Canadian politics has always been ripe for satire, perhaps never more than at this very moment. Two fat men dominate the situation: Senator Mike Duffy nailed for fiddling his expenses (currently under investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto famous for a video that appears to show him smoking crack cocaine. The Duffy scandal has reached into Prime Minister’s Office; his chief of staff has resigned, and the smoke cloud only grows (a criminal trial is currently on hiatus).
Enter Governor-General’s Award-winning short story writer and novelist Greg Hollingshead with a cunning literary instinct for the jugular. “Ottawa Confidential” is an absolutely hilarious satire on a certain unnamed Prime Minister and Canadian politics in general written from the point of view of the Prime Minister’s “intimate confidant,” his righthand man, a failed novelist (had to be) turned political hack (with a dog named Wags). This story really is brilliant, seething with dry wit. I have a list of quotable lines as long as my arm. “Of course, the Prime Minister was not exactly an old man, or even an adult, but something more along the lines of an enlarged boy.” “The Prime Minister further confided that as a child he had an imaginary friend, but when his parents found out about it they forced him to put it to death.” “Politicians tend to be human to a fault, which is to say they are first and foremost animals, whereas the Prime Minister, with his unreadable demeanour and that funny little smile, if that’s what it was, and his one-brick-at-a-time approach, had the personality of an algorithm…”
My favourite (it’s long but I can’t resist) is when Hollingshead draws an analogy between the rise of the Prime Minister (yes, yes, unnamed) and his party (also unnamed, wink) to the behaviour of slime mold. “Dynamic system theorists tell us we should not be surprised by the behaviour of slime mold, but what are they thinking? In good times, slime mold consists of an aggregation of cells, each going about its individual life. But when the going gets tough, these cells cohere into a slug, which proceeds, trailing slime, to a prominent location. There it grows a stalk with a head, which explodes, releasing spores, after which the mold reverts to a loose collection of cells with no apparent common interest, until the next time. It was the combination of tough times for the FPMC’s [Future Prime Minister of Canada] party and his rapid rise to dominance within it that would turn a desultory collection of politicians into a slime-trailing slug juggernaut with an exploding head.”
Where on Earth Did He Come From?
According to his wife, with whom I have conducted a series of interviews in an attempt to arrive at a working sense of what the heck goes through her mind, it happened like this:
She was crossing what remains of the Columbia Icefield, just out of hearing of a small party of other guests from Jasper Park Lodge. Directly in front of her, walking backwards, was her fiancé at the time, Lt. Wayne McLeod, who was looking deep into her eyes as he verbally abused her for what he had detected over lunch back at the Lodge as a liberal view of Afghani cultural practices. Oh that’s very nice, he was saying, so you would willingly sell your firstborn daughter to the highest bidder even before she was born? Why, that’s extremely enlightened of you. I’m sure you’d make an excellent Afghani mother. The only problem, which even a dumb cluck like me might think would have occurred to someone as highly intelligent as yourself, but it just so happens we live in a civilized—
And so on.
The rest of the party had slowed their pace so as not to have to listen to this or to her saying over and over Wayne keep your voice down. It was possible that as a four-year veteran of our peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, Lt. Wayne McLeod had once been a fine young man and was not to be held responsible for his current behaviour as a dull-normal abuser. Only the woman who loved him could hope to know the real Wayne McLeod, but how much more could she take?
Anyway, as McLeod was walking backwards in front of her, with his face so close to hers that she could smell the garlic on his breath from lunch, he suddenly dropped out of sight. When she saw the hole in the snow crust and screamed, the others came running, led by their guide, who had a rope. The rope was lowered into the hole, and when the tug came, everybody heaved, but imagine their surprise when it wasn’t Wayne McLeod they hauled up but the future Prime Minister of Canada (FPMC).
What an astonishing story! I cried. What happened to Wayne?
At first the FPMC’s wife didn’t answer, and then she shook her head slowly, holding my eyes.
And the FPMC? I cried. What was he doing down there?
Wedged, she said. It was a crevasse. And she explained that the FPMC had been staying at the Rimrock Hotel, near Banff, taking a weekend in the mountains to decide whether or not to go into politics.
A momentous mountain weekend for Canada, I pointed out.
Ignoring this, the FPMC’s wife continued her story. Familiar with the theory that cool air promotes effective decision-making and inspired by a brochure in a rack by the Rimrock check-in desk, the FPMC had gone for a walk on the Columbia Icefield. He started out long enough ahead of the Jasper Park Lodge party that they didn’t see him but not so long that he was wedged down there for more than a few hours. He reported that McLeod had passed him falling. Slighter of build than the FPMC, McLeod had longer to fall before wedging.
If he wedged, the FPMC’s wife added, with a significant look that I could do no more than mentally file before she’d resumed her story. So we stood around, she said, shouting down the hole and listening for an answer from Wayne. Nothing.
He must have been unconscious, I said.
Or playing possum.
Why would he do that?
A survival reflex. He was a mess of them. You should have tried to sleep through the night in the same room.
Hardly a useful survival reflex in this case, I pointed out.
Listen, she said. One went down, the other came up. What more do you want from me?
The one who came up—
I know. I married. Not as soon as I’d have married Wayne, but I’d known Wayne longer. With the FPMC it was a conventional courtship, a traditional wedding. Nothing unusual or untoward about any of it. Boy, was there nothing unusual or untoward.
And the marriage?
She threw back her head and laughed. The marriage? Are you kidding me? Where have you been? That’s when the circus came to town! Are you the only one in the country who doesn’t know this?
