Can Lit, Culture, and “The Hockey Sweater”

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens haven’t met in the NHL playoffs since 1979. That same year, a pivotal work of Canadian Literature was published: Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater. Whether intended or not, the story reveals an age-old culture clash between Ontario and Quebec.

By Serena Ypelaar

Have you read The Hockey Sweater (1979) by Roch Carrier? If you grew up in Canada and had parents even mildly invested in hockey, chances are you have. 

Titled Le chandail de hockey in its original French, it was illustrated by Sheldon Cohen and translated into English by Sheila Fischman. The story is enjoyed across Canada, among anglophones and francophones alike. It’s a children’s book about a young Roch Carrier growing up in Sainte-Justine, Quebec, who – along with every kid in his village – loves the Montreal Canadiens and wants to be just like Maurice Richard. In the winter of 1946, Roch’s Canadiens sweater becomes too small, and his mother orders him a new one from “Monsieur Eaton” (of the family behind Eaton’s department stores). After a mishap with the order, Roch is sent a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. How will he cope with the stigma of wearing the wrong jersey? 

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

Now seems like the perfect time to be writing about The Hockey Sweater. This year’s Stanley Cup playoffs are underway in the National Hockey League (NHL). The Toronto Maple Leafs are facing the Montreal Canadiens in the first round for the first time since 1979 (incidentally the same year The Hockey Sweater was published). The Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens rivalry is the oldest in Canadian hockey history, as they were the only two Canadian teams in the NHL’s Original Six from 1942 to 1967. They have met 16 times in the playoffs: Montreal has won the matchup eight times and Toronto has won seven (potential eighth underway tonight? knock on wood). 

Tim Horton of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Claude Provost of the Montreal Canadiens battling for the puck c. 1960s. Photo: Canadian Press / AP

Unlike the Leafs, who have only won the Stanley Cup once in 1967, the Canadiens – nicknamed “Habs” in reference to Habitants, the early French settlers of Quebec –  have won it 24 times, more than any team in NHL history. Yet despite this discrepancy, the rivalry between the two teams endures. How does The Hockey Sweater help preserve it? 

The Hockey Sweater was adapted into an animated short film for the National Film Board of Canada in 1980, with Carrier narrating his childhood story in both the French and English versions. The film was animated by Montreal-based illustrator Sheldon Cohen, in keeping with the aesthetic style of the picture book. Carrier had a long career in storytelling, receiving the Order of Canada in 1991 and serving as National Librarian of Canada from 1999 to 2004. He helped unify the National Archive and the National Library with Ian E. Wilson, the National Archivist at the time.

The 1980 short film adaptation by the National Film Board of Canada, narrated by Roch Carrier and animated by Sheldon Cohen.

Full disclosure: born and raised in Toronto, I’ll always be partial to the Leafs, albeit in the most passive way possible. We were by no means a hockey family when I was growing up (and still aren’t). My uncles and cousins are big fans, and while my dad also loved hockey growing up, his true passion is soccer. He raised us with that love of soccer, so that’s what we know best. At the same time, my parents enrolled my siblings and I in the Leafs Buds Club, the official kids club of the Toronto Maple Leafs, when we were little. We got to go to Leafs practices and chill with the Leafs’ mascot Carlton the Bear. (I think I’m more invested in Carlton than I am the actual hockey… he’s just so cute!) 

So how come my family and I, along with countless anglophones across Canada, have always loved this little book even though it scorns the Leafs? 

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

Kids have grown up with the story regardless of their favourite teams because it resonates as a cornerstone of Canadian culture. We can all identify with team rivalries in general, especially in childhood. The Hockey Sweater is incredibly funny and offers a glimpse into life in Quebec during the 20th century. But beyond being a fun piece of Can Lit, it’s also emblematic of wider cultural implications between English Canada and French Canada. And although we might not have known it at the time we read or watched it, we as children were internalizing a key element of Canadian culture from a young age. 

To put it simply, Canada’s post-European contact history is rooted in the French and the British battling over the traditional lands of Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a decisive victory that paved the way for the British to take over France’s colonial presence, unilaterally establishing British North America to add to their existing American colonies. The ensuing tensions between French and English culture in what would eventually become Canada – from language to religion – set a precedent for the strained interplay between French Canada and English Canada today.

The Hockey Sweater illustrates that cultural clash, whether or not it intends to (more on that later). Despite being a straightforward retelling of the author Roch Carrier’s childhood experience, many critics and readers consider it an allegory for the French-English divide. The issue is complex, and goes beyond the simple act of wearing hockey jerseys, but we see in the story that the Quebecois culture is fiercely defended within society. Roch is not permitted to play hockey with the others while wearing the Leafs sweater; both the referee and young curate discipline him for his lack of conformity. “Just because you’re wearing a new Toronto Maple Leafs sweater, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make the laws around here,” the curate tells him. He’s sent off the ice to go pray in the church, where he asks for the most important thing on his mind: 

“I asked God to send me right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.” 

The Hockey Sweater (1979)

And so ends the book. It’s punchy, and drives two points home: first, the sense of being othered for non-conformity, especially in a cultural context (Ontario’s team vs. Quebec’s); and second, the fact that hockey rivalries run deep in Canada, and it’s been that way since the NHL first started. 

But whatever The Hockey Sweater may show us about Canadian culture, Roch Carrier insists that he wasn’t trying to make a political statement or promote Quebec nationalism. Instead, he was simply sharing his personal experience.

“I never tried to portray Canada to anyone. I’m just a storyteller. I’m interested by the experience people have and everybody has personal experiences, and everybody has limited experiences about something but that’s what life is made of.”

Roch Carrier at St. Andrew’s College, 2015

There isn’t really a moral to the story. In a children’s book you might expect a lesson about not being embarrassed to be different, or how it doesn’t matter what you wear (Roch’s mother actually says the latter in the book and film). But the young Roch maintains his dislike for the blue sweater. There’s something so endearingly unapologetic about his adamance that readers can’t help but love. As I said before, I’m inclined toward the Leafs even though I rarely even follow hockey, yet I’m not offended by this book at all. It represents a specific point of view and it’s funny. Sports rivalries will always persist, and trying to end them would be futile – we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from The Hockey Sweater (1979).

The Hockey Sweater and its film counterpart are considered standout works within the Canadian canon for a reason, somehow transcending heated cultural (and athletic) frictions to become well-loved across the board. Roch Carrier’s story is strongly emblematic of Quebecois identity, culture, and sport, but the story’s themes are broadly appealing. Sheldon Cohen’s illustrations are stylistically memorable. The whole package manages to be quintessentially Canadian. 

Regardless of whether you’re a Leafs fan, non-Quebecer, anglophone, or all of the above, you can still relate to those feelings portrayed in the book and animated film. We all understand the pressures to conform – sometimes we derive comfort and community simply from the act of conforming. As humans, we’re always seeking connection, and identifying with something that represents home makes us feel united.

BBC’s “Upstart Crow” and Why Shakespeare Makes the Perfect Sitcom Star

As the world still celebrates William Shakespeare’s birth and death day each year, the playwright’s immortal relevance is clear. Among countless reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s life and work, BBC’s sitcom Upstart Crow is a surprisingly fitting way to reinvent Shakespearean comedy.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another year, another Shakespeare day. Having just passed the Bard’s joint birthday and death day (April 23) again, it’s become a tradition here at The Mindful Rambler to feature an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s life and career. 

This year, I’ve been watching BBC’s Upstart Crow during lockdown. The Shakespeare-themed sitcom was created and written by Ben Elton, of Blackadder fame. I watched the historical comedy show Blackadder growing up and I’ve been meaning to write about it for ages … I’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, let’s talk about Upstart Crow and why Shakespeare is an ideal (albeit unlikely) sitcom star.

It’s true – Shakespeare’s continued relevance and success make his life and works the perfect topic for a sitcom. His comedies and their signature plot devices lend themselves well to the modern-day sitcom genre.

David Mitchell as William Shakespeare in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Upstart Crow takes place alternately between London and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. In the late 16th century and a more or less middle-aged Shakespeare (played by David Mitchell) is an established playwright, travelling back and forth between his Stratford homestead and his lodgings in London – where, of course, all the best playhouses are at the time. The biographical details of the show are hazy, a reminder that Upstart Crow is ahistorical in its approach – it plays with Shakespeare’s life.

For instance, although the real Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway is still debated (Did they love each other? Was he snubbing her in his will, or honouring her?), Upstart Crow treats us to a warm and fuzzy family dynamic with plenty of banter between Shakespeare and his wife, children, and parents. The show’s style unites Shakespeare’s well-known stories with modern-day comedy conventions, veiling current pop culture references behind Elizabethan social mores. In a way, the sitcom is both a product of Shakespeare’s time and ours – as a genre, it’s strangely fitting for the playwright’s quirky style. 

The 16th century and 21st century collide as Shakespeare (David Mitchell), Kate (Gemma Whelan), and Bottom (Rob Rouse) discuss poetry.

The series boasts an abundance of Shakespeare references for fans of the Bard, while delivering a well-written sitcom in its own right. In many ways, we can actually read Shakespeare’s comedy plays as precursors to the sitcom as we know it today. Many of Shakespeare’s comedic plotlines have the makings of a situational comedy, whether it’s misunderstandings, disguises, marriage proposals both failed and successful… you get the picture. Elton takes advantage of Shakespeare’s hilarious gags to create premises for Upstart Crow episodes.

Not only that, but the show also subverts Shakespeare’s tragedies, making them into ridiculous scenarios to round out the series with works from across Shakespeare’s bibliography. Even the sonnets are touched upon, regarding the Earl of Southampton, who has long been rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s man-crush (crush? who knows). The popular theory of Christopher Marlowe having written Shakespeare’s plays is delightfully turned on its head, with Shakespeare producing work for an indolent yet charming Kit (who was actually a successful playwright before Shakespeare, despite their being born in the same year). 

Christopher Marlowe (Tim Downie) and William Shakespeare (David Mitchell). Photo: BBC

The show’s subversions bring Shakespeare into a liminal place, an alternate universe of sorts. Upstart Crow doesn’t pursue accuracy, which isn’t technically necessary for good storytelling anyway. The show’s cheeky tone and good pacing make for sound storytelling. There are running jokes about Shakespeare stealing other people’s ideas, and rants about Elizabethan-era transport – anyone who’s taken the tube (the London Underground) or any public transit can relate. Upstart Crow is littered with similar tongue-in-cheek references to present-day pop culture amid the Elizabethan wisecracks. There was even a plague-themed lockdown Christmas special last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring a fifteenth wave of quarantine (God forbid!). 

It’s fascinating to see elements of our society given the Shakespearean treatment. However, Upstart Crow is at times too on-the-nose about social issues such as sexism and racism. I think viewers are meant to understand those gaffes as evidence of the “backwardness” of the time; however, the fact that a lot of those jokes go uncontested make them a bit gratuitous. It’s fairly obvious that the tone is satirical, but at times some of the characters’ overreliance on reductive humour is jarring for a witty and upbeat comedy.

Anne (Liza Tarbuck) giving Shakespeare (David Mitchell) another brilliant idea. Photo: BBC

Nevertheless, that’s not to say that Upstart Crow lacks female characters with agency. Kate (Gemma Whelan), the daughter of Shakespeare’s landlady, is always on the scene to point out regressive themes and problematic elements of Shakespeare’s drafts, her strong moral compass no doubt mirroring the views of many of us who watch. Kate is an excellent bridge from the modern viewer to Elizabethan times, and she often grounds the episodes in a present-day context. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna is also outspoken, and her bold, sometimes rough manner undercuts the confining idealization of women’s innocence in Elizabethan times.

Finally, Shakespeare’s wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck) is credited with many of the brilliant plot ideas in Shakespeare’s plays: each episode ends with Shakespeare and Anne smoking by the fire in their Stratford home, reflecting on recent events. Anne tosses out insightful suggestions every time; from our knowledge of his plays it’s implied that Shakespeare goes on to use her ideas, riffing on the concept of a woman’s ingenuity being repackaged and sold by a man (often to his benefit) in a patriarchal society. Upstart Crow therefore asserts that Anne is responsible for most of her husband’s iconic storylines and titles. The show doesn’t often slow down long enough to ruminate on the social tensions I’ve illustrated here, as the action trots along at a sprightly pace – but hints of contemporary awareness are definitely present, however they come across.

Kate (Gemma Whelan) raises concerns about Shakespeare’s in-progress works while Bottom (Rob Rouse) and Marlowe (Tim Downie) look on. Photo: BBC

To really achieve a lively Shakespeare adaptation, one must include copious Shakespearean insults, something Upstart Crow excels at. In fact, the show itself is named after an insult from a real-life rival poet, Robert Greene, who published a pamphlet in 1592 deriding Shakespeare as “an upstart crow” – referring to his middle-class birth. Greene (Mark Heap) appears as the show’s snobbish villain, devising dastardly schemes to humiliate Shakespeare – many of which come straight from the Shakespeare canon. For instance, Greene convinces Shakespeare to wear yellow stockings to a high-profile London ball, à la Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Mark Heap as Shakespeare’s snobbish rival poet Robert Greene in Upstart Crow. Photo: BBC / Colin Hutton

Greene’s antagonism aside, the real payoff of the show is seeing Shakespeare blast other characters with streams of clever insults, slightly modernized but no less verbose. In creating his own inventive barbs, Ben Elton twists the Bard’s talents of language to great comic effect. One such example, so you can get a taste for it: “Spurious unearned social status will polish even the most stinksome turdlingtons – by which, of course, I mean you, Dad.” Or, in Robert Greene’s supercilious words: “Your family be turnip-chewing country bumshankles without influence or connexion.” These linguistic treats are a major asset to the show, making the sitcom-Shakespeare a memorable character.

In bringing together these trademark elements of Shakespeare’s style – complete with witticisms and asides that break the fourth wall – Upstart Crow plays with Shakespeare’s biography to offer a fun and irreverent look at the life of England’s most famous playwright. Celebrations of Shakespeare’s profound effect on the English language are offset by a humorous dressing-down of the Bard in every episode, making the show’s approach truly unique. It’s worth a watch if you enjoy both Shakespeare and sitcoms and want to see how the two spectacularly collide.

After all, even serious heavyweights of literature shouldn’t be taken too seriously. 

