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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Opportunity”

Canada: You Can’t Leave Fast Enough

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Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2014)

This book is a re-working of The Canterbury Tales, in which each poem presents a contemporary version of one of Chaucer’s stories. Agbabi covers a wide range of poetic styles and voices, from the rhymed couplets of the “Prologue” to the rap battle of “Sir Thopas vs Da Elephant” and along the way shows not only her mastery of form, but also conveys a multiethnic, polyphonic vision of England.

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the individual poems appealed more to me than others; I think most readers would feel the same way, though of course the ones they preferred would vary. For me, “Joined Up Writing” (The Man of Law’s Tale) was a standout, its linked stanzas being not only brilliantly executed, but also a clever commentary on the act of writing itself, which is at the centre of that particular tale; “What Do Women Like Bes’?” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale) is a fitting successor to its original (what greater praise than that?); and “That Beatin’ Rhythm” (The Merchant’s Tale), composed largely from song titles, works remarkably well, and also recalled for me one of my favourite lines in all of Chaucer: “Gan pullen up the smock, and in he throng.”

The Flight From Canada

Each poem has a fictional author’s name attached, usually some sort of pun or play on the name of the tale-teller in Chaucer, and then at the end of the book we find “Author Biographies,” in the manner of the “Contributor’s Notes” section at the end of a journal or anthology. This is one more clever touch in what is already an immensely witty book, and it is in these author’s notes, rather than in the poems themselves, that we find the book’s only reference to Canada:

Yves Depardon: is a French-Canadian Professional Speaker and Business Coach living in Soho, Central London with his long-term partner. He’s published 20 self-help books and six novels, including the multi-million bestseller, Young, Free and Sinful (Impress, 2007). He regularly uses poetry in his presentations. His ‘love2Bme’ lectures attract a 2,000-strong online audience.  (116)

The transformation of Chaucer’s Pardoner — one of literature’s most compelling hypocrites — into a motivational speaker and self-help author is an inspired choice. I’m not sure why Agbabi chose to make him a Canadian, other than the punning connection between the name “Depardon” and the Pardoner, but I suppose it’s a kind of compliment that anyone thinks a character of such vertiginous hypocrisy could come from our country, and it’s certainly a sharp contrast with the usual image of Canadians as polite and uninteresting. (Though, based on our reading of Michel Houellebecq and Lorrie Moore, perhaps we can say the world has a slightly different impression of French-Canadians than it does of Canadians generally?)

In terms of ideas about Canada, Depardon’s biography contains an interesting reversal that I don’t think we’ve seen before. Immigration to Canada from the UK, and the possibility of a new beginning that Canada offers to immigrants, is something we’ve come across in authors like Charles Dickens, Basil Bunting and Derek Mahon, to name a few. All these writers convey the same view: that leaving the UK for Canada will offer a fresh start and open up a range of new possibilities that can’t be found in the “old country.”

In Agbabi’s book, though, the relationship between the old world and the new is switched; Depardon is from Canada, but he has left it for England, where he has found fame and fortune as a motivational speaker and author. There is no explanation of this, but behind it must lie some idea that Canada is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, and that Canadians whose families might have immigrated from Europe a century or more ago are now making their way back to Europe from North America in search of the same sort of opportunities that brought their ancestors in the other direction in the first place.

The Poetry

Because Canada isn’t mentioned in the poems, I didn’t have the chance to quote any of the actual poetry; in lieu of that, here are a couple of videos of Patience Agbabi reciting parts of Telling Tales. Here’s the Prologue:

And here is her take on the Wife of Bath:

 

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A Canadian at Baskerville Hall?

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

The action of the novel begins with the arrival in London of Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to Baskerville Hall; Sherlock Holmes is the first speaker in the following passage:

“Then how can I assist you?”
“By advising me as to what I should do with Sir Henry Baskerville, who arrives at Waterloo Station” – Dr. Mortimer looked at his watch – “in exactly one hour and a quarter.”
“He being the heir?”
“Yes. On the death of Sir Charles we inquired for this young gentleman and found that he had been farming in Canada. From the accounts which have reached us he is an excellent fellow in every way. I speak now not as a medical man but as a trustee and executor of Sir Charles’s will.”  (31-32)

We have come across a similar view of Canada before, though from a slightly different perspective: in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, Canada represents a fresh start for Tip, the ne’er-do-well brother; here, Canada again represents a new opportunity, though in this case it is for a gentleman who comes from a good family but is unlikely to inherit the family estate.

