Friday, December 31, 2010

change of pace (2)

The Moncton Times is just unspeakably boring today. So, first an announcement, then a true story.

Announcement. On Thursday, Jan.6, I shall meet with the current events group at Moncton Library. There are two meetings and all are welcome to both - discussion begins with a topic; but is then wide open. The first meeting is at 2 pm in the afternoon. The second, for those who can't make it in the day, is the same evening at 7:30 p.m., also at the Moncton Library. I would be delighted to see all those who can make it.

The notice for the group was supposed to run in The Moncton TandT in their Thursday supplement. The library submits its list every month. But The Moncton Times, true to its bush league heritage, usually does not  print the entry about me and the current events group.

Now, the true story.                      Me and the Dook

Last night, I saw the film of a lifetime, "The King's Speech". It was about King George the fifth, whose death in 1936 put his eldest son, Edward, on the throne as Edward VIII. But Edward, an inheritor of the low intelligence that has plagued the British Royal family for generations, was more interested in dressing for social occasions, in partying, and in his adulterous affair with Wallace Simpson. (In fairness, he left two gifts for the men's tailoring world - the Windsor Knot for neckties, and the little straps on the sides of men's vests - for anybody who still wears vests.)

When he learned he could not be crowned king with a twice-divorced woman as his Queen, he resigned the throne. He and his wife became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, spending the rest of their lives as guests of various extremely rich people, and enjoying a lavish income thanks to the taxpayers of Britain.

The film in a subtle and moving one of how his younger brother, George, overcame a speaking disorder, and became a must loved and effective King George V!. It was a story that carried me back to my high school days. In particular, it took me to that day in grade ten when, failing the year, anyway, I decided to skip school. Little did I know this day was the last time I would be together with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Now, I have an eleven year old daughter who wants to know if I have ever known anyone famous. I have. Really, I have. But it's hard to impress a duaghter for whom greatness began with Hannah Montana. As well, there were only two famous people who came from the very working-class French, English, Italians and Syrians in my end of Montreal. There was Rene Angelil, who would marry Celine Dion. But that was long after we had lived in that dstrict. And there was Tony, the school bully, who became an NHL scout for New York.

Well, I also knew the duce of the Italian Fascist party who sent the gift of a horse to Mussolini. (If you go to the Italian RC church in Montreal's Little Italy, you can see a giant fresco of God in heaven with the saints, and Mussolini among them, sitting on the gift horse.) And I was related to Dr. Decarie, the deputy chief of the Nazi Party of Quebec. But I didn't think my daughter would find those very interesting.

I needed a new world to see real greatness.  I went to that new world when I got promoted to grade ten, ans so had to go to a bigger high school. It was High School of Montreal, the oldest high school in Quebec, going back to the 1840s when it was Royal Grammar School. It was way downtown, an hour ride from the north end flat that was my home. It was across the steet from McGill, The cross street had been the home of Montreal's elite in its glory days. And it and all the streets around it were haunted by the ghosts of the famous.

The high school, itself, had been where Charles Best, the co-discoverer of insulin had been a Chemisry teacher. Christopher Plummer and Oscar Peterson had graduated shortly before I arrived at Monttreal High; and both were already legends in the school. But I knew those were names well below the stature of Hannah Montana.

Quite different from them, I would never become, like them, a legend. Clearly destined for failure as early as my first report card, I took to skipping classes, and to wandering in the ghost filled streets surrounding Montreal High and McGill.  I often passed what had been the home of Dr. Norman Bethune, who had died earlier in China; and who would soon become one of that country's national heroes. I passed the home of  John MacCrae, the man who wrote "In Flander's fields, the poppies blow...."

I would stroll across a vast lawn on the McGill campus to spend hours in the McCord Museum. (The stuffed gorilla and the dinosaur are still there,waiting patiently for my return.) The vast lawn I crossed to get to it was the field on which the modern game of North American football was invented.  I passed the Mansion of Lord Strahcona, builder of the CPR across Canada or, by a minor deviation, the even more magnificent home of Lord Stephen, president of the Bank of Montreal and first president of the CPR. Standing outside, a skinny and unkempt kid far from his element in the north end, I could only stare in awe - and in fear that I would be shooed away. (It was perhaps as well I did not know that I would be frequently invited to both houses for meetings and as a speaker.)

Then, further west on Sherbrooke was the very monied Temple Emmanuel, a splendid and massive work of stone and pillars that was a world away from my little,brick mission church in the north end. Many years later, I would be invited to speak there, too. Once, I chaired a meeting there with Pierre Trudeau, a man I came to like for his shyness and simple manner.

That reminds me of politicians I have known.  Though we rarely saw each other, I developed an instant liking for Trudeau's Solicitor-General, Warren Allmand That liking developed into a profound respect for his work in bringing peace to Ireland and trying to relieve poverty of the world's poorest countries. I was also very friendly with Romeo Leblanc in his years as senator and government-general. Everyone who ever met him liked Romeo.

But none even a governer-general didn't count with an eleven-year-old girl. That's why the film "The King's Speech" fired my memories. There was a famous man...

On one of those many days that I played hookey, I was walking along Sherbrooke St. toward the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Well before I got there, I recognized him. The immaculateness of his camel hair coat his general dress was so striking I knew it could only be the Duke of Windsor. And the woman beside him with the large and acutely sloped hat was the Duchess.

As I passed him, our glances locked. I found myself drawn into into the saddest eyes I have ever seen, the eyes of a waif lost and despairing.

My daughter was not impressed. "You didn't even say hello?"

Okay. So now I'm down to my last card.

I knew Ian Halperin. I taught him Canadian history. You know. Ian Haperin. He wrote the best-selling biography of Michael Jackson. He knew Michael Jackson well. They were friends.

Take that, Hannah Montana.

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