LONDON, ONTARIO - I expect there was a fair bit of sighing in homes all across the Forest City last week as the news filtered through that Jane Bigelow (1928–2021) had just died one week shy of her 93rd birthday. The first woman mayor in the history of London – and only the second to head up a major Canadian city (following Ottawa’s Charlotte Whitton) – Jane Bigelow’s improbable reign lasted from 1972–78.
Considering how completely she cut against the mayoral grain of preceding decades (adjectives like ‘beige,’ ‘innocuous’ and ‘Oh, I must’ve dozed off,’ spring to mind) it’s rather amazing that she lasted that long or got in at all. I look back on that time now, trying to remember how it all came to pass and recalling some of my own favourite highlights of the Bigelow regime, and can’t help arching an appreciative eyebrow at London's surprising capacity to opt for something so completely different.
An NDPer and closet socialist in a traditionally conservative town, a forthright feminist at a time when that wasn’t a broadly popular stance to assume (she once complained that Pierre Trudeau’s Christmas cards were always addressed to His Worship) Mayor Jane was a bit of an anomaly. Significantly, she wasn’t swept into power on the wave of a popular vote. The job fell to her in a very close City Council vote after then-Mayor Fred Gosnell (father of our later mayor, Tom) was advised to step down for reasons of health and did so. Jane Bigelow wasn’t the mayor London thought it was getting but for the next six years she proved to be the mayor we wanted. Accounts of her passing in local media last week were full of talk about how she blazed her very own path and busted up the old boy’s network at City Hall, but all of them witlessly glossed over the fact that it was those very same old boys who originally installed her.
Celebrated London portrait artist Alan Dayton (1949–2013) was commissioned by a group of Mayor Jane’s friends and supporters in 1988 to paint her official portrait to hang in the mayoral gallery at City Hall. (I could only lay my hands on the black and white reproduction which graces the head of this Hermaneutics. But if anyone in my vast and well-connected readership has a full-colour version they can zap along, I pledge to replace it forthwith.) Like its subject, Dayton’s portrait represents an attractive departure from tradition. For one thing, Mayor Jane’s actually smiling in the picture. Eschewing the usual glum backdrop of bookshelves or Roman columns, she is casually seated on a park bench and behind her, a bike path meanders off into the distance, weaving through an expanse of trees that are just beginning to take on the colours of autumn in the Forest City.
Dayton’s portrait told no lies. Jane rode her bike everywhere, quite often with her dog in the carrier. She was a big booster behind the City’s initiative to connect all of our riverside parks by bike and pedestrian paths. She was a fervently pro-environment mayor, sought to conserve fossil fuels by improving our bus system and dared give voice to an idea then being expressed by E.F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful, that perhaps London was already big enough and all this constant pushing for growth would actually have a deleterious impact on our quality of civic life. Much to the exasperation of entrepreneurial boosters on Council like Orlando Zamprogna, she squelched a proposed inner-city freeway project in her first term and never seemed to go out of her way to lure new business or industry to town.
She was also the first mayor I ever knew of who actively supported the arts. She headed up the drive to get London its own freestanding art gallery, made a point of hanging the work of local artists on the walls at City Hall, and dropped by the old York Hotel on at least one occasion when the Nihilist Spasm Band was playing. (I never believed the rumour that by evening’s end, she had kicked off her shoes and was dancing on top of a table because the 'music' those boys produced was so consistently undanceable.) She also was on speaking terms with writers like Margaret Laurence and Sylvia Fraser and was known to haunt the CanLit stacks at the Central Library on a weekly basis.
Sixteen mayors have governed the Forest City since I was born and I’ve been paying pretty close attention to the last twelve of them, starting with Mayor Jane in my twentieth year. If you go back far enough into London history – like to the era of George Wenige – we did indeed hang that chain of office around the shoulders of some pretty marvelous characters. But even allowing for the fact that before one’s twentieth year, it’s hard to take any interest in politics, I would say that the mayors of my boyhood were a notably bland and uninspiring lot.
I had my first physical encounter with a mayor at the age of eleven when I collided into Gordon Stronach’s worshipful belly while turning into the old City Hall on Dundas Street to drop off the payment for a PUC bill for my parents. And I’ll always remember New Year’s Eve of 1967 when I slept over at a friend’s and we got to hear Mayor Stronach mangle his holiday message to viewers of CFPL TV by wishing them “a happy and proserpous new year.”
At breakfast next morning my friend’s mother served up a major surprise with the bacon and eggs. “You’re not going to believe this, boys, but Mayor Stronach died last night.”
“Of embarrassment,” quipped my friend in an instant riposte, winning my deepest admiration.
Jane Bigelow was the first mayor in my lifetime who really made a distinct impression on my consciousness. By playing down their convictions and striving to reflect the perceived wishes of the greatest number of constituents, politicians might hope to remain popular and approachable. Yet Jane Bigelow, edges and all - she wouldn’t even don a hat to greet the Queen of England for goodness’ sake - hung onto the chain of office for longer than many and was approachable in a way that they weren’t; is remembered in a way that they can’t be. Edges give a person definition. I knew of people who frankly didn’t care for some of Jane Bigelow's positions but voted for her because they knew what they were in for with her and feared that less than what might eventually be promoted by other more malleable, blank-screen candidates.
During our later teen years when the arrival of another spring would unfailingly inspire a surge of transcendental rejuvenation, my friends and I cooked up an annual event that allowed us to vent whatever steam we'd built up over the preceding winter months. The Spring Festival was held on a temperate Saturday in late March or early April when about forty adolescent humanoids would invade the Croxton Common in old South London just around the corner from my parents’ house. I believe the Spring Festival ran for four years, falling by the wayside when I got my first apartment on my own in the depraved depths of East London just across the road from that temple of high culture, Stripperama.
We ran a full roster of silly events at this mock jamboree like an egg and spoon race and piggyback fights and speech-making contests. One friend officially opened our cut-rate Olympiad by sprinting around the perimeter of the Common decked out in a phosphorescently white gym outfit and holding a flaming lawn torch overhead. One year the top part of this rickety apparatus (a metal cup filled with kerosene that saturated the wick poking up through the lid) fell off its supporting stick just as Mercury was pounding his way up the home stretch. Enough kerosene was spilled to set off a fairly spectacular grass fire which we all helped him stomp out. About a week before our big day we’d mail off an elaborately whimsical invitation to the Office of the Mayor but this was just our little joke . . . we never expected the mayor to actually come, you understand.
But Mayor Jane did in our final two years of ’72 and ‘73. That first year when she parked her car and made her way across the field to join us - "Hey, doesn't that look a little bit like the . . ." "Could that possibly be the . . ?" - we were absolutely paralyzed. Even the speech-makers were speechless at first as we all stood around wondering, “What do you do with a mayor?” Piggyback fights would be too rough. A sack race would lack all dignity. A round of Red Rover would probably kill her. She wasn’t interested in giving a speech but listened to a couple of ours and hung in for about a half hour, chatting people up and seeming to find the whole spectacle amusing. She gallantly consented to run the egg and spoon race and while she made it to the finish line without any breakage, she didn’t win any ribbons.
But the next year we were better prepared and to show her that we really meant business this time, ace guitarist Doug Moore and I went up to City Hall ourselves to present her with a hand-lettered invitation resting atop a tasseled cushion while Doug honked out a musical fanfare on the kazoo. That year we marked off the playing field with people-sized squares and had ourselves a life-sized game of chess. We broke into two teams, sent the masters who’d be calling the moves for each side up into a maple tree and from those perches, they pointed and directed their pawns and other pieces about. Mayor Jane graciously accepted the post of White Queen for this match and donned an old mothballed cape and a cardboard crown as her costume. This gathering took place about three months before Queen Elizabeth visited London and in retrospect, I was amused to note that she had no apparent qualms about wearing ceremonial headgear if she could become the Queen of England.
Not just any old mayor would go out like that and lark about with a pack of adolescent lugs. It made us feel important and inspired some of us to help out with her campaigns. My atrocious rock band, the Polymorphous Perverts (most famous for a half-hour version of In-a-Gadda-da-Vida during which we methodically sawed a guitar in two) quickly re-dubbed ourselves the Hi-Tones and donated our services to her last re-election party in the basement of Centennial Hall. Frankly, with all the speechifying and announcing of updated tallies going on that night, beyond the odd flourish when some notable came promenading into the room, nobody really wanted to hear much in the way of live music. Perhaps sensing our underemployment, Jane did put in a couple of requests for German polka music, and then confessed to the Free Press reporter on hand that night, “I don’t think they know any.”
I’m a little ashamed to admit (though it does tell you something about the attention span and focus of a twenty-six year old) that even though I helped out once again with canvassing for Jane in the 1978 civic election, I utterly forgot to cast my ballot on election day and took it really hard and very personally when Al Gleeson whupped her at the polls and brought her unlikely reign to an end. You know that much-memed picture of that poor shattered woman bellowing at the sky on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration? That was me in the fall of ’78; completely undone because an election hadn’t gone the way I felt certain it would and should. I have taken myself in hand in the years since then and a) always remember to vote and b) have refused to let the outcome of any subsequent election turn me into that kind of butt-hurt cry-baby.
What has enabled me to do that with, I believe, a considerable degree of success has been to resist demonizing people whose political proclivities do not accord exactly with my own. And one surefire way to achieve that larger perspective is to remember that when I was a very young man, my very favourite politician on this earth was practically a pinko and she was a kind and generous soul with some really good ideas about how we could improve life in this city we both loved. At a time when the Nixon administration was falling to dust and dirt in the States and when political disenchantment was all but synonymous with youth, Jane Bigelow managed to cut through the prevailing bad spirits as a genuine and attractive alternative.
I may believe that right now we are ruining our downtown and hobbling the success of our merchants with our unhinged bike lane mania and wildly impractical plans for beefing up mass transit beyond a point that anyone actually wants. (Particularly in the wake of the Wuhan Batflu, increasing bus ridership is going to be a very hard sell.) And I acknowledge that a person could credibly claim that both of those developments are reckless over-extensions of Bigelow-type policies that, sooner or later, are going to have to be dialed back. But it isn't her fault if we've now gone overboard on initiatives that she introduced. It's now on us to get that balance right while not forgetting what made her initiatives so worthwhile back in the day.
Taken all in all, Jane Bigelow had a wonderful influence on this town. Most of all I salute her as the first mayor who took London’s art community seriously, paid it some respect and took measures to help it flourish. And I also give her major props for getting us to stop turning our backs on a rather beautiful river - with northern, eastern and western forks which converge in the very centre of our town - allowing Londoners in every neighbourhood and ward to make it more a part of our everyday lives. And on top of heralding overdue initiatives as boldly transformative as those, she herself had a forthright yet playful disposition and was an absolute pleasure to know.
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