“My Visit to Ottawa”
Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 4, 2009
I spent the past few days in Ottawa, which is neither the staid provincial backwater it still apologizes for being (“Montreal is our mistress,” a Canadian diplomat confided to me on my last visit, in answer to my query about the city’s nightlife) nor yet—in spite of Canada’s official state multiculturalism—a cosmopolitan capital. Its transitional status is indicated by the usual hopeful signs: the cabbies are Arab and Pakistani; there’s a bustling Little Saigon (that would be “Asian Village” in Ottawan); and you see a whole lot of women sporting headscarves, not only because of the cold. And of course, thanks in large part to the proximity of Gatineau, Québec, just across the river, you still hear a lot of French on the streets. Also at the National Library and Archives, where most of the hard-working staff seems to be of the francophone persuasion, and where I whiled away the majority of my waking hours.
(The post-prandial, pre-somnolent hours I spent mainly on the edge of the desperately trendy Byward Market, sitting at the bar of the Black Tomato, where General Manager/co-owner/genius loci Stephen Flood plays barman, DJ, and purveyor of carefully selected avant-garde jazz CDs. The sometime photographer and music journalist oversees a hip, happy and efficient floor staff and an even happier clientele. Plus, he has excellent taste in beer.)
Anyway, all this—along with the good cheer of the Manx pub, the superb charcuterie & cheese at Murray Street restaurant, an early-morning run along the Rideau, and the occasional urban surprise (a newsstand/tobacconist called “Mags & Fags,” soldiers in full-dress kilts emerging from the armory near my hotel)—is what marked my stay in Ottawa.
Since my first morning at the Archives, though, I’ve also been haunted by an earlier visitor to Ottawa, circa 1947, who was quite self-consciously bringing some worldly sophistication to the burghers of Bytown, and who recorded his impressions in a calypso:
Far away from my Montreal home
To Ottawa I went to roam
I didn’t want to go but by chance I went
It was the happiest day in my life I spent.
Everybody was proud and glad
To see the roving lad from Trinidad
As I landed at Union Station
The crowds started a mass invasion
Photographers snapping photographs
Bobby-soxers rushing for autographs.
Smilingly I wended my way
And checked in the Chateau Laurier
With the crowd still following shouting
Three cheers for the calypso King.
As I drove around the Capital City
The scenic beauty attracted me.
I saw Parliament Buildings first of all
Then I paid a call on Rideau Hall.
I saw the Mint then had a view
Of the historic Peace Tower to[o]
Rideau Canal is fine to see
But the drive has a heavenly scenery
I came back to Montreal that night by train
But bet your life I am going back again
For the welcome I had will remain
In my memory for me to retain.
That’s “My Visit to Ottawa” by Rufus Callender, a/k/a Lord Caresser. Lyrically speaking, not one of the Roving Lad’s strongest efforts. Still, I’m delighted by the image of Caresser disembarking at the old Union Station (a grand experience no longer available, thanks to the epidemic of urban-planning idiocy that swept across North America in the 60s, making easy marks of rubes like Ottawa’s city fathers, who succeeded in crippling their station but not killing it) and casually strolling across the street to size up the luxurious Hôtel de la Gare. And while I take it as read that Caresser’s account is full of his trademark embellishments—I’m guessing Frank Sinatra himself would have been lucky to be greeted by throngs of bobby-soxers in 1947 Ottawa, for example—you have to love the conceit of him taking a detour from his touristic itinerary to pay a courtesy call chez le Gouverneur général, as any visiting dignitary naturally would. I suppose you’re also obliged to appreciate the historical irony that nowadays, as Canadians are proud and eager to tell you, the occupant of Rideau Hall is an Antillean-born woman (who also once worked for the CBC), Michaëlle Jean.
The draft of “My Visit to Ottawa” above is one of dozens of manuscripts and typescripts of Caresser’s lyrics contained in the George Robertson fonds at Library and Archives Canada. Robertson, who died in 2000, had a long career as a radio and television writer, and in the late 1940s he worked as a producer at the CBC International Service, where he evidently had a hand in the program that Caresser hosted between 1946 and 1948. (See my earlier post on “Caresser in Canada.”) His collection was the one thing I was most looking forward to seeing at the national archives, and it didn’t disappoint: in addition to the trove of lyrics, at least half of them for calypsos that Caresser composed during his early years in Montreal, the fond held a handful of sheet-music manuscripts and the complete typescript of one episode of “The Lord Caresser Show.” What I never expected to find, though, as I first made my way across town on streets named for various Imperial Lords, Princes, and Dukes (Elgin, Albert, Wellington), was that the very “Lord” I’d come to research had put his own imprint on these streets some sixty years earlier.
So who needs a grand welcome? I was just “proud and glad / To [find] the roving lad from Trinidad.”