LONDON LETTER

“I Would Choose Toronto"

Beverley Baxter March 19 1955
LONDON LETTER

“I Would Choose Toronto"

Beverley Baxter March 19 1955

“I Would Choose Toronto"

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter

LIKE THE wandering Jew, it seems that I am doomed to travel the earth s surface. Thus I find myself back in London once more, after a tour of exploration that took me to New York, the scented islands of the Bahamas, the garish obviousness of Miami, and the crystal winter air of Toronto. My dog Disraeli is obviously pleased that we are back and has already suggested that if I take him for a walk in Regent’s Park, he will forgive us for having deserted him. There is a message from the Government whip that a late-night debate will take place tomorrow and that the survival of civilization depends upon my being there to vote in the Government lobby.

London . . . the same old characterless winter mist . . . the traffic of the streets slithers its way with that dumb patience which makes the horn a useless appendage to a motor car. No one is in a hurry. The bus conductor, on his stationary vehicle, surveys the drear sad beauty of the Park as if he were contemplating an elegy to dead leaves.

It is always the same. The returning Londoner feels like a piece of flotsam that has not yet been caught up in the current. Tomorrow it will be different, and after a few tomorrows we shall be part of it all again, and even the sapphire blue of the Caribbean will begin to fade into grey nothingness.

By contrast, our visit to Toronto remains strangely vivid, even if the approach by train from New York is not altogether a de luxe affair. There may be some reason why a cup of coffee and a modest^biscuit cannot be procured after Buffalo has been left behind, but I rejectee explanation without even hearing it.

Hamilton . . . Sunnyside . . . Union Station! The year^-fall away. I might have been coming back from a war, or a singing Vour, or a week of trying to sell pianos to people who really did not want thqm.

Toronto has a character entirely its own. It is not the carpxai of Canada any more than New York is the capital of the U. S. Aí Put it grows in strength and size and power—just like New York. The city fathers try to keep pace with the development, but Toronto continues to outgrow itself like a boy and his school clothes.

Toronto was intended by nature to be a city of infinite beauty. With such a harbor, and with an island to protect it from the encroachment of Lake Ontario, here was a setting for another Naples.

But the pioneer does not look for beauty. Our ancestors, whether spurred by discouragement, or vision, or adventure, had made their way to the new world. Their problem was survival. At any time it is hard to ask men to look fifty years ahead, but never so hard as when the newcomer has to wrestle with the soil and the elements for mere existence. It is easy enough for us in 1955 to look Continued on page 44

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back over the years and wonder that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did not insist that. Toronto’s waterfront should be saved from the hand of the vandal. Here was a perfect setting for a city hall, an art gallery and even a cathedral.

In fact, the Canadian pioneer might have learned from the English example of the Thames which sheds its utili-

tarian character at London Bridge and then moves gracefully past the Savoy, Somerset House, the Houses of Parliament and so on to the upper reaches of Henley, Windsor and other pleasing places.

I must confess, however, that this elegance only applies to the North Bank. To this day the South Bank from London Bridge to Westminster Bridge is a madhouse of architectural chaos, with the ultramodernism of the Festival Hall contributing a final touch of dementia.

Yet, when the snorting tugs and

pleasure steamers pass under Westminster Bridge they have the noble sight of the Houses of Parliament with its wondrous Terrace, and the steeples of St. Margaret’s and the Abbey just beyond.

It is hard for the pioneer to think far into the future. Supplies had to reach Toronto, and water has always been the cheapest method of transporting goods. Then why in the name of common sense should freight be unloaded from the ships, and then hauled, for example, to the north of the city and put on the trains?

Elsewhere our forebears were giving considerate thought to the dignity of the city born on the more or less bonny banks of Lake Ontario. When I was in Toronto in January 1 was a guest of Premier Frost and his cabinet. In fact I had the unusual experience of sitting with the cabinet although I took no part in its deliberations.

Queen’s Park retains its old-world dignity, and as an expatriate Canadian I do hope that modernism will not be allowed to lay its vandal hand upon the Victorian stateliness of Ontario’s Parliament Buildings. Yesterday is the parent of today, and we should honor the past if only to remind our children and grandchildren that Toronto, like Rome, was not built in a day.

