TO CANADA, WITH LOVE AND HISSES
Harold Town at forty, is still as angry as he used to be when he was a nonselling, nonobjective Toronto painter a dozen years ago—with an important difference. In those days he was mostly angry about public and critical indifference toward modern artists in general and himself in particular. Since then, having become high priced (up to a thousand dollars per drawing, much more per painting ) and highly prized (he’s in London’s Tate Gallery, New York’s Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk and many public and private collections), he has broadened the scope of his disapproval to include so wide a range of things as rich men who ride to fame on runty horses, policemen who beat up parsons, and the Canada Council. Town has used his pet hates to become the highestpriced writer in Canada, probably in the world.
His book Enigmas (McClelland and Stewart), contains four thousand words of text and sells for one hundred and fifty dollars, a per-word rate several hundred times higher than Shakespeare or Shaw, Maugham or Maupassant ever aspired to. True, there are twenty drawings in the book, but Enigmas can scarcely be called an art book with captions, since there is no apparent connection between Town’s writing and his drawings. (“That’s something the reader must decide for himself,” says publisher Jack McClelland, a Town collector in a modest way - one drawing.)
On the ground* that the publication of a hundredand-fifty-dollar book is, if nothing else, a news event, Maclean’s invites readers to turn the page for the complete text of Enigmas, plus a sample drawing of its illustrations.
Harold Town's ENIGMAS
THAT LAST UNNECESSARY STEP, taken in the dark at the top of the stairs, is Canada. Our foot, wet with the saliva of its usual resting place, comes down on nothing, which precisely defines our international position. We have no hits, and no myths; we never get into the starting line-up (except if there is a war, and then our military heroes, such as Billy Bishop, are casually referred to by Life magazine as “British"). We haven’t enough guts to get a good seat (with financial cushions) in the bleachers and stay there, as Switzerland has done so successfully. Instead, we desire an international voice but are too stingy to pay for it.
This is the garden of the world, and grows nothing but weeds. Our foremost national product is erosion, closely pursued by that upstart, pollution. The most successful politician in our history resembled a bald Queen Victoria, and for recreation talked to spooks. Our finest spectacle consists of a group of police in red coats charging at nothing with spears. That toothy and consummately ugly creature, the beaver, appears on our emblems; a dew-line worm would be more appropriate and equally as inspiring. The Americans had enough sense to put their Indians with some reservations into filmic folklore; they were then starved to death with no reservations, on the reservations. We have contemptuously ignored ours entirely except for denying them the use of our national drug, alcohol, and have adopted the Eskimo instead; he keeps better on ice, covers his chest, and being so far north it’s not necessary to ask him to tea.
For our soul there is something called the Canada Council which supports the arts, humanities, and sciences, and is relentlessly dedicated to the discovery and deification of mediocrity. Had Edgar Guest lived in Canada he would have been smothered in fellowships. We take fanatical pride in the Stratford Festival, which does continual honour to an English playwright, uses mostly English directors and designers, who have not as yet squeezed by a single theatrical platitude of forty years ago. We arrest poets speaking in the public parks on the pretext that such places are for posies, not poesy. Our real poets, who are as a group extraordinarily good, are forced to make undergraduate remarks about sex so that the ensuing outrage will be a signal for their existence.
We have one, mind you only one, really well-run home for the aged and infirm (prematurely or otherwise) and it is called the Senate. Why politicians should have this special club and not plumbers or morticians is of course a mystery. There exists a medal for distinguished service to the country; it has never been awarded; the Victoria Cross by comparison is a common bauble. Scientific evidence proves beyond an x-ray shadow of a doubt that cigarettes cause cancer, so the government of my province slapped yet another tax on liquor, on the grounds that you smoke more when you drink.
The breeding of race horses, a species of mammal of unparalleled stupidity and uselessness, is subsidized by public funds in Ontario more generously than research into muscular dystrophy. One of the major recipients of this money is a local tycoon who is now a national hero because he owns a runty horse that won the Kentucky Derby. Had the owner of this brute so wished, the animal would have been honoured at a civic reception, complete with band, civic wives, and all the political hay (speeches) it could munch. When Glenn Gould first returned from his conquest of the international musical establishment, he was met by nothing but the indifferent stares of the homuncule who find berets unusual.
Steal a loaf of bread, and you can get two years of nineteenthcentury prison life; cut a couple of children down in a brakeless car while driving drunk without a license, and you might get two weeks in the “local," with time off for good behaviour. The point of this incredible misdirection of society's moral
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“What we need,” says Harold Town, “is a flag of the week”
judgment is that the makers of laws all drive cars, some even drink, but they hardly ever get around to filching anything as pedestrian as a loaf of bread.
