Requiem for Radio 2

Radio 2's long goodbye lasted all day yesterday. To be precise it lasted until 6pm. Everyone I know turns off that excruciating Katie Malloch and her insulting habit of telling me how I feel and what I'm doing: "You're driving home from work and you feel the need for...etc banal, mundane etc". At this point I have long since told the tedious creature to "STFU" and from 6pm onwards the radio was switched off. But Tom Allen felt like a friend and to listen to him mouthing the party line as he wound down "Music and Company" was sad and wrenching. No, many, many of us won't be coming with you Tom, not to listen to music that I can hear in the shopping mall or the supermarket. Tom, the former trombonist, taught me a lot of what I now know about classical music. Thanks to him, I can take that knowledge off to the internet and listen to BBC Radio 3. But it's not the same.

In his movie, "Radio Days" Woody Allen evoked the magic of a population linked by sound, by the voices coming out of the box in the corner. Of course those days are long gone but CBC's Radio 2 managed to continue the tradition. True it united people who love Beethoven, Bach, Brahms etc but what fascinated me when I first arrived in Canada seven years ago and discovered the then wonderful station, was just who these people were. The farmer on a Sasketchewan prairie who requested the Goldberg Variations,
the sculptor in a studio on a lake in Ontario who called, as so many of these cold country Canadians did for Sibelius, and the truck driver on the Trans-Canada who needed some roaring Beethoven to fill him with the energy to cross that vast, dark, transcontinental night.

Ah, but the apologists for the dog's breakfast that will be the new Radio 2, insist that they will provide the same service. Right - by giving us a mish-mash of music that can be found on commercial stations everywhere. Anyone who has ever been on a cruise knows that smorgasbords get very boring very fast. The sight of taramasalata, bean salad, smoked turkey, lasagne, chicken tandoori and ribs may look alluring on the buffet but once you've got that heaving mass on your plate it becomes strangely unappetizing.

And, throughout this whole miserable episode, nobody, with the noble exception of Russell Smith at The Globe and Mail, has dared to say that what we call Classical Music , for want of a better word, is superior to a lot of contemporary music. Something happened in the late 18th and 19th centuries that carried this art form to a summit. I'm not saying that there is only one mountain out there and another summit may well be reached at another time. But the vast mass of pop, rock etc has not got half way up the nursery slopes.

Yesterday, during one of the sad farewells ( was it Eric Friessen on Studio Sparks?) somebody played the Schubert String Quintet in C Major. I first heard this on BBC's Desert Island Discs when novelist Stan Barstow described it as music he would like to die to. It contains within it, a sense of the infinite and the eternal. And, unlike the four beat in a bar commercial pap that I am now being told I must love, never, EVER becomes an earworm - one of those infuriatingly banal tunes that get inside your head and make you want to rip it open and tear the thing out.

So CBC Radio 2 played the great Schubert piece and died before our very eyes. Goodbye Tom, goodbye Shelley (for we all know that Here's to You really died last year when the great Ms Solmes took her leave) goodbye to Jurgen and goodbye to the often too pious and smarmy Eric Friessen. (But Eric, you redeemed yourself in spades this week - the Brahms, William Styron reading was heartwrenchingly beautiful.)

Yesterday felt like a day-long requiem. I know I am not the only one who feels bereaved on this late-summer Saturday morning. Something noble and beautiful that linked this vast land is gone forever and the land is duller and darker without it.

The Last Summer of the Bed and Breakfast

On August 16th, Graeme's  House - at 22 years, one of the oldest inns in Kitsilano, closed - probably forever.

For the past 4 summers I have cleaned the place. Four summers before that I was at a dark and scary crossroads: mother dead, career flagging, love lost. I did the 21st century rounds of seers and sages. If one of them had predicted that in the very near future I would cross an ocean, land in one of the world’s loveliest settings for a city and be cleaning toilets every morning of every summer for four summers, I would have asked for my future back.

When Graeme (and yes she’s a woman - it’s a Scottish thing apparently)approached me with this proposition, she described it as ‘doing a Monica Dickens’. Graeme’s generation is probably the last to know what that is. Monica Dickens was a granddaughter of Charles; she took on humble jobs like cleaning to gather copy and write a lot of novels.

