Category Archives: Arts

The hellaciously happy life of Marq de Villiers

The world-beating, Nova Scotian journalist and author has another book out. It’s about the afterlife. And, as usual, it’s a helluva read 


Marq de Villiers – who grew up in 1940s Apartheid South Africa, who became a Reuters news agency reporter covering the revolutionary bonfires of mid-20th Century Latin America, who moved to the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow bureau during the iciest days of late-60s Cold War mongering, who assumed the editorship of Canada’s most successful metropolitan magazine only to be slapped with a $102-million libel suit in the 1980s, and who has lived, since 1997, with his wife along a storm-lashed stretch of Nova Scotia’s South Shore – has been thinking a lot about hell lately.

Of course, that’s what you get when you write a book called Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, his latest and 18th released to generally warm reviews in March. People tend to ask questions, like: What is hell, anyway?

He could say something portentous. He could muse, for example, about hell as metaphor for the awful state of human affairs (which, he thinks, it is). He could talk about its many manifestations in the collective imaginations of civilizations through the centuries (which, in the book, he does).

But, in conversation, he’s more likely to confess he doesn’t really have a clue. The odd time, though, he does have fun with the question, as he does today during lunch at The Port Grocer Café in Port Medway, about six kilometres from his home at Eagle Head.

“Buddhists don’t have a god,” he says before tucking into a sandwich. “On the other hand, they sure do have plenty of hells.”

In fact, he notes, some historical texts portray ancient monks ardently embracing the notion of a supernatural that tortures the dead essentially by numbing them to death (again) with bureaucracy – perdition as a cosmic joke without a punch line but plenty of folding chairs.

This is how he puts it in his book: “In Chinese Buddhism, hells were ever more pedantic and ever more frustrating. More impressive than even the punishments are the lists of sins. . .Here we find people who keep other people’s books, pretending to have lost them, people who lie about their ages when they get married, people who throw broken pottery over fences, those who write anonymous placards, those who allow their mules to be a nuisance, and people who complain about the weather. Hell often seems to consist of endlessly waiting in anterooms.”

He takes a sip of wine. “Now that,” he smiles, “is what I call hell.”

Of course, that might only mean that de Villiers – born 79 years ago, the son of Rene and Moira de Villiers, in Bloemfontein, a small city in the South African province of Free State – has never really gotten the hang of the whole “waiting in anterooms” thing.

Even as a kid, boredom not brimstone was the real adversary. Avoiding it is what first drew him to writing – eventually about everything from the turbulent history and politics of his native country to modern life along the storied Volga River, from the fate of the world’s supply of water to fermenting the perfect glass of wine, from the clipped beauty of the schooner Bluenose to tips for surviving a post-apocalyptic future – more than 60 years ago.

“I had just finished high school and I was waiting to start college at the University of Cape Town,” he recounts. “I had seven or eight months on my hands, so I walked into the local newspaper where the news editor told me to go into town and come back with a story. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I talked to a few people, and went back to write the thing. ‘That’s great’, the editor said. I remember thinking: ‘People get paid to do this?’”

That’s not to say his writing life has always been hell-free. Learning how to cover the turbulent politics of South America from his London-bound desk at Reuters in the early 1960s wasn’t much fun. (“That was about the worst job I ever had,” he says flatly.)

Similarly, covering Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon’s delicate dance during the breaking days of international détente as the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow correspondent in the early 1970s could be tricky. And there was almost nothing uplifting about being sued, along with writer Elaine Dewar and his bosses, over a 50,000-word piece he authorized as Editor of Toronto Life magazine in late 1980s that cut a tad too close to the bone for the powerful Reichmann family’s liking. (The suit was later settled out of court. “That was not the funnest part of my career,” he grimaces”)

Still, he has to admit, he’s led a pretty charmed life: A decent education at the University of Cape Town and London School of Economics; generally good and interesting gigs on three continents; a truckload of prizes, including a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction; a happy and lasting marriage to journalist Sheila Hirtle, his sometimes writing partner; and a wildly beautiful spot in Nova Scotia, where he and his wife have made a cozy home since 1997.

