In the summer, the Inner Harbour of Victoria, British Columbia, fairly pops with festivals, buskers, causeway artists and hustlers.
Hundreds of cruise ships twice as high as the Titanic moor at Ogden Point from May through October. The port teems with yachts and sailboats, float planes and water taxis, catamarans and Zodiacs packed with American and European tourists fulfilling bucket lists with sightings of orcas, humpbacks, minke whales, seals, Steller and California sea lions, Dall’s porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins … gosh, if you’re feeling particularly lucky, punk, you might just look out your Airbnb window and spot a pod of Bigg’s killer whales hunting and tossing hapless harbour seals.
Follow the Inner Harbour up through Portage Inlet and then onto Millstream Creek, where coho salmon returning from the ocean should soon be starting to spawn after this morning’s heavy rain, and you’ll get to my house.
Head the other way and you’ll quickly find yourself in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the 150-kilometre-long channel that serves as the Salish Sea’s main outlet to the Pacific Ocean. Its width varies from 20 to 40 kilometres, with the Canada-U.S. border between Vancouver Island and Washington State’s mountainous Olympic Peninsula running straight down the middle of the strait.
Looking south from the beach along Victoria’s Dallas Road at night, you can see the lights of Port Angeles — a Clallam County city of 20,000 about 40 km away — glimmering from the Washington shore. Clallam County has long served as an American bellwether. Go back 100 years and you’ll find only two presidential elections — 1968 and 1976 — in which a majority of voters there supported the losing candidates (Hubert Humphrey and Gerald Ford, in case you’re keeping score at home).
The no-frills MV Coho ferry makes four round trips between the Inner Harbour and Port Angeles daily. Sturdily built in 1959, it’s the vessel on which Millennium Bomber Ahmed Ressam, a onetime Montrealer, attempted to enter the U.S. in 1999 with home-made explosives and timing devices hidden in his car as part of a foiled plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport that New Year’s Eve.
From a distance, the Coho resembles nothing quite so much (at least to me) as a mini-version of those legendary Cunard-White Star ocean liners that dominated the Atlantic in first half of the 20th century. It’s a lot less fancy close up, but unlike the far more operationally challenged B.C. Ferries vessels that travel between nearby Sidney’s Swartz Bay and the mainland or the Gulf Islands (when enough crew show up or a rudder hasn’t fallen off), you could still set your watch by it.
Tonight it’s cold and clear, with the surface reflection of the waxing gibbous moon stretched into a wand-like lattice, interlacing hundreds of tiny waves that tremble far above the squirming facts and squamous minds of the permanent dark.
The sea is calm tonight. Rekha and I are listening to the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, at their return, up the high strand, begin, and cease, and then again begin.
But we’ll get to that presently. Tonight, we are drinking beer on Tuesday while somewhere far to the west, let’s say Japan, the good people of the world are washing their shiny Datsuns (but let’s call them Nissans) and Buicks, hosing and scrubbing them as best they can. This ain’t no disco.
We’ve just come from a meal and drinks with old friends in the restaurant in the century-old CPR Steamship Terminal, a neo-classical building featuring massive Ionic columns on the north and south facades. A likeness of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, adorns the exterior of the building, which housed the more than 300 historical figures in Victoria’s Royal London Wax Museum when we moved here almost two decades ago.
Busts of Queen Victoria, Mahatma Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and the others are now for sale and/or mouldering in bubble wrap — with or without their bodies — in the former museum director’s basement, not a bad metaphor for the turn our dinner conversation had taken. For as we talked about our lives and those of people we worked with 40 years ago, it occurred to me that we’re not far removed from becoming wax figures ourselves.
Don’t get up, gentlemen. I’m only passing through.
In the halcyon mid-1980s, that MTV world when bliss it was in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven, none of us knew how much grief and ill fortune was in store for even we privileged folks, hidden away in the shelter of our contented Darby-and-Joan, middle-class obliviousness.
I mean, we knew intellectually that bad things come to those who age. We just didn’t think it would unfold so bloody quickly. When the truth is found to be cellulite thighs, and all the boy within you dies, you better find somebody to love. That’s the part where Rekha comes in. (The love part; the cellulite thighs are all mine.)
Cancer has since killed some of us and stalks others fearful of recurrences. Post-polio syndrome befell a kind and thoughtful mentor to us all. Two wonderful men spend their days gently fussing over beloved wives suffering from dementia. Another, I hear, has become a virtual hermit after his son developed brain cancer and died. Another is battling Parkinson’s.
One guy suffered debilitating brain damage after being assaulted while trying to stop an intoxicated man from beating his girlfriend in the street.
Another wound up seeing his son, a teacher, charged with sexually exploiting a teenage student. The charges were eventually stayed, but not before costing the parents a fortune in legal fees, stress and embarrassment.
In the saddest case of all, a former colleague fought a long, unsuccessful battle to lift his mentally ill daughter out of the throes of an opioid addiction that stretched back years. It ended on Christmas Day 2019, when a Victoria police officer shot her in the back of the head with three plastic projectiles at the social housing unit where she was reported to be acting aggressively and holding a knife. She died four days later.
The cop escaped any kind of disciplinary action for deploying this supposedly less lethal “anti-riot” weapon, but the victim’s parents are hoping to finally get some answers at a hearing into the incident announced this month by the B.C. Office of the Police Commissioner.