I’m Not Like Them, But I Can Pretend

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died 27 years ago, aged 27. Between his rock star persona and gentle offstage aura, it’s hard to reconcile Cobain’s humanity with his legend status. But in 1993, Canadian journalist Erica Ehm did just that, in a now-famous interview for MuchMusic.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article mentions drug use and suicide, and may be disturbing for some readers.

Kurt Cobain – lead singer and guitarist of the wildly famous grunge rock band Nirvana – died by suicide on April 5, 1994, at the age of 27. This year marks the 27th anniversary of his passing, which means he’s now been dead as long as he was alive. 

Why commemorate an artist’s death? Perhaps because their exit from the world is so heavily marked by their artistic contributions. There’s a legacy left behind in those moments – the person is grieved by family, friends, and people who never knew them personally but appreciate their art, their work, or their public persona. 

Kurt Cobain’s legend status has been upheld by admirers for almost 30 years. Photo: Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Being part of the “27 Club” means being enshrined in myth forever: Cobain’s legendary status is unarguable. Nirvana has sold 75 million records worldwide. Nirvana T-shirts are still worn by fans (and non-fans) daily. And just last year, Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar (used at the band’s famous 1993 MTV Unplugged session just five months before his death) became the highest-selling guitar in history, fetching $6 million USD at auction.

Nirvana’s fame wasn’t easy for Cobain, however. The three-piece band, whose final lineup comprised Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl (now Foo Fighters frontman), became superstars almost overnight. Their career yielded just three studio albums: Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and In Utero (1993). Growing commercial pressures after Nevermind‘s success contributed to Cobain’s fear of “selling out”. His depression, coupled with an addiction to heroin, would lead to his premature death. A few overdoses, an intervention from family and friends, and an aborted rehab stay ended in tragedy with Cobain’s suicide – he shot himself in his Seattle home less than a year after Nirvana’s third album was released. 

I first picked up Nirvana as an angsty teen (I mean, is there any better time for it?) starting university. The band’s legacy was already written, and I was just jumping in. Yet the music still resonated, 20 years after Nirvana’s unplanned dissolution. Their lyrics, often scathing critiques of society, still apply today.

Nirvana in 1993 (from left): Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl. Photo: Anton Corbijn

Although he’s venerated as a progressive punk rock icon, feminist, and empath, Kurt Cobain wasn’t known for his effusiveness. He was sensitive and self-critical; bandmates and friends commented that he was always overthinking, and it bothered him to hear about sexism, homophobia, racism, rape, and other injustices. In interview footage, he often appears spaced-out, moody, and taciturn. 

Many musicians dislike interviews, which is understandable given their rigorous schedules. Between songwriting, rehearsals, recording, and touring, journalists don’t get many chances to speak to band members outside rare periods of downtime. Add the fact that musicians are often asked the same questions repeatedly, and it’s no wonder we sometimes see gruffness, apathy, or all-out exhaustion during interviews. Once a musician or artist dies, these interviews become like gold – valuable snippets into their creative processes, insights, opinions, and personalities. 

As a historian and lover of old stuff, I often find myself getting into media after its creator has died. I read and watch interviews to better understand the artist behind the work. I want to get closer to their personality, to recognize them as a human being. It’s the best way to spot mannerisms and offstage persona, which can often be very different from the impression given while performing. After they’re gone, the life of a musician often achieves a mythical existence. The person can no longer contribute to the narrative; they can’t speak for themselves. They’re defined by their overall legacy. That’s why existing interviews become such treasured glimpses into their essence as a person, especially when recorded on video.

And if the interviewer manages against all odds to get something special, it becomes iconic.

Kurt Cobain speaking to Erica Ehm on a balcony in Seattle. Photo: YouTube / MuchMusic

This is where Erica Ehm comes in. A Canadian journalist and longtime VJ at MuchMusic, Ehm interviewed numerous musicians during her time at the television station (1985-1994). Her 1993 conversation with Kurt Cobain is one of her most famous interviews, if not the most famous. It was late summer in Seattle, Washington. Ehm had been sent out to interview Cobain for the release of In Utero

Each of us [journalists] was asked to set up our cameras in a nondescript hotel room, and assigned a short window of time with each band member. As soon as one interview would wrap, they’d be escorted to the next. It’s an impersonal grind. For alt rockers like Nirvana, it must have been a mind-numbing process. 

I knew I’d have to stand out to get a decent interview with Kurt. My hope was to make him see me as more than another faceless media type.

Erica Ehm in 2019

The extended cut of the now-famous MuchMusic interview has over 10 million views on YouTube, and is well-regarded among Nirvana fans and music journalists. Fans often remark on how genuine Cobain seems in this interview – charming but pensive, and most importantly, relaxed. It’s hard to tap into the authenticity of a person in just a few minutes’ conversation, but Ehm does this well by balancing music-related questions with more personal ones. It’s a candid talk by the water, with low-key (if sometimes erratic) camera work. Cobain seems comfortable and Ehm is professional yet casual.

Erica Ehm with Paul Langlois and Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. Photo: Erica Ehm / MuchMusic

For my interview with Kurt, I came prepared to talk about his album, touring and other standard questioning the record company expected. However, it was the quirkier ones like “What are you reading?” or “Why would you bring a baby [into] a world that you hate?” that allowed him to reveal a bit of himself to us. 

Erica Ehm

It’s a point of pride that it was a Canadian who captured such a meaningful interview. Ehm treated Cobain like a person rather than a commodity (even though he’d begun to feel like the latter over the last few months of his life, as the pressures of fame mounted and his depression and addiction worsened). He was already becoming a symbol, yet Ehm’s approach transcended that: she asked about Kurt the human being, not Kurt the performer. To me, watching this as a music enthusiast, Ehm’s thoughtfulness felt far away from the usual intensity of the music industry. It’s hard to believe that this interview took place on a day crammed full of press for Cobain – it feels like a one-off conversation on an average day.

Extended cut of Canadian journalist Erica Ehm’s 1993 MuchMusic interview with Kurt Cobain.

Not much about Cobain’s life at that point was very “average”. He’d become a rock star in next to no time, and was dealing with copyright infringement and sensationalist press pieces, being interviewed by dozens of journalists. Yet the thing that brought him the most joy – and Ehm seemed to intuit this – was talking about his wife, Courtney Love, and their baby daughter, Frances Bean. These personal insights grant us a glimpse into the life of someone whose fame was so huge that a respite into the everyday was more than welcome. 

It’s hard to say what would’ve happened with Cobain and Nirvana had he not died in early 1994, only a few months after this interview. But one thing is certain: his death cemented his status as an icon and an inspiration to many. As per the Neil Young lyrics quoted in Cobain’s suicide letter, he did indeed “burn out” rather than “fade away”. He never had to slip slowly into obscurity or irrelevance, because he died at the height of his and Nirvana’s acclaim.

Nirvana’s discography. Photo: Diffuser

Ehm’s interview is a big part of the Nirvana “canon” for those learning about Cobain for the first time, a piece of remembrance for those already familiar. Her work in bringing out his personality for us to see and appreciate – which shows us his uniqueness as a person – helps ensure Cobain is still loved and celebrated even 27 years after his death. He preached empathy, acceptance, love for others and self-love, making people love him not just as a musician, but as a human being. In this case the artist is very much intertwined with the art, and the band’s sincerity has immortalized them in the hearts of rock fans worldwide. 

