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Brief Notes on Politics

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Note 1.

Ten years ago I was invited to a poetry festival at Trois-Rivières. A volunteer drove me from Montreal airport to the festival site, and we chatted, mostly in French, on the trip. At some point he told me that he was a federalist.

Later on I ran into him at the festival headquarters, where books by the poets were on sale. He was impressed by the printing of my book and asked me what such a book would cost ‘in Canada’. That was the phrase he used. Though he was not an advocate of separation for Quebec, he clearly thought of it as implicitly a different country. I am reminded of the famous formula of Jean Lesage, the Liberal premier in the days of Quebec’s révolution tranquille. Canada, c’est mon pays, Québec, c’est ma patrie.

This all came back to me under the minority government in 2008 when the Liberals and the NDP proposed to form a coalition government with the support of the Bloq Québecois, and suddenly, encouraged by Stephen Harper, there was a lot of loose language about the Bloq, a suggestion that they had no right to effect the choice of Government, as if the elected members from Quebec, who supported some kind of sovereignty for the province, were not allowed to have a political position on any other issue. Voters in Quebec were to be punished for their votes.

Do those who took this position now believe that electors in Quebec, having largely replaced the Bloq by the NDP, have—magically—more right to express themselves? Will they lose it again in the next election?

Nothing is more essential to identity than language. As a French-speaking society, Quebec is different, and though confederation is not a blank cheque, the borderlines between federalist and sovereignist positions are both moveable and porous. I have no objection to their attempts to push the border, and no objection to the Clarity Act, which sets rules for these attempts. But I do object to the idea that those democratically elected bloquistes were second class MPs.

On to note 2.

A very few days after this column appears, PEI will be having a provincial election. I’m not a member of any political party, though I’m not (obviously) without opinions. One needn’t be deeply partisan to wonder if perhaps something closer to a balance of the two parties in the provincial legislature might be a good thing.

But there is another issue that arises in various ways in a federation like Canada. (My copy of The Canadian Encyclopedia has several columns of small type offering explanation and comment on federalism and federal-provincial relations.) How are the provincial parties related to the federal parties of the same name? Though I have sometimes voted for the Progressive Conservative party in the past, I believe the current federal government is a different outfit altogether. Should I, as I consider my vote, consider the PEI opposition, who now call themselves the PC party, Progressive Conservatives, or are they Regressive Conservatives, Incipient Harperites? I suspect I’m not the only one asking that question.

Which leads to Note 3.

How do men and women manage to commit their lives to a political party? It’s a bit like being a lifetime fan of the Red Sox or the Maple Leafs. I can see being a fan of Sidney Crosby. He’s a joy to watch. But a team? If I did join a political party I doubt that I could stick with it for very long. Political issues are too complex. I always feel a strong sympathy for those like Bob Rae and Scott Brison, who have looked at the political map—who stands for what—and have changed parties.

Maybe when people say they don’t respect politicians, they are saying that they don’t understand unswerving loyalty to a name, a team, any better than I do.

Glimmer, Glimmer

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

The boy is ten years old, and he has recently moved from a big city to an old-fashioned small town, from a small house with a tiny backyard, to a house built early in the nineteenth century, with a huge barn behind it, and behind that a garden with plantings of red and black currants, raspberries, a peach tree. It is a summer night and he is in that wide, tranquil, far garden, where he sees tiny fragments of light floating through the air. Fireflies, and he tries to catch them in a jar provided by his mother. He doesn’t yet know the word bioluminescence, but he is fascinated by the little creatures that flash their signals across the darkling summer air, a new vision of natural magic.

I was that boy, of course, and earlier this summer I was reminded of him and the intoxicating moment when he first saw a firefly. Each night I have the habit of taking our dog, Star, for a walk up the road on a leash, a last outing before bed. In the vanishing twilight she sees and hears more than I do and for a few nights we were surrounded by hatching June beetles, which she wanted to catch and gobble down. It was a relief when the hatch ended. I am no longer in danger of being hauled into the ditch by a muscular canine bug hunter.

