SPEAKING not quite as an Early Victorian but at least as an indisputable Mid-Victorian, I’m glad I knew Victoria before its fall.
Even fallen it is a pretty good place to live in, among a hundred thousand postgraduate Canadians, half a million rose bushes, enough daffodils to turn the nation yellow with envy, a hundred imported English skylarks by my last census, one sea serpent named Cadborosaurus, plenty of assorted lunatics to make life saner than anywhere else and a civic mentality which baffles the psychiatrists.
But Victoria is not what it used to be in my boyhood half a century ago. Perhaps, like all boyhood memories, it never was.
Anyway, it’s not what you think. More nonsense and gush have been written about Victoria than any spot on the map of Canada, including poor old Toronto. The Little-Bit-of-England legend was a cold-blooded commercial invention of the advertising blurbsters and the tourist hucksters, but with continual polishing it has taken on a hard glaze of truth.
One Victorian’s confession, such as I am making here, will hardly leave a scratch on it.
About as Quaint as Niagara
THE LEGEND, which magazine writers are forever reprinting because they are too busy to dig for the subtler facts, holds that Victoria is not only English but, God forgive our boosters, quaint. We are about as quaint as Bay Street, Portage and Main or Niagara Falls.
According to the legend, we never work but spend our time between cocktails and golf—we who have hewed a city out of rock hills and jungle and must earn a living with no resources save beauty, an unexportable commodity.
Also—and this really hurts—we are in perpetual dampness, sluiced by the Pacific clouds which move inland, enceinte, to drop their offspring on our doorstep; when in fact our inadequate rainfall of 27 inches is half of Vancouver’s and our long summer drought would ruin the grain industry of the parched prairies.
The legend is only accurate, though a trifle exaggerated, when it describes Victoria as an unbroken bed of flowers for we are, I suppose, the maddest gardeners since Eden was closed. God did not have to give us memory, as to other people, to enjoy roses in December—a few lonely splashed buds, that is.
Though the legend has always fooled the stranger it has never fooled us. We always knew that Victoria was not an imitation of England or anything else, but a genuine original. Up to this writing we have kept the knowledge to ourselves for sordid financial reasons. The result has been disastrous.
The Canadians and Americans, even the English, took our absurd pretensions seriously. They poured in here and, having average intelligence, refused to go home again. If there ever was any truth in the legend its believers have finally destroyed it. The invasion has built a modern Canadian city but it has blotted out Victoria. The barbarians could not defeat us in fair fight. They drowned us in sheer numbers.
We felt like the Romans when the tribes came down out of the north. It took us some time to realize that the invaders were harmless, and a little longer to convert and civilize them. Now they in turn are horrified by the latest waves of migration.
We must now face the undoubted statistical fact that nine out of 10 Canadians have a secret ambition to leave home and settle here in their old age.
Prairie wheat farmers will raise tulip bulbs here. Iron-breasted tycoons from Toronto will live on a cow, some chickens and a few gilt-edged securities. Statesmen from Ottawa, like the tired Roman emperors, will grow cabbages and gradually become cabbages like the rest of us.
Every tongue and dialect in Canada is now heard upon our streets, babbling the memories of far-off places, until we are the crossroads of Canadian anecdotage. Canada will soon find itself an appendage to the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the island is hardly buoyant enough to stand it. We are watching the water level closely.
Discounting the legend for the commercial fake it is, truth forces me against my will to admit that Victoria is still unique. Avoiding exaggeration, I will say only that it is the loveliest place in America—a tweedy, daffodilish, green-fingered sort of place, a golfish, fly-fishing, 5 o’clock-teapot place, a thoroughly crazy place, more interested in aphis than America, in caterpillars than civilization, in salmon than socialism, in DDT than CCF, in manure than Marx.
These are mere externals. The important thing is that even the avalanche across the Rockies and the sedimentary layers of new population could not quite bury the original bedrock.
There is a secret life here still, which no stranger will suspect, which we guard as a sacred flame and worship in secret, a rite which we do not whisper even to ourselves. But we always know a Victorian at first sight under any disguise. The mark is on his face. The accent, just slightly English and never quite Canadian, is on his tongue. The mystery is in his heart.
While I cannot tell the secret if I would (Kipling himself tried it and failed miserably) the outer form of the Victorian perhaps can be catalogued.
If a composite week-end photograph were taken of him it would reveal a gardening man in a tattered tweed jacket and patched flannel pants, a trowel in one hand, a fishing rod in the other, his pocket full of golf balls, his face smeared with paint from his boat at Cadboro Bay. But this same fellow, I regret to say, will be at his office or bench promptly on Monday morning.
We once had a local poet who wrote poetry so bad as to reach the sublime and become a forgotten classic. But he knew his Victoria. Among his collected works, which were mimeographed and stolen by me from a leading undertaker (who could not grasp their import), were a few stanzas, influenced, I feel sure, by Rupert Brooke’s ironic ode to Grantchester. They caught in rather snooty doggerel the gulf which the Victorian privately sees yawning between him and the less fortunate cities of Canada:
Montreal is full of poses,
Halifax of cold blue noses,
Toronto’s good but, God, how stuffy,
And Ottawa is proud and puffy;
St. John is grim-faced, old and soggy,
Vancouver stinking-rich and foggy,
Winnipeg is zero-minus,
Cold has burst Regina’s sinus,
Calgary is wild and vinous;
Folks get spavin, heaves and loose-jaw
Breathing in the winds of Moose Jaw;
I’ve been long persuaded that
Medicine talks through its Hat;
A buffalo or frozen loon
Might choose to live in Saskatoon;
Edmonton with oil is slimy,
Hamilton with toil is grimy.
Poor tundra creatures, bones aquiver,
Born to never-ending shiver,
God gave them mem'ry to remember
The cold neuroses of December,
While every creature in Victoria
Lives warm with nature in euphoria.
Like Kipling, our poet pried in vain at our secret but it has been lying around here, inviting examination, for a long time.
Young James Douglas must have guessed it when he built his little wooden fort here to keep the Americans where they belonged south of the Straits of Juan de Fuca (only to have them return a century later, armed with dollars more deadly than muskets, bless them).
All the old Victorians knew it—the Pembertons, Finlaysons, Helmckens, Creases, Tolmies and Pooleys. That incredible and illegal jurist, Chief Justice Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, grasped it better than the others and invented certain curious local ceremonies to express it. Among them were Saturday night dinners, very holy, for the local clergy until 9 o’clock and then all-night poker parties for the boys; garden parties when cherries were tied to all the bushes around the tennis court for the convenience of the players.
Those were the great days of Victorianism before its dilution—a beneficent medievalism of huge, dark and draughty homes on Rockland Avenue, pompous levees at Government House, titles conferred on substantial campaign fund contributors, a Society which kept the rest of us in our proper stations and government by the Right People.
All gone now, swept away by the avalanche. It has left behind only a few mossy houses, some ancient ladies denned up in the Empress Hotel to drown their memories in afternoon tea and a dozen inmates of the Union Club, each clutching his private and labeled pot of marmalade as he comes down to breakfast in the morning.
All gone, but a few of us remember the secret of our fathers and live by its rules while accepting the outward manners of a barbarous age. Don’t expect me to be specific about these things. You might as well try to measure the beauty of a flower with calipers or explore the human spirit with a scalpel.
I can only tell you that the atmosphere of this place, compounded of winter rain and summer drought, of flower scent and bird song, of seaweed stench and the pungence of Douglas fir pitch, of dark hills and cramped valleys, of wind off the snow of the Olympics, of Christmas holly and January snowdrops, above all of isolation on an island, a sense of remoteness, safety and superior fortune—this atmosphere has been distilled somehow into the sap of our veins so that we pine and perish when the supply is cut off on our journeys abroad. Move us away, even across the narrow gulf to the mainland, and we are exiles. Take us east of the Rockies and, though we may still walk about, we are dead. That is the reason for my own untimely demise.
This subtle chemistry the stranger cannot hope to understand.
He sees only a tropical wilderness of flowers through which a strong man can shoulder his way by a few trails in the business area. He doesn’t know how the flowers got there or the toil we put into them.
He sees a glistening little bathtub of a harbor compressed between the domes of the Parliament Buildings and the vine-choked walls of the hotel. He cannot believe that we built all this on a stinking mud flat, floating the Causeway, the masonry, the lawns and rose gardens on a hundred feet of ooze.
He finds baskets of flowers hung from the lampposts by people who apparently cannot bear to leave their gardens even in business hours. Does he realize the venal truth—that these are the stage props of the tourist industry?
He sees, but can hardly believe, the liquid fountain of gold spurting from the broom of Beacon Hill Park, the pensive swans, the sea gulls begging for crusts. How could he suspect the nostalgia of the Victorian who once toddled into the park at the age of two and suddenly discovered the wide world?
How could he know that for the Victoria boy the beaches of Dallas Road were the Spanish Main, with mussels and crabs to be cooked on driftwood fires, strange wreckage to be explored, kelp for whiplashes, and always the wonder of the great ships inbound from China?
The visitor sees very little, really, but it seems to satisfy him.
Victoria has not only vivid outer features but a strong collective character underneath, which even progress cannot smooth off. Curiously enough, this collective character seldom breeds individual characters, or at least not characters of the public sort. It has not produced a first-rate political figure in modern times. Victoria’s name is seldom mentioned in the political debates of Canada. The provincial politics centred here are competent, tepid and pedestrian.
They Once Shook a Nation
This, I suspect, is a phenomenon of climate and geography. The mild air and the isolation of an island tames us down, dilutes controversy and fills us with a philosophic calm.
In earlier days, before our sea breezes cooled them off, the characters of Victoria shook the nation.
There was Douglas, the great stone face of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who ruled the colony of Vancouver Island in highly moral tyranny (though the governor’s tight little political machine knew how to distribute patronage where it would do the most good).
There was the gaunt and bearded Smith, who called himself Amor de Cosmos, Lover of the World, who broke the Douglas oligarchy by his thunder in The Daily Colonist, introduced an alarming new idea known as democracy and, by persuading the colony into Confederation, extended Canada to the Pacific Coast.
And Joe Martin who picked his cabinet from the loafers on the street corners and turned government into high farce until the legislature walked out on him in the middle of the Speech from the Throne. (The Colonist achieved one of the few Canadian classics of abuse by calling the King’s representative of the day “the obese and shining monster.”)
Outside public life, but greater than its contestants, lived Emily Carr, the immortal Klee Wick, who compounded her masterpieces in print and paint with loneliness, poverty and tears, unknown and unrecognized when small boys like me played in her garden, never suspecting that the gruff, bustling woman on our street was an authentic Canadian genius.
These Victorians came out of a past as exciting as any in Canada.
The helpless fort among the Indians, the hordes of crazed gold miners swarming up fiom California in cockleshells and punts on their way to Cariboo, Douglas’ one-man struggle to hold the 49th parallel against Manifest Destiny, the Confederation debates when the future of Canada hung on a few bewildered men in the red bird cages called the Parliament Buildings, the era of the open town when Victoria’s bars, gaming houses and brothels were the scandal of the Pacific Coast—all this surge and riot was little noted and seemed meaningless at the time. Now we know that it decided Canada’s continental shape and finally divided the continent from sea to sea between two nations.
Some day that record will be written. Victoria will stand with Quebec, Halifax, Montreal and York as one of the seminal places of Canadian history. The modern legend is false and shortlived. In due time the real legend will be disinterred and found heroic.
Victoria is first of all a clannish place, polite but distant to strangers. Any prairie city will welcome the newcomer and go to any lengths to make him feel at home. In Victoria you may live your entire life without speaking a word to your next-door neighbor. This, I protest, is not coldness but shyness, a determination to mind one’s own business.
Dog Lovers on His Neck
Minding its own business, Victoria has notably failed to develop; it does not seem to desire the surging civic life of other Canadian cities. There is culture here, certainly, but it is mainly private. We shrink from organizing or displaying it. A collection of priceless totem poles, which can never be replaced, is thrust out into the rain of a city park to rot.
We regard city government as boring and trivial, civic office as a weary duty for which good men have to be conscripted into the city council.
We become interested only when the city fathers stumble into some gaucherie, as when the reeve of an adjoining municipality rejected amalgamation with Victoria in a magnificent Churchillian phrase: “I was not elected reeve to preside at the liquidation of Oak Bay.” Or again when an imaginative alderman proposed to skin the dogs of the city pound to provide the raw materials of a great tanning industry and found the S.P.C.A. and a town of dog lovers on his neck. (When one of his colleagues denounced this outrage, proclaiming himself the descendant of dog breeders for five generations, the alderman made a crushing retort: “My ancestors have been male and female since the days of Adam.”)
But the civic mind is quickly aroused by fundamental issues. It flies into a passion if the parks board tries to remove some old oak tree from the streets.
It showed an overnight tendency toward republicanism when the gardens of Government House were closed to the public.
It pleaded vainly for the release of Ursus Kermodei, the only nonpolar white bear in captivity, until the prisoner died contentedly of old age before the dispute could be settled.
It argued for weeks, on a highly scientific plane, over the discovery of a genuine zipple in the Sooke Hills, never suspecting that the newspaper boys had cooked up a practical joke to test the public credulity.
