Column

Of sultry summer evenings and the encroachment of people’s chic

Barbara Amiel July 2 1979
Column

Of sultry summer evenings and the encroachment of people’s chic

Barbara Amiel July 2 1979

Of sultry summer evenings and the encroachment of people’s chic

Column

Barbara Amiel

Summer is not my favorite time of year. To begin with, I sweat a lot, in spite of a constant dialogue with appropriate glands in my body to remind them that I come from a long line of Semitic nomads wandering around deserts—while they remind me that they’ve had it with this Roots business and, anyway, people sweat in the desert too. Most summers I also work reasonably hard because I can’t afford to vacation in those cunning pink villas on Fiji, and the places I can afford, I loathe.

Summer is a season that exaggerates little annoyances. I suppose the sweat of my brow in the summer also goes to my share of tax revenues that keep all those happy Ottawa people in business. “There,” I say to myself, as I watch them bicycle past me, tanned and Adidas-ed,

“there goes a civil-servant-person off to language class or a seminar on new and interesting ways to redistribute our incomes. Perhaps today it’ll be incentives to some nice crippled industry.”

When my work is done I settle down on summer evenings to read the many periodicals that keep me abreast or—if this is sexist—a-scrotum of the times. I especially enjoy a light fashion rag called W. Apart from telling me handy little things about what Gore Vidal and Lee Radziwill are up to, W keeps me posted just in case I ever get to those aforementioned pink villas. As last month’s W put it: Summer Is . . . An Unspoiled Spot, which turned out to be “the picturesque charm of the Borromeos with regulars Princess Margaret, David Niven, the king of Belgium and some Rockefellers.” But I have not renewed my W subscription. The reason? A renaissance in one of the ailing industries I support: people’s chic has hit the Canadian post office.

I have 14 magazine subscriptions, delivered by long-suffering and probably underpaid postmen. My New York Review of Books comes with horrid regularity. Quill & Quire has never missed a month. But of W’s 26 issues per year, fewer than half get through. Complain

to the publisher. “We mailed every one.” Complain to my local postal supervisor. “No, we never received them. Tell you what, though: for a month I’ll monitor your mail.” Phone call at the end of the month from a triumphant Station Manager Frank King, at Postal Station P. “I told you, not one copy of that magazine passed through our hands.” Alas, the post office is foiled again. That month was the only month ever in which I received two copies in an unprecedented spree of generosity.

Some may find this “detouring” of an expensive fashion magazine a discouraging feature of a public service. Not me. I am delighted to see this dawning chic among posties. Previously I had thought they would be filching copies of the Morning Star and holding study sessions to talk about how much more fun it would be to sort mail after the revolution than before it. (cf. CU,PW journal Ottawa, 1977: “Over 80 per cent of all mail processed by the post office is the mail of large corporations ... if production and services are increased, who benefits? It is surely not the workers in the post office.”)

This new chic has hit another people’s industry. Last summer, on my final flight with Air Canada, the stewardesses paraded up and down the aisles while an amplified voice explained that the different colored outfits denoted different ranks. Ranks, if you please. A scarlet jacket, I think, indicated Chief of the Aft-Cabin, which translated into a job that involved steady scowling at

lesser stewardesses and studied indifference to thirsty passengers. But that is nothing compared to Air Canada’s new official languages policy. Last April, feeling a little guilty about boycotting my national airline, I tried to make a reservation from Toronto to Ottawa. The Air Canada line was so busy I couldn’t even get their recorded announcement. Then—inspiration. I dialled the alternate number listed in French. It was answered in less than

one ring. I requested a reservation. Not unless I spoke French, replied the voice, in flawless English. The English number was busy, I explained. They were free. “Sorry, we are a multilingual line,” explained the flying schoolmarm. Relief. I put my husband on the phone. He requested a flight to Ottawa, in flawless Hungarian. “Our Hungarian reservation officer is off tonight, how about German?” she asked. “How about English?” asked my husband in flawless German. “Not a chance,” came the reply, in flawless English.

Summer is the only time I venture into those cement-and-linoleum establishments that are the people’s liquor shops. Poor tippling Canadians. Government-sponsored commercials urge them to get into “A Dialogue on Drinking” and then double the price of their beverages to help pay for these silly public health ads. I wouldn’t complain if anyone seriously believed that such a campaign could prevent just one person from becoming an alcoholic. But I doubt if even Ontario liquor czar Frank Drea believes that. But at least people’s chic has not hit our liquor outlets. In spite of their 100-per-cent markups, there’s no hint of capitalist luxury. No broadloom on the floors to cushion guilty footsteps. No piped-in music. This is the closest we come to rivalling Albanian animation.

But I guess in the people’s industries there are no consumers. Only bosses. We are all proprietors. And—here comes the twist—we all know that the owning classes deserve nothing better, n'est-ce pas?