The saintly editors here at The Hub have agreed to my request to produce one of my two monthly articles for the site as a monthly transatlantic diary. For those readers not familiar with the format, which is more common in British journalism, the diary is a grab bag of short items, sometimes on a common theme, but often not. In my case, what they have in common is that they are either too inconsequential to merit a full article or I can’t be bothered to come up with more than a knee-jerk reaction or a flip comment. This is February.
February feels like the shortest month of the year. It is, of course, the shortest month of the year, but it also feels like it. January goes by fast enough as we get a jump on the month with the New Year’s weekend, but February fairly whizzes by. Perhaps it’s the monotony. In most of Canada, February is painted in greyscale. Where I’m from, in the only truly habitable corner of the Dominion, February is the month of crocuses, daffodils, and Lilies of the Valley, but it is also typically a month of monotonous rain. I spent this February in Oxford, which is another of my childhood homes and whose climate is uncannily similar to Victoria’s, and we got our share of rain here too. Mud month, the Anglo-Saxons called February. No need to ask why.
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Happily, I spent most of the month indoors, much of it in the Codrington Library at All Souls College. In addition to having one of the world’s great collections of legal manuscripts, it is also possibly the quietest library in Oxford. That’s a low bar during cold and flu season, when the old stone libraries echo with a symphony of sniffs and a cacophony of coughs and sound more like quarantine facilities than places of study. The Codrington, however, is a hushed oasis of dark sage shelves, limestone and marble floors, and muffled oriental rugs. Working at one of the desks in the cavernous hall or at the long table in the intimate wood-panelled Anson Room, time stops, and apparently so does the coughing.
During breaks, I like to consult with Blackstone, whose larger-than-life figure sits in avuncular majesty at one end of the great hall. The great jurist has a kindly, jowly, and, to my eye, encouraging mien. While visiting the great man the other day, however, I noticed that his right index finger has been glued in several places and he is missing his right thumb below the second joint altogether. After some enquiries, I learned why. Apparently the college fellows of a happier age used to play cricket in the hall, with the learned author of the Commentaries on the Laws of England serving as a marmoreal wicketkeeper. I have since been inspired to found the Learned Fellowship of Blackstone’s Thumb, the inaugural dinner of which, I am pleased to announce, has reached the wine-selection stage.
Speaking of dinners, I see Vancouver is experimenting with robot food delivery. Apparently the shin-high sidewalk menaces have already taken over some American college campuses, which isn’t surprising as the primary purpose of higher education today seems to be to incubate terrible ideas before unleashing them on society. At Notre Dame, at least, there has been some small sign of sanity. The appropriately named “Ned Ludd” has launched a petition objecting to the “commercialization and privatization of our shared campus” by a “tech experiment capitalizing on a new asset: the public, communal space of campus.” Quite right, too. If the petition fails, as it looks set to do with only 377 signatories so far, I have a backup proposal: the inhuman intruders can stay, but if they come within kicking distance, then they are fair game.
You can’t stop progress, apparently, but I don’t know why that should be. Why can’t we look backwards for inspiration more often? It’s been done it before, and I dare say those occasions were among the greatest ages of the last half-millennium: the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation; the Neo-Classical period; the Gothic Revival; Pugin and Lutyens. Just once, I would like to vote for a candidate running on a proudly regressive agenda. Just because an ugly skyscraper was only completed yesterday is no reason it shouldn’t be torn down today. The sunk cost fallacy should apply to aesthetic blunders as much as to any other bad investment. The longer an eye sore remains, the more harm it does. Tear them down now and don’t bother compensating the owners—it’s not the public’s fault they had such bad taste.
On the subject of aesthetic offences, I was briefly in our nation’s capital this month and, I don’t know how to say this gently, Ottawa, but you’re looking rough. Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo? Long after the rest of the world has moved on from the pandemic, much of the populus of the federal public service has yet to return to in-person work. Without them the city is a dry husk. In the driving February snow, it feels post-apocalyptic. On a Saturday night, I was one of about eight people in a once-popular restaurant that seats more than 100. I don’t blame the public servants for staying away—it’s a depressing downtown core at the best of times—but an essential component of a successful city, even the plainest of them, is people.
So here is my proposal: if people want to work from home, let’s make homes where people used to work. Bulldoze all those bleak brutalist office towers and replace them with attractive mid-rise housing for families and local shops and restaurants to serve them. Revive downtown Ottawa with the only thing that can do it: people. A bold regressive vision for our nation’s capital. Vote early and often!