Thursday, November 13, 2008

Visiting Glenn Gould's Toronto? I'm sorry, that train has left.

Glenn Gould was a life-long Torontonian by choice. He had no desire to live anywhere else. And yet, according to Kevin Bazzana, very few authors mention Toronto in any significant way when writing about Gould. Bazzana argues that to miss the influence of Toronto is to miss something essential to Gould's character. That seems exactly right to me.

One of the reasons that GG was and continues to be so interesting to so many people is that, personally, he seemed so radically different from other internationally renowned artists; his puritanical disposition and persistently provincial tastes presented as a little bit odd. But, to long-time Torontonians, it all kind of makes sense. Bazzana does a great job of explaining this in his book so, if you're interested in the specifics, check it out.

I never saw Glenn Gould in person, but he's been around as part of the general Toronto "background radiation" for as long as I can remember. He was on TV regularly, on the radio a lot, and was a sort of general "man about town"—if by "about town" you mean low-key diners around Yonge & St. Clair or College Street in the middle of the night. My dad remembers Gould from high school (Malvern Collegiate) and my mom shared an elevator with him once (she recognized him by the overcoat, gloves, etc. in July). Today there is a Glenn Gould Studio, two Glenn Gould "parkettes", Gould's piano sits in the foyer of Roy Thomson Hall, and so on.

The prevalence of Glenn Gould "sites" around town is the source of some degree of international "Gould Tourism." A number of fans are keen to visit "Glenn Gould's Toronto." And it is certainly true that you can still go to a number of specific physical places that GG would have been familiar with, or known intimately. But, unless you can devise a way to travel through time, it is impossible to visit Glenn Gould's Toronto. The place is long gone.

This has little to do with what buildings are still standing or serving their original functions. The specific character of the city: sober, circumspect, grey, industrious, Protestant, provincial . . . uhhh let's see, what else can we throw in there? . . . dour, private, Church-going, Victorian/Edwardian, uhh did we already say grey? . . . anyway, that's mostly gone now, replaced by more modern, vibrant, multi-cultural, World-Class, blah, blah, blah.

Now, if you were flying in from say, Rio, you might say "Christoff, what are you talking about? This Toronto place is exactly as dismal now as you claim it was in the past." And, at least from that perspective, you may be right. But, seriously, if you weren't around before the 1970's, you have no idea of how much the place has changed.

Nine out of ten Torontonians will tell you that things are better now that we don't have to drive to Buffalo for something exciting to do on the weekend. Gould, of course, would have been that tenth guy—preferring the city when, as Northrop Frye put it, it was "a good place to mind your own business." Certainly something of the city's old soul seems to have been lost, and I find that regrettable, even if it was the soul of a Victorian spinster. Science fiction author William Gibson actually captures it well here.

Over the next few posts I'll try my best to find, if not some places, then at least some "situations" that might give you a feel for the Hogtown of yore. If you're into that sort of thing. You might start by renting this Canadian Classic movie. Maybe this one too.

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