Essay

THE AGE OF ROB

In which the writer, 50, finds he was born into a very good year

ROBERT SHEPPARD July 15 2002
Essay

THE AGE OF ROB

In which the writer, 50, finds he was born into a very good year

ROBERT SHEPPARD July 15 2002

THE AGE OF ROB

In which the writer, 50, finds he was born into a very good year

Essay

ROBERT SHEPPARD

PRESBYTERIAN MODESTY has kept me from this topic for some time. But anniversaries are a liberating occasion, and looking back, it does seem that the world changed perceptibly the year I first caught breath. That would be 1952.

Fifty years ago, pent-up post-war immigration took off like a shot off a shovel, rearranging the face of North American cities. Important diseases were being eradicated. The novel was being transformed. Beat writer Jack Kerouac had his first psychedelic experience (peyote)—a seminal event, I would argue, in knitting together the frenetic and the mystical elements of a counterculture he would do so much to send spinning merrily down the road. Oh, and a new music called rock ’n’ roll took its first steps from back-alley blues bars to a concert stage.

In 1952, Elizabeth II, then a doughty 25year-old, ascended the throne of Canada (we proclaimed her first, a little-known fact) and a few other places as well. Her recent Golden Jubilee party—a heady mix of Cinderella-carriage pomp and rock-star circumstance—sums up an age where image, more often than not, triumphed over tradition. And where way too much is known about anyone with even a thimbleful of authority.

In the high arts, the Stratford Shakespearean Festival opened its doors, its flap really, to astound the world with plays delivered from a rain-soaked tent in Ontario farm country. The National Ballet of Canada was in the midst of its inaugural season, and Hockey Night in Canada—to many, the highest art of all—made its TV debut in the birth year of CBC Television. In short, what we have is half a century of almost everything. Let’s, for the sake of argument, call it the Age of Rob.

Stratford opened. The National Ballet of Canada was in its inaugural season, and Hockey Night in Canada made its TV debut in the birth year of CBC Television.

The anniversary list goes on, and has not been given nearly the attention it deserves. Mad Magazine was born in 1952, turning pimply adolescence into a work of the imagination and, it might be argued, helping to extend it beyond its normal biological range. Sugar Frosted Flakes are 50 this year, as is Lipton Onion Soup mix, culinary rites of passage in much of North America. In Maclean’s that January, the graceful Trent Frayne penned a momentous profile of Conn Smythe, the diminutive war hero and owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, from which that famous aphorism—“If you can’t beat them out in the alley, you can’t beat them in here on the ice”—cascaded down through the ages and came to define the essence of Canada’s national sport. And occasionally the country itself—to the befuddlement of those who think us mild-mannered and peaceable.

Fifty years ago, ex-Montrealer Saul Bellow was completing The Adventures of Augie March (it was published the following spring), an ambitious, manic yarn that would move the yardsticks for the comic novel. Many claim 1952 as the birthdate of rock ’n’ roll, when riotous fans stormed the stage at an event called the Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland (one of the reasons the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in that unassuming locale). I’m not so sure about that. Elvis was still four years away from his breakout release Heartbreak Hotel and Buddy Holly had just formed his first high school band in Lubbock, Tex. But 1952 was the year the Gibson Co. brought out the Les Paul, the legendary electric guitar that, in the right hands, would mainline popular music directly to the soul. That spring also saw the arrival of the first commercially

available transistors, sparking the age of the portable radio.

On the medical front, this is, of course, the 50th anniversary of Jonas Salk’s creation of a vaccine for polio. It took several years for mass inoculation to be available in schools and fire halls—too late for one brave woman of my acquaintaince. We forget now, how polio epidemics raged through North America, parts of Europe and the Far East between 1950 and 1953. This was the time when childhood immunization became a crusade. Over the course of the next 25 years, first polio, then tuberculosis, then smallpox were largely eradicated, at least from the industrialized world. Churchgoing dropped dramatically during that period. Medical science took its place as the dominant religion.

The first birth control pill was developed in 1952 (though it took eight years to be approved as a contraceptive in the United States, a further seven in Canada). A new, more targeted radiation therapy for cancer, the cobalt bomb, was being introduced in Canadian hospitals after groundbreaking research the previous year at the University of Saskatchewan. Around the world, scientists like Cambridge’s Francis Crick and James Watson were on the frenzied final sprint to lay out the mysteries of DNA, the very blueprint of life. Their findings—the double helix, a sensation from the first— were published early the next spring.

Stand back and 1952 could be the starting gun for a genetic revolution that has now mapped the inner biochemical workings of earthworms and humans, and is burrowing ever further into the mysteries of the womb in the search for longevity and spare parts. Fifty years: reflective middle age to some, a blink of the eye for scientific gestation. Any day now, renegade

scientists promise, the first cloned human will be born, marking the kickoff to a portentous new time, what some are calling the Posthuman Era.

So why focus on this anniversary, on this particular 50-year stretch, you ask? Why not? As the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould observed on the occasion of the millennium, Nature knows no classifications by 10s or 50s or 1,000s, only the seasonal or diurnal rhythms of life; but

humans seem to have this compulsive need to fit things in pigeonholes.

I confess, in my early years I was slightly embarrassed about being born in 1952. It didn’t have the cachet of the class of ’46, the War Children, or especially 1950, when one’s own golden jubilee would fall with such serendipity on the year 2000. All my life I felt like an afterthought of the Baby Boom, its cutting edge being five years older.

