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Creatures of Habit

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Why does a dog do the things it does? Dog owners and dog experts don’t always agree. When we got a mixed breed puppy we call Star (for a white galactic shape on her black chest) nearly four years ago, we had no children in the house, and we both had some time on our hands so inevitably we did a little reading about dog behaviour and training. There is a certain fascination in watching the development of a creature of a different species, and for a while the puppy was our favourite topic of conversation.

Dogs, they tell you, are creatures of habit. Well so am I. I once wrote, somewhere, that habit is life’s most enduring pleasure. So on that basis, Star and I get along pretty well. Most of how I behave seems comprehensible to her, and most of how she behaves makes sense to me. Her obsession with squirrels can lead to a little excessive barking, but on the whole we get along without problems.

We’re used to each other by now, and there are fewer surprises. But still there are questions about how she thinks and feels. Years ago I knew a dog breeder (a small woman who bred very large dogs) who said she thought of dogs as people who had very strong feelings but were not too bright. The manuals about how to deal with dogs suggest that owners tend to rate the intelligence of their pets more highly than the experts. Of course animal intelligence is in some ways not lesser but merely different.

Still there are intriguing questions.

Do dogs have a sense of humour? A bizarre question no doubt. But clearly they do have a sense of play. They can’t make verbal jokes, but isn’t playful behaviour a kind of humorous acting out? Let’s look at sticks. Your average dog likes sticks. Star adores them, and can keep herself involved for quite a while with a large stick, flipping it, tossing it, catching it, dragging it, trimming it down. Like most dogs she likes to carry around a stick, and like other dogs I’ve known, she will sneak up and bump my leg with the stick, hoping that I will make a grab for it, and she will be too quick for me. There exists a command for her to drop it, and she will obey if necessary, but she doesn’t enjoy it. However teasing me is great fun. It’s game for which she sets the rules, and she nearly always wins. I’ve been through this with other dogs, and it is clearly play.

But a sense of humour? Well maybe.

Like most dogs Star loves to go out—to walk, run, swim, even to drive around in the car. In order for me to take her somewhere I have to change from my slippers to my shoes or boots.

As soon as I sit down, Star—who is not a small dog—comes to me and with thumping and bumping and poking and wriggling, prevents me from changing until I tell her to go and sit by the door and wait.

What does she want? To go out. So why does she deliberately delay our departure?

I pondered that, and the obvious response is that she is being playful. Pretending. Now I’m not quite ready to generalize about dogs and humour, but I can find no reason for her to repeatedly postpone her own pleasure except to assume that what she is doing in this strange form of play is effectively a joke. No doubt the whole thing would collapse if I were to get angry. But as long as I am good-tempered about telling her to go and wait by the door, she continues to have her fun—like an old friend or relative who tells the same old joke over and over and has done so for years.

Good old predictable Uncle Charley.

When Art Strikes

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

We don’t choose them, those moments when art strikes us deeply. They are gifts.

This year, Charlottetown’s City Cinema decided to include opera in their program. The films they chose are from London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden, and the February selection was Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. It’s an opera I’d never seen or heard except for the tenor aria, “Nessun dorma”, which turns up everywhere. The Royal Opera production was created by the Romanian-American director Andrei Serban, and designed by Sally Jacobs, a British designer of international reputation.

The libretto of Turandot is derived from an eighteenth century play by Carlo Gozzi, and in Serban’s production the three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, have about them a hint of that commedia-dell’arte source. With the use of grotesque masks and makeup, and the most brilliantly colourful and inventive sets and costumes, the dramatized ancient tale suggested not the Victorian high drama of much opera but the wild inventiveness of early twentieth century European theatre, and with Puccini’s music showing the same flashes of modernity, the performance was a delight.

A few Sundays later we set off in a snowstorm to hear the PEI Symphony’s February concert. Well, half the concert. At intermission we stared out the windows and decided only a madman would want to be driving through a blizzard in the dark, and we fled. But in the first half of the concert we heard an appealing new piece by Kevin Morse, and Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto played by a former Islander, Julia MacLaine. I have happy memories of her performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto with the symphony a few years back.