One later night she grew fascinated by something in the long grass. Looking to see what it was I had the sudden impression of a gleam of light, then another, a blue-white flash a few feet above. At first I took all this for a delusion, some momentary explosion in the brain, but then I realized that I was observing fireflies. I hadn’t seen them for fifty or sixty years, and without the dog to lead me into the mosquito-haunted night, I might have missed them.

Bioluminescence their pale fire is called and the cold sparks in the blackness provide species recognition and mating signals, male and female signalling back and forth their readiness to mate and their appropriateness as a partner. They produce light without heat, a rare phenomenon in nature.

I got all this information on bioluminescence from an encyclopedia. “Many luminous shrimps are known, but no luminous crabs,” says the Brittanica. And also reminded me of the luminescent fungus called foxfire. When I was young, some adult promised to show it to me, though now don’t recall ever seeing it.

Then I found myself listening to Stuart MacLean on the CBC, and he was talking about an artist named Michael Flomen, who makes photograms by exposing photographic paper to the movement of fireflies. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the details of how he gets the firefly to dance for him; you’ll have to work it out for yourself if you want to try the trick.

Suddenly, it seemed, fireflies were everywhere.

Glowworms, they have been called. I thought back a year or so ago, to the times when a group of my friends decided to memorize a poem a week. The project didn’t go on long, but while we were at it I chose a poem by Andrew Marvell called “The Mower to the Glowworms.” It is one of a series of poems in which The Mower is a central figure. The Mower refers to the illuminated insects as ‘living lights’ and ‘country comets’, and presents them as offering light to lead the mowers home in the absolute blackness of the pre-modern night.

But not this mower.

Your courteous lights in vain you waste
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displaced
That I shall never find my home.

And then of course there’s the pop song ‘Shine Little Glow-worm’ recorded by the Mills Brothers in 1952. Twenty one weeks on the charts. Three weeks at number 1!

Vitality and Verve

Carmina Burana
Indian River Festival

Review by David Helwig

It’s one of those perfect July evenings, the sun as it sinks westward shining with blinding brilliance through a large window into the William Harris church at Indian River. The beautiful, now deconsecrated, wooden church has recently been refurbished and brightened up to serve as a permanent home for the Indian River festival. The 2011 season has its official opening tonight with a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Waiting for the performance to begin I can’t help but be struck by the irony of this abandoned hundred year old Roman Catholic church being home to Orff’s pagan cantata. The text of Carmina Burana is drawn from a cache of mediaeval poems written in the twelfth and thirteenth century and held in a German monastery. They were written in the period when the creed’s assertion of belief in unam sanctam catholicam Ecclesiam was still an accurate account of Europe’s universal church, but the poems indicate that within the bounds of that belief, there was expressed in the private world of poetry a passionate, ironic, pagan vision of a world governed by the wheel of Fortune, driven by the yearly cycle of birth and death, bursting out in drunkenness and desire.

Orff’s cantata is only an hour long, and the first section of the program was an unadvertised series of works for choir, piano and percussion. Robert Kortgaard described it as “eclectic,” and at moments it seemed to be based on the Oh Why Not school of programming, but it was often exciting and gave an indication of the resources available for the main work.

After intermission the large choir, the two fine pianists, and six intense percussionists set off with a tremendous drum beat and a loud choral proclamation into the most exciting and convincing version of Carmina Burana that I’ve ever heard. It has often been observed that live performance is a different thing from what’s been recorded and edited, and the Indian River version of Carmina illustrated the point with all the vitality and verve that anyone could ask for. In one of the early choruses, it struck me that the choral entries were so prompt as to be almost ahead of the beat, and the energy of the piano and percussion helped sustain the choir’s astonishing rhythmic pulse. The singers’ concentration held up and even appeared to increase over the hour of performance, and when it was over the members of the audience were on their feet and cheering.

The large choir was made up of two smaller choirs, one from Moncton, one from PEI, and if the performance was ever less than perfect, it hardly mattered as the driving rhythm and the emotional commitment carried the work toward its conclusion. From early on there wasn’t a second’s lapse of energy. The live performance riveted the attention.

Did Carl Orff hate soloists? He does terrible things to them in his solo writing. The tenor is given only one short haunting piece in which he is sent to stratospherically high notes. Stand up, strain your voice, sit down. However Graham Thomsom gave the strange tune about the roasted swan a convincing sense of boozy bafflement and sang the high Cs and Ds with notable courage. The baritone soloist, in this case Andrew Love, has the most work of the three, and he proved consistently convincing, with a wonderful high register exhibited in “Estuans interius.” I have heard and admired Sally Dibblee in some of her previous performances on the Island, and her pure voice and passionate attack gave a fine embodiment to the soprano’s sexy lyrics, including the top-of-the-range orgasmic outburst of “Dulcissime.”

After that solo, the work plunges into a great hymn of praise to Venus and then with one heavy drumbeat into a dark reprise of the opening chorus about the domination of the world by Fortune. And so it came to an end and the audience leapt up and shouted.

Who to praise for such a vital performance? Well, everybody I suppose. Pre-eminently  the conductor Monique Richard, who somehow kept this freight-train of a work on the tracks and at full speed. Perhaps also Michel Deschênes, the lead percussionist, who helped dance the work into being. And Christine Gallant, the PEI choir trainer.

And all the singers who gave their hearts and souls, and sent us out joyful into the country night.

Bravo for Bravado

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

The photographs show two young men posing in a deliberate fashion in front of a very large abstract painting. One is small, dark, the other taller, sturdier. In one of the two photos you can see that they both have paint on their trousers. The abstract behind them is eight feet tall, more than five feet wide, the background dark blue, the soaring and falling pattern of bright gestures white and red and yellow. It’s an impressive piece of work, painted by the two of them, working together, sometime around 1960. I don’t think I ever saw the original.

That abstract mural, gouache on drywall, was painted by my friends Bob Vandersluys and George Loewen, their version of Gulley Jimson’s wall art. (If you haven’t read Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, you should.) The large oil covered a whole wall of the tiny house where George lived. Across the yard was a slightly larger place where his mother lived with her parents. This was where they settled when they came to Canada among the many immigrants displaced after the Second World War.

I met George in school in Niagara-on-the-Lake when I was about eleven or twelve. Bob was perhaps a decade older, and I met him years later on. He stayed in Niagara with his parents most weekends and played trombone in a local concert band. During the week he worked in Toronto as a graphic artist at the CBC. In those days program credits were drawn or painted on handmade cards by real artists and were set up in front of the camera to be photographed.

Though George spent his working life as a land surveyor, using a lot of high-tech equipment, he has never bothered with a personal computer so we don’t send email. We have spent our adult lives at some distance from each other, but we’ve stayed in touch by letter and phone and now and then we manage to get together.

It was on the phone, I think, that were were discussing Bob a few months ago, and George said that they hadn’t been in touch for some time. He heard bits of news from Niagara musicians, but not much. He wasn’t even sure if Bob was still alive. So I did what one does these days, I Googled the name, Robert Vandersluys, and there was an obituary with a date just a few months before. I told George, and he sought out more information by talking with people in the Niagara district. Someone told him that Bob had died in a fire.

I own a number of George’s paintings including one of the few large oils he produced. Bob owned another the same size. Now Bob was gone, and assuming the fire story was true, the painting was also gone. George arranged for his daughter to send a jpeg of the oil and when she sent it she also sent a photo of the big vivid mural. It was a revelation.

As I’ve said before, abstract expressionism was the art of my youth, and I have an intuitive sense of what it’s up to. But I recall a conversation with an art critic a little younger than I am who said that all it meant to him was bravado.

Bravado? Two young men delighting themselves by the challenge of painting a wall-size action painting? Well yes, I’ll drink to that.

Of course I pretty much don’t drink any more. Age, health. Perhaps bravado is for youth. Many of the abstract expressionists wore themselves out and died young.

And the painting? Well, the little house, empty and disused, was eventually given to a neighbour who wanted it for a workshop. He moved it to a lot a block away. There was no way to dismantle the wall without ruining the mural. So like many of Gulley Jimson’s wall paintings, it disappeared.

But in its day it was a wonder.

The Voice of Hope

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Yeah, yeah, yeah, old guys are always complaining about change. But there are things in the world that are so wonderful that any threat that they might be lost is a painful one. Take children’s voices, singing. All through my adult life I have watched the bright faces and open mouths of kids in choirs, and every single time I have found my heart ready to break with the wonder of it.

I started thinking about this after we attended a choir concert at Hillcrest Church in Montague. We have friends involved in the choir, and it’s a pleasant drive from Eldon on a Sunday night.

Anne White, the conductor of the choir, is a music teacher in her day job, but in her off hours, she goes right back to music, conducts a church choir and trains and conducts a youth choir, a dozen or so young people who provided both chorus and soloists for a number of pieces we listened to, including a musical round on the word Love and John Rutter’s charming setting of “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

I was ten or eleven when I joined my first church choir. The conductor, who was a neighbour, a fisherman on Lake Ontario when there were still edible fish in that lake, heard me singing in our yard and suggested I should join. Singing was as natural to me as breathing. On long drives my parents and I sang in the car. My mother was known to claim that I sang before I could talk. The United Church choir I joined was less than wonderful, with a certain amount of soprano screeching, some unmusical tenors, and I didn’t always enjoy it, but I learned a little about reading music, and my boy soprano voice contributed something to the overall sound.

Now and then I sang a solo or the group of young choristers might perform on their own. I have no idea how good or bad we were, but if we were anywhere near as good as the Hillcrest Youth Choir, we surely contributed something to the service.

It was, traditionally, the way people started to sing, hymns in church choirs. I find myself wondering how, as church attendance drops off, young people will learn the pleasure of the harmony and blending that choirs aspire to achieve.

Pop music is a big industry, but pop music is meant for bars and dances, them up there doing it, us down below responding. Some kids long to be up there in the spotlight, some are satisfied to be fans. Lots of young people get involved in music, but performance seems increasingly to mean some wired-up guys in a garage, everything depending on the microphone, the amp, the electric guitar.

Choral music is a shared experience, social and artistic all at once. No electronic aids. In a small choir, the singers will be closely aware of the breathing of those who sing beside them. These days community choirs, concert choirs, still exist, but often the members are getting to a certain age. How are kids to be brought in, to learn the pleasure of participation?

Look at the changes at the CBC. Pop is in, the splendour of twenty or fifty or a hundred voices in harmony appears increasingly old-fashioned. Nowadays even churches want to add guitars and drums and be up to date.

I firmly believe it is in the nature of human beings to sing and to sing together. Think of the opening of an NHL hockey game when everyone joins in the singing of O Canada. We all want to be part of it. I love the moment when a soloist holds out the microphone and stops singing, and the thousands of young people in the stands go on with the next lines of our national anthem, in tune and in rhythm.

Maybe there’s hope after all, and choral singing will always go on somewhere.

David Helwig is one of Canada’s foremost men-of-letters. He is a novelist, poet, essayist and editor, and has been contributing a monthly column to The Buzz since 2006. From 2008 to 2009 David was Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island. His most recent novel is Mystery Stories (Porcupine’s Quill).

Another World

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Toronto again, rain again. I am in the city for the ordination of my elder daughter Maggie as a deacon of the Anglican church; she has been working toward this concretely for the last several years, emotionally and spiritually for a good deal longer. Today, carrying my umbrella, I am wandering through the streets of the downtown, some streets I’ve known since childhood, some I’ve discovered in later years.

A big city presents a new world on every corner. I drop in at the AGO, and on the main floor turn toward a gallery of works donated by Ken Thomson, who inherited and ran Thomson newspapers and was accounted Canada’s richest man. His collection of Canadian art is hanging one floor up, but in this dimly lit gallery I observe his collection of European art, most of it work in miniature.

The glass showcases are filled with ivory carvings, often a hinged diptych about the size of a paperback book, and the imagery is for the most part religious, the Virgin and child on one side, Christ and the Last Judgment on the other, all of this articulated in tiny figures carved with slow infinite care. I notice one that one of the panels presents an image of age and youth, the torso of a female nude, smooth and sensual, observed from behind, in front of her an old man with almost female breasts, withered and drooping. The gallery exhibit dozens, perhaps hundreds of these miniscule creations, most in ivory, some in wood or metal.

It’s a puzzle that a man whose wealth and power were vast should be obsessed with such tiny works, carvings the size of a nutshell.

At lunch I met up with Maggie, and I spent the next hours helping out with a weekly dinner for indigent men and women that is cooked and served by volunteers at St Thomas’s church on Huron Street. For some of the guests it is a regular social occasion, and they arrive early. One plays the piano. Maggie has been working on this project for ten years, and a few of those who are present plan to attend her ordination. The guests are a little community of souls, all dealing with poverty, some living on the streets. One of the men has a striking and familiar face; I’d seen him at these meals before, a tall man with long grey hair and handsomely formed features, his skin darkened by living outdoors. Schizophrenic, and sometimes, Maggie has told me, his voices will not allow him to eat, famished as he may be. Today he cleans up a couple of plates of food. His name, he says, is Elizabeth.

After the clean-up we go on to a concert of mediaeval music performed in the church by a group of five musicians, called Sine Nomine. The concert is called “O viriditas! The greenness of life’s rising,” and it presents music for spring and music expressing the mystic meaning of spring’s greenness in the writers like Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart. The clear exotic lines of the singers’ voices evoke some other time, some other space. Another world of souls.

Late in the evening we catch a streetcar south to Queen Street. As we walk through the streets toward Maggie’s house, there is a constant stream of young people coming and going from the bars. Walking in front of us are three tall young women in tiny miniskirts, black stockings, inviting bare white thighs, their hooker get-up for a Friday night on the raz, Collisions of worlds: it sticks in my mind how after the dinner I came out the door of the church hall and saw Elizabeth, his possessions all packed up in bags, drawing mysterious shapes in the air between the church and the street, his fingers describing the forms the voices demanded before allowing him to make his way from one world to another.

Moving Pictures

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

A March day in Toronto, the CN Tower disappearing into the clouds that drop their heavy showers on the chilled streets: I stare out the window of my hotel room and plan my comings and goings for the day. I am here on my own, and given the weather, first snow, then rain, I have found myself returning to my room each night and dumping a sodden umbrella into the bathtub to dry.

I used to get to Toronto more frequently. Now I visit my daughter once or twice a year. This trip I am also doing a couple of readings, but I have time on my hands to visit and explore, and I’ve been reminded to drop in and see the Bell Lightbox, the new headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival, which was founded in 1975, back when I was working here for the CBC, and which has since grown to be a major city event every September. Now it has a permanent home, with its own cinemas.

I have already made my usual visit to the AGO, studying a large and splendid exhibition of the prints of the Newfoundland artist David Blackwood, and the Lightbox is now at the top on my list of places to see. Decide to have a look around before actually making arrangements to attend a movie. In the display windows facing King Street sits a cartoon monster advertising an exhibit of material by and about the film-maker Tim Burton. Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland grins from the cover of Tiff’s current flyer. Inside the Lightbox, on the main floor, is the TIFF shop selling videos and books about film, also the large box office.

Above, on the fourth floor, in a display space outside some private offices, is a free exhibition of material from the film career of Mary Pickford. Just inside the door hangs a painting of the small Toronto house on University Avenue where she was born. Two storeys, red brick, and somehow familiar, as if it might have been found in one of the Toronto paintings of Albert Franck, or one of the early cityscapes of Lawren Harris. In spite of all the growth and development in the city, there are still streets in downtown Toronto where I come upon houses just like this.

The character that emerges from the Pickford exhibit is an interesting one. Little Gladys Smith (her real name) began to perform on stage at six years old, and as she went on to films she seems often to have been cast as years younger than she was. A cute little thing with blonde curls, Mary Pickford became a famously tough negotiator and one of the founders of United Artists.