Yet there is something worth celebrating about arriving when we did, not least because it allowed us to experience a world seemingly designed with our growing up in mind. I was 15 when Expo 67, Canada’s big birthday, opened in Montreal, just across the St. Lawrence River from the small Quebec town I grew up in. The world came right to our door, especially those French-speaking girls from the other side of the river with the doe eyes and the white

Essay|>

lipstick. We bland anglos tried to convince them we were exotic Americans. From Cleveland perhaps.

We were the cohort, it seemed, for whom sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll were truly invented. The Beades and acne arrived during the same school semester. I know people just one year older, 1951-ers, who could be of an entirely different generation. They don’t even know what Bob Dylan’s real name is. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is in his mid-50s. I believe him when he says he never inhaled.

Is the Age of Rob a true classification, like the Victorian Era or the Age of Reason? Perhaps. They, too, had their internal contradictions. Anniversaries are, by their nature, arbitrary moments for reflection and tallying up. Still, this one does have its defining, overarching traits: television, the sexual revolution (even the evolution of sex on TV), the godlike sword of genetics, the entrenchment of a broad counterculture, the rise (and fall) of the mass audience, and the demise of deference.

National television took off in earnest in 1952, movie-going had just hit a peak that has not been surpassed, and the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey, war hero and scion of the business establishment, became the first Canadian-born Governor General. All these things may be oddly entwined.

Just a year earlier, Massey handed in the final report of the Royal Commission into the arts that bears his name. Its legacy would be the Canada Council, the National Library, some might say even CBC Television, which at the time (as now) was facing fierce opposition from private competitors. The intellectual underpinning for decades of arm’s-length federal support for the arts, the Massey report was an elegant and somewhat unexpected mix of the old elitism and an almost giddy enthusiasm for the hurdy-gurdy of mass entertainment. (In that, it was probably not unlike the Internet contagion that mushed the brains of latter-day business types.) It dared to suggest that Canada might create its own galaxy of entertainment stars.

And why not? This was the age, until the advent of the Internet and the multichannel universe, of the mass market, an age, I cringe to admit, defined by constant novelty and advertising. Politics was becoming transformed by image, with ever-

A Buick reflected one’s station in life

shrinking moments of public discourse.

Norman Vincent Peale published his bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, in 1952. Labour-saving devices were all the rage. Still are if you count cellphones that can turn on the air conditioning. Cars were built to reflect one’s station in life: the bank manager might own a Buick, his underlings could aim no higher than Pontiac. Today we have the equal and opposite reaction to all that: specialty audiences that are decidedly tribal in their tastes, credit cards arriving at the door as junk mail, and teenagers who drive BMWs to high school.

Canada was a much different place 50 years ago. Roads were being built, dreams, too, after the initial confusion of the immediate post-war years. Montreal was the biggest and most cosmopolitan of Canadian cities. Father figures ruled: Dwight Eisenhower won the White House in 1952; Louis St. Laurent was safely ensconced in Ottawa. But cracks in the old alignments were starting to show. On the West Coast, W.A.C. Bennett’s upstart Social Credit party slid into office—completing the Western triptych. At that point, the three most westerly provinces were in the hands of populist, contrarian, experiment-minded, antiOttawa governments: two Socreds and the NDP in Saskatchewan. Together they helped prepare the ground for prairie Tory John Diefenbaker’s whirlwind assault five years later, an epochal event for the West.

The world, too, was being transformed. European existentialism cohabited with McCarthyism. Old colonies and alliances heaved up in the aftermath of the Second

World War. In east Africa, the Mau Mau struck terror in the hearts of colonial overlords. The French would soon give up on Vietnam; the Americans inherited that crazy burden. In 1952, Britain became the third country to explode an atomic bomb.

Some date the start of the Cold War to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. But a more elegant argument can be made that it really began with the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, when the Soviets returned to international sporting events with a vengeance after a long absence, secreting Eastern Bloc athletes in a separate Olympic village alongside a Soviet naval base. As clear a line in the sand as you might care to draw.

Communism didn’t survive the Age of Rob. Neither did OPEC as a comeuppance to the industrialized West. Nor stagflation, the welfare state, or perhaps even the latest fad—Internet and mass media convergence. As the age wound on, its social revolutions became shorter and more confused. To quote Marshall McLuhan: “In one era and out the other.”

British historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued that the golden age of post-war development that began in the early 1950s (can we not just say, smack on the dot of ’52?) petered out in the mid-1970s for a host of reasons that include Vietnam, the death of the gold standard, oil-price shocks, global economic disorder and, I would add, disco. Or, in Canada’s special case, the twin demons of Quebec nationalism and Western alienation that tied us up in constitutional knots.

After the golden age, Hobsbawm postulates, came a series of unmoored socialeconomic experiments, sometimes called the Eighties and the Nineties, in which the world’s real wealth shifted noticeably in favour of the industrialized have-countries, Canada among them. He is probably right. But Hobsbawm is a historian with his own peculiar sense of time. His history of the 20th century, for example, only takes in the years 1914-1991. And I, for one, am not yet ready to give up on the Age of Rob, 1952-2002, as a distinctive human experiment worthy of some notation. I’m even prepared to hoist a modest jar in honour of all those celebrating their first half-century on this fair earth. The Posthumans can take home the leftover cake. If there is any. fil