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.

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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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Poem for Easter

The star-crowned glory
of the fallen fair,
the fairly thrown down
thralls of princely hue,
the flaring brightness
shadowed, shadowing the sun,
the circling oneness
shattered, fallen, dulled.

And so, continuing
in procession, proceeding
out of preceding plenty
squandered, abandoned, spent;
proceeding piteously, painfully
encountering the day
with bleeding colours blackened,
beauty battered and bruised.

And then, the star-crowned
glory of the chosen, now
the freely broken beauty
of that brightening sun;
embattled, burning up with
yearning for the dawn
of life, encompassed with
encircling death.

And now, the frozen field
of fallen finds itself fractured,
feels itself opened by a probing
touch of light now rising,
blazing earth’s frigidity
into startled fecundity,
questioning, pushing the seed
to the brink.

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fasting and feasting/Easter sermon of John Chrysostom

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

So runs the ancient Easter greeting of the Christian Church. Below my own ramblings here, I’ve posted the Easter sermon of John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth and early fifth centuries. Chrysostom’s sermon describes the experience of salvation and celebrating with the risen Christ as a feast to which all who hear are invited, even if they haven’t gone through the spiritual preparation which is represented and embodied by fasting for Lent. I recommend reading it – it doesn’t take long. This sermon is still used today as part of the Easter liturgy of Eastern Orthodox churches. (Incidentally, though the eastern and western (Catholic/Protestant) dates for Easter are often different, they happen to coincide this year.)

Going by my experience of this weekend, I think I perhaps fall under the category of those that have not kept the fast but are still invited to the table, as on Saturday evening I enjoyed a three course conference banquet prior to arriving late for an Easter prayer vigil leading up to midnight, when we began our celebrations. Saturday at least was not very fast-like but I certainly seem to have been feasting since then – after midnight some of us adjourned to an old school diner I think run by some Portuguese people, where I enjoyed my vanilla milkshake but was probably unwise to make myself try to eat anything. Sunday morning I was served a pancake breakfast, I went out for a sushi lunch and in the evening my church’s monthly community meal (called EAT, standing for Everyone at the Table) took on the nature of an Easter feast. Eating and drinking, particularly eating and drinking together with others, is one of those thoroughly ordinary activities whose possible resonances spill out way further than we can comprehend.

Though the timing of the conference I was attending seemed a little odd, even on the pragmatic grounds that people are likely to be away this weekend rather than particularly religious grounds, there were a number of points in the conference which resonated with these themes of fasting and feasting.  One of the papers was on the topic of Jewish settlers in Surinam in the seventeenth century, and the speaker quoted part of the Jewish Passover liturgy (the Haggadah), a set of statements and prayers to be said whilst sharing a symbolic meal (the Seder). The one presiding at the table holds up the matzot, the unleavened bread, and says:

This is the bread of affliction

that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.

This moment perhaps anticipates the reshaping of the significance of the Passover effected by Jesus, who, the gospels recount, “took bread” at the Seder table, blessed it and said “Take, eat; this is my body.” The words of the Haggadah also echo older scriptural words such as these:

“Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labour on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

(Isaiah 55:1-2)

Many of the kinds of resonances I’ve alluded to above can be felt coming through in John Chrysostom’s festival sermon. Enjoy!

The Easter sermon of John Chrysostom

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavour.
The deed He honours and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

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stretching yourself upon the cross: a Good Friday thought from William Perkins (1558-1602)

Below is a thought I felt was fitting for Good Friday. It’s from a book by William Perkins (1558-1602), a minister in Cambridge whose life coincided almost exactly with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Though today Perkins is not well-known except among scholars who specialise in relevant fields, he was one of the best-selling authors of his day, with a particular reputation for writing “practical divinity”, which sought to relate theology and doctrine to the spiritual experience of his readers. In this passage he is drawing an analogy between an Old Testament narrative in which the prophet Elisha raises a child from the dead and the way in which people can come to experience the benefits of Christ’s saving death on the cross. (The italicised part is in italics in the edition I am using and a marginal note gives the biblical reference for this story – 2 Kings 4:34-35.) On a lighter note, I think “neezed” was an actual word at this time and not just a misprint for “sneezed”.

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Faith purifieth the heart by a particular applying of Christ crucified with all his merits. Elisha when he went up, & lay upon the dead child, and put his mouth to his mouth, and his eies upon his eies, and his hands upon his hands, and stretched himself upon him, then the flesh of the child waxed warme: Afterward Elisha rose and spread himselfe upon him the second time: then the child neezed seven times and opened his eies. So must a man by faith even spread himselfe upon the crosse of Christ, applying handes and feete to his peirced hands & feet, and his wretched heart to Christs bleeding heart, & then feele himselfe warmed by the heat of Gods spirit, & sin from day to day crucified with Christ, and his dead heart quickened & revived.

(William Perkins, A Direction for the Governement of the Tongue according to Gods Word, in The Workes of that Famous and Worthie Minister of Christ, in the Uniuersitie of Cambridge, M. William Perkins (London, 1608-9), volume I, p. 439.)

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colonialism for kids (circa 1900)

I was recently serenaded by a Canadian friend with the song There’ll Always be an England. He expected me to know the words where he left off. I explained that this is the kind of patriotic song which we’re happy to sing at the Last Night of the Proms, which is perhaps an exercise in nostalgia for an imperial past, but most of the time English people (meaning specifically English people rather than Scottish or Welsh) are uncomfortable being overly patriotic due to post-imperial guilt. Looking around on the web it turns it that this song is a little newer than I thought – it wasn’t from the heyday of the British Empire around 1900 but from 1939, and so wasn’t so much a song of imperial pride justifying subjugation of others but a song strengthening morale during World War II whilst facing the possibility of invasion by a formidable enemy power.

In December, I went to see The King’s Speech, shortly after its release. The King’s Speech is set during the same era. In this instance, it is the power of speech rather than song which strengthens the nation to stand firm against the enemy. Given that this film is about an Australian speech therapist treating the King of England, and there are various references to Britain’s relationship with its then colonies, it was fun that I was watching it with an Australian, a New Zealander and two Canadians. In connection with this, I was both amused and disturbed to read these educational poems from British children’s books of the turn of the 20th century (to which I was pointed by Peter Leithart).

From Mrs Ernest Ames [Mary Francis Ames], An A B C, for Baby Patriots (London: Dean & Son, 1899) – this book is readable online here, along with its illustrations:

A is the Army

      That dies for the Queen:

It’s the very best Army

     That ever was seen.

B stands for Battles

     With which England’s name

Has for ever been covered

     With glory and fame.

C is for Colonies.

      Rightly we boast,

That of all the great nations

      Great Britain has most.

… and so on.

There is an odd mixture of triumphalistic arrogance and banal statement of the obvious here:

E is our Empire

     Where sun never sets;

The larger we make it

     The bigger it gets.

Still, there are some kind words for our Antipodean allies in Thomas Stevens, Babes of the Empire: An Alphabet for Young England (London: Heinemann, 1902):

A is an Australian born in the bush,

      An A.1 ally when it comes to a push.

He can ride well and choose; his gun and his horse

     Are the flower of the Empire’s irregular force.

This afternoon (Saturday) I’ll be getting more history via cinema. I’m going to see one of the opening screenings of Mulroney: The Opera, a comic musical version of the life of Brian Mulroney, Canadian prime minister in the 1980s at the same time as Ronald Reagan was US president and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the UK. I have an actor friend who’s in it, playing the Quebec  politician André Bissonnette, of whom I had not previously heard. I’m expecting to be educated and entertained.

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pondering poutine and politics (Canadian style)

Wandering the streets of Montreal latish in the evening in search of food, I found that many places had stopped serving for the night, whilst others that I remembered from my previous trip to Montreal in July 2009 had shut for the winter and not yet reopened. Felicitously, I stumbled across Les Trois Brasseurs, a pub-bistro where the night was yet young, animated by a hockey match with the Montreal Canadiens whose French commentary was blaring from the TV screens. This establishment encompassed a large space, feeling very open, with an oval bar in the centre surrounded by bar stools, meal tables around the edge and a kitchen off to the side.

My quest was for food of any kind, but preferably authentic Québécois food. Because of this, I ordered poutine, a Quebecois specialty, which I will let Katherine Barber, “Canada’s Word Lady” (according to the jacket of her book) define:

poutine

1. a dish of french fries topped with cheese curds and a sauce, usually gravy. 2. (in Acadian cuisine) a a potato dumpling. b a pudding or pie.

(This is evidently translating Canadian for Americans. I would say poutine is “cheese and chips and gravy”, but that would confuse Canadians, who follow Americans rather than Brits on the crisps/chips/fries question.)

Ms Barber proceeds to offer an informative account of the origin of the word “poutine”

Pronounced “poo TEEN”. Acadian poutine precedes the Québécois poutine by about a century. The ultimate origin of this word beyond Canadian French is uncertain. It is probably derived from various similar words in many French dialects, and influenced by the English word “pudding”. The story behind the french fries and cheese curds concoction is that Fernand Lachance, a snack bar owner in Warwick, Quebec, when asked by a customer in 1957 to combine fries and cheese in a bag, told him it would be a “maudite poutine” (a hell of a mess), but the combination and the word stuck.

(Katherine Barber, Only in Canada, You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language (Oxford University Press Canada, 2008), p. 116)

I hadn’t come across the Acadian sense of poutine before, so I think when English Canadians refer to “poutine” they generally mean the Québécois type, which is available across Canada, but is perhaps done better in Quebec. Describing poutine to English people, it either just sounds bizarre, or what we would call “plebby” (expressing a tacky downmarket kind of taste). However, this is not the case in Quebec, at least if you order poutine at a more classy establishment. Poutine can come in different flavours, with different accompaniments, in more gourmet versions and more rough and ready varieties. I had poutine with bits of chicken, which was very flavoursome, and my meal was topped off nicely by the Trois Brasseurs dessert deal of cheesecake, chocolate mousse and coffee.

Yesterday I had a limited time to retrieve my luggage from the hotel and get to the train station, so was in search of fast food. I had hoped to find food with some character, but not finding much which fit the bill and was open on a Sunday afternoon, I capitulated and called into Burger King. My conscience was salved, however, when I spotted that I could have a Burger King “trio authentique sandwich au poulet avec poutine”. I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of this poutine, as my camera had run out of battery, but it came in a plastic box, with the very Burger King-looking chicken sandwich wrapped separately. Still, at least this is an instance of an attempt on Burger King’s part at adaptation to local cultures and flavours. Though “sandwich” is a conspicuously English word, it is used widely in France as well as Quebec. At least it’s more “authentique” Québécois than “un whopper”.

I wondered whether this might be a symbolic representation of Canada’s project of integrating Anglophone and Francophone culture, and subsequently many other cultures too, a project which produces both appetising blends of cultural flavours and some incongruities which sit uneasily together.

I did manage to have a very tasty smoked meat sandwich, a Montreal speciality, during my stay. In other news, the Canadian government fell, as widely expected. On Friday the opposition parties passed a vote of no confidence in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and on Saturday the prime minister went to the Governor General to request the dissolution of parliament in advance of an election on May 2nd. This will be the fourth election in seven years, which seems a little ridiculous, though the political situation in the UK was similar back in the 1970s.

I haven’t got totally up to speed on Canadian politics, but I gather this is a consequence of Harper leading a minority government, where the Conservatives have more MPs than anyone else but not an absolute majority of the seats, so the opposition parties can outvote the government if they come together. My impression is that a majority of voters support parties to the left, but the fact that there are more left wing than right wing parties in Canada splits the anti-Conservative vote such that the Conservatives still get the biggest number of MPs. One wildcard in Canadian politics is the Bloc Québécois, who want Quebec to be an independent country (not dissimilar to the Scottish National Party). Since the Bloc stands only in Quebec, there is no way they can form a government on the federal level, but my impression is that they can take enough non-Conservative votes to let the Conservatives win (though I’m not sure if I’ve got that quite right), and they even formed the official opposition at one part.

One might be tempted to adopt Monsieur Lachance’s phrase, and call the current state of Canadian politics a “maudite poutine”. However, since the literal meaning of “maudite” is “accursed”, I hope that this is not the case.

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