Mostly, though, he’s been free to write pretty much whatever and whenever he chooses – a liberty that his fans, friends and colleagues appreciate almost as much as he does. “He’s a fascinating blend of the down-to-earth Canadian and the exotic,” says Nova Scotia journalist and author Silver Donald Cameron, who in the 1970s shared contributing editor duties with de Villiers at Weekend Magazine in Toronto. “He’s rooted here, but he writes hauntingly about Africa, where he was raised, and he writes with great authority because of the depth and accuracy of his research.”

So, then, given his broadly rewarding circumstances, here’s the other question he gets concerning Hell and Damnation (University of Regina Press): Why’d you write it?

The closest he comes to a public explanation is in his own blog: “This book is for those with an interest in the picaresque, but also for those who look on the human religious project with a certain scepticism, and are keeping a wary eye on the continuing overlap between faith and politics.”

Privately, the explanation is even simpler: Hell is damn funny.

“I was reading this piece in The Economist back in 2012,” he says. “It was called ‘Hell: A very rough guide’.”

That article began: “Hell is steadily losing adherents. The Infernal Tourist Board) has therefore produced a promotional flyer.” It ended: “To sum up: ‘Hell: Your first resort, and your last!’”

De Villiers deadpans: “I found the piece very interesting. . .well, that and the fact that Galileo once pegged the centre of hell at a place 422 kilometres straight down from the surface of the Earth, because that’s where Satan’s naval was indisputably located.”

He pauses, and digs for his wallet. Apparently, it’s time to blow this particular anteroom.

“You know, I have an idea for another book,” he says absently.

Is this one about heaven, perchance?

He pretends not to hear.

“I’m thinking about calling it The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin.

That seems benign.

“It’s about wood.”

He rises to leave.

“Actually it’s about wood, commerce and art.”

He steps towards the Café’s exit.

“And war.”

Then, he’s gone into the salt smell of sea air where, far short of eternal damnation, he goes to think a lot about whatever the hell he wants.

For: Halifax Magazine, October 2019

Tagged , , ,

When people are strange

Almost nothing about her job as the new president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is familiar, but Aoife Mac Namara wouldn’t have it any other way


In the vestibule of the downtown Halifax campus of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design the commissionaire is telling Aoife Mac Namara about a book. He doesn’t remember its title, or the author’s name, but it has something to do with 10,000 hours. “That’s how long it takes to get good at something,” he says.

The new president of the university is hanging on his every word. She grips the corners of his desk. She shuffles her feet. She nods enthusiastically as if they were dear, old friends. They’re not. They just met.

Or maybe they met a few weeks ago when, on her first day of work, she paused briefly to introduce herself and pronounce her name – which is Irish for “radiant” and sounds like “ee-faw” – before bounding up the stairs to her new digs on the fourth flour.

Her office is sparse. Sticks of furniture rest by a window that affords a view of Historic Properties and the harbour beyond. She has spent the past four years as Dean of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications, Art and Technology in Burnaby, B.C. This, too, is very strange. The space is queer. She’s not used to it. She likes it.

“We have to get used to the unfamiliar,” she says, not actually referring to the room where she sits or the man in the lobby. “We have to embrace it, be happy with it. That’s how we make ourselves more open.”

In fact, that’s been her signature move for most of her life. Born in Amherst, N.S., her Irish parents moved the family back to their homeland when she was three. As a young woman, she received two masters degrees and a PhD in fine arts before climbing the academic career ladder and eventually returning to Canada as Dean of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University in Vancouver and then to Simon Fraser.

“She’s a visionary, and students are at the centre of this,” Ellen Balka, Associate Dean of SFU’s communications faculty, says about her old boss. “But she also has a very strong understanding of structures and how they work. She’s not afraid to jump right in and figure things out, and that means she knows how to make change.”

She’ll have to as NSCAD endures one of its existential moments. Students fret about purpose and prices. Faculty (who went on strike earlier this year) worry about workload and wages. Administrators deliver balanced budgets to their Board of Governors, while outsiders question whether the 132-year-old institution can stomach the pressure to become more “market-savvy”, more “job-preppy”.

Mac Namara insists she packs no silver bullets. But she does have a plan, of sorts. She wants to know what, exactly, students hope to pull from the place. She’s keen to understand what, precisely, teachers need to cultivate imaginative thinking. She’s determined to meet with and hear from as many citizens of her college as she possibly can, and to fold their promising ideas and inspirations into the school’s curriculum.