Slime Mold Homology
Dynamic system theorists tell us we should not be surprised by the behaviour of slime mold, but what are they thinking? In good times, slime mold consists of an aggregation of cells, each going about its individual life. But when the going gets tough, these cells cohere into a slug, which proceeds, trailing slime, to a prominent location. There it grows a stalk with a head, which explodes, releasing spores, after which the mold reverts to a loose collection of cells with no apparent common interest, until the next time.
It was the combination of tough times for the FPMC’s party and his rapid rise to dominance within it that would turn a desultory collection of politicians into a slime-trailing slug juggernaut with an exploding head. And while this transformation required that the range of behaviours of individual politicians be radically reconfigured and restrained, in fact the higher-level behaviours enabled by their universal submission to top-down management so vastly outperformed anything they could have accomplished individually that even the mouth-breathers among them sensed the wisdom of their entrainment. If the FPMC cramped their style, never in the political life of this country has there been a concatenation of styles more in need of cramping. In fact so thoroughly were they cramped, so comprehensively under their leader’s control, that it was evident from early on that were this party ever given a chance to form a government, Watch out, Nellie!
Long before I became the Prime Minister’s trusted confidant, I was living with my dog on a small, remote lake in a rock tract of bush and muskeg equidistant between Sudbury and Timmins. Wags and I were all that remained of a three-couples-plus-chickens-and-pets quasi-commune that had lasted less than a year, owing to the close quarters, the same faces day in and day out, the constant physical work just to keep a fire in the stove and food on the table, and the endless grey winter skies. The only reason Wags and I stayed on was I had a novel to finish.
In those days I was the quintessential political bystander, but at the dump the day after a national election I asked the custodian who had won, and he told me the Opposition, by a landslide.
Really? I said. Wow. That wasn’t in the cards.
No, it wasn’t, he agreed.
That same day, conscious of history in the making and here I was living out in the middle of nowhere but what did the world care about that and why should I? I canoed to the village for a paper and was further surprised to see, on an inside page, a picture of the FPMC sitting in the back seat of a limousine looking ill. The picture reminded me that information from the custodian of the dump, although readily provided, usually had something the matter with it or was dead wrong.
Why do you even talk to him? my then-partner used to ask me. He’s an idiot.
I talk to him because I happen to believe that you can learn from anybody.
Another point on which you and I fundamentally disagree.
One day the dump custodian and I fell into conversation, and he revealed that as a young man he had gone out to Alberta, where he worked for several years as a cowboy. He told me that he loved the life and everything about it: the country, the living rough, the hard work. In fact, he had never been happier. He thought he’d died and gone to heaven.
But you came back, I said.
Why, that’s true, he said, as if he hadn’t quite thought of it that way.
Why? I asked.
He said he didn’t know.
Anyway, you had a good time, I said.
I sure did. The best time of my life. Bar none.
Sounds like the name of a ranch.
Bar None. The name of a ranch.
Is that so, now?
Later the same day that I read about the Opposition’s devastating loss, I was in the liquor store. There I got caught up in a game of peekaboo across the Crown Royal display with a mad-eyed geek, hyper-alert with bush fever. It wasn’t until I noticed that the display was ranged along a mirror that I knew my novel had never been any good and it was time to return to the city and make a lasting contribution to society.
His Man Friday
One of the more dubious strategies employed by the human male to justify his routinely sleazy behaviour is the appeal to Darwin. As a young man, I certainly wasn’t proud of the rage I inwardly experienced in the presence of an older man, particularly a kinder, gentler one. It was a blinding compulsion to take the old boy down, and it felt pretty Darwinian to me, but you didn’t catch me going around implying that that made it OK. By the same token, I think it said something about the Prime Minister that in all my years as his confidant these feelings never once surfaced. Even before I knew him, as I rolled and tumbled, inexorably as it seemed at time—though it was sheer luck, I swear—through the hoops and red tape that landed me the position, ultimately, of his intimate confidant, I was conscious of no hostility toward him whatsoever.
Of course, the Prime Minister was not exactly an old man, or even an adult, but something more along the lines of an enlarged boy. Also, he played the game on a whole other level. Politicians tend to be human to a fault, which is to say they are first and foremost animals, whereas the Prime Minister, with his unreadable demeanour and that funny little smile, if that’s what it was, and his one-brick-at-a-time approach, had the personality of an algorithm, a boy’s-own Turing machine, or a Crusoe, on his desert island. Because here’s the thing about Crusoe: he’s king, but of what? There’s a poignancy there. Not a figure you necessarily feel driven to bring down. Besides, I was there when one or two tried, and it was horrible to watch. They didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. Nothing in their political training had prepared them for this. The depth and range, the sheer anticipatory power, of the Crusoe method, was beyond their abilities. They were squawking gulls struck down by a brickbat tossed by a tall stout boy in goatskin, they were dead in the water.
On the day the FPMC would become the Prime Minister, I was standing by his side at the Plexiglass window of the press box high above the Ottawa Convention Centre, gazing down at a sea of waving placards. Chants and songs with lyrics rejigged to be topical were sweeping through the crowd that waited for him to go down there and restate what they already believed so memorably that they would be able to smell it and taste it and carry it home under their arm like a giant panda or Naugahyde ottoman.
How does it feel, I asked him, to know that every person down there is waiting to hear what you have to tell them?
The FPMC’s reply was enigmatic. I think what he said was it felt like every day from now on would be Pajama Day.
I nodded, thinking confusedly of the festive atmosphere of the classic Broadway musical The Pajama Game, but weeks later he would let fall a detail from his early life that revealed his true meaning here. (See below.)
Meanwhile, as we continued to gaze down at the swaying throng, he murmured, Isn’t that the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen.
Yes, it is! I cried, but reaching across to seize his right hand in both mine, I found it unavailable, and so I pretended I was gripping a baseball bat to knock one out of the park but on second thought made it a hockey stick, which I used to drive the puck deep into the net.
Transferring power over an entire country into your own hands is a complex, thankless task, and not surprisingly the Prime Minister found himself with little time or inclination for emotional excavation. But that was not my style, and every once in a while I’d toss him a random question. Don’t try this at home. Sometimes his head was so packed with data that a question out of nowhere caused it to explode, most often, fortunately for me, in a contained way, and he would fade to smiling bemusement and from there sink into a quasi-narcoleptic stupor. But soon enough he’d rouse himself and resume his deliberations. On other occasions he’d return a thoughtful answer, sometimes stunning in its candour, as when he cleared up my earlier confusion concerning his Pajama Day comment by casually mentioning that as a child he attended Grades Two to Five in his pajamas. In response to my surprise, first that he had done this, and second that his parents and the school had allowed it, he assured me there was nothing in the schoolboard dress code to prevent it, as he knew because when he first got the idea he had checked. As for his parents, they considered it a phase he would soon outgrow.
I guess you showed them, I said with a smirk.
Let’s be clear, he said. All I wanted to do was stay in my pajamas.
Would he characterize his parents as liberals?
When her son pees in the teacher’s wastebasket, he inquired by way of an answer, does a liberal mother drive him to the gates of the local penitentiary and tell him that’s where he’ll end up if he fails to mend his course?
Good Lord, I said. That is hardball. How old were you?
The Prime Minister further confided that as a child he had an imaginary friend, but when his parents found out about it they forced him to put it to death.
Why, that’s terrible! I cried. What were they—?
Good parents. It was a talking snake. Unlimbed Evil. Any child in his right mind would be grateful to get that thing off his neck. You know how on a plane you’ll sometimes hear Beatles songs in the roar of the engines? As I used my hockey stick to bash in its head, with each blow I heard my father say Good job. I can hear dad now. G’dj’b! G’dj’b! G’dj’b!
The Prime Minister also told me that as a child, on board ship once, he caught a glimpse of himself on the crowded foredeck.
In a mirror—? I said, thinking of my experience in the liquor store.
No, from behind. I recognized the haircut. I tried to push forward through the crowd but was lost to myself.
After a pause, I respectfully asked how being lost to himself had felt.
How do you think it felt? he replied irritably. Frustrating. Annoying. Disappointing. How would it feel to you?
OK, fine. Uncanny. It felt uncanny. Woo-woo.
The Prime Minister’s favourite story as a child was the one about the master stonemason of Rosslyn Chapel, who set out on a ten-year journey in search of inspiration for the primary pillar, and when he returned with a first-rate idea for how to do it, his apprentice had already carved it exactly that way, so he killed him.
What do you think it is about this story that speaks to you? I asked, with a chill.
Its palpable unlikelihood, the Prime Minister replied. What obviously happened was, when the master stonemason saw the apprentice’s pillar, he knew right away it was far better than anything he himself could do. This was a guy who hadn’t lifted a chisel in ten years. Thinking fast, he told everybody that the pillar was exactly the way he’d have done it. It didn’t matter that people gave each other looks and thought, Yeah right, and pigs fly. The pillar problem was solved. Now there was only the apprentice to be punished, for the insubordination. That’s where the stonemason made his mistake: doing it himself. He’d almost certainly underestimate the amount of bottled-up energy he was carrying around, not just from being pumped to carve a primary pillar after such a prolonged build-up but from finding the job already done better than he could ever do it. I’m sure the unanticipated relief mixed up with the disappointment of a lost opportunity for a career-capping achievement, not to mention understandable intimations of inadequacy, failure, and mortality, made for a perfect cocktail of energy in need of an outlet, and though a perfunctory, face-saving, appearance-sake sort of beating was what was called for, he got a little carried away.
I never thought of the Rosslyn Chapel story that way, I admitted.
It’s the only way that crazy story makes any sense, the Prime Minister said. Unless the apprentice had a weak heart and keeled over dead at the first tap, but fly that one past the Occam’s Razor people and see how long you last.
When I asked the Prime Minister if there was any one thing he’d done as a child that he particularly regretted, his bottom lip wobbled as he confessed that he had once forced three kittens to swim back and forth across the neighbours’ pond, for over an hour. I don’t know what I was thinking, he said. The water was freezing. I still have nightmares.
Were they OK?
They didn’t drown, if that’s what you mean. For those kittens my fun game was a living hell.
Was there a moral in that for you?
A moral? In what? Shivering little kitty bodies?
Do unto others?
I was doing that! I love swimming, it’s the chlorine that gets to me, and this was a freshwater pond, with minnows! When I saw the consequences of my actions, I scooped out a couple for the kitties, but they were shivering too violently to focus.
Here the Prime Minister took his face in his hands and appeared to sob. Smoothly, with the tact he would come to know me for, I changed the subject. Let me ask you something, I said. Is a minnow a developmental stage of any number of kinds of fish or is it a piscine variety in its own right?
The Prime Minister lowered his hands from his face and gave me a look that was arguably grateful and yet, when all was said and done, utterly inscrutable.
Minnows don’t have rights, he said.
I’d worked closely with the Prime Minister for some time before I discovered his practice of relaxing, when he could make the time, by hanging in the doorway between his inner and outer office wearing nothing but his black dress socks and women’s underwear. The first time I blundered in on him like this, we both pretended he was “hanging” in the doorway in the usual, metaphorical sense of the term. But the third or fourth time I came upon him like this, despite the fact that I had never seen him hanging from anything except his ankles, I ventured an autoerotic asphyxiation comment.
It’s interesting, I said, that the root of the word embarrassment should be the old Portuguese for noose, baraça. Presumably the flush of embarrassment resembles the look on the face of a man being strangled. It’s always seemed to me that there can be few activities more embarrassing to be discovered engaged in than autoerotically asphyxiating oneself. And yet etymologically the act could be said to presuppose, if not actually render redundant, the embarrassment of being discovered at it.
Instead of considering my point, the Prime Minister brusquely informed me that any flush I saw down there was due to gravity, and I reflected how it’s funny but also a little bit sad when the Great, in their vigilance against being misunderstood, run roughshod over an observation however acute.
The whole idea, he added, is I’m upside-down. To increase blood flow to the brain while I connect with my feminine side.
Women are voters too, I verified.
He seemed to reflect for a moment. But you’ve probably wondered why you’ve never seen me even slightly embarrassed. I mean, considering everything.
I said I had noticed but never wondered. I’d always assumed he had nothing to be embarrassed about.
Oh, get off it. I weaned myself. I consciously set about to ensure that nothing can embarrass me. Too much depends.
You do, I shot back wittily. But his mind was on other things. So how did you do it? I prompted him.
Inoculation. I placed myself in one disgraceful and humiliating situation after another. Gradually I became inured. Literally free of shame.
This inspired me to tell him the story of my first summer in the bush, when I was so badly bug-bitten that I developed encephalitis and nearly died but ever since have been immune to insect bites.
A good analogy, the Prime Minister confirmed.
What kinds of disgraceful and humiliating situations? I asked.
You have been following this? I went into politics.
Sometimes a confidant to Greatness will be afforded a glimpse of the extraordinary dedication required of the one who would be Great. Those of us who have abandoned the quest for Mastery, let alone Greatness, will especially appreciate a reminder of how much harder and longer we would have needed to work, and even then it would have been a crapshoot. In this way we assure ourselves we made the right decision, for the truth is that the reason we are not Great is not because we lack potential for Greatness but because we are not made of stern enough stuff.
On the subject of transvestite autoerotic asphyxiation, I remarked that the notorious pirate Calico Jack had a fondness for wearing women’s underwear. I added that he and his all-female crew were finally captured in 1702, in Negril, I believed it was.
This Calico character was probably a woman, the Prime Minister said.
Gosh, I never thought of that.
Could you give me a hand down here, the Prime Minister said.
In the Trenches
Before my relocation from deeper in the bush, like most people I thought of Ottawa as a dull city, a poor man’s Edmonton-in-Ontario sort of place, and yet too much a Shield town to be a feasible home for so many people wearing jackets and ties, or jackets and skirts, or pantsuits with blouses, or even turtlenecks some of them. But the town soon revealed itself as a go-for-broke playground of pomp and high-jinks, of wonder and intrigue.
That said, a little of the politicians went a long way. With the exception of the Prime Minister and a handful of others of assorted political persuasions, the politicians were the weak link. Specious, untrustworthy, expendable. Outsiders clamouring to be insiders. Incontinent talkers, broadcasting seamless flows so inchoate that the seamlessness was the seamlessness of no distinguishable parts. Not listeners. Their strategy was talk so incessant as to prevent a word in, and if one did get in and it wasn’t short and graspable by a non-thinker then it would be as if it hadn’t got in at all, and when you wearied of being talked at by someone incapable of listening and tried to move away, he’d follow you, still talking, until an aide appeared from a doorway to lead him away to his next meeting, and even as he disappeared down the corridor he would still be talking.
Fortunately, with the Prime Minister at the helm, even the members of his own party knew nothing and to that extent were powerless. Their briefing notes, in the form of loose-leaf pamphlets in 28-point font, children’s picture books without pictures, were tossed to them in their offices like bones to animals in their cages. All they knew, and all they needed to know, was the tops of the waves. Meanwhile the Prime Minister worked full-time to ensure a calm sea. This way, if anything happened, they found out about it no sooner than everybody else. This way, they could talk all they wanted and nothing would get out. Their noise was white noise. It provided necessary insulation as the Prime Minister worked away to remake the country in an image of Greatness entirely his own.
When the Prime Minister did meet with members of his caucus, nobody was left with any doubt who was boss, and this was just as well because they were morons. They assumed because the Prime Minister wanted them in shirtsleeves and always placed his hand on their back as they left the meeting that it had been an intense session of camaraderie and hard work. But the Prime Minister was not naturally a toucher, and when I asked about the hand on the back, he explained that he was making sure he could see his entire handprint. The ones who failed to sweat enough were soon out, the ones who regularly went so far as also to wet their pants he promoted, and those who found it necessary to wear brown pants became his closest “advisors.”
The politicians could have been, and often had been, insurance salesmen, mortgage brokers, petty thieves, outpatients. The bureaucrats were a cut above. The real shame of Ottawa was that the Prime Minister was never able to extract unquestioning cooperation from this remarkable pool of ability. Some civil servants were amenable, of course, on principle or because they had none, but not enough of them. Privately the Prime Minister said they were worse than Jews: too intelligent to be counted on, too likely to have a working moral compass. Even amongst those bureaucrats who did their best to be team players, as soon as a Prime Ministerial initiative entered a legal or parliamentary grey area, invariably somebody would suffer a failure of nerve or an attack of conscience, and a plan the Prime Minister had been working on for years would go sideways. Nothing caused the Prime Minister’s head to explode like being foiled by the foolish compunction of some latté-guzzling nonentity. We’d all duck for cover and wait for the relative calm that came with detumescence.
The reality is that when the rubber hits the road, every slime mold cell is either a component of the slug or it’s not. And every cell not a component is a potential enemy. Why didn’t it surrender its autonomy when it had the chance? The Prime Minister’s method for dealing with non-aligned cells was twofold, a double refusal: of money and of information. By cutting off funding to the civil service and keeping it in the dark, he reduced its capacity for creating impediments. How else do you get things done in a place so hide-bound? Fail to cut off renegades at the knees and you had a government at the mercy of precedent and what the Prime Minister during in camera sessions with his “advisors” would put on a droll face and use a God voice to designate as the democratic process. When he was in a good mood he’d sometimes insert this phrase with increasing frequency, until he had us falling about in our seats, weeping with laughter.
On the surface, for the most part, things proceeded smoothly: that calm sea. But every once in a while something would hit home vis-à-vis how things actually were. I remember on one occasion the Office of the Assistant to the Acting Assistant to the Deputy Minister of _________—which consisted, I later learned, of the Assistant himself in a poorly lit, badly ventilated temporary cubicle in a Ministry basement hallway—was given twenty-four hours to produce two substantive reports, which it did, right on time. Not widely available, the two reports were the sort of thing people would prefer to know existed than actually read. But somehow they both landed on my desk, simultaneously, and while I was leafing through them over lunch one day, it came to my attention that they were identical. Word for word. Different titles, same content.
When I called the Office of the Assistant to the Acting Assistant to let them know about this clerical glitch, the Assistant himself answered. When I told him there had been a glitch, he informed me there was no glitch. They were different reports because they had different subjects. Different referent, he said, enunciating clearly, as to a child, different meaning. Anyway, he added, what are the odds anybody’s going to read either one of these works of deathless fucking prose, never mind closely enough and close enough in time to notice any similarities?
I read both just now, at lunch, I said. Well, not read—
I was going to say.
Checked through. The two texts are identical.
Yes, but who are you? Who listens to you?
The Prime Minister listens to me.
Give me a break.
On another occasion, when a respected member of the Opposition was making hay out of a claim that the Prime Minister’s party was guilty of some sort of mismanagement of party funds, the national press, at a loss for anything on this Government capable of holding the public’s attention for longer than a day, played up the story. It was clearly a let’s throw this one at the wall and see if it sticks tactic, but an unfortunate succession of leaks, gaffes, revelations, whatever, followed, and soon we were headed straight for a non-confidence vote in the House. (Let me just say here that whoever said a week is a year in politics got it right. How can nothing ever seem to get done and yet everything change in a day? In the morning you wake up a god, that night you pass out dead drunk a Muppet. Or vice versa. By the end of the week you’ve gone from god to Muppet and back again so many times you’re ready to say or do anything for anybody who can guarantee you’ll remain a god. But it doesn’t work that way. Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever. Not for anybody. This is politics.)
So with a non-confidence vote barreling down the track toward us, I accosted the Prime Minister, practically wringing my hands, crying, What are we going to do?
His reply was worthy of Socrates. Has something somebody once said ever come back to you later, he asked me, and you were struck by its profundity, and then you remembered who said it, and suddenly it didn’t even seem especially true?
Why, yes. That has happened to me.
It’s happened to all of us. It’s why you so often hear the phrase Consider the source. Nobody likes the truth, so we put a human face on it and that way minimize it, making it easy to dismiss. With any luck it’ll be forgotten completely, until the next time it comes out of the mouth of some flawed individual and it becomes necessary to go through the process again.
Discredit the Honourable Member? I asked, shocked at how far we were prepared to go when push came to shove.
A human life is rarely pretty in the details, the Prime Minister affirmed quietly, with a smile, though perhaps only baring his teeth.
They speak like angels, I murmured, but they live like men.
Who said that?
Did he? Good. We’ll use it.
Unlike his wife, who told me herself that she would stay in one every single night of the year if she could, the Prime Minister wasn’t fussy one way or another about hotels—with one exception, the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal, but then it had to be Suite 1203. There were better suites than 1203 at the Ritz-Carlton , far better, but the Prime Minister always insisted on having that particular one. In fact, if for some reason Suite 1203 at the Ritz-Carlton proved unavailable, he would sometimes even choose to stay at the Four Seasons.
When this quirk became known beyond the PMO, some of the younger staffers were rumoured to be offering wagers on what exactly it was about 1203. These ranged from a weight-reducing mirror to a hole drilled through to the next room. One day, checking into the Ritz-Carlton to prepare for the Prime Minister’s arrival later that evening, I found the staffers in a giddy state. By informing the front desk that the Prime Minister needed certain files in place before his arrival, they had got hold of the key to 1203. The plan was to search the room for what it was about it that made it the Prime Minister’s suite of choice at the Ritz-Carlton. When my own preparations were complete, I went along to see what turned up.
Since three of us had stayed or were now staying in rooms identical to 1203, only on different floors, it was easy to discount extraordinary features. The view, of Sherbrooke Street, was unexceptional. Nothing advantageous about the bathroom fixtures, no extra force from the shower head. Standard closet space. After half an hour of fruitless searching, all we could think was that something of sentimental value must have happened to the Prime Minister in 1203: news of the shaming or suicide of an opponent, or perhaps the number itself spoke to him in some Christian or Masonic way. When one of the staffers drew a Robinson screwdriver from his pocket, slipped off his shoes, climbed onto the desk, and set about unscrewing the grate over a ventilation duct, we quietly stood and watched. By that point, none of us had much hope. After lowering the grate to us, the staffer reached into the duct and finding nothing, reached deeper and drew out a pair of beat-up old Size-13, moccasin-style Sperry Top-Siders.
These, after examining closely, he handed down to us. When we too had finished turning these articles over in our hands, we passed them back to him and watched in silence as he replaced them deep inside the duct and rescrewed the grate. And then, like whipped hounds, we got out of there.
Nobody talked much afterward about what we had found. Some of us were pretty badly shaken, though I suspect most were simply disappointed not to have won the bet, or to have come anywhere close. For myself, I was left with the sober reflection that the discovery of a person’s deepest secret can leave you knowing far less about them than you knew before, not because it has opened up a whole new set of questions but because what you have found, this enigmatic object, or objects, that you may even have held in your hands and gazed at in queasy wonder, have tipped you into an aporia of absolute unknowing.
Arts and Sciences
Two years into the Prime Minister’s second term, it was my great honour to be invited to attend a teepee handover ceremony on a grassy margin at the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis. Strictly speaking, only the Prime Minister and the Heritage Minister were allowed to join the Blackfoot elders inside the teepee, but the ceremony was held next door to a high-power, two-day conference entitled “Whither the Arts?” hosted by the Heritage Minister himself, and so I passed the time at that. But I found that despite being handpicked and not so much artists as arts administrators and lobbyists, the attendees’ general tone was surly and intemperate, as exemplified by the raucous laughter that erupted when somebody remarked that the h in “Whither” had surely been a misprint. This was beggar-on-horseback stuff. Rarely has this country been under the direct personal control of a Prime Minister so devoted to the arts. What people fail to realize is that Greatness is not just a quality you have, it’s a full-time job. Its unacknowledged cost to the Great One is the foregoing of every last glittering night at the opera and sleepy afternoon curled up with a tome penned by one of our army of international-household-name authors. These extraordinary pastimes, whose galvanizing effects on the Canadian soul have been well documented, are simply not in the cards when your creative energies are dedicated to remaking a country from the ground up.
At any rate, the teepee handover ceremony was held in the late morning of the second day of the conference, a day that began in a literally auspicious way. First, at dawn, a hawk swooped from the sky to carry off a prairie dog from the mouth of its burrow close to the door of the teepee. Not half an hour later, a passing coyote entered the (empty) teepee and sniffed around before continuing on its way. Finally, after the elders and the Heritage Minister had gathered inside and the Prime Minister was about to step in himself, a raven alighted at the tip of one of the teepee support poles. As the ceremony started up inside, with the Heritage Minister thus engaged, the rest of us broke from our conference, which had been taking place in a meeting room a few steps away, and stood around in the sun outside the teepee, cooling our heels.
It was nobody’s fault that we waited out there over three hours, and when the Prime Minister and the Heritage Minister emerged from the tent, their faces painted in celebration of the native titles that they had been awarded along with the teepee (the Prime Minister was The Grey One Who Toils in Secret, while the Heritage Minister was simply [unprintable]), they were visibly elated, but the Prime Minister, with a flight out of Calgary to catch, had to dash, and when the Heritage Minister rejoined our conference and the discussion resumed, you could see the elation draining out of him, and before we knew it he was pacing up and down, berating his aides for interrupting this crucial conference on the arts for a ceremony that had gone on far too long and chastising us for having achieved so little the day before and earlier today and now here we were with hardly any time left at all to continue to drill down on the question of whither the arts. After delivering himself of this senseless tirade, he shouted, And if you don’t think I know this is churlish behaviour on my part, you’re dead wrong, but that’s the kind of person I am, and then he stormed out and we never saw him again. We were forced to pass on our conclusions concerning whither the arts in the form of an email attachment and never did receive from his Office an acknowledgment of our efforts.
Later, when I mentioned this unprofessional outburst to the Prime Minister, he said,
Hal can be a bit of a hothead sometimes.
Hal? I thought his name was Bob.
It might not be Hal, the Prime Minister admitted, but I don’t believe it’s Bob. I think I might have heard him answer to Bill once or twice, but never Bob. Not that I couldn’t get him to answer to Bob, if I felt like it . . . .
The only other noteworthy exchange at the conference had occurred earlier, when the Prime Minister looked in on us. As it happened, the attendees, though all from the arts community and explicitly charged with talking about the arts, had got themselves into a lather about global warming—I know; go figure—and in response to a speech disguised as a question from a young native woman, the Prime Minister replied native-style, with a story from India. In a rice-processing facility, an employee comes running into the boss’s office with a cockroach he’s found in the rice. Here! he cries. Conclusive evidence, sir, that we have roaches! The boss says, Let’s see that. He pops the roach into his mouth, swallows it, and says, That was not a roach, it was a betel leaf!
The sheer, blinding wisdom of this story caused a hush to descend upon the attendees. You could practically see its ramifications causing them to reevaluate everything they had ever assumed about global warming. Finally the young native woman said,
But that’s completely dishonest.
Dishonest? the Prime Minister wondered. Or quick thinking in the name of an overriding economic reality? Who shuts down a rice facility in India because one problem employee starts running around crying Roach? Honest, dishonest, who’s what? Employee? Boss? Who can say? In China or Russia, a troublemaker like that would be jailed, or shot. In the West we do things differently. In Canada, for example, he’d be fired, and if not he should be, and once some of these laws we’ve been working on take effect, also fined, and if possible, deported.
This was something to think about, but before the native woman could continue to dominate the mic, the Prime Minister was obliged to step away to attend the teepee handover ceremony.
First Trip Abroad
Though one or two commentators were on it right away, and several took to carping on it weekly, it didn’t seem to matter to the general public that the Prime Minister was in office for some time before he ventured abroad. The reason was simple: he needed control, and because he didn’t know what abroad was like, he couldn’t be sure that he would have it there. I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday the afternoon of the day he was scheduled to take his first trip outside the country—an early evening flight to South America. I had never seen him in such a state. He was like a drunk who does everything with overscrupulous care because he is too drunk to admit to himself how drunk he is.
He packed and unpacked and packed again. He chose and discarded reading material for his carry-on. At the last possible moment he took a bath, of all things. He’d just had his hair cut specially for this trip, but he’d decided it was uneven at the back, and I remember at one point him sitting on a dining room chair in the garden of 24 Sussex and me with a pair of kitchen scissors trimming his hair, while he held up a mirror that kept flashing the sun in my eyes, until I took it out of his hand. Now that I think of it, he was sitting there with his pant cuffs pinned up with safety pins. He’d convinced himself they were too long, but he hadn’t been able to get them the same length, whereas all I could think was who at this late hour we could possibly get to re-hem them. As I snipped, to take his mind off his anxiety and at the same time yank his chain a little, I described the classic Sid Caesar routine in which Sid tries to get his sideburns even and ends up taking his entire hairline back an inch, but the Prime Minister wasn’t listening. Already his thoughts were deep inside the jungle-green and beige-walled labyrinth that is South America.
Probably the reason we humans feel compelled on no evidence whatsoever to distinguish ourselves from the other animals is that 99% of what we do is pure animal routine: rote, unconscious, we’ve done it all so many times before we’re on automatic. Only when we move out into unaccustomed territory do we become what we think of ourselves as being all the time, “human,” because only out there do we become conscious and need to think about everything we do. Only out there is life arbitrary and fearsome, as well it should be. Out there is where the other animals wisely fear to tread, because out there is where the big mistakes are made. This was the place the Prime Minister was in that day, but what I would see in South America was a man who quickly made himself right at home. Once he’d met a few world leaders and witnessed for himself that they were only human, perhaps brighter or more assertive or more charismatic than the rest of us, though not, in the Prime Minister’s view, than himself, and certainly shorter and slighter, most of them anyway, he relaxed, and before long he was stepping on a plane and flying off to South-east Asia as casually as you or I would hop on a bus to Arnprior.
Law and Order
The Halloween of my second year in Ottawa, my sister’s boy, who was eight, wanted to go trick-or-treating as a terrorist, and so my sister, who shares the family’s artistic bent even though she lives in Vancouver (joking!), spent the day with him and a friend, making pretend pipe bombs out of toilet paper rolls and sewing camouflage fatigues and headscarves. Once she had the boys kitted out as terrorists, she took a few pictures, which she dropped off at Costco, and on Halloween the boys in their gear were a big hit around the neighbourhood. But two weeks later, in the middle of the night, a SWAT team kicked down my sister’s front door and pulled the family from their beds and went through the house for weapons and ammunition. The last thing the officer in charge of the operation told my sister and brother-in-law as his team was packing up to leave was,
There’s something you people need to understand. This is the world we live in. From now on, what happened here tonight is how it’s going to be.
I thought of my sister and her unnerving experience when I recently found myself standing in the street, trying to snap a picture of the Prime Minister as he rode in a motorcade along Spring Garden Road in Halifax. It was a sunny day, and the people if they weren’t exactly cheering were trying, as people will, to register a glimpse of Greatness. Unfortunately, the group I happened to be standing with found itself on the wrong side of a police cordon. One minute everybody was straining to see, the next we were being unceremoniously pushed backward. When people objected and even tried to resist physically, truncheons started flying, and one must have caught me across the side of the head.
The next thing I knew I was sitting on the curb with the worst headache of my life. I tried to tell the officers who I was and that I needed a doctor because my brain seemed to be filling with blood, but they had people with injuries far worse than mine to deny assistance to. In all we were held for just under ten hours. During that time and for the next three weeks I kept passing in and out of self-awareness. At the end of the day I’d be missing entire blocks of time. But once the swelling went down and the headaches grew less severe and more infrequent, I gratefully put the incident behind me. Now I simply avoid crowds and arrange to be out of town on parade days.
When I told the Prime Minister about my experience, he proposed a thought experiment: A. Assume I’m a terrorist. B. Ask myself: Did this treatment meet with my approval as a law-abiding citizen?
Not really, I said.
You’ve assumed you’re a terrorist, he reminded me.
Assumed, until proven guilty, I countered.
There’s no proven, the Prime Minister said, eerily reifying the sentiment expressed by the SWAT team leader. Not any more. It’s too late for proven.
To explain where I was coming from, I assured him that few people had ever felt more warmly disposed toward the police than I used to. All my life I’d found them almost painfully polite and considerate. To take just one example, when I lived in the bush, two of them crossed the lake to our dock in a motorized canoe. The one in the bow, a beefy fellow, got out and, after ascertaining who I was, snapped to attention, stood at ease, placed his hat on his heart, and said,
I regret to inform you that your grandfather has died.
And had he? the Prime Minister asked.
Yes. What a civilized country this is, where the police provide a service like that for a citizen. I wasn’t even on the grid!
If you’d been on the grid, the Prime Minister observed, they wouldn’t have needed to go out there. You could have saved the taxpayer a hefty chunk o’ change.
