Doug Ford, the chattier contingent of the Brothers Grim now running Toronto, is itching to close local Toronto libraries. But he has retreated uneasily from his bluff statement about library-defender Margaret Atwood that “If she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” Now he says, confusedly, “Everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is but if she were to come up to 98 per cent of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was.” Rob and Doug, this is untrue. I have seen Atwood walk down a Toronto street, arm in arm with her daughter. You should have seen the reaction of Torontonians. A gape, a gasp, an elbow in the ribs, a pantomime “Did you see her? It’s Margaret Atwood!” Then they smile proudly, as if they have been given the key to the city of Toronto, which they sort of have been. But that’s not my quarrel with Mayor Ford’s smarter — which is not saying much — sibling. It’s what followed that rankled.
“Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected. And we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”
Atwood has been elected, even if it is not in the conventional manner favoured by Doug, a first-time councillor who has served all of nine months and now thinks himself an elder statesman. For poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Percy Bysshe Shelley said that. He was a poet, kept running off with young girls, marrying them and abandoning them for other young girls. He drowned in a terrible storm in 1822, his beach cremation botched by his incompetent friends, including Byron, who went off on his own to be sick after the grisly extraction of Shelley’s heart and the failed burning.
Poets are hopeless at practical things like rubbing two sticks together. If you want a bonfire — you’ll need a city permit for that, Percy — find an undertaker. But if you want someone to translate the scary world we live in and make it intelligible, go to a writer. Do not, I repeat, not, go to a Ford.
Even people who don’t like books do in fact like their children to read them, preferably in local libraries where they can reliably be left alone, lost in Narnia or Hogwarts. Writers are the people who teach you about how to live, if a tired parent doesn’t have the time.
And that’s what Shelley meant, that writers are our delegates. Writers like Atwood don’t want or need votes. They have words. When we buy their books or borrow them from the Toronto Public Library system, we are voting for them. What do people want in their lives? Books, friends, babies, a home that is a comfortable nest and, crucially, a city they can happily call their own.
“Meat dust” was the phrase Atwood used to describe history, the streets we walk on that were walked on by those we love. Atwood characters frequently walk the Toronto streets pondering their affairs (Life Before Man), the woman who ruined their life (The Robber Bride), a near-death at the hands of childhood bullies (Cat’s Eye), driving off a bridge (The Blind Assassin), the stupidity of a husband named Ed (Bluebeard’s Egg), the misery of love (True Stories) and endlessly beautifully on.
As I walk in Toronto, I not only experience a cyclist trying to run me down on Bloor, a man gobbing a hen’s egg of mucus onto the sidewalk on Queen West, another man arguing with a beggar about his alleged $40,000 yearly intake outside Holts, a little girl on a bike with training wheels beaming up at her father about her clever braking at the six-lane intersection at Lake Shore and Leslie, the father grimly watching for cars that might kill her, and a thousand other things. Here’s where the G20 cops tormented us, here’s where a child met her killer 30 years ago, here’s where her body was found. But I’m also placing Atwood’s rendition of those very places onto my own experience, in the process making Toronto a thicker, richer city.
Dinosaurs, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Hitler’s bombs layered London over the centuries. Toronto, the biggest city in a young country, is not quite layered enough for my taste but it will be once we let our writers at it.
Still, Toronto has grown up so much that every corner of it evokes a phrase from a novel by Atwood or Katherine Govier or Russell Smith.
Writerly layering makes Toronto more precious every year. That is why we voted for Atwood.
We won’t vote for Fords again, especially not if they close the libraries that we and our children love, and shut off our access to the real legislators.
Doug Ford, you fit into Toronto “like a hook into an eye. A fish hook. An open eye.”
You say you don’t get that reference? Go to your local library and look it up.
Hitting the books
• Atwood on libraries: “I think the impression a book makes on you is often tied to your age and circumstances at the time you read it, and your fondness for the books you loved when young continues on with you through life.”
• Atwood on behaving undemocratically: “If you proceed much further down the slippery slope, people around the world will stop admiring the good things about you. They’ll decide that your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied vision on them. They’ll think you’ve abandoned the rule of law. They’ll think you’ve fouled your own nest.”
• Atwood on hope and vision in 1981: “The writer, unless he is a mere word processor, retains three attributes that power-mad regimes cannot tolerate: a human imagination, in the many forms it may take; the power to communicate; and hope.”
• Atwood on the Toronto Islands, from The Robber Bride, 1993: “If no one lived on the Island, who would ever be able to look at the city from a distance, the way Charis does every morning at sunrise, and find it so beautiful? Without such a vision of itself, of its loveliness and best possibilities, the city would decay, would crack apart, would collapse into useless rubble.“
• Atwood on her 1972 classic Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature: “Canadian writing, interesting? Among the bulk of readers at that time it was largely unknown, even in Canada, and among the cognoscenti it was frequently treated as a dreary jokes, an oxymoron, a big yawn, or the hole in the non-existent doughnut ... Survival became an ‘overnight publishing sensation,’ and I myself became an instant sacred monster. ‘Now you’re a target’ Farley Mowat said to me, ‘and they will shoot at you.’ How prescient he was.”
Published On Fri Jul 29 2011