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Bud the Spud at the Boy Scout Jamboree

When Stompin’ Tom Connors died a week or so ago, I thought back to the time I saw him perform live at the Canadian Boy Scout Jamboree at Cabot Beach, Prince Edward Island in July of 1977. His abbreviated concert now seems to me to have been both apt and inappropriate: a contradiction that haunts most of Connors’s music, at least as I hear it. For me, it’s hard to listen to the thudding polka beat and reedy vocals of “The Ketchup Song” – for instance – and not be utterly embarrassed by the bathos and yet wholly enthralled by his strangely unshakable commitment to Canadian regional quiddities: Stompin’ Tom’s quirky lyrics voice a wryly ardent poetics of his, of our places, and of our brands. 
Foxed snapshot of a row of flags near the entrance to CJ’77
A duplicitous adolescent nationalism attaches itself to this mid-seventies moment in my own life, like an ideological push-me-pull-you, epitomized in my participation in Boy Scouts that summer. 
Lighthouse tower with the jamboree logo
I wore the uniform, happily and a little proudly and doubtless naively, but was also (more by preadolescent instinct than conscious choice) a bit of a skeptic and a cynic. Wanting to believe, as the troubling Friedrich Nietzsche says somewhere else and about somebody else, is not the same thing as believing. I wanted the buy-in, and tried hard, but could never fully manage it. And that’s how I hear my own version of Stompin’ Tom, then, for what must have been the first time, and now, for the umpteenth: with ambivalence, as a sound wanting my buy-in, but me being finally unwilling or unable to let go and do it, to just “tune [my] attitude in.” 
So, I have been clicking and surfing now for a few days off and on, but can’t find any electronic evidence that Stompin’ Tom actually performed at the jamboree. My memory might be faulty, sure, there’s always a chance of that, but I’m sure, sure it was also real, that this concert happened and that I was there, one among 16000 uniformed, preadolescent boys and their leaders. There must be others who remember him. As I recall things, he might have been the opening act for Anne Murray, who was an even bigger deal then than she might be now, and who had come to the jamboree to film part of an Anne Murray and Friends specialthat was to air on CBC television maybe that fall. This was the first national – even international – scouting event of its kind in Canada since 1961, and the fourth jamboree ever to have taken place. (They now recur at four- to six- year intervals.) The tent-city of boys near the Atlantic seaboard represented a resurgence of idealistic, late colonial Canadian nationalism, ten years after the centennial, for which we were both constructive participants and captive audience. The backdrop of the main stage offered a map of the country, with the provinces coloured in pinks and greens reminiscent of the elementary school geography class wall-hangings we all knew by sight, but enlarged. At the outdoor spectacle – which was staged like an oversized set of “campfire” songs – we heard Anne Murray and experienced a flyover by the Snowbirds jets (which now seems to me like a kind of parodically sentimentalized Canadian militarism). 
Snowbird flypast, over the ocean.
Apparently, a kilted and uniformed Prince Charles – as the movement’s and the dominion’s “chief scout” – addressed us, although I can’t remember what he said or even that he was there. 
The outdoor stage. It is too small to see who is talking
or performing, but I think it’s Prince Charles.
(I was even interviewed on tv – it might have been ATV or CBC – as some sort of representative boy scout; I think my scoutmaster had some connections in Nova Scotia, and he was kind enough to get some of his scouts out into view. Sadly for me, there’s no tape I know of to prove that this happened, but my parents saw it, all five seconds of it.) But I do remember Stompin’ Tom.
         This must have been the biggest crowd he ever played to. He would have just turned forty, although he had, as he always did, the worn, pinched thin-lipped face of a perennially older man. He looked country. I don’t know how I can picture these details. I was pretty far back in the welter of boys, but I think I can see how he was dressed: black hat, peglegged black jeans, flowered polyester cowboy shirt, tall-heeled cowboy boots, belt with ornate silver buckle, bolo tie, black vest, maybe real leather maybe imitation leather. His own uniform. He played some of his PEI songs I’m certain, “Bud the Spud” and “Lester the Lobster.” We all knew these songs, knew the words, and sang along if we weren’t too ashamed to sing. They were stupid, they were beautiful, they were awful, they were great. I don’t know how it was that we had heard them all before often enough to know them, but it was true that we had. Small-town country radio was almost all there was where I came from. He also did “Sudbury Saturday Night,” I think, and some inappropriate drinking songs. He may not have realized he was playing to amassed twelve year olds. Then again, he might have. It was, the way I remember it, a short concert, which is why I think it may have been the opening act. For maybe 30 minutes, he really kicked the heck out of his plywood stomping board, his left leg flailing at the stage: Stompin’ Tom had still come stompin’. In the end, he hadn’t played enough to wear a hole in the board. So he and the emcee just picked it up, and he finished punching a hole through the middle by hand. It had to be done.
