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Doing Dangerously Well

Doing Dangerously Well

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Kainji Dam
Striding like a panther, but with greater self-assurance, Amos parted the crowds at the market in Ndadu. His threads were making visual contact with the General Public and, not surprisingly, jaws dropped, flies entered. It is true that the GeePee had seen his sort before— local boys who had made good in Lagos or Port Harcourt— but Amos had added a lemon twist of indív to the mango juice. From his snakeskin boots to his sheepskin jacket, all was as it should be.
Yes. I’m looking fine. Continue to check. No payment necessary, he thought, with a grin that made his toothpick stand out the more.
Blustering gusts of wind that heralded the season of sandstorms only added to the drama. His bell-bottoms (or “Keep Nigeria Cleans” as his friends called them) flapped at his ankles while his jacket ballooned behind him to create a framing effect that pleased him greatly. As boards banged around him and tin roofs rattled, he fought against the blasting currents of torrid air, head down. Yes, the wind was strong, the air stifling, but what breeze could stop a proper whappasnippa from broadcasting his whereabouts?
He had rolled up his left sleeve to display a watch the size of a coconut, with dials informing everyone of the time in Lagos, London and Lima.
As every Nigerian knows, sunglasses maketh the man, and variety was not the spice; uniquatiousness was. Amos was well satisfied that no pilot on earth would be able to find shades like his own. At the top they were mirrored; at the bottom they were almost transparent. In the middle the mirrors formed droplets, while the transparent parts looked like waves. Yet, as shades, they performed their duty. No squinting was necessary. The wearer could walk down the street with pupils the size of cocoa beans and still never blink. Try as you might, there was no street in Lagos that could sell you this one particular pair.
This was Amos’s week off from a dry job in cellphone sales in the big city, so he had decided to surprise his parents with a visit. He had taken the bus north (motto scrawled across its windscreen: “We Are In God’s Hands”). Where strictly necessary, the bus veered onto the wrong side of the two-way highway until the route became clear enough to swerve back onto the right side. As for oncoming traffic, who would be idiot enough to drive into a fully laden bus?
After his arrival, Amos headed towards the food stalls with two large, empty flour bags to help with his load.
“Yepa! Amos!” Amos heard a thunderous roar to his left as he jumped across an open drain. “Am I seeing correctly? Amosquito! Ah-ah!” He turned towards the source of the commotion. Momentarily distracted, he bumped into a crowd of haggling women, who pushed him away towards the drain. “Yes— walking like a Titan!” Straining to see over the tops of people’s heads, he spotted Gambo, a boyhood friend. “Why are you limping?” Gambo shouted over the heads of a group of men. “What is the matter with your leg? Has it grown shorter? Amos with your Lagos Limp!”
“Gambo!” Amos yelled, shoving aside knots of shoppers to reach his friend. “Gambo— still walking as if a snake is in your trouser! Long time! How body-now?”
He elbowed a man refusing to move and sidestepped the rubbish, threw down his shopping bags and hugged Gambo ferociously. They exchanged an intricate handshake of five distinct phases, ending in a snapping of each other’s fingers.
“Amos! Worraps? We no see your brake light for long-long time. How your parents? Ah-ah! Look how your trouser rhyme your shirt. Don’t jealous me-oh!” He looked at Amos’s sunglasses with approval. “Everywhere tinted!”
Amos opened his mouth but was suddenly shoved sideways by the brute force of a market woman.
“Oga, sir! Oranges. I beg-oh! Oranges. Come and see my oranges.”
He was turning to look at the future victim of his tongue-whipping when he was body-slammed from behind and a voice piercing the very drum of his ear screamed, “Eh? You are taking my customer? He was standing here! Oga, please take a look at theses fruits. Look at my oranges here. I have melon, banana, grapefruit—”
“Please, sir . . .” The first woman took Amos by his arm, yanked him sideways and dislodged his beret.
“Ah-ah!” Amos exploded. “Am I dreaming?” He stared at the two women. “Have I fallen asleep? Did you just touch my hat? Gambo, I beg-oh, wake me up. Is this my own hat that she touched?”
“Who . . . who . . .” An enraged Gambo kissed his teeth, hardly able to form his words. “Who are you touching? Is this man a customer? Is he not a customer?”
As could only be expected, other women joined the altercation, expressing the fierce contempt granted to all those who had travelled far from home.
“Who is this Been To?”
“Who is causing this wahala? Eh— do you think this is Lagos?”
“I am trying—” Amos exploded.
He immediately checked himself, noting Mama Tela’s bulk heading his way. “I am trying . . .” Amos talked slowly and calmly. “I am trying . . .” As more women gathered, he realized the rabble could kill them both like cockroaches. He lowered his voice further still. “I am trying to buy some food, ONLY I cannot buy anything if I am squeezed into paw-paw juice before—”
“It’s Amos. Amos Jegede!” Mama Tela announced.
“Amos? Is that you? What is the matter with you? What are you wearing? Ah-ah. Is it not hot enough?” The market women broke into hysterical laughter.
“Amos! Always different. Separate-Amos! What are you wearing on your head?”
“Mama Tela!” one of the women shrieked. “Let me bring scarf and gloves. Amos is catching a cold!”
“I beg, bring some Vicks VapoRub as well!” another screeched.
“So— you are back, Amos?” Mama Tela called, walking towards the knot of market people. “I can hardly recognize you. Where did you get these fine shades?”
“That’s a trade secret. Go and find out the recipe for Coca-Cola, then come and ask me where I get my shades,” Amos replied, not impressed at all. “So, Mama Tela, I just came to buy food and water for my parents. I don’t need more wahala—just give me a good price.”
With Gambo at his side, Amos fought his way to Mama Tela’s stall, where he was able, through much commotion, to buy fruit, vegetables and twelve bottles of water. He haggled over the water for a good ten minutes, yet it still cost him the equivalent of two weeks’ wages, although it was locally produced— tapped from the regional aquifer by a national conglomerate owned by the minister for natural resources, Chief Ogbe Kolo.
His parents would cherish this gift, placing the bottles in a display cabinet under lock and key, dusting them off regularly and offering the water to only the most honoured guests. Other visitors would receive ordinary brown tap water, boiled for fifteen minutes and filtered twice to rid it of some of its impurities.
Mama Tela carefully wrapped the bottles, then Amos, accompanied by Gambo, walked towards the small house occupied by his parents, flour sacks slung over his back.
The red earth, parched and fine, fringed the bottom of his trousers. As Amos struggled on against a shearing wind, the sun beat down upon him, its throb playing time with his pulse. The scorching air seared into his lungs, its steam offering no relief from the heat. He could hardly breathe. He panted as he laboured upwards towards the house, struggling to keep a foothold on the path. The wind tried to push him back, force him away, using its full might to block his onward journey.
Amos, chatting and complaining to Gambo, turned past an outbreak of dying bougainvillea towards a boulevard of umbrella trees, trunks painted white.
Then it hit him. A smell, an overpowering stench, a punchy stew of putrid gases that almost knocked him to the ground. Amos’s eyes watered as he tried to suck in breath. He choked. He tried again. He could feel no oxygen. He began to panic.
“Breathe through your mouth-oh!” warned Gambo. “You can’t breathe through your nose here.”
Amos opened his mouth to breathe, but not willingly. It did not seem an adequate enough filter to shield him from the noxious fumes.
“What is that smell now?” asked Amos. “Gambo! Wetin? What has happened to the creek?” Amos gasped as he looked at the bed of clay, in which lay a thick black gunge. Fetid refuse, raw sewage, foul chemicals, all humanity’s waste and business’s excess, pooled into a narrow river that had been drained to almost a trickle.
“No water,” Gambo replied. “The IMF will not authorize any loan to Nigeria until we pay for water. All the rights have been sold.”
“Sold? To who?” Amos kept staring at the riverbed.
“Sold to Kolo’s companies, of course.”
“What does he want with our water? How are we to bathe or drink? Even, how are we to plant seeds or fish?”
“You didn’t get gist about the sale?”
“Lagos rumour. Village complaints. Dry season. I thought that was all. Can any man believe a sight like this?”
Amos looked from the river to Gambo and then back to the river, as if refreshing his view might take away the terrible sight. Its banks were parched and cracked, littered with plastic bags, rusted mufflers and excrement. This place of idyll, where Amos and his brother, Femi, would scramble and giggle, jumping off ropes or tires tied to trees, somersaulting and water-bombing into the cool, playful water. This place of history and ancestry, where the local priests would hold rituals and ceremonies in honour of the spirits; this place of worship, where the evangelical churches would baptise their fervent newcomers; this place of passage and fruit, where boats and fishermen could ply their trade, was now nothing but a stinking vessel, witness to man’s defiance of nature and the basest evidence of his existence.
“Anyway,” Gambo cut into his reveries, “we have to pay.”
“Pay for what? Pay for water? Pay for our own water? For a loan? Yaaay! That President Mu’azu.”
“No, not the president. Kolo! White Mercedes-Benz himself. He told that idiot president that Nigeria needs another World Bank loan. Then the IMF said we have to pay for our own water as part of its restructure this and redevelopment that before we can get any loan or grant. While the president is talking to the World Bank, Kolo is already running to write up the contracts so his companies can receive the financing, buy our water and then sell it back to us.”
Amos was flabberwhelmed. “So Kolo is going to the World Bank for extra aid to buy water that we already have? Doesn’t that man already have enough money? How much can one man want?”
“Kolo?” Gambo cut in. “Greed can never quench for that man. He will just institute another National Frugality Year. Do you think he’s going to reach into his own pocket to finance his own ventures? His hand couldn’t even find his pocket. His hand has never seen the inside of that place. Never! He’s just living with his nice helicopter pad, wearing his gold agbada, driving his white Mercedes-Benz and his this and that.”
“Can you imagine?” Amos raised his voice a few notches. “The World Bank. Can you see how the World Bank’s hands will shake when they write the cheque to ‘Government of Nigeria’? They know they will never see the money again. They know it!”
“The oga writing the cheque, he knows he will never write another cheque again in life. That is his last day at the World Bank. What can he do? Joh, nothing. He can just take his pen and go. Finish.”
They walked past the river as quickly as they could.
“Don’t worry.” Amos’s voice filled with confidence. “Femi will go to Abuja to protest.” He smiled, a feeling of pride banishing his gloomy thoughts. Femi, his elder brother, could inspire confidence in the most hopeless of causes.
“He’s already on seat there.”
“What? About this small village?” Amos’s eyes twinkled with admiration. “Is he trying to kill us all? What’s the problem with him?” Fierce in defence of his idol, he waited for Gambo to contradict him.
“He won’t rest until the river is flowing. Even if he has to pump it back himself,” Gambo exclaimed, indignant.
“Femiiiii . . .” Amos chuckled and shook his head, smiling as he visualized the reaction of his parents. Femi the Activist. Femi, the bane of his village, who thought he had wasted his hardwon education on such fruitless quests. Although he had become one of Nigeria’s most prominent activists— a legend to other humanitarians— he had wasted his legal education on protecting others, rather than enriching himself and his clan. But to Amos, Femi was the man who would meet his death throwing off his blindfold, grinning like a lion eyeing an antelope.
They made their way past palm trees to a short road, at the end of which sat a small house. Initially white, it was like all other houses in these parts, covered almost entirely in the red sand whipped up by the wind. That fine silt seemed to creep into every corner of life— inside the leaves of every book, the holes of every transistor radio and the straws of every mat.
Amos could tell his parents were in— oblivious to the heat, goats were sitting on the car, so the hood must still be warm. He opened the back gate, making sure not to grip too tightly lest the rust crumble into splinters in his hand. Passing the smell of pepper soup, he rounded the house to the front steps and shouted his welcome through the open windows. His skin prickled in excitement as he heard feet running.
As his anticipation reached its height, as the door opened, as Gambo turned to him with a smile of encouragement, as his mother’s kind eyes opened wide with surprise and her lips parted to mouth the word “Amos,” it happened.
First, the sound of the sky exploding, the ground quaking past its point of integrity, then, arching over them, a huge darkness. And finally, as high as the horizon of the human eye, a wall of water. Not a cleansing, sharing, pure water, but water of rage, of greed, of death.
Kainji had burst.
The water dammed up for over fifty years had exploded. It travelled, blundering at first and then with greater assurance and intent, smashing everything in its path, destroying lives within seconds. Almost half a million lives. Lives of texture and flavour, lives of promise and purpose, lives of caretakers and listeners, advice-givers and guides, scoundrels and thugs, emotional, volatile lives as well as lives of those most given to contemplation and quiet tenure. In one instant, all was gone. Amos, his parents, Gambo, Mama Tela, the market, the oranges, the village. All gone.
Waves punched through waves, the swells growing even more immense, throwing a monstrous night upon the landscape. The quaking ground exploded, flinging trees upwards like tiny twigs, leaving them spinning in the air before plunging back into the rushing currents. Houses and factories cartwheeled alongside them. Humans, too, shot up and out of the torrent, small specks spiralling in erratic arcs, and then flopped downwards like thousands of fish. Others, spared the indignity of such an end, were merely slammed into the surge, flattened and crushed. Everything in the water’s path was razed.
Once the turbines burst, the country was plunged into darkness.
The river stormed right down to the Niger Delta on the coast. News of the catastrophe surged into every village, each city, through words, through images, through touch. Nigerians went into deep mourning. The boisterous fell into silence. Those who walked stopped, swaying in place as if rocking their own cradles. Hands became numb to all sensations, unable to distinguish between one object and another. Eyes lost focus and vision turned inwards to the past. Some grieved over the death of family or friends. Others wept over the loss of homes, businesses or farms.
There were others, however, hidden like the sand in the darkest corners and crevices of Nigerian society, who felt not only grief but passion.
Loss can always be transformed into profit for those able to envision reconstruction. Indeed, the greater the calamity, the more seductive the prospects. Old arrangements are washed away and new opportunities surface. To direct the flow of such blessings, it takes not only a thirst for acquisitions but a certain gift for deal-making. And in areas of contract and negotiation, Chief Ogbe Kolo, minister for natural resources, was not just a master craftsman; he was the pre-eminent artist of Africa’s greatest nation.