It’s a bit surprising that he would become a farmer in Canada, which isn’t the most gentlemanly pursuit – why not, for example, take up law in London? Farming in Canada seems like more of an option for English farmers who can no longer farm successfully in England (such as Bunting’s Morpethshire farmer) – but perhaps we shouldn’t inquire too deeply: Conan Doyle’s plot requires the new Baskerville heir to have been stashed somewhere out of the way … and Canada is certainly out of the way. By keeping Sir Henry off the scene until he is actually required, Canada has served its purpose in the novel, and to an English reader of the time the idea of farming in Canada would likely accord well enough with their existing impression of our country as essentially a wilderness where a few rural settlements have been carved out.

The lifestyle of the Canadian farmer is alluded to later in the novel, when Holmes admires the portraits of the Baskerville family, and Sir Henry reveals the sort of expertise he acquired during his years in the New World:

“…these are a really very fine series of portraits.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you say so,” said Sir Henry, glancing with some surprise at my friend. “I don’t pretend to know much about these things, and I’d be a better judge of a horse or a steer than of a picture.”  (202)

You can almost hear him aspirate the initial “p” on that last word, as if spitting it contemptuously out. This makes it clear what people concern themselves with in Canada – and it’s not paintings, or the arts in general. Sir Henry’s Canadian life has been that of a stolid farmer with knowledge of livestock and no interest in the finer things, such as paintings.

And yet there is a curious bifurcation in the character of Sir Henry. At moments like this, Conan Doyle seems almost at pains to portray him as a rough colonial who knows about livestock but couldn’t care less about art. By contrast, in other parts of the novel Sir Henry is described as a true English gentleman, one who has taken naturally to his inheritance of Baskerville Hall and seems to have an innate understanding of his role and an instinctive sense of how to conduct himself as the leader of his community.

We could interpret this as an illustration of the “blood will out” idea: no matter how much time he spent in the wilds of Canada, Sir Henry is an English nobleman by blood, and as such is always ready to take up his birthright and exercise his prerogatives.

I’m afraid I’m inclined to settle on a somewhat more prosaic explanation: Conan Doyle doesn’t have a particularly strong sense of Sir Henry as a character, and so his portrayal of him changes to suit the immediate needs of the plot. Likewise, Conan Doyle isn’t really interested in the life of farmers in Canada or in describing the sort of person who follows that lifestyle; Sir Henry’s colonial sojourn is simply a way of explaining his absence from England so that his arrival can be used to start the story.

An Aside: Conan Doyle vs. Nancy Mitford

At this point we can pause to compare Conan Doyle’s image of an heir to a large British estate living in Canada with another writer’s portrait of a character in a similar situation – Cedric Hampton, in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. The comparison is a little tricky because, as noted, Conan Doyle’s characterization of Sir Henry is somewhat inconsistent. As regards the scene with the paintings, however, we can say Conan Doyle’s portrayal of Sir Henry is much closer to what the English characters in Love in a Cold Climate imagine Cedric will be like – that is, an unsophisticated colonial.

Of course, Cedric turns out to be quite the opposite. Perhaps, over the decades between The Hound of the Baskervilles and Love in a Cold Climate, English perceptions of Canadians evolved; perhaps Mitford’s desire to use Cedric’s character for satirical purposes led her to the unexpected; perhaps Mitford is simply more focused on character as a writer – whatever the reasons, Love in a Cold Climate has a similar set-up but offers a notably more nuanced portrayal of a Canadian than The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Boot

Then we come to the matter of the boot. Sir Henry, shortly after his arrival in London, complains that one of his boots has been stolen from his hotel:

Sir Henry smiled. “I don’t know much of British life yet, for I have spent nearly all my time in the States and in Canada. But I hope that to lose one of your boots is not part of the ordinary routine of life over here.”  (49)

It would be a gross disservice to Henry James to refer to this moment as “Jamesian,” and yet, in its portrayal of the New World innocent horrified by the corrupt ways of the Old World, it does seem to contain, in a radically simplified form, a germ of one of the themes that fascinated the master.