The Shostakovich Concerto, which I was hearing for the first time, has the Russian’s gripping mixture of melancholy passion and modernist wit, and Julia MacLaine performed it with great intelligence and commitment. Afterward I kept recalling the long solo cadenza which joins the second and fourth movements, the unwinding of its soulful tune, and the lovely moment when the orchestra’s lead cello becomes a quiet second voice playing a moody countermelody.

Those performances, one on film, one live, resonated in my mind. And in the way of writers I was waiting, though only half aware of waiting, for a third to join them and make this column.

It turned out to be just a matter of reading the small print.

I subscribe to a quarterly magazine called Canadian Art, and I always study the illustrations with pleasure. Even the advertisements are full of appealing reproductions of recent art works. At the front of the magazine are short listings of what exhibitions are on in all parts of Canada and sometimes beyond. Column-size illustrations give a hint of the work on show. It was one of these illustrations that caught my eye, an image of Kingston Penitentiary. When I read the small print I was startled to learn that the watercolour painting was by Nan Yeomans.

I met Nan Yeomans forty or so years ago in Kingston, Ontario, and I have a print by her on the wall. She was a tiny, shy, silent woman, a generation older than I am, who made a specialty of printmaking. A posthumous exhibition of her work is currently on show at Queen’s University, and the picture of Kingston’s antique and infamous prison—a watercolour with the linear architecture of an etching—is part of it.

Her image is a haunting one, a folk art quality about it, hints perhaps of the English artist L.S. Lowry. A tall chimney rises above the stone walls, and a huge pile of coal lies in front of them. Something like smoke drifts across the air, as black as anthracite, like a spill of coal dust on the page. The image is strict but magical.

Puccini’s splendour, Shostakovich’s moody passion, Nan Yeoman’s quiet acuity: three gifts that recent days chose to give me. Call them fortuitous singularities. Sorcery.

All Aboard

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Is it too soon to be thinking about summer? By the end of the month of April we will probably sense that our ungentle northern spring is gaining ground. Summer will eventually come, and for me summer evokes travel on the water, steamboats on lake and river, a canoe at the end of evening, a fisherman hunched in his wooden rowboat at the edge of a deep channel, rod in his hand, waiting.

Last August we were sitting on a bench by the Charlottetown boardwalk, and I was hearing about the ferry that used to make a regular run from Charlottetown to Fort Amherst, carrying walkers and picnickers from the city to the historic point of land. For a while Judy’s uncle was captain of the boat.

The thought of that summer ferry takes me back to childhood in Toronto, when now and then we would escape the hot streets of the city, get on board a ferry called The Trillium and make an excursion to the park at Centre Island.

Excursion: the very word evokes an earlier world.

Here on PEI, small steamers from Charlottetown—the Harland was one of them—journeyed in both directions, westward to Victoria and eastward to Eldon. Just down the road from our house we can still see the ruins of Halliday’s wharf, and old photographs show women in long skirts and wide hats assembled for a summer outing.

Having grown up in Ontario, I know of these PEI excursions only from books, but recreational trips on shipboard were part of summer life in Upper Canada as well. A few months ago I wrote a column about Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches, and its most famous story “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias,” sometimes called “The Sinking of the Mariposa Belle.” The point of that story is that the lake involved is small and shallow, and the events offer a lyric parody of a maritime disaster.

For several years of my schooldays, I lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the historic town located at the mouth of the Niagara River. Twice a day in the summer months, a large steamship called the Cayuga crossed from Toronto to Niagara. From the point of land where the river met the lake, you could make out the ship as it came into sight, one of those classic proofs of the curvature of the earth’s surface. The tall smokestacks would appear, and the superstructure of the boat, and then gradually the lower decks would rise up over the horizon.

The Great Lakes are substantial bodies of water. Sinkings weren’t comic like the one in Mariposa. Gordon Lightfoot has a famous song about the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Cayuga was a large and powerful ship and could hold, they say, up to 1900 passengers. It docked in the river below the town, passengers came ashore, and in season I remember pallets loaded with peaches being wheeled aboard. It ran until 1959.