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The Only Café

He’d driven his new toy, a vintage Mustang, north to Bloor. He might have then turned west, toward home. But he’d turned east instead, crossed the Don Valley and entered what he’d always thought of as the city’s European microcosm, Danforth Avenue. He drove past the teeming patios, the Greek restaurants, Greek street signs, Greek statuary, Mediterranean enthusiasm. He drove slowly, absorbing all the images of pleasure. Too much pleasure. Too many thoughtless people.He could feel a headache starting.
   He drove until he entered another world. No more patios and pleasure-seeking throngs, no more shish kebab and booze. The signs were now in Urdu, the shops proclaiming halal meat. He drove until he saw the mosque, the unmistakable minaret, the silver crescent, the emerald domes.
   He parked the Mustang, locked it, stepped back, admired his car, felt his spirits lift but only for a moment. The car was a reminder of why he endured days like that day, a day of bad news, double-talk and spin. The car was a reward, like the boat he kept in Nova Scotia. Car and boat, vehicles for fantasy, for flight. But now he needed distance from his car, distance from his day. He needed to escape even his escapes.
   He started walking. And then he spotted the little bar with the peculiar name in this unlikely neighbourhood. He went in, ordered a beer. He sat trying to imagine what awaited him in the days to come. The patio was just outside and beyond it he could see the domes that made him feel at home. 
He’d spent maybe twenty minutes on the first beer, then he’d gone to the bar and fetched a second. Perhaps because he appeared to be out of place in his expensive suit and tie, a stranger came and gestured toward the empty seat across from him.
   Pierre nodded toward the chair. The stranger sat.
   “Have I seen you here before?”
   The agitation of the day was undiminished and he didn’t answer right away. But there was something about the stranger’s accent. Agitation was replaced by curiosity. “I doubt it.”
   The intruder said, “I’m Ari,” and held out a beefy hand. Pierre stared at it.
   Perhaps it was the face. Or maybe it was something deeper, a voiceprint in the memory. Ormaybe it was just the similarity to another name that loomed large in memories Pierre had buried. 
   Ari started to rise. “Sorry. I don’t mean to interrupt.” Pierre quickly grasped the hand. “It’s okay . . . sit . . . Harry?” 
   “Ari. Short for Ariel.”
   “Pierre Cormier. I’ve never been here before. A bit different.”
   “Cormier? Yes. I find the atmosphere relaxing. Casual.”
   “Ari. Interesting name. Ari what?”
   “Roloff. An old Quebec name.”
   “But you aren’t French.”
   “True.” Ari shrugged, looked away briefly. “Nor are you,” he said. There was a trace of aggression in the look, the tone of voice. 
   Pierre could feel the agitation creeping back as he studied the face before him. It was broad and smooth, fleshy, friendly, open, the eyes interested but weary. What a bizarre coincidence. He felt a flutter in his stomach. Ariel. The same name. There was even a bodily resemblance. The man in front of him was short and overweight, borderline obese. The hair, the colour of ash, was thinning at the front but effectively combed over.
   “You come here often?” he asked.
   Ari smiled, shrugged. “Maybe more often than I should.”
   “So how long have you been in this country?”
   Ari laughed. “Where do you think I’m from?” The subtle thickness of his consonants.
  “I know exactly where you’re from.”
   The smile was cautious now. Ari nodded.
   “You could say we were neighbours once,” Pierre said.
   “Ah. Neighbours north? South? East?”
   “North,” said Pierre.
   “Yes. Pierre? Yimkin kenna as-hab. Perhaps we were even friends.”
   “Perhaps. You speak like an Arab.”
   “Maybe not so much. I’ve been here five years,” Ari said. “You?”
   “Quite a bit longer.”
   “You’re from Beirut,” Ari said.
   “No. A bit south of there.”
   Ari hesitated. “Damour?”
   “You know Damour?”
   Ari nodded. “I’ve been there.”
   “I had family in Damour. But I was born in Saida.”
   “Ah. Sidon. But you had family in Damour?”
   “I’m going to order a drink. Would you like another beer? Or something better.”
   “I’ll have what you’re having.” 
   Ari returned with two glasses. Scotch. 
   “And you? I’m going to guess Haifa.”
   “Why Haifa?”
   “Just a feeling. You’ve lived with Arabs.”
   “Yes. But not Haifa. A kibbutz near Hebron. You never heard of it.”
   “Probably not. I suppose you hear this a lot, but you bear a remarkable resemblance to someone famous.”
   Ari laughed. “I don’t hear it anymore so much. Someone no longer visible. Someone slowly being forgotten, yes?” 
   “Forgotten here, maybe. But not so much in other places.”
   “When did you say you came?” asked Ari.
   “I didn’t say.”
   “And you’ve been back?”
   “Not once?”
   “I have nobody left there.”
   “You said you have family in Damour?”
   Pierre shook his head. “Past tense. You know the history.”
   “The important parts.” Ari reached across the table, clasped Pierre’s hand again, held it gently for a moment. “Such a tragedy, Damour. And all that followed.”
   Pierre stood abruptly, light-headed. “I think I have to leave now.” He took a quick mouthful of the Scotch. It was strong. “Thanks for the drink,” he said, setting the empty glass back down.
   Ari nodded and looked away.
   And that was how it started.