It is Sir Henry’s stolen boot, of course, which the murderer will use to put his hound on the scent of the Baskerville heir when he walks the moor at night in the novel’s climax, and so the theft of the boot marks the beginning of the process by which Sir Henry will become enmeshed in a scheme that involves the commission of murder in order to inherit a fortune. (When you put it that way, The Hound of the Baskervilles does begin to sound like a very faint echo of a James novel).

The boot crops up again at the end of the novel, when Holmes and Watson are tracking the fleeing murderer through the deadly Grimpen Mire:

Only once we saw a trace that someone had passed that perilous way before us. From amid a tuft of cotton grass which bore it up out of the slime some dark thing was projecting. Holmes sank to his waist as he stepped from the path to seize it, and had we not been there to drag him out he could never have set his foot upon firm land again. He held an old black boot in the air. “Meyers, Toronto,” was printed on the leather inside.
“It is worth a mud bath,” said he. “It is our friend Sir Henry’s missing boot.”  (228)

At least Conan Doyle knows the name of a major Canadian city. The boot shows Canada is not completely rural: boots are made here, which suggests industry at least at a minor level – more likely something closer to a cobbler’s shop than a boot factory, but still, Canada is capable of producing some of the finer needs of a gentleman for itself – and doing so well enough that he would wear the boots in England – and is not just a land of farms.

Incidentally, it is in honour of this small plot point that the Canadian branch of the Sherlock Holmes Society is known as The Bootmakers of Toronto (better than, say, “The Farmers of Canada,” which is the most obvious other option suggested by the novel).

Overall, The Hound of the Baskervilles presents a rather mixed view both of Canada and of Sir Henry himself, and it’s hard not to feel that for Conan Doyle, Canada was merely a distant colony that his readers would know just enough about to allow him to use it in whatever way best suited the requirements of his plot.

Even the Geese Can’t Stand It!

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Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (1968)

I am once again indebted to Professor Ronald Marken’s essay on references to Canada in Irish poetry,* this time for bringing Derek Mahon to my attention. (You can read parts of the essay through Google Books.)

Two poems in Night-Crossing (Mahon’s debut collection) mention Canada, and each shows a different perspective on our country, one familiar, one not. We’ll begin with the familiar.

Canadian Pacific

From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark,
Frost chokes the windows. They will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the lakes harden beyond grief and anger –
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger.   (27)

At least in its opening, the poem portrays Canada as a country offering hope to those who are bold (or desperate) enough to leave the old world of Europe for the new opportunities offered by North America. We’ve come across this idea before in Dickens and Basil Bunting, to name just two; but from the fifth line on the poem takes a distinct turn, undercutting the promise implicit in the opening. Frost is “choking” the windows and the lakes are “hardening”, suggesting the advancing cold and dark of a harsh Canadian winter; and the wild geese, wiser apparently than the (Irish?) immigrants who came to Canada, are heading South to avoid the cold. As the last line suggests, these residents (I can’t helping assuming that they are Canada Geese) have been left “hungry” by our northern land and are heading for warmer climes, taking advantage of a freedom denied to the people huddled around the meagre fires in their frost-choked cabins on the snowswept prairies below (I’m extrapolating a bit there).

A cruel irony lies at the heart of the poem: the immigrants left their homeland hoping for a better life in Canada, but they arrive only to find that even the geese (the Canada Geese, no less!) can’t stand the winter and are heading south at the first opportunity.

And what of the title? Professor Marken has some intriguing remarks:

…”Canadian Pacific,” which is the name of one of our transcontinental robber-baron railroads.  But, in the minds of those who might have no knowledge of Canadian railroading, “Canadian Pacific” might just as likely refer to the far western coastline of our country, not to mention the hardly-disguised and crucial implication that Canada herself – in this view of her – is seen as “pacific,” a place of peace.*

The idea of pacifism is particularly suggestive, perhaps setting us in contrast to our more martial neighbours to the south, and continuing what Professor Marken sees as a general idealizing trend in treatments of Canada in Irish poetry.

For Canadian readers, the obvious reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway remains. Of course, the Canadian Pacific Railway runs from east to west, not north to south – but still, the idea of movement is central to the poem: the people move ever westward, the geese fly south, all restlessly searching for something that can satisfy the hunger they feel.

And now, a poem that offers a different view of Canada:

April on Toronto Island

Once more to the island after the spring thaw –
A qualified silence, old snow under the
Boardwalks, for the winter dies hard.

