the diary thing 
MY WORLD HAS GOTTEN SMALLER. A statement that needs clarification, of course, and the next thousand or so words, I hope, will do precisely that. I'm not trying to justify myself, or make a case that everyone should view the world the same way that I've come to, but rather to make a case for a kind of enlightened provincialism. 

"Provincial". In England, it's an almost unbeatable put-down, an implication of the essential lack of real sophistication anywhere except in certain districts of London. In America, the use of the word as a pejorative defines the user as that most un-American of things: a cosmopolitan urbanite, a europhile East Coast snob who, all told, would much rather be abroad. ("If you like it so much over there, why don't you leave?") I understand that, in French, the word's equivalents can create a confused line in the sand. Some people are quite happy to be called provincial, since the heart of France is supposed to reside outside the big cities. In any case, "provencal" is not only the name of a place, but also of a kind of lifestyle that millions of people, even in Paris, aspire to enjoying at least once in their lives. Amazingly enough, perhaps the French have it right, for once, in a twisted kind of way.

My world has gotten smaller, despite the fact that I have friends in the Bay Area, Oslo, New Orleans, London, Kenosha, Ohio, Barcelona and New York. I used to think that any worthwhile success was only to be had outside of Toronto, away from Canada, in a place like New York or London. Everything I did was meant to culminate in the moment I left Canada, and found real appreciation for my talents elsewhere. I voted, I have to admit, because of something a friend in high school once said: "If you don't vote, you have no right to complain about the results." (Thanks, Pete. It turned out to be one of the most valuable things I ever learned in school.) Still, I barely understood the issues, voted out of instinct, and probably couldn't name my MPP, never mind my city councillor.

I was a provincial, in the worst sense of the word.

I was certain that a creative person, an "artist", had no obligation to occupy themselves with awful, compromised things like money or politics, except in the most idealistic way. I had forgotten that my first abiding passion was for history, and that my earliest memory of being intellectually challenged was a TV documentary about the history of economics. Almost every "creative" type I knew felt the same way, and political discussions took an inevitable form -- exchanges of statements notable for their cynicism or disgust, escalating into shouting matches where the most indignant voice was the winner. Moral outrage could trump reasoned opinions every time. Without knowing it, we were using the same rhetorical formula as the politicians we professed to despise. 

At a certain point, the rhetorical pendulum began to swing towards anyone who could prove their superior victimhood, who could profess to speak more authentically for the "oppressed". A white male from a working class family could be beaten, inevitably, by a person of colour, even if they came from money and privilege. A woman, even one who had never experienced abuse in any form except a father's spanking, could draw on the legacy of male beastliness, of which it was an unspoken assumption that poor men were particularly guilty. This is, no doubt, a caricature of the "politically correct" tone of my college years and beyond, but I remember those times with a deep, growing sense of unease. I recall that the only reasonable stance a white male could take was one of cowed, implicit shame. It was a stance I learned to imitate, at least for the duration of one particularly stressful, cherished, long-term relationship.

"Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices; so climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping."
- Jonathan Swift

Accepting my limitations.
Queen St. W. and Macdonell Ave., Parkdale, circa 1910
Here's a view of the foot of our street, almost a hundred years ago. The amazing thing about this postcard of Queen West and Macdonell Ave. is that most of the buildings shown are still here. The one on the corner has lost its ironwork, cupola and flagpole, and the building with the two pointed roofs has lost the half closest to the camera, but you'd recognize this view today, minus the carriages and awnings.

A FEW YEARS AGO, I decided that I was an ignorant dupe. I was doing a lot of talking, but I didn't have a clue what I was talking about. The world was changing, moreover, and a few of the proudly profligate boho types I had known were making a great show of following the stock market, advocating a vaguely understood but nevertheless revolutionary technological revolution, and making a stab at voting with some prior knowledge of the issues at hand. Art had ceased to seem the bottomless well of fascination I had assumed it to be, and artists, on the whole, had not acquitted themselves well, as either friends or well-rounded, stable human beings. I was forced to admit that neurosis -- mine, or anyone else's -- was not a sure sign of genius, and moral indignation hardly the proud flag of wisdom.

I thought about going back to school. I consulted course catalogues and timetables and had the best of intentions of completing my long-abandoned B.A., but it looked far too expensive, so I put together my own reading lists and effectively abandoned my once-hectic social life for days, even weeks, spent at home reading. I can't say that my education is over -- if I've learned anything, it's that it probably never will be -- but on the whole my old suspicion that my relatively expensive education was wasted on my younger self was proved too, too true.

I HAVE BECOME, I HOPE, A GOOD PROVINCIAL. Somewhere in that whole journey, whose main revelation was that I didn't know shit about most of what I was talking about, I gave up on my dream of moving to New York for the busy commercial photographer's life. I was probably not going to be the next Irving Penn, but I was safe in the thought that nobody else probably would be, either. 

Toronto, I decided, was my home, and I'd better come to grips with the place, in all its many flaws. My hometown is a city of no particularly impressive urban vistas, no great boulevards or skyline, no architectural landmarks or breathtaking historical districts, but probably the largest concentration of livable, attractive residential neighbourhoods within walking distance of the downtown. In effect, they make the downtown much larger than just the contained centre of commerce and retail activity, and all without the tragic "hollowing out" effect, the "white flight" that damaged or destroyed similar American cities, like Detroit and Buffalo, in the years after the war. A pretty nice place to live, except perhaps in the depths of winter.

I've become obsessed with the history of specific neighbourhoods, with local politics and the forces that shape Toronto. I'm aware of the deep corruption that holds the city back, and the hostility with which the rest of the province -- indeed, most of the country -- regards Toronto. It's a provincial city in a provincial country, which makes that hostility basically self-defeating and, ultimately, more damaging. New York can ignore what the rest of America thinks about it, but Toronto can be starved of funds and legislated into submission by politicians who know it'll play well in their constituencies. This is, ultimately, the worst side of being provincial.

I MIGHT, BY THE END OF MY CAREER, have written a book's worth of decent work about my hometown, but I doubt if anyone outside this city will want to read it. You can't say the same thing about a book on New York or London, Paris or Rome, Moscow or Hong Kong, Tokyo or even Barcelona. But there it is. I might still be interested in international politics, or the affairs of Canada as a whole, but if I'm honest I have to admit I'd might as well follow hockey, or jai alai, for all the effect my interest might have on its object. 

I am, finally, a good and happy provincial.


Here's an interview I did with Niall Ferguson, the British economic historian.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
...the past
back to diary index
send me mail
the future...