whether schools must allow groups designed to promote gender equity and gay-straight alliances. Groups like the Evangelical Federation of Canada argue that there are more important causes of bullying than gender and sexual preference. The more or less unspoken issue is that these churches regard homosexual activity as forbidden by God and scripture and feel persecuted by laws that defend a different assumption.

Vic Toews, taking time off from giving Canada a more punitive (and more expensive) criminal justice system, has argued that parts of Bill 18 are attacks on freedom of religion and should be considered invalid under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Is a faith-based school exempt from the censuring of hate-speech? Does sincerity guarantee their pre-emptive assertion of access to divinity?

The place of religion in a democracy is a vexed one. The United States explicitly separates church and state, yet it’s unlikely that any American politician would dare to declare himself an atheist. There is nothing in Canadian law to make churches exempt from the provisions of that law, but traditionally, if a refugee family takes shelter in a church, the authorities will not remove them.

Among the homosexuals I’ve known over the years some have been sincere Christians who lived respectable middle class lives. I was once at an anniversary party so respectable as to make me feel downright raffish. Other homosexual friends and acquaintances have been regular visitors to the gay bars and baths and may have regarded me as a little prim.

Sex is a physical and emotional hunger that gets itself satisfied in varied and sometimes downright comical ways. It has links to disease and procreation that raise the stakes, make it rife with consequences. Perhaps that makes it a moral concern or at least a social one.

But it’s not just issues involving sexual behaviour that confront religion and morality. Recently the New York Review of Books published a review by Garry Wills, a professor of history and a practising Roman Catholic though highly critical of the church hierarchy, in which he discussed a book on the development of Catholic teaching on the Jews.

“The history of Christian viciousness toward Jews is too grotesque for credence,” he writes. In the past, acts of astonishing violence were based on what has been called the blood libel, the crazed belief that human blood was used to make matzos for Passover. Theological anti-Semitism argued that Judaism was an incomplete religion which required the person of Jesus to make it complete. No doubt such doctrines were sincerely believed. But by 1965 all this had been abandoned. Change came about through the Second Vatican Council called by the magnanimous Pope John XXIII.

John XXIII died before the Council had completed its work, and as Wills points out (back to morality and sex again) one thing that didn’t get changed was the absurd church doctrine declaring contraception a mortal sin. The church could make no change without asserting that earlier popes had been wrong, and nobody has been prepared to do that.

Churches, no matter how intent on eternity, tend to cling to the past and to the conventional beliefs of their time. Just think of the residential schools, which a number of Canadian churches ran, believing them to be appropriate. When I was young homosexuality was against the law. Even though it’s now widely accepted, the Evangelical churches still believe that they have a divine dispensation to oppose toleration; but the community of dogmatic belief is a dangerous thing, too easily justifying hardness of heart.

Collectibles

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

While travelling a few weeks ago I picked up a book by Margaret Drabble called The Pattern in the Carpet. I like Drabble’s books, but I hadn’t heard of this one, a desultory memoir which begins with her memories of working on jigsaw puzzles with a favourite aunt. As the memoir makes its wandering way through some of the mild entertainments of common life, she has occasion to mention collectibles.

Collectible: the word is not in my Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which was published in 1955. However it is in my Webster’s Third International Dictionary, which bears the copyright date of 1981. These dates seem about right to me for a word unknown in my childhood but common from some point in my adult life.

Though the word is new, the practice of making collections certainly isn’t. I remember from childhood that stamps, coins and autographs were all commonly assembled. The American writer Gore Vidal once claimed that the American president Franklin Roosevelt knew more about the world than most politicians because he was a serious stamp collector and had developed a certain historical and geographical awareness by studying the provenance of his postage stamps.

When I was six or seven I accumulated cards from cereal packages, cards that offered information on things like exotic animals and military weapons from World war II (which was being fought at the time), but I am not really a collector, lacking the impulse toward completeness and order, the perfection of the assemblage. I gather books in a disorderly fashion, pictures in the same way.

A true collector will collect anything. On the internet I looked up a site offering information on bizarre collections. One obsessive assembled the penises of various kinds of animals, another locks of hair, a third Coca Cola containers. The weird collections site also featured sex ads, photographs of pretty young women with immense breasts. I could conclude that collectors are a little … well, funny, but that might be an unfair assumption since I gather sex is everywhere on the web.

My friend John Metcalf is a book collector and I believe he has asserted somewhere that the world is more real to the collector because of his ability to draw fine distinctions between copies, editions, bindings. It’s a fair argument, but I’m not convinced—to take an example from the sort of thing I own—that I don’t perceive fully the sculptural beauty of old wood-working tools because I have only a single delicate spoke-shave and no information on comparable objects.

The collectibles that have become popular in my adult life include a certain number of things that were produced to be collected. My father earned some part of his living as a dealer in antiques, and my mother, as a minor entertainment, began to pick up objects, mostly china, that were produced for occasions like royal weddings and coronations. I didn’t keep them when I inherited her house and its furnishings, with the exception of a biscuit tin from the coronation of King George V, which took place in 1911.

I don’t know why I hung onto that one item.

Ken Thomson, heir to the Thomson Newspapers and known in his time as the richest man in Canada, collected various forms of art, and much of it now resides in the Art Gallery of Ontario. It includes rooms full of works by the finest Canadian painters, a great many ship models, and cases full of medieval miniatures carved in ivory, brilliant tiny works of extraordinary craftsmanship.

Neighbours have a set of the small china figures distributed with Red Rose Tea. I have seen barns decorated with sequences of old license plates. In New York there is a well-funded Center for the History of Collecting.

Beauty, rarity, strangeness, all these may inform the desire to take possession of an object. What leads us to want another and another and another is more mysterious.

Canadian Classic

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Just recently Gaspereau Press published a centennial edition of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, printed in the something close to the style of the 1912 first edition. Since my marked-up copy of the book was long ago abandoned, I treated myself to the Gaspereau reproduction, and reread it by the fire over a couple of icy winter nights. A splendid book, which made me laugh out loud, it fully justifies its reputation as a Canadian classic. It evokes its time and place with a mixture of sharp observation and gentle lyricism.

Stephen Leacock was possessed of a clear, elegant style, with a nice discrimination of tone and the ability not to spoil his jokes by too much wind-up or too much follow-through. He was a sceptic without being a cynic.

He introduces the sequence of stories with the assertion that his town of Mariposa is not one real town, but a compilation of many towns, the characters a combination of several men, but the geography of the place is pretty close to that of the Ontario town of Orillia, where Leacock spent his summers, lakes and rivers nearby, mining and lumbering to the north, a big city to the south accessible by train. In the period when he was writing, Canada still had a largely agricultural economy, with the small towns providing the social necessities, a church or two, a barber shop, a lumber yard and hardware store, a school.

Mariposa is the sort of community where my father and his three brothers were brought up, around the time Leacock wrote about, but typically, all four of them went off to make a life in one or another of the big cities around the Great Lakes, just like the characters evoked in the epilogue to Leacock’s book.

Stephen Leacock, born in England and raised on a struggling Canadian farm, ended up as a professor of Political Economy at McGill University, and money has a large role to play in Mariposa. One of the stories is about speculation in mining stocks, and the involvement in the mining boom of Jefferson Thorpe, the Mariposa barber. Jeff makes some money, but convinced of his own financial acuity, he loses all he made and then some. (Anyone who remembers the dot.com bubble of the 1990s might observe that as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.)

The best known story in the book is “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias”. A little steamboat sets off on a summer excursion, loaded with the town’s citizens, and on the way back, the cladding begins to leak, and like the Titanic, the boat goes down. Fortunately the lake into which they are sinking is of no great depth, and when enough passengers are off-loaded by various rescuers, the little steamboat floats back to the surface again.

The boat’s saviour, the man who quietly goes into the hold and caulks the leak, is the two hundred and eighty pound hotel proprietor, Josh Smith. A hardened man who has come out of the lumber camps to the north, Smith appears at significant moments throughout the book as a jovial but cunning figure acting behind the scenes, usually to his own advantage. At the end of the book he is elected as the town’s new Member of Parliament. Mariposa may be an innocent place, events transpiring at the edge of farce, but its innocence makes it open to manipulation by Josh Smith and his ilk.

At the other end of the gamut we observe Dead Drone, clergyman of the Church of England, a sweet dim cleric, wholly muddled by the sad arithmetic of the church’s accounts, last seen puzzling over Greek texts under a blossoming plum tree and hearing the voice of his long-dead wife. It is a poignant scene, as finely written as everything in the book.

No doubt about it. The book endures. A classic.

What You Don’t Know

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Anyone my age has lived through a lot of revolutionary changes. I am spelling out these words on the keyboard of a laptop. When I first started writing we put down words by hand or by hammering the keys of a large typewriter. For a copy we used a carbon paper between two white sheets.

Everything changes, sometimes very quickly. So far as I can make out from the available statistics, in 1980 when I abandoned university teaching the student population of Canadian universities had increased to nearly 20 times what it was in 1956 when I became an undergraduate. Between the 1980s and 2006, the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree more than doubled.

Are we better off? Maybe.

I was prompted to think about all these things by an article in The Globe and Mail over the Christmas holidays, an article about a developing process, imported from the USA, for deciding how universities should deal with what seem like inevitable budget cuts. An American consultant, one Robert C. Dickeson, argues against the common across-the-board cuts. According to the Globe reporter, Dickeson “promises a data-driven model that puts heavy emphasis on a program’s costs, demand for enrolment and student outcomes.”

One university administrator discussing the model pointed out to me that its tendency is to push the universities closer and closer to mere job-training institutions. The Globe article suggests a fear that with this process the losses will be primarily in fine arts, languages and some humanities.

Now it may surprise you, but I am not about to solve the country’s educational problems in 650 words. Sorry.

However a few things can be said. In certain areas universities have been training students for jobs—doctors and engineers for example – at least since the nineteenth century. Universities were founded to train the clergy. However it’s clear that more and more specialized areas of study are being developed. Anecdote: a young women working as a temp pleases her bosses and colleagues, but they are unable to offer her a job because she doesn’t have a degree in personnel management. The sort of thing I assume you get in a school of business.

While economics has established itself as a legitimate field of study (although its objectivity is called into question by the influence of contradictory ideologies), I find it hard to believe that studies in business and management are anything more than a process of indoctrination in prevailing attitudes.

We have all run into the jargon that has grown prevalent, mission statements, focus groups, outcomes. Humans being sociable creatures, we often allow clear thinking and expression to be replaced by conventional formulas, for analysis to be overwhelmed by obfuscation. For the idea of disinterested thought to lose its meaning. The ideal of the university was to create opportunities for disinterested close study in a variety of fields on the assumption that deep commitment and discipline will produce sharp and truthful minds whose perceptions offer discipline to the processes of the whole society.

But young people want to study what appears to offer them financial security, and who can blame them? If an MBA will get you work you take an MBA. Anecdote: while I was at university a high school friend was already working in a large business and by the time I got my degree he was the comptroller. Unfortunately I don’t think that would happen now.

If I google my own name I can find sites which offer to sell essays on pieces of mine which appear in textbooks. Such organized cheating suggests that many of those pursuing a degree have no belief in the inherent value of what they are doing. Cheating may mislead the world, but it also misleads the cheater. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you aren’t able to judge yourself, and in or out of university that is the only judgment that matters.

Events Calendar

September 2018
S M T W T F S
1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30

Some Upcoming Events

9th Evangeline Country Music Festival

October 12–14
Acadian Musical Village The 9th annual Evangeline Country Music Festival will be hel [ ... ]

Backstage Pass Series

Intimate music series with Lloyd Spiegal and The Small Glories October 13 & 24
Harbourfront Thea [ ... ]

Comic Book Art

Exhibit features work by Island comic book creators Until October 5
Eptek Centre There is a thrivin [ ... ]

Recent News & Articles

Drawing the line

Profile: Sandy Carruthers by Jane Ledwell Retired for a year now after twenty-five years teaching  [ ... ]

Filmworks Summerside

Film series is back for 7th season Filmworks Summerside opens for their 7th season on September 12  [ ... ]

An Island wish

On August 23, 4 year old Cooper Coughlin will arrive on Prince Edward Island soil for a once in a li [ ... ]