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A Genuine Canadian Article, Eh

August 12, 2012
bradspurgeon

I am not proud to be a Canadian. I never was, in fact. Always hated the concept. I am just a Canadian. I was born in Toronto, and grew up there and in Ottawa. I have two passports, two citizenships, a British one and a Canadian one. I have spent most of my adult life living in France. But I will never tell anyone I am British. I am Canadian, that’s where I’m from, how I was raised, where my whole early essence of life comes from. Now, my life is all about the entire world, as readers of this blog will know, as I travel the world for my work and seek out music everywhere – the common language. All of this long introduction is just to say how “un-proud” I felt this morning as I picked up my copy of the May 2012 LRC, or Literary Review of Canada, and my eye was suddenly caught by a stamp, a logo of approval on the bottom right corner of the cover that read: Genuine Canadian Magazine.

bob and doug mckenzie

bob and doug mckenzie

What?!? Suddenly now images of Bob & Doug McKenzie, the yokels from SCTV in the 1980s designed to fulfill Canadian-content rules come to mind. This morning what came to mind was the incredible Canadian inferiority complex, the extraordinary need for Canada to assert its cultural identity by announcing that it has one, by promoting culture for the very fact of its Canadian-ness rather than its quality. But coming on the cover of a literary review, I was struck almost like as if in the balls as I said to myself, “Man, if I saw Genuine Canadian Leather stamped on my Roots shoes or some Canadian souvenir, I would not blink. Just like I might expect to see the same thing on a Malaysian, Brazilian or any other product around the world.”

But having not read the Canadian Literary Review ever before in my life – it is more than 20 years old, but I have been in France longer than that – I suddenly felt as if a), my intelligence had been affronted in a place where I had gone to make use of it, and b), as if the quality of the magazine itself was most certainly going to be about as thick and impenetrable as Genuine Canadian Leather, or even worse, it would read like as if Bob & Doug McKenzie – sorry for the ancient reference from pop culture – had written it. How could any self-respecting literary review stamp itself as a “Genuine Canadian Magazine”? And why, above all, with a title such as “Literary Review of Canada,” would I in my wildest dreams have any doubts as to its origins or cultural background?

literary review of canada

literary review of canada

The review, of course, looks and feels like a Canadian version of the London Review of Books, the LRB. It is about the same size, same paper, same layout – more or less. I have read such reviews for years, the LRB, The New York Review of Books, or NYRB, the Magazine Litteraire and Lire, in France, etc. Here I was now eager to break into the pages of the Canadian literary review and immediately being reminded of all I hated about my native country on the cultural level. I used to be well-liked at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s if ever I brought up any such topic of criticism of Canada’s effort to ghettoize its own literature by calling it “CanLit.” Give me the Lit, you keep the Can, I would say.

And in recent days as I have not been attending open mics all over the world or even in my adopted home of Paris – thanks to it being August and most of the open mics being closed – I have been doing a lot more reading, particularly of this absolutely superb biography of one of my favourite authors, who also happens to be Canadian, Mordecai Richler. Interestingly, as someone who hates the concept of CanLit, two of my favourite authors are Richler and his fellow Canadian, Robertson Davies. But in reading the Richler biography, written by Charles Foran – whom I also learned in the LRC, is the president of PEN Canada – I have learned that Richler also hated the whole concept of trying to prop up and boast about and support Canadian culture. His point of view was that it should survive on merit, not government support. Even more interesting, Richler was left-wing.

Well, back to the LRC, that Genuine Canadian Magazine. FYI, my dad was founder and editor of another genuine Canadian magazine in the 1960s and 1970s, that I know would not have survived without government support – it was called Science Forum – and so I could not, either, be against government support. The point is not “don’t help it survive with money,” the point is, “allow it to be trashed, criticized, discarded, publicly ostracized and allow it to die…if it is no good. Allow it to be praised, promoted and loved if it IS good – in fact, if it is so good, it WILL be loved and promoted.” Here, yes, we arrive back at the LRC.

mordecai richler

mordecai richler

My first impressions were completely destroyed by this stamp of authenticity. I had been really pleased to pick up a literary review from my country – I am Canadian, remember – and thought that I would feel a little closer to it in my bones and roots than the ones I was used to reading… only to then be treated like a bumpkin or tourist picking up a pair of Genuine Canadian Moccasins in Niagara Falls. Okay, so then I read it. Cover to cover in one sitting. It is superb. It is Canadian, but not exclusively so. It had stories about books on the failed, disastrous Franklin expedition to the Arctic in 1845 and how it has become a political tool to define Canada and its territorial rights; another on a book about Michael Ignatieff and the death of the Liberal party, written by Peter C. Newman; about a biography of the great theater director, John Hirsch, who had emigrated as a war orphan from Hungary to Canada after WWII; about the Mauthausen trials after WWII; it even had a couple of novel reviews!

