Grief, Memory, Three O'Clock in the Morning: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diaries, Addendum
9 Years Ago Today
For round about thirty years, typically in the dead of winter, when human hearts most hanker after the reviving tonic of song, the Montreal Roller Canary Club held an annual show and singing contest; the combatants were all — this will not surprise you, given the conspicuous branding deployed by the sponsoring agency — canaries of the roller type. Roller canaries — forgive me if you know this already, I had to look it up — were conjured into being in the Harz Mountain region of Germany, and were bred with song, not with luminescent plumage in mind. Apparently, if you’re a canary, you can be one of those rare creatures who, like the birch tree in autumn and Beyonce whenever, looks good in yellow, or you can sing for your supper and count on breakfast; but you can’t do both.
The first of these annual confabs of roller canary fanciers — an international brigade, as I’ve learned — was reported on page 10 of The Montreal Daily Star, as then the paper was called, on Tuesday, December 13, 1927. If the reporter, unnamed, felt any inkling to deliver to his (as I imagine) readers the contest results with an ironic wink, he managed to keep the impulse mostly at bay, tamping down what would have been a forgivable urge to wax supercilious, just a little, while delivering up the names of the winners in the categories of Best Young Roller Canary, Best Old Roller Canary, Best Roller Canary Bred by Member, Best Male Canary for condition only, and Best Female Canary for condition only. Two names are conspicuous among the laureates: Mrs. Archie Jenks (6 prizes in total) and Mrs. D. Laplante, who took home half as many. To the victor go the spoils, and Mrs. Jenks parlayed her predominance into an election as President of the Club for the coming year; Mrs. Laplante, ever the bridesmaid, was consigned to the role of Vice-President. Did bad blood boil between the women, rivals in songbird husbandry? Throw in a curate or two and this would make an excellent subplot in a Barbara Pym novel. Whether anything like hard feelings lingered between the two, I have no way of knowing, but I feel certain that Mrs. Jenks, the former Elizabeth McKim, daughter of a prosperous Westmount family and a mainstay of the Junior League during her debutante years, deserved all the happiness that came her way in those palmy, pre-Depression days, if only to build up a gladsome reserve against the misery her near future held in store. On August 2, 1921, it was reported that Miss McKim had returned aboard the ocean liner Minnedosa (1) from a Grand Tour of Europe. The next year, in October, Miss McKim — after what must have been an arduous week of seemingly endless cup and handkerchief showers given her by Montreal society matrons — married Dr. Archie N. Jenks, a World War 1 war veteran and dentist. Over the next several years, the couple was regularly named in Montreal paper society columns, their comings and goings chronicled as they appeared at various benefits and galas alongside all the Great and the Good. On August 2, 1938, it was reported that Mrs. Jenks was expected, against all odds, to recover from the three bullet wounds she had sustained a few days prior when Dr. Jenks — depressed by the drowning death of their four year old son, Anson, and possibly suffering from the long-term effects of his time as a combatant — shot her in the head, neck, and left arm, then turned the gun, more successfully, on himself.
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Eventually, healed — to whatever extent one can be after such brutality — Elizabeth Jenks re-entered society. She was still identified, for a time, as Mrs. Archie Jenks; was named as Mrs. Elizabeth Jenks by the time she retired as longtime Secretary of the Canadian Club, in 1967. She died in 1980, “after a long illness.” No mention was made in her cursory obituary — death notice, more properly — of what was a tabloid moment but must also have been the defining tragedy of her life, nor of her victory, more than half a century prior, at the first annual gathering of the Montreal Roller Canary Club.
By March 2 of 1961, the faddishness for songbird-keeping having apparently lost its lustre, the only visible press the Roller Canary Club could muster was a paid ad in the Star on page 52 at the bottom of the “Domestic Pets” section of the Classifieds.
But for the three decades, nearly, that rolled out after the founding of the club and after that first article in 1927, reporters for the Star or the Gazette would, once a year, have fun with the canaries and their keepers. For your benefit, I’ve cherry-picked a few examples.
On January 20, 1930 — by which time Elizabeth Jenks seems to have stepped back and a fellow named Watson Bairstow, the author of a paper on how to encourage moult in caged songbirds, steamrolled all the competition — the writer for The Gazette opens up with this merry salvo: “Floods of Arcadian melody lent an atmosphere to the mezzanine salons of the Mount Royal Hotel Saturday…”
January 19, 1945, also in the Gazette, we read: “Dulcet tones of over 200 roller canaries pervaded the sub-track area of the Canadian National Railways’ Central Station Wednesday. … The birds travelled singly and in groups of two and three. … That the canaries enjoyed their train journey was evidenced by the fact that they kept up a constant warbling en route and should be in excellent ‘voice’ at the exhibition.”