The winter dies hard, and a last wintry reluctance
Clutches the splintered birches. There is
Nothing among the boarded-up houses,

Nothing along the lakeshore but bird-bones and fish-bones
Greasy with diesel oil, and the clapboard
Church of Saint Andrew-by-the-Lake.

There is not even a bird, although there are bird noises
And the growl of commerce, muted by empty
Distance, where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
But the slick water mourns for its vanished
Ice like a lost child for its mother.

Another ferry pulls away from the landing-stage,
The lighthouse blows its now redundant
Fog-warning over the rocks and

Slowly, in ones and twos, the people are coming back
To stand on the thin beach among the
Washed-up flotsam of the winter,

Watching the long grainers move down to the seaway.
Their faces dream of other islands,
Clear cliffs and salt water,

Fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation –
Grace caught in a wind or a tide, our
Lives in infinite preparation.   (30)

In the course of a few pages of Night-Crossing, we have apparently endured the winter that was just beginning in “Canadian Pacific” and moved into what passes for spring – a spring strongly marked, in the first few lines, by the lingering traces of winter.

We have also traded a rural setting (that would be my interpretation, at least) for an urban one, or perhaps near-urban; one of the fascinating elements of the poem is the way it portrays Toronto Island as a sanctuary of the wilderness that persists in close proximity to a growing city (note my deft avoidance of the word “liminal”). And so we have the “splintered birches” and the “bird noises,” but also the “growl of commerce,” though that is, for now, “muted by empty / Distance.” And we have the repetition of the word “nothing” in the description of the island, as though suggesting that it remains outside the influence of urbanizing humanity (except for that church). The point of view of the poem seems to be that of people returning to the island for the first time after the winter and looking uneasily back at the growing city across the water and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and the environment. Those on the island are beginning to notice the effects of these changes: it is their shore where the “bird-bones and fish-bones / Greasy with diesel oil” wash up with the rest of the “flotsam of the winter,” it is their field of vision that is invaded by the “grainers” that “move down to the seaway.”

Toronto, here, is not the typically clean, sterile Canadian city we have seen elsewhere; instead, it seems almost threatening, as the poem presents the side effects of its “progress.” One of the most striking and revealing images in the poem is of Toronto as a city,

…where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.

In that single line I count three words associated with the idea of “newness”: “first,” “draft” (I suppose they really form one syntactical unit) and the word “new” itself. The idea of a new civilization has promise, but “first draft” makes it all sound rather haphazard and provisional, as if there is no real plan behind the development that is occurring. The islanders seem to be wondering whether the people and organizations who are building the city have any idea what they’re doing, or what effect they’re having on their surroundings.

This presents us with a more “modern” view of Canada than we are accustomed to: our country may once have been an unspoiled wilderness, but human action is quickly changing that.

The final three stanzas turn to dreams of escape, and recall the image of the geese flying south at the end of “Canadian Pacific,” though again the people don’t have the same freedom: they stand on the beach, dreaming of other, more beautiful sea-coasts (an idealized memory of the homes they have left? Or some new, imagined paradise?) not threatened by urban encroachment and free of the washed-up winter flotsam that pollutes Toronto. Their dreams are, in fact, of an unspoiled wilderness of the sort that the city is now beginning to threaten. 

And yet again there is an irony here, because isn’t that dream of “fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation” exactly what the immigrants of “Canadian Pacific” found in the “rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean” – and didn’t it leave them as dissatisfied as the geese flying south? The two poems about Canada are an ambivalent commentary on the basic human feelings of desire and disappointment, elegantly captured in the final line of “April on Toronto Island.” They also form a dyad within the larger collection, commenting on and referring to one another, and raising questions about what exactly our country is: land of opportunity? Unspoiled wilderness? Polluted industrial horror? Some combination of all three?

As a writer, Mahon doesn’t present a simple view of Canada – he doesn’t see it as “one thing,” as writers often do when they make passing references to it. Rather, he sees the complexity of a country moving from the rural into the modern, urban age.

Digression: On the Education of Poets

The following is not a quote from Mahon, but from the back cover blurb of Night-Crossing:

After graduating he spent two years in Canada and America, working as, successively, a university lecturer, Xerox operator, warehouseman, bookstore assistant, and English teacher.