University Avenue, of course, is a highway in search of a soul. It emerges splendidly from Queen’s Park with the width and grace of another Champs Elysées, but unhappily does not culminate in an Arc de Triomphe. In fact, it just leaves off as it reaches the conglomeration of Queen Street and its environs. What a pity it could not have originally found its way to the waterfront.

Architecturally of course the buildings on University Avenue have a variety beyond the dream of Mr. Heinz. The sturdy Armories, obviously built to withstand a long siege, gaze across at the Berkeley Square outline of the University Club and the well-ordered preciseness of the Military Institute. An ultramodern glass building like a flat-breasted female from Mars gleams on the hurrying traffic, and there is a Byzantine that glances sideways at the wench from Mars with a sombre reproach.

Two little rows of houses huddle together like children lost at the fair, and it is said that Mary Pickford was born in one of them. Who owns the houses? Who occupies them? It is really very strange.

Finally there is that massive building owned and operated by MacleanHunter. There is no nonsense about this affair. It was built for use, not for the edification of the passer-by— and it captures all the daylight there is.

Now for a personal declaration. If I ever returned to live in Canada, I would choose Toronto if it would have me. Toronto is more than a city—it is a state of mind. On the surface it is the most American of Canadian cities, but in spirit it is the most British.

Quite rightly Vancouver prides itself on the loveliness of its setting and a tempo of life that has more in common with England than with the industrialism of central Canada. I know too that Halifax, with its old-world charm, claims to he the last survival of the gracious days before Canada grew to Dominion status.

Then there is Quebec with its lingering memories of the French aristocracy and its old-world charm. Also, there is vigorous and vital Winnipeg, and Calgary with its long-legged men and its bright-eyed women. And what of Montreal with bankers all over the place, and sophistication in the very air? Like Ulysses, I hear their siren voices, but Toronto is my true love.

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Nor shall I repeat the old, old joke that the finest sight in Toronto is the 8-30 p.m. train about to leave for New York.

Toronto is not for everybody. To savor its qualities one must be at heart a puritan. Thus, even in your own club, you can drink for six days but on the seventh you must abstain. It is not logical, it is not amusing, but in this cocktail era in which we live Toronto is not ashamed to impose oficial conscience on freedom.

I am told, in whispers, that snobbery still exists in Toronto, and that the old families, or what is left of them, look down their noses on those of lesser antiquity. In fact, Toronto is charged with refusing to acknowledge that all men are equal.

Let us be frank. We are all snobs about something and, at any rate, there is no such thing as equality. When you can reach a point where all horses run at exactly the same speed, then you can begin to talk about equality in human beings. We can confer equal civic rights, equal legal rights and even equal education—in fact, that is our duty—but in the end, the influences of heredity, environment and personality will differentiate human heings as long as life lasts. Nor could it be otherwise. Poverty is no disgrace and even ignorance can be forgiven, but mediocrity is unforgivable.

It is written that we are made in the image of God. We speak the language of the Bible and of Shakespeare. We are heirs to the seamen and the pioneers, the adventurers and the martyrs who changed the mountains and the plains and the waterways into a nation.

What Did Pericles Say?

We Canadians need more arrogance. Small in numbers as we are, in relation to the mother country and our towering neighbor to the south, we have a future that o’erleaps the frontiers of imagination. Others see our glory better than ourselves. Every time a British politician visits Canada, he is almost certain to back me into a corner at Westminster and tell me of the wonders he has seen, and the people he has met.

I was delighted in Toronto to attend the first performance of a musical show based on Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town —in other words, Orillia. The show had its faults, but it had its merits too. But the chief thing was that here was a Canadian composer and dramatist— Mavor Moore—using the Canadian background for a Canadian show.

It may be that when a Canadian politician speaks, he commands the voice and language of great oratory. If not, he should. This is a giant country and its politicians should speak like giants. Any modest pose by an MP that he is just a good guy like the rest of the boys is monstrous, and his pay should be cut.

"Look to your minorities!” thundered Pericles. That was almost at the beginning of recorded time, but he knew that the mob could not lead the mob, and that the welfare of the people depended on the qualities of the few.

Yes, Canada needs more arrogance. The Elizabethan renaissance that is sweeping Britain should find its counterpart in our mighty Dominion. And since Toronto has more arrogance than any other city in Canada, I repeat that it would be my choice if I were to return to my native land.

Now I shall go down to the House of Commons and look at Old Man River from the Terrace, gurgling his way to the sea, and Toronto will seem far, far away. ★