COLUMN

From poverty to decadence

Allan Fotheringham July 18 1988
COLUMN

From poverty to decadence

Allan Fotheringham July 18 1988

From poverty to decadence

COLUMN

By Allan Fotheringham

There is some hope for Alberta after all. The area that has been regarded as the intellectual swampland of the realm is slowly coming to life. Nothing much can be done for the moment about the White Bread premier of Canada, Don Getty, but there are stirrings. There are fewer references to the old Toynbee adaptation: Alberta being the only jurisdiction within memory that has gone from poverty to decadence without passing through civilization. The Liberals are actually making a comeback, as evidenced by the fact that the grasping mayor of Edmonton wants the provincial leadership. Robin Slater, the winsome proprietor of Robin’s Roost bookstore in Canmore— home of all those incomprehensible Olympic crosscountry events —claims she will be the first candidate of the Few Democrats to be elected to the House of Commons from Alberta in the next election (to be held next spring: you heard it here last). Her claim is disputed only by Tom Schepens, a real estate hustler in Calgary and another NDP candidate, who boasts that he uses the abuses of capitalism so as to benefit socialism. Such insouciance should be rewarded.

We will leave aside, for the moment, the new Edmonchuk bylaw proposing that cats be fitted with leashes, regarding this as something fit only for Monty Python—as is Premier White Bread, who governs from a golf course in Palm Springs. We move instead to the mountains, where one is made suitably humble.

Despite all the overkill over the years, all the postcards, one still boggles at the visual zap of Banff and, up the road, up the mountains, Lake Louise. Rose-Marie and Nelson Eddy were right. As witness the nine zillion Japanese tourists (if the camera had not been invented, would the Japanese exist?). There is a pub in Banff called The Rose & Crown, dart board and all, fireplace, the best place in the world to watch Boris Becker and Wimbledon on a rainy 121st birthday of a teenage country that is growing up.

There is, encountered in the lobby of the Banff Springs Hotel, the ageless Mart Kenney, he of Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen, who must by now be about 102. Some years ago, he confided my favorite story. When he started his celebrated band, in a small Alberta town in the Depression, he ordered his men to do it up right—rent tuxedoes and show up at 9. He posted the notices on telephone poles all round: Dance, Friday night, 50 cents. He lowered his baton at 9 p.m., his proud men in black tie, the school hall empty. They played until midnight, the hall empty.

In rural Alberta, in the Depression, no one had 50 cents. Barry Broadfoot would love it. Today? One son runs the Ontario Jockey Club, another the famous hockey-incubator Notre Dame College of Wilcox, Sask.

Things are somewhat different in the Delicafé in Kensington, Calgary’s attempt to join the rest of the country. Kensington is the laid-back apprenticeship for what Vancouver’s Gastown used to be (before being surpassed by Granville Island). What Toronto’s Yorkville used to be (before succumbing to its present Gucci-Pucci and Sarahband also). Montreal has never had to succumb to anything, the Péquiste rue StDenis simply taking over from Crescent Street when too much plastic inundated the latter.

The Delicafé is basic. The owner cheerfully offers payola to anyone among the visiting media types who will mention the name in print (twice the price if it appears in boldface). One admires honesty. There are a lot of chil-

dren, hanging from mothers like grapes. In the corner, squished among the children, is a trio plunking away good-naturedly on a guitar and something on funky old tunes. Images of the Sixties emerge. Families wander in. Everyone seems to know everyone else’s children.

A tall, emaciated chap who looks like a rocket scientist goes to the bandstand, doing funny things with his mouth to a Javex bleach bottle suspended around his neck by a string. A fellow wanders in with a washtub and a broom handle and a string—a throwback to the skiffle players who infested London in the Fifties. There is an ample lady with a mandolin.

Slowly, the picture becomes clear. The sad moustaches and the arresting cheekbones reveal the truth. These are Czechoslovak émigrés who find, in this home of smoked meat, an outlet for the musical tradition that keeps them alive. What is most remarkable is that their music is bluegrass— down-home Tennessee. One tries to assess those cheekbones. A taxi driver there? A security guard there? Which one is a o doctor?

r Mothers leave with ext hausted children. Other ® mothers arrive with exuberant children, eager to watch Dad do his thing. The man with the fiddle looks like an intelligent architect. The bandstand that contained three now consumes five. Everybody smokes. Two more arrive. The drummer, wrestling his equipment past his children, appears sad. No Gene Krupa this. Slav music is always sad, as is—one recalls— bluegrass. The lament of the undernourished.

There are now seven on the bandstand meant for three. The fiddler’s elbow is in the eye of the mandolinist. The banjo guy’s cigarette burns the wrist of the Javex master. Somebody sings something that is supposed to be Kentucky lament but is suffused with Slavic angst. The banjo chap’s stroking of his strings is syncopated with his tobacco draws. The children either squirm or subside into sandland.

The owner bustles about, pretending to be aloof, wondering whether his payola offer is going to be honored. Sorry, you get nothing from this source.