Still, I said.
Did you thank them?
Not at first. I laughed nervously, the way one does.
From the grief, the Prime Minister said.
Not really. Bamp was a hundred and two. He was ready to go. I tried to explain this, but it came out as Hey, no worries, the guy was incredibly old. I should have kept that to myself. They must have wondered why they’d gone to the trouble of putting a boat in the water.
Did you get any good pictures? the Prime Minister asked.
What? Of the police on our dock?
No, of the motorcade.
I told him I got one or two, but they were blurry with flying truncheons.
Talk of slime mold is all well and good, but every slug has its day, prominence is achieved, the stalk grows a head, the head explodes, and sooner or later the time comes for a return to its constituent parts. To put this another way, not even a Great Man can keep a lid screwed tight forever on a cauldron of monkeys. The Prime Minister saw the end coming long before I did. One day he told me a story that let me know without letting me know.
The Prime Minister’s father had supported his little family on the income from a car-refurbishing business. One summer he came into the possession of a mint-green ’56 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, for next to nothing because someone had died in it. Several days must have passed before the body was discovered, because the car had a smell to it that the seller had been unable to mask. But as a skilled renovator of automobile interiors, the Prime Minister’s father replaced the floor mats and took out the seats and recovered them and essentially recreated the car’s interior. For two summers he drove it with the top down, but when the cold weather returned and the top went up, the smell was still there, and eventually he too had to sell it.
Why am I telling you this? the Prime Minister asked me.
I don’t know, I said.
I’ve been driving that mint green Cadillac Eldorado for seven years, the Prime Minister said. Summer and winter.
Who died? I said.
I don’t know, he said. All I know is it stinks and the stink isn’t going to go away.
That should have been my first clue that the Prime Minister had entered that late stage of an endeavour when, as we prepare psychologically to step away, all the dreadful things that, in our eagerness to be here, doing this, we’ve chosen not to see, rise to the surface and stare us in the face. The thrill has died, the bloom has gone off. Nothing is what it was. Peers and superiors, once gods to be emulated, to rebel against, are now Muppets, not worth the bother.
It’s at a time like this, when youth has fled, a time of disillusion and decline, that fissures form in the structure of reality, and the Lt. Wayne McLeods and their ilk crawl out and walk backwards among us, their faces thrust into ours. One thing that can’t be appreciated enough about the Prime Minister’s immigration policy was its friendliness to multicultural diversity. No one saw more clearly than he did the vote-generating potential of a platform designed to assuage newcomer fears of social instability while silencing any conceivable charge of structural governmental racism. McLeod’s party, with its Great White North bombast, was a knuckle-dragging throwback. If this was exactly what the country didn’t need, it was also the only kind of political challenge that could have at the same time unseated the Prime Minister and made him, and everything he had accomplished, appear to be—depending on your politics—either the step that had taken us closer to the world according to McLeod or the last great flowering of effective one-man government.
A tell-tale characteristic of Greatness is that no one, not even his closest confidant, can hope to possess the scope of mind necessary to grasp the larger picture. But then somebody will always come along with a story that seizes the imagination of the people, who will all of a sudden tire of the ineffable leader who served them with such unswerving devotion, and in their fickle way they will hitch their wagon to a little man who has told them a story they can hold in their minds. It doesn’t even need to be his own story, it can be a story he’s picked up somewhere, that happened to somebody else. All it needs to be is a story that will stick to him through the thick and thin of all the empty promises he will make and the lies he will tell. A master narrative, in other words, and thanks to the tour of duty and the row of medals on the chest and the nasty hectoring speeches and the crazy eyes and the crooked arm, this one stuck.
It was the Prime Minister’s wife, appropriately, who filled me in, some months before McLeod’s people put it out there for public consumption. The story went like this.
McLeod did eventually wedge in the crevasse, upside down, with a wall of clear ice between him and the melting face of the glacier. Requiring an implement to chip his way through, he snapped off his left arm just above the wrist and used the sharp end of the compound fracture to dig himself out. His account of this ordeal always ended with the passionate declaration that human life can offer no greater thrill than the one experienced by a man as he plunges from glacial entrapment into freezing water. McLeod’s promise to the Canadian people was that his election would result in an experience for each of us not unlike plunging into a glacial lake while cradling an arm we’d just used our free hand to break off.
This was heady stuff. It also left the impression that the Prime Minister had somehow kept us encased in ice, even though it was hardly like that at all, as anyone can tell you who ever ran for cover when his head exploded or luxuriated in the halflight of his smile, if that’s what it was. But the Canadian people, knowing even less about the Prime Minister and what he was up to than the politicians did, were hungry for a story, preferably, in this age of darkness and decline, something heroic, or its imitation, as we swim for our lives.
The last time I saw the Prime Minister I was standing in the press box of the Ottawa Convention Centre, gazing down at that vast, lonely space, and there he was in his grey suit, moving heavily up and down the floor with an air hockey stick, and when he reached one end he’d take a hard shot on goal, pick up the rebound, stickhandle his way to the other end, and take another hard shot, and watching him down there I understood that after we hauled him up out of the ice like a Colossus, this was what his life had been, and in a vision I saw that it will be a cold day in Hell before we are again bestridden as the Prime Minister bestrode us in the full majesty of his Greatness.
Greg Hollingshead has published six books of fiction, including The Roaring Girl, The Healer, and Bedlam. He has won the Governor General’s Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and been shortlisted for the Giller Prize. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta and director of the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre. In 2011-12 he served as Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada. In 2012 he received the Order of Canada. He now lives in Toronto.