The point of this was that in reading the LRC, I felt a closeness to the English Canadian intellectual, creative and cultural world in a way that my life as an expat and my annual return trips only for my work as a Formula One journalist – which is how I bought the LRC in June – does not usually permit me to feel. Above all, the review seemed to me to be very much the equal to any of other such reviews I read or have read from any other country in the world.

There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was reading a Genuine Canadian Magazine! And that made that little idiot’s insignia on the front all the bigger an insult. By the time I got to the last page of the review I found a full-page advertisement telling me the source of the Genuine Canadian Magazine seal of approval: “Canadian magazine are unique,” read the ad, which had the face all fuzzy in the background – in a collage of magazine covers – of the ubiquitous and now iconic Margaret Atwood. “And so are you,” the ad continued. “That’s why we publish hundreds of titles, so you know there’s one just for you. All you have to do is head to the newsstands, look for the Genuine Canadian Magazine icon marking truly Canadian publications and start reading. It’s that easy.”

I was then told to visit magazinescanada.ca/ns to find my favourite magazine. I did so, and to my great shock, I found there just about every magazine that I ever knew existed in Canada. And I thought, holy crap, there’s no way I could even protest the culture police if I wanted to – without dropping all association with all Canadian magazines, including what appeared to be the major small literary reviews. At least it is not just the LRC that should be taken to task for this – although they would do well to be intelligent enough to at least drop the logo from the front page…if they are allowed to.

So the point of today’s rant? (Yesterday’s rant was about unicycling and cops and traffic laws in France.) The point is that Canada should really drop its efforts to show and impose its culture as being the equal to any on earth – especially that of its great neighbour to the south – because its best culture IS up to the level of that of anyone else’s…except when the culture police pop up their heads and insult our intelligence by insisting that we hear that. Again, and again, and again. Inferiority complexes are not attractive.

PS, in going to the LRC web site just now, I see there is currently a feature called, “How Others See Us.” Hmm… it’s catchy….

PPS, to add a point about not being proud to be Canadian, that phrase I used to open this rant. I speak in the same terms as one of the daughters of King Lear, when he asked his daughters how much each of them loved him. One of those daughters said she loved him – no more, no less. He failed to understand.

Playing the Unicycle Game According to the Vagaries of the Law

August 11, 2012
bradspurgeon

bike path indicator

bike path indicator

It is a cliché and a banality to say it, but sometimes I feel like laws are just excuses for cops to bully people. This was driven in to me last night as I was riding my unicycle around my neighborhood at 3 AM, which is something I do for cardiovascular exercise as often as I don’t have something better to do at 3 AM….

I do not have much to complain about, since I have been doing this for nearly four years now and the police in my neighborhood stopped me only once. There is no real need for them to stop me EVER, but they remain suspicious of a man riding a unicycle around the neighborhood at 3 AM, I think – as the patrol cars sometimes do slow down to check me out. Maybe they are just being entertained. But not the night they stopped me. And that’s where I get to the meat of this post.

At that time I used to take a number of streets on the unicycle in the opposite sense of the car traffic. I did this because it was the safer way to ride down a narrow suburban street at 3 AM when there are very few cars around my neighborhood. When a car did come, I could see it clearly and quickly get off the road onto the sidewalk to avoid any difficulty or danger with the car passing me.

On this particular night, I saw headlights, I pulled off to the sidewalk and I continued toward the intersection. There, I saw that the car was that of a cop … in fact, there were four of them in the car. The guy in the driver’s seat called my attention and I rode over to him and got off the unicycle.

“Just because you are not in a car does not mean you can drive the wrong way down the street,” the man said in a threatening tone. “I could charge you for doing that. Just because it’s a contraption like that doesn’t mean you can go where you want.”

“Oh, okay,” I said with genuine surprise. I was surprised at what he was saying, why he might be saying it, and that he was saying it at all. I had not even thought about the legality of riding a unicycle the wrong way down a quiet suburban road.

