Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the category “Biography”

The Beatles Get Their Big American Break — In Canada

Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1 (2013)

I will admit right off that while I read most of this book, I did skim some parts. At 800 pages and only the first of a projected three volumes, this is a detailed “biography” not of an individual person, but of the Beatles as a whole. It covers the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo, as well as their families and friends, in astonishing detail; if George Harrison sneezed on stage in the Cavern club, the sneeze will be lovingly catalogued here along with every other recoverable detail of that night. Given that, it does drag in places. The most interesting parts are the descriptions of the recording sessions, but since the band only began recording towards the end of the period covered in this book, there aren’t many of those. Stay tuned for the next two volumes, I suppose.

There are a number of references to Canada, but I’m only going to pick out a couple of the more interesting ones.

To Emigrate or Not To Emigrate

We begin with a young George Harrison contemplating his options:

Staring at a dead end, George flirted with emigration. First he tried to persuade his parents to consider a family move to Australia, which they rejected. Then he thought of emigrating alone, a 16-year-old planning to live in Malta (he’d seen it in some travel brochures) or Canada. He went as far as requesting the application forms but lost heart when he saw parental authority was needed. He didn’t even bother asking.  (231)

This idea of Canada as a place for English people to go to in search of a fresh start or a chance at a better life stretches back at least as far as Dickens’ Little Dorrit. When George returns from the band’s first stint in Hamburg, it turns out that he has family connections in our country:

Louise [George’s mother] wasn’t around to greet George — she’d sailed to Ontario, Canada, to see her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and one of her brothers, and wouldn’t be home for five months…  (386)

In this context, George’s plan to go to Canada doesn’t sound quite so hare-brained as it did in the first passage. If he had come, he would have had a sister and her husband and an uncle already here and presumably established enough that they could have offered him at least some support.

Digression: George in Canada

Just as a thought experiment: what would have happened had George Harrison emigrated to Canada at 16? Perhaps he wouldn’t have stayed long. Perhaps, away from John and Paul, he wouldn’t have had the determination to stick with music. And perhaps Canada at that time wouldn’t have offered the opportunities for him to find the level of success the Beatles ultimately did. But perhaps his musical talent was strong enough that he would have become successful no matter where he lived.

If so — and assuming he didn’t head for New York or L.A. at the first glimmer of success — could we call him a Canadian pop star? A British-Canadian pop star? Given our tendency to claim artists who live or work in Canada, however briefly, regardless of their actual nationality (Malcolm Lowry?), and the fact that the desire to claim someone as Canadian grows in direct proportion to their fame, we can be pretty confident that had George become famous while living in Canada, Canadians would be sure to remind everyone of it, and to insist that he was a Canadian musician. We would probably think of him now as the greatest rock star Canada ever produced (sorry Neil). To be honest, I’m tempted to start calling him Canadian just because he once considered moving here.

Some fiction writer needs to get started on a “George Harrison in Canada” alternate history novel asap.

A Great Place to Visit

Constant travel to Canada was also a fact of life in the family of Cynthia (“Cyn”) Powell, later Lennon, John’s first wife:

Paul’s girlfriend Dot had moved into the smaller room next door. While Cyn had solid reason to be here (her mother was only now returning from a long trip to Canada, would shortly be going back, and their house in Hoylake remained rented out), Dot’s parental home wasn’t much more than a mile from Garmoyle Road….  (656)

Cynthia gets pregnant, and she and John plan to get married:

If they timed it right, Cyn’s mother would miss the wedding. Lil Powell had just returned from Canada when these events erupted, and she was booked to sail back again on August 22.  (665)

And shortly after that:

The Beatles were back at the Cavern a few hours later — Wednesday night, as usual — after final preparations for John and Cyn’s quiet next-day wedding. She was at the docks to wave her mother off to Canada again, and John went home and finally broke the news to Mimi….  (684)

It’s striking that of the relatively small number of people involved in this story, at least two have mothers who make long, frequent trips to Canada. It’s hard not to be surprised by the frequency with which people are sailing off to Canada, sailing back from Canada and sailing off again — Cynthia’s mother has barely stepped off one ship before she’s stepping onto another, heading to Canada again. The pull of our country is so strong that she can’t even put off her return by a few days to be at her daughter’s wedding (although maybe she didn’t want to be there anyway).

Given Canada’s status as a former British colony, it isn’t surprising that English people would be travelling here — whether to visit family or for other reasons — but it’s remarkable that trips to Canada impinge so often on the story of the Beatles.

A Star Is Born — In Toronto

Moving on to the grander stage of musical fame and fortune: One of the issues that runs through this book is the difficulty George Martin and others at EMI had in getting their American partner, Capitol Records, to release albums by British musicians in the United States. This extended to the Beatles, which presented a unique opportunity for Canada to step in and make a little history:

Back in England, minds were focused on pushing Beatles records abroad. Their first radio play on the American continent was on the Toronto AM station CFRB on either December 8 or 15 [1962], in a weekly show titled Calling All Britons. The presenter, Ray Sonin, was a confident cockney émigré who’d edited Melody Maker and then New Musical Express for eighteen years (1939-57) and whose radio show was the week’s essential listen for expats. Whether or not this show stirred the interest, Capitol Records of Canada soon decided to release “Love Me Do” as a local-press 45; it would be available seven weeks into the new year.  (798)

Sonin, the disc jockey who played the Beatles in Toronto, is another example of an Englishman who emigrated to Canada — and the fact that a Toronto radio station had a program aimed specifically at British expatriates makes it clear that there were enough such people in Canada to make them an audience worth reaching.

Beyond that, it’s exciting to think that Canada played a small role in the entry of the Beatles into the North American market. This may be because Canada remained closer to the “mother country” than the U.S., having remained a colony much longer, but still, we can give ourselves a little pat on the back.

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A Canadian Reader Takes Offence

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Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton: The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (1991)

I haven’t actually read all of this book, so I have no idea how many references to Canada it may (or may not) contain; I read a few parts, in connection with Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, the Kim Philby book that I recently posted about.

In the course of reading it, however, I came across this page, annotated by some previous Toronto Public Library reader:

mangoldottowa

Now, I’m not the one who wrote in the book — I swear! — but this anonymous reader is quite correct: Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, is spelled “Ottawa,” not “Ottowa” as it appears in Mangold’s book. As you can see from the indignant (perhaps even aggressive?) style of the handwriting and the multiple exclamation marks, the comment inked in the margin is a sort of Canadian cri de cœur, a protest against the continuing insignificance of our country in the eyes of the world. This book is, obviously, an extensively researched treatment of a complex subject, and one that the reader would expect has been thoroughly edited, fact-checked and so on — and no doubt it was. And yet when it came to the spelling of a Canadian location — our capital city, no less — an error that would embarrass a Canadian schoolchild was allowed to creep in.

Why? The only explanation — or at least, the only explanation likely to present itself to a Canadian — is that no one involved in the publication of the book knew the spelling was wrong, and no one cared enough to check. And this sort of error is precisely the source of so much Canadian insecurity about our place in the world (of which this website is, I suppose, one expression), and scribbling corrections in the margins of library books is just the sort of impotent, vaguely pointless outlet we find for our rage — because we have no other.

The Cold War Begins… In Canada

macintyrephilby

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014)

John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also mentions Canada) made me curious enough to read this book, which does a good job of tracing Philby’s betrayal and also situating him in his time and social milieu (“I was asked about him, and I said I knew his people”).

There are a couple of references to Canada; the first describes the defection of Igor Gouzenko:

In September 1945 Igor Gouzenko, a twenty-six-year-old cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, turned up at a Canadian newspaper office with more than one hundred secret documents stuffed inside his shirt. Gouzenko’s defection would be seen, in hindsight, as the opening shot of the cold war. This trove was the very news Philby had been dreading, for it seemed entirely possible that Gouzenko knew his identity…. For the first time, as he waited anxiously for the results of Gouzenko’s debriefing, Philby may have contemplated defection to the Soviet Union. The defector exposed a major spy network in Canada and revealed that the Soviets had obtained information about the atomic bomb project from a spy working at the Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory in Montreal. But Gouzenko worked for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, not the NKVD; he knew little about Soviet espionage in Britain and almost nothing of the Cambridge spies. Philby began to relax. This defector, it seemed, did not know his name.  (96-97)

How exciting is that — the “opening shot” of the cold war, and it happened right here in Canada. Macintyre focuses on the threat Gouzenko poses to Philby rather than on anything related to Canada, which makes sense given the subject of his book, and Canada doesn’t appear as a major player in the intelligence game he describes. On the other hand, we were considered important enough to be the home of a “major spy network,” though it’s hard not to wonder if our British and U.S. allies might not have been the real targets. At the least, our country comes across as a place where significant things occasionally happen.

(The “Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory” might also suggest that Britain was the real target of the Soviet network in Canada, assuming it means the lab was a cooperative effort between the British and Canada and not an Anglophone Canadian lab located in Montreal. If it was a British-Canadian lab, one can’t help but wonder whether the British were furious with the Canadians — who, given our colonial past, must have been the junior partner in the relationship — for allowing a security breach to occur. Which would be ironic, considering how deeply Philby was embedded in British intelligence and how utterly he betrayed his country — but Macintyre doesn’t say anything about the British reaction to Gouzenko.)

This next passage describes Philby’s arrival in the United States, where he became MI6 chief in Washington, DC:

At Union Station he was met by Peter Dwyer of MI6, the outgoing station chief, and immediately plunged into a whirlwind of introductions and meetings with officials of the CIA, FBI, the State Department, and the Canadian secret service. All were delighted to shake hands with this urbane Englishman whose impressive reputation preceded him….  (128-9)

The Canadians are mixed in with the Americans and British, which makes sense as we were allies. Canada is mentioned last, and must surely have been a minor contributor when it came to intelligence work, but nevertheless, there we are, shaking hands with Philby and delighted to meet him like everyone else. And this reveals a characteristically Canadian tendency when it comes to our place in world affairs: we like to feel we’re at the big table, even if we aren’t necessarily contributing enough to earn our place there.

The larger point, I suppose, is not how much this book has to say about Canada, but how little — which leads us to the unsurprising conclusion that while Canada worked with the U.S. and Britain, it was not exactly a powerhouse nation when it came to espionage during the Cold War.

The Video Evidence

Nothing to do with Canada, but here’s Philby’s 1955 press interview, in which he denies being the so-called “third man” in the Cambridge spy ring, plummy accent and all:

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