Nirvana continues to resonate, and in the words of Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain “has become something more than a human being to others.” But apart from his talent, it’s his humanity that people latched onto in the first place – and skilled interviewers like Ehm helped preserve it for the ages. 

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy For Ever: Keats 200

At the bicentenary of his death, John Keats remains an iconic figure in the literary world. Keats died believing himself a failure, but his work is more admired than he ever knew – and in the midst of a global pandemic, his life story is especially poignant.

By Serena Ypelaar

23rd of February, 1821 – Rome. The English poet John Keats dies, aged just 25 and convinced he had never amounted to anything.

Today, 200 years later, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While he went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Keats’ posthumous rise to distinction and his perception as a tragic hero have enshrined him in literary history, never to be removed. This week, the #Keats200 campaign commemorates the bicentenary of the famed Romantic poet’s death.

Portrait of John Keats (detail) c. 1822 by painter William Hilton, who had been acquainted with the poet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clever, sensitive, thoughtful, eloquent – these words are often used to describe Keats, yet during his own time he was relatively unappreciated but for the loyalty of his friends and family. His talent has since immortalized him within the English literary canon as a key figure of the second generation of Romantic poets. Keats’ 1819 Odes, as well as “Bright Star”, “To Autumn”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “Endymion” are among the most studied and admired poems today. His personal letters have been lauded as literary gems in themselves, bringing us closer to Keats the man – and to that morbidly compelling picture of untimely suffering – to which Keats’ current renown is something of an antidote.

The Keats Foundation, Keats House (which I wrote about in 2018), and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association are leading the worldwide event which culminates today, on the 200th anniversary itself. To fully appreciate Keats’ journey from relative unknown to legendary poet, it’s best if we wind the clock back two centuries: back to 1818.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on …

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), lines 11-12
Copy of Keats’ life mask at Keats House; one of many made for Keats’ friends to remember him by. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Believe it or not, Keats trained as a surgeon in London before quitting his studies to focus on his writing. In June of 1818 he and his close friend Charles Armitage Brown went on a tour of Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District – and Keats returned with a bad cold. Nursing his younger brother Tom, who had consumption (now known as tuberculosis), Keats was thus exposed to infection.

Although Tom died that December, the following year (1819) was the most fruitful for Keats’ work. His most famous poems were written during that time, but their merits went mostly unrecognized – Keats was still in debt and unable to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne as a result.

One day, in early 1820, he coughed up blood.

He realized immediately that he must have consumption. After struggling with mounting symptoms over the following months, Keats agreed to relocate to Rome in the hope that its warmer climate would improve his condition. His friends paid for his passage, with painter Joseph Severn accompanying him. He would never return to England.

I know the colour of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant.

Keats to his friend Charles Brown, upon coughing up blood in early 1820

Keats was fairly well-connected, having met and formed friendships with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth (my thoughts on him here), Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Despite the pedigree of many of his peers, however, it was difficult for Keats to establish footholds beyond his circle – he was middle-class, a would-be surgeon without noble birth. His background was fodder for snobbish critics such as Blackwood’s Magazine, who wrote that he was not well-educated enough to be a proper poet or write about classical subject matter. These reviews vexed Keats, putting a pressure on his work (alongside the need to earn a living) that aristocratic poets simply didn’t face.

By the time Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820, it may have been too late. In his final days before succumbing to his illness the following February, he requested that his tombstone bear the following inscription in place of his name: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats thought he’d made no mark on the world. He didn’t know his poems would be considered among the best in the English language. He died at the same age as I am now – it’s humbling to think of all he accomplished in his short life.

Keats’ gravestone in the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma (the Protestant cemetery). Photo: Giovanni Dall’orto

And now we’re commemorating the bicentenary of his death. Not just a century later – two centuries later. I’ve always felt it’s important to mark these anniversaries. It makes us reflect on the lives of those before us. And this really is the perfect time to understand Keats’ circumstances. He contracted a widespread disease which ended his life far too soon, robbing him of the opportunity to write more, to enjoy critical acclaim, and to find happiness.

His tragedy resonates during our current pandemic. Lives are being lost in a similar fashion. Keats’ ship was even quarantined before he could disembark in Italy – his letters to Charles Brown during quarantine describe a restlessness that is all too relatable today.

I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, and at my worst even in quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.

Excerpt from Keats’ final letter to Charles Brown (30th November 1820), in which he describes his restlessness in quarantine

We don’t necessarily need to relate to Keats to empathize with his hardships. But it certainly helps.

Portrait of Keats in Hampstead c. 1821-1823. Painted from memory by Joseph Severn, who was with him at his death in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A prolific Romantic poet, Keats captures the timelessness of nature, emotion, and beauty. His abstract explorations and emphasis on sensory stimulation transcend any one time or place. From exaltation to lamentation, Keats felt deeply. Those who knew him remarked on his distinctive intensity; and the sensitive among us can take solace in his musings. His writing exemplifies the great care and consideration with which he engaged with his surroundings, documenting his understanding of the world; validating the complexity of our own emotions.

Keats’ works were published and circulated during his lifetime, but he received as many negative reviews as he did positive ones, if not more. It was only posthumously, during the 19th century that his works gradually became more well-known and highly venerated by Victorians (Tennyson chief among them). Today, people love Keats’ poems – and they’re attracted to the story of the emotional young poet whose tragic end came too soon. It goes to show how we can form strong personal attachments to an artist – a collective appreciation that continues to grow over two centuries.

Keats may have thought his name was writ in water – easily washed away and forgotten – but the joy he brings, the sense of feeling he encapsulates in his works – outlive any concept of self-perceived failure. Loved in life by his friends and family, in death Keats has achieved mythical status. I wish I knew how Keats would feel if he learned how successful his work is now, but one thing is for sure – some things will always move us.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, “Endymion” (1818), lines 1-5
You can read more about Keats and the significance of his life and death masks here.

What ‘The Dig’ Understands About Archaeology

Simon Stone’s historical drama steps away from casting its archaeologists as treasure hunters, mirroring the field’s own turn toward the ethical pursuit of information.

By Jenny Lee

Surprising no one who knows me, I buzzed with anticipation for The Dig, Simon Stone’s film about the Sutton Hoo excavations, for weeks beforehand. I am not really a person who needs to watch things the moment they come out, but I kept the evening of January 15th clear, hoping that it would delight me as much as the trailer promised – and remembering my own happy traipse around the site when we could still go places and do things.

Based on John Preston’s book of the same name, The Dig dramatizes the late-1930s excavations at Sutton Hoo, Sussex, which revealed an iconic Anglo-Saxon ship burial in a larger cemetery context. Against this backdrop, landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, fabulous if unconvincing as a woman in her mid-fifties), her son Robert, archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), and the rest of the dig team, including a late-arriving Lily James as archaeologist Peggy Piggott, play out a slow, emotionally throbbing story about absence, legacy, and the inevitability of death – themes that are, I note, all the stuff of archaeology.

Absence, not miraculous appearances: Mulligan and Fiennes in ‘The Dig’. Photo: Larry Horricks / Netflix.

The Dig is surprisingly restrained on the subject of the Sutton Hoo finds themselves – we get a glimpse of a few objects emerging from the soil and laid in finds boxes, but there are no loving pans over the famous burial outfit, with its stately mask and glowing cloisonne ensemble. What looms large in the movie’s visual language instead is the absence of things: first a growing hole in the barrow, which at one point threatens to consume Brown entirely, then the imprint of a vast wooden ship in the soil, the boards long since rotted away. (Archaeology requires extrapolation, the exploration of what is no longer there using only what remains.)

This is the most interesting thing about the film for me. Virtually all mainstream archaeological media – your Mummy trilogy, your Indiana Jones – is about the stuff, generally what an archaeologist might call “small finds”. Our archaeologist-heroes pursue these things with fetishistic intensity; they must rescue these things and keep them from falling into the wrong hands. The things, after all, belong in a museum!

Small finds: a gold belt buckle from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Photo: British Museum.

For dramatic reasons, there is less concern about the meat and potatoes of archaeological excavation: what action hero could thrill to finds like ‘bit of wall’ or ‘patch of dirt that is a noticeably different colour from surrounding dirt’ or – more exciting yet – ‘midden’?

Early archaeology, too, was often interested in ‘the stuff’ (Howard Carter with his eye to the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, seeing – yes, wonderful things), often blasting through strata and losing precious data in its rush for finds, then spiriting goods out of their contexts to be displayed in European museums. The Dig looks back on this era with the perspective of nearly a century of archaeological thought and postcolonial theory, recognizing – as British archaeology was late to do – Basil Brown for his meticulous, thoughtful practice. It purposefully minimizes the small finds, as if to suggest that the dig was not about the things at all, and so sidesteps one problem with archaeological media: its tendency to condone, and so naturalize, the wholesale theft of cultural objects by Western archaeologists and cultural institutions – an entrenched, ongoing issue in the field.

Excavations at Sutton Hoo, 1939. Photo: British Museum

This reframes the story of Sutton Hoo, and maybe of archaeology in general, from the miraculous appearance of objects in a field to the culmination of dedicated work and thought by many minds and hands. It’s a slow pleasure, not an epiphanic one: the moment of truth is not the emergence of treasure from the ground (though this is always exciting) but the confirming of a hypothesis, the accumulation of knowledge.

The film ends on a long take of Brown and his team piling soil back onto the barrow site to cover the delicate ship burial. Much of Sutton Hoo is still unexcavated, reserved – as is common practice – for future archaeologists and their future technologies, in the pursuit of knowing more.

Recommended reading and listening:

Frankenstein: Returning to the Tale in 2021

Returning to a classic, we examine the titular character of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic-horror novel Frankenstein and how his behaviours and actions have resonance today.

By Bretton Weir

A personal goal for 2021 is to read more. I figured I’d start this adventure with a classic, and personal favourite, Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein.

Why Frankenstein? It has been a decade since I first picked up the novel for an assignment in my first year university English class. I have such vivid memories of this enthralling and harrowing tale so I needed to see if my memory held up. It did.

If anything, 10 years of lived experience between readings has given me a more mature point of view on the events of the novel.

Illustration of Victor Frankenstein at work in his laboratory, from the 1922 publication of the novel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fellow TMR contributor Adriana Wiszniewska wrote back in 2018 that Frankenstein is a story with which we all have some familiarity, whether it be from reading Shelley’s novel or being subjected to the Hollywood adaptations and their associated images. Not only that, but Adriana writes that the story of Frankenstein is one we continue to come back to, so I feel it is appropriate to give the novel another look. This time, looking at the titular character and his motivations, his downfalls and his ultimate demise.

We are introduced to Victor Frankenstein, the child of an upper class Genevan family in the 18th century. His upbringing is one of privilege. He demonstrates intellect, compassion for his family and an eagerness to go to university to advance his studies and expand his mind. All good intentions.

Now, I have historically been critical of Victor. Upon rereading, these feelings toward him do not change. Victor is motivated by his own ego and self interest. He chooses to create a living creature to prove that he can. He chooses to make it at a behemoth proportion for his personal ease. He chooses to abandon the creature instead of accepting his parental responsibilities. He chooses to remain silent while his closest friends, family members and confidantes die at the hand of the creature. Not only all of that, but he’s so self-absorbed that when the creature remarks he will come after Victor on his wedding night, Victor naturally assumes it will be his death at the hand of the creature.

While we can rag on Victor as the true villain of this story, his actions (and inactions) are what lead to his ultimate demise. But what are the lessons here? I can’t help but feel if Victor was honest with his family and friends about the creature, the outcome would have been drastically different for everyone involved. And are we so harsh as to not sympathize with Victor and his personal fear of failure? His family’s expectations of him seem to allege that he is a golden child who cannot do wrong or misstep in any way. Is there not a societal and familial pressure that could drive one mad, independent of the external appearances he feels he must keep up?

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is recorded that Mary Shelley’s idea for this novel came out of a dream she had. While a looming creature given life by the hands of an ambitious and green young adult conjures up frightening imagery, the novel clearly explores fears around adulthood, responsibility and accountability – universal anxieties I feel many of us have experienced to some degree.

While I hope no one is attempting to be a modern Prometheus in this day and age, I do think we can stop, take a minute to breathe and sympathize with the fact that the future is uncertain. Change is constant. And while we might be frightened by the “creatures” in our shadows, perhaps being frank and honest about them will benefit everyone.

Travel in the Time of COVID (It’s Not What You Think)

The year was 2020. Heritage professionals and travel buddies Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar were excited for their annual weekend trip with friends. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic thwarted such plans, but the duo went ahead with a Christmastime trip to Quebec City – virtually. Their online “visitor experience” explored how sensory immersion can convincingly take us elsewhere. 

By Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar 

Serena Ypelaar: This is one of my top memories from 2020 – which I guess isn’t saying much, as everyone spent most of the year at home. Back in December, Emily and I travelled to Quebec City ~virtually~ since we couldn’t do so in person. It helped that we’d both been there before; we had sensory memory to work from. Moving our trip online actually shaped a unique experience that was almost as fun as the real thing – I was surprised how absorbing it was. 

We travelled to Quebec City at Christmas without leaving our homes. Photo: Shorttrips / ed. Serena Ypelaar

As part of our pseudo-trip, I planned a virtual stay at the Fairmont Château Frontenac, which has always been on my bucket list. Can’t afford to stay there irl, so why not pretend, with the help of PowerPoint and HQ images? But we couldn’t just appear in Quebec – a virtual train ride would bridge the gap between Ontario and Quebec nicely, so I hopped onto YouTube to find the goods. You’d be surprised how many Ontarians post videos of their train rides. As our Zoom call connected on Day 1 of the trip*, I for some reason decided Ozzy Osbourne’s “all aboard!” (from “Crazy Train“) was a mandatory soundtrack to our simulated journey via Zoom screensharing and someone’s train video. Sorry for subjecting you to it, Emily! 

In the virtual tourism world, money is no object – we could “choose” our rooms. Photos: Château Frontenac / ed. Serena Ypelaar

Emily Welsh: “All aboard! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” The perfect way to start a trip! Music plays such a large role in travel, especially for us. The first person POV helped me feel as if I was actually departing on a trip, rather than simply showing up at our virtual hotel stay, which likely would have been a jarring introduction. I was immersed in the experience from the very beginning, and it only got better from there. After exploring the public spaces and rooms of the Château Frontenac, we explored the Old City with a first person night time walk. Walking among others bundled up against the cold, hearing the snow crunching underfoot, seeing the Christmas lights and skaters, it was as if I was breathing in the cold air and exploring the city with friends. I was mentally choosing benches to sit on and Christmas booths to visit. 

The walk we “went on” in Quebec City. There are many others like it on YouTube, shot in 4K. Delightful when you’re stuck in lockdown! Video: NAC Design on YouTube

SVY: I couldn’t have described it better myself – the sights and sounds really got me! I can’t convey how much I enjoyed the night walk. Another boon from YouTube and shot in 4K, it was as if we were actually walking through the snowy night, through the streets of 17th and 18th century architecture I love. Perfect way to spend the simulated evening. 

It’s not a vacation without a food tour! Photo: Kerrmess

EKW: For Day 2 of our trip, I was excited to curate a walking food tour, or dessert hop, of Old Quebec City. Quebec City provided the opportunity to taste traditional French and French Canadian dishes, and explore the modern inspirations offered by restaurants and shops. For instance the piesicle, frozen pie on a stick, offered at Kerrmess seemed too cool to pass by (pun intended). 

However, I quickly realized this trip must also be realistic, and although we may wish, we cannot simply eat the day away! I decided to pair a tour of historic homes and architecture with the dessert hop, as food and architecture seemed to go hand in hand in my mind. By examining the architecture of the Old City, I was constantly surprised by stories of cultural influences, military campaigns, epidemics, natural disasters, building codes, and modern reconstructions. I was pleased to gain a fuller understanding of the city’s history, and excited to share what I had learned. 

Map of our food tour. Photo: Google Maps / ed. Emily Welsh

SVY: Your tour was engrossing, and can I just say I was glad I had tea and stroopwafel on my end, because taste-testing-without-actually-tasting was a killer! Your visuals of bakeries, restaurants, and of course, food sparked my imaginative powers, that’s for sure. And the way you interwove all the stops with local building history, the evolution of the city, and landmark features made the experience really organic, yet again fooling me into thinking I was there. It’s amazing how much you can engage with a faraway place if you tune your senses in. If we ever get back to QC, we’re re-enacting this food tour, s’il vous plait!

EKW: I’d be honoured to offer this tour dans la vraie vie!

SVY: We engaged with even more places as the trip went on. When organizing travel itineraries, the first place my mind goes to is “HISTORIC SITES” (yes, my brain yells it in all caps). So it was only fitting that we checked out the Fortifications du Quebec National Historic Site, Lévis Forts National Historic Site, and Le Monastère des Augustines. The Plains of Abraham and other sites were not on the list (despite my fascination with Wolfe and Montcalm) as we’d both been there, done that. Instead we watched a rather dramatic video about the Fortifications, followed by a few lads’ recent visit to the site thanks to YouTube (overlaid by my on-the-spot spiel about the colonial history of Quebec and New France). Visitors captured in that video were masked up, which struck me as particularly authentic – how it would be if we were really there in 2020.

Virtual heritage tour slide, with embedded videos (like this intense Parks Canada one) bringing the sites to life.
Within Le Monastère des Augustines. Photo: Facebook

Google Maps / Street View brought the Lévis Forts before our eyes, as if we were standing there. While it was interesting learning the history of the British-built forts, not much is left of them today to engage with. The virtual trip served us well in that sense. We didn’t have to make the long trek to the outskirts just to see… well, not much. We learned, we interacted, but we also decided we don’t need to see the forts in person, thanks to virtual tourism! On the other hand, Le Monastère is a place I’ve seen from outside and always wanted to enter, so it was fulfilling to traverse the halls in some form and I definitely want to explore further in person.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Major-General Sir Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone & Governor-General of Canada, at the First Quebec Conference, August 1943. Photo: Wikimedia

EKW: How else should one’s brain shout historic sites? The fortifications of the city are impossible to miss, so I was excited to learn we were going on top of the walls and inside the associated structures! Again, the immersion of the virtual trip was paramount and your curated tour made it as if I was actually exploring all of the exhibits in person. Plus, your personal re-telling of the city’s history, with fun historical photographs thrown in, made it an even more valuable and enjoyable experience.   

I was also excited to explore the museum and archives at Le Monastère Des Augustines. The site, its collection, and interpretation provided me with the opportunity to learn about early healthcare practices in the community, as well as the opportunity to investigate how tourism, accommodation, wellness, and heritage can be blended in a single site. I’m glad you were able to walk its halls, albeit in your digital presence.  

SVY: Thanks! I had the ideal company. So, the big question: would you do a trip like this again?

EKW: In a heartbeat! From researching our destination, to designing experiences, and finally executing the trip, this educational experience exceeded my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by how immersive a virtual trip could feel. Even outside of a global pandemic, I would consider completing a virtual trip prior to a physical one, as it provided such a well-rounded introduction to a city and would help inform decisions for the real deal! I think it would be an interesting experiment to try a virtual trip for a city we had not visited before to examine whether the level of immersion is equally as deep without prior memories.   

SVY: I’m right there with you (ha). This trip was awesome and like you, I’m taken aback by how effective it ended up being. Agreed about using virtual tourism to plan in-person trips. A virtual first-time visit somewhere would be intriguing … Shoutout to the power of imagination and memory, and to you, Emily, for your partnership in this worthy endeavour. Before long it’ll be time to pack our virtual suitcases for a spring adventure! If this is all the travel we have in the time of COVID, well, I’m not that mad about it anymore.

If you’ve taken a virtual trip of your own over the course of the pandemic or otherwise, we’d love to hear about it! Let us know in the comments or via social media where you “travelled” and how it went.

*We did the trip over one afternoon, but pretended there were multiple days because why not? Gotta make the most out of our fake trip, ya know… 

Our Lady Peace: The Once and Future Age of Spiritual Machines

As 2020 winds down, one of Canada’s alternative rock mainstays looks back – but only for the purposes of moving forward. As Our Lady Peace prepares to release Spiritual Machines II, the follow-up to their seminal 2000 album, it’s worth examining how the original holds up after twenty years.

By Bennison Smith 

Age of spiritual machines
10 – 15 billion years ago,
the universe is born

– “R.K. Intro”

Ray Kurzweil’s tinny narration kicks off the Spiritual Machines album – and appropriately so.

Our Lady Peace’s fourth record is loosely based on Kurzweil’s non-fiction book: The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999). The popular futuristic work inspired the Canadian band to churn out this concept album a mere year after the release of their third record, Happiness… Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch (1999).

They did so with Kurzweil’s blessing, as well as his input. Kurzweil (credited as “R.K.”) recorded several passages from his book as brief spoken-word excerpts for use on the album. The excerpts serve as eerie connective tissue between the album’s ten musical tracks.

The panic of the future rears
You dig, you jerk
You find another way
– “Right Behind You”

Spiritual Machines is a lot of things.

Artistically, it takes Kurzweil’s vision of a digital future populated by machines that think, feel and pray – and then runs with it.

Considering its futuristic themes, the album’s release in the first year of a new millennium was a timely one.

As well, the album served symbolically as the end of an era for Our Lady Peace.