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Northern Light

Northern Light

The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him
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Instead of a family tree, the Thomson family could be better represented by The Tangled Garden, a 1916 painting by Thomson’s friend and contemporary J.E.H. MacDonald. Tom’s paternal grandfather, Thomas “Tam” Thomson, was the offspring of a woman named Christian Davidson, who had been jilted and left pregnant by her lover. Tam had children with three different women, two of whom he might have been married to at the same time. The painter’s paternal great-grandmother had two children out of wedlock until the church forced her lover to marry her—shortly after which he fled Scotland for North America and vanished, never to be seen again by the family. Roots of discontent.
Tam Thomson, described as “a charming talker and devilishly handsome,” emigrated to Canada to seek employment, promising to support the two children—one named Thomas Thomson, Jr.—he was leaving behind with their mothers, Elizabeth Delgarno of Old Deer, whom he might have married but never divorced, and Sarah Allan of nearby Peterhead, who bore him Thomas. According to Angie Littlefield’s self-published The Thomsons of Durham, Tam came to this country and settled first around Whitby, where he courted and married Elizabeth Brodie, who’d also come to Canada from Scotland. It was in Whitby in 1840 that John Thomson, father of the painter, was born.
Tam Thomson later purchased a farm at nearby Claremont, northwest of Whitby, and the growing family—eventually joined by Tam’s Scottish offspring—settled into a stone house there and prospered. Tam was a grand storyteller—“He was always the hero of his own story,” a cousin said—but his willingness to work hard and the sheer force of his personality soon brought him financial success as well. Very quickly, the Thomsons became a family of substance in the newly settled area. Though he’d lived in abject poverty back in Scotland, Tam Thomson now ran a grand home with servants.
A nearby Scottish family, the Mathesons, had come from the Isle of Skye in 1841 following the failure of the potato crop, first settling on Prince Edward Island. The Mathesons were also considered a family of substance—one relative was John A. Macdonald—and in 1865 John Thomson and Margaret Matheson married. John took over the management of his father’s growing farm operations, and one year after Confederation (a union brought about by their distinguished relative, privately referred to as “the old reprobate” by family members), they had their first child, George.
Elizabeth was born the following year, then Henry, Louise and Minnie—before a third boy arrived on August 5, 1877, and was given his grandfather’s proper name, Thomas John Thomson. When Tom was only two months old, the family moved north and west to a hundredacre farm called Rose Hill outside the village of Leith, near the southern edge of Lake Huron’s massive Georgian Bay. Here, the couple produced four more children: Ralph, James, Margaret and Fraser.
Life at Rose Hill was, by the few accounts available, rather bucolic. The family was well off thanks to a considerable inheritance from Tam, who died March 23, 1875 (Elizabeth had predeceased him by seven months). John Thomson was able to easily afford the $6,600 price tag on the Rose Hill property where he lived the life of a “gentleman farmer.” He became far better known for his fishing than his crop or livestock pursuits. As a great-niece once said of John Thomson, “He might not have been a good farmer, but he liked to watch a sunset.”
When Tom Thomson was five years old, his infant brother, James, died, cause not recorded. The nine remaining children, however, were healthy and thrived, though Tom is said to have suffered from “inflammatory rheumatism” at one point. In a 1931 letter, Thomson’s sister Louise wrote that Tom’s delicate condition led to the local doctor advising their parents to keep him out of school for a year. This, of course, delighted the boy, as it allowed him to spend most of that year outdoors. Louise said he was an amazing walker, once hiking fifteen kilometres through a blizzard to attend a party and another time travelling the thirty kilometres to Meaford on foot “rather than bother with a horse and buggy, though Father begged him to take them.” She said he would walk with a shotgun while wearing a felt hat he would soak with water and shape to a point over a broom handle. He would decorate the hat with wildflowers and squirrel tails. It was a typical rural Ontario life for a boy, not all that different from how I spent my time more than half a century later—minus the silly hat, of course.
Young Tom spent considerable time fishing on nearby Georgian Bay and on the sound heading into the Owen Sound harbour. He became a fine fisherman and quite an accomplished swimmer, which would suggest either that his health had been fine all along or that the outdoors had had its intended effect.
Life on Rose Hill was privileged. The Thomson children had their duties, but there was always time for fishing in summer and for skating on the frozen sound in winter. The farm was a social gathering point for neighbours, often filled with music. Tom sang in the church choir, played the violin in the school orchestra and, at local dances, dabbled on the mandolin and cornet. And he read, wrote poetry and liked to draw. Though we know he missed that one year of school, no one has been able to find any mention of what grade he completed.
Young Tom had a genuine love of nature that was significantly influenced by an older cousin of his grandmother, William Brodie, whom the Thomsons would sometimes visit in Toronto. Brodie, a dentist, was also a renowned naturalist—his collected specimens are in the Smithsonian in Washington and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto—who had lost his only son, Willie, in a canoeing accident. William Brodie, Jr., only nineteen, had set out to collect specimens along Manitoba’s Assiniboine River with some other young scientists, including the writer and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, but Willie’s canoe had overturned in the spring current, and his friends had been unable to get a lifeline to him in time.
Tom, with his very evident love of nature, became something of a surrogate son to the elder Brodie, often going on day-long hikes through Toronto’s ravines, with Uncle Willie pointing out the various flora and fauna they found there.
Tom grew into a lithe and handsome young man. One photograph, taken when he was in his late teens, shows a rakish figure staring hard into the camera, an unlighted cigarette carefully set in a corner of his mouth, a rather faint moustache reaching for maturity and both hands shoved deep into his pants pockets in an insouciant pose that belies his rather formal white-tie dress. He was, his niece Jessie Fisk (née Harkness) would later claim, a lady-killer, with thick, black hair that he initially parted in the middle, causing a hank of locks to bracket each side of his forehead and draw attention to his patrician nose. His chin had a small dimple, and, like others in his family, he had a straight right eyebrow and a slightly curved left, giving people the impression he was vitally interested in whatever they were saying. Tall, with dark eyes and fine features, he soon abandoned the weak moustache but took to smoking a pipe, which made him seem more mature. One of his favourite words, apparently, was “shoddy,” which occasionally gave the impression that he was arrogant. At other times he seemed shy, which young women found attractive. Others took his reserve for brooding.
He certainly came early in life to the pleasures of drink. His childhood friend Alan H. Ross wrote a remembrance in which he said: “I have been with him on several occasions when I am now sorry to say that neither of us was very sober, but it is in such times men exchange real confidences and it was on one such occasion that I discovered how deeply sensitive he was and how he resented anything like public ridicule . . . I remember one night in 1901, in Meaford, when he embosomed himself, lamenting his lack of success in life in terms that rather astonished me. I began to think then that he realized his powers and that he also had secret ambitions. But one never knows . . .”
At twenty-one, all the Thomson children inherited $2,000 each from the estate of Tam Thomson—about $40,000 in today’s money. Tom frittered this substantial inheritance away—he had a passion for expensive silk shirts among other things—in very little time, a harbinger of the fact that he would spend the rest of his short life in constantly recurring financial crises. His sister Louise claimed that the directionless young man tried three times to enlist to serve in the South African War, only to be rejected each time on the grounds of his having a badly broken toe from a football game played long before. This information comes from a letter she wrote in 1931 and may or may not be factual. I do not believe it. She might have been trying to come to terms with a deceased family member who had gone from being relatively unknown at the time of his death to being of increasing interest in the emerging world of Canadian art. Such a white lie, if indeed it was—no records were kept concerning those rejected—could have been concocted to smooth over whatever awkwardness the family felt regarding inquiries about Tom’s later failure to enlist in the Great War, as A.Y. Jackson and other art contemporaries had done.
A longtime ranger in Algonquin Park, Bud Callighen, said that Tom had told him in the summer of 1915 that he’d tried three times to enlist but had been turned down. Callighen naturally assumed he meant the war raging in Europe. Callighen also said that Tom blamed fallen arches for his rejection, though others who heard this explanation were quick to point out that Thomson was able to hike for miles through the woods, often carrying a canoe, without apparent suffering or complaint.
Thomson used part of his inheritance to purchase an apprenticeship so he could train as a machinist at family friend William Kennedy’s foundry in Owen Sound, which manufactured ship propellers for the thriving Great Lakes shipbuilding industry. It seemed a responsible thing for the twenty-two-year-old to do, but it didn’t last. The job quickly bored him, and the shop manager, a Mr. Munro, soured on his young charge, thinking him lazy and lacking commitment. Less than a year later, Tom had either quit or been fired.
He then enrolled in the Canadian Business College at Chatham, which his older brothers, George and Henry, had attended. But it, too, bored him. “I don’t think Tom’s stay in Chatham did him much good,” Alan Ross claimed. “He seemed to me at the time to be drifting. He was clever enough at his studies but he lacked the faculty of concentration.”
In 1901 Tom quit business college and struck out for Winnipeg, where he stayed a short while—no one seems to know in what capacity—and then moved on to Seattle, Washington, where his ambitious and enterprising older brother George and their cousin F.R. McLaren had started up the Acme Business College, clearly modelled on the Chatham school. Tom, now twenty-four and still directionless, took a room with a Mr. and Mrs. Shaw on Twenty-first Street and found work as an elevator lift boy at the Diller Hotel.
George’s easy success in Seattle became a bit of a clarion call to the Thomsons of Rose Hill farm. Two other Thomson brothers, Ralph and Henry, soon joined George and Tom, but no brother was as closely tied to Tom as the eldest of the Thomson boys. George, in fact, appears to have been somewhat of an alter ego to Tom: driven, where Tom was distracted; successful, where Tom wandered; frugal and soon relatively wealthy, where Tom was spendthrift and often barely aware of the existence of money.
But George, too, harboured artistic dreams. He eventually sold his stake in the Seattle school and moved to New York to study painting, later settling into a bookkeeping job in New Haven, Connecticut, and restricting his art to a weekend hobby. In the mid-1920s, George would return to Owen Sound to teach art and to paint the familiar landscapes. He had an admirable art career, but would never attain Tom’s level of success. Knowing the dynamics of brotherhood, it’s likely that Tom grated on George, and perhaps George grated equally on Tom. Yet it was George, ever the responsible one, who would hurry to Canoe Lake in July 1917, when word went out that Tom was missing.
Tom spent three years on the West Coast. Alan Ross, who visited him there, said he was popular and happy. “I never knew anyone who made friends more easily,” Ross said. It seems the shyness of his youth had lifted. “He was one of the most companionable men it has been my fortune to hold friendship with,” Ross wrote, “and there are scores of others, I venture to say, who will tell you the same thing.”
Tom studied penmanship at his brother’s college and finally seemed to accept that he could have a career in engraving. He liked commercial art and soon tried his hand at his own creations with pen-and-pencil drawings and watercolours. He was hired on by C.C. Maring, who had previously been an instructor at the Chatham business school, but Tom soon switched to the Seattle Engraving Company, which offered a better salary. It seemed he had found his calling.
He also fell in love in Seattle.
It would be more unusual if he had not fallen for someone in those years in which he was passing through his mid-twenties. Brother George later claimed that Tom became smitten with a Seattle woman who never appeared quite as smitten in return, but it is unlikely that Tom would have confided much in his stern and serious older brother. All the same, according to George, a shy Tom had edged up to a marriage proposal only to have the object of his affections laugh at the suggestion, causing the young man to flee in humiliation in 1905, never to return to the West Coast.
The facts were later fleshed out to some extent by Canadian art historian Joan Murray, who identified the woman as Alice Elinor Lambert. Murray thought that Lambert was about fifteen years old at the time and considered the relationship harmless, mere puppy love. But Lambert would have been nineteen when Tom supposedly fled Seattle, so the affair might have been much deeper than Murray has conjectured.
Alice was seven years younger than Tom, a common enough gap in those days between a man and woman who were romantically involved. She’d been sent by her missionary parents to board with the Shaws, where Tom was already rooming. Alice went on to become a published author, and there may be much to be read into her 1934 novel, Women Are Like That. The main character is Miss Juliet Delaney, and at one point Juliet is reminded of the one true love of her life.
