So Long For Now

Stuart McLean
April 19, 1948 – February 15, 2017.

mcleanA little bit of Canada died yesterday.  Stuart McLean, one of our great story tellers and a national treasure, passed away after a two year battle with melanoma.  With his death we have lost someone who recorded and told stories of ordinary Canadians in an extraordinary way.  He was the last of several generations of CBC personalities who were uniquely Canadian:  Max Ferguson, Alan McFee, Peter Gzowski, Bob Kerr, Elwood Glover, and Clyde Gilmour to name a few.

When Stuart’s Vinyl Cafe first came on the air I wasn’t exactly thrilled – it was replacing Gilmour’s Albums one of my favourite programmes. There was no way this guy could replace Clyde as far as I was concerned. Begrudgingly I listened in and frankly was not impressed but Saturday morning was a time to do chores around the house and listen to the radio so each weekend I’d tune in at 1000 and listen to the music and the stories. And slowly I became caught up in the world of Dave, Morley, Sam, Stephanie and the Vinyl Cafe. This very ordinary family became familiar friends. These were people I could recognize; they were people I could laugh with (never at!), sympathize with and, perhaps most importantly, empathize with.  Of course the situations were exaggerated but they were believable and that’s what master story telling is about.  And Stuart was a master story teller.

Here’s an early Davey and Morely story based on a dilemma I’m sure more than one mother (and father too) has faced.

He once said that his work celebrated “the importance of being unimportant”.

As well as being a story writer and story teller Stuart was also a story collector and many of those stories were collected on his travels across Canada as he met people on trains, in airport lounges, hospital cafeterias and on the street.  And often those stories would be incorporated into his radio show (the earlier Morningside or Vinyl Cafe) or into one of his many books.  He once said that his work celebrated “the importance of being unimportant”.

Someone said in a call-in today:  one minute you’d be laughing and the next fighting back the tears.  And I couldn’t agree more.  As I’ve listen over the years to the adventures of Dave, Morley and all the others I have choked with laughter but just as often choked with tears.   Though I think those tears have never flowed quite as easily as they did when I saw the report of his passing yesterday.

Like many Canadians I feel that yesterday I lost a friend.  Thank you Stuart, you loved and you were loved.  “So long for now.”

Mercoledi Musicale

A French stamp issued in 1946 to commemorate François Villon.  A highly fictionalized portrait of the poet by Albert Decaris.

As often happens what I intended to post today is going by the wayside for another time.  In response to yesterday’s post where I quoted from the French poet François Villon my friend Yvette sent along a link to a musical version of the ballade where the line is found.  The poem appears simple as Ballade in  Villion’s Le Testement, a collection of ballades and rondeaux that was first published in 1461.  In a 1533 edition it was renamed by Clément Marot and became known as Le Ballade des dames du temps jadis (The Ballad of the Ladies of the Bygone Times).

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan! That famous last line is best known in English in the Dante Gabriel Rossetti transliteration as “where are the snows of yester-year”.  However it also appears in paraphrase in several other works.  As my friend David mentioned yesterday Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmanssthal’s Marschallin wistfully – and also a little ruefully – expresses the sentiment in Der Rosenkavalier.  Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler have a hard-bitten prostitute express the same thought coldly in Leid de Nana from Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe.

And Yvette introduced me to this version of the complete poem by singer-songwriter Georges Brassens – a performer unknown to me until today.  Many thanks for the introduction to this fascinating man and performer Cara.

The text with translation can be found here.

There have been many other paraphrasings, adaptations, and references to Villion and his work in popular novels, plays, TV series (Downton Abbey, go figure), poetry and music.  In 1925 composer Rudolf Friml and playwright Brian Hooker turned If I Were King, a popular play of the period, into an operetta.  The Vagabond King, a fictional account of a Robin Hood-like Villion’s day as king of France and wooing of a noble lady, played over 500 performances on Broadway and spawned two movie versions.  It is highly romanticized and being an operetta has some rousing drinking choruses, jaunty comedy numbers and of course several love songs.

As a belated Valentine’s Day present here is the unmatchable Jussi Bjorling singing the best known number from Friml’s opus:  Only A Rose.

On this day in 1954: Canada and the United States agree to construct the Distant Early Warning Line, a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska.


Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?*

Yes, where are the snows of yesterday?

I’ll tell you where the bloody snows of yesterday are – or better yet I’ll show you.

My blog buddy Yvette in Provence (sigh!) asked if yesterday’s photo of the beginning of the blizzard was really where I lived and she wanted to know what time of day I took it. Well yes Yvette it is where I live and that photo was taken at around mid-day as were the ones above a day later.

We ended up with about 35cm (13 inches) but with winds that hit as high as 90kph (56 mph) the drifting caused some enormous snow banks.  We live right at the harbour so we get the full force of the breeze – pleasant in the summer, not so when it becomes gale force.  But it is Canada, it is February and it is Winter so what else do we expect?

They tell us there is another storm on the way tomorrow.  So we do what everyone else does here – make sure you have supplies (which reminds me I have to get another quart of Island potato vodka if the liquor store opens tomorrow), stay off the roads so the crews can plow and enjoy a “snow day”.   Besides everything – and I mean everything – is closed so there’s no where to go anyway.

*The one phrase from François Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times) that most people know – except Yvette who probably studied it in school.

On this day in 1530: Spanish conquistadores, led by Nuño de Guzmán, overthrow and execute Tangaxuan II, the last independent monarch of the Tarascan state in present-day central Mexico.

Lunedi Lunacy

Okay now I said only a few weeks ago that I did not want to get political on my blog however I have a bone to pick with our Prime Minister (well several actually including election reform but let’s not go there).  Where the hell are the “SUNNY WAYS” he promised us??????

I don’t see them Justin?  Where are those “sunny ways”.  Hmmm another politician who broke a promise!  Quel surprise.

So given the weather – winter storms in Canada in February, who knew!! – one of the topics of conversation at any gathering is:  where are you going on vacation?   And we try not to grind our teeth as friends talk of trips to Cuba, the Caribbean, Palm Springs and Chicago.  Okay the last one maybe not for the weather but because we love that city so much.  We nod, smile insincerely as we mouth “how wonderful” and then say that we’re quite content staying here this winter.   No really we are!  Really! (Bloody hell look at all that snow!)

It looks like Joan (Victoria Wood) and Marjorie (Julie Walters) had the same idea

On this day in 1955: Israel obtains four of the seven Dead Sea Scrolls.

Not So Brief A Life

In which the writer recalls a great theatrical performance and thinks on a new book.

Sadly a bad photo of the set for Brief Lives – a wonderfully grubby setting for Roy Dotrice’s tour-de-force.

My introduction to John Aubrey came through the legendary one-man show Brief Lives which took its title from Aubrey’s best known work of the same name.  The curtain was up when we took our seats at the Royal Alexandra and we saw a large dusty – verging on filthy – room crammed to its Tudor rafters with books, stuffed animals, and bric-a-brac of an exotic nature.  The furniture, including a large canopied and curtained bed, was decidedly Jacobean though we had been told in the programme notes that the time was circa 1694, well into the reign of William and Mary.  As the lights in the theatre dimmed there was the sound of a baby crying, followed by a pounding and a indistinct voice bellowing about the infant wails.  What had until then appeared to be a bundle of old clothes in a large arm chair moved and began to wheeze and cough and turned out to be the 70 year old John Aubrey as portrayed by Roy Dotrice.  For the next two and a half hours – except when he fell asleep for what became the twenty-five minute interval – we were entertained by the stories and reminiscences of a man who had lived through the reign of five monarchs and the Interregnum.  That and he had collect stories since childhood – his two grandfathers had served in the court of Elizabeth and told him stories and gossip from the days of Gloriana.  This eccentric old man took us behind the scenes and told us the secrets of names we knew from history and introduced us to some lesser lights who were no less entertaining.

I could only find one clip on YouTube though a DVD has been issued of the entire performance.  Aubrey remembers a story about one of those lesser lights.

Dotrice played the part for the first time in 1967 and was to perform in Brief Lives over 1800 times in the next forty years. It was a brilliant evening of theatre that was praised world wide.  The only criticism that could be levelled against Dotrice or writer-director Patrick Garland was that they accentuated the eccentricities of Aubrey in old age while ignoring the incredible accomplishments of the man in historical, archaeology, and scientific research at a time of turmoil, change and discovery in politics, the arts and science.

John Aubrey obviously at a younger age than that portrayed by Roy Dotrice in Brief Lives.

I was born about sun rising in my maternal grandfather’s bedchamber on 12 March 1626, St Gregory’s Day, very sickly, likely to die.  I was christened before Morning Prayer.  My father was nearly twenty-two years old, my mother only fifteen and a half. She has cried through the night and given birth to three more babies since, but they have all died.

Sir John Long of Draycot and J. Aubrey Hawking.  Drawing by Aubrey from a manuscript held in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

So wrote a precocious Aubrey in a diary in 1634 but contrary to that gloomy outlook and though like all men he was “likely to die” his last letter was penned in 1697 as he headed to Oxford.  He did die of apoplexy on June 7th of that year and was buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary Magdalen in Oxford:  1697. John Aubrey, a stranger, was buryed Jun. 7th*.  Much of what occurred in the 71 years between has been captured in Aubrey’s own words by Ruth Scurr in the recently published John Aubrey, My Own Life.  In a move which is almost as audacious as Aubrey’s when he transformed biography writing in Brief Lives and The Life of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Scurr uses Aubrey’s scattered and often fragmentary notes, letters, observations, drawings and the few works that he published to create an “autobiography” very much as Aubrey would have written it. It was viewed by many as a risky manoeuvre but the reviews are unanimous in lauding her work and I must say from what I have read so far they are justified in their praise.  A fascinating presentation of an even more fascinating man.

Matters of antiquity are like the light after sunset – clear at first – but by and by crepusculum – the twilight – comes – then total darkness.

I was put on to Scurr’s book early last week when a friend sent me a link to a post from the Paris Review wherein Lucas Adams illustrated some of his favourite passages from the book.  I began to search online and discovered the book was available at Amazon both in hardcover and as an app book however decided to see if my local bookseller had a copy. I was in luck they indeed had a copy on their shelf and I was able to dip into it that same day. (Just as a sidebar I am trying to use Amazon as infrequently as I can and give my custom to my local bookseller. It may cost a bit more but I believe it is worth it.)

Adams is a co-editor on the New York Review Comics as well as a regular contributor to Mental Floss. A left click on the illustration of one of my favourite passages (which concludes the book) will take you to his complete set of graphics.


Anno 1697



Men think that because everyone remembers a memorable event soon after it is done, it will never be forgotten; and so it ends up not being registered and cast into oblivion.

I have always done my best to rescue and preserve antiquities, which would otherwise have been utterly lost and forgotten, even thought it has been my strange fate never to enjoy one entire month, or six weeks, of leisure for contemplation.

I have rescued what I could of the past from the teeth of time.

Matters of antiquity are like the light after sunset – clear at first – but by and by crepusculum – the twilight – comes – then total darkness.

* The entry from the Register of St Mary Magdelan – a sad note when you think of the many years he had spent at Oxford and his many friends from his days there. He had outlived many of them and may well have been unknown to the Parish.

On this day in 1942: The first gold record is presented to Glenn Miller for “Chattanooga Choo Choo“.