Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Victorians in our Midst

Reprinted from Canadian Content:

I first discovered that Margaret Atwood and George Eliot are identical twins while visiting UCLA'S William F. Clark Library, in Los Angeles. Headed by an old acquaintance from Montreal, Bruce Whiteman, who used to be curator of Rare Books at McGill University, the Clark Library houses the world's largest private collection of Oscar Wilde manuscripts. While taking me on a tour of the building, Bruce showed me a room filled with portraits of Wilde's contemporaries and predecessors, including Dryden, Pope and Milton. Dwarfed by these likenesses of male literary giants hangs a tiny pen and ink sketch of Mary Ann Evans, known to the world as George Eliot. To my astonishment, I saw that it was the face of Margaret Atwood.

I motioned Bruce over to have a look. He said, "My God -- you're right!" Apart from the hairstyle (Eliot wore her dark unruly curls in the Puritan style, pulled back from a centre part to cover her ears), the resemblance was staggering. The same wide- apart, slightly crossed eyes, the aquiline nose, the full lipped Mona Lisa smile, the cheekbones, the rounded chin... Young George Eliot was Atwood in Victorian dress.

I recalled an interview I'd read a year or two before, in which Atwood confided that the only novelist she would claim as a major influence (apart from Dickens) is George Eliot.

Could Atwood be a continuation of George Eliot who -- after death -- chose Toronto as the best environment to continue her career? Canadian poet and novelist Robert Kroetsch once pointed out that Canadian Literature went from its Victorian stage into post- modernism with no intervening period of modernism. Atwood's career is emblematic. She attended the University of Toronto's Victoria College and got her first teaching job in Montreal in 1967, teaching Victorian and American Literature. In the 70's she rose to fame as Canada's premier woman writer.

Hot on the heels of discovering that Margaret Atwood was George Eliot in a past life, I stumbled across a portrait of Eliot's friend and mentor, John Chapman, in Frederick R. Karl's biography of George Eliot, Voice of a Century.

Bearded, handsome, sexy in a patrician kind of way, Chapman ran a lodging house cum publishing operation on the Strand in central London. Chapman was editor of the Westminster Review and a dead ringer for the late Robertson Davies.

Like Davies in his varied career as a journalist, playwright, editor and university man, Chapman was known for his egotistical manner and way with the ladies. Separated by an ocean and a century, he and Robertson Davies look as much alike as Eliot and Atwood.

Chapman introduced the young Eliot to British intellectual life in the early 1850s. In Toronto during the 1980's and '90s, Davies and Atwood teamed up in public, sometimes appearing as a neo-Victorian literary duo, and even going so far as to sing a duet of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" at a PEN gala in 1992.

Flipping through Karl's biography, I found an 1859 photo of Eliot's long time companion, George Henry Lewes, whose reputation as a novelist has been overshadowed by that of his famous life partner. There's no mistaking his resemblance to Graeme Gibson, Atwood's husband in this lifetime, whose most recent novel was err, ah...

Eliot and Lewes socialized with Robert Browning, and frequently dropped in at Dante Gabriel Rossetti's studio on fashionable Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. After Lewes' death, Eliot married James Walter Cross and the couple moved in to number 4 Cheyne Walk, almost next door to Rossetti -- which made them, in a way, neighbours of Henry VIII (whose 16th century manor house stood at the corner).

If, during the 1970s, Atwood and Gibson had decided to love back to their former Thames-side digs, they would have had to put up with the new kid on the block, Mick Jagger.

Jagger bears a haunting likeness to a second-millennium BC pharaoh, Amenhotep IV -- but that's another story.

parts of this work have appeared in Geist and Matrix magazines

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


A very strange year, 1969. I'm surprised I can even remember back that far, but the release of Ninth Floor - which I still haven't seen - by the NFB has triggered memories that I'm now sorting through. See, I was there when it all happened.

When the Computer Centre Crisis began with the occupation of the ninth floor of Sir George Williams University, I was 17 and also the "news editor" of the student newspaper, the georgian.

The georgian office was on the sixth floor at the south-east corner of the downtown cube some people called the "air conditioned nightmare." When I wasn't going to classes, I spent most of my time there -- a short escalator ride down from the seventh-floor cafeteria and all the action. In a way, I grew up in the georgian office, during the crisis and afterwards. I even lost my virginity there -- in more ways than one.

Of all the events I have witnessed in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. After it was over, punishment came down on all the participants. Names were blackened, lives wrecked, and some fine journalists never worked again in journalism. In the aftermath, everyone tried hard to forget and put it behind us.

The following year, drugs flooded the campus and the georgian office -- and even more memories were swept away. It was 1969, and our minds were being blown, almost daily, in overt and hidden ways.

Ninth Floor by Mina Shum, National Film Board of Canada

But seeing that Ninth Floor trailer brings it all back, and once again I'm in that classroom auditorium (room H-110) listening to the speeches and grievances of black students demanding justice. I'm with Alan Zweig, the advertising editor, taking notes. We are waiting for something to happen. We know something will. After two hours, it comes in the form of a call to occupy the Ninth Floor. From my seat in the middle row, I watch as students, mostly black, with some whites joining them, fist raised, file up the aisle and out the exit. Four hundred of them. The occupation begins. It will last for two weeks, and end in a mysterious fire and a lot of wreckage, including of the two state-of-the-art computers.

Then Alan and I go upstairs to write up the story for tomorrow's georgian. It's a cold night in late January. Tomorrow will be the beginning of a long, slow siege.

Also that February, David Bowie would begin recording Space Oddity months ahead of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 20. Also that summer, Brian Jones would drown in his own swimming pool. It was the summer of Charles Manson and the Sharon Tate murders. And would be followed by the winter of the Altamont Festival and the Stones' deadly performance of Sympathy for the Devil.

1969 The year we were told everything was about to change for the worse. What we're finding out, all these years later, is that some of these "mind-blowing" events were outright hoaxes. Not one was what it seemed at the time.


One of the people 'blackened' by his involvement in the computer centre affair, and by the stand he took at the time, was the georgian's Editor-in-Chief David Bowman. Interestingly, he has the same name as the astronaut in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was the inspiration for David Bowie's 1969 song.

David Bowman, a thin wiry ultra-white 23-year-old whose British accent and pale blond Afro set him apart from the rest of the georgian crew, was a clear-thinking, principled guy. As editor, he came out strongly and never wavered in his support of the black students in their demands for an investigation into charges of racism against their Biology professor.

He and other journalists at the georgian were aware that Principal John O'Brien's administration had mishandled the case, and were not being straight with the students. These suspicions came to a head in a controversial letter allegedly written by someone in the Dean's office, suggesting that the occupation could be ended by "breaking a few windows" and calling in the cops to eject the occupiers. That is, by faking a riot.

In the days leading up to the final explosion of February 11, Bowman and others, including former georgian editor Frank Brayton and some journalists from the McGill Daily, attempted to leak this damning letter which exposed the administration as planning what today we might call a 'false flag.' But before the story could get out and embarrass the Dean and the university, Bowman and Brayton were accused of having fabricated the letter as a 'hoax' -- and soon after, the 'riot' exploded.

The following day, February 12, the entire staff of the georgian were fired by the administration, with support from the student council. Dave Bowman disappeared -- I'm not sure I ever saw him again. In the summer of 1975, I ran into Frank Brayton while I was visiting Vancouver. Recognizing me after six years, he said "We all come here to lick our wounds." I don't know what became of him afterwards. Though gifted and charismatic, he always struck me as too sensitive for a profession where sociopathic personalities rise to the top.

So in mid-February 1969 I ended my short (three-month) career as News Editor of the georgian, Canada's most radical student paper at the time, or at least a close second to the McGill Daily, then headed by the team of Marc Starowicz and Mark Wilson. Actually, as I recall, I was more of a proofreader/intern, and Alan Zweig was the real news editor. He showed me the ropes, giving me taxi chits so I could travel back and forth from the printers, late at night, where he and others sometimes came to do layout. In those days, the georgian came out twice a week -- although it increased to four times a week during the height of the crisis and occupation.

I couldn't join the occupation since I was still living in the suburbs with my parents. All I saw of the riot was what everyone else saw who was standing on the street on Bishop Street that morning. Helmeted cops herded us onto the sidewalk, as computer cards rained down from the windows that, earlier, had been belching smoke from the mysterious fire that, to this day, remains a mystery. Why would occupying students set fire to their own barricade? For that matter, why would a group of them have invaded the cafeteria at 4:30 am on that fateful morning, overturning food machines and destroying furniture, as they blocked the stairwells in their ultimate takeover of several floors? Up to then, it had been a peaceful sit-in. What was the point of all that violence, while most of the 97 occupiers were upstairs sleeping?

I haven't seen Ninth Floor -- maybe it has answers to these questions. But even people who were there don't really know what happened, or who did it. How could the people on the ninth floor know what was going on down in the seventh-floor cafeteria? Or on the other side of their own barricade, for that matter? Nevertheless, all were arrested -- "white revolutionaries, Negroes, and ladies" as they were quaintly labeled -- and instantly branded as guilty criminals. "Why should we not throw the book at them?" the administration asked, with amazing confidence and self-righteousness, the very next day in the special issue evening students' newspaper. Awfully fast, when you come to think of it -- almost as if they had the presses ready to roll in the aftermath. Along with condemnation of the destruction came the blurred photos of the smashed computers, piled-up furniture and the famous lineup of arrested students with their hands up against the cinderblock wall.

On January 21, using questionable judgment, the georgian had run a front-page interview with a photo of black power leader Eldridge Cleaver, and the headline: STICK EM UP, MOTHERFUCKER - WE WANT WHAT'S OURS.

Who made that decision, I can't remember, but it certainly sent a message of cross-border escalation. This was no longer just about six students and their Biology grades at a second-rate university in a provincial city noted for mainly for its night life. Who was stoking the story, blowing it out of proportion, turning it into a race war in the making?

But now, the little details didn't matter. What mattered were the headlines. Shame, shame. The shock. The glare of international attention and condemnation. In any case, the staff of the only paper with an interest in investigating, had all been fired. We were in disgrace for supporting the 'rioters.'

From that moment on, we all began to dissociate. We were ripe for psychedelic takeover.