I think there are two main species of poet biographies that appear on book jackets; the first, and probably more common now, is the Curriculum Vitae style, which rattles off MFA programs, workshop residencies, and publications in obscure journals. By contrast, the second seeks to prove that although the author may be a poet, (s)he is no “mouse of the scrolls” ( to borrow Pound’s phrase), but has lived and worked in the “real world”; in these bios, references to things like factory work, adventure tour guiding, retail, a stint in advertising or as a prison guard, are de rigeur – in short, the more something sounds unlike what a stereotypical poet would do, the more prominent it is in the bio. Mahon’s bio clearly fits into the latter category – it practically screams, “Look at all the adventurous, un-poet-like stuff this guy has done. He can operate a Xerox machine! (How quaint that sounds now.) He even worked in a warehouse! Not your typical poet, this.” And here, too, Canada, plays its role, providing a hint of the exotic, and perhaps (to a reader in the U.K. in 1968) a suggestion of toughness as well, as if no shrinking-violet poet could have survived and thrived in the wilderness of Canada, as Mahon clearly has.

 *From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.

 

Escape Into Hopelessness

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Basil Bunting, Complete Poems (2000)

I don’t know how well it comes across at the size above, but that cover photo must be one of the all-time greats in the annals of collected poetry volumes: Bunting casually reclining in a wicker chair against a Mediterranean background (the back cover tells us he’s in Rapallo, Italy – how Poundian!), his (carefully coiffed?) facial hair simply glorious in its effrontery.

Of course Bunting, so proud of being a Northerner (as opposed to what he calls a “Southron”), couldn’t resist mentioning our Northern land:

The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer

On the up-platform at Morpeth Station
in the market-day throng
I overheard a Morpethshire farmer
muttering this song:

Must ye bide, my good stone house,
to keep a townsman dry?
To hear the flurry of the grouse
but not the lowing of the kye?

To see the bracken choke the clod
the coulter will na turn?
The bit level neebody
will drain soak up the burn?

Where are ye, my seven score sheep?
Feeding on other braes!
My brand has faded from your fleece,
another has its place.

The fold beneath the rowan
where ye were dipt before,
its cowpit walls are overgrown,
ye would na heed them more.

And thou! Thou’s idled all the spring,
I doubt thou’s spoiled, my Meg!
But a sheepdog’s faith is aye something.
We’ll hire together in Winnipeg.

Canada’s a cold land.
Thou and I must share
a straw bed and a hind’s wages
and the bitter air.

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,
grouse is sport for the rich;
heather grows where the sweet grass might grow
for the cost of cleaning the ditch.

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.     (1930; pp. 112-13)

In the main, the poem is the moving lament of a farmer for the home and land he is leaving, which he sees falling into disrepair and uselessness without his care. Canada appears as the country he’s leaving for, where he will seek a new life.

We encountered a similar view of Canada in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, where our country represents a new opportunity for Amy’s brother Tip. Whether it’s the 70 years that have elapsed between the two works, or some other reason, Bunting’s poem seems to take a much more bitter view of Canada; it’s quite clear that the farmer doesn’t want to go – presumably only the utter desperation of his present situation is driving him to it – and furthermore, doesn’t believe things will be any better when he arrives. (Tip, admittedly, doesn’t want to go to Canada either, but Amy seems to believe that our country represents a genuine hope if he would only seize it.)

Not this Morpethshire farmer – his heart is with the farm he must leave, not the country he is going to, and the first half of the poem is filled with images of its decay. Only in the second half does he get to Canada – introduced by the mention of Winnipeg, no less.

Now, I must admit, I’m always a little suspicious when a poet uses a proper name as a rhyme word, and I grow even more so when, as here, two proper names are rhymed with each other. It just seems to have a slight whiff of desperation about it, and one feels that words are being chosen to provide rhymes rather than because they are the right words. (No doubt poets often choose words to provide rhymes, but the reader shouldn’t feel it. The most perfect rhyme words are the ones that seem inevitable; you can’t imagine any other word in that place, and the rhyme appears almost coincidental.) But which came first: is the sheepdog conveniently named “Meg” in order to allow Bunting to bring in Winnipeg, or, having decided, for reasons we may never know, that the dog simply had to be named Meg, did Bunting pull down his atlas and scan the page showing Canada in search of a name to suit his rhyme scheme? (If so, he got pretty lucky.)

