May meanderings, Milton and monarchy

This time last week I was having fun in Fredericton, the provincial capital of New Brunswick, which is one of the three Maritime provinces of Canada adjoining the Atlantic coast, the other two being Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is also on the Atlantic coast and is thus counted as part of “Atlantic Canada” along with the three Maritimes. According to Wikipedia:

The first premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Joey Smallwood, coined the term Atlantic Canada when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949. He believed it would be presumptuous for Newfoundland and Labrador to assume that it could include itself within the existing term “Maritime Provinces”, used to describe the cultural similarities between New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. The three Maritime provinces joined Confederation in the nineteenth century: New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1867 and Prince Edward Island in 1873.

I was in Fredericton for a conference, the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences which is held in a different Canadian city each year and brings together “more than 72 associations representing a rich spectrum of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences”. Effectively there are lots of small conferences going on at the same time – I was presenting at a joint session of the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies (CSRS) and the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric (CSSR), two associations with confusingly similar initials, and in fact identical initials in French (SCÉR).

Though Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick, it is not the biggest city – Saint John and Moncton are larger. The Fredericton airport consists of one building with the tarmac on which aeroplanes land on one side and the road where the bus was waiting to pick us up on the other side. It reminded me of the airport where I landed in Lapland in the north of Norway on a summer trip a few years ago. The scenery reminded me somewhat of Norway too, with hills and valleys and evergreen trees. Both the natural and manmade surroundings are very attractive. There are a lot of quaint wooden board houses, often painted white but sometimes in more flamboyant colours, of a kind we don’t really have in the UK. It’s a style I think I associate with colonial era New England, even though I’ve never been to New England. It is possible to walk wherever you want to go – the map of Fredericton has a “downtown” inset showing three streets.

The conference was mostly at the University of New Brunswick, whose campus is set on a hill, so even going from one building to another involved following circling paths and flights of steps which gave me plenty of exercise and got me lost a few times.

I was mostly occupied with the conference, but had a free afternoon to explore before flying back to Toronto. Though small, Fredericton has an impressive range of cultural amenities, especially the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, founded by Lord Beaverbrook. The imposing centrepiece greeting visitors on entry is an enormous painting by Salvador Dali of St James ascending into heaven, painted late in Dali’s life. As well as artwork from Atlantic Canada, the Beaverbrook Gallery has a selection of European art from the Middle Ages on, and some more contemporary experimental art.

(the university residence where I stayed)

Fredericton, built along the St John River, is a place of historic importance connected to both the French and British colonising of Canada. The original settlement, Pointe-Sainte-Anne, was a French township about a mile from Fort Nashwaak, once the capital of the French colony Acadia. After the area was conquered by the British, it was renamed “Frederick’s Town”, after Prince Frederick, son of King George III (of The Madness of King George fame), subsequently contracted to Fredericton. This colonial heritage can be seen in many of the street names and in the changing of the guard (in nineteenth-century uniforms), which takes place daily at 7 pm.


This British colonial legacy was  apparent across Canada the previous weekend, which was a long weekend for Canadians with the Monday being a holiday since it’s the closest Monday to Victoria Day, May 24th, which was Queen Victoria’s birthday. It’s more popularly known among Canadians as the “May 24 weekend”, and generally thought of as the beginning of summer. Apparently Queen Victoria in particular is remembered since she was the “mother of Confederation”, that is, she was the monarch who presided over the various provinces of Canada federating together to form a nation. Like Australia having a holiday for the Queen’s birthday which we don’t have in the UK, this seems another odd instance of the former colonies being more British than the British in certain respects. There was rather more excitement than was planned for in our street when the house two doors away caught fire. I’m not sure if that had something to do with the fireworks going off all around.

Speaking of Britishness and the British monarchy, I saw the royal wedding with a fellow Brit and an Australian at a “British style” pub which was serving breakfast. This was at 6 am Toronto time, with doors opening at 5:30. The royal wedding seemed to be attracting more interest in the preceding weeks than the Canadian general election a few days later, despite the fact that it was a rather dramatic election in its results. There was a gaggle of excitable girls wearing wedding dresses and a camera crew from one of the local TV stations was filming us watching the wedding. This was a fun way to start the day, since it was pretty much over in time to start the working day earlier than I would otherwise have done. In the UK there was an extra public holiday for the royal wedding, which, since it was a week after the Easter weekend and was followed by the regular May Day holiday, gave the British population two four day weekends in a row.

One odd detail I spotted was that whilst William and Kate were signing the register, the piece being sung by the choir was a musical setting of a poem by John Milton (the poem’s original title is ‘At a Solemn Musick’, though the musical setting by my namesake Hubert Parry is known by the opening words ‘Blest pair of sirens’). Whilst this piece itself is fairly innocuous in its content, describing how music on earth echoes the music of heaven, Milton wasn’t exactly the greatest fan of the monarchy. More precisely, he landed a significant position in Oliver Cromwell’s administration by writing works justifying the execution of Charles I and arguing that kings derive their authority from the people they govern. (By the way, for an accessible introduction to Milton and his times, I recommend visiting the website Darkness Visible.)

I’m a fan of Milton but am maybe mildly monarchist in that if anyone asks me what I think about the royal family, I seem to have vaguely benevolent feelings. Then again, that may just be a sense that the status quo doesn’t do too much harm in its current form and carries with it a sense of history. If I had lived in the seventeenth century, I may have felt differently.

I saw the Queen once when my college had its five hundredth anniversary and she dropped by for half an hour to unveil a plaque which said something like “This plaque was unveiled by the Queen”. She was accompanied by her husband Prince Philip, and whilst the Queen was being introduced to selected individuals, he was free to wander and came and spoke to our part of the line. He didn’t say anything especially outrageous, but it was mildly amusing. I and the friends I was with were about to graduate and he said, “I bet you’re all looking for grants and things to stay on”, and when one of my friends replied to say, no, he was looking for a job, HRH responded, “Oh, don’t bother with that. Put it off as long as you can.”

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