She also wants to know who isn’t there. Who is, well, unfamiliar. “Why, for example, are other people not partnering with us?”

By “partnering”, she means with the big, wide world beyond the university’s doors. “We must demonstrate the impact that cultural industries have in different ways on the economy. It’s actually huge.”

She’s not wrong. Canadian Heritage estimates that in 2017 creative industries accounted for $53.1 billion, or 2.7 per cent, of national GDP, and more than 600,000 direct jobs. That’s bigger than mining and agriculture, combined.

“Ask anyone, though, and they won’t believe you,” she says. “So, we need to have better alliances. We we need to go out and talk to our neighbours, to strangers – to all of the people who are building partnerships and enterprise in the knowledge economy, in the ocean superclusters right here. It’s our job to help them comprehend us.”

She wouldn’t be the first head of a fine arts university to throw down this particular gauntlet. Today, as she moves from her seat to take in the view of an alien waterfront, she just sounds like it.

“I don’t buy this whole arts versus the rest of society argument,” she says. “It’s a false dichotomy. But I can sympathize. People believe that stuff. The story goes that you’ll never get a job and that universities don’t add value unless they provide clear programs that lead to existing, traditional employment. That’s disingenuous. We are living in a time when even the most stable professions are beginning to lose massive numbers of workers. Automation is completely changing the workplace.

“What I do buy is this: Students need to talk to people they don’t know. Teachers need to do the same thing. We all need to do this – to be open, to be empathetic, to learn, to collaborate. That’s how, when we walk out these doors, we’re all going to be future-ready.”

Ready, indeed, for the unexpected, which can be as exciting as getting to know a new job brimming with boundless creative possibilities, a different sea bound coast on the other side of the country, or a stranger who shares the same tastes in reading material.

Ten-thousand hours to get good at something? That’s from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Aoife Mac Namara is not familiar with the book. But, chances are, she will be.

For: Halifax Magazine, September 2019

Tagged , ,

The importance of being Annie

VALENTINA-PoseWith Halifax dramaturge Annie Valentina, you don’t always get what you see.

Forthright and passionate about her craft, she’s also soft-spoken and circumspect. Neptune Theatre calls her its “Artistic Accomplice,” but she seems more of a persuader than partner in crime.

Still, she likes the title her boss, Artistic Director Jeremy Webb, gave her when he hired her last summer to help build a more inclusive and regionally relevant creative environment. “It could mean a lot of things,” she smiles over sips of black tea, “so it’s a good way of seeing.”

What matters now is how others in local theatre see her.

She’s certainly not an unknown quantity. Since emigrating from Norway in 2000, the playwright-producer has taken the indie scene by storm. Last fall in Halifax, she mounted “What to Expect When You Aren’t Expected”, a piece she composed and directed based on an academic examination of the experiences of LGBQ+ birthing women in Nova Scotia.

Says Dr. Lisa Goldberg, a Dalhousie professor of nursing who generated the original research with her colleague, Dr. Megan Aston: “It went better than I could have expected. She’s brilliant, and I adore working with her.”

All the same, Webb insists, “she won’t take crap from anyone.”

She’ll need that winning combination of protagonist and philosopher to help manage Neptune’s new Chrysalis Project, designed to support emerging artists. “There is a lot of wonderful truth-telling work coming out around here,” she says. “We need to show it.”

After all, with Annie Valentina, you tend to get what you need.

For: Halifax Magazine, May 2019

Tagged , , , ,

The downtown party starts


Just because Greater Moncton, after years of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, has finally awarded itself a modest sports and entertainment complex in the western heart of the city, doesn’t mean the controversies have concluded.

In fact, in all the most significant ways, they’ve only just begun.

Exactly what sort of a facility will (should) this be? Has the community had a proper chance to review the planning options? What will transform the venue from an expensive hockey arena into a vibrant cultural space and back again. Indeed, how will the various clients and tenants shake hands to benefit all? And what, pray tell, is the deal with parking?

It may be a certain comfort to know that almost no capital project of this type or size at a downtown location in a metropolitan area of Canada (actually, anywhere) has ever proceeded without also generating a riot of objection and opprobrium. That is the nature of this particular beast.

Many reviled Maple Leaf Gardens in the heart of Toronto’s financial district as a monstrosity when it flung open its doors in the early 20th century. Yet, here’s what the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada wrote about it in 2006 upon its designation as a National Historic Site: “One of the most renowned ‘shrines’ in the history of hockey. . .the largest arena in the country when it was built, it was one of the country’s foremost venues for large-scale sporting events such as boxing matches and track meets, and non-sporting events such as concerts, rallies and political gatherings, religious services and opera. . .the Gardens holds a special place in the country’s popular culture: here Canadians welcomed a wide range of cultural icons from the Beatles to the Metropolitan Opera, from Tim Buck to Team Canada vs. the Soviets, from Winston Churchill to the Muhammad Ali-George Chuvalo fight.”

All of which suggests that the birth pangs and growing pains associated with integrating a brand, new cultural edifice into a community that maintains, at best, an ambivalent relationship with its downtown core will eventually subside. But not without effort, and not without a broad appreciation for the hard-won successes other cities have somehow managed to manufacture.

Consider, as examples, the two Londons – the original and its Canadian namesake. The former is home to the redoubtable Southbank Centre; the latter hosts the less expansive Budweiser Gardens.

Established in 1951, Southbank Centre has evolved by effectively engaging the neighbourhoods that surround it. Today, it boasts three main buildings – Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward

Budweiser Gardens, on the other hand, better resembles in both form and function, the as yet unbuilt and unnamed Moncton facility. Again, according to Wikipedia, the sports and entertainment facility opened in 2002 as the new downtown home of London’s Ontario Hockey League team, the London Knights. Significantly, though, over the years it has also become an important venue for other worthy distractions: “Budweiser Gardens was launched as a concert venue with Cher’s ‘Living Proof: The Farewell Tour’ in 2002. In 2007, Meat Loaf’s ‘3 Bats Live’ DVD from the ‘Seize The Night’ tour was recorded here. Cirque du Soleil chose Budweiser Gardens to stage its first-ever arena show, a rebuilt production of Saltimbanco.

Sting performed during his Symphonicities Tour on July 21, 2010, along with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2010, Budweiser Gardens was awarded as the Canadian Venue of the Year at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards.”

For Moncton, the controversies will surely continue. Eventually, though, we, like other cities, will get our downtown centre right.


Monuments or monstrosities


Nothing so divides a citizenry than the idols its government choose to worship on its behalf. Time, of course, has a funny way of levelling the peaks and valleys of what, initially, seems like a ferocious debate of eternal consequence.

When the French built their Eiffel Tower in 1867, it was derided by the intelligentsia as, “this truly tragic street lamp”, “this belfry skeleton”, “this mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed”, “this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney”.

In fact, Parisian artists published a formal complaint in the popular newspaper Le Temps, an excerpt of which read: “We come, we writers, painters, sculptors, architects, lovers of the beauty of Paris which was until now intact, to protest with all our strength and all our indignation, in the name of the underestimated taste of the French, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the erection in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower which popular ill-feeling has already christened the Tower of Babel.”

Nowadays, this formerly “monstrous” edifice is, arguably, France’s most loved symbol of Gallic civilization, the signature icon of the City of Lights.

What, I wonder, will we one day say about the so-called “Mother Canada” monument, the 24-metre-tall brainchild of a Toronto businessman who, having seen the graves of Canada’s war dead in Europe, thought it would be a swell idea to erect a statue in honour of them along one of the prettiest and ecologically significant coastlines in the country, Cape Breton’s north shore?

Indeed, what will eventually think about a memorial to victims of communism planned for a highly visible site in the heart of Ottawa’s government district, right next to the Supreme Court complex?

At the moment, and in both cases, the chattering classes are enraged (though the hoi polloi generally wonder what all the fuss is about).

Writing in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald recently, veteran columnist Ralph Surette was almost beside himself at the sheer effrontery of the Harper government’s moral and material support for Mother Canada.

“For those who still don’t fully understand the game, the ‘Mother Canada’ controversy should provide some enlightenment,” he needled. “The discovery that Parks Canada has furnished $100,000 to the project – after swearing that the statue in Cape Breton Highlands Park was a purely private project – blows the lid off the scheme. The political engineering on this comes from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“This is Stephen Harper building yet another monument to himself. It’s not just the money. The fact that the rules governing national parks have been casually trashed to accommodate the project has the PMO’s fingerprints all over it. No use hollering at Parks Canada bureaucrats. Like everyone else in government, they’ve been reduced to yo-yos of the PMO, detached from their guiding principles.”

As for the victims of communism memorial, controversy also attends. According to a recent editorial in the Toronto Star, “The problem with the project isn’t its size – though the original design was in fact far more intrusive than it needed to be. As we have written before, the issue is the very idea of turning a prime site in the middle of Ottawa’s government precinct over to a politically motivated memorial that does not speak to Canada’s own history.”

There is, of course, another solution to the various contretemps:

Stop erecting idols altogether.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Let us all now praise Alice


When news broke last week that Canada’s reigning master of short fiction, Alice Munro, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, Margaret Atwood – a national trove of boundless quippery for a deadline-stalked press corps – offered the pithiest reaction.

“Okay, everyone’s calling Me to get me to write about Alice,” she tweeted. “Alice, come out from behind the tool shed and pick up the phone.”

In fact, Ms. Atwood did write about her friend, who, until recently, rusticated in Clinton, Ontario, for The Guardian last Thursday. In her piece, she wrote, “Whenever the Nobel is conferred, a deluge of media descends – like the pack of cards cascading on to that other Alice, she of Wonderland – not only on the winner, illuminated in the sudden glare of international publicity like a burglar trapped in headlights, but on every other writer who has known the chosen one. A quote, a reminiscence, an evaluation! Account for it! Why her? they clamour.”

Indeed, Ms. Atwood observed, “Munro herself is unlikely to say much along these lines: Canadians are discouraged from bragging – see the Munro story, Who Do You Think You Are? – so will probably spend much of her time hiding in the figurative tool shed. We’re all slightly furtive, we writers; especially we Canadian writers.”

One could easily extend the metaphor to include all citizens of the Great White North. Politeness may be our international brand, but that merely camouflages our instinct to break for the back door when uninvited company arrives through the front.

And, man oh man, has the company ever come calling for Ms. Munro, who at 82 is the first Canadian to win the prestigious prize for writing and only the 13th woman to do so. Her name enters a list that includes Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who actually refused to accept his 1964 honour on the grounds that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

For better or worse, that does appear to be Ms. Munro’s fate. The arcana collectors have been working round the clock to answer the question: What do we really know about Alice?

For one thing, reports The Toronto Star, “she grew up in the countryside. Her father, Robert Eric Laidlaw, raised foxes and poultry, while her mother was a schoolteacher.”

For another thing, “Munro’s first marriage to James Munro, who ran a bookshop, produced three daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1972. She remarried, but her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, died in April.”

In fact, The Star itemizes eight other “should-knows” about the author before it reproduces the list word for word – just in case, presumably, you missed something the first time through.

No one, it seems, is prouder of Ms. Munro and her accomplishment than her long-time publisher Douglas Gibson who, in a letter to the Globe and Mail this week, argued that “all levels of government should immediately join forces in a race” purchase and transform two of the author’s former homes into literary museums.

“Arrangements to buy both properties – at a fair price, and an appropriate time – should begin today,” he declared. “Parks Canada should be involved, on behalf of the millions of future literary tourists who will surely flock to see ‘Alice Munro Country.’”

As the Globe reports, neither Queen’s Park nor Ottawa are especially enamored of the idea.

“I join all Canadians in congratulating Ms. Munro for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature,” Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, under the current national historic site designation rules, her homes may not be eligible for designation.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne observed, “We believe that local municipalities are in the best position to determine how to manage those properties.”

Still, all may not be lost in the effort to lionize Ms. Munro. Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa Thompson told the Globe, “[The Nobel] is just a wonderful icing on the proverbial cake for Alice. We need to just revisit what’s already being done and if there’s anything more that can be done, I think all three levels of government need to, in partnership with Alice, determine what the right recognition is.”

That is, if they can coax her from her perch behind the tool shed.

Tagged , ,
%d bloggers like this: