What we need is a little character! Pitching writers and songwriters as torchbearers in the campaign to make our capital ever more cool BY FATEEMA SAYANI
A survey of blogs and wags shows that this city churns up a conflicted kind of boosterism. Commentators vacillate between loving the place, hating the place, and getting a frisson of excitement anytime someone else characterizes our municipal character for good or for bad. We have been acknowledged!
Remember when The Washington Post praised the city’s “unselfconscious cool”? How about when Tyler Brûlé, editor of Monocle magazine, crapped over the place for its “layer of grime and general sleepiness”? Still, my LOL-favourite is Ann Coulter’s call-out of the city’s perceived lack of spine. In March of 2010, after being drowned out by protests at her planned U of O talk, the conservative newsmaker complained about capital denizens’ low IQ and then proceeded to define the word Ottawa as Indian for “Land of Bedwetters.”
More recently the cover of alt-weekly XPress screamed — in all caps, no less — that Ottawa Sucks! The cover story was about the first chapter of the City Debates series, a forum for members of the chattering classes to comment on the lost potential of our town, being held at SAW Gallery.
In short, those who care enough to make a life here want to know how to carve out an identity that reflects their ideals and ambitions. Specifics are lacking, but people speak regularly of making Ottawa a “world-class” capital, to use the tagline of our last three mayors. (The line comes up so often, it should have been hashtagged under the #ShitOttawansSay thread.)
Maybe our challenge is one of self-mythology. In order to have a world-class capital, we need a bit of character. We need to be celebrated in story and song. It adds an extra dimension to a place when you tap into its history and community to amplify the literary richness. I’m not sure I would describe Ottawa as being particularly novelesque, where West Wellie could stand in for Saint Urbain Street, say. But that’s where poetic licence — that stirring combination of imagination and projection — comes into play. Not to say that Ottawa isn’t well represented in text — it just never seems to figure that loudly in the narrative.
You’ll find colourful passages in novels by the late Paul Quarrington, by Charles de Lint, Alan Cumyn, Gerald Lynch, and Carol Shields. And Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs is set in Old Ottawa South. But you don’t have to read Hay’s whole novel to get a feel for the place. You can go to Colonel By Drive near Fulton and see where Project Bookmark, a literary charity, marked the story with a plaque in October 2010. It’s a little thrill to have your city twice documented — both in the story and in the location where it’s set — but so far, that plaque marks a one-stop literary tour for Ottawa.
The city’s public art provision — which sets aside one percent of street construction costs to finance plaques and curbside sculptures — is a good starting point in creating such a tour. Novels could be one source of stanzas; songs would be another. After all, rock tunes are ideal forms for city myth making and commemoration. A good one sticks in your head the way a jingle does. A really good one speaks to the core of a place in ways that may be obvious or obscure.
In 1998, The Angstones made an album out of Ottawa lore with tunes like “Marroush,” about the city’s best shawarma joint. The album was called Bytown … It’s My Town and was released on Canal Records.
The Whirleygigs sang about “being knee high to a blackfly at the Château Lafayette.”
Reflecting on a city’s personality isn’t always about dropping place names. For years, bands such as Wooden Stars and Weights & Measures were described in the music press as being emblematic of an Ottawa sound — dreamy, ponderous, carefully crafted tunes steeped in earnestness.
Most people made the easy link, saying cold winters lead to a spike in creative production. It’s as if hibernation conjures up the heavy self-referentiality that is the undercurrent of those bands. Get down to the practicalities of it, and those sonic layers and emotional colours can probably be attributed to major seventh chords, which seem to be illustrative of the seeking and yearning that goes on in those songs.
“There’s a jarring nature to those chords,” says Jeff Gleeson, guitarist with The Ethics, fine purveyors of that “Ottawa sound.” “They’re also sweet at the same time. And they sound unresolved, but not necessarily in a bad way.”
The Ethics paid homage to “Centre-town” on their third album, What I Did for Modern Love, released last year. Front man Kevin Hersak notes that “a city can become a very emotional thing. It’s where you dwell, where you meet people, and where you form friendships.”
Tapping that emotion — recoating memories with a bit of sheen and taking the pulse of all the in-betweens of city life that contribute to the ongoing story of the place — helps to chip away at that pesky inferiority complex that seems to be the hallmark of our urban identity.