LONDON, ONTARIO – Expecting I’d find it a little surreal – and I do – a friend recently sent me a real estate posting of a spanking new home on an avenue named after Roy McDonald (1937–2018) in the Longwoods neighbourhood of southwest London, not far from the intersection of Wharncliffe and Southdale. We’ll get to Roy presently but let’s talk about real estate values for a second. While it’s been more than forty years since I’ve been in the market for a house, I know that prices generally have gone pretty crazy lately. But I still would have thought that nearly one million smackers would get you an abode that’s a little splashier than this.
That main storey facade, dominated by those featureless garage doors, positively starves the eyeballs. The listing boasts that this home has just as many bathrooms as bedrooms. This might suggest that things are a little more palatial inside. But for that kind of money, couldn’t they have planted a tree or a smattering of shrubbery to soften the newly excavated moonscape upon which this drab edifice sits? I thought one of the features of suburban living was comparatively open spaces. But the miserly proximity of neighbouring houses of similar non-distinction doesn’t leave enough elbow room on either side lawn to freely swing a cat.
It’s interesting to note that within easy walking distance of Roy McDonald Drive is a public park that was named after London-born filmmaker Paul Haggis shortly after he’d won an armful of Oscars as a screenwriter and director. Our spineless City leaders eventually rescinded that honour once Haggis emerged - dubiously smeared and utterly bankrupt - from the reputational meat-grinder of the Me-Too movement. (See the essay linked below for my take on that shabby debacle.)
So kudos to the Longwoods developers for bestowing risky bohemian nomenclature on their streets, even if they reserve such honorifics for deceased artists who are less likely to have their laurels stripped away in revisionist tantrums. Other twisty avenues in this still-proliferating burb are named after nationally (and even internationally) famous Canadian painters like Emily Carr (1871-1945) and [Arthur] Lismer (1885-1969). While London diarist and street celebrity Roy McDonald never won such wide renown for the two slim volumes that were published in his lifetime, he did have a knack for standing out in a crowd and was locally hailed as a living fixture of the London art scene.
I applaud the contractors, planners and City Hall bureaucrats who christen our streets for reaching beyond the usual pool of suspects this time – eschewing colonizers, politicians, military figures and captains of industry – to commemorate citizens who’ve toiled in less conventional fields. But it does raise the question: Do those people have any idea who Roy McDonald was? Or, more pertinently, are they aware of the domiciliary torments and anxieties which plagued his adult life? (Again, see the link below for my full portrait of Roy.) We hear that the trivalent watchword for folks in the home-selling trade is, “Location, Location, Location.” But considering how hard it is to picture Roy McDonald ever setting foot on Roy McDonald Drive, the repeated oath that most readily springs to mind here is, “Dislocation, dislocation, dislocation.”
Indeed, I haven’t experienced such whiplash regarding Roy’s rightful place in the universe since my peripatetic sister-in-law told me about her sixteen-hour ferry trip from Bombay to Goa in 1979 where she beheld Roy’s studiously beatific visage on the front cover of a book and introduced herself to the woman who was sitting on a deckchair reading Living: A London Journal (Ergo Press, 1978). My sister-in-law had met Roy a few months before at our Christmas party where he did pretty brisk business peddling his just-published book to fellow guests. And, such is the insularity of London cultural life, we knew the mysterious ferryboat reader as well and she gave us her amazed account of that unlikely meeting when she got back from India as well.
Looking at first sight like the kind of derelict that a timid person might cross the street to avoid, Roy McDonald actually turned out to be disarmingly gentle and considerate in all of his social interactions. You might only have exchanged a few words with him - sustained conversations just weren’t possible when he routinely held court on busy downtown sidewalks – but his appearance was so arrestingly singular that everybody felt that they knew him and also that he knew them. That latter impression was reinforced by the virtual Rolodex that was ever-spinning in Roy’s mind. Like a teacher or a salesman who never forgets a student or a client, Roy could instantly access names and pertinent details for people he hadn’t seen in years. Though I found his writing to be heavier on platitudes than insights, I acknowledge that he had real gifts as a clearing house of acquaintance. As a social convener, he operated at the exalted level of a Michelangelo.
While he was way too gregarious to ever be mistaken for a hermit, Roy was nonetheless a kind of renunciant; forgoing any prospect of regular employment, marriage, family life or material comfort for the sake of . . . well, the conceit was that he gave everything up for his writing. Until he was about fifty, Roy would talk – probably too much – about the books he intended to write but these, sadly, never took shape. A well-known hazard for writers is to talk so much about a project in the conceptualization stage that it dissipates the drive to go to all the bother of actually getting it down on paper.
His commitment to the writing life ultimately seemed to have more to do with aversion than creation or sacrifice. It was as if the same temperamental quirk that wouldn’t let him give himself away to another person, also held him back from the long and arduous fashioning of substantial literary projects. Perhaps his was a case of clearing away so many unwanted demands on his time and attention, that he also eliminated those pressures and irritations that are necessary to the proper cultivation of the pearl.
In the final analysis it has to be said that Roy’s was a life of serious deprivation. He never mooched or panhandled but people were often spontaneously moved to slip a little cash to the street-corner philosopher whose ragged pants were routinely held together with duct tape and cinched around his scarecrow-waist by a section of twine. Friends – most particularly, his publishers, Win and Linda Schell - frequently helped out during fiscal crises and he was able to at least earn pocket money through sales of his two books. (In 1980 Ergo also published his mammoth, then decade-old pun-poem, The Answer Questioned.) By the turn of the century when book sales had tapered off, not-very-tuneful acapella busking provided Roy with another sporadic revenue stream.
For all of his eighty years, Roy lived in the same small but cozy one-storey home on Wellington Road at the foot of Emery. Beautifully maintained by his parents (particularly his father who was something of a do-it-yourself wizard) Roy’s house badly needed fixing up by the time of his passing. When his mother died and Roy was entirely responsible for his own upkeep, the first thing he let go was the telephone. (Do I even need to mention that he never had the inclination or the budget to switch over to computers and email?) Even though his primary occupation was socializing, Roy didn’t see going phoneless as a huge deal at first as he always preferred going out and meeting people face to face anyway. But things did get irksome if plans changed at the last minute or he lost that bit of paper on which he’d scribbled the details about some get-together.
Many budding artists live like Roy in their twenties when the struggle can be bracing or even kind of fun. For a very lucky and talented few, a way is actually found to make a go of it. But for the vast majority of practitioners, a point of reckoning comes, by their thirties if not before, when they must soberly recalibrate to what (if any) extent they can keep their art going and what other arrangements will have to be made if they want to elevate their day to day life above the poverty line. Very few have the determination - or foolhardiness - to grind along in such a thankless way until the bitter end.
Even harsher deprivations ensued for Roy when, rather than find some way to scratch together a little more moolah, he elected to cut costs by disconnecting more essential services as well. Though the squeeze eased significantly when the old age pension kicked in, until the end of his life there were long stretches when Roy lived without water, power or heat. During the very worst periods – sometimes even in winter - all three were disconnected at the same time. While Roy treasured that house for the associations of a lifetime that it enshrined, it wasn’t really a place he could live in or work in. He was rarely there if he wasn’t asleep and nearly all of Roy's writing was undertaken in cafes and doughnut shops and at corner tables in McDonald’s where – prey to noise and interruptions from all and sundry – he couldn’t exactly set sail on the open sea of linguistic exploration and discovery.
If I may mischievously characterize an influential feminist text as 'seminal' for the way that it spurred a concept into being and set the terms for all subsequent discussion and development of that concept, then Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own would be such a text. But the example of Roy McDonald posits a rather important sine qua non amendment' to Woolf's classic essay; the gist of which could be formulated thus: Without ready access to water, heat or light, having a room or even a house of one's own isn't necessarily conducive to literary productivity for women or men.
Historically London has been a great place for young artists to take their dreams for a run and see what can be developed. In the pre-internet age, we were a little bit off the beaten path; “out of the loop” we’d call it today (and possibly construe it as a bad thing, which it isn’t necessarily for someone who actually wants to hear himself think). Rents and house prices here were substantially cheaper so long as you didn’t try to live in old North London or in a new subdivision like Longwoods. London had a lot of head offices and for several decades, we enjoyed a notable surfeit of millionaires; a good number of whom were not averse to acting as patrons and publishers and collectors.
I fear that most of the backwater advantages London used to enjoy have evaporated in our present era of globalization, spiking inflation and the mendacious machinations of the post-pandemic “reset”. A mere five years after his death, I shudder to think how much more difficult it would be for Roy to try to sustain his kind of subsistence today. While I trust in the ingenuity of young artists to devise fresh strategies for keeping wolves from the door - strategies that a previous generation never had cause or opportunity to concoct - I can’t help suspecting that it’s a lot trickier to carve out the necessary physical and psychic leeway to conduct artistic work today.
I do regret if my reflections on the naming of a supposedly posh suburban avenue after a cash-strapped writer who ultimately didn’t write very much at all . . . come off as churlish or mean. Yes, Roy kind of drove me crazy but I always liked the man even as I pitied him and feared for his well-being. Though his way wasn’t my way, I was always grateful that he was out there making his rounds and leaving his own unmistakable imprint on a city we both knew and loved. Until his death Roy McDonald served as both a constant marker and an intermittent warning on the landscape of my life; never more so than during those early formative years when I was trying to figure out how to make a go of it as a writer in London.
Let me leave you with a rather haunting possibility which, strictly speaking, might not be a hundred per cent true but I dearly hope it is. On the day of Roy’s funeral my brother Bob recalled a delinquent act from my infancy of which I have no recollection at all; an act in which disaster was ultimately averted by the care of a woman who might have been Roy’s mother, Ellen Violet McDonald. Here is what we know for certain. At the age of – at most – three, I climbed over the wooden railing of my playpen in which I’d been parked on the front lawn of our Connington Street home and went promenading in a north-easterly direction for three and a half blocks; eventually making my way across Wellington Road which may not have had quite so many lanes in 1955 but even then was no place for babies to go hiking.
Some dear woman living on the east side of Wellington saw this witless toddler waddling along her sidewalk and coaxed me over to sit down with her on her front steps, engaging me in idle chit-chat and keeping me in clear view of the parental search party which she trusted would soon come along. Bob was a member of that rather frantic party and remembers my rescuer’s house as being situated right across the road from the foot of Emery Street; ie: Roy’s house. We’ll never know for sure but if Mrs. McD was in fact my guardian angel that day, then I think this lends me and Roy a sort of quasi-fraternal status which I would be very happy to affirm.
For my account of why Paul Haggis Park was deep-sixed, see here:
How Goes that Haggis Hurling Campaign?
For my full portrait of Roy McDonald, see here:
Roy McDonald and The Road Not Taken
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