Appeared in Business in Vancouver – July 1, 2014
To pontificate in a Canada Day column to you very young people – anyone under 70 – about our nation’s recent history, as experienced by an, ahem, seasoned journalist who has lived through more than half of the nation’s history, may seem like a fraudulent way to cheat my employer out of an impressively large fee.
Not so. Scolding the village, nation, world for their obvious blunders is easy. To sprinkle the “I” word – said to have been invented by the London journalist Hannen Swaffer – throughout this stick of type, without egotism, platitudes or sending the patrons streaming out of the exits, requires reckless courage. Also it is sure to fail.
I was born in the Depression – 1934. Canada’s GNP had fallen 43% between crash year 1929 and 1933. Population about 10.5 million, unemployment 25%. Once, a new doctor, Clem Williams, was filling out my particulars, and when I stated my year of birth, he leaped over the desk and seized my hand: “So was I!” He then declared that, second only to 1932, we belonged to Canada’s smallest birth demographic of modern times – because 1931 and 1933 were dismal, and few babies were born in the following years.
Briefly suspend what the word “Depression” conjures up. I was born into what I call the upper working class: my father, high-tech for his time, worked every day in the 1930s – even bought two new Oldsmobiles. The historians ignore that people who did have steady jobs or cash under the mattress had it good: cheap groceries, cheap housing, cheap dates. But it was grim for the jobless, businesses, farmers.
A towering paradox: the movies and popular songs were never more upbeat, advising people to forget their troubles and get happy, to put aside fears and face the music and dance, to walk on the sunny side of the street. The greatest classics, Astaire and Rogers, knockout choreographer Busby Berkeley, Garbo and Dressler, GWTW – the only film that dares to be known by its initials alone – Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, Ellington and Goodman, Crosby and Armstrong, comics Laurel and Hardy, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Allen and Benny, Canada’s Happy Gang and more made the Depression the golden age of popular entertainment, never surpassed.
The first dozen years of my life, through the dime-squeezing ’30s and wartime rationing, now look like a childhood of pinched scarcity: hand-me-down clothes, inheriting my brother’s $2 bicycle until I got my own at age 14 – a three-speed Humber, $69.50 at a time when many weekly wages were under $40. I was unaware of it then, but, retrospectively, this was fortunate. I was saved from more folly than otherwise.
To this day my wife and I are make-do people. I despise the extravagance of today’s gotta-have-it government and personal spenders, with the thrifty paying taxes not just for born unfortunates but for idiots of the middle class and upwards who screw up their lives with dumb choices. Parents who spend Christmas in Hawaii, while their children roll up big university debt, disgust me.
No Pollyanna stuff here: most Canadians work hard. Prosperity began soaring in the curiously despised 1950s, underwriting a rebellious hairy generation ignorant of depression and war. Businesses toiled – only the ideological left and socialist pseuds think money is made easily. There have been serious economic dips. The unions had to fight for better wages, and, when they gained institutionalized power, like as not abused it – you there, BCTF?
I’ll get back to kicking Canada around another time. Today is for comparing it to the rest. Who’d trade it? Any volunteers?
© Trevor Lautens, 2014