By then I had left Niagara, and in 1962 I took a job at Queen’s University and settled down in Kingston at the other end of Lake Ontario, the head of the St Lawrence River. Here too there was a ferry. This one made hourly crossings to a large island nearby. In later years I found myself spending weeks of summer in an old house on Wolfe Island only a few hundred feet from the ferry dock.

I would wake to the sound of the ferry loading in the morning, sunlight reflected off the water and glittering on the walls. At midday there might be sailboats visible in the distance. For some reason the yard behind the house was free of mosquitoes, and you could sit outside watching the ferry lights crossing the darkness from Kingston in the evening twilight.

The Trillium, the Harland, the Cayuga, the Wolfe Islander, the boats of summer. Something to think of on an evening of unreasonable April chill.

Vanity of the Present

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

A press release recently arrived in my inbox. “The Writers’ Union of Canada,” it said, “is watching with increasing alarm media reports about the closing of federally established research libraries.” That started me thinking. It’s a current and important political issue, but beyond that there’s a larger question of intellectual standards, of the whole relationship of past and present.

The Writers’ Union email offered links to coverage by various journalistic and academic sources, one of them an online British Columbia news source called The Tyee, which I’d never heard of before. It included an article by Andrew Nikiforuk on the destruction of several research libraries established and run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The article quotes a number of concerned scientists, some speaking anonymously out of fear for their jobs.

The attack on science and scientists by the current government is a familiar story, and a distressing one, but I was struck by something more than that. I began to contemplate the increasing lack of respect for the past, not just by the people in Ottawa, but by the whole culture.

A few years back I was told about the trashing of the archive at a civic theatre in a small Canadian city. New management was planning a renovation, and the theatre’s archival material went into a dumpster. That’s not a metaphor. At least one former employee salvaged some material from the dumpster for himself, but the rest was lost. What was old, the whole record of what had happened in the past, was despised and destroyed.

The ministerial defense presented when the assault on the Department of Fisheries libraries was called into question—that everything of importance has been digitized and is available to the public online—is unconvincing, and at best appears to be based on a narrow and naive sense of the nature of research. Selection of what is to be digitized—the choice of what is included in ‘everything of importance’—will inevitably tend to narrow the range of available material. At best the selection is a gamble. Who knows what obscure bit of information will be needed tomorrow?

In January in The New York Review of Books, the American historian, Robert Darnton, reviewed The Allure of the Archives by the French historian Arlette Farge. Darnton, who, besides being an historian, is University Librarian at Harvard, takes the book as an occasion to analyse the current accepted wisdom about information.

He offers three representative commonplaces. First, we live in the information age. Misleading, he says; “every age was an age of information, each in its own way.” The second, all information is available online. That’s plainly false. Third, the future is digital. True enough, he says, but also trite and misleading.

The French national archive contains 252 miles (miles!) of documents, and that doesn’t include documents relating to defense. The Farge book is about the kind of history created by careful line by line study of some inches or feet out of those miles. Farge spent years on the documents from a single eighteenth century court of law. In his description of her work, Darnton points out that even archival research on such vast quantities of undigested fact and opinion will be shaped, at least in part, by things like the form of filing within the archive.

Two hundred and fifty two miles of documents. Surely only the very simple will believe that all this detailed documentation could be summed up in a neat package that might appear on Wikipedia. Or be digitized by a government department.

According to a source inside DFO, the Fisheries libraries are now to behave with profit-seeking efficiency. That will tend to mean you assume your answer before you go looking. Which is not research. Such an approach empowers the vanity of the present and leaves no space for the inspired, the fortuitous. The absolute difference of the past. The complexity of truth.

Two Good Men

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Driving along the highway listening to the CBC, I was a little surprised to hear a familiar name mentioned. It took me back long years. I was less than ten years old, and we were on our way to or from church, and my mother was explaining why the hall next to Earlscourt United Church was named Peter Bryce Hall. She told me that Peter Bryce was the former minister, and being a good man who was intensely involved with his congregation, ready to roll up his sleeves and join in whenever work needed to be done, he was held in great affection, and the congregation had named the church hall after him.