I did not want to write a novel about cleaning or cleaners. I did not want to write a novel about Bed and Breakfasts. I did need some quick extra money though, and one morning in early May found me following Graeme obediently through each of the four rooms learning how to make a bed with hospital corners - tuck in the bottom of the sheet, pull up a lower corner until it is the shape of a bishop’s mitre, tuck that in. The bed will look a lot like a neatly wrapped package. The guest, one must assume, will be overcome with an urge to become the contents.

The falling blossoms of an apple tree out on the deck signalled the beginning of my work each year. The proliferation of berries on the mountain ash in the back yard heralded the end. Sometime in September, I would look out of the window in the Rosedale Room and see that a scarlet breath of autumn had blown through the maple on 11th Avenue. By then there would be two or three guests in the house as opposed to the eight or nine that would squeeze around the kitchen table of an August weekend. 

The guests came from  all over the globe from Australia to  Finland, Switzerland to Taiwan. They would stumble in jet-lagged from a flight from Heathrow, alight from a taxi after an Alaskan cruise or drive up Waterloo Street straight from the Rockies in their camping car. They were physicists, orthopedic surgeons, psychics,  ecologists, neurologists, peripatetic grandparents, poets, lobbyists, toddlers, teenagers and new-born babies. They were very  rarely Republican. We did have two con men (not together) and one drunk but in a 22 year stint, they are barely worth a mention.

They were all invariably delighted with their stay. Other B&Bs may have been bigger, or have offered sherry at twilight or eggs Benedict for breakfast but very few had Graeme's gift for making people just plain happy to be in her home.

"We are all in this dance together," Graeme would say as she got up at 5am to serve breakfast to some early ferry passengers or allowed a trio of twenty something Finnish mountain bikers to take over the kitchen  and  fill the genteel Cornflower Room with a mountain of clothes and, what looked like armour, for their week long stay. 

"This is my life's work", remarked this former art teacher, English teacher, practicing therapist and interior designer one morning.  I paused, dustbuster in hand, ready to argue that she was far too clever, too qualified to be baking muffins and making beds. But I had failed to understand what Graeme had understood: that true hospitality - giving shelter, a room at an inn is one of the most  viscerally important and loving roles on the planet.

Graeme also gave shelter to the venerable Puhd - the black cat who wandered into her house during a blizzard and stayed to meet and greet and occasionally sleep with the guests for 21 years.  Puhd left us 3 years ago and can never be replaced  but in lush, verdant Vancouver where coyotes roam the lanes and bald eagles can sometimes be glimpsed in the sky over Graeme's house, the wild life endures.  Hummingbirds will continue to whirr round the petunias on the deck. Our neighbourhood raccoon will pursue his ambition to steal the back doormat.

But when the last of the guests wheeled their suitcase under the floral arch and down the garden path one Saturday morning last August something was lost forever in this lovely little Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano.

 In this perenially perky North American culture, there is not much room for sadness, there is little room for the sense of endings. If something ends, we must rush to see what is about to begin. If one door closes, then by golly, another one had better be opening before we've had time to catch our breath. We might nod in the direction of 'closure' but we don't really care for the bittersweet emotions of an end. Melancholy, that autumnal sense of the extraordinary sadness of our human condition - as soon as we live and love something, anything, it is already slipping away from us - rarely makes an appearance on Oprah.

Well, this summer, something quite lovely ended on Waterloo St. I never thought, when I was grumbling my way through the bathrooms, dustbuster and toilet brush in hand, that I would miss these mundane tasks but they proved, like the B&B and like Graeme herself, to be rather good for the soul. So, time to mark  a moment of sadness and say goodbye to the hospital corners, the colour co-ordinated towels, the cheese muffins and the blueberry scones, to the endless slivers of left-over soap and the bottomless pot of coffee; to Puhd and the racoon and to all those strangers who came up the steps to sleep and snore and dream for just a few short hours before going on their way. Now Graeme goes on her's - off to some other adventure I am sure.  But her lovely house will be much missed.  Farewell Graeme's House - it was a privilege and a joy to know you.