THE MORNINGSIDE WORLD OF STUART McLEAN By Stuart McLean (Penguin, $24.95, 236 pages)
Over the past five years, broadcaster Stuart McLean has earned himself a sizable following by chatting about topics that will never make the evening news. Monday mornings on CBC Radio’s Morningside, he talks to host Peter Gzowski about subjects that include Popsicles, snow-shovelling, yo-yos and hotdog vendors—all with an enthusiasm that has made him, Gzowski has stated, the show’s “single most popular contributor.” Now, in an attempt to translate his success into print, the 41-year-old journalist has selected 30 of his best essays from the airwaves, made a few necessary adjustments—those seemingly spontaneous chats were all carefully prescripted—and collected them under the title The Morningside World of Stuart McLean.
The personal essays lose little in translation. In print, they are bereft of the McLean voice, that earnest tenor—all boyish eagerness and barely suppressed awe—that seems designed to celebrate the wonders of the world. But McLean’s roughhewn tales of odd hobbies, everyday objects and eccentric individuals remain fascinating. And while his prose is not the most polished, his stories work quite well on their own terms. Sometimes they are touching, sometimes funny. Often, they deliver a hard, resonant fact or the answer to an intriguing—if trivial—question, such as where dust comes from or how manufacturers put the lead into wooden pencils. But usually, the stories strike a chord simply because they are about ordinary people without power or status who are engaged in activities that will not get them a mention in history books but that make them fascinating exemplars of oddness. They are adult paper-boys, yo-yo instructors, treasure seekers and spelunkers.
The connecting theme in all of the items in the book is McLean’s yen for the past and an admiration for those who have kept their youthful innocence. Indeed, the collection is dominated by adults who play games with an intensity usually reserved for business or politics. One older man has collected so many pieces of the children’s construction toy Meccano that the floor of his house was once in danger of collapse. Another spends his winters replaying NHL games in a miniature arena with 12,000 tiny plastic fans—to the intense dismay of his girlfriend.
Sometimes McLean’s insistent nostalgia seems contrived—when he mourns the loss of hand mowers or tube radios, among other
things. But mostly it generates an invigorating sense of possibility. McLean’s everyday heroes offer the hopeful possibility that life could be lived differently. In one of the best stories in
the book, the author describes how, in 1916, the inhabitants of Coldwater, Ont., annoyed at rising phone rates, replaced Bell Canada with their own municipal phone system. The plan worked well, and McLean reports that in 1985 the people of Coldwater were paying only 10 cents for a pay call and $3.50 a month for a private line.
That courage and commitment to community are a testament to the almost lost values of small-town Canada. In a cynical world, their survival is surely worthy of note—perhaps even a small item on the evening news.
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