January 19, 1917 Night at the Arts and Letters Club

January 19, 1917

Last night was quite the spectacle at the Arts and Letters Club. It wasn’t what happened during the formal proceedings and program but what happened after. It took me the better part of the day to get out of mood so I could write. I didn’t do any painting today.

When I was working in the commercial business, I preferred in my off-hours to go to the tea-rooms instead of joining a luncheon and dinner club. Most everyone else joined a club, but I saw enough of my chaps at work that I didn’t need to see them at lunch and dinner too. I needed time to myself. The tea-rooms you could go alone and no one would single you out for it. I’d bring something to read because I had enough of conversation and your nose in a book is a good barrier to someone approaching to socialize.

This didn’t mean I never wanted to go a club . I just didn’t want to become a member because once you become a formal member of a club, it’s the club obligations that begin to chip away at your freedoms. I’ve seen enough people, especially women, who’ve had their lives regulated by churches and clubs to the point of having nothing left for themselves.

The program for the members’ dinner started at 7pm. I walked from the Shack – it’s about two miles to the old Courthouse on Adelaide. I could have walked on Yonge, but I decided to go down Church instead because I liked walking through the Garden District instead. For some reason I could not get the TS Eliot poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” out of my mind. I got the issue of Poetry from Arthur Heming. To be truthful, I swiped it from him after an all night bout of drinking with Curtis Williamson amd Bill Beatty. We also managed to mash up Arthur’s hat. He was none too pleased about that.

Prufrock is nothing like I’ve ever read before.I found the words in poem absolutely spellbinding with its imagery expressed in an entirely alien way. I knew that what he was doing with poetry, I was doing with my sketches and a lesser extent my canvases. As I walked along Church, all I could think of were “one-night cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants” on “half-deserted streets”. Prufrock was giving a voice to my feelings in Toronto. I feel like I am living a life of indecision, isolation and unspoken frustration. Needless to say, these thoughts about Prufrock did not put me into a good disposition for the evening. I also was thinking that this type of poetry along with the War would be the death of the type of Canadian poets of the likes of Duncan Campbell Scott, Bliss Carman and Wilfred Campbell. Fortunately I’d be able to make a judgment because Duncan Campbell Scott was on the program tonight to do a reading from the his new poetry book followed by a talk on the Indian Problem.

After a walk of about three-quarters of an hour I arrived at the club – shortly before 7pm. The club is on the second floor, and you can only access it through a narrow stairway in the back lane. Roy Mitchell, the club playwright, usually had a play prepared for these type events. But Roy had gone to New York to work as a stage manager so we were spared the preparation for one of his productions. The major effort being the creation of the stage in the Courthouse room. There was no permanent stage, so Roy had managed to procure 150 crates that he stored on the first floor. We’d have to bring these crates up two long flights of stairs and assemble at the far of the room. And of course, at the end of the evening (or the next day) bring them back down to storage. Then there was the jury-rigging of lighting equipment, made of biscuit boxes, stovepipes and tin wash basins. Once these were set up properly – with no electrocution or incendiary mishap – the show would go on. Unfortunately, for tonight, there was no show for Roy. I’m sure he was busy on Broadway, not thinking about us.

I could hear the low buzz of the conversation as I mounted the stairs. The lights were electrical, but it was still dim because the Court room is cavernous. The cigar and cigarette smoke (everyone smoked) hung in the air like a dissatisfied she-fog twisting itself around the men and then rising up into the ceilinged darkness. In the daytime I could see the ornate tin ceiling tiles, but tonight, these tiles were on the other side darkness, either in heaven or hell.

‘Tom, my boy! You made it!”

Dr. MacCallum emerged from the cigar-smoke gloom and greeted me effusively. I knew he did this because he really did welcome, but he also did it to signal to the other members that I was someone to be regarded highly. Every once in awhile, someone would be invited to the club that didn’t seem to quite fit, and the club members would unconsciously close ranks to squeeze them out so they would never come again. But most of the members knew, or knew of me well. I had a oil sketch exhibition here at the club in late 1915 that was well-received by the members with the exception the few. I’d come quite often with Lismer, Jackson and Harrison for lunch. I came along a few times with Varley, not since since we had a falling out last year. I saw that Varley was here tonight, talking to Gus Bridle.

There were numerous conversations going on. Not much of a talker myself in social situations like these, I had a tendency to dip in and out of conversations that didn’t require an effort from me to keep the momentum. That wasn’t a problem here, because most of the men of the club were journalists, writers, poets, and artists. “Men of the pen, pencil, and brush”, they’d like to call themselves, and they’ll talk themselves to their own graves.

“Victory Gardens!” The words jumped out from the buzz. They came from Jim MacDonald. He was having a lively debate with Rufus Hathaway, the club’s librarian. What I had discerned from the conversation was that Jim was still upset that the club decided not to have their Victory Garden club at his farm in Thornhill, but instead in York Mills. Jim moved north so he could farm his own vegetables, but with his poor health, and his wife’s too, it was more difficult than they had expected. He needed help gardening and was hoping to get it from the club. That was not the case.

Other topics were buzzing about the room: the rumour of Orville Wright making flying boats on Georgian Bay (he bought an island there this past summer, Dr. MacCallum told me), the immorality of Hun submarine warfare, the benefits of TB as a cleansing disease, and “Toronto the Beautiful against Toronto the Scientific”. Someone was bemoaning the impending completion of the the Bloor St. Viaduct. Someone from Rosedale, assuredly.