A few days after I saw the Pickford exhibition I went back to the Lightbox to catch one of the movies—some are current, some of historic interest—playing in the five cinemas. The film I chose, the Québecois movie, Incendies, was, as it turned out, one that was playing at the same time at Charlottetown’s City Cinema, which has a link with the TIFF movie circuit. Based on a play, it is a beautifully made film about the events and echoes of the Lebanese civil war, though the story does perhaps display its theatrical roots in a melodramatic resolution.

Coming out of the theatre, another discovery: the upper floors of the Lightbox, which overlook the lobby, also reveal a small glass-walled room hanging in mid-air. Inside it flash the bright lights and colours of a dozen or more small video screens, closed circuit feeds from security cameras and the theatre’s digital projections, a magical and perfect nucleus, I decide, for this new palace of images.

And then I’m off through the rainy streets back to the hotel to watch from my window the old movie of winter dark coming down over the city.

Staring at the Walls

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

It may have been the auction that started this train of thought. Last fall Erica Rutherford’s family held a sale at The Guild, offering a number of works of art that had come to light since her death, the proceeds to create a scholarship. We turned up, and though I would have said our walls are already full we bought a couple of pieces and managed to find places for them.

And I found myself thinking about the kinds of things that men and women choose to hang in the walls of their houses.

A childhood memory: in my bedroom, unexplained, was a print of a Victorian painting by the Canadian artist Paul Peel. An old bearded man, sitting at an easel, is peering round it at a little boy, three or four years old, naked, his back to the viewer, his face pressed down into his arm. The title is ‘The Tired Model’. Peel was a popular figure and probably the picture was regarded as charming. Myself, I found it unsettling and was glad when it vanished.

I remember from my grandmother’s dining room a large portrait photo in an oval frame, a picture of my great-grandfather, whom I never knew. It gave to room an aura of old-fashioned confidence and propriety.

We define ourselves—consciously and unconsciously—by our furnishings and the images we choose for our walls. Or paint on the walls. Once, early in my marriage, looking for an apartment, I was shown up a stairway above a store on Spadina Avenue in Toronto to an attic apartment. Grim place, the plaster covered with cheap blue paint. On one of the walls someone had drawn, in black lines, a bouquet of flowers. Beneath it was written: Be Happy. The World Will Learn to Love You Someday: a poignant message left by some lost soul who had moved on.

A few years back, while decorating a small room in our old house in Eldon, I was steaming and stripping off old wallpaper from a plaster wall between two windows. I found some dark brown paint underneath, then a paler shade, then, surprisingly, the features of a face. As I proceeded I gradually revealed the image of a larger-than-life female nude. The removal of wallpaper nearby revealed an imaginary landscape with a single tree.

Another inexplicable message from the past.

I was in my twenties when the age of cheaply-reproduced posters began. Student apartments were hung with everything from rock posters to Playboy centrefolds to satellite photographs of the earth. Cheap and bright and dramatic, they advertised a joyous impermanence. You could put them up when you arrived and abandon them when you left.

More permanent pictures get selected for a variety of reasons. To choose a work or art, or a framed reproduction for your walls is to suggest that it speaks to you, that it reflects a vision you want to share. Whether you hang up a clipping from a newspaper, a landscape, a large oil painting by a contemporary, or an old etching bought second hand somewhere, you are proclaiming some part of your nature. The choice of what you want to see around you every day is one way of saying who you are, to the live-in self or to any passing observer.

Al Purdy has a poem about the things hanging on his workroom wall, “like a casual group of strangers/at this meeting place under my roof.” Photographs recall our past, paintings exhibit our taste—our world as we wish it to be seen. Or our enthusiasm for an artist’s aesthetic or spiritual vision, desire to share it. Or our embodied memory of a place or event. Pale or vivid, a few elegant things or a passionate excess, it’s as personal as our handwriting.

Look around you, at the pictures you have begun to take for granted. They offer a secret autobiography. Who do they say you are?

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