In the main, Canadian law has the same concern for the protection of property as had sixteenth-century law, whose makers were rich men or their minions. There is, however, no interest in the protection of the poor or unwary who sign monstrous contracts in pursuit of the materialistic glories of our economic system, and are consequently leeched white by the machinations of the moneylenders. In other words, there is little credit to a system based on credit. Man should be the paramount concern of law, not property. One of the major ironies of our time is the fact that the ubiquitous automobile, first universal symbol of twentieth-century freedom of movement. should be the leading perpetuator of medieval morality in an age of interstellar travel.
Our police busy themselves with raiding house parties, banning books, watching girlie shows with a tape measure, and thumping rabbis, oblivious to the grubby black hand shakedown of the mafia, the click of dice and high heels, and the giant robbery that takes place at the same time every day in a fancy building on Bay Street.
Our main architectural compulsion is to build sport stadiums, to house the monolithic peregrinations of retread American athletes each fall.
The greatest single national pleasure is derived from the succulent spectacle of a Canadian failing in some international endeavour. We are, in fact, a funnel through which Europeans who cannot make the American quota, pour into the United States on the skim milk of Canadian citizenship.
A funnel would have been appropriate, dead centre on the blank ground of our non-existent flag; naturally the selection of a new flag (something done in half a day by an emerging African nation) reduced our Parliament to a mockery of political purpose, a fey farce performed endlessly to a deluge of boredom, by amateurs of spirit and direction in the musty sub-basement of world opinion. Our only suggestion of panache has
been of course the fact that we were the one country in the world without a flag, by default a diffident step in the direction of world government. A pure white flag would have put us in a state of constant surrender, sparing us the shock of having a belligerent fire a shot across our furrowed brows. What we need is a flag of the week, achieved by simply sewing the flag of an ascendant nation into the centre of our field of white, and keeping it there as long as we enjoy amicable relations with the owners. We might in time acquire the same authority as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. and open a little laboratory and cook up a few governmental recipes: why we would be right back in the business of selling seals, having killed most of our live ones, along with nearly everything else that moves in our forests.
“Get rid of our army”
What we should do is much simpler; get rid of our army, navy, and air force, an act that if carefully handled could be marvellous propaganda for the United States of America. Jettison with them the iniquitous, hypocritical immigration laws, which discriminate against Negroes and Orientals, and with the money saved bring several millions of these peoples to this country, and discover if we really are as democratic as our ceaseless criticism of the racist idiocy in the United States and South Africa would suggest. To paraphrase Joyce Cary, self-righteousness makes good dark glasses but you can hardly drink of life from them. The literature of man is replete with examples of his strange behaviour when alone . . . talks to himself, drops cotton batten on cotton batten and listens for the sound, makes faces and beards from soap for the benefit of a mirror. We are quite alone as we stand stupidly watching America buy more of our industry and consequent control of Canadian foreign policy. We refuse to chance the unusual but much of what we do is so psychotic as to be unusual. During the last war we robbed Canadians of Japanese descent of their homes and future at one end of the country, while from the other end we sent men to die bravely fighting Germans because they were commit-
ting the same inhumanities on the people of Europe.
In the past, British monarchy visited the colonies to patch the fissures, not the issues, whenever a crack appeared in the dikes of Commonwealth solidarity. Such visitations were meant to protect the seeds of traditional loyalty to the Empire (the thin red bookkeeping line, and the sun that only set on natives) from the rising floods of independence which, if unchecked, might have left England to fight the next war really “alone on the beaches.”
Fortunately, as a result of being the most politically sophisticated people in the world, the English had the superb sense, after the delivery of Churchill’s “Dissolution of the British Empire speech,” to send him hack to the nineteenth century where he belonged, and to get on with dissolving an Empire that had actually died at the moment of the first shot in the Boer War.
In one sense English monarchy is very modern, for it is thoroughly middle class, a condition general to people in half the western world, and aspired to by the other half. In this regard, English royalty is just what Crestfallen Heights needs on a damp weekend when the playing of golf is out of the question, and boredom is the only dish left on the menu. For some inexplicable reason, our politicians insist on bringing British royalty to Canada and Quebec, even though their presence here is a reminder of every indignity, real or imagined, committed against French Canadians by English-speaking Canada. Unfortunately, the Queen has become a symbol of ancient wounds, though she herself is quite inoffensive and ordinary, and therefore modern.