I sat down by the “Artist’s Table.” It didn’t have that official name, but whenever the artists came from lunch, they sat at the same table near the back far away from the fireplace. The tables closer the fireplace were reserved for the more established men of stature. Where we sat, court room still felt like a cold storage room. I sat with Bill Beatty, Curtis Williamson, and Fred Varley on the other side. Bill was president of the club once, but after his office ended, he too was relegated to the cold storage section of the club. The dinner was good, as best as what could be served in wartime to eighty hungry men at once. Boiled mashed potatoes, roast beef, carrots, turnip, and apple sauce. Dessert was apple crumble and tea and coffee. Nothing of the alcoholic sort was served due to the recent Temperance provisions, but several bottles were being furtively passed about. The “club medicine” as the men called it. Now I understood why the water glasses were never filled. When the club medicine came my way, I filled my glass and noted it was a mail-order whisky from Montreal. Jackson’s from Montreal. I should move to Montreal.

After dinner, the cigar smoke began to thicken further. Under shoulder height, the air was still clear to see through. About shoulder height, the smoke was becoming as thick as the approaching snow pillars I’d see in the Park in the spring and fall. The dim light from the street came through the tall narrow window like a ray of divinity and cut a solid beam the room. Only the fireplace, with its roaring fire, threatened the dominance of the divine ray of light. Through the thick smoke (or snow pillars), I could see Lawren Harris’s snow paintings on either of the fireplace. Harris gave them to the club, because, during his fascination with snow phase, he had a numerous canvases that looked pretty much the same and he decided to give two away. Beneath one of his paintings was a new instalment. I didn’t recognize it but from what I could make out in the dim light it was a recently deceased figure adorned with garlands and flowers. I found the painting particularly hideous, but given the sentiments of the time, it was a popular theme to depict dead people in glorious circumstances. I couldn’t help but think of the Varsity War Supplement I saw the other day. You had to be dead to get on the Roll of Honour – the pages with the fancy flowers and designs. If you were still alive, your page was mundane with crammed rows of photographs.

With the dinner completed, and the plates and cutlery whisked away by some unknown force, Dr. MacCallum announced the after-dinner program.

First, a poetry reading and talk, by Duncan Campbell Scott (who came down from Ottawa for this special occasion).

Next, the unveiling of the club portrait, by Sammy Sampson (his name is John Ernest, but everybody calls him ‘Sammy’).

Finally, a mystery painter speed-painting competition to round out the evening. I had heard the meat-carving contest at the last dinner was a rousing success, but a speed-painting contest, that was something new.

After Dr MacCallum’s introduction, Duncan Campbell Scott stood up and walked over to the fireplace and rested his hand upon the mantel.

“Gentlemen, I thank you for your fine welcome.” He took his hand off the mantle. I believe he realized that because of the mantel’s height, it made his pose look awkward and vaudevillian. This was certainly no vaudeville show, that was to be later in the evening.

“It is such a pleasure to be here with such learned men here in Toronto! Ottawa is such a bore with its bureaucrats. I came down on the train earlier today. I shall not bore you with Ottawa’s war efforts or the re-building of Parliament. Instead, as a man of the arts and letters, I shall read from my new book of poetry and talk to you about another grave problem plaguing our Dominion, the ‘Indian Problem’. ”

It was difficult to hear Scott. He was at the front in the court room and his voice did not carry well through the sounds of scraping chairs and  persistent coughing. I did manage to make out the title of his poem, “The Half-Breed Girl”. I was familiar with it; I had read it a few weeks ago in the reading room of the public library. It was in his new book, published late last year. The main saving grace of this poem was that it wasn’t too long, unlike much of the incessant romantic tripe that passes for poetry these days. I knew that T.S. Eliot’s poetry was having an influence on me. I’d never read a poem the same way again.

Scott started into the first stanza:

She is free of the trap and the paddle,
The portage and the trail,
But something behind her savage life
Shines like a fragile veil

I knew these words so I could follow along through the noise. I did not listen to the rest of the poem because I already had the effect of the poem.  And there is nothing more boring that listening to a poet reading his own poems at a dinner function. It is a license to let one’s own mind wander. Once Scott finished,  he was met with a muted applause that barely supplemented the persistent coughing. With that poetic episode complete, he commenced his talk. I could tell he was a little too warm by the fireplace. He had sweat on his brow that reflected the electrical light from above. From where I was, I couldn’t help but imagine that his balding head looked like an electric bulb that was about to burn out. He stepped forward, away from the fireplace, for the next part of his delivery.  Once the coughing subsided, he began with a changed voice that had an odd authoritative resonance to it. This voice was different than the tone he used as a poet. It was like a different man was speaking. I am sure this was the voice he used to pass pronouncements as a bureaucrat.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”

His talk continued for another twenty minutes. Men, like these, could speak for hours when given the opportunity, but when the coughing was accompanied by the occasional belch, and the men start to pay more attention to the bottles being passed around, he began to conclude his speech. I was in the back, paying more attention to the lighting of my pipe and the repeated replenishing of my glass; the bottle passed by me twice during his speech and was about to come around for the third time. Bloody bureaucrats at their desks, sending men off to war and stamping out races. All in the name of principles and the superior British way.

Dr MacCallum kindly thanked him, and the club was on to the next item of business: the unveiling of the club portrait.

One thought on “January 19, 1917 Night at the Arts and Letters Club”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: