Big red & shiny

Ansa was scioness of a prominent Fennoscandian wood-milling family. In the days before “Scandian” furniture acquired its reputation for knock-down cheap and flimsy, she carried her company flag to the Far East. Youngest of her brood, she was probably the pertest, too, and conducted a Sunday salon in Bangkok to which all mischievous foreigners were invited. There were more than a dozen. Though still a teenager then — already on my own in the world — I was tolerated as an “amusing” guest. “Or at least he is trying,” she would add, in a voice turned suddenly maternal.

She was proud, I think all Scandihoovians were proud, of the quality of their wood manufactures. The joinery was exquisite, the finishing immaculate, the designs fastidious in their apparent simplicity. My father the Canadian industrial designer had long held them up as a model, of craftsmanship in the machine age.

And Ansa, though cynical, was proud of her family’s achievements, to the point of snobbery. She imagined herself on mission to Asia for certain “aesthetic values.” She was, however, disappointed of success.

“I am trying to sell superbly understated goods, but what the market wants is big, red, and shiny.”

The phrase has stuck in mind, as an explanation, and perhaps an excuse, for capitalism in its mass-market forms. What can you do? The serfs have been freed, and have the vote, and cash, and what they want is crass. Ah well, next time be more careful.

As the Sesquicentennial of the Canadian Confederation is approaching (thanks to global warming, heavy rains are now predicted for Saturday), I think back also to our Centennial Year — memorable for Expo ’67 in Montreal, and a general irruption of national goodfeeling, checked when General de Gaulle dropped in, to mutter the words, “Vive le Québec libre.”

Those were the last moments of Montreal as one of the two great cosmopolitan cities of the Western Hemisphere (the other had of course been Havana), and hope was in the air, to say nothing of change.

It was, in retrospect, an unintended celebration of the old Canada, which had worked heroically to produce a splendiferous World Fair, and felt that it was taking its rightful place in the cosmos, as full graduate of the British Empire. We were on our own now, entirely, and we had our own flag (that was big, red, and shiny). Our youthful modesty was at an end: the world must take notice. I remember it through the experience of my father, professionally active in the preparations for Expo, and working round the clock with so many others to make it somehow come off in time. But we were Canadians: we pulled it off, we made it work, against all odds, just as we had done at Vimy and Juno.

It is nice when patriotism is based on something.

The old Canada I remember, from the days before the Martian occupation, was rather stolid and rural. English Canada was instinctively puritan and grim; French Canada otherworldly and Catholic. Montreal was where they met in a miniskirt. (Except, in those days men wore trousers.) It is gone, gone, on both sides; even the miniskirts have gone out of style.

What we have today is big, red, and shiny. And our pride is based on nothing at all. And the strange thing is that we know it, which accounts for a Sesquicentennial party that is, just like old times, restrained.