Monday, July 5, 2010

Bread on the Waters

When I left my comfortable, leisurely, clerical post at the Nelson Land Registry Office in the last week of January, 1972, I had no idea that one of the tasks that lay ahead of me was the resolution of problems in music education. Part of my reason for leaving was indeed music: I was part of a production company that had recently put two dozen recorded folk music programmes on local radio, and with the new laws of the Canadian Radio and Television Committee coming into effect, requiring a substantial percentage of Canadian content in any broadcast north of the 49th, thought we were heading into our next step, some pretty serious record production. My part in this enterprise was to be that of a singer, rhythm guitarist,  possibly a composer, and most certainly a producer; but I was by no means a master as either a voice or instrumentalist coach, nor had it occurred to me that I would ever have to become such. And, much more important than all this, I had a novel to write, the fourth version of my earliest plot. It was time to leave the civil service and become a full time artist. I needed this for my own sake, and my artistic community needed me for its sake. Nelson and its surrounding area seemed to be exploding with creative intelligence on a professional scale, and I could see myself only as a negligent and cowardly bystander if I did not put every energy to supporting this bid for national and international attention.
And the Almighty certainly put his own peculiar stamp on the decision. In my last weeks in the office I suddenly began to experience stomach pains, the precise variety of which had previously been diagnosed by our family doctor as the prologue to an ulcer. This had been a full two years earlier, when the solution to the ulcer threat had been telling a teen-ager - not our own - that if she was not going to obey our rules she would have to leave.
 At that time we had filled up a number of extra corners in our third Nelson house with young people who seemed to need our roof and dinner table. My father picked up an ulcer from the mental stress of his job, when I was a university student, and I swore to myself that I would never get one. So the young lady had to go, and obviously so did the job. Or more accurately, what I really was leaving was the frustrations of not being able to use all the information and skills on behalf of promoting the arts and the artists I had become familiar with in almost a decade in Nelson.
I did in fact write the novel, all 800 manuscript pages, in five months, and for a little while it looked as if Jack McClelland might publish it. But he did not, and neither did anyone else. And the music production company divided into a pair of factions and co-operation and continued production became impossible. The novel took five months to write, instead of the three I had budgeted for, because I changed the plot from the previous version. I was able to borrow a month's living from the bank, for the fourth month, but the fifth and what was more and more appearing clearly as the subsequent months, had to be welfare.
To my surprise, my father thought it a good idea. He not only supported this approach, he suggested it, from his earthly level, thus agreeing with what God said at some point as I was pondering the next step. "Don't expect me to work miracles and cover the ceiling with gold coins. Get on Welfare. That's what it's there for."
My father had not mentioned gold coins, but only that he was not going to lend us a couple of thousand dollars, and we should do what so many others did, get it off the government. I had his blessing, as it were, to arrange my own version of a Canada Council grant.
The welfare situation, in fact, had already been provided for, on the personal basis, by a little social work that our household had already undertaken a few years earlier, being of assistance to the local office over two  young people, one a little boy, the other a teen-age girl. I was on good terms with the head of the office, even though up to that point, we had never met. We had done all our business over the phone, simply through the human voice. He had readily understood that I could not help but be useful to anyone in a need I or my household could fulfill, and appreciated the assistance to his line of work. I was not cross-examined as to my intentions with this surprise direction, nor given any tiresome lectures. The particular worker in fact had been a student at the university during my brief presence there, was a Catholic herself, and aware to some extent of the murky politics of the local Church and the college. And there was also the hope, no doubt livelier in myself than in anyone obliged to listen to my reasoning on the matter, that I would shortly be able to place the novel with a major publisher.
The finances of welfare support in those days were pretty thin. As the beady eye of Providence had it these were the last days of the long rule of W.A.C. Bennett's Social Credit government of BC. The dole was not generous. But it was better than defying the plain will of the Almighty, and away we went, not to look back for considerable time, basically until the organized society of the province recognized that the Nelson/Slocan area was a cultural force to be reckoned with. By September, Dave Barrett and the New Democrats became the government and everyone was told the welfare rates would become human. It was by no means the first time legislation had been improved in order to keep up with our significant choices.
And this just in, days after I started this post: I've had a twitch from a major film centre. Perhaps there is intelligent life on the planet after all.

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