But then the cop pointed to my helmet and said: “And don’t think that just because you’re wearing a helmet that you’re safe. If you fall down you will still hurt yourself.”

bike path traffic sign

bike path traffic sign

This too was said in a threatening tone. I had only recently started wearing a helmet, by the way, after riding a unicycle since I was 15 years old. But now I will not ride without one, after I DID fall with the helmet once and hit my head – it was like a backwards belly flop (I had been riding backwards up the street in the direction of the car traffic and I got distracted) and I smashed the rear of my head and was very, very pleased I had the helmet, and did not hurt myself. But now the cop was invading my own private territory, and I realized that he was stepping over the line of what was right and just, and I responded just as sharply to him:

“I am 50 years old, I just lost my wife to cancer at the age of 43 and I have two teenage children to take care of,” I said, “and I need to keep my body in good physical shape and I hate exercise. This is my only way to exercise AND have fun, and no one is going to stop me from doing it.”

The man’s tone changed quickly, he said, “Yeah, well, don’t go the wrong way down a one-way street, you’ll get to your destination just as quickly taking it the right way.”

Obviously he had entirely missed the point of why I took it in the opposite sense…for safety, not to get back home quickly.

He quickly rolled up his window and drove off without another word, and I watched dumbfounded as he drove through the red light at the next intersection without stopping! IE, breaking the fucking law in a car just after telling me I was doing the same and shouldn’t!

So now, let’s fast-forward this post two years later to last night: In recent months my entire neighborhood has had bicycle lanes painted on the roads and I had been very pissed off because since the incident with the cops, I had found myself a great 4 to 5 kilometer circuit that I took, all of which ran in the correct sense of the traffic – as the cops wanted. Well, guess what? I had noticed that the new bicycle lanes all seemed to run in the contrary sense of my personal circuit, all heading into traffic…ie, going the same direction that the cops had accused me of breaking the law with.

I was very happy with my circuit and pissed off that these bike lanes seemed to give me no chance at another logical and cool around-the-neighborhood circuit until last night it suddenly occurred to me that all I had to do was to do exactly the same circuit I had been doing for years, but go in the opposite sense – i.e., face on into the traffic just as the bike lanes did – and I would have the same circuit but now I would not be doing something illegal.

So it was that I realized that, indeed, there had been a 360 degree about-face in what constitutes safe and legal, and here now the same police would no doubt come after me and fine me and accuse me of breaking the law for NOT driving down the lanes in the opposite direction of car traffic.

I laughed to myself and realized the irony of it all. Oh, and I still have to get off the street occasionally when I see a car coming my way because these bicycle lanes are pure fantasy on some of these streets that are just far too narrow to permit a car and a bike – or unicycle – from passing through at the same time.

Still, I’m also still a little confused as to whether I really should be allowed on a path for two wheels with just one…. Oh the trials of being slightly different in life!!!!

German Youth Festival Against Neo-Nazis

July 21, 2012
bradspurgeon

One thing leads to another and that is how we weave our lives together; I’d never have ended up at this interesting little festival in Mannheim had it not been for meeting and playing music with Tonio the day before. Tonio and his friends invited me to see their improv show at a theater on Friday night, and I got stuck in so much traffic leaving the race track that I missed the improv show … but found Tonio and his friends attending this very cool little festival in the same locale: It was a student-run festival that has been going for around a decade and is meant to fight against racism and neo-Nazis.

I found it very inspiring, and in fitting with most of the stuff on this blog, there was lots of music – in fact, most of the festival revolves around the music, an evening of four concerts by local up-and-coming rock bands. There were also tables full of merchandize and printed material, books and tracts against racism, T-shirts and other objects as well.

Brad Spurgeon interviews Antonia Hauth about the anti-racism, anti-neo-Nazi festival in Mannheim:

It was refreshing to find all these young people getting together to fight the scourge of hate and hate crimes. I decided to interview one of the organizers of the festival, Antonia Hauth, a young woman who has just passed the equivalent of her high school diploma, or A-Levels. I made it part of my series of podcasts that I have been doing with open mic and jam session organizers.

This may not have been an open stage, but I felt I might have been able to ask to play a song. Ultimately, however, I saw no real point in intruding. I was happy to attend and to make this felicitous discovery that I would never have known about had it not been for stopping Tonio in the street the day before because of his violin case!!!! But this was a real, true, interesting cultural experience. Listen to the interview and look at the videos to get the feel for it, and the intelligent response to hatred by a portion of today’s German youth. Or if you understand German, check out the organizing group’s web site about their activities against racism and neo-nazis in Germany.

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