Archive for July, 2010

Cobourg, once

Lake Ontario’s shoreline on the eastern side of our town offers large boulders and shattered slabs of concrete, pretty much all that remains — other than vague memories in dusty forgotten archives — of the town’s once-thriving port. A busy ferry service prospered, bringing wealthy Americans from the south shore of the Lake to their palatial summer homes in Cobourg (so named after Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg to honour his marriage [1819] to England’s Princess Charlotte).

The “Ontario 1,” the first of the Rochester-Cobourg ferries.

Sidbrook. Similar to many of the summer “cottages” of what might be called “the American Period.” Designed by Kivas Tully.

Then in 1929 the stock market, and all that lovely money, suddenly became past tense, the beautiful homes lay silent, their rooms empty, with not an echo of the grand balls and festivities of yesteryear.

In those years before the stock market crash, Cobourg was seen as one of the most fashionable centres in North America, and fame was ours.

The grand town hall: Victoria Hall.

Sardonic fame! its life an hour long,

Tomorrow leaves you singing fame’s sad song.

In tourism’s wake the ferry port declined,

And left these fallen slabs that still remind:

In sleeping sun, cement and seaweed lie

In lake-surrounded silence ’neath the sky.

The architect Kivas Tully, who also designed the mansion "Sidbrook" shown above.

Looking east along the main street toward the town hall.

There’s one story — undocumented so far as I know, and bearing nuances that may not necessarily be 100% correct (but then Time colours many stories, doesn’t it?) — of how the town’s leaders, through their rose-coloured glasses, saw Cobourg as the future provincial centre, and in the mid-1800s engaged the well-known architect Kivas Tully to design a town hall of awe-inspiring magnificence (for a town whose population then was undoubtedly less than 10,000). Many a municipal heart was broken when the parliamentary prize went to Toronto (political sleight of hand being as prevalent then as it is now), and left Cobourg with a city hall that would not be out of place in the greatest cities of the world.

But it’s an outstanding landmark. See it for miles. You can walk up its main staircase four abreast and still leave room for a passing car. I bet Toronto can’t say that.


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Years go by. You’ve noticed that, have you? If you haven’t, you’ll be reminded, and ironically that reminder will take the form of a loss of memory. Inexplicably you will remember entire pointless conversations of 25 years ago — what, with whom, where, and why — but will be unable to recall what you had for breakfast. Me? I avoid the issue by not having breakfast at all.

Some people, however, use memory loss to their advantage.

“Hi, George. How’s things? Ten bucks? I’m sure I returned it. Wednesday? Thursday was it? Hang on, I’ve got another call coming in.” (click).

When someone says “My memory isn’t what it used to be,” you can bet the farm on one of two things: Either he’s singing the lyrics to a rapper’s new “song,” or he’s trying to get out from under an unpleasant obligation. Because as sure as the sun will rise in the morning, his memory is exactly as it used to be.

Try owing him money and you’ll find his memory is as sharp, relentless, and as unforgiving as a guillotine; lend him money and you’ll learn what voice mail and telephone answering machines are all about.

For an answer to the dilemma smart people turn to a couple of wise poets: More than 400 years ago Shakespeare told us “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend.” And closer to the present time, we might paraphrase the poet Robert Frost: The world is full of happy people; most are happy to borrow, a few are happy to return it, the rest are quite happy to forget all about it.


Illustration:  http://www.ClipProject.info

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Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, 1953.

On an arctic evening, a few weeks after my arrival, I was working late in the commissary, restocking shelves. A placid evening, soon to be not so placid.

That night I met the construction camp’s resident white wolf. Met her the hard way. No distant sighting that would have allowed me time to run and hide.


Within the commissary window’s glow,

Outside, just at the step before the store,

As patient as Time, she gazes at the door;

Once in, directly to the stove she’ll go,

Grey Wolf. Known as an apex predator, threatened only by humans. *

And brings indoors the tundra and the snow,

Adds mystery to the store’s mundane décor;

Her mind, so placid, lost in lupine lore;

Grey eyes that understand what we can’t know.


I opened the commissary door, and there we were, nose to nose. Not the best way to encounter a wolf (is there a good way?). It’s one of the quicker paths to a heart attack. You can hear your heart stop with a thump.

The fact that all reports maintain she’s tame means nothing; they’ll tell you Count Dracula is tame, too, but you’re not going to pat him on the head either, not unless you want a transfusion. Or rather, the opposite of a transfusion.

The wolf, however, ignored me and pushed past — not much of a push; I stepped back quick enough — and she settled next to the stove. Silent, unmoving.


Her coat, once white, now stained by mud and sand,

So thick and coarse, once white as the snow around,

Once white as the snow in which she first was found;

Symbolic silence hers, just like the land.

Time pauses in her eyes, and seems to stand

As still and hard, unmoving, as the ground;

So still she is, just staring, not a sound,

Then moves away, ignores an outstretched hand.

Her days extend, without an end in sight;

No friend; Anticipation? None; no goal.

And yet, perhaps, far back in history’s night,

Her canine memories define her role;

She looks within: another world, and bright:

Her northern heart, Aurora in her soul.


* Photo, Chris Muiden

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Montréal 1952

A photo of Montréal brings back a lot of memories. When I first arrived from Vancouver in the summer of 1952 none of the tall buildings existed. The biggest thing in town was the number of bars and nightclubs.

The nightclubs featured three shows a night. As I understood it at the time, the club had three or four “maitre-d”s, each of whom appeared to have a bunch of tables under his care — some good, some so-so, some poor. If you tipped him a dollar you got one of the best seats in the house, half a dollar put you a little farther away from the action; tip him twenty-five cents and you were seated next to the men’s room. The “maitre-d”s were all bouncers, so you didn’t argue. Then, if you were smart, you tipped the waiter, otherwise you could wait hours for your next drink. In addition to all this, most nightclubs levied a minimum charge, say two dollars, because in theory you could simply order one beer for half a dollar, nurse it for an hour, and enjoy top-of-the-line entertainment. This arrangement wasn’t onerous to most of us because we always spent more than the two bucks anyway.

Montréal today, looking south. The Place Ville Marie cruciform building (completed in 1962) is the tallest structure just to the left of the centre of the photo.

The bars were open 23 hours a day. Yep, they closed only between five and six a.m. to clean up. Terrible imposition; at 5:30 a.m. you couldn’t get a drink anywhere in town. Trust me: I was often there at five, lifting my feet as the cleaner mopped the floor around me (until I finally got the hint and left), and a couple of times at six a.m. when they opened again. I suppose the six a.m. opening was to serve those working people who preferred something a little stiffer than coffee in the morning.

The Montréal of 1952, looking north. The largest building in town was the Sun Life Building, seen dominating the skyline. In the colour photo, Sun Life is almost hidden behind the newer buildings.

In the late 1960s I was editor of a trade magazine with offices on the 20th floor of Place Ville Marie (the silver tower in the middle of the colour photo). It had bars and restaurants on top (penthouse) and a bunch more underground. (Sigh) If I had, today, the money I spent in those bars, I would be driving a Rolls-Royce — when I wasn’t holding down the sand at St Tropez.

They were great years, the years leading up to Expo ’67. Money, exciting job, exciting city. But … I think if I had those days again, I’d send them back for a refund. Worthless, unproductive days, thoroughly irresponsible, and ruinously expensive.

Nice memories, but.

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My, my, such a strange irony: Some people have a sense of humour that is generally (or maybe superficially) sparkling and innovative. Great people to have at a party … most of the time. The problem is that their idea of humour often has a sharp edge of ridicule, which, while highly entertaining for those of us with tougher skins, can reduce the sensitive to tears (the in-sensitive, being harder animals, smile coldly and plot revenge).

“Harry is a great fashion plate. He even irons creases in his jockey shorts.” Everyone kind-of chuckles, except Harry.

“If I were you, I’d keep my eye on Ralph. Even his cash is post-dated.”

Yet, strangely, these people who gleefully skewer others with their so-called wit, paradoxically are part of the “sensitive” group and tend to be less than 100 percent receptive when they themselves are the subject of the humour, which, of course, makes them prime targets for other humorists.  Their difficulty is that they have zero tolerance for self-mockery. For them, humour is a one-way street that should never lead to them. Too bad, because self-mockery, as the comedian Rodney Dangerfield has shown, can provide a lot of  good, largely innocent, laughs. That view is lost on the anti-self-mockery people, whose stance is unequivocally expressed in these lines by a poet who will remain unidentified:


I will laugh at a joke when it mocks other folk,

Be it wit or impertinent gall.

But when laughs they invoke, using me as the joke,

Then it’s simply not funny at all.


Laughing at jokes that are funny to some of us

Really can be retrospectively dumb of us;

Laughing at others is not very bright of us;

Jokes can be turned, to our cost, and in spite of us.


So, while we might laugh, with a trace of embarrassment, at their acid humour, it’s really impoverished humour, and their use of it, as the poet says, is not really funny at all, just sad.


Illustration: http://www.ClipProject.info

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Toronto 2010

I was sitting in a coffee shop in Toronto’s York Mills Centre the other day. The background music was … I don’t know; Spanish, Brazilian, Mexican, whatever, lots of bongos, syncopation beyond belief, and loud.

Toronto? You’re sure?


The Tower of Babel. Reminds you of Toronto’s highrise condos, though I bet Babel was cheaper (anything would be cheaper).

I looked around and couldn’t help but remember the Toronto of 40 years ago when I first arrived from Montréal. In those long-gone days if you didn’t speak English you were from Mars; now, if you just speak English you’re from Mars — a unilingual dinosaur in Toronto’s horizontal tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel again. The guy in the centre just learned what the latest condo maintenance fee was going to be.





The passage of time has robbed me of any surprise. This is the Toronto of the 21st century. Outside in the city’s streets you see the changes of 40 years, changes that would have taken half a millennium to occur in yesterday’s Europe. Toronto’s downtown streets, though broader than Europe’s, nevertheless mirror the old cheek-by-jowl architectural spacing and narrow streets of what was once Muddy York (ask any motorist, and watch out for his four-letter words as he searches in vain for a parking space that doesn’t cost a dollar a minute).

But moving out to what was once open countryside — Sheppard Avenue and beyond — the streets become wide pleasing thoroughfares, architecture is vertical, and everywhere there is friendly greenery.

40 years ago all this would have been green, nothing higher than a tree.

Back in my York Mills coffee shop (Sheppard Avenue and Yonge Street, the former countryside) I look around at my coffee-drinking neighbours: I am the only guy in sight who is wearing a shirt and tie. I am the only guy speaking English. I am the only guy wearing shoes for Pete’s sake! Except for that guy over there. He’s wearing shoes, yes, but no socks! Everyone else is wearing sandals. The fellow next to me is wearing a bomber jacket and jeans, and is the smartest-dressed person in the place, except for me.

And yet … and yet, I have to admit it: In 40 years Toronto has inherited the sense of life and excitement that before was only seen in Montréal. There is a manner of life here that never existed before! It’s progress, I suppose, and involuntarily I applaud.

I just wish I didn’t feel so out-of-place in a shirt and tie …

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Frobisher Bay, 1953, and I find that snowstorms leave the Baffin Island huskies unmoved. Snow? Who cares? They curl up next to the cookhouse and sleep the night and the storm away, pursuing doggy dreams. They’ve been doing it for millennia before we came.



Siberian Husky.*

Deep night. The blizzard’s stopped, though gusts still blow

Around the cookhouse, blowing, ’cross the road,

And shake the power lines whose icy load

Now sways and glistens in the campsite’s glow.

My bunkhouse window looks across the snow;

Along the cookhouse wall, where sand once showed,

Great drifts have swept the roof and overflowed,

And buried huskies sleeping there below.

Alaskan Malamute puppy.


Just huge piles of drifted snow, a metre or two deep. Here and there an air hole. Look down the whole and you’ll see a black nose, regularly puffing clouds of condensation.

At the time I was surprised they did not melt the snow that covered them. Well-padded by the fat they consume in the handouts they get from the cook, their bodies radiate a heat on which you could fry an egg. The animals were a strange paradox: Though native dogs originally, they’d been around the block; they quickly realized that (a) the construction camp was where the food was, and (b) they didn’t have to work for it. We found we were surrounded by a bunch of wild animals that were as tame as household pussy cats.


* Photo: Schmoomeema.

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