I wonder if it might have been the sadly forgotten humorist Gregory Clark, in 1948, who wrote the truly witty account in The Star on January 9, 1948, that begins: “It was like expecting to hear Molotov learn a rendition of ‘In 27 languages he couldn’t say no.’ In other words, a tone-deaf reporter who recognized ‘God Save the King’ only because people stand up when it’s played, had no business attending the Montreal Roller Canary Club’s annual show and singing contest … Even the 253 birds, from all parts of Canada and the United States, at the show seemed to know he wouldn’t recognize a Koller from a Hard Aufzug. Especially disdainful was the bird that had come all the way from England for the show and a chance to pipe a Schockel with a broad ‘a.’ He fixed the reporter with a beady eye and said, ‘Glucke, Glucke, Glucke.’”
On November 25, 1949, this letter was published in The Montreal Star.
I wonder if P. Page might have been P. K. Page, who was then living in Montreal, working for the National Film Board. I think it may well have been. Mavis Gallant (MG) also worked, briefly, for the NFB, and their tenures intersected, even if they were assigned to different departments. That they met on one occasion, at least, is known: MG remembered the encounter — it was at a party, as I recall; she spoke of how she was intimidated, of how striking was P. K., six years her elder. To this I can attest. About 40 years ago — impossible, surely, but the numbers don’t lie — I arranged a reading in which P. K. agreed to take part. She took the bus to Vancouver from Victoria, and I met her at the depot. I’ll never forget the sight of her emerging from the bus, a true Greyhound among a pack of impostors. Really, it was like looking up from your newspaper and seeing the Spanish Armada hove into view.
MG was biding her time at the Film Board, didn’t stay there long. She had returned to Canada from New York City at the beginning of the WW II, had gone into the offices of the Montreal Standard to offer her services as a journalist, and was told she was just too young, to come back when she was 21. This she duly did — as Mavis Gallant, she would have been Mavis Young at the time of her first application — and was hired as a staff writer. The war was to her advantage; there were no men to do the job. For six years, from 1944 - 1950, she wrote radio and movie reviews, wrote the captions for many photo features, and wrote, most memorably, long and thoughtful features on a wide variety of topics. Reading through this writing now, as I’ve been doing over the last few weeks, I’m struck by how the national concerns and preoccupations of, roughly speaking, 80 years ago are surprisingly intact and unresolved. Immigration, rural health care, gender parity, industrial relations, literacy, child rearing, art in society: these are topics with which she wrestles, and that are still routinely parsed by what remains of the mainstream media (not much) and by the innumerable digital startups that are emerging in such profusion, in dizzying, mushroom-like array.
Mavis Gallant died on this day, nine years ago, February 18, 2014, age 92. She died in Paris, where she had lived for what amounted to half a century. Given the day’s mortal associations, there’s a kind of — a kind of what? not quite an irony, but let’s call it that — to how it was in The Standard, on this date, in 1950, age 28, the year she quit the paper and moved to the smouldering rubble heap that was Europe, she published a long and remarkably contemporary sounding feature entitled “Is Mercy Killing Murder?” Anyone who has followed the undyingly contentious discussion concerning what we now, in Canada, call Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), and which, in the U.S., in jurisdictions where the practice is sanctioned, is usually called Physician Assisted Suicide, will quickly see that the practical, medical, moral, and ethical points upon which MG touches are exactly those that enliven (as it were) this ongoing, often rancorous, discussion. “Is Mercy Killing Murder” is too long — perhaps 2500 words — to reproduce here in toto, but these few excerpts illustrate, I think, its contemporaneity.
“After decades of debate, we are no nearer to a solution than we were in the 18th century when Thomas More made euthanasia part of Utopian society. … Since the beginning of the century, it is an issue which has been wrangled, in and out of print, almost unceasingly. The arguments on both sides have not changed. And neither side has given an inch. … The medical profession itself is divided on the subject. Many doctors feel that too much responsibility — and possibly stigma — would be placed on the profession, and they ask the not unnatural question, ‘Why me?’ … There is also the definition of ‘intolerable pain.’ What is unbearable for one patient may not be so for another. Again, there is always the chance the dying patient might request euthanasia, although his will to live might still be strong, simply to stop being a burden on his family. And there is always the possibility of family pressure.”
