Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “January, 2014”

Easterbrook and King Both Speak Canadian!

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 22, 2014)

The Super Bowl is almost here, which means that soon I’ll no longer have the help of football writers to pad out these columns – so I might as well take advantage of them while I can. Gregg Easterbrook seems to have a thing for Canada – he can’t stop mentioning us – and here he goes again, in his TMQ column following the conference championship games:

Denver’s other touchdown came on a really pretty goal line zed-in to Demaryius Thomas – the zed-in is the Canadian version of a z-in.

Well, that’s interesting. Based on a Google search, it seems this play (see the diagram at the top) is commonly referred to as a “z-in” not a “zed-in” (under the name “22 Z In”, it was a staple of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offence when he was in San Francisco). So why does Easterbrook go out of his way to type it out as a “zed-in”?

That’s how we would pronounce “z-in” in Canada, of course, as opposed to “zee-in,” which one would think would be the standard U.S. pronunciation. Is Easterbrook trying to make his Canadian readers feel at home? That seems unlikely, given his history of glacier references. He is originally from Buffalo, which is close to the Canadian border – perhaps, through some sort of linguistic influence by proximity, the play is pronounced “zed-in” up there rather than the more typically American “zee-in”?

Or is Easterbrook just seizing the opportunity to take another dig at one of his favourite targets – Canadians?

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 21, 2014)

By an odd coincidence, Peter King’s MMQB column touches on related subject matter. While in Denver covering the AFC championship, he attended a hockey game (hockey – this column just oozes Canada!) between the Devils and the Avalanche:

b. Of course, one of the highlights during the game was noticing the back of No. 24 for the Avalanche: CLICHE. A forward. Marc-Andre Cliche, from Quebec. So, brilliant me, I’m at the game with our Robert Klemko, and Cliche goes into the penalty box, and I say, “Cliché in the sin bin! How perfect is that?!”

c. But the dream soon died. The PA announcer, calling out the penalty, pronounced the last name “Cleesh.” Bummer.

That question mark/exclamation mark combo is exactly the way it appears in King’s column; apparently hockey is so exciting it makes him toss punctuation around like a drunk 13-year-old on Twitter.

As for the name, I thought “Cleesh” might just be the American PA announcer’s mispronunciation, but a quick Google search doesn’t turn up any instances with an accent on the “e” (though, curiously, “Andre” sometimes has an accent and sometimes doesn’t). Perhaps the family got tired of the jokes  and dropped the accent – the opposite of the famous case of Egbert Sousé.

I’m not sure these two references tell us anything new about perceptions of Canada, but they do offer further confirmation that American sportswriters have an idea that their neighbours to the North speak strangely (“aboot” etc.), and that this is an appropriate subject for jokes at our expense.

In a related note, the Montreal Canadiens are now putting accent marks on players’ names on the backs of their jerseys. If only Colorado would follow suit, Peter King would have one less thing to be confused about.

Those Ghastly Colonials

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Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford’s sort-of sequel to The Pursuit of Love, doesn’t just mention Canada – it features a Canadian as a major character, and both raises and then undermines a number of common ideas about our country and its citizens. The novels share several features: like The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate is again narrated by Fanny; again has very little to do with Fanny’s life, but is rather the story of one of her acquaintances, Polly; and again makes ample use of the Mitford family in the guise of the Radletts. Many of the characters from the earlier novel recur, though seen from slightly different angles, as it were.

As for the evocative title, if it has led you to hope that the novel is all about how to get naked and stay warm in a snowbank, I’m afraid I must disappoint you: the “cold climate” of the title refers to England (which must make any Canadian laugh, but anyway).

On to the story: Polly is the beautiful but cold daughter of Lord and Lady Montdore, and the first half of the novel concerns Lady Montdore’s attempts to marry her daughter off to a suitable bachelor. One of Lady Montdore’s great disappointments is that the family’s beautiful country house, Hampton, cannot be inherited by Polly, but instead will go to Cedric Hampton, a young relative the family has never met from – wait for it – Nova Scotia.

Here is Lady Montdore laying it out:

‘Oh, dear, oh, dear! Now, if only we were a French family, they seem to arrange things so very much better. To begin with, Polly would inherit all this, instead of those stupid people in Nova Scotia – so unsuitable – can you imagine Colonials living here?’  (271)

And similarly, a few pages later:

‘The young man from Nova Scotia simply gets Hampton and everything in it, but that is an Aladdin’s Cave, you know, the furniture, the silver, the library – treasures beyond value. Boy was saying they really ought to get him over and show him something of civilization before he becomes too transatlantic.’  (281)

And this:

‘Sad, isn’t it, the idea of some great lumping Colonial at Hampton!’  (367)

Here we can see the English aristocracy’s attitude to Canada: “stupid people … so unsuitable … Colonials.” The incredulity implied by the question at the end of the first passage makes it clear that Canadians are viewed as simply not good enough to live in a stylish English house.

The second passage continues in the same vein, with the reference to showing the Nova Scotian something of civilization indicating that no one thinks there’s any civilization to be found in Canada; no doubt it’s essentially a wilderness inhabited by people not much better than animals. Only Europe can provide civilization – and there we see the one ray of hope. The boy from Nova Scotia is not beyond recovery; if he could just be rescued from Canada and brought to Europe in time, perhaps the touch of civilization could smooth out his savage nature (“too transatlantic”) and make him someone who might not be welcomed, but could at least be tolerated, in the drawing rooms of society.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot here – too labyrinthine – but, for the sake of comprehension, I’ll hit the high points: Polly disappoints her parents by marrying her uncle, Boy Dougdale (who has also been her mother’s lover, apparently – let’s hope Park Chan-wook doesn’t make a film adaptation). In response to this inappropriate marriage, her father cuts her out of his will entirely:

‘Of course lots of people say Polly isn’t Lord Montdore’s child at all. King Edward, I’ve heard.’
‘It doesn’t seem to make much difference now, whose child she is, because he’s cut her out of his will and some American gets it all.’  (383)

This is one of the most remarkable references to Canada I’ve come across. Without even mentioning Canada, it says so much about us: even in fiction, we get taken for Americans.

In the second half of the novel we actually meet Cedric Hampton, the Nova Scotian who will inherit all of Lord Montdore’s estate, and this is where things get particularly interesting. Mitford sets us up with a few more references along the lines of what we’ve come to expect:

‘Now, fancy moving in Canada. You’d think one place there would be exactly the same as another, wouldn’t you?’  (397)

And this:

Words dimly associated with Canada kept on occurring to me, the word lumber, the word shack, staking a claim…. How I wished to be present at Hampton when this lumberjack arrived to stake his claim to that shack.  (399)

So there he is again: our old, and seemingly inescapable, friend, the Canadian lumberjack. The passage is a miniature summary of how a well-off young Englishwoman of the time would think of Canada – ironically so, it turns out, because then we meet the “lumping colonial,” the “lumberjack,” Cedric Hampton himself, and things take a turn for the unexpected:

There was a glitter of blue and gold across the parquet, and a human dragon-fly was kneeling on the fur rug in front of the Montdores, one long white hand extended towards each. He was a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl…. He was flashing a smile of unearthly perfection….  (401)

It turns out that this nominal Canadian has not been living in Canada for years; in fact, as he says himself:

‘…kindly Nature has allowed a great sea-fog of oblivion to rise between me and Nova Scotia, so that I hardly remember one single thing about it.’  (406)

He’s been living in Paris, depending on the kindness of Barons, involved with a “selfish” German “boy” named Klugge; he is “kind and thoughtful and affectionate, like a charming woman friend” (413); he turns out to be a member of quite a different tribe from what we were led to expect:

‘Aesthetes – you know – those awful effeminate creatures – pansies.’  (420)

For us as Canadians, Cedric’s actual appearance, when compared to what everyone expects of him before he arrives, marks a significant shift in the perception of Canadians in the English novel, and brings about an equally remarkable shift in the views of the English aristocrats in the book – for Cedric becomes like a son to the Montdores, especially Lady Montdore, who at the beginning of the novel loathes the very idea of his existence. He turns out to be a sophisticated aesthete with an extensive knowledge of art, architecture, poetry, fashion, furniture, personal grooming – pretty well any subject of interest to society ladies with more money and time than they know how to spend. He charms every member of high society he meets, usually by seeming to have an intimate knowledge of, and deep interest in, whatever subject the other person is most fascinated by. He is a glittering chameleon, always exactly what the other person wants him to be.

This seems to suggest that Mitford had a view of Canadians quite a bit more nuanced than many of her compatriots had – or even have today. In part the intention of the novel is satirical, of course; she builds up expectations of a coarse, unsophisticated Canadian, and then shifts the direction of the novel by introducing a completely different sort of character. And Cedric’s sophisitication is the product of his time in Europe, not in Nova Scotia – though really it’s the product of time in Europe combined with his innate nature, which suggests Canadians aren’t doomed to never be more than lumberjacks; we have at least the potential to understand and appreciate the finer things, so long as we are brought into contact with the improving influence of European civilization.

There is also the idea that “blood will out” to consider – Cedric’s mother was a Canadian woman, but his father was a member of the English aristocracy, and perhaps we are meant to understand that it is the aristocratic half of his background that makes the life he creates for himself possible.

Nevertheless, the story of Cedric Hampton represents a fascinating reversal of the view of Canada taken by Dickens, say, or Basil Bunting, as a land of new opportunity for Englishmen; in the case of Cedric, it is his leaving Canada and coming to Europe that opens up a social and cultural world where a person with his aesthetic and theatrical inclinations can succeed and become an adored figure of high society – something that surely never would have happened in Halifax or Dartmouth, where he might well have simply withered away.

Icebergs, Shipwrecks and Stock Whips

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Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The volume in the photo contains two Nancy Mitford novels, The Pursuit of Love and its sequel of sorts, Love in a Cold Climate. Both novels mention Canada, but as they were originally published separately – and as Love in a Cold Climate has numerous references to Canada – I’ll give each one its own post.

For Those Unacquainted with the Mitfords…

If you’re not familiar with the whole cult surrounding the Mitford family, then this Wikipedia entry is at least a starting point; Mary S. Lovell’s book The Sisters is essentially a combined biography of the whole family, though with the focus on the daughters. Or you could read The Pursuit of Love, which is one of the books that helped create the cult in the first place: the Radlett family in the book is based on the Mitford clan, with the characters of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew representing Nancy Mitford’s parents. (Another key book in the creation of the family mythology is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which we’ve already considered.)

The experiences of Linda Radlett, the main character in The Pursuit of Love, are modelled on Nancy Mitford’s own, though the book is actually narrated by Fanny, a cousin of the Radletts’, perhaps to give some slight authorial distance.

And Now, the Important Stuff: Canada

There are only two passing references to Canada in The Pursuit of Love, and both come in the early chapters that deal with the childhood experiences of Fanny and the Radlett children at Alconleigh, the Radletts’ country estate.

When a child I spent my Christmas holidays at Alconleigh, it was a regular feature of my life, and, while some of the them slipped by with nothing much to remember, others were distinguished by violent occurrences and had a definite character of their own…. There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katy in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.  (6)

Here Canada, or at least the journey to Canada, is clearly associated with great distance and considerable danger; enough danger, in fact, that the death of parents, and consequent freeing of their children from troublesome parental rules, is a real possibility. The reference to Atlantic storms suggests the approach to a wild, uncivilized place; the mention of an iceberg focuses our reputation as a cold, Northern land. 

The iceberg also recalls the Titanic, which famously ran into an iceberg south of Newfoundland and sank in 1912, when Nancy Mitford would have been around 8 years old. Perhaps she is recalling that here.

The obvious (unanswered) question that arises from the passage is, why were they going to Canada in the first place? Winter doesn’t seem the ideal time for a holiday in a place even colder than England. Did they just want to see another part of the world? Did they have relations in Canada? There’s no way to tell, but it seems like a bit of a compliment that these two English aristocrats braved the storms and icebergs to visit our humble land. 

A few pages later we get this:

Uncle Matthew was no respecter of other people’s early morning sleep, and after five o’clock one could not count on any, for he raged round the house, clanking cups of tea, shouting at his dogs, roaring at the housemaids, cracking the stock whips which he had brought back from Canada on the lawn with a noise greater than gunfire, and all to the accompaniment of Galli Curci on his gramophone, an abnormally loud one, with an enormous horn, through which would be shrieked ‘Una voce poco fa’ – ‘The Mad Song’ from Lucia – ‘Lo, here the gen-tel lar-ha-hark’ – and so on, played at top speed, thus rendering them even higher and more screeching than they ought to be.  (22)

In case you were wondering, a stock whip is not the same as a bull whip. Stock whips are used for mustering cattle, so the whip’s Canadian provenance suggests a place full of livestock and cowboys – though stock whips actually seem to have originated in Australia, not Canada, so why Uncle Matthew should have a stock whip from Canada is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he acquired it on his trip there, when he didn’t drown in a shipwreck?

Uncle Matthew is portrayed in the novel as prone to wild rages, and here the Canadian whip is associated with the angry, out-of-control side of his character; the fact that the whip is from a country probably viewed as half-savage by the English aristocracy of the time perhaps adds an extra element of violent primitivism to the description of his behaviour (though one could read it more as quaint eccentricity).

So there’s not a lot new about Canada here: it’s a distant country, getting there can be dangerous, the livestock and wild animals probably outnumber the humans – and yet it’s worth visiting, though it’s not clear why. Interestingly, the Mitfords really had been to Canada: David Mitford (father of Nancy, Jessica et al.) even owned “a dear little gold mine” (Jessica’s phrase) here, which he thought would make him rich. Alas, it didn’t.

Some General Observations

As a writer, Mitford hovers somewhere between a novelist and a memoirist; most of her best-known works are fictionalizations of her own experiences or the experiences of her family members and friends, and you can see even in these brief passages her tendency to create run-on sentences by constantly adding further specific details to her descriptions, as if jotting down memories as they occur to her.

She does, however, make some notable alterations to the family history. I’ll mention just one: in The Pursuit of Love, Linda’s first marriage is to Tony Kroesig, the son of a rich banker of German descent. Much is made of Uncle Matthew’s disgust at his daughter marrying a German, and when the Second World War breaks out the Kroesigs are portrayed as sympathetic to Hitler and scheming to get their money out of England, while the Radletts would never think of leaving and are all ready to fight and die for their beloved homeland.

In reality, of course, two of Nancy Mitford’s sisters were staunch fascists and ardent supporters of Hitler – a fact she elides in the novel by removing those sentiments from her family, and by extension the English aristocracy as a whole (where they weren’t exactly unknown), and ascribing them instead to the nouveau-riche, recently arrived Kroesigs. Which seems a bit unfair, but there it is.

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