It is the last OLP album produced by Arnold Lanni, the producer who guided the band creatively beginning with their grunge origins on the Naveed (1995) album. Shortly after the release of Naveed, the band was catapulted into sustained commercial success.

Lanni produced all four of their early records and departed after Spiritual Machines. His replacement on the Gravity (2002) album was one Bob Rock (a name which never fails to provoke a reaction across the OLP fandom).

Album cover for Spiritual Machines (2000). Photo: Wikipedia

Save for a few tracks on Gravity, Spiritual Machines is also co-founder and lead guitarist Mike Turner’s last contribution to the band – for now, anyway.

Turner’s understated approach, along with his ear for melody and timing, helped to elevate the record to a creative high the band hadn’t realized up until then – and arguably hasn’t quite realized since. Listeners should pay attention especially to the penultimate track, “If You Believe”  for an excellent example of Turner’s technical wizardry on the guitar.

Spiritual Machines represents the “old” Our Lady Peace, before the band chose another direction. And for that old OLP, it’s hard to think of a better send off than this record.

It’s also very interesting that the band, featuring an almost completely different lineup save for Raine Maida and Duncan Coutts, has chosen to embark on a sequel record with the upcoming Spiritual Machines II.

Like a machine,
I’ll fix you from the start
– “In Repair”

It is impossible to have a conversation about OLP without mentioning lead singer Raine Maida. Inevitably, such a conversation will turn to the topic of his voice.

Bassist Duncan Coutts recently acknowledged on an episode of Canadian Music Podcast that Maida’s voice is simultaneously the group’s “gift and curse.”

It is a gift because his distinctive vocal register can be instantly recognized by a listener, regardless of the style or tempo of the song Maida is performing.

For the same reasons, his voice is also a curse when the band is attempting to branch out creatively and seek new audiences.

Over his career, Maida has famously sung up and down the vocal range. Depending on the song and the record, he will sometimes sing in a deep, resonant baritone. Sometimes he will also sing in a falsetto so pronounced that the lyrics will become virtually unintelligible.

For an effective blend of both ends of the Maida scale, listeners can simply listen to his baritone and falsetto layered on top of one another in the verses of “In Repair.”

And how many times has your faith slipped away?
Well is anybody safe?
Does anybody pray?
– “Life”

Despite being a record about robots, Spiritual Machines brims with life.

“Life” is, of course, also one of the album’s big singles and a classic OLP radio anthem.

The life of the album begins with an urgent declaration of solidarity on “Right Behind You” and reaches its apex with “The Wonderful Future,” a song featuring bass and percussion that are evocative of a slow, but persistent heartbeat.

“The Wonderful Future” is a track with interesting subtext, which will be discussed in a moment.

I’m drowning inside your head
– “Are You Sad?”

For all its futurism, Spiritual Machines is still very much a product of the 1990s (i.e., on “Everyone’s a Junkie,” the lyrics contain a slightly dated reference to “endless television”).

The themes of the record, however, remain universal.

In the face of a seismic change, the record’s central narrator struggles to maintain their grip on their relationships to those closest to them. They offer solidarity (“Right Behind You”), support (“In Repair”), comfort (“Are You Sad?”) and express regret for what they couldn’t do (“Middle of Yesterday”).

The themes on the record are effectively conveyed by some of Maida, Turner and Coutts’ most proficient musical work – not to mention the work of then-drummer, Jeremy Taggart, whose distinctive performances behind the kit underpinned much of the band’s early success.

She needs to know I’m alive,
but I’m flesh and I tear
– “The Wonderful Future”

The burden of caring for other people, when their problems become your own, permeates tracks early on the record.

Caring for other human beings is a worthy cause. But it also takes a toll.

Meanwhile, by the end of the record, the narrative presents a contrasting vision with “The Wonderful Future” and its aforementioned subtext.

The song’s narrator seems to have begun a relationship of some sort with a spiritual machine. The relationship described in the song seems ethereal, maybe even vapid.

Where there were human bonds holding the narrator back earlier in the record’s narrative, they instead seem elevated by the bond they have formed with this machine, whether it be one of simple friendship or something else.

On “Middle of Yesterday” the narrator was full of regret for doing wrong by another person they once cared for. At that midway point of the album, they seemed to be hopeful for a resolution of some kind. But on “The Wonderful Future” they don’t seem to care anymore now that an angelic machine of some sort is in their life instead.

How we, as listeners, are supposed to feel about this narrative development is naturally open to interpretation. But it’s a significant note to end the album on before the last Kurzweil spoken word track (“R.K. and Molly”) is slipped in for good measure.

Does the album’s narrative imply that society itself is headed on a parallel path to the narrator regarding its relationship with technology, digitization and artificial intelligence?

And does that path represent an ascension as a society?

Or perhaps a downward spiral?

We will have to see if the band is up for tackling these questions – and more – on Spiritual Machines II in 2021.


Bennison Smith is a budding Our Lady Peace superfan. One of the highlights of his fandom so far was being asked multiple times to “please sing a little quieter” by fellow audience members at an OLP concert. Bennison’s fandom for OLP began in earnest with the Burn Burn (2009) album and has only grown since. He was pleased, but not terribly surprised, to be recognized by the Spotify algorithm for placing in the top 0.5% of Our Lady Peace listeners on their platform.

Bennison’s conclusive rankings of all things Our Lady Peace:

Favourite OLP album: Spiritual Machines (2000), of course
Least favourite OLP album: Healthy in Paranoid Times (2005)
Favourite OLP song: “Blister”
Favourite Raine Maida look: the long-haired days of the “Fear of the Trailer Park” tour circa 2002/2003

The Secret Life of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s photography was discovered after her death, raising questions about who the elusive artist was and what drove her work. Yet continued interest in her work and private life raise further questions about artistry and privacy.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Who is Vivian Maier? That’s one of the main questions posed by the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. These days, Vivian Maier is recognized as one of the great American street photographers of the twentieth century. But prior to her death in 2009, she was completely unknown to the world at large and her life remains something of a mystery.

Self-portrait of Vivian Maier. Photo: Maloof Collection.

After discovering a cache of photo negatives at an auction in Chicago in 2007, amateur historian and collector John Maloof realized he had unwittingly purchased the unpublished work of a brilliant street photographer, with thousands of beautiful photos taken in the streets of Chicago and New York in the ’50s and ’60s. Maloof eventually published the negatives he’d acquired to Flickr and through the power of the Internet, Maier’s work went viral. It’s now shown in art galleries worldwide.

New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Maier took over 150,000 photos in her lifetime but spent the majority of her life—about forty years, to be exact—working as a nanny in the Chicago area, her talent and artistry hidden away along with boxes and boxes of unprinted negatives.

The story of a nanny who secretly took thousands of breathtaking photos was so compelling that it drove Maloof to obsession in trying to pin down the woman behind the camera, which he documents in his film. What emerges through interviews with the now-grown children Maier once nannied is a portrait of an artist who was strange, elusive, cruel, secretive, difficult, cold, radical, caring, brilliant. In short, complicated. Like all human beings are.   

1959, Grenoble, France. Photo: Maloof Collection.