It’s a pity these columns from The Standard aren’t yet readily accessible, because the whole piece bears reading, not just for the light it sheds on our own difficulties as a society in coming to terms with this Gordian knot of an issue — bodily agency and its limits — but for its own intrinsic worth: a well-researched, well-reasoned, extremely well-written piece by a young woman who had already come into her powers, and for whom greater things were in the wings. MG’s time at The Standard was a wonderful, lucky apprenticeship. She wrote, she published, she made for herself a name, and she came to the determination that to stay, as she might have done, would be both too easy, and in the long term, unsatisfying. In 1952, she would turn 30, and that was a self-imposed deadline, the age by which she had to know that she could be what she wanted to be — a writer of fiction — and that this she could undertake on her own terms. A few months and a few features later, she quit The Standard. On October 3, 1950, having been gifted by a "copain” who worked for Trans Canada Air with a one-way ticket, and also with 500 dollars given her as a good will / good luck gesture by the publisher of her paper, she said “Yes / Oui” to the rest of her life. She left Canada, but never left off being a Canadian. Arguably, she spent the next sixty year negotiating and renegotiating that contract, without ever coming to satisfactory terms.
It pleases me that in that same issue of The Standard, February 18, 1950, MG became one of the journalists — one of the last, what’s more — to report on the annual convocation of the Montreal Roller Canary Club: 225 well-chosen words, and three pages of photos to which, sadly, I don’t have access. For the record, in its entirety, albeit crudely reproduced, here’s the MG take on this less than pressing but highly entertaining subject.
Canary Contest: Rollers Compete for Prizes at Annual Montreal Event
Story by Mavis Gallant, Standard Staff Writer. Photos by Louis Jacques.
About 400 roller canaries warbled their notes (or “tours”) recently as the Montreal Roller Canary Club staged its 23rd Annual Singing Contest. The birds arrived from such scattered points as Halifax, the Bronx, Paris (France), and Vancouver.
Some of them seemed unnerved by the rigors of travel, then when the points were counted, it was an Edmonton bird who had walked, or flown, off with most of the honors. One of the judges, Tom Retallack, had also travelled all the way from Edmonton simply to hear the rollers perform their Gluckes, Schockels, and Deep Bubbling Water Tours.
Rollers, the show revealed, are bred not for color but for song. Trained and bred by ardent hobbyists, they are taught to sing when the doors of their cages are opened. When judged, each bird is given about 20 minutes to make good. Some sing with gusto. Others hop around flicking bird seed on the judges. For the latter, the judges mark sternly: “Does not sing through.” For others they write plaintive notes like: “Sings same song all the time.”
Birds are marked on range of voice, variety, and scope of repertoire, and the way the song is presented. They get demerits for such things as “ugly interjections,” “faulty flutes,” and something called “aufrug,” which the judge described as the sound made when you tear an old rag.
MG, we can securely surmise, sibylline though she might have been, would have entertained no thought of how it might be possible that February 18 would be the day, all those many years hence, that she would step into mystery. I do believe, though, that it was Europe, and Paris, she had in mind when wrote of how singing occurs when the cage door is open. I do believe she was determined that she would not have marked against her name a single demerit point for singing the same song, over and over again. That, absolutely, she did not, would not, could not do.
My thanks to Mary K. MacLeod, Mavis Gallant’s literary executrix, for permission to reprint the text from The Montreal Standard.
1 Oddly enough, I am writing this in Manitoba, in a village in the Pembina Valley, at a point more or less half way between the thriving town of Minnedosa (prosperous owing to hogs, I believe) and the sleepier burg of Melita, where there is, or was, an imposing statue of a banana, commemorating Melita’s main claim to fame: it’s reliably the warmest place in the province. Melita was how the Minnedosa’s sister ship was christened when they were completed in 1917. Both ships, in the mid-30’s, were sold by Canadian Pacific to an Italian shipping conglomerate, and were eventually deployed as troop ships. An allied submarine torpedoed the Minnedosa — which had been rechristened Piemonte — in 1942. She was revived, but then endured the indignities of an allied air raid, and that was the end of her. The Melita became the Liguria, suffered a similar fate at the hands of allied submariners, and was scuttled in the harbour of the Libyan port city, Tobruk.
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MG writing as P Page: that is a delicious, Sibylline thought! And Feb.18, at 30: how moving.
Thanks for there, Bill!
From another, lesser PK:)
This is so wonderful; intricate. Thanks again, Bill.