And then there was the implosion of newspaper journalism, the profession we practised. Today’s thinner and thinner papers remind me of that glowing dot that used to shrink and fade out slowly when you turned off the TV and went to bed. Say goodnight, Dick.
I had moved on by then, but a lot of our friends lost their jobs in 1996 when the rapacious David Radler (a carrion-feeding buzzard modelled on The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns) and the blustering, bloviating Baron Black of Crossharbour — that great Canadian patriot, pampered scion of the holding company Ravelston Corp. and felony fraudster — assumed control of the newspaper where we had happily put in thousands of hours of unpaid overtime.
We had laboured under the illusion that informing the public as honestly and objectively as we could was an honourable calling. The titans of industry couldn’t see the point and promptly sacked a quarter of the staff. Not because the place wasn’t profitable. It just wasn’t profitable enough.
When I later saw him in action at the Times Colonist in Victoria, Radler was interested in big-picture issues like reducing pencil waste.
In a devilishly clever master stroke devised by Michael Sifton — the equally pampered scion of the Sifton clan, who sold both the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix to Radler and Black’s Hollinger Newspapers and Covert Box Movers Inc. — loyal employees of both papers were divided into catchment areas, like cattle in an abattoir, just before the termination of 173 jobs was announced.
If you were behind Door Number One, you still had a paycheque. Door Number Two and you were out on your ass. Senior editors were escorted from the newspaper buildings by security guards, Hollinger’s way of saying thank you for your service.
Didn’t seem possible at the time, but for many in that old gang of mine, it was a harbinger of worse times to come. Like every generation before us, these days we see lots of pretty people disappear like smoke. Friends will arrive. Friends will disappear. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Outside our protective bubble, of course, the Eighties weren’t actually a piece of cake or a quiet romp in the park. The Iran-Contra affair was in the news. The collapse of the Soviet empire. Tiananmen Square. Chernobyl. AIDS. Pan Am Flight 103. Air India. The Beirut Barracks bombing. The Iraq-Iran War.
The moving finger wrote; and, having writ, moved on in the coming decades to the Yugoslav Wars and the Rwandan Genocide. 9/11. The Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine wars. The rise of a combative and aggressive China. Climate change. Corporate-funded climate change obfuscation and denialism.
Not to mention the decline of the American empire and the apparent end of the tattered U.S. hegemony that had helped keep relative peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
In the land of those flickering lights across the strait, white-grievance fascism maintains its chokehold on the Grand Old Party, straight out of the pages of George Orwell or Sinclair Lewis. House Republican performance nihilists and Piggy cannibals daily re-enact William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as their country founders. No matter the no-longer-shocking revelations in multiple courtrooms, Mafia Don has half the country convinced that he has been sent by the good Lord to save the U.S. from the scourge of Mexican murderers and rapists, transgender Democrat pedophiles and other enemies of the people, like the “failing” liberal press that daily reports the truth about him to a benumbed, quiescent public.
You can’t read Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here without being chilled and astonished at how, by channelling Hitler as a folksy New Englander, he anticipated Trump in his characterization of Berzelius Windrip, a fascist president who transforms American democracy into an autocracy bristling with terror, suppression and totalitarianism draped in red, white and blue bunting.
Heck, you can’t sit through a performance of Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline without noticing a strong resemblance to you know whom in the character Cloten, described by Eliot A. Cohen in an October piece in The Atlantic as “a dangerous prince, a stupid, ambitious, would-be rapist whose courtiers mock him even as they enable his misadventures.”
Oh, this is sure stirring up some ghosts for me.
Just don’t think it can’t happen here. With muckraking career politician, CBC-hating, Freedom Convoy-saluting attack dog and cryptocurrency advocate Pierre Poilievre preparing to take power on this side of the border no later than October 2025, what will stand between Canada and Trumpistan? Only the exhalations of the sea and the grating roar of the pebbles.
But I digress. My point is just that things are tough all over, fellow cupcakes, and the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
About the time James Douglas was founding Fort Victoria in the mid-19th century on this harbour, where the soon-to-be evicted Coast Salish First Nations had thrived for millennia, an English cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools was spending his honeymoon in the ferry port of Dover, at the northern terminus of the narrowest part of the English Channel. From those storied white cliffs, you can look southward toward the French city of Calais, about as far across the water as Port Angeles is from Victoria.
Arnold wrote poetry in his spare time and was good enough to be elected professor of poetry at Oxford in 1857, though I confess to finding most of his stuff weakly derivative of Keats and certainly less original than the work of such peers as Tennyson or Browning.
However, to twist a line from Canadian war pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr., Arnold put out his hand and touched the face of a departing God in his poem Dover Beach — published in 1867, the year Canada became a country.
In Europe, at least, the old religious verities were receding like the tide. The modern world was being born. And decades before the exhortations of Arthur Rimbaud (“You have to make it absolutely modern”) and Ezra Pound (“Make it new”), Arnold had somehow staggered onto the headland before them.
He did it, in his lone stroke of real genius, not by projecting the future but by harking back to ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, who in the fifth century BCE stood on the shore of the Aegean Sea and heard the same eternal note of sadness remarked by Arnold and his bride.
Dover Beach has been and continues to be quoted, mentioned or alluded to in novels, films, songs and other poems precisely because no one has ever offered a better description of the intractable clusterfuck we have fashioned for ourselves, perpetually eyeless in Gaza. Speaking of ancient parallels.
Oh. And if Matthew Arnold really felt this way on his honeymoon, he must have been a riot at funerals:
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.