I harbour a great affection for Stuart McLean, writer and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café. I love listening to his radio show and am always excited when he releases a new book so it was with pleasure I picked up The Vinyl Café Notebooks at my local library. Unlike McLean’s other Vinyl Café books, which focus on the lives and friends of one family, this is a collection of short essays written over fifteen years with no real focus. McLean discusses summer jobs and curling, Bob Dylan and W.O. Mitchell…anything and everything, really. And it is delightful. Warm and thoughtful, McLean is just as engaging in print as he is on air and, as always, his encouraging but never cloying glass-half-full view of the world is the perfect antidote to the prevailing cynicism we are surrounded by:
It is not said enough, so I’ll say it again: the world is a good place, full of good people, and when we act out of that, when we act out of hope, and optimism, and faith in our fellow human, we act out of our best selves, and we are capable of doing great things, and of contributing to the greater good.
Hope and optimism are not synonymous with naivety. We should be looking to the future with flinty and steely eyes, for sure, but they should be wide open with hope, not squinting in fear. (p. 147)
The book is divided into vaguely thematic sections (Notes from Home, Calendar Notes, Notes from the Neighbourhood, etc) including one entitled Reader’s Notes, full of bookish musings or encounters. There’s a wonderful piece entitled “The Island of No Adults” about an eight-year old girl who, having read one of those children’s adventure novels à la Enid Blyton where the children are off having adventures with no adults in sight, decides to run away to a neighbouring town to become a waitress. As you do. And I love how he describes a reader’s relationship with his or her bookshelf:
A bookshelf is a highly personal thing, and often the books on it bristle with emotional connections that no one would ever guess. There are the old friends that you put on the shelf and return to often, acquaintances that sit there for years, untouched; there are the ones that slip away and are forgotten, and those that seem to wander off on their own accord, yet remain, ghostlike, to haunt the library, like an old lover, with feelings of regret, or sorrow, or confusion. These are the books you think of from time to time and wonder what became of them, and if you would have anything to say to one another if you were in touch again. (p. 208)
I also really loved how personal this book was, how close you feel to McLean while reading it. Honestly, I didn’t know that much about him beforehand, about his background or family, his likes or dislikes, and everything I learned while reading this, I liked. Particularly his affection, which I share, for always taking the long way round. I’ve never met a logging road I don’t prefer to a highway, a dirt road that wasn’t more appealing than a paved one, and it only seems right that McLean, whose radio show has provided the soundtrack for many of my road trip adventures, feels the same:
Before I can go further, you should know this about me: if we were in a car together, you and I, and you were driving and we came to one of those moments where you pulled over and looked at me uncertainly, and said, ‘I’m not sure, what do you think? Left? Or right?’ I would, reflexively and consistently, choose the back road. Fast roads bore me. I like it when roads are winding and narrow, and there are places you can stop that don’t feel like the place where you stopped two hours ago. I like the slow way. (p 219)
But, without a doubt, my favourite part of the entire book was a bit entitled “Parliament Hill”, describing a trip McLean took to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, originally with the intention of viewing two of the rather unique items in the Parliamentary Library (a cake baked more than thirty years ago for the library’s one hundredth anniversary and an inkwell used at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864). The trip quickly becomes about more than that, as McLean explores the building and encounters some very small, very touching aspects of its history. I love Ottawa as I love few other places in this world and I remain in awe of the Parliament Buildings, for all they have witnessed, all they represent, and all they can be. I have quoted this essay at length (quite the typing exercise!), wanting so much to share what had touched me so much:
If you have never been to the Parliament Buildings, the best way to walk into the Centre Block is to imagine yourself walking into a cathedral. It is all limestone marble and gothic arches, bathed in the soft light of a setting sun, or as the parliamentarians would have us believe, I am certain, an approaching dawn. You wouldn’t be surprised as you walked around to spot a red-cloaked bishop padding down one of the corridors, or I wouldn’t. Like one of Canada’s grand railway hotels, Parliament is all history and tradition.
I wandered into the Centre Block, into the Rotunda, and then down the Hall of Honour heading to the Library of Parliament.
Before I got there, however, I was drawn to another corridor – one that the public isn’t supposed to use. It is reserved for members who want to slip out the back door of Parliament when they are trying to avoid people like me. And there, tucked away in a small alcove, I stumbled on a sculpture, a small bust by the great French artist and father of modern sculpture Auguste Renoir.
To Canada, read the plaque on the pedestal, whose sons shed their blood to safeguard world freedom.
The plaque is signed, from grateful France.
I am moved by grand gestures made with modesty. By small, determined things.
On I went, and soon enough came to the library, where Irene Brown, the librarian on duty, told me with obvious disappointment that the cake I had been sent to see had begun to crumble and was no longer on display. The inkwell was gone too. It was in storage.
Irene was soon joined by her colleague, a librarian named Louis, and with the spontaneous enthusiasm typical of librarians everywhere, they soon enough had set aside their work and joined me in mine.
‘We could show you our favourite book,’ said Irene.
‘What book is that?’ I asked.
‘It was sent to Canada by Queen Victoria,’ said Irene. ‘After the death of her husband.’
‘Yes,’ says Louis. ‘It is a collection of the Prince Consort’s speeches. It is inscribed in the Queen’s hand.’
‘What does the inscription say?’ I asked.
‘To the library of Parliament,’ said Louis.
‘From a heartbroken widow,’ added Irene.
I passed a pleasant hour in the library before saying by goodbyes and continuing my wanderings.
I headed up to the top floor, the sixth floor, to the parliamentary restaurant, which I have always wanted to see. The maitre d’, a woman named Margueritte, welcomed me just as graciously as the librarians had.
‘That table there,’ she said, pointing at an alcove near the door, ‘is reserved for the prime minister. That alcove is for Conservative members, that one for Liberals, and that is where the NDP gather.’
Then, sensing my interest, she said, ‘Would you like to see the New Zealand Room?’
She took me to the back of the restaurant and into a small and elegant dining room with a table that would sit a dozen, but not one more.
‘It is paneled with wood sent by New Zealand after the Centre Block burned to the ground in 1916,’ she said.
And it was at this moment, as I stood there under the green copper roof of Parliament, in that modest dining room with its magnificent view of the Ottawa River, that I had my little epiphany.
One hundred years ago New Zealand was pretty much on the far side of the moon as far as Canada was concerned. And vice versa. Yet, in 1916 someone in New Zealand heard that our Parliament Buildings had burned to the ground, and they responded to that news in such an odd and yet peculiarly appropriate way.
They sent wood. To Canada, of all places. As if wood was something Canada was lacking. And someone here received that gift with the respect with which it was given. And those two small acts of respect had served the greater good.
And it occurred to me, as I stood there all these years later, in what is now known as the New Zealand Room, that we have lost our understanding of that sort of respect.
In its place we have developed an impulse for cynicism. Too quickly we look at our politics and our politicians as if everything was easy to figure out; as if compromises didn’t have to be made; as if you can always say exactly what you mean; as if a thoughtful person can’t reflect on something and then change his or her mind; as if the business of governing isn’t complicated.
Cynicism is an easy place to pitch a tent. And it is worth remembering, when we are tempted by that soft and undemanding clearing in the forest, that there are more noble campsites.
Parliament has been, and could still be, the best of us. And, I would put forward, it behooves us to embrace that possibility, to admit to that possibility, to own that possibility and, most importantly, to expect it. These are important days. This is an important place. We owe it many things. Our passions, our commitments, our truths and, yes, our respect. The broken-hearted QueenVictoria showed that when she signed and sent that book in the memory of her husband. Auguste Renoir showed it as he fashioned that sculpture for all of France. Those New Zealanders showed it as they bundled together their little shipment of wood. Those librarians show it as they guard that inkwell still. And so should we, each one of us, as we come together in our todays and our tomorrows, to consider, as best we can, the great questions of our times.
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