Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Marcel Duchamp & John Cage Play Musical Chess

On a cold winter's night in 1968, a phone rang in an apartment on Spadina Road. The man who answered it was Lowell Cross, an American student at the University of Toronto. He'd come north to write his thesis on the history of electronic music, studying under Marshall McLuhan among others. Soon, he would become known as "the inventor of the laser light show," but he was already experimenting with new technologies — combining electronic music with electronic visuals. One of his multimedia projects had just been featured at Expo '67 in Montreal. He was gaining quite a reputation. That's why his phone was ringing. John Cage was calling.

Cage was the world's most notoriously experimental composer. Cross was a big fan — in fact, Cage featured prominently in his thesis. Now, the composer was calling to ask Cross for help: he needed someone to build a musical chessboard.

At first, Cross said no. He was just too busy; he had a thesis to write. But then Cage said two words that changed his mind:

"Marcel Duchamp."

Duchamp was one of the most famous and controversial artists of... well... ever. When he painted Nude Descending A Staircase (No. 2) as a young man in Paris, even the jury of a cubist exhibition his own brothers were helping to curate refused to show it. ("A nude never descends the stairs," they told him, "a nude reclines.") When the painting finally did appear in public, it was part of one of the most scandalous exhibitions ever: the Armory Show in New York City, which introduced America to modern art for the very first time. There were works by Picasso, Matisse, Manet and Cézanne. But Duchamp's Nude was the biggest attraction. Thousands of people showed up to get angry at it. The New York Times called it "an explosion in a shingle factory."

But lots of other people loved it. The Armory Show inspired New York City's first modern art scene. And before long, Duchamp was a part of it himself: when the First World War broke out, he fled the military patriotism sweeping France in favour of the United States, which was still neutral in those early days of the war.

In New York, Duchamp continued his attack on the old, conservative, academy-based art world. When one exhibition promised to display any artwork submitted to them, Duchamp sent them a urinal and called it Fountain. They refused to show it, but it was too late. Just the idea of it — the questions it raised about the definition of art and the artist and the gallery system — was a massive, giant, game-changing idea. A recent survey of five hundred art professionals found the urinal to be the most influential artwork of the twentieth century.

Duchamp wouldn't be in New York for long, though. When the U.S. joined the war, he moved on to another neutral country, heading south to Argentina. He'd spend the next few years living in Buenos Aires. And while he was there, something happened that would change his life forever:

Marcel Duchamp became obsessed with chess.

When he got back to Paris after the war, they say he wasn't even really a practicing artist anymore. Instead, he became an officially-recognized chess master. He wrote columns about the game. He played it so much his frustrated wife once glued his pieces to the board. Duchamp was only about 30, but for the rest of his entire life, until he died at the age of 81, chess would be his overwhelming passion. Not art.

"I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists," he announced.

John Cage, by comparison, kinda sucked at chess. But he was pretty good at composing experimental music. He came of age in the generation that followed Duchamp's — and he was deeply influenced by the French artist. "The effect for me of Duchamp's work," Cage once wrote, "was to so change my way of seeing that I became in my way a Duchamp unto myself."

There was, Cage said, "One way to study music: study Duchamp."

And so, inspired by the rebel artist, the young composer set about breaking down the walls of melody, tonality, scale and structure. He opened his music up to chance, using the I Ching and random luck to make decisions about what notes to place where. Duchamp used found objects; Cage used found sounds. His most famous piece, 4'33", was nothing more than four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a pianist not playing the piano, giving the audience a chance to listen to the ambient noise around them instead. When the piece premiered in 1952, even a crowd filled with fans of the avant-garde streamed out of the exits before it was over, muttering angrily. Forty years had passed since Duchamp's Nude, but not all that much had changed.

By then, Cage and Duchamp had already met. They'd been introduced by mutual friends and even worked together: Cage composed music for a film Duchamp helped make. But it wasn't until the 1960s that they became friends. As Duchamp grew older, his health began to fail him; Cage realized his time was running out. And so, he came up with an idea to turn his greatest influence into one of his closest friends:

He would ask Duchamp to teach him chess.

The plan worked. At least once a once week for the rest of his life, one of the most revolutionary artists of the twentieth century sat down at a chessboard across from one of the century's most revolutionary composers. And he beat him every single time. "Don't you ever play to win?" Duchamp complained, frustrated by his own dominance. But Cage was just happy to be hanging out with one of his heroes. Besides, the composer had an even bigger victory in mind.

Everyone assumed Duchamp was done with art forever — no one, not even Cage, realized he was secretly working on a piece to be revealed after his death. So Cage found a way to lure him into one final public appearance as an artist. He would turn their usual chess game into a work of art itself.

That's why he called Lowell Cross. Cage needed a chessboard that could turn the moves of the chess pieces into music. It would require the kind of innovative, interdisciplinary design that Cross was known for. Cage already knew about Cross' work; in fact, they'd already met — they'd both contributed to a recent event in New York City billed as the musical equivalent of the Armory Show. Cross was the perfect person to build the chessboard. And as busy as he was, there was no way he could say no to Cage and Duchamp.

Still, there wasn't much time. The big game was only a few weeks away. It would happen in Toronto. Ryerson was about to host something called the Sightsoundsystems Festival — a celebration of art and technology — and the showdown between Cage and Duchamp would be the headlining event, held on the opening night. They would call it Reunion, since the spectacle would bring together a whole team of groundbreaking composers who had worked together before. Cross scrambled to finish the board in time; it wasn't done until the night before the match.

The following afternoon, a wintry Tuesday, March 5, Marcel Duchamp arrived in Toronto. As he checked into his hotel (the Windsor Arms near Bay & Bloor), he was worried. He told a friend he had no clue why he was in Canada. Cage hadn't told him anything, just that they were going to do something at Ryerson that night.

Reunion (photo by Shigeko Kubota)
What he found when he arrived was a surreal scene. Two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century took their seats in the middle of the stage at the Ryerson Theatre, bathed in bright light and the gaze of the audience. Photographers circled around them, shutters snapping; a movie camera whirred. The stage was a mess of gadgets. There were wires everywhere; a tangle of them plugged right into side of the chessboard. A pair of TV screens was set up on either side of the stage. The Toronto Star called it "a cross between an electronic factory and a movie set."

Duchamp was an old man now; he was 80. "A grave, quiet figure in a dark blue suit," the Globe and Mail called him; "his skin had the transparent quality sometimes seen in those who are at once very old and very well preserved." In fact, he only had a few months left to live. But he still played with a quiet confidence in the midst of the electronic chaos, calmly smoking a cigar and drinking wine while he studied the board, his wife Teeny sitting at his elbow with a cigarette. Across from him, his younger opponent anxiously puffed away at the cigarette holder clutched between his fingers. "Cage looked nervous," the Star said, "like a man who knows he's going to lose."

They were, said the Globe, "like figures in a Beckett play, locked in some meaningless game. The audience, staring silently and sullenly at what was placed before it, was itself a character; and its role was as meaningless as the others. It was total non-communication, all around."

It was Duchamp who made the first move. And as the players began to play, so did the music. Cross had rigged each square in the board with a photoresistor — so that every time a chess piece moved to a new square, it blocked the light and sent a signal through the wires.

Those wires were hooked up to an elaborate sound system. There was a series of speakers spread out across the theatre, along with a team of experimental composers armed with strange instruments they'd either made or modified themselves. "Tuners, amplifiers and all manner of electronic gadgetry," according to the Star. As the composers coaxed bizarre noises out of their instruments, the moves on the chessboard decided which sounds were heard and which speakers played them. They were echoed on the TV screens, too, which flickered with scrambled, oscillating images. One of Cross' prerecorded compositions was also added to the mix.

As the game progressed and the positions of the pieces became more complex, so too did the music. The room filled with "screeches, buzzes, twitters and rasps." The peak of the racket didn't last for very long, though. Before the match had started, Duchamp had given Cage a handicap — removing one of his own white knights — but it didn't make much difference. One by one, Cage's black pieces were being removed from the board. And as the pieces disappeared, the music grew simpler in response.

Reunion (photo by Shigeko Kubota)
It was all over pretty quickly. Duchamp took less than half an hour to beat Cage. They didn't even have time to finish their bottle of wine.

A second game followed; this time Cage faced off against Teeny Duchamp. They were much more evenly matched, locked in battle for hours, their stalemate stretching long into the night. The audience gradually grew tired and bored; people trickled out into the cold. After a few hours, there were fewer than ten of them left. Even Duchamp dozed off. By one in the morning, the old artist had had enough. They agreed to call it a night.

Out in the audience someone shouted: "Encore!"

The reviews the next morning weren't much kinder than the initial reviews of Duchamp's Nude or Cage's 4'33". The Star called Reunion "infinitely boring... Among great cultural events of the decade, this wasn't one of the exciting ones..." The Globe agreed: "a case of the blind leading the blind."

But the reviews, of course, weren't the point. The artists had done what they set out to do, what they had both been doing since the very beginning of their careers: breaking down the walls between life and art. It was Lowell Cross who put it best. Reunion, he said, was "a public celebration of Cage's delight in living everyday life as an art form."

Duchamp passed away a few months later. Cage followed him a couple of decades after that. But the memory of their strange chess match lives on. Nearly half a century after the two icons of the avant-garde took to the stage at Ryerson, artists are still performing their work. A version of Reunion's musical chess match was part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2013. A year before that, a Chilean artist mounted his own version at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. Another version was performed in Oslo that same year. And in 2010, during Toronto's Nuit Blanche, Reunion returned to the very same stage where Duchamp and Cage had battled with queens and knights and bishops — and squeals and buzzes and rasps — all those years ago.


The most invaluable source in all of this was Lowell Cross' own account of Reunion. You can read it in a PDF via here.

You can also read the Star's reviews (if you have a Toronto Public Library card, I think?) here. And the Globe's here. The Globe's preview is here. And they have a scathing review of another event from the festival here. There's an ad for the festival here.

But William Littler — famous for his balanced reviews — did actually kind of get the point of the event in his review for his Star:

"There really are no objective value judgments to apply... [Cage] sees no valid distinction between art and life, between sounds suitable for making music and the sounds around us... From breaking the barriers between his art and life, the artist moves to the associated task of breaking the barriers between the various art forms... Reunion is a total affirmation, an environment which offers us sights and sounds which claim to be no more than they are... last night at Ryerson, one man's opinion was literally as good as another's."

There are more great photos of the chess match here and here.

I found lots of information about the chess match here and here and here and here and here and in French here. The CBC has a timeline of Cage's Canadian connections here.

Read more about 4'33" here and here. Or about Duchamp's Nude here. And the Armory Show here.

There's a brief biography of Lowell Cross here. And he's got lots of information on his own website, with the time of Reunion covered here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

UK Tour Photos: The Blackdown Hills of Devon

There's a little piece of Canada in the middle of the English countryside. It's in the West Country, in Devonshire, in the Blackdown Hills. It's a land of magic and myth. Of fairies and pixies. Of warrior ghosts and witchcraft. Of Druids and Romans. Of poachers and smugglers. Of Iron Age hill forts, Bronze Age burial mounds and Stone Age earthworks. And this is where — more than 200 years ago — the founders of Toronto met and fell in love. The Simcoes grew old together here. This is where they're buried. They lie at rest with their children at Wolford Chapel, a small church they built on their estate looking out across these green hills. More than a century later, the land the chapel sits on was given to Ontario. It's officially part of Canadian territory. A Canadian flags flies outside.

I came to Devon to explore the Blackdown Hills as part of the Dreams Project's UK Tour last summer. I left dreams here for the Simcoes — and for Henry Scadding, who also grew up in these parts. I've already written a bit about it: a post about the ancient church where the Simcoes got married is here; there's a post about how they fell in love here.

But now I've finally posted a full gallery of my photos from my day wandering through the hills. You can check it out on Facebook right here:

And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Torontonian Historical Map of London, England

Toronto has a deeper connection to London, England than it does to almost any other city in the world. After all, our entire country was essentially ruled from this place for more than a hundred years. Some of the most important moments in the history of our city happened in this city, nearly six thousand kilometers away. As you walk through the streets of Westminster, or Piccadilly, or Mayfair, you're likely to pass dozens of hidden connections to the history of Toronto without ever realizing they're there.

Lots of that history is found in the centre of the city — in the bits you can see in this photo. So I thought I'd explore some of the Toronto stories hidden in the streets of Central London: from the solider who founded our city, to the mayor who rebelled against it, to the moment when Canadian women were finally seen as people. Each number on the map comes with its own story, plus links to full posts about most of them, some other spots in Central London connected to those stories, and a link to find the exact locations on Google Maps. 

You might want to start by opening a bigger version of the photo here.  

01 SIMCOE'S HOUSE. We'll start up here in Marylebone — at 53 Welbeck Street — because this is where the guy who founded Toronto used to live. John Graves Simcoe rented this place in the very late 1700s, just after he got back from being the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. For the most part, he lived at his country estate in Devon, but he needed a place in London too. He spent a lot of time here, trying to convince the government to invest more money in the Canadian colony. He was sure the Americans were going to invade — which, of course, they soon did — and Toronto was still just a muddy little frontier town. Upper Canada was vulnerable. The new province, Simcoe argued, needed more soldiers, defenses and infrastructure.

The government ignored his pleas. But they did eventually give him a big promotion: Commander-in-chief of the British army in India. Sadly, Simcoe didn't live to see his first day on the job. War with Napoleon got in the way. On his trip to the front, Simcoe fell ill. He died soon after.

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+ The British Museum (big green roof about halfway between 08 and 09): Simcoe's wife Elizabeth kept a vital, detailed record of their trip to Canada: a diary, sketches and watercolours. Some of that work eventually ended up here, in the collection of the British Museum.

+ Cork Street (near 04): Elizabeth Simcoe's diary ends with a final line when they get back home to England: "Arrived at the hotel in Cork Street, London, at ten o'clock."

02 LADY ST. HELIER'S SALON. In the early 1900s, 52 Portland Place was the place to be. And that's because it was home to one of London's most influential aristocrats: Lady St. Helier. She was a Baroness, a writer, a philanthropist, even an alderman on the City Council. The guestlists at her parties featured some of the greatest writers and most important politicians in all of England: everyone from Oscar Wilde to Winston Churchill. She also changed Billy Bishop's life.

It was a strange coincidence that brought them together during the First World War. This was back before Bishop was a famous pilot; he was just another Canadian solider who had drunkenly fallen down the stairs of the Savoy Hotel on leave. He ended up in the same hospital where Lady St. Helier volunteered. And when she saw his name, she remembered meeting his father at a reception in Ottawa years earlier. She insisted that Bishop spend the rest of his time recovering at her own home, where they quickly became as close as family. When she learned that he wanted to become a pilot, it was Lady St. Helier who pulled the strings to make it happen. And by the end of Bishop’s first week in the cockpit, he'd already shot down five German planes and earned the title of "ace".

READ MORE: "Billy Bishop & The Rich & Famous"

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+ Lady Carnarvon's Hospital for Officers (on Bryanston Square, just to the left of the photo): The hospital where Bishop met the Baroness is still there today. It's a prep school now. It was run by the woman who owned the mansion we call "Downton Abbey". In fact, her hospital inspired the hospital storyline on the show.  

03 THE CHURCH OF THE ASSUMPTION. William Kurelek was one of the most popular artists in Canadian history. His paintings of snowball fights, lumberjacks and Prairie fields hang in the National Gallery, the Parliament Buildings, the AGO, and on kitchen walls all across our country. But he was also deeply depressed, haunted by nightmares and visions. So, after he graduated from art school in Toronto, he headed across the ocean to check himself into a cutting-edge psychiatric hospital in London. During his years in England, Kurelek painted some of his most striking and disturbing images, suffered through a series of electroshock treatments, attempted suicide, and eventually found God, becoming a devout Catholic.

This spot, just around the corner from Carnaby Street, is where he started to hang out. He joined a Catholic social club here at the Church of the Assumption. He said it helped him to become "a happier, more glad-to-be-living sort of person." When he returned home to Toronto, religious themes became one of the most important parts of his work; while he was living in the Annex, he even created a series of 160 paintings depicting the Passion of Christ. But his nightmare visions never left him. Kurelek spent the rest of his life expecting a nuclear holocaust to begin at any moment, heralding the arrival of a Biblical apocalypse.

READ MORE: "An Apocalypse in the Beaches — The Nightmare Visions of William Kurelek"

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+ Blue Ball Yard (a few doors below 05): Kurelek got a job here, making picture frames. The experience would help him back in Toronto: getting another framing gig to support himself and making the frames for his own paintings himself. You can check out a bunch of them at the AGO.  

04 THE CANADIAN WAR RECORDS OFFICE. 14 Clifford Street is an important address in the history of Canadian art. During the terrible days of the First World War, this is where you would have found the headquarters of the Canadian War Records Office. The organization had been founded and financed by Lord Beaverbrook — a Canadian newspaper baron turned British politician — to record the Canadian experience of the war. Artists and writers were pulled out of the trenches and given paintbrushes and pens instead of guns and ammunition. Some of our country's most famous artists were hired as part of the project: authors like Wyndham Lewis and Charles G.D. Roberts, sculptors like Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, painters like the Group of Seven's A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley and Arthur Lismer.

In fact, this was back before the Group of Seven were even calling themselves the Group of Seven. And their work for the War Records Office helped turn them into stars. In Canada, they were being dismissed as "The Hot Mush School." Critics called their work "a horrible bunch of junk" and "daubing by immature children." But when the war ended, their work was exhibited at Burlington House — on Piccadilly Road just a couple of blocks south of the War Records Office. The English critics loved them, helping to lend them more than a little bit of credibility when they headed back home to Toronto. Soon, they were being hailed as the greatest artists our country has ever produced.

READ MORE: "How England Helped Save The Group of Seven"

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05 THE RITZ. Just a few doors down Piccadilly Road from the spot where the Group of Seven's war paintings once hung on the walls, stands one of the most famous five-star hotels in the entire world. This is the Ritz. And in 1920, just a few months after the War Records exhibition, one of the most famous Torontonians of all-time was staying here. Mary Pickford was on her honeymoon. And it was causing riots.

Pickford had been born on University Avenue (where Sick Kids is now) and started her career as a young girl on stage at a theatre on King Street. But by the time 1920 rolled around, she'd become one of the most famous icons in Hollywood history. And she'd just married another one: Douglas Fairbanks. London was the first stop on their honeymoon. The English public, starved for good news after the horrors of the war, went crazy for them. Crowds packed the streets for miles in every direction around the hotel. Even the King himself couldn't get through. Every time Pickford and Fairbanks stepped outside or tried to go anywhere else, the newly-wed couple risked getting crushed to death. No one had ever seen anything like it. Some say that trip to London marked the very beginning of modern celebrity culture.

READ MORE: "Mary Pickford's Nightmare Honeymoon"

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+ Waterloo Station (the big silver thing in the bottom-right corner): The first sign of trouble came when their train arrived in London. Huge crowds gathered to greet the couple and their carriage could barely push through the excited fans. 

+ The Alhambra Theatre (on Leicester Square, a block to the left of 12): When Pickford and Fairbanks came to see a play here, the crowds made them late. When they finally did arrive, the performance was interrupted by a ten-minute standing ovation for the couple. Fairbanks was forced to give a speech from their seats in the Royal Box before the play was allowed to continue.

06 THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION HEADQUARTERS. In 1909, one of the most famous explorers in all of British history opened an office here on Victoria Street. Sir Robert Falcon Scott was planning an expedition to Antarctica; if all went to plan, he would become the very first person to ever reach the South Pole. And he was looking for a few good men willing to join him on his adventure. One of the hopeful candidates was Charles Seymour Wright. He'd grown up in Toronto and was now studying physics at Cambridge. When Scott rejected his initial application, Wright refused to take no for an answer. So he walked all the way here to Scott's office. From Cambridge. A hundred kilometers away. Scott was so impressed that he changed his mind and hired the young Canadian. When Scott's ship sailed south, Wright was on board. And he wasn't the only Torontonian, either: Thomas Griffith Taylor was an Australian who would eventually go on to found the Geography Department at U of T.

But the expedition proved to be a disaster. Scott and a few men made it all the way to the Pole only to discover they'd been beaten there by a team of Norwegians. On their long march back to camp, all the men in the polar party died. It was Wright who found the bodies —  along with the dead men's diaries, full of the chilling details that helped to cement the expedition as the most iconic tale from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

READ MORE: "Toronto's First Great Antarctic Explorer"

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+ Waterloo Place (right near 08): There's a statue of Scott here, in the shadow of the Duke of York Column.

+ The Natural History Museum (a couple of km to the left of the photo): On the way back from the South Pole, the doomed men stopped to collect rock samples. They still had them with them when Wright found the bodies. Today, you can see some of those rocks on display at the Natural History Museum. 

07 THE WESTMINSTER PALACE HOTEL. It was on this spot, right across the street from Westminster Abbey, that the Westminster Palace Hotel once stood. It was one of the grandest hotels in all of London — the very first, in fact, to have an elevator. And it was here, in a big room on the main floor, that one of the most important events in Canadian history happened. In 1866, delegates from all over the Canadian colonies met here to hash out the final details of Confederation. It was in this hotel that they drafted a bill the British parliament would eventually approve, turning Canada into a country.

At night, the Fathers of Confederation would retire to sleep in their rooms upstairs. So that's where Sir John A. Macdonald was when he drunkenly fell asleep one night while reading the newspaper. He woke up in flames. His bed, his sheets, his curtains, his nightshirt were all on fire. He leaped to his feet and smothered the flames as Sir George Étienne-Cartier rushed to his rescue from the room next door. It was a close call; Macdonald was lucky to survive. And just eight months later, he officially became the first Prime Minister of Canada.

READ MORE: "Sir John A. Macdonald, Drunk and In Flames"

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+ The Athenaeum Club (just above 08): Sir John A. was an honourary member of the Athenaeum, one of the most exclusive gentlemen's clubs in the world. Other members have included everyone from Darwin to Dickens to Churchill. 

+ Bond Street (runs along the left of 04): The fire and Confederation weren't the only life-changing events on Macdonald's trip. One day while walking down the street, he ran into an old friend from Canada. Within weeks, Macdonald and Susan Agnes Bernard were engaged to be married.

+ St. George's, Hanover Square (just above 04): The wedding happened here, at one of the most prestigious churches in London. Twenty years later, Teddy Roosevelt would also tie the knot at St. George's. And the church even pops up in My Fair Lady.

08 THE DUKE OF YORK COLUMN. In the aerial photograph above, it looks like nothing more than a thin brown line, just to the right of the number 08. But from the ground, it's massive. The column soars 12 storeys into the air. The statue on top weighs more than 16,000 pounds. It was built in the early 1800s to honour a prince born just down the street at St. James' Palace — the son of "Mad" King George III. In the days of the wars against Napoleon, the prince was in charge of the entire British military. Mostly, he's remembered for being inept and for the time he got mixed up in one of the most notorious sex scandals in British history. But in the end, his name was cleared and every single soldier in the British army gave up one day's pay to build him this column right in the middle of London.

His name was Prince Frederick. But he was better-known as the Duke of York. And when he won a big victory against the French in the late 1700s, the news spread all the way across the ocean and up the St. Lawrence to the brand new province of Upper Canada. Eventually, it reached the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, had just founded a muddy little frontier town to serve as his capital. To honour the Duke's big victory, Simcoe gave his town a new name: York. Two hundred years later, the name of that prince is still plastered all over Toronto: from York to North York to East York to Fort York to York Street to York University to York Mills to the York Club to Royal York Road.

READ MORE: "The Guy Toronto Was Originally Named After — And His Super-Big Sex Scandal"

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09 A.Y. JACKSON'S STUDIO. The Group of Seven's most famous studio is in Toronto: in the Rosedale Valley, just a few blocks from Yonge & Bloor. That's where A.Y. Jackson shared a space on the top floor of the Studio Building with Tom Thomson, becoming fast friends in the days before the Group of Seven became famous. But when the First World War broke out, Jackson volunteered, heading to the blood-soaked trenches outside Ypres. The war took a terrible toll on the painter. When he ran into a fellow member of the Group, Fred Varley, his friend was deeply worried about him. "I’m sure if he had to go through the fight any more," Varley wrote in a letter back home, "he would be broken." And things were only getting worse: Jackson was wounded during a German bombardment, received word from back home that Thomson had died mysteriously in Algonquin Park, and his unit was headed toward mutiny and the slaughterhouse of the Battle of the Somme.

Jackson was saved at the best possible moment: while digging a latrine as he recovered from his wounds. An officer came to tell him that the Canadian War Records Office was looking for artists. They wanted Jackson to come work for them. He spent the rest of his war traveling across the Western Front sketching the devastation and then returning here, to his studio on Charlotte Street, to turn them into full paintings. No artist produced more work for the Canadian War Records Office than Jackson did. And his paintings for them helped to establish his reputation as one of the most promising artists in Toronto.

READ MORE: "A.Y. Jackson Goes to War — The Group of Seven on the Western Front"

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10 THE REBEL MAYOR. Just a couple of years before he became the first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie was living right near here — on Wakefield Street. He was in London to find a peaceful solution to the political crisis sweeping Upper Canada. Back home in Toronto, he was desperately fighting to pass democratic reforms. But the Tories of the Family Compact were opposing him at every turn: they threw him out of his seat in the legislature, burned him in effigy, attacked his home and business, beat him half to death in the street. Still, he was hopeful; he was sure the British government would to listen to reason. So in 1832, Mackenzie came to London to formally present a long list of grievances on behalf of Upper Canadians. He spent a year living here with his family, presenting petitions to the Colonial Office and staying up all night writing lists of his complaints. He even taught himself to write with both hands so he could switch from one to the other when he started getting tired.

But none of it worked. In the end, the British did ignore his complaints. And when Mackenzie returned home to Toronto, he was more radical than ever.

READ MORE: "William Lyon Mackenzie's Mission to London"

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11. THE CROWN & ANCHOR TAVERN. While Mackenzie was in London, England was seized by its own battle over democratic rights. And over here on the Strand, you could find one of the hotbeds for radical politics: the Crown & Anchor Tavern. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, some of the biggest names in Britain came here to drink and to argue, to hold meetings and to give lectures: people like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, and William Hazlitt. Hundreds — sometimes even thousands — of Radicals and Reformers would gather here, listening to speakers, holding meetings, or throwing a party when someone was finally released from jail. They even printed some of the very same radical texts Mackenzie was printing in his newspaper back home in Toronto. The Crown & Anchor became synonymous with the campaign for democratic reform.

But there was lots of space at the tavern. Not everyone who held a meeting here was a radical. Far from it. And in the very late 1700s, the tavern was home to a series of meetings by the most famous secret organization in the world: The Freemasons.

In 1792, they met here to make an important decision. The British had just created a new province in Canada, which meant a new branch of the Masonic Lodge and a new Provincial Grand Master to run it. To fill the post, they picked an American who'd been driven out of the United States for fighting on the British side of the American Revolution. He was one of Simcoe's men. Soon, he would be joining his old commander on the trip to Upper Canada. His family would become one of the founding families of Toronto. And in time, as leading members of the conservative Family Compact, they became Mackenzie's arch-rivals. Two hundred years later, people in Toronto still recognize the family name: the man's name was William Jarvis.

READ MORE: "The Jarvis Family: 60 Years Fighting Revolutionaries and Radicals — And How It All Backfired"

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St. George's, Hanover Square (just above 04): William and Mary Jarvis got married here while they were in London: at the very same church where Sir John A. Macdonald would get married decades later.

12. THE RADICAL TAILOR OF CHARING CROSS. One of the most influential Radicals in England was a man by the name of Francis Place. He was a tailor by trade, with a shop here at 16 Charing Cross, just around the bend from Trafalgar Square. His backroom had been turned into a library filled with revolutionary ideas. The shop was ground zero for radical politics in England, where politicians and protesters alike came to discuss the ideas they were fighting for. And while Mackenzie was living in London, he too was invited into the backroom here, exposed to some of the most revolutionary ideas in England.

This was a very dangerous time. During Mackenzie's year in London, he watched the battle over a bill called the Great Reform Act plunge England into crisis. At the height of the fight, shops and factories shut down. Political unions mobilized. Huge crowds gathered in protest. There were riots. Mackenzie himself saw the Tory Prime Minster — the Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Battle of Waterloo — pelted with fish heads and mud in the street. Francis Place was one of the leaders of the unrest: his angry posters were plastered all over London; he organized a run on the banks that threatened to bankrupt the nation. And he was willing to go even further than that: if the Tories didn't back down and allow democratic reform, Place would have no problem helping to lead an armed revolution.

In the end, the bill did pass. Mackenzie was there that day in the House of Lords to watch it happen. But the British government refused to bring similar reforms to Upper Canada. And when Mackenzie returned home to Toronto, not only had he lost his faith in the British system, he'd also been exposed to some pretty radical and violent ideas. Within a few short years, he'd be leading his own army down Yonge Street, trying to overthrow British rule in Canada.

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13 WESTMINSTER BRIDGE. The Victorian age officially began a little after noon on a Thursday: June the 28th, 1838. That's when the Imperial Crown was placed upon the young queen's head. And at that exact moment, one of the most fascinating scientists in the history of Toronto was standing right here: in the middle of the old Westminster Bridge.

Sir John Henry Lefroy was just a young solider back then — tasked with passing the signal along from Westminster Abbey to the crowds at the Tower of London when the big moment arrived — but he had a long and interesting life ahead of him. His scientific curiosity would eventually bring him to Canada, where he was in charge of Her Majesty's Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory at Toronto. It was part of an Empire-wide project to figure out why the magnetic field kept changing. And while he was here, Lefroy left a lasting legacy in Toronto. He co-founded the Royal Canadian Institute. And thanks to a famous trip to the Northwest Territories, he became the subject of what is now the most expensive painting in Canadian history: Paul Kane's Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy. More than 175 years after he stood on the Westminster Bridge at the dawn of a new age, you can now find Lefroy on the walls of the AGO.

READ MORE: "Sir John Henry Lefroy & Queen Victoria's Coronation"

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+ Cambridge Terrace (right side of the big park at the top of the photo): After getting back to England, Lefroy became a major figure in the administration of the Empire, including Governor of Bermuda and Director of Ordnance for the army. He lived here, in the swanky Cambridge Terrace, looking out over Regents Park.

+ St. Martin-in-the-Fields (on Trafalgar Square, the big square to the bottom-left of 12): As a baby, Lefroy was baptized here, in this church, by the Bishop of London.

St. George's, Hanover Square (just above 04): Lefroy also got married here, just like Sir John A. Macdonald and William Jarvis did.

+ The Egyptian Hall (on Piccadilly Road, a couple of blocks below 04): One of the most important moments of Paul Kane's life happened here, too. The young artist from Toronto saw a lecture at the Egyptian Hall by the American painter George Caitlin. Caitlin had dedicated his life to painting the people of the First Nations (sometimes very inaccurately). Kane was so inspired, he decided to do the same thing in Canada. 

14 THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH. It was a guy from Toronto who created Doctor Who. Sydney Newman worked at the NFB and the CBC before eventually landing a gig in England as Head of Drama for the BBC. He'd been a big science-fiction fan growing up in Toronto, so one of the first things he did at his new job was to assemble a groundbreaking team — including the first woman producer in BBC history, as well as the first Indian-born director — to make a new show about a strange old man who travelled through time and space in a police box. It would prove to be one of the most successful television programs of all-time.

 And that was in large part thanks to the Daleks. The genocidal aliens — giant salt-shakers armed with toilet plungers — were featured in the second story Doctor Who ever told. And they were a smash hit. At first, Newman wasn't pleased. He wanted the show to be educational. He didn't want any "bug-eyed monsters." But he quickly changed his tune. In the second season of the show, the Daleks were back in a serial that included one of the most iconic moments in British television history: the invading aliens rolled across Westminster Bridge during the Dalek invasion of Earth.

READ MORE: "The Torontonian roots of Doctor Who — The Canadian Behind the Legendary TV Show"

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+ BBC Broadcasting House (to the bottom-left of 02): The old BBC headquarters, where Newman used to work, are way off to the left of this photo. But the brand new headquarters are on Regent Street where, more than 50 years later, they still boast Doctor Who as one of the most popular parts of their schedule. 

15 The Colonial Office. We end here, in Whitehall, just down the street from the Houses of Parliament. Because once upon a time, this building was the very heart of the British Empire. Today, they call it the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, but it used to be known as the Colonial Office. For more than a century, this is the spot where Canada was essentially ruled from. As a result, some of the most important moments in Canadian history happened right here. Many of the most powerful and important Canadians have sailed all the way across the Atlantic to come to this spot: all in the hope of getting a meeting with the British bureaucrats who ran this place. They waited long hours in reception, presented petitions, negotiated with our imperial overlords... sometimes they were turned away altogether. Some of them had names that are still familiar to Canadians today: Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, William Lyon Mackenzie, Sir Sandford Fleming, Robert Baldwin...

But maybe most important of all, this is where the Privy Council used to meet. And even though they were all British judges, they served as the court with the highest authority over Canadian law. Higher even than the Supreme Court of Canada. So it was in this building in 1929 that the British judges on the Privy Council overruled the Canadian courts: they declared that women are, in fact, persons. To this day, it's one of the most famous and important moments in the history of our country — even if it happened six thousand kilometers away.

READ MORE: "Three Dreams in the Heart of the British Empire"

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Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here

 The original photo was taken by Wikimedia Commons user Stevekeiretsu in 2006. You can find it here. I've cropped it and adjusted the contrast and colour balance.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dream 15 "The Winter Beaver" (Anna Jameson, 1837)

Anna Jameson was lulled to sleep by the jingle of sleigh bells and the rocking of her sled as she was pulled through the slumbering pine forests north of the city. The night was frozen and still, but as she drifted off, warm and drowsy beneath layers of bearskin, she imagined the sky had come alive with the blues and pinks and greens of the Aurora Borealis. The woods around her danced; snows flickering with colour, shadows leaping from between the majestic bark columns that lined the wintry road.

In her dream, she thought she caught a glimpse of a beaver through the trees. His flat black tail was laid out behind him; his great yellow teeth tore through the trunk of an enormous white pine. But as her sled drew nearer, she saw that he was no beast at all; he was a bearded man wearing pelts from head to toe and a beaver tail hat pulled down around his ears. In his hand, there was an axe. And as he swung it back and forth through the forest, the trees crashed aside like waves.


Anna Jameson was a British writer and feminist who live in Toronto during the winter of 186-37. Her husband, who she separated from, was the Attorney General of Upper Canada (the province that became Ontario). While she was here, she wrote a diary called "Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada".

Learn more about Anna Jameson and her time in Toronto here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sir John A. Macdonald, Drunk & In Flames

It's one of the best-known facts in all of Canadian history: our first Prime Minister drank. Like, a lot. Sir John A. Macdonald wasn't just a charming social drinker; he got the kind of drunk where you find yourself puking on a chair at the Governor General's residence. Or throwing up on stage during a public debate. There were times when he went on benders that lasted for days, too drunk to show up for his official duties. And on a winter night in London, England — right in the middle of the final negotiations over Confederation — it seems to have nearly cost him his life.

This was in 1866. Canada was on the verge of becoming a nation. All the biggest politicians from the Canadian colonies had already met at two big Confederation Conferences — first in Charlottetown and then in Quebec City — to hammer out the basic framework for a new country. Drinking had famously played an important role right from the very beginning. In Charlottetown, Macdonald and his allies from Ontario and Québec showed up with $13,000 worth of champagne. Boozing and dancing and getting to know each other socially became a vital part of the nation-building process. And by the end of the meetings in Quebec City, the delegates had agreed on a list of 72 Resolutions. Now, all they had to do was to turn those resolutions into a Canadian constitution and get it officially approved by the British parliament.

So they headed off to England for one last big push.

They called it the London Conference. And it got off to a very slow start. The delegates from the Maritimes arrived in July. But the others were nowhere to be found. They were still back in Canada — delayed, in part, by Macdonald's drinking. The strain of Confederation and other political stresses were taking a toll on the man. That year, his alcoholism got worse. "He was drinking more heavily, more continually than he had ever done before," Richard Gwyn explains in the first volume of his Macdonald biography, "at times having to grip his desk so he could remain standing in the House." It wasn't until November that Sir John A. and the others finally showed up.

Macdonald was no stranger to drinking in London, either. In fact, he'd already been made an honorary member of one of the most exclusive gentlemen's clubs in all of England. The Athenaeum Club is still there today, right in the middle of the city, between Downing Street and Piccadilly Circus. Many of the most famous people in Britain have been getting drunk there for nearly 200 years: members have included Darwin, Dickens, Churchill, Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Duke of Wellington, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Michael Faraday, Sir Walter Scott... the list goes on and on. It became one of Macdonald's favourite haunts on his frequent trips to the capital. And it was far from the only place where he drank when he was in town.

The London Conference was being held just a few blocks away: at the Westminster Palace Hotel, right across the road from Westminster Abbey. The delegates spent their days in a big room on the main floor, working out the details of the bill that would need to be passed by the British parliament. Macdonald, as always, led the way — one British official called him, "the ruling genius and spokesman." By the end of the conference, he was a celebrity in England, getting recognized on the streets of London.

At night, the delegates would head upstairs to sleep. Macdonald — whose wife, Isabella, had died many years earlier after a long battle with illness and an opium addiction — had a room all to himself.

So that's where he was was on a Wednesday night just a couple of weeks before Christmas, reading that day's newspapers in bed. He'd already changed into his old-timey pyjamas. A candle flickered on the night table beside him. And while there is, of course, no detailed record of just how much Sir John A. had been drinking that night, it seems very likely that alcohol helped lure him into an early sleep.

He woke to the smell of his own burning flesh. He'd passed out while reading the paper and the candle tipped over, setting the room ablaze. The curtains, the sheets and blankets, even the pillow beneath his head and the nightshirt he was wearing were all in flames. Just months before he became the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald was on fire.

Suddenly awake, he leapt to his feet, tore the blazing curtains from the window and stomped out the flames. He ripped the burning blankets from his bed and doused them with water from a jug on his nightstand. Then Sir George-Étienne Cartier came to his rescue.

Macdonald and Cartier hadn't always been on the same side. During the Rebellions of 1837, Cartier had fought with the rebels in Québec while Macdonald stood guard for the Loyalist militia in Kingston. But now, Cartier was Macdonald's most important ally, bringing Québec into Confederation. His room was just next door. So as Macdonald's bed and curtains smouldered, the two most notable leaders of French- and English-Canada worked together to make sure the flames were all completely smothered.

It was only then that Macdonald noticed just how badly he'd been hurt. His hair, his hands and his forehead were all burned, but the wound on his shoulder was the worst. If it weren't for a thick flannel shirt he'd worn under his nightshirt, he admitted, "I would have been burned to death." Suffering from those injuries and a subsequent infection, Sir John A. would spend eight straight days in bed.

But he survived. And so would Confederation. Months later, the delegates' bill was passed by the British parliament. It was called the British North America Act; it came into effect on July 1, 1867. The Dominion of Canada was officially born.

And Macdonald's battle with the fire in his hotel room wasn't the only life-saving event during his trip to London. Just a few days before the blaze, he ran into an old friend while walking down one of the most fashionable streets in the city. By the time they left London, Macdonald and Susan Agnes Bernard were married — celebrations included a breakfast feast at the very same hotel where Sir John A. had nearly lost his life. His new wife would prove to be unshakeable in her quest to curb his drinking. And while, in the end, it was a losing battle — there were still plenty of benders to come — one of Macdonald's biographers figures that her efforts may have added as much 20 extra years to his life. Enough time to spend nearly two decades as Prime Minster and leave a deep and lasting legacy — for better and for worse — on the country he helped to create.

So today, 200 years after Sir John A. Macdonald was born, he's still the most famous drunk in all of Canadian history.


The Athenaeum Club

A dream for Sir John A. outside the Athenaeum Club

Bond Street, where Macdonald ran into his future wife

A dream for Sir John A. on Bond Street

Macdonald House, the Canadian High Commission in London

A dream for Sir John A. outside Macdonald House

Macdonald House, in Mayfair, London

A dream for John A. where the hotel once stood

The spot where Macdonald's favourite London hotel stood

A dream for John A. where his favourite London hotel was

St. George's Hanover Square, where Macdonald married

A dream for Sir John A. at the church where he got married

The old Colonial Office, where John A. had many meetings

A dream for John A. outside the old Colonial Office

Where the Westminster Palace Hotel once stood


Much of the specific information about the fire comes from Gwyn's two-volume biography of Macdonald and Patricia Phenix's "Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of Sir John A. Macdonald". You can buy volume one of Gwyn's biography here or volume two here, or borrow them from the Toronto Public Library here and here. You can buy Phenix's biography here. Or borrow it here.

I wrote a bit more about the Athenaeum Club here. And about the gentlemen's club Macdonald founded in Toronto, on King Street, here. Plus a little about the Colonial Office in London here.

Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here

This post is related to dream
35 The Final Campaign
Sir John A. Macdonald, 1891

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Twelve Most Favourite Posts from 2014

This was a big year for The Toronto Dreams Project. I published more posts on this blog in 2014 than in any other year since I launched this thing back in 2010. And for the first time, I got to leave to dreams about the history of Toronto not just in Toronto itself but all over the place. Thanks to the supporters of my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, I took the Dreams Project on the road to visit Toronto-related historical sites in England and Wales. Plus, I made treks to Quebec City and Niagara Falls. I launched twelve new dreams this year, continued to write my column over at Spacing, and added new, musically-themed sticky plaques to Toronto's grungy bar bathroom walls.

Now, with just a few days left before 2015, I figured I would be completely self-indulgent and look back at some of my favourite posts from the last twelve months, giving you the chance to catch any of the best stuff you might have missed. I've picked a dozen of my favourite stories, covering everything from Fraggles to vikings to The Beatles to baseball to the apocalypse... Some of them are among the most popular posts I wrote this year; some are just personal favourites.

So here we go:

Elizabeth Simcoe's 1794 Nightmare — The Story Behind One of Toronto's First Recorded Dreams
Toronto was founded in a troubled time. It was the summer of 1793 when the first British soldiers showed up to clear the forest and make way for our brand new town. Just ten years earlier, some of those same men had been fighting in the American Revolution. Their commander, John Graves Simcoe, was a hero of that bloody war; no stranger to danger and death. In fact, he seems lucky to have survived the Revolution at all. He was wounded three times — once very seriously. At one point, he was captured and spent six months in an American prison. But by the end of the Revolution, he had earned a reputation as one of the bright and rising stars of the British military. He did so well that when the British created a brand new province in what's now southern Ontario — a home for Loyalists driven out of the United States by the rebels — they chose Simcoe to run it: the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada... [continue reading this post from January 6, 2014]

Down At Fraggle Rock... In Yorkville — The Muppets Take Toronto
It all started in 1981 at the Hyde Park Hotel in London, England. Jim Henson was there with some of his writers and puppeteers. For the last five extraordinary years, The Muppet Show had been filmed in a nearby studio, but now it was coming to an end. Henson wanted to brainstorm ideas for a new children's television series. This one was going be even more ambitious. Years later, one of the puppeteers remembered the moment it all began: "Jim walked into the room and said, ‘I want to do a show that will change the world and end war.'" That's how Fraggle Rock started... [continue reading this post from February 13, 2014]

How Toronto Helped Break Up The Beatles
At first, no one believed it was really happening. It sounded too good to be true. The Toronto Rock 'N' Rock Revival Show was going to be a massive, thirteen-hour spectacle in tribute to old-timey jukebox rock & roll. The line-up was going to feature some of the greatest rock stars that had ever lived: a mix, mostly, of old greats from the 1950s and up-and-coming young stars. Little Richard. Chuck Berry. Alice Cooper. Jerry Lee Lewis. Bo Diddley. Chicago. The Doors. Gene Vincent. Junior Walker & The All-Stars. But tickets for the festival hadn't been selling well at all. People in 1969 weren't really all that interested in rock & roll from the '50s. They were into psychedelic rock now; Woodstock had happened less than a month earlier. So it seemed pretty convenient when the rumour started: that John Lennon was going to show up with Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and The Plastic Ono Band in tow... [continue reading this post from March 3, 2014]

Toronto's Greatest Second Baseman Ever (Isn't Who You Think It Is)
When you ask Google who the greatest second baseman of all-time was, a few names pop up. Rogers Hornsby is a popular pick, a star for the St. Louis Cardinals back in the 1920s and '30s. Some people say it was the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson or the Reds' Joe Morgan or the great Eddie Collins who played for the A's and White Sox. Roberto Alomar's name comes up, too — the Blue Jays Hall of Famer is easily one of the best ever. But he's not the greatest second baseman to ever wear a Toronto uniform. That honour goes to the man who played second base for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1917... [continue reading this post from April 1, 2014]

An Apocalypse in the Beaches — William Kurelek's Nightmare Visions
He was, in a lot ways, something of a Canadian stereotype. He was born in a shack on the Prairies during the winter of 1927. He grew up working on his parents' farm, ploughing fields and tending cows. When he was older, he worked as a lumberjack in the towering forests of Québec and on the shores of Lake Superior. As a construction worker, he put curbs on the streets of Edmonton and built grain elevators in Thunder Bay. As a waiter, he served the rich and famous at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. And as a painter... Well, as a painter, he became one of the most successful artists in Canadian history, using scenes from his past to capture the spirit of the nation on canvasses that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. His work hangs on the walls of some of the most important art galleries in the world — and in kitchens all across our country. His paintings are praised as being quintessentially Canadian. Books of his work have titles like A Prairie Boy's Summer, Lumberjack, The Last of the Arctic and O Toronto. He's been hailed as "Canada's Norman Rockwell."

But William Kurelek had a dark side, too. So dark, in fact, that by the end of his life, he was convinced the world was about end in a blaze of Biblical fury. It's one the reasons his biographer, Patricia Morley, calls Kurelek's life "one of the strangest stories ever told... [continue reading this post from April 17, 2014]

Toronto's Secret Viking Heritage
The Vikings, of course, aren't exactly the first people who leap to mind when you think of Toronto's heritage. After all, we're a city founded by the British in territory previously claimed by the French on the ancestral lands of the First Nations. And while many people from Scandinavia have called Toronto home, immigration from the northern reaches of Europe has generally been dwarfed by immigration from other parts of the world.

But if you know where to look, the linguistic traces of a distant Viking past are all around you. You can find them in the names of our streets, our neighbourhoods, our libraries, our schools... In words we use every day. And for the most part, that's thanks to events that happened more than a thousand years ago many thousands of kilometers away. When the Vikings invaded the British Isles...  [continue reading this post from July 5, 2014]

How The Simcoes Fell In Love — And The Magical Hills Where It Happened
These are the Blackdown Hills. They're one of England's official "Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty," all rolling green hillsides and yellow fields and ancient trees lining roads so old they've worn deep groves into the ground. It's a land of magic and of myth: of pixies and fairies, of warrior ghosts and witchcraft, of Druids and Romans, of poachers and smugglers, of Iron Age hill forts, Bronze Age burial mounds and Stone Age earthworks. And this is where the founders of Toronto fell in love.

The story of the Simcoes starts with a man named Samuel Graves. He was an Admiral in the British navy; he spent much of the 1700s fighting. He was the Captain of a ship during the Seven Years' War and he was the head of the whole North American fleet during the early days of the American Revolution. That bit didn't go very well: he was ordered to control the entire east coast of the United States with only a couple dozen ships. Those orders have gone down in history as one of the most impossible tasks ever asked of a naval officer. Graves was doomed to fail. Eventually, he was replaced and he headed home to his country estate, where he'd live out the rest of his days in relative peace and quiet... [continue reading this post from July 28, 2014]

Mary Pickford's Nightmare Honeymoon
It was 1920. Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in the world. She'd been born in Toronto in the late 1800s: on University Avenue — where Sick Kids is now — and made her stage debut as a young girl at the prestigious Princess Theatre on King Street. Her early days here launched a career that took her all the way to Broadway and then to Hollywood where she became one the greatest silent film stars of all-time. She was at the height of her career in those early days of cinema when the movies were redefining what it meant to be famous. Her golden curls became a global icon. One columnist went so far as to call her "the most famous woman who has ever lived".

Now, Pickford had fallen in love with another one of the most famous movie stars ever: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. They were married in a small, private ceremony outside Los Angeles. Their honeymoon would take them to England and to Europe. And it would be unlike anything the world had ever seen... [continue reading this post from August 29, 2014]

William Lyon Mackenzie's Mission To London
It was 1832. William Lyon Mackenzie was fed up. He'd spent the last decade fighting for democratic reform in Upper Canada. He'd founded a pro-democracy newspaper. Written passionate editorials. Led protests. Organized committees. He'd even run for office and been elected to the provincial Assembly, where he gained a reputation as one of the most radical champions of the Reform cause. This was before he became the first Mayor of Toronto — and long before before his failed revolution — but he was already one of the most polarizing figures in the province. Still, no matter how famous he got, he was blocked at every turn.

Upper Canada was still pretty new back then. The province that would one day become Ontario was only a few decades old. It had been founded in the late 1700s as a safe haven for refugees from the American Revolution. During that bloody war, they'd seen for themselves the horrors committed in the name of democracy. And it was followed closely by the terror of the French Revolution. So, many of the early settlers in Upper Canada had a deep distrust of democratic ideas — what the first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, once called "the tyranny of democracy..." [continue reading this post from September 30, 2014]

The First (Almost) Canadian President
There’s a small town on the very western edge of England, not far from the River Severn, which marks the border with Wales. It’s called Thornbury. It’s a lovely place; the High Street is lined with flowers, filled with shoppers, and draped in bunting and flags. There’s a lot of history, too. Thornbury is where they found one of the biggest hoards of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain. There’s a church from the 1100s. And right next door to that is the 500 year-old Thornbury Castle, where King Henry VIII once stayed with Anne Boleyn after beheading the original owner for treason.

But Thornbury also has a connection to the history of Toronto. It’s the town where John Rolph was born. And for a few brief days during the winter of 1837, it looked like John Rolph might end up being the very first Canadian President... [continue reading this post from October 28, 2014]

Two Toronto Nurses & One of the Most Terrible Nights of the First World War
One dark night in the summer of 1918, the HMHS Llandovery Castle was steaming through the waters of the North Atlantic. She was far off the southern tip of Ireland, nearly two hundred kilometers from the nearest land. It was a calm night, with a light breeze and a clear sky. The ship had been built in Glasgow and was named after a castle in Wales, but now she was a Canadian vessel. Since the world had been plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever seen, the steamship had been turned into a floating hospital. She was returning from Halifax, where she had just dropped off hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers. On board were the ship's crew and her medical personnel — including fourteen nurses. They were just a few of more than two thousand Canadian women who volunteered to serve overseas as "Nursing Sisters," healing wounds and saving lives and comforting those who couldn't be saved. As the ship sliced through the water, big red crosses shone out from either side of the hull, bright beacons in the dark. The trip was almost over. Soon, they'd be in Liverpool.

But then, without warning, the calm of the night was shattered by a terrible explosion... [continue reading this post from November 11, 2014]

The Day The Sun Turned Blue Above Toronto
The first sign of the apocalypse came on a Saturday night in the early autumn of 1950. It was a little after 9 o'clock. That's when a star was seen streaking across the sky above Toronto; some said it was as big as the moon. It was gone in an instant; it broke apart into three pieces and disappeared over the lake. Most people didn't even notice. But the meteor was just the beginning. The real show started the next day, when the sun turned blue.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Toronto — which is what all Sunday afternoons were like in Toronto back then. The stores were closed. People went to church. They hung out at home and spent time with their families. It was the first day after Daylight Saving Time, too, so people were enjoying the extra hour of rest. And since they were already expecting it to get dark early, some of them didn't even notice how early it really was. It was only the middle of the afternoon when a gloom fell over the city, like an eery, early dusk. Something had gone wrong with the sky... [continue reading this post from December 8, 2014]