Columns

The lessons of summer

Charles Gordon August 16 1999
Columns

The lessons of summer

Charles Gordon August 16 1999

The lessons of summer

Columns

Charles Gordon

No matter where you live or summer, you are probably up to your neck in summer festivals. Festivals of authors, classical music, jazz; theatre festivals, fringe festivals—they are all over the place, employing actors and musicians, bringing in the tourists, providing jobs.

Who can complain about them? To make things even better, the festivals now follow you from home to cottage, from city to country, putting the culture beside the lake for your summer convenience.

So pervasive is the phenomenon that it could be argued that we have become a seasonal people, as far as culture is concerned. Summer is the time when we give it our attention, distracted though we may be. We slap something on the sunburn and wander down to the park to see what Shakespeare is up to this summer, or drift over to the theatre to see that Buddy Holly play. We grab a bite to eat beforehand and may grab a beer at that place beside the harbour afterward, serenaded by the folk music wafting over from the festival.

It is a pretty nice life and we think about it all winter, while we hunker down in front of the VCR. Of course, there are things going on all winter, but we are not as good at getting out of the house, and live entertainment doesn’t get the support from us it should. Since we seem to be a festival-oriented people, maybe more winter festivals would be the answer. There are already artistic components to such winter events as Ottawa’s Winterlude or Calgary’s Winter Festival. Perhaps more of that would help spread the word to a wider audience.

That is the direction the arts may have to take in this country. Rather than the traditional dress up and go out to the theatre, or the symphony, we have to move to a less formal approach. That’s what works in the summer. Yes, it’s theatre, but you’re wearing your shorts and mosquito lotion, not checking your coat at the door but throwing your blanket on the ground. The arts become democratic in the summer. There is no reason they can’t be so in the winter.

Mind you, there have to be some adjustments. There is a dumbed-down element to summer culture that needn’t carry on into the colder months. Come to think of it, it isn’t all that necessary in the summer months either. Why do we assume that in the summer we can only read lawyer novels, watch Agatha Christie mysteries at the theatre and listen to golden oldies in the park?

The answer must be that something in us considers culture to be work. Good books are work, good plays, good music— all are work, and since we vacation from work in the summer

we must also vacation from the more serious arts. Yet the success of Stratford, among many other cultural events, shows that the brain need not be turned off just because the temperature is 25 degrees above freezing. So when we are devising our winter festivals, we can keep that in mind. That, and the difficulty of playing a trombone out of doors in -20 weather.

When Canadians think of their culture, there are gaps between perception and reality. There is the notion that for a book to be literature it must, of necessity, be dull. Any of the works of Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler would disprove that, not to mention all manner of novels published recently by young Canadian writers. To take one example, Andrew Pyper’s Lost Girls, a literary thriller set not far from Ontario’s cottage country, could give you a sleepless summer night or two. (Another gap between perception and reality is the notion that a thriller or mystery, because it is entertaining, cannot be taken seriously as literature. Such highly successful writers as Ottawa’s Anthony Hyde have long railed against that prejudice, but it persists, to the detriment of both writers and readers. An odd class system is thus created: summer writers and winter writers.)

That equation of Canadian and dull has also affected our film industry, although not as much as the sheer difficulty of getting the movies into Canadian theatres. Anyone who thinks a Canadian movie has to be worthy and dull has never seen Don McKellar’s Last Night, which is not only not dull, it is also quite visible about its Canadianness.

Which brings up another of the ironies that seem also to be a part of our cultural fabric: the Canadian film industry that has attracted so much attention south of the border, to the extent that Americans want to take revenge upon it, is actively involved in making American movies. Meanwhile, the real Canadian movie industry is putting out films hardly anyone sees.

Part of the difficulty in establishing a year-round culture is clearly that too few Canadians know what is available to them. At least some of that difficulty results from the obsession of Canadian media with Hollywood and other foreign points. The notion that what really counts is happening abroad has been with us all our country’s life, and it dies hard. Matters will not be helped by a new influx of newspaper editors from away.

The national confidence that free trade was supposed to bring has been a bit slow arriving. The inferiority complex remains. It has not prevented great art from being created, but it has kept it from being seen.

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.