Archive for February, 2009

Queen V.
February 26, 2009

This week I had dinner with friends at The Cascade Room restaurant on Main Street.   The food was fabulous – I had the rainbow trout.   We were older than the usual clientele – who were generally young and hip.  They arrived in groups later in the evening and the music grew accordingly louder.

Surprisingly, the light shades above the tables had images of Queen Victoria.  As usual, the queen was dour, overweight, and in a black crepe dress with white lace headgear.   Had she now become  cool?

Queen V. died in 1901.  My grandparents in Moose Jaw got the day off school.  The young Winston Churchill was in Winnipeg and was moved to see this colonial city immediately don black and go into mourning.

Back in Britain, the Scottish poet, William MacGonagall – once called ‘the worst poet in the world’-  marked Victoria’s passing with these inspired words.

Dust to dust/And ashes to ashes/Into the grave/The great Queen crashes.


February 22, 2009

A friend who owns a small coffeeshop advertised for someone to work a four-hour shift a few days a week.  He received 46 applications.  Things have really changed as he has had trouble getting staff before.   I saw some of the resumes and was startled by how polished they were.   Several applicants were very overqualified and he actually ended up hiring a woman with a degree.

I shuddered looking at those resumes.  Glad I wasn’t in that position.  Not yet, anyway.   

There’s an old cartoon –  Popeye the sailor is at the unemployment office – sitting in front of  an employment counsellor.   The counsellor waves a piece of paper and says,

 “I yam what I yam…what kind of resume is this?!”

Russian Writers
February 18, 2009

Years ago, I resistered for a course on Russian literature.  The course was cancelled due to low enrollment but, luckily, I had bought most of the texts. 

It was great reading and included the classic Russian comic novel, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgarov, stories by Ivan Bunin and Journey into the Whirlwind by Euginia Ginzberg – an account of her experience in the Gulag.  The last was particularly riveting reading.  Too bad the course was cancelled, but I was glad I registered.  I wouldn’t have come across these books otherwise.

This week I found a book of short stories by Turgenev in the library.  I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Turgenev before.  Interestingly,  he was devoted to the opera singer Pauline Viardot and used to follow her on tour.

I do remember a story about Turgenev in a biography of Tolstoy I read years ago.

Tolstoy was quite volatile as a young man and he was very competitive with Turgenev, who was older and more established.   Several times, Tolstoy was publicly very rude to Turgenev.   Years later, when Tolstoy was married, had a family and an established reputation – he decided to make amends.   He wrote to Turgenev, who was in Europe, and invited him to visit.   Turgenev graciously accepted, and called at the Tolstoy estate when he returned to Russia.    The visit was on a sunny, spring day and Turgenev was in good spirits.   He showed the Tolstoy children how to dance the can-can, which was then all the rage in Paris.

That night, true to form, Tolstoy wrote in his diary;  


The Emperor of Atlantis
February 14, 2009

I met R, who was in her eighties, through my work.   She was a quiet,  friendly woman who had emigrated to Canada after the war and worked as a nurse here.   She often went to seniors’ events at community centres and enjoyed long walks.   I would sometimes see her in Stanley Park. 

 R. had trouble sleeping at night due to severe nightmares.  Once, when I asked her about it, she said only something like, ‘Terrible, terrible things…’   Others heard her crying out at night and she would often leave her room rather than sleep.  It was clear she was having disturbing, possibly psychotic, episodes at night. We found out that R. was an Auschwitz survivor.

The other night, I went to see the ‘Emperor of Atlantis’ – a chamber opera with music by Viktor Ullman and libretto by Petr Klein. The opera was composed in Theresienstadt, which was a transit camp  for Auschwitz.   It was hard to wrap the mind around the conditions in which this opera was created.

The story is simple.   Death goes on strike, repelled by the slaughter demanded by the Emperor of Atlantis.  Death agrees to return only if the Emperor agrees to be the first one to die.  It is a short work, just over an hour and the production was very well done.   Cabaret motifs were used in costume and staging, although the music draws on classical sources – Mendelssohn, Bach and Schoenberg.   Five talented people sang and acted well – and two young dancers were used wonderfully to enhance the story. 

I felt privileged just to see this work performed.  The musicians were incredibly courageous to thematically attack Hitler while in a concentration camp.   The Nazis closed the production after one rehearsal and sent the musicians to Auschwitz.   The composer, Ullman, knew he was going to die and gave all his music – in a small suitcase – to a friend.   The friend survived and died in England as an old man, saying little about his war experiences.  After his death,  the man’s son found the suitcase and the music was discovered.

The book,  “A Life Interrupted  – the Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum” is an inspiring work I have never forgotten.  Etty was a young Dutch Jewish woman who was killed in Auschwitz in November 1943.    She was a vibrant, gifted free spirit who taught Russian and lived a somewhat bohemian life.  When the Nazis started rounding up her friends and family, Etty worked within the Jewish community, offering support and bearing witness to the monstrous catastrophe they all faced.  Her writing is passionate, insightful and full of humanity.  While imprisoned in a grim transit camp, Etty wrote:  “Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.”   Her last postcard, flung from the transport train to Auschwitz and mailed by farmers, said, “We left the camp singing.”

Commedia Dell’Arte and Porcelain
February 10, 2009


A few years ago, I saw some photos of the porcelain Commedia Dell’ Arte collection at Gardiner Museum in Toronto.   (   I’ve since visited their website to view the collection a couple of times a year.   It’s so charming to see these elegant and engaging little porcelain figurines of Harlequin, Columbine, Scaramouche, Pulchinella and other stock rogues in the group.   Petite, arch and insouciant, they are of another time and culture.

Theatre groups in Naples originally performed commedia dell’arte before large crowds in the streets.   It was knock-down, obscenity-laden, street theatre.  The characters violently attacked, mocked and beat each other.  Slapstick, burlesque and ‘Punch and Judy’ shows are all said to come out of this theatrical tradition. 

It’s an interesting twist that these bawdy, brawling characters morphed into fragile and serene porcelain entities in the homes of the European aristocracy.

I have just re-read the short novel, “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin,  about a wily and obsessive East European porcelain collector.  Kaspar Utz became fixated on Messien figurines when a small Harlequin was given to him as a boy.   He has since been fascinated by porcelain’s aesthetic, spiritual and alchemical mysteries.  Utz guards and expands his extensive Messien collection with bitter wit while living in Soviet Prague.  For Utz,  “Porcelain is the only antidote to decay.”   

The book was made into a very good movie, also called ‘Utz’, in 1992.  It stars Armin Mueller-Stahl, Paul Scofield and Brenda Fricker.

Blue Pears
February 7, 2009


February 2, 2009

A woman I know through my work was recently telling me of her strong aversion to buttons.   I can’t remember how it came up, but she was suddenly saying:

“People comment on how I don’t wear clothes with buttons.  But I don’t like buttons.  I don’t like looking at them.  I don’t like touching them.  Especially those little white ones.” 

Then she gave a kind of shudder.  Apparently her entire wardrobe is based on not wearing buttons, if at all possible.

Button aversion/fear/phobia.  Sounds like something the British invented – a charming eccentricity.  I never knew it existed.   How would I?  It seemed funny that other people might have noticed and commented on it. 

“Look, I’ve realized you haven’t worn clothes with buttons since I met you…”

I checked the internet.   Button revulsion not only has an interesting name, koumpounphobia, but it is actually not uncommon. 

 It’s always fascinating to learn another arcane fact about the human condition.  Like many others, I have my own small phobias of course, but they are pedestrian and have no latin names.

The Conversation
February 1, 2009