Winnipeg (July 10, 2005)
To begin with, I should say that, for the first time ever, I was on a Canadian
train that arrived on time. In fact, it was half an hour early.
Of course, that's just the flip side of the casual timing that I mentioned
in my previous posting.
At home, I am rarely out of contact with real-time news sources for very
long, so one of the real novelties of travel is that I get to be surprised
by an accumulation of news. We arrived Thursday, July 7 in Winnipeg,
and one of our fellow travelers, someone we had spoken with in the Jasper
station, told us she had heard that there had been a major terrorist attack
in London. No further information. Then we walked out into the
city. We passed the provincial parliament building, and noted that the
flags were flying at half staff. It was another couple of hours before
we learned that several dozen people had been killed by four separate bombs
on public transport in London: horrid, but not another 9/11, not even (apparently)
another Madrid. Such is the calibration of our times.
Winnipeg was a bit of a surprise. Knowing nothing about the city except
its geographic location, I expected it to be like all the flat US cities I
know, pedestrian in all but the literal sense. In fact, Winnipeg is
a good deal more attractive than that, on a human scale, pleasant to walk.
I had been warned that torrential rains over the past several weeks had caused
an upsurge in mosquito activity, and potentially an early start to the West
Nile Fever season. It sounded bad enough that we considered giving the
city a miss -- and we might have, if not for the extra fees that Via Rail
would have charged to change the dates for our travel, about $600 extra on
$700 tickets. I'm happy they dissuaded us, though, because Winnipeg
is definitely worth visiting. I got a few bites, but nothing terribly
unpleasant, and there didn't seem to be any toxic spraying going on either.
I wish we had more time to see the city, because we ended up spending most
of our time (as planned) at
The Winnipeg Folk Festival
The summer in Canada is short, and filled with frantic efforts to celebrate,
mostly with music festivals. Every city of even moderate size has at
least a couple. Even little Kingston has a busker festival next week,
and a blues festival in August.
The Winnipeg Folk Festival, an annual event, started Thursday evening July
7, and continued until today. The ground was a swamp, but once you'd
accepted that and taken off your shoes, that was not much of a problem.
I won't comment on the music, which was variable, certainly worth the price
of admission. I want to comment on the crowd and the organization, in
particular on what differed from events of a comparable sort that I have seen
in the US and Europe. Most striking -- other than the fact that all
of the acts started on time -- was the lack of commercialization. A
few sponsors were mentioned here and there, but nothing very prominent.
The children's tent was sponsored by local unions, and the crafts activities
were all generic: crepe paper, pipe cleaners, etc., rather than samples of
expensive branded merchandise that the parents should be induced to buy more
of. The food was mostly of high quality and local, rather than fast
food from international chains.
It was announced that this festival wanted to set a record for the smallest
volume of trash produced. Talk is cheap, but the organizers understood
that exhortations only get you so far: I know that Earth Day in Berkeley each
year produces a quantity of high-flown rhetoric that is matched only by the
17 tons of trash, only a small portion of which ever gets near a trash bin.
As the Tao Te Ching teaches, the sage leads, but the people do not know they
are being led. If you want people to behave responsibly, you need to
make it almost as easy as the alternative. Thus, food was served on
reusable plates, which were centrally collected, against a two-dollar deposit.
Drinks purveyors were encouraged to encourage people to bring or buy reusable
mugs. I did not see a single overflowing trash bin, nor did I see litter.
There were even -- and this I found almost incredible, clearly going beyond
the influence of the organizers, to the nature of the people -- hardly any
cigarette butts on the ground. I have never seen even a moderate-sized
festival, parade, or outdoor gathering where the ground was not covered with
Philip Morris's finest. A country where even the smokers make some
effort not to behave like slobs and spoil the park for everyone else is one
with a phenomenal sense of social responsibility.
Canadian Intellectual Macho
It is rare that I encounter a laudatory book review that makes me loathe
both the reviewer and the book being reviewed. More common is the opposite
experience, the disparaging review that makes me think, this must be a powerful
hunk of prose, to arouse so much bile. In RM Vaughan's review of John
Carey's book What is Art Good For? in the July 9, 2005 had this effect
on me, and it started to fit into a pattern that I have noticed, of an even
more exaggerated version of the American macho intellectual anti-intellectualism
that I am familiar with. (This mode of discourse was well summarized
by Kurt Vonnegut, describing Ernest Hemingway's oft-quoted and barely comprehensible
comment that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain
called Huckleberry Finn.” Vonnegut opined that Hemingway -- a less
Twain-like author could hardly be imagined -- may have meant that, within
a cultural framework that fits all artistic endeavor into the distaff side,
Twain showed by example that a writer could be a "man's man" and also a first-rate
Not having read the book, I will express no opinion about it. Since
the author is British, it falls outside the purview of these notes.
An encomium by David
Lodge gives a far more favorable view, and even the harsh criticism of
Keates in the Times Literary Supplement did not create such
a negative impression. But Vaughan, the Canadian? (I know nothing
of his biography, but he is a regular art critic for the National Post.)
To begin with, in a text of fewer than 1000 words, we have "goes after [...]
with a chainsaw", "pulls the wings off", "attack", "skewer", "free-for-all",
"jungle" -- remember, this is a book about art criticism, not the Vietnam
War -- not to mention "terrifying vertigo", "snobs", "twits", and that critical
clincher par excellence, "absolute crap". Particularly damning -- is
there a more embarrassing kind of self-revelation than telling someone what
we find really really funny? -- are the banalities that he quotes from
the book, with the comment that "I never thought it possible to laugh out
loud while reading a book of art essays". One of them concerns Churchill
burying National Gallery treasures in slate mines in Wales. "Civilian
populations could not, of course, be provided with comparable protection and
were killed in large numbers." I am willing to go out on a limb and
say that there is nothing funny about this remark, except in the sense of
a group of teenagers spurring on one of their number who has just disparaged
the late-night commercial activities of the mother of the teacher's pet: "Yeah,
good one!" "You got him! Ha!" Presumably, he doesn't think
that it hilarious that the elitist Churchill government chose to protect paintings,
when they should have been burying the civilian population in slate mines.
Vaughan is not really talking about Carey's book at all, except as a talisman.
He is most anxious that we know that he (like "us") thinks that art is whatever
gets your rocks off, and that anyone who thinks questions of artistic value
are worth exerting some effort on is from the prissy "book- tote set currently
running Canadian culture, the earnest, teary ladies (of both sexes)".
I don't want to delve into national-psyche analysis -- at least, not until
I have collected some more examples -- but I will just remark that this disposition
reminds me of the frequently quoted "When I hear the word culture, I reach
for my gun!" a citation which seems to raise up Hermann Göring as an
authority worth naming, usually without irony or disapproval, an attribution
made all the more bizarre for being apocryphal. I think it is worth
asking oneself, what would make someone want to attribute a phrase that he
or she approves of to one of the twentieth century's greatest criminals?
At least, it sounds a lot tougher than citing the real author, the minor Expressionist
playwright Hanns Johst.