         There was one kid in my scout patrol called Huey. His father owned some construction business or other around town; he was a boy-child of privilege, as most of us were in that troop. As we walked back from the concert to our tents, and for the rest of the trip, he must have been cued by the music to ask everybody within earshot over and over again the same two questions about the current top-forty: “Do you like ‘Sir Duke’?” “Do you like Fleetwood Mac?” For days afterwards, he wouldn’t stop. “Do you like Fleetwood Mac?” “Do you like ‘Sir Duke’?” Now I couldn’t admit it, but I actually kind of liked Stompin’ Tom. Uncool as he was, and so far off the un-Canadian charts, he still kicked it around. The sound of Tom Connors from Skinner’s Pond had got into my head, a relentlessly nasal, driven throb that no needy kid’s voice could ever dislodge.

Welcome to Us 1

In recent, post-Olympic months, Carol Ann Duffy has published what appear to be two of her laureate poems in The Guardian, poems that I want to gloss here and in a subsequent post. “Translating the British, 2012” was printed on August 10, and is an in-country paeon to the multinational London Summer Olympics. “White Cliffs” showed up on November 9, and is a celebration (in the guise of a crumbling sonnet) of Britain’s famous stretch of channel shoreline.
Her Olympic poem presents a postmodern species of choric ode, counterpointing an almost – almost! – saccharine, hyperbolic nationalism (“we … we … we …”) with a set of incisive swipes at the contemporary British banking crisis. At first pass, her mixed, even duplicitous tone can seem confusing, although it’s not out of keeping with the antithetical form of the classical ode. Duffy deliberately mimics, I’d say, the confused and contradictory reception of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Games, openly gesturing at Boyle’s spectacularly over-the-top dramaturgy: “The queen jumped from the sky / to the cheering crowds.” Erik Simpson notes what he calls the “double-edged weirdness” of Boyle’s “presentation of British cultural history,” a presentation that both feted and (playfully) excoriated English accomplishment. Duffy’s poem zeroes in on the crux of this contrariety by pointing, slightly more obliquely, to Kenneth Branagh’s peculiar recitation during the ceremonies of Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises . . .” speech from The Tempest: “We speak Shakespeare here, / a hundred tongues, one-voiced.” She’ll return to the nationalistic textual iconography of Shakespeare in “Dover Cliffs,” but in “Translating the British, 2012,” name-checking him serves as a metonomy for the globalization of English language and culture, or, even further, for what Harold Bloom grandly names the “invention of the human.” Translation, from this angle, means the assimilation and absorption of all that is other, as we come to re-discover – while we watch and listen, and even read – the genesis of a universally propagated figure of humanity in our own proxied and simulated Englishness; Britannia still rules the airwaves: “Welcome to us.” Branagh’s elocution provoked uncertain reactions, particularly from the English-speaking – especially, American – cultural establishment; writing in USA Today on July 27, Michael Florek can’t decode what’s going on (“Well,” he shrugs, “at least [the words] sounded nice”) and turns to James Shapiro, Columbia University professor and Shakespeare expert, for an explanation, which he doesn’t really give. In the segment, Branagh is dressed as Victorian railroad builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and recites the speech from what appears to be a cloned pastoral hillside, visual evidence of some “green and pleasant land”; historical, dramatic and ideological frames seem to have collided and smeared:
“Why you would choose Caliban’s lines as — in a sense — a kind of anthem for the Olympics, I’m not sure,” Shapiro said. “If you gave those lines some thought, especially in the light of the British Empire, it’s an odd choice. . . .The lines are quite beautiful, and I guess they wanted to rip them out of context and talk about how magical a place the British Isles are.”
Shapiro is quoted, by way of clarification, inconclusively:
“Why give him the lines Shakespeare wrote for a half-man, half-beast about to try to kill off an imperial innovator who took away his island? I don’t know,” Shapiro said. “You would probably have to ask the people who designed the opening Games ceremony what their thinking was.”
Duffy’s apparent précis of the speech at her own poem’s outset seems intended to meld a welter of noises and voices into a univocal nationality, a definitive “we” that wants to collect a listening world attentive to their noise into a latter-day empire, the Anglo-human globe. But if that’s really the case, then, like Boyle, she has quoted Shakespeare badly, confounding literary-historical and cultural frames: in the play, Caliban remarks how “a thousand twangling instruments” hum at his ears, “and sometimes voices,” which is the text we might think we hear repurposed in Duffy’s lines. But it isn’t. Her thinking, like Boyle’s, is actually a bit crooked. The reference to a “hundred tongues” gestures at Cecil Day-Lewis’s version of Virgil’s Aeneid, not Shakespeare. Another nation-founding cultural hero, rendered by Day-Lewis in idiomatic English (and, notably, his translation was broadcast nationally over BBC radio in the early 1950s), Aeneas in Book VI of the epic is confronting the Sybil, asking for information about the horrifying noises – not the sweet sounds – he can hear coming from Tartarus:
                        Scared by the din, Aeneas halted; he could not move: −
                        What kinds of criminals are these? Speak, lady! What punishments
                        Afflict them, that such agonized sounds rise up from there?
This is, in many respects, the antithesis of Caliban’s speech, although it bears remembering that Caliban is also pinched and tortured by the very spirits who serenade him. The Sybil – and Duffy, it seems to me, positions herself wryly in her poem as a vatic “lady” – catalogues as many of the tortured cries as she can, but finds her speech limited when faced with describing atrocity after atrocity, and so breaks off:
                        No, not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths
                        And a voice of iron, could I describe all the shapes of wickedness,
                        Catalogue all the retributions inflicted here.
The “hundred tongues,” that is, refers not to univocal plenitude but to the failure of the voice to be iron, its incapacities; these lines offer not a celebration of collective joy, but the refusal of pervasive and overwhelming agony. We should, in other words, be more afeard of what we see and hear, more than we are likely to be. But, like Boyle’s sensational kitsch, Duffy’s poem seems – seems – to want to smother our critical anxieties in swathes of triumphalism.
            Or does it? If Boyle’s staging of England was able to introduce a degree of historical-social critique, Duffy’s double edge is all the more forthrightly presented, as she deftly shifts registers between the descriptive and the metaphorical, around the intersections of political economy and participatory spectacle in sport. The London Olympics came on the heels of one more crisis for the English banking system, the so-called Libor scandal. For Duffy, the “we” into whose midst her readers are welcomed is a scandalized and angry body politic, a British version of the 99%:
                        We’ve had our pockets picked,
                                                                                    The soft, white hands of bankers,
                        bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
                        we want it back.
The subsequent medalling by the roll of British athletes she names in the poem becomes payback in a number of senses, both an affirmation of national muscle-fibre and metaphorical reimbursement, the filched sterling and Anglo-Saxon geld imagined returned to the people.
            It’s worth remembering that this return is linked to the translation evoked in Duffy’s title, which isn’t just a question of the – albeit, gently ironic – global dissemination of Britishness but also of the poetic work of metaphor. (Both trans- latio in Latin and μεταφέρω in Greek mean approximately the same thing, to move or to carry across.) Duffy’s text quickly recognizes the obfuscation inherent in all metaphor-making, particularly around the media language of the banking crisis: “Enough of the soundbite abstract nouns, / austerity, policy, legacy, of tightening metaphorical belts.” Even while her poem retains traces of Tennysonian bathos (in the smugly haughty, over-the-top “Enough . . .”), it also dismantles its own inclination to establishment-sanctioned poeticisms and substitutes for metaphor a strong claim on common reality, shared and propagated through in our investments in sports heroes: “we got on our real bikes, / for we are Bradley Wiggins, / side-burned, Mod, god.” The glancing nod to Quadrophenia(and The Who also performed in the Olympic closing ceremonies) suggests working-class disaffection and also images of natty mods on scooters, but this exaggerated haling of cyclist Bradley Wiggins is more than a sentimental investment in the distraction of sport. The reality of “our bikes” isn’t a hypostatizing of false consciousness, but a debunking of another of those bankers’ metaphors by actively literalizing, by a knowing public. The Telegraph on 11 July 2012 carried a story debunking the Bank of England’s absurd “idea for tackling the financial crisis: six bicycles”:
The Bank of England considered buying bicycles so that its officials could continue to move around in the event of a full-scale financial meltdown, the former City minister disclosed last night.
The national bank wants to appropriate another form of translation – the forward motion of the Olympic cyclists and of everyday people in bike lanes – to secure that its rarefied system of schemes and exchanges, its economy, keeps moving. Duffy’s poem, by re-appropriating the bicycle, converting it into nationalistic metaphor and then refusing its own tropes in favour of contingently returning to, of expressing something of the realities of daily life – “we want school playing-fields returned” – offers not an assimilative or appropriative nationalism, but an invitation to start again, better. Togetherness and community, even as they sometimes rely on a cliché-ridden and potentially reactionary language of public address, can also emerge from the revitalizing work of excavating that very language for the remaindered kernels of “our” historical realities at its core – for its cultural purchase. At her poem’s close, which is really an opening, a beginning again promised by the sensing of “new weather,” Duffy positions “us” (both the English and her English-speaking readers) “on our marks,” which is to say both in a position metaphorically identified with “our” athletes and in a critical relationship to the marks on her page, poised to write back to her text.