“For one disturbing year,” Lambert writes of her heroine, “she had been desperately in love with a tall, dark boy named Tom, a commercial artist, who in the summer used to take her on streetcar rides to Alki Point and in the wintertime to the dusty dimness of the public library, where he would pore over prints and reproductions of the masters. When finally, darkly morose and determined to succeed, Tom had gone east, the girl, unversed as she was in the art of pursuit and capture, had let him go, powerless to hold him back . . . Tom had been tall and slender, with thin, nervous hands and flashing eyes. Instinctively, since his death, Juliet had avoided men of similar build and appearance.”
If this is an accurate reflection of whatever it was that Tom and Alice had felt for each other, it contradicts the family story. This “Tom” seems driven and depressed over his art and willing to sacrifice romance for a chance to prove himself back east. Alice might also have been the first woman hurt by his reluctance to settle down, the wanderlust and fierce independence that would mark his life and might even have contributed to his death.
Alice lived to the age of ninety-five before passing away in Marysville, Washington, in 1981. She had led a convoluted life, marrying a man with whom she had two daughters, then leaving him and moving across the country, briefly writing a newspaper advice column and reconnecting with her husband before separating again and returning to Seattle, where, so long ago, she had met the real “Tom.” In her later years, Lambert wrote to Joan Murray describing the end of the romance, from her point of view, and suggesting that perhaps Thomson considered her too young.
“Tom packed up,” Alice wrote, “and . . . went east to save me. I used to long to write him, or find him, but a miserable experience prevented me—I married a man with whom I had no communication whatsoever. But I never put Tom out of my heart. We were two star-crossed young and innocent people who never should have parted.”
In Toronto Tom took a room on Elm Street and threw himself into what he then thought would be his life career: commercial art. In June he joined Legg Brothers Photoengraving Company as a senior artist and engraver at the satisfactory salary of eleven dollars per week. He signed up for night classes at the School of Art and Design, where he studied drawing, and also took free lessons from William Cruikshank, an oldstyle artist who served as mentor to several young painters in the city. It was during this time that Thomson painted Team of Horses, but the less said of it the better.
By 1908 Thomson was working at Grip Ltd., the Toronto commercial art firm that would become the artistic percolator for Thomson and, in later years, the Group of Seven, who, curiously, eventually numbered ten. Original members J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Franz (“Frank”) Johnston and Franklin Carmichael all worked with Thomson at Grip. It was a time of great growth and vitality in Toronto, with much construction in the downtown core and the young city spreading quickly thanks to easy transportation provided by its streetcar lines. The young artists felt they were part of something new and important, socializing together at clubs and taverns and often spending weekends together painting in the nearby countryside. They fed off one another, encouraged one another and quietly competed with one another. In 1920, three years after Thomson’s death, MacDonald, Lismer, Varley and Carmichael were still linked artistically and socially and formed their legendary art group by adding Franz Johnston, Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson. When Johnston later resigned, A.J. Casson was added, and later, the group became more national when Montreal’s Edwin Holgate and Winnipeg’s L.L. Fitzgerald joined, not long before the group disbanded in 1933.
The most influential force at Grip never did become a member of the Group of Seven. The director of the engraving division, Albert Henry Robson, called his department a “university” for graphic arts. He created such an atmosphere of creativity that when he moved on to another firm, Rous and Mann Ltd., in the fall of 1912, several Grip employees, including Thomson, soon followed. Robson hired creative men and gave them structure—formal dress, be at your desk for the full workday—but also allowed them to have fun and encouraged them to be competitive in their work and painting.
Thomson was well liked by his colleagues but exhibited the contradictory personality traits that seem to have marked his entire life: considered shy and quiet but also one to play practical jokes on his friends from time to time—and a wit who entertained his fellow workers by mimicking managers and customers and whipping off comic caricatures in an instant.
The young artist also had a life beyond the workplace. During this time he became fast friends with John McRuer, who was then studying medicine at the University of Toronto. McRuer eventually moved north to take up private practice in Huntsville, but in early 1909, when McRuer married Edythe Bullock, the Huntsville Forester reported that the “groom was assisted by Mr. Tom Thomson of Toronto . . . .”
Tom was also a good friend of the McCarnen sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret. They had made their way to the city from the village of Phelpston, also near Georgian Bay, though closer to Collingwood than Owen Sound, and they at first kept house for a John Long, who lived on Jarvis Street. “Maggie” was ten years older than Tom and “Lizzie” six, and it seems Tom was somewhat infatuated with the younger sister. Maggie moved on to make a living as a seamstress (among other things, she made uniforms for the nurses at the nearby Wellesley Hospital), while Lizzie continued to find work as a domestic.
The attraction may have been as much about Tom’s homesickness for his big family and the Georgian Bay area as about Lizzie’s personal charms. A hint of this is found in a letter his younger sister, Margaret, wrote after his death: “I often think now that he was many times lonely when all by himself and none of us did anything when he was away to cheer him up . . . His life meant so much to us here at home. He was alone and no one else was taking his affections and he always enjoyed his visits so much.”
Tom obviously liked Lizzie well enough to give her a sketch; tellingly, it was of the countryside both had left for the city. Called Scene near Owen Sound, it hangs today in the Tom Thomson Memorial Gallery in Owen Sound. Lizzie’s heirs say that the relationship was platonic, which is the way Lizzie would have wanted it, and that she found him rather “unkempt,” though she clearly cared for the young artist. While Maggie later married John King, Lizzie never did marry. She and Tom lost touch sometime after 1907, when she returned to Phelpston to raise her two nieces, May and Rita McCarnen, following the death of her brother Bernard. According to family, she hung Tom’s sketch over the beds of the two girls she raised, and Tom continued to send postcards he’d drawn. Lizzie kept those cards with all her letters in a purple satin bag that was locked in a cupboard—but, unfortunately, no one knows what became of them following her death in 1957 at eighty-six.
One Grip employee, S.H.F. Kemp, later recalled that Tom liked to paint all right but made “no noise” about his work: “He attached no particular value to it.” MacDonald, the senior designer, and the British-trained Lismer, Varley and Carmichael were all much more serious about landscape painting, but they were not particularly adventurous in their search for subject matter. They stuck to the valleys of the Don and Humber rivers that book-ended the growing city of Toronto and sometimes ventured out toward Lake Scugog to the northeast. There they found landscapes of soft English beauty—bucolic and pastoral—nothing like the brilliant fall colours, granite outcroppings and tangled bush where Thomson would find his calling.
Thomson’s great discovery of “The North Country”—perceived as such by Torontonians of the time, as it was reachable only by settlement road, lake steamer and, in some instances, rail—began in May 1912. More of the area was actually in central Ontario than northern Ontario, covering Muskoka, Parry Sound, Georgian Bay, Algonquin Park and, to a lesser degree, the North Bay–Temagami area, known today as the “Near North.” The find occurred somewhat by happenstance: Tom and another Grip employee, Ben Jackson, wanted to go farther afield than the Lake Scugog area and chose to head for Algonquin Park, since it would fit in nicely with a visit to Tom’s doctor friend, John McRuer, and his wife, Edythe, in Huntsville.
In May 1912 Thomson and Jackson stayed at the Dominion Hotel, down by the bridge over the Muskoka River, and did some sketching around the town. Jim McRuer, John’s younger brother, who would go on to serve as Ontario’s chief justice, was articling with a local lawyer at the time, and he visited Thomson at the hotel. He was shown the paintings and told to “Pick any two you like,” which the young law graduate did. (Many years later, those sketches would be donated to the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario.)
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that some undeveloped film from this trip was discovered by the Thomson family in Owen Sound. The film eventually made its way to the National Gallery in Ottawa, which developed the ancient negatives and declared the subjects “unidentified individuals.” But when Chief Justice James McRuer saw the photos in 1970, he recognized his late brother, who had died of tuberculosis a few months after Tom, in the fall of 1917. He said the photos had been taken during a day trip that spring of 1912. They’d gone by train to Scotia Junction, twenty-five kilometres north of Huntsville, where they’d picnicked and then wandered about the tiny village and surrounding countryside while Tom took photographs.
The parties split at Scotia Junction, the McRuers taking the train back to Huntsville, while Thomson and Jackson transferred to the line heading east into Algonquin Park. They would have stopped for water at the Brule depot, where my grandparents were then living, and disembarked at the Canoe Lake station. Ranger Mark Robinson, who met most trains at Canoe Lake, wrote in his daily journal for May 18, 1912, “Met MacLaren Party and T. Thompson Party at evening train.” Thomson and Jackson camped and paddled about the various lakes—Canoe, Tea, Smoke, Ragged—and explored the Oxtongue River east from Tea Lake.
Tom carried new paints and brushes on the excursion but did more fishing than sketching. Ben Jackson’s most vivid memories of the trip were Tom’s ability to cook over an open fire and how he made fresh biscuits to go with their feeds of trout. When it rained, Jackson said, Tom was content to stay in camp, smoke his pipe and read Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler.
“Tom,” Jackson wrote in a 1930s letter, “was never understood by lots of people, was very quiet, modest & . . . a friend of mine spoke of him as a gentle soul.” In Jackson’s opinion, Tom “cared nothing for social life”—again the contradictory readings of Tom’s complex personality—and was happiest with his pipe, his fishing pole or his sketching. “If a party or the boys got a little loud or rough,” Jackson added, “Tom would get his sketching kit & wander off alone, at times he liked to be that way, wanted to be by himself [and] commune with nature.”
Later that same year, Thomson arranged for a second break from work and headed off with another Grip employee, William Broadhead, for the North Country beyond Algonquin. For all of August and much of September 1912, they travelled by canoe, beginning at Biscotasing, near Sudbury, then paddling up the Spanish River and working their way through a series of lakes and portages. They eventually reached the Mississagi Forest Reserve and the Aubinadong River. If Jackson found Thomson quiet, a bit of a loner and with no liking for the social life, Broadhead seems to have found him gregarious and open. They are said to have met a summer fire ranger named Archie Belaney on the way, never for a moment imagining that the tall man with the British accent would one day transform himself into Grey Owl, the most famous “Indian” Europe would ever know. They amused themselves with stories of other camping parties they encountered—particularly a group of Brits who were headed into the wilds with vast supplies that included carpet slippers and table napkins—and began to think of themselves as accomplished outdoorsmen.
But they were still novice canoeists. They dumped their cedar-strip canoe on Green Lake, blaming a sudden squall that caught them off guard and swamped them, and dumped it again trying to shoot some small rapids on the Aubinadong. Thomson was despondent because most of the photos he’d taken during his two trips north went overboard and were lost in the waters.
The two men started back for Toronto on the steamer Midland, which they caught at Bruce Mines, and disembarked at Owen Sound to visit Thomson’s family. In a later reminiscence, Thomson’s sister Louise Henry said that the two young men seemed quite full of themselves after their trip. “My husband asked Tom if he was not afraid to be so much alone in the woods with so many wild animals roaming about,” Louise wrote in a letter dated March 11, 1931. “‘Why,’ he said ‘the animals are our friends. I’ve picked raspberries on one side of a log, while a big black bear picked berries on the other side.’ He also told him of one time he was tramping through the woods when he heard some animal coming towards him through the undergrowth and to his surprise it was a large timber wolf, one of the largest he had ever seen, its head, neck and breast were jet black and the body the usual grey color. He said it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen. The wolf came so close to him he could almost have touched him with his hand . . . .”
“Local Man’s Experiences in Northern Wilds,” a long feature that appeared on the second page of the Owen Sound Sun on September 27th, described Thomson and Broadhead as “bronzed and weather beaten from exposure . . .” and reported, “The young artists think it is a grand country, and are only waiting until next year when the call of the wild will take them back . . . .”
Once he and Broadhead returned to Toronto, Thomson wrote his friend John McRuer, apologizing for not calling in at Huntsville as planned on their way back to Toronto. His spirits were high, and he spoke, in the language of the day, of having had “a peach of a time.”
Thomson had caught the bug of the North. He soon showed up at work carrying a new paddle, which he immediately tested out by filling one of the photoengraver tanks with water, then placing the tank beside his chair so he could sit down and practise paddling.
“At each stroke he gave a real canoeman’s twist,” recalled J.E.H. MacDonald, “and his eye had a quiet gleam, as if he saw the hills and shores of Canoe Lake.”

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Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

Travels in Search of Canada
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It’s rare to remember exactly where you were when an idea first occurred to you–or at least, it’s rare for me. I usually wander through life gathering notions and hunches the way trouser pockets gather bits of lint; I’m not really sure how they got there, but there they are. In this case, though, I can recall vividly where I was when it dawned on me that Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts: it was while I drove through a night of heavy rain, into the realm of a legendary republic, a sleeping child and drowsy spouse beside me.

We’d been on the road for hours, heading into northern New Brunswick. The wipers sloshed back and forth, barely able to keep the windshield clear. Bucket-throws of water washed across our view. At midnight, we crossed over into dangerous territory. The Republic of Madawaska. A self-proclaimed independent state, Madawaska is wedged between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and the state of Maine. The population is francophone, but the people are neither Québécois nor Acadian; they are les Brayons. And Madawaska is their heartland: La République.

Northrop Frye, scholar and soul-searcher, noted that what set Canada apart in the western hemisphere was our lack of a distinguishable frontier – a line that advanced purposefully across the map like an isobar separating one world from another, with “settlement” on one side and “vanishing wilderness” on the other. In this, our experiences diverged drastically from those of the United States. The American “frontier thesis” – a heavily symbolic narrative of progress and order steamrolling over the chaos of an untamed land–may be historically suspect, but its psychological impact on American society cannot be underestimated. By contrast, historian Donald Creighton advanced for Canada a “metropolitan thesis,” in which the flow of ideas and goods fanned outward from various urban centres to small scattered pockets of civilization–to outposts, in effect. In a country as sparsely populated and as vast as Canada, it could hardly have been otherwise, and this reality of who we are is played out before our eyes from the window of any given airplane on any given night. Beyond the luminous glow of the major cities, the metropolis melts away into a yawning darkness, an empty space punctuated only by intermittent clusters of light.

The effect upon the Canadian psyche, Frye argued, was something he called the “garrison mentality”: a sense of dread and loneliness bred into us from cowering behind palisaded walls, far from “home” in a land as savage as it was indifferent. The existential heebie-jeebies, as it were. (Our obsessive love of enclosed shopping malls can be seen as a continuation of this nervous tic, though personally I blame the weather.)

But garrison is too dark a word. “Garrison” suggests gnawing despair and impending attack. I prefer the term “outpost,” because it includes a wider range of possibilities. Outposts are not only geographic; they can be linguistic, political, cultural – even philosophical. I think of French Quebec and English Victoria, but also of the populist ideals embodied in Calgary’s unflagging optimism; I think of the exiled Acadians and the outcast Loyalists, of First Nations, once shattered, now regrouping. I think of failed utopias and deluded colonization schemes. Of fortunes lost and fortunes found. I think of mythical kingdoms and gold mountains. I think of the descendants of the Underground Railroad and the Gaelic communities of Cape Breton, and of the Cree in my hometown and the Mennonite colony nearby.

Outposts can become enclaves–the Anglos in Montreal or the Lebanese in Charlottetown–and enclaves can disappear. Such was the case of Vancouver’s black community in Hogan’s Alley, or of Halifax’s Africville. Or of the “thirteen lost tribes” of Canada’s Jewish Colonization Society that once existed in farming communes and hamlets between Winnipeg and the Rockies. Where are the remittance men of Windermere, British Columbia? Where are the French counts of Whitewood, Saskatchewan? The Acadians of Grand Pré? But beyond these tales of the defeated and the dispossessed, Canada’s outposts represent small triumphs of survival. Mini-epics of continuity. The French fact is a compelling example of this.

Communities overlap. Orbits collide. And outposts spin off from one another, as well. In Fort McMurray, Alberta, a tar sands town dedicated to wringing wealth from the earth, I once found myself in the colony of a colony, an outpost of an outpost. You’ve heard of Chinatown and Little Italy. In the tar sands of Alberta, a freewheeling “Newfoundland West” has taken hold. Fort McMurray’s lively (read: rowdy) ex-pat community (read: highly paid rig workers) has transformed this remote, landlocked city into one of the largest Newfoundland communities outside of St. John’s. Newfoundland, in turn, can be considered an outpost of Ireland . . . and on it goes.

Do you remember that old Roger Whittaker song “Canada Is,” with its rah-rah boosterism and its shopping list of locales? (Canada is the Rocky Mountains, Canada is Prince Edward Island. . . . ) Well, that song now seems profound. Canada is a sum of its regions. It is the outports and the outposts, the side streets and the stubborn enclaves, the city cul-de-sacs and the far-flung towns. That’s what Canada is.

The presence of outposts is evident in other immigrant nations, but in Canada it has become something of a defining trait. Whereas the United States had a frontier, and countries like Argentina and France and England have the Capital, one clear, overpowering, political, social and cultural center – Buenos Aires, Paris and London being the national Death Stars of their respective countries – Canada has no single central city. It has scattered metropolises of various sizes, regional outposts with their own spheres of influence. There is no London, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Canada’s increasingly eclectic, multicultural urban reality only highlights this patchwork character of ours. Far from being homogenizing agents, Canadian cities have increasingly come to resemble jigsaw puzzles jumbled together from dozens of different boxes, in which the various disparate pieces still somehow, sort of, almost fit.

I have spent the last three years travelling among the outposts and enclaves of Canada. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw recounts some of these travels. It is, I freely admit, a highly subjective, site-specific look at our country. I begin at the Pacific and then work my way east, from the southern end of Vancouver Island to the northern tip of Newfoundland. A more typical approach would have been to start in the east and proceed westward, following the route of European expansion. But that would give the impression of purpose, of events unfolding according to some grand master plan. Going against the sun creates a very different effect. Moving from west to east, you peel back the layers of history as you go. The trips I took are not presented here in strict chronological order, which is why my son Alex is three years old in one chapter and an infant in the next. I apologize if you find this confusing. And yes, this is one of those fake “Canadian apologies,” where you say it but don’t really mean it.

When the explorer Samuel Hearne first attempted to walk from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean in 1769, he knew he was about to enter what was for him, terra incognita, an “unknown country.” In preparation for his trek, Hearne sketched out the shoreline on a deerskin parchment, but he left the interior blank; he would fill things in as he went, adding details as he travelled. In a similar fashion, I wanted to fill in the broad outline of my own map of Canada, to add small but telling details to the cartography I carry inside me. True, unlike Hearne, I didn’t have to eat raw caribou hearts to survive, or cross arctic ice in a raging blizzard – but I was almost mugged by a gang of moose, and I did get a really bad blister on one toe. (When writing a travel memoir, it is always important to stress the hardships one has faced.)

I would have kept travelling if I could have, but that wasn’t possible. At some point you need to stop moving and try to put what you’ve seen into perspective. This book, then, is an attempt at coming to terms with this country, my own incomplete version of “Canada Is.” Canada is a Moose Jaw morning, Canada is a Sleeping Giant, Canada is the St. John’s harbour. . . .

I hope you enjoy it. And if you don’t, I apologize.

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Business or Blood

Business or Blood

Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto's Last War
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Story House

17 years before the ­beginning

Pogey remembered them appearing from nowhere. Ghosting into view. He remembered them like a punch he hadn’t seen coming: only later, when consciousness had ­returned.

He didn’t hear the car arrive on the street above, didn’t hear the gym door open up top, or feet on the stairs. He was working target mitts with one of the neighbourhood kids. ­One-­two. ­One-­two-­hook. ­One-­two-­hook with an uppercut. Again. Gloves slapping home in the basement air. The bell marked the round. Pogey turned. And there they ­were.

“Hey,” said the blond one. Chunky, with the colouring of indulgence, of a life spent on pleasure boats: light tan, ­sun-­bleached crewcut. Easy on the feet too, as if he’d been in the room before. As if he knew its dimensions and ­possibilities.

Pogey crossed over to the ropes. “Lessons are five an hour. ­Drop-­in fee is a buck.”

“We’re here to fight,” the kid said. “Each other.”

Fourteen, fifteen years old. Not train, not spar. ­Fight.

“You got a name, killer?” Pogey asked ­him.

Graham ­Gordon.

“And you?” Pogey said to the other. A different sort altogether, this one. Asian maybe. Lean, ­bony-­shouldered with long dark hair and hard eyes. With insolence etched in the smirk lines, in the bad posture. And yet that same quality, unhurried possession of his particular space such that Pogey found he did not dispute the ­claim.

“Elliot,” Graham said. “My brother.”

Which elicited a snort from the ­dark-­haired one as he dropped his gym bag and squinted around the room like a dubious matchmaker. “­Half-­brother,” he ­said.

Pogey took the stairs in twos. He found the third party to this transaction leaning against the front fender of a ­late-­model Lincoln Town Car, scanning the facade of the building. A ­six-­footer. Older than Pogey expected, maybe seventy, with a faintly squandered feel about him. Houndstooth jacket, ascot, white shirt, cufflinks like Scrabble tiles: one G, one E. ­Cigarette-­stained fingers and ­all-­concealing sunglasses intended for the unforgiving light of glaciers. These lenses lowered heavily on Pogey as he emerged, affording him the special discomfort of seeing, in reflection, precisely what was under hard ­appraisal.

“You’re Nealon,” the man ­said.

Pogey nodded. ­Squinted.

“Packer Gordon,” he said finally, lifting himself from the car and extending a hand. “I take it you’ve met my boys.”

First thing Gordon wanted to know was why there were clamshells littering the front steps and sidewalk in front of the building. The detail seemed to annoy ­him.

Crows, Pogey said. Crows that for reasons he couldn’t explain favoured 55 East Mary Street over all other buildings in the neighbourhood. For strutting and making a racket, yes. But also for the killing of dozens of razor clams daily, which they dropped from the eaves to shatter on the steps below. “But are we talking birds here, or about your two warriors downstairs?”

They had boxing experience, apparently. The younger one, Graham, boxed intramural at some fancy boys’ school in the hills. “Elliot,” Packer Gordon volunteered, “takes a more or less ­self-­taught approach to life.”

Decisive first instincts came naturally to Pogey. Still a ­flint-­hard welter in these his middle years, with 117 amateur fights behind him, he knew how to assess incoming risk. He knew about pulling the trigger. “Sorry, but I’m full up with kids,” he said. “We’re busy in the summer.”

Gordon motioned him close, dropping his voice. And Pogey, leaning forward, now caught sight of himself again, this time in the car’s side mirror, the white front of his own building, where he lived, where he’d run his gym for thirty years, sweeping upward and into the blue sky behind him like a temple, serene and attendant. Taut with ­judgment.

“They box,” Gordon said. “The problem is they prefer fighting.”

“Everyone prefers fighting,” Pogey said, still leaning in, voice low. “It’s easier.”

Which provoked a laugh. Packer Gordon liked that. “I’m an architect,” he said. “I’m aware of how much easier it is to release force than restrain it.”

Pogey straightened up, blinking. He remembered losing himself in the resumption of gym noise below. Someone rang the bell to start another round. Shoes shuffled on the concrete floors. The heavy bags began to groan on their turnbuckles. The speedbag winding out. All the machinery of fight school reeling again into motion. And, missing the moment for escape cleanly, he heard himself say only, “How’d you ever hear of Nealon’s Gym?”

Gordon blew past that question, on to terms, money and others. He wanted a closed gym. He wanted Pogey’s undivided attention paid to just these two. He wanted to set up a camera and film three rounds, the outcome of which would apparently settle all matters between the ­boys.

“I’m not letting a couple kids in my ring I’ve never even seen before.”

So they would train. So Pogey could assess them for however long he needed. So they would prove ­themselves.
Now a money clip was out. Bills peeled off in a way that suggested impulsive spending, often beyond available means. And Pogey was nodding as the cash whispered into his palm, nodding until Gordon had forked over more than Pogey could have hoped to collect in two months ­running.

“You’re telling me you want to rent my gym for the entire summer?”


Thursdays. Eight Thursdays. Pogey remembered they trained hard. He had them skip five rounds, do callisthenics five more, stretch, go for a jog. They didn’t pull on bag gloves until the second week, by which point he’d withheld the true business of boxing for long enough that they wanted nothing more than to curl their hands into fists, to feel canvas under the balls of their feet. All this while hardly a word of argument passed between them, no revealed schism. Only opposing energy that polarized everything within their ­field

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The River Midnight

Time grows short at the end of a century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which. But there they are, sneaking their gifts into the crevices of change. Even in a place like Blaszka, less than a dot on the map of Russian-occupied Poland.
Someone might say that so-and-so is an angel or so-and-so a demon. But make no mistake, it's just a question of style. One sympathizes, the other provokes. But their mission is the same, and so is their destination.
It's a cold day, the short Friday of winter, the 20th of Tevet 5654, or you might call it the 29th of December 1893, according to the Christian calendar. Everyone's in a rush, anxious to finish their business before the sun sets. Once darkness falls, the Sabbath rules. Candlelight will have no other purpose than its beauty, and women and men will make love in honor of the Sabbath.
Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square. "Fresh, hot, only two kopecks." Girls run through the crowd, carrying baskets of rolls, pretzels, pierogies, and herring cut into small rings. The herrings almost speak. Take your pick, the large smelly ones, horse herring, pickled, smoked, or packed in fat. Steam rises from the warm baskets in the winter air. The square smells of vinegar, yeast, and horse dung. Men and women blow into their cold hands to warm them, pinching this and sniffing that, bargaining as if for their souls, undeterred by the crash of a stall that collapses under its mountain of earthenware. This is what keeps Blaszka together, the flimsy stalls piled high with everything, where people lean toward each other, bargaining, touching what they need, shaking it, holding it up to the light.
Hurry, the villagers say, the Sabbath is coming. Everything has to close early today. Am I asking about money? Do I worry about money? I know that you, lady, will give it to me later, that you will pay. Look at this, straight from Plotsk, the best quality. A pity it should lie here, unused. Let me put it into your basket for you. Just a few kopecks. It costs less than air.
Fifty Jewish families and six Polish tenant farmers live in the village. But on market day, every Tuesday and Friday, dozens of Christian peasants, who farm the land along the Pólnocna River, come down to Blaszka. In the village square they bargain and in Perlmutter's tavern, they drink vodka with beer and eat cheese and pickles and hard-boiled eggs.
A Jew can never be a peasant, even if he looks and acts like one, nor a gentleman either. Such categories apply only to Christians in Poland, each of them having a place on the land. But by law the Jews are townspeople. Even if they are farmers, they are townspeople borrowing the land; they have no right to it. Within their towns the Jews can make their own distinctions, so long as they service the people of the land. So in Blaszka, Jews buy the peasants' produce and sell goods from Plotsk. Jews are tinsmiths and blacksmiths and cobblers and tailors and wheelwrights and barrelmakers and butchers and bakers. They speak Yiddish and Polish and a smattering of Russian, on weekdays they bargain and on the Sabbath they rest.
The village square isn't paved. It's marked in one corner by the bridge, in another corner by the tavern, by the synagogue in the third corner, and where the square dips down toward the Pólnocna River, by the house of Misha the midwife. Her house stands on stilts so that the spring floods flow under it, bringing a rich mud that makes the vegetables in her garden grow larger than anywhere else. If you stood on the doorstep of Misha's house, you could see the entire village, the river curling around it, the woods behind the river, the lanes leading out of the village square, the small houses, each with an eating room in front and sleeping rooms behind separated by a halfway where the hens roost in the winter. Across the river, in the new part of Blaszka, you could see the ruins of the mill and the woods overgrowing abandoned houses.
There is a legend about the Pólnonca River. It's said that a saint was martyred in the river's waters at midnight, resulting in the conversion and baptism of the local tribe. Pólnoc in Polish means midnight, and so the river was named. But others argue that pólnoc also means north, the Pólnonca so named because it enters the Vistula River from the north.
The Pólnonca is frozen now, children sliding on its surface. In front of her house, Misha stands beside her stall, her hands on her hips. She's bigger than any man in Blaszka. Her table is crowded with jars and bottles, powders and ointments and liquids for women's troubles, and men's, too. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she says.
All right, the women say, but you'd better watch your behind or the Evil One will send someone to kick it while you're not paying attention.
"Well, let him just try to make some business with me." Misha holds out her hand, beckoning the invisible stranger. She grins, her gold tooth flashing in the thin winter light. "Don't worry," Misha says, "if someone comes from the other side, he'll soon be running out of Blaszka with his tail between his legs. You can be sure of it."

In a small house off the village square, an old woman is teaching the little girls their letters. Tell us about Misha, they beg. We want to hear the story about Misha and Manya again. Please, please. The old woman puts down her pencil. "Well, I knew Misha's mother very well. She was so happy when she had a daughter, but she had one fear. Do you know what that was?" The children shake their heads. "That her daughter would turn out like Manya. You've heard of Manya, haven't you?" Yes, yes, the little girls say, Manya the witch comes in the night to steal away wicked children. "But you're not wicked children, are you?" The girls shake their heads, no, no, no. "Now, listen carefully, children. Before Misha, there was Blema, her mother. Before Blema was Miriam, Misha's grandmother. And before Miriam was?" Who? the children ask. "Manya!" The old woman leans forward, wriggling her clawed fingers at the children until they squeal. "Oh, Manya was bigger than any man, and no one could tame her until they put her to death for casting spells. Blema was afraid that her baby should turn out like Manya, God forbid. So Blema named her baby Miriam after her own mother, who was a good woman. Modest and quiet. Like you girls, yes? But you can't cheat fate, children.
"Blema carried her baby in a shawl on her back when she went to the peasants' cottages. The peasants liked to play with the little one. They called her Marisha, you know that's Polish for Miriam. But the baby couldn't say Marisha or even Miriam. What came out was Misha. The peasants said it must be her true name, and that, since misha means bear in Polish, the girl would grow up to be as dangerous as a mother bear. And because Misha is a man's name among the Russians, she would also be as fierce as a Cossack. This is what came to be. I'm sure you heard your mothers say so. When a woman is in childbirth, even the Angel of Death is afraid of Misha."
In the village square, the watercarrier rushes by Misha's stall, his buckets swinging wildly on their yoke. As his foot knocks against a stone, he stumbles, holding onto her table for balance. And then he's gone toward the bridge.
Across the bridge is what used to be the wealthy part of Blaszka. There among the ruins of abandoned houses, you can see the village well and beside it the bathhouse with its marble columns, built with the miller's money, may he rest in peace. Beside it is the foundation of the new synagogue, never finished.
Inside the bathhouse, the old men sit naked on the benches, sweating in the steam that rises as the attendant pours water over the hot stones. At the end of the room is the sunken bath, the mikva, with its purifying water. Before the men leave, they'll dip in the mikva to make themselves ready for the Sabbath.
Why does the butcher get to sit in the second row of the synagogue so close to the Holy Ark? they complain. He's just a proster, a plain person, like us. A man should know his place. The proster do the work, the baalebatim make the money, and the shayner tell you what to do, either because they're rich enough or they're scholars.
Sure, that's how it is in most places, but you can't expect it here in Blaszka. Who would sit in the second row if not the butcher? In the days before the Russians blew up the mill, we had shayner in Blaszka. Fine people. But now? There's just proster. Anybody who was anybody left Blaszka. And why not? You can walk for two hours down the road and you're in Plotsk. The capital of the gubernia. Twenty-six thousand people. A theater. A Jewish hospital. Schools. Everything.
Tell me, what's a town when there's no fine people driving around in their carriages and telling you what's what? That's the kind of village Blaszka is. We have a rabbi whose greatest friends are unbelievers — I saw him get a letter from France myself — and he can't stand the sight of a lit match, either.
Never mind. It's good to be alive. A little schnapps, a little singing, something nice to eat on Shabbas, it's all right. I'm old, but I'm in no rush to leave. Tell me, if it's so good there in the next world, why doesn't anyone come back to tell us about it?
Outside the bathhouse, a lane leads to the bridge and across the bridge, the road from Blaszka leaves the village square, following the Pólnocna River down to the Vistula where it meets the highway that runs from Plotsk to Warsaw. Here, at the juncture of the Vistula and the Pólnocna Rivers, there is a shiny black carriage with THE GOLEM PLAYERS painted in yellow on the side. The horse snorts, flicking her tail, braided with a yellow ribbon. Crystals of breath have formed around her mouth, and the creature licks them off with her thirsty tongue.
The Director, in his top hat, sits aloft, puffing on his mahogany pipe, horns of smoke curling upward. He looks sideways at the landscape, the bare trees striped with snow like soft fur, the frozen river, the flat land. An open, unremarkable landscape. The Director's new partner is walking toward him, carrying a bag with rope handles — a young and very earnest sort of person, the Traveler. The Director smooths his copper mustache and waves. The Traveler's hair sticks up like rooster feathers. He wears a ragged black jacket with a drooping rose pinned to the lapel. His thin nose is crooked, bending a little to the left.
The Traveler climbs up beside the Director. Sighing, he tears a strip of paper from The Israelite, and lines his cracked boot with the headline, "December 29, 1893: More Refugees Fleeing from the East." While the Director relights his pipe, the younger man leafs through a notebook. The notes are in a small, meticulous script that shines as if the ink were made of a green florescence. "So many people hurt and lonely, talents going to waste," the Traveler says, his voice hoarse with sympathy. "But what about this?" He frowns. "There must be a mistake. We can't be expected to waste time on an animal like that." The Traveler stabs the notebook with his finger.
"You have your orders and the fellow is on his way," the Director says, pointing to an approaching cart. The driver is a large man in a fur coat who is whipping his horse till she bleeds while he gnaws on a hunk of salami.
The Traveler shields his eyes with his hands, gazing up the road. "I'd just like to have a choice. Is that too much to ask?"
"It's the price you pay, my boy. You knew that when you came on board." The Director rubs the bowl of his pipe against his velvet vest. "You could resign. But then it's rebirth for you. You interested? I see not. You serious types are all the same." He draws an imaginary bow across an even more imaginary violin that nevertheless plays the opening notes to Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Tchaikovsky has recently died of cholera. The Traveler looks from his notebook to the absent violin. He is impressed. "It's nothing, my friend," the Director says. "Anyone can do it. Even you."
"What's the trick?" the Traveler asks, looking around for a hidden music box.
"Nothing at all. Just a bit of magic."
"Magic," the Traveler says thoughtfully, studying his notebook again.
"Don't get any ideas. Let me tell you the facts. What's magic? A piece of chocolate. An almond torte. Delicious, and then it melts away. But all of this, the Director says waving his hand grandly, "is something else entirely. Open your eyes and look. Maybe you'll learn a secret or two. But you can't just sit there moping and letting the snow soak through the holes in your boots. No. You've got to look closely and pay attention. Then you'll see where you can give a little nudge and open a door. And who knows," he winks, "what you might find in there? Well, my friend, I can't sit here and talk all day. I have something to deliver in Blaszka. Would you like to join me?"
"No. I'd better wait here. You go on." The Traveler dismounts from the carriage, seating himself on a snowy log.
"Au revoir," the Director says. He picks up the reins and clucks to his fine black horse.
The Traveler pulls up the collar of his jacket as the snow trickles down his neck. "Have to get assigned here in the middle of winter," he grumbles. "Couldn't be Warsaw. Streetcars. Electricity. Unions. Oh, no. It's got to be where people still believe in witchcraft." He shakes his head. "They don't know what's coming to them." Studying his notebook, he taps his chin. "Could be an advantage, though. If you use it right." He looks down the road toward Warsaw, as if he can see the next century riding the train, trailing a line of smoke, the whistle blowing.
Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future.
But shh, we can't talk, now. The story is about to start.

Excerpted from The River Midnight by Lillian Nattel. Copyright January 1999 by Lillian Nattel. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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The Dirt on Clean

The Dirt on Clean

An Unsanitized History
also available: Hardcover
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The Social Bath

Greeks and ­Romans

Odysseus, his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, were a notably ­well-­washed family, and the reasons would have been obvious to the first audience of The Odyssey. Greeks in the eighth century b.c. had to wash before praying and offering sacrifices to the gods, and Penelope frequently prays for the return of her wandering husband and son. A Greek would also bathe before setting out on a journey, and when he arrived at the house of strangers or friends, etiquette demanded that he first be offered water to wash his hands, and then a bath. This is a book full of departures and arrivals, as Odysseus struggles for a decade to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and Tele­machus searches for his father. Their journeys are the warp and weft of this great adventure ­story.

When Odysseus visits the palace of King Alcinoos, the king orders his queen, Arete, to draw a bath for their guest. Homer describes it in the deliberate, formulaic terms reserved for important customs: “Accordingly Arete directed her women to set a large tripod over the fire at once. They put a copper over the blazing fire, poured in the water and put the firewood underneath. While the fire was shooting up all round the belly of the copper, and the water was growing warm . . . the housewife told him his bath was ready.”

Then the housekeeper bathes Odysseus, probably in a tub of brass or polished stone, rubbing his clean body with oil when he steps out of the tub. Here it is the head servant who washes the stranger, but when the guest was particularly distinguished, one of the daughters of the house might do the honours. When Telemachus travels to the palace of King Nestor, his youngest daughter, Polycasta, bathes him and massages him with olive oil. Telemachus emerges from her ministrations “as handsome as a young god.”

More than the most lyrical copywriter extolling the wonders of a modern bathroom, Homer stresses the transforming power of the ­bath–­partly because The Odyssey is a tall tale but partly because travellers in the wilds of ancient Greece did no doubt look remarkably better after soaking in hot water. Not only does a bath turn ­nice-­looking young men into ­near-­divinities, but Odysseus gains height, strength and splendour when his old nurse bathes him. With his clean hair curling like hyacinth petals, he too “came out of the bathroom looking more like a god than a man.”

The most poignant trans­formation achieved by a bath in The Odyssey happens at the end of the book. Odysseus, who has been away from home for twenty years, comes upon his old father, Laertes, digging in his vineyard. Laertes’ clothes are dirty and patched, and “in the carelessness of his sorrow,” as Homer puts it, he is wearing a goatskin hat, an emblem of rustic poverty. Before he reveals his identity, Odysseus tells his father that he looks like a man who deserves ­better–­namely, “a bath and a good dinner and soft sleep.” Laertes explains that his son is missing, probably devoured by fishes or beasts, and “a black cloud of sorrow came over the old man: with both hands he scraped up the grimy dust and poured it over his white head, sobbing.” It is a potent image of desolation, one repeated by mourners from many ­cultures–­dirtying oneself, whether by daubing one’s face with mud or covering one’s head, as Laertes does, with dust. Misfortune and dirtiness are natural companions, as are cleanliness and good ­fortune.

At this point, Odysseus reveals his identity and takes an overjoyed Laertes back to his house. The neglected old man has a bath, which once again works its magic: “Athena stood by his side and put fullness into his limbs, so that he seemed stronger and bigger than before. When he came out of the bathroom his son was astonished to see him like one come down from heaven, and he said in plain words: ‘My father! Surely one of the immortal gods has made a new man of you, taller and stronger than I saw you before!’”


The ancient Greeks cleaned themselves for the reasons we do: to make themselves more comfortable and more attractive. They also bathed for reasons of health, since soaking in water was one of the major treatments in their physicians’ limited arsenal. Hippocrates, the great ­fifth-­century doc­tor, was a champion of baths, believing that a judicious combination of cold and hot immersions could bring the body’s ­all-­important humours, or constituent liquids, into a healthy balance. Warm baths also prepared the body, by softening it, to receive nourishment and supposedly helped a variety of ailments, from headaches to the retention of urine. Those suffering from painful joints were prescribed cold showers, and female ills were treated with aromatic steam ­baths.

As The Odyssey makes clear, washing was a necessary prelude to prayer and libations. Sanctuaries normally had fonts of water at their ­entrances–­not that intercourse with the gods required greater cleanliness than with humans, but the Greeks believed that any respectful relationship demanded neatness and ­cleanliness.

And, like almost all peoples, they bathed as part of a rite of passage. The first bath of the newborn and his mother was an important event, with the water sometimes brought from a propitious spring. Both the Greek bride and groom took a ceremonial bath on the eve or the morning of the wedding, washing off their single state and preparing to take on a married identity. And when someone died, not only was the body formally washed and anointed, but the chief mourners and attend­ants on the dead also needed purifying, and they washed after the funeral. Contact with the dead and with grief made you dirty, always symbolically and sometimes actually. When Achilles, in The Iliad, hears that his friend Patroclus has been killed, he acts out that connection: “Taking grimy dust in both his hands he poured it over his head, and befouled his fair face.” He refuses to wash until Patroclus has received a proper ­funeral.

With an abundant coastline, long, sunny summers and mild winters, the Greeks must have bathed in the sea from the time they first settled in the southeastern tag end of Europe, around four thousand years ago. As early as 1400 b.c., they had invaded Crete, an advanced civilization with running water, drains and (at least in the royal palace at Knossos) bathtubs. No doubt Crete influenced their bathing customs, as did the other, more shadowy cultures they met in the course of their trading and colonizing, which extended into North Africa and Asia ­Minor.

By the Athenian golden age, in the fifth century b.c., the bathing habits the Greeks had forged from native and foreign sources were in place. An ­upper-­middle-­class or patrician ­Greek–­let us call him ­Pittheus–­could clean himself in various ways. His house would probably have a bathroom, more accurately a washing room, next to the kitchen. The essential equipment was a washstand, called a labrum, rather like a big birdbath on a base, positioned roughly at hip height. A servant would be sent to the household cistern or the nearest well for water and might be enlisted to pour it over Pittheus or his wife. The room might also include a terra cotta hip ­bath–­big enough for the bather to sit in with legs extended, but not to lie down. The bath was set into the floor and drained by a channel to the outside. Pittheus gave himself a speedy, ­stand-­up wash in the morning and reserved the time before dinner for a more thorough ­cleansing.

A poor man without a bathroom at home might use the nearest well for a daily wash and make an occasional visit to the public bath. Some of these baths were run by the government, others by private businessmen; they either were free or had a very low admission price. Water was warmed over a fire, as in The Odyssey, and the rooms were heated, when necessary, with braziers. At its most lavish, the public bath had separate rooms for cold, warm and steam ­baths–­basic by later Roman standards but more than the prosperous Pittheus had at home. He, as well as his wife, patronized the public ­bath–­for the steam bath, perhaps, or for the primitive showers, in which streams of water from spouts mounted on the wall doused his head and shoulders. (A servant on the other side of the wall poured the water into the spouts.) There were no hard and fast rules about the frequency of bathhouse visits; some customers appeared daily, others once or twice a ­month.

Another advantage of the public bath was its sociability. Pittheus bathed there in an individual hip bath, one of up to thirty arranged around the perimeter of a circular room. (It’s an odd image, more like the bathing room of an orphanage or an infirmary than one intended for healthy adults.) The bath assistant, or bath man, provided customers with a cleansing substance, wood ashes or the absorbent clay called fuller’s earth. Pittheus, who could afford it, brought his own, perfumed cleansers. Games such as dice or knucklebones were available, as were wine and probably snacks. What was to become unimaginably sumptuous in the Imperial baths of Rome was modest and intimate in Pittheus’s bathhouse, but the ­essentials–­baths in a variety of temperatures in a public, recreational ­setting–­were ­here.

In addition to home and bathhouse, Pittheus had a third place in which to ­wash–­the gymnasium. One of the central Athenian institutions, the gymnasium was intended primarily as a place for middle- and ­upper-­class young men to develop their physical strength and for older men to maintain it. Its rooms were arranged around an outdoor exercise field, with a running track nearby. Either after exercise or instead of it, men used the rooms and nearby groves (the original gymnasiums were outside the town centre) for discussions and lectures. The motto mens sana in corpore ­sano–­a sound mind in a sound ­body–­is Roman, but the Greeks were even more passionately devoted to the cult of the ­well-­trained body and mind. To us it sounds incongruous that Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, two of the earliest schools of philosophy, both founded in the fourth century, were part of working gymnasiums, but to the Greeks it was a natural ­combination.

In the gymnasium, bathing was a humble adjunct to exercise. Greek athletes, who exercised in the ­nude–­gymnasium literally means “the naked place”–first oiled their bodies and covered them with a thin layer of dust or sand to prevent chills. After wrestling or running or playing ball games, the men and boys removed their oil and dust, now mingled with sweat, with a curved metal scraper called a strigil. After using the strigil, athletes could wash, either standing up at a basin or in a shower or a tub. Although hot water would have made their oil and grit much easier to remove, there is no evidence that the gymnasiums offered hot water before the Roman period. The manly rigour of ­cold-­water bathing suited the gymnasium’s spirit and reassured those Athenians who brooded about the weakening and feminizing effects of hot ­water.

And brood they did. The playwright Aristophanes makes fun of the perennial ­tug-­of-­war between austerity and luxury in his ­fifth-­century comedy The Clouds. Strepsiades, an older man who remembers fondly his sloppy youth in the ­countryside–­then there was “no bother about washing or keeping tidy”–has fallen under the sway of Socrates and the philosophers. Strepsiades likes the fact that they never shave, cut their hair or wash at the baths. He prefers their ways to those of his citified son, Phidippides, who is “always at the baths, pouring my money down the ­plug-­hole.” A character called Fair Argument agrees with the father, harking back to the good old days when boys sang rousing military melodies, sat up straight and would have scorned to cover their bodies in oil. That kind of no-frills upbringing, he insists, produced the ­hairy-­chested men who fought at the battle of Marathon. These days, boys who indulge in hot baths shiver in the cold and waste their time gossiping like ­sissies.

A Greek’s position on ­hot-­water bathing spoke volumes about his values, and one of the most enduring debates in the history of cleanliness centres on the merits of cold versus hot water. Edward Gibbon, the ­eighteenth-­century chronicler of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, was convinced that hot baths were one of the principal reasons Rome weakened and fell. Victorian men, influenced by their classical Greek studies, believed that the British Empire was built on the bracingly cold morning bath. It’s a prejudice with staying power, as indicated by the modern German expression for a man short on ­masculinity–a Warmduscher, or ­warm-­showerer. Plato, who in The Laws reserves hot baths for the old and ill, would have sympathized with those judgments. But, in spite of Plato, young and healthy men became accustomed to warm water at the bathhouses, if not in the ­gymnasiums.

Young and healthy Athenians, that is, but not the militaristic, ascetic Spartans, who bathed their newborns in wine (perhaps with some sense that it acted as an antiseptic) but took baths infrequently after that. The biographer Plutarch tells the story of a Spartan who watched in disbelief as a slave drew water for the bath of Alcibiades, the Athenian general, and commented that he must be exceedingly dirty to need such a quantity of water. (That remark, always attributed to people who saw little need for washing, surfaces again and again over the centuries.) The Spartans’ ­ninth-­century lawgiver Lycurgus ordered the Spartans to eat in public mess halls in order to avoid dining at home on couches. If they grew accustomed to that ­self-­indulgence, he warned, they would soon be in need of “long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick.” Warm bathing keeps company in Lycurgus’ list with the other mollycoddling tendencies he saw as threatening his city state’s military severity. Spartan ­self-­discipline remained uncompromised by hot water, and Lycurgus’ grim forecast never came ­true.

Theophrastus was an Athenian philosopher whose most enduring legacy is The Characters, a collection of thirty merciless portraits of irritating types, such as Preten­tiousness, Officiousness and Buffoonery. Through them we get a keen sense of grooming standards at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, near the end of the fourth century b.c., as well as a satirical sketch of a society still rough and ready in many ways. Nastiness, for example, typifies “a neglect of the person which is painful to others” and goes about town in stained clothes, “shaggy as a beast,” with hair all over his body. The parts not covered with hair display scabs and scaly deposits. His teeth are black and rotten. He goes to bed with his wife with unwashed hands (hands were to be washed after supper, which was eaten without forks or spoons), and when the oil he takes to the baths is rancid and thickened, he spits on his body to thin ­it.

Repulsive as Nastiness is, Theophrastus is no more fond of his foppish opposite, Petty Pride, who gets his hair cut “many times in the month,” uses costly unguent for oil and has white teeth (a rarity and considered ­over-­fussy). The middle way between the extremes of slovenliness and vanity, Theophrastus suggests, is best. (So do the arbitrators of almost every period, at least in theory, but that prized middle ground shifts considerably.)

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