But the comment I heard on the CBC had to do with the residential schools to which so many First Nations children were sent. A connection? A little research on the internet and in The Canadian Encyclopedia made clear that this was an altogether different Peter Bryce, though there was an interesting parallel between the two men, both of Scottish background, both men of conscience.

Dr Peter Henderson Bryce was the elder of the two, born in Mount Pleasant Ontario in 1853. Trained as a physician in the period when enlightened medicine was making revolutionary changes in public health, he was the first secretary of the Ontario Board of Health, responsible for such things as sanitation, disease prevention and statistics. Hired in 1907 as medical officer for the federal Departments of Immigration and Indian Affairs, he was assigned the job of making a report on Indian Schools in the west. He presented a shocking account of the rampant TB among children at the residential schools, a mortality rate of 24%. His report was the beginning of a long struggle to improve things.

Opposed to Bryce on most issues was the Canadian poet, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendant of the federal Department of Indian Affairs, who was committed to assimilation of the remaining Indian tribes at whatever cost in misery and death. Bryce, the troublemaker, was dismissed from Indian Affairs in 1913 though he continued at The Department of Immigration. In 1922 he published an 18 page pamphlet attacking the bureaucrats at Indian Affairs, particularly Duncan Campbell Scott, for keeping information on the health of native children from Canadians. Deeply embittered by now, Bryce called his pamphlet The Story of a National Crime.

Meanwhile, as they say in storytelling, who and where was the other Peter Bryce? What I learned of him comes mostly from the website of Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church. Born in Scotland in 1878, this Peter Bryce was raised a Presbyterian. The story is told that in his teens he asked his father about the people called Methodists. Told that they were good people and very kind to the poor, he set out to learn more, and by 1903 he was a Methodist preacher in Newfoundland travelling from one parish to another by rowboat.

While studying divinity at Victoria College in Toronto, Bryce heard about a “shacktown” in Earlscourt, to the northwest of Toronto. Soon settled at a church in that neighbourhood, he immersed himself in the life of the community, taking up hammer and saw to help rebuild tarpaper shacks as winter came on, despatching coal from his own basement when others were short.

A less controversial figure than the other Peter Bryce, he recruited the merchant aristocracy of the city to his good causes. Lady Eaton helped finance a nursery for working mothers. Joseph Atkinson, publisher of The Toronto Star, collaborated in the founding of a Christmas fund. Peter Bryce went on to work with Atkinson and The Star in support of causes like Unemployment Insurance, Workmen’s Compensation, Old Age pensions.

So, a little study in coincidence, synchronicity: a very brief account two good men with the same name living in Canada early in the 20th century; a biography of either one would make a worthwhile research project.

A Child Is Born

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

The plump little boy, just over a year old, sits on a picnic blanket, a sand shovel in his right hand, a bucket in his left, his round face framed by a sun hat. The blanket is spread on thin grass growing in sand. The boy looks toward the camera, his expression a little questioning, almost confrontational. Beside him sits his mother, wearing pink summer blouse and shorts, smiling, her bare legs curled under her. There is some resemblance between the two, the directness, the somewhat hooded eyes. The photograph is in colour, but examined closely, it reveals that it is a black and white original, hand-tinted, a slightly pastel effect. The sun is shining on the mother and child as they pose for the lens. The photograph has been mounted in a wooden frame hinged to a wooden stand designed to be set on a flat surface to display the family portrait. Old-fashioned, you’d say, and you might be able to guess the date, at least approximately.

No need to guess. On the back of the photograph is written a date in the summer of 1939, and the plump little boy is me, my proud mother then in her early thirties. It normally stands on top of a chest of drawers that holds my socks and T-shirts. Twenty years ago when I was emptying out my parents’ house after my mother’s death, I put this photograph with the things I intended to keep. It isn’t a brilliant or striking picture, though the effect of the hand-tinted colours gives it a particular aura. It’s a good picture of my young mother, though it’s not a version of fat-little-me that I much like.