What also emerges are enduring questions about the nature of art and artistry, of discovery and privacy and consent. Maloof, of course, has profited greatly from his discovery and subsequent exhibition of Maier’s photographs—something Maier herself, who was practically destitute before her death, could obviously have benefitted from. But, as people who knew her are quick to point out, she was intensely private and likely would have hated the attention that comes with fame and recognition.

Then again, she’s no longer around to have a say in the matter, so is there really any harm in making her work and her life known?

The work is one thing. It’s as brilliant as everyone says. Maier was prolific and genuinely talented. A true artist with a keen eye, who was never without her camera and who had a knack for capturing humanity in all its beauty, absurdity, warmth, and ugliness.

September 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Her life, and the speculation about it, is another. What right have we to know the ins and outs of this very private person’s life? It has little bearing on the mark of her work. Maloof wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of Vivian Maier. Why did she take so many photographs? Why did she never publish them? Why did she hoard newspapers and take particular interest in grisly stories of murder and depravity? Why did she remain “just” a nanny throughout her life? These are questions that can never be fully answered. And probably they shouldn’t be. A lot of them make assumptions about who and what a woman, and a woman artist in particular, should be.

The question that persists, which Maloof asks again and again in the film, is: why didn’t Maier put her work out there? It’s a good question, one that begs to be answered. Why wouldn’t an artist want the fame and fortune that we tend to think all artists are entitled to?

The answer is, we’ll never know. What Maier wanted and intended to do with her own art is something no one can answer. Why she chose to hoard her countless rolls of film will remain a mystery. But that’s as it should be. We’re not supposed to have all the answers.

April 7, 1960. Florida. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Diane Arbus once said that “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” And the more we learn about Vivian Maier, the less we seem to know about her. But she was a person, not an object to be unraveled, poked and prodded, sensationalized.

While I’m grateful that Maier’s work was made public, because I wouldn’t have been exposed to her stunning photography otherwise, I also believe that art doesn’t have to be commercialized or publicized in order to be great art.

Think of all the kitchen sink poets and hobbyist painters and bedroom guitar heroes and secret photographers out there, quietly making art for themselves. Art isn’t a rarefied domain, closed off to those who can’t afford to make it—or at least, it shouldn’t be. Art is how we make sense of our own experience and the world around us. It’s for everyone and it’s being made by everyone, each in their own way, as we speak. Art is not a privilege. It’s a human necessity.

It’s a good thing that Vivian Maier is finally getting the recognition she rightly deserves, even in death. God knows strange, difficult women rarely get the same appreciation afforded to their male counterparts. Still, people will always love to speculate about the private lives of public figures. But ultimately it’s the work that matters most. Regardless of who she was and what she did, Vivian Maier’s photos will continue to speak for themselves.

January, 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

 

1917: Walking in a Soldier’s Boots

Cinematography and sound in the film 1917 take us through the trials of World War I soldiers on a visceral level. There’s no better way to empathize with those who fought in the trenches than seemingly embarking on their journey ourselves – thanks to sensory storytelling techniques.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another Remembrance Day has passed, albeit very differently this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic surging in parts of Canada and worldwide, we weren’t able to gather at town squares and city halls with veterans in the same way. We weren’t out as much; we didn’t see as many poppies on each other’s lapels. But all this aside, we can still pay tribute to those who made sacrifices for our freedom. Especially now, the theme of sacrifice is crucial as we try to protect each other by staying apart.

I’ve written about this before: no matter the politics of war, its toll on our fellow humans is something we can all recognize. We feel it through devastation, through loss, through grief, glory, and gratitude.

It’s often said that the best way to understand someone’s struggle is to walk a mile in their shoes. One film that does an excellent job of putting us in a soldier’s boots is Sam Mendes’ 2019 war film, 1917. The film is critically acclaimed for its immersive powers, having won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing, on top of seven other nominations, including for Best Picture. Having seen it at the start of this year, I was captivated by the cinematic techniques that told the story.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) lead us on a tense journey through no man’s land, illustrating both the horrors and the human aspect of war. Photo: Roger Ebert

1917 follows two young lance corporals in the British army during World War I. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a do-or-die mission in northern France. The duo must trek across the treacherous no man’s land to prevent a different British battalion from launching a planned attack, which would play right into a German ambush if it were to go ahead. Schofield and Blake must get there within 24 hours, before the attack is scheduled to take place. They’re sent off with a terse warning: “If you fail, it will be a massacre”.

George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917 (2019). Photo: Vulture

The ensuing story is harrowing enough on its own, bluntly depicting the theatre of war and the horrors that come with it. Death, violence, poverty, destruction – we know what to expect from a war film, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when it’s before our eyes, or ringing in our ears. Now imagine actually being there in person. We don’t need to work hard to do so, because the film’s cinematography (in the capable hands of Roger Deakins) situates us right alongside Schofield and Blake as if we were walking, running, climbing, and crawling with them. We’re made to feel like we’re right there thanks to incredibly long takes – the whole film looks as if it were filmed in one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but it might as well have been; it seems impossible to distinguish where takes end because they span minutes, each take cleverly shifting into the next.

Photo: Ourculture

As a result, 1917 comes across as a progression of events in real-time – much as you might walk through a field yourself, for instance. Even if you blink, your view doesn’t cut to various images in succession – you’re likely to take in your surroundings more gradually, organically. You might also get swept up in the sounds of your environment. Likewise, the film replicates empirical observation intuitively, thanks to the long takes and sound mixing. Perhaps my analogy makes assumptions about accessibility, but my point is that we’re made to follow Schofield and Blake through no man’s land directly: the film is linear, never using the same location twice. There are no omissions from the action unfolding in front of us, thereby absorbing us into a rawness that feels like the present. The result is an immersive experience (my favourite phrase). We desperately hope the soldiers will get there in time, and it’s that suspense that helps to pull us in.

Using clever transitions from one long take to another, 1917 creates the illusion of one continuous shot – and in so doing, makes us feel as though we are right in the middle of the battlefields.

“That was my battle every day; to marry something that technically had to be incredibly precise with performances that felt spontaneous and real and a little rough around the edges, and not in any way robotic or preplanned or over-rehearsed. And to make sure that the technical scale of it didn’t overwhelm the human story … to make sure those two things could coexist without one destroying the other.”

Sam Mendes, Director
Photo: Ourculture

1917 isn’t based on a particular battle, and all its characters are fictional. This could be any World War I battlefield, any soldiers – what matters is that they’re human, like us. The casting of relative newcomers MacKay and Chapman in the lead roles gives the film an air of anonymity and grim humility; the narrative doesn’t chase glory or pride. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), 1917 is sober in tone, illustrating war on an intimate, human level: the story of a few individuals. Notably, 1917 balances low-profile leads with the high-profile casting of the military officers: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden. Yet they have about five minutes’ screen time each, because it’s not the generals that carry this film; it’s the average soldier.

Likewise, when remembering war, we’re not just remembering conflicts between faraway countries, a long time ago (there are people living through war right now). We have to remember the enduring humanity, the selflessness and courage of veterans and civilians over a sustained period of time – even through the inhumanity of war. It’s something that 1917 illustrates very well through its cinematography, casting, and pacing. The heightened uncertainty of global situations (be it war or pandemic) underscores just how much each person’s contribution can mean in the greater scheme of things.

So by watching films like this, by simply paying attention for a while, we can honour their sacrifices.