Canada appears more naturally in the following two stanzas, although the ideas associated with it are hardly surprising; it’s “a cold land,” apparently – Bunting never visited Toronto in August – and also “a bare land.” In fact, the cluster of words associated with Canada in those two stanzas could almost stand as a summary of the image our nation has in the minds of others: “cold,” “bitter air,” “bare,” “north wind,” “snow.” These aren’t earth-shaking revelations, but it’s noteworthy to see such a complete image of Canada captured in such a compressed form.

The poem does, however, raise the intriguing question of why Canada is a bare land, in a stanza we’ll quote once more:

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Interesting, no? Canada is a bare land, but no reason is offered as to why it is bare. Northumberland, which the farmer must leave, is also a bare land, but here the reason is clearly stated: “men have made it so.” So Northumberland wasn’t always bare; it was fruitful once, but was spoiled by men. The bareness of Northumberland is portrayed as the result of negative human action, while Canada was never anything other than bare and never will be; bareness is an aspect of its eternal and unchanging essence.

In the final stanza, Bunting introduces another part of Canada, and again, conveniently, it provides him with another rhyme (who knew Canadian place-names were so rich in poetic possibility?):

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.

That’s a great conclusion, but it does make the reader – or the Canadian reader, at least – wonder a bit about Bunting’s grasp of geography. I suppose the idea is that the ship will take him as far as Quebec (City? or just some part of the province?), and from there he’ll journey by some other means to Winnipeg, where he will start his new life.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that some of Bunting’s references to Canada grow out of the need for rhymes rather than from a desire to discuss our country.

Bunting’s own explanatory notes are included in the Complete Poems, and from them you can learn interesting words, like Southron, as well as the proper pronunciation of the word “scone”: it rhymes with “on,” not with “own”. (My mother always pronounced it Bunting’s way. At the end of Macbeth, however, it seems like it ought to rhyme with “one” – but the pronunciation of Shakespearean English is a snakepit best left undisturbed.) He also has the following note on this poem:

The war and the Forestry Commission have outdated this complaint. Cowpit means overturned.

The second bit of that note, at least, is helpful. As for the first part, presumably World War II (and the Forestry Commission as well?) have created work in England for men like the complaining farmer of the poem, making emigration to Canada unnecessary.

Something about the end of this poem always reminds me of the famous (is it famous? maybe not) painting by Ford Madox Brown called “The Last of England”.

brown_last_of_england

The barren land behind, the barren land ahead, and the barren ship’s deck in between.

The dominant mood of Bunting’s poem is bitterness, and the bitterness of failure in England colours the prospect of Canada as well, making it appear an inhospitable place that no one would journey to except in cases of utter desperation. Not exactly one to quote in the travel brochures.

Literature Gives No Man a Sinecure

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

The plot of this novel centres on Gordon Comstock, who gives up a decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to concentrate on poetry and sinks gradually into poverty. He sees himself as a rebel against middle-class propriety (represented by aspidistra plants), but in the end circumstances (through the medium of his girlfriend, Rosemary) drag him back towards a happy mediocrity, where he probably belongs anyway. I liked this one, despite the somewhat disconcerting sense that, at times, I could almost have been reading my own autobiography.

It was also made into a decent film starring Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. The film doesn’t get down into the gritty texture of poverty to the extent that the book does, but it’s entertaining. Bizarrely, I think it was released in North America under the title “A Merry War”. Perhaps the word “aspidistra” was considered too long or too obscure for North American viewers; still, when you have a title as fantastic as “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” it seems a shame to waste it.

Best of all, though, there are three – that’s right, three – references to Canada. We’ll take them in the order they occur. First:

Gordon’s supper was set out, waiting for him, in the circle of white light that the cracked gas-jet cast upon the table cloth. He sat down with his back to the fireplace (there was an aspidistra in the grate instead of a fire) and ate his plate of cold beef and his two slices of crumbly white bread, with Canadian butter, mousetrap cheese and Pan Yan pickle, and drank a glass of cold but musty water.  (p. 30)

It would be nice to think that this reference to Canadian butter suggests a cool, delicious dairy product that comes from the wide-open spaces of the new world, where proud farmers milk their cows and their daughters, faces cream-spackled, churn it into delicious fresh butter to be shipped back to England – in short, that the reference to Canadian butter is meant to provide a contrast with the dirty and poverty-stricken conditions in which Gordon consumes it.

Alas, the sentence resists such interpretation.

The general tenor of the description of Gordon’s life in the boarding house is that it is mean and filthy; the dinner he eats seems to be of a piece with that (the bread is crumbly, the water musty – how lovely that “but” there, as if it required some sort of mysterious, almost alchemical cruelty to take cold water and still render it musty, thus draining it of pleasure). It seems more likely that Canadian butter represents something cheap and low-quality rather than something grand and delicious. Given the characterization of his landlady, if Canadian butter were good, it’s impossible to imagine that she would give it to Gordon.

We also have the phrase “mousetrap cheese,” which immediately follows “Canadian butter.” I’m not sure what this means, but I suspect it refers to cheese that is so bad that it’s appropriate for use in a mousetrap, but not for human consumption.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I’m not the first to have taken up this question; the Internet provides some further speculations.

Second:

She [Rosemary] was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. There had been fourteen children all told – the father was a country solicitor. Some of Rosemary’s sisters were married, some of them were schoolmistresses or running typing bureaux; the brothers were farming in Canada, on tea plantations in Ceylon, in obscure regiments in the Indian army.   (p. 124)

This second reference ties in with the first in linking Canada and farming. Here Canada, along with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, represents a colony that offers opportunity to Englishmen who have little chance of getting ahead at home. Rosemary’s brothers are clearly enterprising types (unlike Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit) who have headed out to the corners of the Empire to make their fortunes through hard work and determination.

And finally:

Mr. Clew had left the New Albion a year ago, and his place had been taken by Mr. Warner, a Canadian who had been five years with a New York publicity firm. Mr. Warner was a live wire but quite a likeable person.    (p. 271)

Now that’s remarkable: a reference to Canada that has nothing to do with farming, but instead focuses on a member of what would today be called the “creative class”. The New Albion is the publicity (i.e. advertising) firm where Gordon works in London; Mr. Clew was his boss when he quit.

At first this seems rather exciting: a Canadian live wire (one doesn’t often see those terms in close proximity) who is a big wheel in a London advertising firm. But if we pause over the sentence a moment, we realize that Mr. Warner has become successful by leaving Canada. In fact, it seems likely that, as a “live wire”, he was too bright, too creative, for dour Canada, and had to leave in order to find success on the grand stages of New York and London, where people with vision are appreciated.  And isn’t that one of the commonest tropes about Canadians – that the really great ones are the ones who succeed outside Canada?

And so, to summarize … what do we learn about Canada from Orwell? It’s a country of farms that produce cheap but inferior butter; and it’s a great place for Englishmen of modest dreams (i.e. those who want to be farmers) to go in search of opportunity, but any Canadian with a real spark of intelligence or creativity will inevitably leave for the U.S. or England. In a nutshell, we import England’s extraneous people and export anyone with genuine talent. This is, I suppose, typical of the way empires regard their colonies, but it still doesn’t feel like a vision one wants to rally around.

A Fresh Hope Squandered

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857)

Nevertheless, the brave little creature did so fix her heart on her brother’s rescue, that while he was ringing out these doleful changes, she pinched and scraped enough together to ship him for Canada. When he was tired of nothing to do, and disposed in its turn to cut even that, he graciously consented to go to Canada. And there was grief in her bosom over parting with him, and joy in the hope of his being put in a straight course at last.

‘God bless you, dear Tip. Don’t be too proud to come and see us, when you have made your fortune.’

‘All right!’ said Tip, and went.

But not all the way to Canada; in fact, not further than Liverpool. After making the voyage to that port from London, he found himself so strongly impelled to cut the vessel, that he resolved to walk back again. Carrying out which intention, he presented himself before her at the expiration of a month, in rags, without shoes, and much more tired than ever. (pp. 79-80)

This was the novel that finally changed my mind about Dickens. In my foolish (and, alas, largely wasted) youth I thought of him as a sentimental populist who had churned out massive, painfully dull novels with an eye on feeding his legion of children (he got paid by the page, I was eager to point out) rather than literary merit. I had always liked Great Expectations, but I thought of it as a bit of an outlier.

My wanderings through the world of picaresque novels, however, eventually brought me to Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, and I began to appreciate that side of Dickens. I made one or two unfortunate detours that seemed to confirm my earlier opinion (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield) but then I came to Little Dorrit and I was, as they say, changed.

Little Dorrit has the gallery of Dickensian characters, running the gamut from high to low, that you would expect, and the combination of pathos and humour that Dickens does so well. But the commentary on high finance and politics (and the connections between the two) remain incisive in the age of Bernie Madoff and bank bailouts (see the chapter “In which a Great Patriotic Conference is holden”), and the scenes in the Circumlocution Office would do Pirandello or Ionesco proud.

But returning to the passage quoted above.

The “brave little creature” is Amy Dorrit, the heroine of the novel and the “Little Dorrit” of the title. Tip is her brother, a ne’er-do-well for whom she can’t quite bring herself to relinquish hope.

Here Canada represents a land of opportunity where those who have failed to succeed in England can get a second chance, outside the rigid social and class system that controls so much of English society and makes upward mobility difficult. Of course the implication is that getting ahead in the New World will still require hard work – anathema to Amy’s brother Tip.

And Dickens, it’s worth noting, actually knew something of Canada, having visited it on his North American trip in 1842. (This doesn’t make him a “Canadian writer;” I’m always irritated by the slightly desperate way we Canadians claim as our own any famous person who happens to live here for a while. I think of Malcolm Lowry as the classic example: essentially a nomadic Englishman, but we try to possess him by virtue of his having lived in Vancouver for a few years.)

The following quotes are from Dickens’ book American Notes:

In the spring of the year, vast numbers of emigrants who have newly arrived from England or from Ireland, pass between Quebec and Montreal on their way to the backwoods and new settlements of Canada. If it be an entertaining lounge (as I very often found it) to take a morning stroll upon the quay at Montreal, and see them grouped in hundreds on the public wharfs about their chests and boxes, it is matter of deep interest to be their fellow-passenger on one of these steamboats, and mingling with the concourse, see and hear them unobserved.

The vessel in which we returned from Quebec to Montreal was crowded with them, and at night they spread their beds between decks (those who had beds, at least), and slept so close and thick about our cabin door, that the passage to and fro was quite blocked up. They were nearly all English; from Gloucestershire the greater part; and had had a long winter-passage out; but it was wonderful to see how clean the children had been kept, and how untiring in their love and self-denial all the poor parents were. (Chapter XV)

Dickens had witnessed first-hand the journey Amy hopes Tip will take. Note particularly the reference to the “backwoods and new settlements of Canada” – clearly nothing is going to be easy. Dickens conceived of Canada as Montreal and Quebec precariously perched in a sea of wilderness – which at the time was probably a fairly accurate impression.

Here are his parting words on Canada:

But Canada has held, and always will retain, a foremost place in my remembrance. Few Englishmen are prepared to find it what it is. Advancing quietly; old differences settling down, and being fast forgotten; public feeling and private enterprise alike in a sound and wholesome state; nothing of flush or fever in its system, but health and vigour throbbing in its steady pulse: it is full of hope and promise. To me – who had been accustomed to think of it as something left behind in the strides of advancing society, as something neglected and forgotten, slumbering and wasting in its sleep – the demand for labour and the rates of wages; the busy quays of Montreal; the vessels taking in their cargoes, and discharging them; the amount of shipping in the different ports; the commerce, roads, and public works, all made TO LAST; the respectability and character of the public journals; and the amount of rational comfort and happiness which honest industry may earn: were very great surprises. The steamboats on the lakes, in their conveniences, cleanliness, and safety; in the gentlemanly character and bearing of their captains; and in the politeness and perfect comfort of their social regulations; are unsurpassed even by the famous Scotch vessels, deservedly so much esteemed at home. The inns are usually bad; because the custom of boarding at hotels is not so general here as in the States, and the British officers, who form a large portion of the society of every town, live chiefly at the regimental messes: but in every other respect, the traveller in Canada will find as good provision for his comfort as in any place I know. (Chapter XV)

The phrase here that seems most relevant to the mention of Canada in Little Dorrit is “full of hope and promise” – Dickens saw Canada as a land of new beginnings, especially for the poor.

But let’s note, in passing, some of the other words and phrases that come up:

“advancing quietly”

“nothing of flush or fever in its system”

“steady pulse”

“respectability”

“rational comfort and happiness”

“cleanliness”

“safety”

“politeness”

How many common ideas of Canada are already here! We’re polite, we’re steady, we’re respectable, we’re not fiery – at the end of this paragraph one already has a strong sense of Canada as very nice, really, but a little … well … dull, no?

Still, it’s what you would call an “overall positive review,” which is about the most one can hope for.

Too bad about the inns.

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