Most days I see the picture without noticing it. Places we live are full of things like that. But recently I was reading about the political developments that led to the Hitler war, and was suddenly reminded that in the summer days when that plump little boy dug in the sand of a Canadian beach with his tin shovel, Europe was preparing itself for war. France, Britain, Russia and Germany were involved in both public and secret negotiations, and the outcome, late in August, was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. A German-Russian alliance. Within days of the signing of the pact, German armies attacked Poland.

As my mother and I sit in the hot sunlight, the pieces are put in place for six years of war. By the time that war is over, I will be seven years old, able to read the newspaper stories about the Allied march to victory. I first developed a sense of the world and its history during those years of World War II. My father worked at de Havilland aircraft; everything from radio drama to the comic strips told war stories. Years later I noticed how often the fiction I wrote had plots with some reference to that war, the central myth of my childhood.

Do children still grow into a shared history? One generation of no-longer-young Americans was defined by Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Imagine that this very morning a thirteen year old notices a family photo taken in the autumn of 2001. Will that child, decades from now, look back at the picture and think about the attack on the World Trade Centre? Fifty years from today, what historic events will be recalled? Maybe in the digital world all information about the past is equally significant—and therefore insignificant. Though the formalities of diplomacy have been largely swept away, and we no longer declare war, wars go on, without end, it sometimes appears. Perhaps in fifty years what will be remembered by history is a kind of storm that proved to be the precursor of cataclysmic environmental change.

Every child is born into a new universe. That fat little boy who is me looks out of the past into a world that will never be the same again.

Alone in the Dark

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Hyde Park, 1969A room in the basement of an art gallery with a table at one end; a tiny bathroom with a piece of plywood over the tub; another bathroom, even smaller, where my chair had to be set on top of the toilet when I needed to open the door. I worked in the dim illumination from the red-orange safe-light, air tainted with the smell of chemicals, eyes straining to focus the image from the enlarger. These were the circumstances in which I learned to develop and print black and white photographs. My first attempts, done when I was in high school, were thin in shade and contrast. But later, still using the old fashioned technology of wet chemistry, I produced the richer, sharper prints that hang on our walls.

One thought leads to another. I was watching a not-very-good movie about Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. One of the minor characters was the famous war photographer, Robert Capa, and I recalled that I owned a biography of Capa by Richard Whelan. The book was given to me years ago, and I originally read it, without great concentration, during a plane ride. Time for another look. It’s a good account of Capa’s adventurous life, his dramatic and compassionate photos, and it left me thinking about my fascination with the short and intense history of black and white photography.

Capa was born in Budapest in 1913. He grew up in a period of political unrest, and left Hungary at 17, spending some time in Berlin before moving on to Paris. Early on he got work as a darkroom assistant for one of the new photographic agencies, and this led to his earliest photographic assignments. He became part of the new world of photo-journalism, learned from figures like the great André Kertész, who hired him to develop and print pictures. Capa’s darkroom work was often unsatisfactory, but Kertész recognized imagination and talent, and like most of Capa’s friends was willing to forgive him a good deal.

This was in the 1930s when the small new 35mm cameras had made photography a swifter, more immediate process. The borderline between art and journalism became an uncertain one. Art photography had been a slow, patient craft, but suddenly photographers like Cartier-Bresson produced pictures that caught dramatic instants of public life—these momentary glances soon to be accepted as a major contribution to the art of the 20th century.

In 1936 Life magazine began to offer a weekly survey of public events in which words took second place to photographs. It was, I’d guess, somewhere around 1945 that my parents bought or were given a subscription to Life. I began learning from great photographers before I was aware of their names. In 1955 The Family of Man, an international exhibition of photographs assembled by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, presented itself as a climax of the journalistic tradition. I saw the show, bought the paperback.

London, 1962It was 1954 when Robert Capa was killed while covering the French war against the Vietminh. Photo-journalists went on with the work, continued to produce powerful pictures, but the controversial American involvement in Vietnam was also importantly documented on television. Life magazine began to go downhill. Colour photography was improving; finally the digital explosion cleared the decks. Now my difficult darkroom equipment has been packed away and the chemicals tossed out.

The images and the anecdotes live on. How Capa went ashore on D-Day in 1944, spent a couple of hours under machine gun fire on Omaha beach, used up his film and boarded a landing craft to get back to England. In London, editors in a hurry melted the emulsion of his film—all but eleven of his shots were unprintable. But the surviving images appeared in the next week’s issue of Life.

I know, it’s true, digital photography is effective and easy, but I do still sometimes miss those intense and solitary darkroom hours.

Going to the Movies

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I don’t know when I saw my first movie. I only know it was when I lived in Toronto in the 1940s. What I do know is that not long after my tenth birthday we moved to a small town which had a movie theater only one block away from our house. I was too young to be allowed into night movies alone, but I soon became an addict of the Saturday matinees—the Bowery Boys, the Three Stooges, westerns that all seemed to feature Randolph Scott. Soon enough I was old enough to go at night on my own, and I became a regular.

Then I went off to university and the movies got left behind. Academic work, university social life, my attempts at serious writing, all these helped keep me close to the campus of the University of Toronto, and it wasn’t until I travelled to England to do a graduate degree that I got back to regular movie-going. In those days my young wife was left at home most days while I slogged away at the library of the University of Liverpool. In the evenings we would go to a local cinema, a ten minute walk from the house or to one a little further away called the Continental. It was there that I saw, for the first time, films by the famous European directors, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni, and my personal favourite, Ingmar Bergman. Movies like The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician, created in the intense black and white that I came to associate with dramatic tales of northern Europe, probably taught me more than all my hours of study.

When we returned to Canada I found myself teaching at Queen’s University in the days when Peter Harcourt, another Canadian who had been living in England, founded the university’s film department. I attended many of his public showings of classic European and American movies.

After this intense introduction to some great flicks and the serious study of film, I went through a lengthy blank-screen period—a busy life, work for CBC television, the struggle to make a living as a free-lance writer. My dose of visual narrative was most commonly provided by TV. I liked movies, I saw some, but I didn’t attend them with any regularity.


It was 1996 when I moved to the Island and Judy and I settled in an old house in Eldon. TV was limited to a small black and white set that got local CBC and CTV on rabbit ears. The grey blur served only to bring us the daily news. But within weeks I discovered Derek Martin’s City Cinema and the monthly BUZZ listings of what was playing. I’d like to be able to name the very first movie we attended, but I can’t. What I do know is that within a short time we became regular Friday night patrons. If I do a little arithmetic I can come up with an estimate for how many movies we have watched in that small theatre over the years. Something over five hundred, I’d say, some memorable, some lost in time. European movies. British movies. American movies. Canadian movies. Ninety minutes to two hours each of vivid visual experience. Classics like Gosford Park or Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Canadian gems like One Week or Faith, Fraud and the Minimum Wage.

I sometimes recall the first sentence of one of Gore Vidal’s memoirs. “As I now move, graciously I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.” I don’t suppose I could put it quite that strongly, but the variety and scope of Derek’s selections for City Cinema over the years have certainly been a small blessing.


More than small.

Events Calendar

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Gadfly crew

Urban roots dance January 31
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Raised on TV #3

February 15 & 16
The Guild Now in its third season, Raised on Television (RoTV3) is taking a loo [ ... ]

Credit Union Music PEI Week 2019

Awards Gala, concerts, shows, parties and more January 23–27
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Recent News & Articles

Music PEI Canadian Songwriter Challenge

In partnership with ECMA 2019 Music PEI and ECMA 2019 have announced a partnership bringing togethe [ ... ]

The facilitator

Profile: Steve Bellamy by Jane Ledwell “Arts are ways into emotions. Arts are where we connect, [ ... ]

A gift of Island poetry: John MacKenzie

The Feet of Blue Herons If you happen to live in another town,
Or country, or even galaxy
As dim and  [ ... ]