LONDON, ONTARIO – I first became aware of G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) in my late 20s on a literary tip from my friend Jeff Cencich. “I think you’ll like this guy,” he said, plucking a copy of his Selected Essays from a shelf at City Lights Book Shop where I was working as a clerk and dropping it onto the counter. Oh, gross and magnificent understatement.
Over the course of my reading life I’ve known dozens of instances when I’ve first knocked back a certain writer’s book that goes down with such avid delight that I hate myself for not being able to slow down to make it last. And as the final page of that first book hoves into view, I nervously start to ponder whether this writer has written much else and what are the odds that anything else in their canon will be a fraction so good as this? It’s an addictive sort of predicament, for sure, but if you’re going to get hooked on any writer, I would recommend Mr. Gilbert Keith Chesterton as the perfect gateway stimulant. He is such a prodigiously generous supplier of words that there will be no need to face the dreadful prospect of going cold turkey for many years to come.
HENSALL, ONTARIO – In the week before Christmas, a 58 year-old pharmacist, Egyptian immigrant and devout Roman Catholic named Michael Haddad had his quarter million dollar bid accepted to purchase a recently shuttered United Church in Hensall, Ontario. Haddad’s sole reason for making this purchase is so that this town of 1,200 situated about an hour’s drive north of London will not lose its last remaining Christian church.
LONDON, ONTARIO – In early November of 1974, George Harrison launched a 26-date North American tour in support of his third solo album, Dark Horse. It was a pretty anxious and gloomy time in the life of this most circumspect of ex-Beatles. His wife Patti Boyd had recently dumped him for Eric Clapton and a bout of ill health had left the never-robust Harrison as thin as the proverbial rake and unable to shake a voice-shredding case of laryngitis that dogged him throughout his tour of Canada and the States.
LONDON, ONTARIO – “So this guy goes to Hell,” Little Loss told me in our tenth or eleventh winter as we were waiting around for some of the other guys to come out for a game of road hockey. “And the Devil’s showing him around the place and tells him he’s got to choose one of these rooms to live in forever. In one room people are burning up. In another room, they’re all getting whipped and in this other room people are getting chewed up by rats. Then they come to a room where all these guys are standing around in shit up to their necks drinking coffee. ‘Sure, it’s disgusting’ he figures, ‘but at least in here I won’t be in constant pain.’ So that’s the room he chooses and they give him a cup of coffee and in he goes. He’s introducing himself to some of the other guys and asking, ‘Why doesn’t everybody choose this room?’ when the Devil pokes his head in through this little window in the door and says, ‘Okay, boys. Coffee break’s over. Back on your heads’.”
LONDON, ONTARIO – Like most adolescents of the last three or four generations who were not averse to picking up a book and pondering the meaning of existence, my first encounter with The Catcher in The Rye (1951), the only novel so far published by J.D. Salinger (1919 – 2010), was momentous. Driven by the pitch-perfect and miraculously timeless vernacular of its American adolescent narrator – 17 year-old Holden Caulfield – the novel movingly depicts the struggles of a bright and defensively caustic upper class kid who thinks he might be going crazy as he comes to discern his constitutional incapacity to fulfill the deepest longing of his heart to align himself with any cause or person that isn’t fundamentally compromised or (Holden’s favourite word) “phony”.
LONDON, ONTARIO – In truth I’ve never had much enthusiasm for New Year’s celebrations. Partly this is because of the utterly perverse timing of the holiday. Pull it back almost four months to Labour Day weekend (when summer wraps up and everybody’s scrambling to get back on board Joni Mitchell’s ‘carousel of time’) or push it ahead three months to the spring Equinox (when milder weather puts the wind in our tails and thaws the coagulated sap in our veins) and the world around us would both reflect and affirm this sense of a new beginning. But in my experience at least, coming up with a list of resolutions and drawing a fresh bead on one’s life goals is a grudging, thankless task in the cold, dark hollow of earliest January.
LONDON, ONTARIO – The celebration of Christmas is about the personal intervention of the Divine in human affairs. In the first book of the Old Testament, God creates man and woman and invests them with free will which, a mere five pages later, has so completely caused things to run amok that this temperamental Deity sets out to destroy everybody but Noah and his family and those lucky beasts and birds which have male and female representation on board the ark. In the New Testament, disorder and chaos have returned to mankind (actually they’ve been pretty constant through both Testaments and continue to this day) and this time God elects to send His only Son to instruct people how to live and to win us salvation.
LONDON, ONTARIO – Look, it doesn’t even make my list of Top One Thousand Songs at any time of year, let alone Christmas. But the uncomprehending slander and mean-spirited odium being heaped of late on Frank Loesser’s Oscar-winning yuletide duet from 1944, Baby, It’s Cold Outside – a novelty tune he initially wrote to perform with his wife and which has subsequently been covered by hundreds of warbling couples from Dean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell to Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel – compels me to rise to the defense of a song I don’t even really like except on principle.
LONDON, ONTARIO – Ten years ago in cold hard print I declared myself to be one of those conspiratorially minded chaps who believed that the obscure figure we are barely able to identify as William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was not in fact the person who wrote the greatest single cache of plays in the English language; perhaps not the greatest in number (though with 13 comedies, 10 histories, 14 tragedies and romances as well as a volume’s worth of poems and sonnets, he can’t have all that many contenders in that department either) but indisputably the greatest in artistic accomplishment and variety. He is an epoch-shaping literary colossus of the stature of Homer and Dante and . . . nobody else.
LONDON, ONTARIO – Among his many other qualities and accomplishments – he was a bit of a genius, a writer and editor, a father of three, a husband of two, a friend of dozens and dozens, an autodidact, a master archivist, a breathtakingly blunt facer of hard truths, a perfectionist, a two-time university dropout, an actor in the days of London Little Theatre, an avaricious reader, the Master of the Games at every Nihilist Picnic, a chain smoker, a cineaste and manager of the Kinotek series of screenings at the old Central Library, a radio broadcaster and host of Moondog’s Rock and Roll House Party, a fiercely independent soul, and all-round polymath – Bob McKenzie could also be a maddeningly stubborn cuss.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :