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Re-Discovering Mariposa

January 17, 2018.

This blog began with my desire to re-write the story of Mariposa. I am not sure that I want to do that any more, because I am not convinced that Stephen Leacock got it wrong. I think people have been reading it wrong, and I would like to set the record straight.

I am not yet ready to give you the whole load, only a quick preview: Mariposa is not Orillia, nor would the people of Orillia want it to be if they understood what Leacock said. Mariposa is a warning, as is Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, written two years later. Mariposa and The City are in fact the same warning, against particular ways of thinking that have to do with Unsolved Riddles.

Leacock’s warning was brilliantly done, but unfortunately his method of giving it was too subtle and most people missed it. They thought he was being satirical when in fact he was being prophetic. He himself compounded the problem by getting caught up in his well-deserved reputation for being funny, and all the pleasures and rewards thereof. A scholar or two here and there caught a whiff of the truth, but by and large scholarship was content to follow the lines laid down by popular opinion, and to embroider on them elegantly without examining the cloth.

I am no scholar, although I do have some tools that could be used for that purpose. In the months ahead I intend to use them.

Thank you for reading, and please stay tuned.


It’s Confederation-Becomes-Official Day in Mariposa, also Prince-Edward-Island-Becomes-the-Seventh-Province Day, and British-North-American-Colonies-Divide Day. All these are important days in the formation of Canada, which remains a work in progress.

In case you need to be reminded, Mariposa is the capital of Conundropia. On public holidays the population flocks there in their thousands to take part in the celebratory conversations.

They celebrate July 1st, of course, but not as a birthday. Despite all that pressure from the media, politicians and people around them, they continue to hold the belief that Canada was not born, especially not on one particular day, but rather created, piece by piece and act by act, through the courage and hard work of politicians and their publics over dozens of decades.

The Conundropians believe that they cannot care for present and future if they do not take care of the past. That’s where the lessons are stored, in our memories of the past. They also like a good party. They have therefore organized their year into thirty or more civic celebrations, honouring the courageous political decisions of the past, around which they have built their mythology. They continue to add more as the story unfolds.

It’s not that they ignore the wars, rebellions, and upheavals that occur when politics break down, or the heroism they sometimes invoke. It’s just that they view them as tragedies or failures bearing death and destruction and thus poor excuses for a party. Both good things and bad things have happened in the story of this country, they say: Let’s celebrate the good things for 31 days in the year, working for more of them and fewer bad ones for the other 334¼.

The calendar of Canadian celebrations, in its current form, looks like this:

It is notable that they celebrate no Aboriginal Day, any more than they celebrate a British Day, or a French Day, or any other similar day. They are certainly not unware of the Aboriginal presence in the Canadian story, in all its diverse colours. They believe, however, that the act of political imagination and courage necessary, on all sides, to include them properly has not yet occurred. When it does it will be awarded its day, identified by its act as with all the rest.

The necessary imagination and courage will come, yes, from politicians, but also from their respective publics supporting and encouraging them to do what they know needs to be done. They will culminate in a political act recognizing that a reconciliation has occurred for practical purposes and that we can now go forward together. The Conundropians have no preconceived notion of what that act will be. That question remains one Unsolved Riddle among the many, although one of huge importance for the future of the country. In its wake will follow a host of other Unsolved Riddles arising from the need to keep it alive, in quality if not content very much like the Unsolved Riddles that flow out of acts of the primordial French and English, their descendants, and all the more recent arrivals from all the myriad lands of their origins.

So, today being Confederation-Becomes-Official Day, and British-North-American- Colonies-Divide Day, and Prince-Edward-Island-Becomes-the-Seventh-Province Day, and Monday being Québec-City-Founding Day, we wish the Mariposans and all Conundropians well in their celebrations which will extend for a full four days. And we wish them a speedy recovery in time for Manitoba-Becomes-the-Fifth-Province Day on the 15th.


Imagining a Fragmented, Incomplete and Inconclusive World

“This blog now has another companion:, and I am going to use both in the effort to tease out an “Appreciation” (Peter McArthur) of Stephen Leacock’s “extraordinarily commonplace” (J.M. Keynes) approach to social and economic justice, politics, and personal well-being. I am advocating a playful approach, because the ideas are slippery and elusive, even possibly absurd, but they may be the ideas we are fated to embrace, so that to approach them with humour, as he did, may be the only satisfactory state of mind.