It secretly believes, or wants to believe, in its sea serpent, Cadborosaurus, which gives it a sense of superiority over serpentless places, for superiority of a harmless, boyish sort is the clearest quality of the Victorian mind.
It is almost as moral as Toronto. It will never tolerate beer parlors though they flourish a few yards off in the municipality of Esquimalt. No cabaret has ever survived in Victoria. When the council built a public convenience behind the city hall it was elaborately disguised by lawns and shrubs. With a final exquisite touch of Victorian refinement it was called Fiddler’s Green.
It’s An Economic Engine
Though generally easy-going and well-mannered, Victoria sometimes turns querulous and litigious for no good reason. A barber named Shanks cuts a boy’s hair in an unusual fashion, the parents sue for damages, the town instantly takes sides but the hair grows in and the evidence is lost while the court ponders. Our most notable eccentric, Mr. Joseph North, sues the baseball club when it refuses to admit him to the ball park because he always insults the players in a certain repulsive fashion. The case drags on solemnly in the prehistoric courthouse, the whole community watches and wagers on the outcome.
With this occasional absurdity is mixed a profound sense of real values. A community and a civilization are growing up when the spring flower show and Garden Week become the major civic festival. A robin nests in the ceiling of a half-built cathedral and the architects carve the bird in stone so that it may perch forever in the sight of Christian worshippers as a reminder of God’s creaturehood. You grasp, from this shy gesture, the strongest element in Victoria’s character, which is reverence for nature, beauty and life.
Politically, Victoria is the most conservative spot west of Quebec. In a city filled with retired pensioners, minor rentiers and civil servants the CCF never elected a candidate. Nothing more conservative can be imagined than a Victoria Liberal.
Economically, Victoria is an enigma. No one really knows what keeps it going. The few woodworking industries, the government payroll, a naval base, shipbuilding yards, the tourist trade, a fringe of small farms, the pensioners and wealthy recluses combine somehow to make the living standard relatively far above the national average.
Insularity is a deep dark force in Victoria’s life. It survives invasion, attrition and the public debates of the nation. I would match our ignorance of national affairs against any place in Canada, however small or remote.
Our election campaigns are mild, brief and irrelevant. The judgments of our Press are condescending and Olympian. L. W. Brockington says, with more penetration than satire, that the politicians of Victoria are still petitioning, with passionate Victorianism, for the repeal of the Corn Laws.
In such an atmosphere human oddities grow lush and, like our flowers, are admired, cultivated and protected.
A Millionaire on the Beach
If you poke about you will uncover famous generals, admirals, knights, scholars, scientists and diplomats walking our streets in retirement, unnoticed by everybody until their obituaries appear in the papers.
You will find priceless collections of Chinese jade, barbaric weapons, antiques, stamps, paintings and butterflies which the public has never suspected.
A millionaire who lost his fortune lives in a single room on the water front with a pair of lovebirds, lies on the beach all day and is the happiest man in Canada.
A farmer blocked the main highway on the outskirts of town by smashing upon it some 10,000 fresh eggs and hurling many more at passing motorists. The doctors put him into an asylum but Victoria understood at once that he was one of the few sane men left and had proclaimed his sanity by this last gallant protest against a mad world.
A pompous and objectionable statesman having passed out with alcohol on a public occasion the reporters of James Bay called an undertaker and the corpse awakened with piercing shrieks on a slab. Victoria appreciated this rebuke. It has no use for pomposity. It cringes at bad form.
A gentleman on our street continually set his umbrella on fire when he lighted his pipe and used to walk a block in conflagration before he noticed it. But no one, not even the fire department, thought of mentioning such a personal matter to him. It was understood by all that he was waving his own little torch of independence with contempt in the face of a civilization which he would never accept.
The Brolly a Civic Crest
That, to me, is the only revealing portrait of Victoria ever painted—a respectable householder on his morning march with flaming banner, the neighbors observing him impassively from their perennial borders; the next day a new umbrella to be burned in due course. There at a glance is all Victoria’s stubborn individualism, its tolerance, its sense of humor, its grasp of essentials. A burning umbrella should be our civic crest.
All this has conveyed, perhaps, too flattering a picture of our eccentricity. Unless you probe deep you will observe here a Canadian city very like all the others, inhabitants indistinguishable from their fellow countrymen, except for their sloppier clothes and slower gait.
It has taken a long time but Victoria has reconciled itself spiritually at last to the political arrangements which joined it to Canada 78 years ago. This is a gain for national unity. Few Canadians will understand or regret that it is blotting out something vivid, wholesome and unique and thus spreading the general disease of monotony, which slowly strangles the native happiness of America.