What is a Royal visit? Nothing more than the endless greeting and meeting of captive regal personages and overstuffed, underbread politicians, in circumstances of monumental triteness. On no account must the Royal anachronisms ever meet the ordinary folk with whom they have so much in common. The regal charm and good sense of the present ruling house is spread thinly over a stale upper crust, making a beggars’ banquet of visits that after all should be fun, for they have some of the stuff of fairy tales, a welcome antidote to
the dismal greyness of today’s few remaining formalities.
Nevertheless, the Empire no longer exists, the Commonwealth is an elaborate quilt of emerging nations, confused aspirations and illogical economics, much in need of darning. There is, in short, no adequate justification for the Royal presence at this tense and critical time in the life of Canadian Confederation. A visit from the President of the United States would be more to the point, and it would mean that we had finally faced point blank the realities of our present situation.
We greet an African leader warmly, promise him financial aid, but renege because he dared to bring a sampling of his girls with him. That he was later slaughtered, when caught without a financial life-jacket bothered no one. Citizens are hounded on suspicion of communist affiliation, yet a major union was casually handed to a sleazy gangster by the government. A massive war was fought against Fascism; once over, the people of fascist countries poured into Canada without restriction, (a group of Hungarians tried to kill one of their number in the customs shed where they had just disembarked, because he wore a leather coat) yet we have excluded the people of wartime allies such as the C'hinese and Africans.
You get a bounty for shooting wolves, which are most important to the balance of nature, but nothing is paid for potting a land speculator devoted to unbalancing nature. Just try to get a room in one of our hotels, if the lady with you is not your wife; somehow management forgot moral restrictions in the case of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Vice is only vice when it is not news. One of our judges just invented something called minor perjury, which is not, as you would think, for lying under-age, but for lying under the warm blanket of a million dollars. Our navy has stockpiled enough underwear to decently cover the posteriors of all the multitudes teeming in the wildest dreams of the Malthusians, though there is not one really first-rate research laboratory in the country. Canada will cover the rear, leaving America to cover the bright heads that swarm from here in search of adequate research facilities.
Hoyle has discovered anti-gravity, our Parliament has discovered something called anti-Pearson, which is a ragged little T.V. film, and squanders weeks of verbiage on it, as our birth rights on the Columbia River are signed away without a whimper or tear. There is only one certain way to be elected to Parliament: play professional hockey, and run for election in a suburban district containing lots of children; once elected you must, if concerned with honouring tradition, continue to play hockey while Parliament is in session; this is instantly forgotten if the team wins the Stanley Cup. You may drink champagne from the Stanley Cup in public, you may drink beer on the street if you are a Shriner or just happen to have a serviceable fez; consume a beer on the street, having as character reference only Canadian citizenship, and instant arrest is your reward. Hockey was invented in Canada; true to our na-
tional contempt for tradition we are now incapable of icing an Olympic team that could beat the Egyptians. We will, I suppose, in the end have a flag comprised of maple leaves: the tree that grows this foliage produces a marvellous syrup which is exported from Canada because there is no market for it here. We possess sweeping forests, consequently we insist on importing furniture from the little country of Denmark, made from wood grown in Africa, and held together
by paltry platitudes of design.
The great lakes, possibly one of the finest fresh inland waterways anywhere. are already so polluted that marathon swimmers walk biblically to the finish line. The black fly and mosquito are not. as you may have heard, our most pestiferous insect: it is a bug called specularis moneygrub, a strain (on all of us) of Homo Sapiens irresistibly drawn to the destruction of any building over fifty years old. and compulsively concerned with
the erection of parking lots (the last phrase is a true Canadian invention). Algonquin and Quetico provincial parks must surely rank with the most beautiful wildernesses of the world; their glory is constantly threatened, however, by the mindless ciphers of suburban sprawl who would savage the silence with the poison of the motor car. and its pimp the road, bringing the Disneyland horror of instant experience on a bun to a
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‘Tm sick of the traditional pandering to imported mediocrity”
geography still echoing the roar of dying ice. Only one public expenditure can be made without public clamour, and that for highways. This is understandable; a body without a soul wants at least to move its fingers. Such articulation requires an arterial system, veins need blood, the movement on these roads will continue to be the blind, greedy scrabble of virus chewing away our future and farmland, until the people who must be the blood of our body politic manifest a propriety interest in topsoil, a sense of place, an urge to challenge the present, and rush to the future. Where is that indigenous self?
The Enigmas are fuelled by much more of our national idiocy than 1 can adumbrate here. They are concerned also with specific private loathings, such as the men 1 sec myopically following their wives, pushing a chrome basket of waxed and frozen indigestion through a neon-lit, Muzak, supermarket purgatory, harried by children who are inevitably forced to ask the question that finishes the emasculation, “Daddy, who is the boss at our house?” The women . . . their clothing is a flag for an open ache for passion, their life is locked in a warehouse, the cornerstone is “Quick Marriage”; inside, the dry ice of dismay preserves an inventory of committees, complaints, clubs, coffee, and an inability to stop counting the roses on the wallpaper during the Saturday night ritual. What happened to our legs? I see salesmen napping by the road in their automobiles (afraid to flop frogbellyasses on God’s grass), capacious mouths gaping above the
guillotine of the seat-back, manhood locked behind the final chastity of a seat belt; truly dead to this world. I witness outside my studio assignations of months’ duration entirely encompassed by the coffin car; will the female back never again know the glory of a crushed daisy? And our youth, “that surly future,” complains because it can’t drive to the bathroom.
These drawings are about two religions, Protestant and Roman Catholic, which ravaged, subverted, twisted, and malformed the soul of a great pioneer nation, newly welded by blood in a union of two cultures that might have produced another Athens. Catholicism kept Quebec in the eighteenth century, its raison d'être the cradle, and the grown child became a near police state. The Protestants taught and forced on a people much in need of pleasure the devil’s doctrine of work for work’s sake, and the essential evil of pleasure, while its leaders pandered to the subversion of Quebec. From these perversions have come the idiots of English Canada, who would fly forever the English flag, or something called the Red Ensign, and resent French being used on a government cheque; and the deluded of Quebec who would break away from Confederation, to become what? A supply basket for Napoleon de Gaulle, the latest American state, or the minions of a home-grown power clique?
Meanwhile, a great land, one of the last truly frontier countries of the world, smoulders indecisively, as pulpy politicians sell birthrights, fumble ignominiously, and let us tremble limply
on the doormat to the twentieth century. Around us a geographic complex of stunning grandeur, with a violent, yet surprisingly poetic climate, waits in the growing smog for someone to lead the way out of the murk of a conflict, generated by an unloved history that no one wishes to understand, into the age of space, of which, ironically, we have more than nearly any nation on earth.
Our purpose should be obvious to all, our direction plain and clearly marked; instead, our rightful future shrinks in embarrassment from the internecine squabbles of a parliament which makes children fighting over a ride on a bike seem like a summit conference in heaven by comparison. There are, however, slight green hopes struggling in the random light. The artist failures of the world can no longer come here like emperors to a boarding house, demanding the best mattress, and being served the fattest commissions in a bed of favourable publicity. They now find a revitalized and aggressive creative community, too tough for flabby pretentions, training to fight world champions, and insisting on meeting the best, but never in the home town.
Staying in Canada is a special sin, which can only be pardoned by leaving the country. There is a continual pressure placed on the artist who stays, “to leave and be broadened by travel.” Now 1 agree that travel broadens — the hips not the mind. I happen to think that leaving must be the real sin: “Never leave a house till you have built the roof.” If there is to be a future, 1 believe it is to be
ours; I will not be part of it sitting in a French café, or ogling the Parthenon, or playing pop go the weaselers in New York, the current graveyard of regional talent. I promise to run, not walk, to the nearest exit only when Italian artists, French artists, and the rest are told by their fellow countrymen that they must leave their native lands to develop themselves. Canada is immense and unknown; a hundred lifetimes would not be enough to bring me near to the bone of it. It’s a meal too big for any of us, still we must try to digest it and cure our national dyspepsia. I’m sick to the roots of the traditional pandering to imported mediocrity in the theatre, music, the visual arts, and criticism. I wish to he part of a culture so sure of itself, that it makes the whole world of creativity come over the horns of our accomplishment, rather than silk-footed on the slither of a perennial red carpet.
The peoples of this earth will have to become one family and quickly, or the stench of our communal dying will offend galaxies in distant time. When the happy joining comes, I want us to be a distinct addition to the international stew; not so much tepid water, thinning out the global concoction. We are, in fact, savagely self-repressed, nevertheless ours is the only nation seemingly steeped in a consistent sort of idiocy. If we were aware of this simple truth alone, it would he a small start towards the maturity of self-identification.
I love Canada, and am horrified hy the fact that I feel compelled to say so. ★