I am going to use this blog in the search for an imaginative approach, the other for a more empirical-analytical one, based on Leacock’s immense body of written and spoken works and the extension of his data and experiences into the present. I will move everything to do with our Re-Tour to western Canada this fall into the Voyageur Storytelling web site, I will send out notices of postings and changes on the Voyageur Storytelling Twitter account. Leslie looks after our Facebook page, and will regularly post notices, biographical notes, and bits of Leacock gossip, with pictures.

These five sites make up the social media presence of this, our Sesquicentennial project. When we launch forth on the Re-Tour itself, next October, we may add others to enrich the telling of its story.

Over the next week or two all these sites will be reorganized and cleaned up in order to serve their present purposes. Please bear with us in the meantime.

I invite you to imagine that you are flying into Leacockland and that the pilot is circling your aircraft so that you can see how it is laid out. There are no maps, because what is important about the area is its nature, not its geography. It is a mutable place, whose reality is not of any fixed kind, a place of “fragmentation, incompleteness and inconclusiveness” (Ed Jewiniski, a.k.a. Dr. J — see previous post). You will therefore recognize immediately the place of humour, and laughter, in contemplating such a landscape.

Over there, on the one hand, is Mariposa, a not-so-little town; over there, on the other, is The City where, most probably these days, you live, or in some suburb or satellite thereof. Over there in the misty distance is the place I will call The Rus, because I know some Latin too, although not as much as Stephen Leacock did, and have access to a great deal more. The Rus is the place you remember coming from, which may be The Farm, or The Village, or as in my case The Small Town, located in Canada or in some other country. Your Rus may even be The City, but if so it is the city of your memories, not the one you inhabit now. Much more distinctly, over there, and there, are two places you can escape, theoretically at least, from the conturbations of The City and the confoundations of The Rus. They are, in Leacockland, The Country, and The University.

Stephen Leacock described these places most elaborately, and the world that surrounds them, in his 1,498 pieces of writing (622 of which he gathered into his almost-annual collections), his 739 public lectures that we know about, and the 23 other books that he (or his literary executor) had published between 1903 and 1946. He died in 1944.

I am able to be so precise about these numbers because of the bibliographic labours of Carl Spadoni of McMaster University Library, and his assistant Sheila Turcon. I have created a database from what they provide, and am in a position to count whatever is in there, which so far consists of date of first publication (many pieces were published several times), title, type of work, place of first appearance, all appropriately coded, and some other notes and observations of interest. I am now adding, for each work, its subject (this list when compiled will be very wide), its field (economics, politics, history, humour, etc.) and its voice. The study of the Leacock voices and how they change over his lifetime, or even within a single work, will be particularly fascinating.

I will use the other blog to play with the data. In this one I want to explore Leacockland, starting with its constituent places and the people he put there, including himself, and then extrapolating them forward to see what they look like now. I would like to engage you, and great many other people, in that exploration, and I would like to find a way to include at least some of it in the performances and conversations we present next Fall on our Re-Tour.

Is it possible, I ask myself, and you, that The City is now all that we have, that it has absorbed Mariposa, The Rus, The  Country, The University, and even laughter itself? And is it possible that if we explore them thoroughly, as he described them for us, with humour and compassion, we may be able to recover them, or at least some of their essence?

I invite you most cordially to follow this blog and its companions and to take part in their conversations.

Leacock Greets the Spring in 1921

This piece appeared first in The Montreal Standard on April 2nd, 1921, and was reprinted several times by newspapers in the following years. It also appeared in Leacock’s 1923 collection of sketches called OVER THE FOOTLIGHTS, published in Toronto by S. B. Grundy, and the source of this copy. It illustrates very well the kind of writing (and editing, or lack thereof) that makes Leacock persistently both interesting and irritating.


First Call for Spring


Oh, Listen to the Birds

I gather that Spring is approaching. I am not an observant man, but as the days go by, the signs begin to multiply. Even for me that means that spring is at hand.

I take this early occasion to notify the public of my opinion and to support it with collateral facts. I am anxious this year to be among the first in the field. Among the signs on which I base my views that spring is near, I may mention that I observe that the snow has gone : that the income tax declarations are being distributed at the post-office; and that the sign BOCK BEER is hung out at the Marshal Foch Café, formerly the Kaiserhoh.

Spring then is upon us. The first call for spring has come : and I should like to suggest that this year we meet it firmly and quietly and with none of the hysterical outburst that it usually provokes in people of a certain temperament. I refer to those unfortunate beings called “lovers of nature.”

Each year I have been pained to notice that the approach of spring occasions a most distressing aberration in the conduct of many of my friends. Beside my house, a few doors on the right, I have an acquaintance who is a Nature Man. All through the winter he is fairly quiet, an agreeable friendly fellow, quite fit for general society. I notice him, it is true, occasionally grubbing under the snow. I have once or twice seen him break off a frozen twig from a tree, and examine it. On one occasion, indeed, last winter he was temporarily unmanned by seeing a black bird (otherwise harmless) sitting on a bough. But for the most part his conduct during the colder weather is entirely normal.

Spring, however, at once occasions in my Nature friend a distressing disturbance. He seems suddenly to desire, at our every meeting, to make himself a channel of information as between the animate world and me. From the moment that the snow begins to melt, he keeps me posted as to what the plants and the birds and the bees are doing. This is a class of information which I do not want, and which I cannot use. But I have to bear it.

My Nature friend passes me every morning with some new and bright piece of information : something he thinks so cheery that it irradiates his face. “I saw a finch this morning,” he says. “Oh, did you,” I answer. “I noticed a scarlet tanager this afternoon,” says my friend. “You don’t say so!” I reply. What a tanager is I have never known : I hope I never shall. When my Nature friend says things of this sort all I can do is to acquiesce. I can’t match his information in any way. In point of ornithology I only know two birds, the crow and the hen. I can tell them at once either by their plumage or by their song. I can carry on a nature conversation up to the limit of the crow and the hen ; beyond that, not.

So for the first day or so in spring, I am able to say, “I saw a crow yesterday,” or “I noticed a hen out walking this morning.” But somehow my crow and hen seem to get out of date awfully quickly. I get ashamed of them and never refer to them again. But my friend keeps up his information for weeks, running through a whole gamut of animals. “I saw a gopher the other day,” he says, “guess what the little fellow was doing?” If only he knew it I’d like to break out and answer, “I don’t care what the Hades the little fellow was doing.” But, like every body else, I suppose, I have not the assurance or the cruelty to break in upon the rapture of the Nature Man. Some day I shall : and when I do, let him watch out.

My particular anger with these Nature Men such as my friend, springs, I think, from the singularly irritating kind of language that they use : a sort of ingratiating wee-wee way in which they amalgamate themselves, as it were, with nature. They really seem to feel so cute about it. If a wee hepatica peeps above the snow they think they’ve done it. They describe it to you in a peculiar line of talk almost like baby language. “What do you think I saw?” says the Nature Man. “Just the tiniest little shoot of green peeping from the red-brown of the willow!” He imitates it with his thumb and finger to show the way the tiny little shoot shoots. I suppose he thinks he’s a little bud himself. I really believe that my particular friend actually imagines himself in spring-time to be a wee hepatica, or a first crocus, or the yellow-underleaf of a daffodil.

And notice, too, the way in which they refer to colours; never plain and simple ones like red or black or blue; always stuff like “red-brown” or “blue-green.” My friend asks me if I have noticed the peculiar soft “yellow-brown” that the water fowl puts on in spring. Answer: No, I haven’t : I haven’t seen any water-fowl : I don’t know where you look for them and I didn’t know that they put anything on. As for “yellow-brown” I didn’t know that there was any such colour. I have seen a blue-black crow this year, and I have noticed a burnt-indigo-sepia hen : but beyond that I have not seen anything doing.

Worst of all, and, in fact, verging on paresis is the state of mind of the Nature Man in regard to the birds. When he speaks of them his voice takes on a particular whine. My Nature friend told me yesterday that he had seen two orioles just beginning to build a nest behind his garage. He said he “tiptoed” to the spot (notice the peculiar wee-wee language that these people use)—and then stood rooted there watching them. I forget whether he said “rooted” or “riveted” : on occasions like this he sometimes reports himself as one and sometimes as the other. But why on earth, if he is once fairly rooted does he become unrooted again?

I therefore wish to give this plain and simple notice, meant without malice : If any other of my friends has noticed a snowdrop just peeping above the edge of the turf, will he mind not telling me. If any of them has noticed that the inner bark of the oak is beginning to blush a faint blue-red, would he mind keeping it to himself. If there is any man that I know who has seen two orioles starting to build a nest behind his garage, and if he has stood rooted to the ground with interest and watch the dear little feathered pair fluttering to and fro, would he object to staying rooted and saying nothing about it?

I am aware that I ought long ago to have spoken out openly to my nature friends. But I have, I admit, the unfortunate and weak-minded disposition that forces me to smile with  hatred in my heart. My unhappy neighbour does not suspect that I mean to kill him. But I do. I have stood for all that tanager and oriole stuff that I can. The end is coming. And as for that hepatica just putting its tiny face above the brown of the leaf—well, wait, that’s all. Some day, I know it, I shall all of a sudden draw a revolver on my friend and say, “Listen. This has gone far enough. Every spring for many years you have stopped me in the street and told me of this nature stuff. And I have stood for it and smiled. You told me when the first touch of brown appeared on the underwing of the lark, and I let you say it. You kept me posted as to when the first trillium appeared from a pile of dead oak leaves under a brush-heap and I let you tell it to me and never said that all I knew of trilliums was in connection with the German reparations indemnity. But the thing is exhausted. Meet your fate as you can. You are going where the first purple-pink of the young rhododendron will be of no interest to you.”

I don’t want to appear surly. But I am free to admit that I am the kind of man who would never notice an oriole building a nest unless it came and built it in my hat in the hat room of the club. There are other men like me too : and the time has come when we must protect ourselves. There are signs of spring that every sensible man respects and recognizes. He sees the oysters disappear from the club bill-of-fare, and knows that winter is passing; he watches boiled new California potatoes fall from 25 to 10 cents a portion and realizes that the season is advancing. He notes the first timid appearance of the asparagus just peeping out of its melted butter : and he sees the first soft blush on the edge of the Carolina Strawberry at one-dollar-and-fifty cents a box. And he watches, or he used to watch, in the old day beyond recall, for the sign BOCK BEER TO-DAY that told him that all nature was glad.

These are the signs of spring that any man can appreciate. They speak for themselves. Viewed thus, I am as sensitive to the first call for spring as any of my fellows. I like to sit in my club with my fellow members of like mind and watch its coming and herald its approach.

But for the kind of spring that needs a whole text book of biology to interpret it, I have neither use nor sympathy.

Setting Forth for the City of Mariposa

It’s time to gear up this blog for its next life.

There seems little doubt that Stephen Leacock, in the last chapter of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the little town called Mariposa, would like us to feel some nostalgia for places with a kinder and simpler way of life, such as we might have found in the little towns of our up-bringing. The fact that the Mariposa of the preceding eleven chapters is nothing like that, nor were the little towns of our youths, kind and uncomplicated though they could be on occasion as well as much else, is beside his point. He wrote the book serially, without much of a plan. “Mariposa and Its People” (later changed to “The Hostelry of Mr. Smith”) is where he began, in February 1912, and “L’Envoi: The Train to Mariposa” is where he ended, in June. Much can happen in four or five months to a well-meaning, thoughtful, reading and writing man setting off in a new direction.

It is interesting, and perhaps unfortunate, that Stephen Leacock did not pursue his quest for an imagined little town worthy of nostalgia. The only other place that he gives us in a full-length book is the unnamed “City” of Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, two years later, and no thinking person could possibly feel nostalgia for that. I think it would be very interesting to see what kind of place he would have given us from the full maturity of his thought, twenty years later. It would no doubt have been a much more complicated and interesting place, and that’s where I would like to go.

I would like to find a place that is worthy of nostalgia, not only for a few attractive details, but for its full nature. I do not mean an Utopia; I dream no dreams of a perfect world. I will settle for slow generational change towards progressively less imperfection as long as the striving continues. I worry however that it has fallen on hard times. The striving, that is. For less imperfection.

I think that Mariposa is a good name for the place, a revered Canadian literary name that has not become obsolete. To confront today’s unsolved riddles, however, I am afraid it will have to be a city, because a little town in the sunshine, however valuable as a retreat, will be unequal to the task. Unless we are complete hermits we are all vitally connected to cities, so that even such an apparently silly construct as “The City of Kawartha Lakes” strikes a refreshing note of realism. Retaining Mariposa salutes that idea, because the real Mariposa (Township) now rests within the City of Kawartha Lakes, where the name is disappearing.

But the City of Mariposa is not the City of Kawartha Lakes. Let me be as clear about that as Stephen Leacock tried to be about the little town of Mariposa. It it is not a real town, he said, but “rather seventy or eighty of them.” Excellent! At five thousand people per town (the number assigned by Leacock to his Mariposa ), that gives us a city of population around four hundred thousand, which should be about right for the purpose.

Stephen Leacock gave his Mariposa a fairly specific geography, which because it bears some resemblance to the geography around Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching, where he was raised and subsequently built his summer home, has misled people into thinking that Mariposa is Orillia, which of course it is not, as any careful reading of the text and even slight comparison with the Town of Orillia, as it was then, makes plain. The City of Mariposa must have specific geography too, therefore. In order to avoid misunderstandings I am going to compile one from townships and urban places all across Ontario, lumping them together and distorting their boundaries until I have something of appropriate size and that makes at least as much sense as the boundaries of Wellington County, Grey and Bruce Counties, and others where the surveyors’ mania for rectilinearity was effectively over-ridden by Nature or politics.

The components of the City of Mariposa will be real places, with real geographies, demographics and histories; the resulting amalgam will not. I will choose them for their literary importance, their significance to me personally, and their usefulness to my project.

But Stephen Leacock’s little town of Mariposa is not primarily a place of geography, rather one of people with stories, and so must be the City of Mariposa. In deference to the original I will launch forth from the originals, as I have been doing in previous posts, on the assumption that their stories did not end when he stopped writing them down, nor did the evolution of the place.

In telling you the story of the City of Mariposa, while I do not intend to set aside my own imagination and understanding, I desire also to speculate on what Stephen Leacock would have made of Mariposa had he written about it in 1932 instead of 1912. I think that in the latter year there was room in the mind of a man of his background, intellect and imagination, for an essentially sunny outlook on the state of affairs. To write about a little town in the sunshine would be defensible, on the whole. By 1932 it would not. I find it amazing that somehow, although he became increasingly depressed, he never gave in to hopelessness. Remember that he was a scholar of economics, politics and history. What terrible branches of learning those would be, in those times, for anyone who cared as much as he did. And yet he always found ways to make people laugh, and to strive to enrich their understanding. I like that approach, both parts of it.

“A Pocketful of Mariposies”: Update

It has been a long time since I created a concert so sternly focussed in one direction.The last time, I believe, was when I wrote the libretto for a pastiche operetta with music borrowed from the plays of Gilbert and Sullivan. Before that it was a pastiche opera with music borrowed from Mozart. Since then I have preferred to draw my works from more diverse sources.

This summer, however, I have pointed the searchlight firmly at Stephen Leacock, being resolved not to let this elusive man get away. I tried at first to focus it simply on Mariposa, but it wouldn’t stay there. Despite my best efforts, Mariposa refused to present itself in its own right, persistently nestling among contexts formed by the man himself and his wider preoccupations. To do them justice, however, is the stuff of several concerts, supported by interpretive lectures, which hardly adds up to light summer entertainment.

“A Pocketful of Mariposies”, in other words, has taken on a life of its own, and is wafting itself through the summer now in good order. We have been performing it as a Country Supper Storytelling Concert, and will continue to do so once or twice a week until September. will tell you all about that. On Sunday, July 26th, at 11:00 am we take it to the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, an unusual kind of venue for us. We are looking forward to it. Fortunately, the weather has been very good, so that we have been able to rehearse on our own deck, getting the feel of it outdoors, which is where we will be at the Leacock Museum. will get you all the details of what else is going on at the Festival, and when.

We hope to see you there on Sunday the 26th.

Stephen Leacock’s Ghost: Second Visitation

I received a second visit from Stephen Leacock’s ghost last evening. I wasn’t really in the mood, having been absorbed in a massive project during the past three weeks, but ghosts are not inclined to pay attention to one’s moods. Or at least so I believe, on the basis of what I admit is very limited experience.

The mood of this ghost was truculent. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “I’ve been watching for your bloggerings and I haven’t seen them for weeks.”

“Aha!” said I. “So you do watch.”

“Of course. I keep an eye on everything that anybody writes about me. Libel, you know.”

“And how would you launch a suit for libel?” I enquired politely. “Are you allowed do that from the other side?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t had cause to try. People are mostly kind to me. Excessively so, even. But you haven’t answered my question. Where have you been?”

“Don’t be hard on me, Professor. I only missed one week. I have been busy writing something else.”

“And what might that have been?”

“Well, this may sound silly to you, but I have been writing lyrics to Yiddish music, lyrics which tell the story of the Megillah, as an unusual kind of Purim spiel for our synagogue. One song for each chapter of the Book of Esther. That’s a lot of lyrics, and each song different. I told you before that that’s the kind of thing I do. It can be totally absorbing. I had no time for you, or anything much else.”

“Ah. You mingle with the Jews, do you?”

“Yes I do, being attached to one, and I don’t think we should get into that. McGill had quotas in your day, and I haven’t yet seen any evidence that you objected to them. You may have done, but I haven’t seen the evidence.”

“I didn’t object, because it was none of my business. It was the Registrar’s job to decide who could come to McGill. It was my job to teach them economics and political science. Men, women, Jews—I taught them all, just the same, and helped them if they needed it. Personally I would have preferred an all-male university, and I said so, but it wasn’t my job to decide that.”

“Do you know what is bothering me, more than anything else right now. You heaped such scorn on people who believed in spiritualism, and yet here you are, ectoplasm and all, the—I won’t say living embodiment, because you are neither, and I won’t say tangible manifestation, because you aren’t that either—ethereal representation, if I may so term you, of yourself. Have you changed your mind about the scorn?”

“Not at all. People can believe in ghosts if they want, or not believe, I don’t care. I do care that unscrupulous people used to promote belief in spiritualism and take advantage of believers to steal their money. Spiritualism as practised was a confidence trick, and I scorned it as such, both the tricksters and the people who allowed themselves to be tricked. Especially the latter. But you aren’t paying a dime to have me here, and if somebody was charging you I wouldn’t be here.”

“Well, that’s fair enough, I grant you. We perform ‘Q’ by the way, or did you know that? We find it highly suitable.”

“I knew about that. I came to some of your concerts last year, keeping out of sight, of course. So what are you going to do this year?”

“We’re not sure yet. We’re calling the concert ‘Elongated Leacock’, to indicate that we intend to grapht onto your material, as we did with ‘Ho for Happiness’ last year. We’ll include it again this year. As for the rest of it, I am coming to believe that your life is actually more interesting, from the contemporary perspective, than what you wrote. I am wondering what I might be able to do with that idea.”

“Elongated Leacock, eh? Something like this, perhaps?” Whereupon he stretched himself out of his chair and wrapped himself around the room several times in a long ectoplasmic strand.

“Very impressive!” I exclaimed, applauding. “Could you come and do that at our concerts?”

“Oh, I’ll be there, but I won’t perform. I retired from that game years ago.” He de-elongated himself, and coagulated once more into his chair. “But I have an idea for you, no charge. Why don’t you do my life the way you did the Book of Esther, using the tunes of my time?”

“You mean, I presume, Victorian tunes.”

“Yes, I suppose that would be appropriate. I was born in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, and never really got over it.”

“So you said. I believe that’s true, which is one of the reasons I like you, being a bit of a Victorian myself.” I mused on the possibilities while he shimmered gently where he was. “I think you have hit on an idea, and I’m going to look into it. Will you help?”

“Of course. I’ll be with you every step of the way. It sounds like a splendid idea to me. I’ll be your ghost writer.” And he laughed uproariously at his own joke, as was, according to his biographers, his wont.

When he had finished I said, “I may even have a copy of the old McGill Song Book around here. That would be a great place to start.”

“Indeed it would. Press on, boy, press on.”

“Wrong image,” I said. “I don’t press, I grapht.”

“Well then, grapht on.” And with that he vanished.