I don’t know how I thought of it, but somehow I remembered a book I used to pore over as a young lad (along with Monty Python books and car magazines): Peter Gzowski’s Book About This Country in the Morning, the latter show being a precursor to Morningside.
(The Archives has Gzowski’s final clip on the show. See an old ad. Pictures of the book.)
The book came out in ’74, but there’s no way I was reading this when I was nine years old. It must have had some staying power, some pass-along power, back then.
It isn’t really a tie-in book of the sort we’re familiar with today. In 230 pages there are over a hundred chapters, or at least sections. There are seemingly verbatim transcripts of Gzowski’s interviews with prime ministers. (I remember Trudeau’s interview, and an idiom he used, tel qu’en lui-même l’éternité le change, which I still don’t understand.)
It’s got puzzles and games; recipes; a running “gag” in which people “resign” from things like adulthood, the lawn, and spiders; letters from a pregnant lady; essays from a housewife about women’s liberation and the frustrations of being housebound with kids.
Some of what we’d now call the “content” is dated, obviously. There’s a recipe for a kind of Bachelor Chow (“Now with Flavour!”) – here it’s clam chowder made mostly from cans. The first instruction is “Heat electric frying pan to 300 degrees.” (If that doesn’t summon up childhood memories, you must be under 40.) Somebody pays good money every month for an “answering service.” There’s a picture of a telegram. (A real telegram. A CBC-internal telegram.)
There are tons of illustrations by David Shaw, in a blousy Yellow Submarine style that makes everything look like it’s made of clouds. The illos are very much of their time, with wide swaths of Letratone conspicuously applied.
And the whole book is typeset in a widely-reviled typeface of the era, Souvenir, that really shouldn’t be reviled. It works here, despite the erratic spacing. (The cover, which also works, is in Gill Kayo.) Marginalia ticks its way through the letters of the alphabet, with kooky fonts (like Baby Teeth) and corny limericks attached to each letter. So it looks like a book from the ’70s.
You glance at this book and all that surface business is what you see first, especially if you’re big on typography or whatever, which I know everyone here is. A fetish for period accuracy is now the mark of the hip intellectual – The Ice Storm, Far From Heaven, Mad Men. The book is period-accurate all right.
But the book is a diary of a pre-fragmentation CBC. A time when having the radio on pretty much meant having CBC Radio on. (They say “I had the radio on” in the book.) For a large class of people, including opinion leaders and journalists and educated housewives who could listen to the radio all morning, having the radio on meant having Gzowski on. Then classical music on CBC Stereo in the afternoon maybe.
It probably didn’t mean having a commercial radio station on. I know they were pretty good here in Toronto during many periods of its history, but CBC was in a different universe compared to CKCW in Moncton when I was growing up. I didn’t know a thing about pop music till I was about 14 but I could name that classical tune within ten notes half the time. I remember Don Harron quitting and Peter Gzowski taking over. (Though was that really the sequence?) I watched 90 Minutes Live, Take Thirty, the earliest Nature of Things with the harpsichord closing theme song.
Some of the cultural concerns of the Gzowski elite are still in play today. The book recounts an epic trip to and across the Northwest Territories, with all the genuine wonder and laboured lyricism you’d expect from, say, a lit major who had just read Survival a week before. (That book is a kind of Atlas Shrugged for Objectivists of Canadian nationalism.) Now in August of ’09 the papers can’t shut up about how everything is still borked in the North. Even the prime minister is going to visit there.
It’s all true, but even in Gzowski’s time weren’t most of us living in cities? Why is there such a feel of apology for Toronto, an unwillingness to imagine living in a dwelling smaller than a detached house? (There’s a little joke about a lady suffering from carbon-monoxide depletion who has to run into town, but that’s about it.)
Conversely, why is there just an accepted understanding that really we’re all Canadians and we have the same ethics and goals and general feel? The same sensibility? All very gentle (and genteel) and middle-class (and patrician). Blindingly white-collar. And pretty much just white, except occasionally “Eskimo.”
CBC stopped being a unifying force when cable TV hit, then it shattered for good when noobs finally got online. One cannot regzowskify the CBC. This dream of unity just does not work anymore. Consensus culture has been replaced by fractal culture, and several other things. There isn’t a shared Canadian culture that CBC can use as a nucleus around which to coalesce the country. There isn’t a countrywide feel that could drive the creation of a radio show, or a book. Even a book itself divided into a hundred little chapterettes.
Peter Gzowski’s Book About This Country in the Morning let me revisit my youth for a while, but I’m like everybody else here. I don’t have an answer to the questions “What does the CBC do today?” or “What is the CBC for?”
Back in the day, Gzowski and his listeners and his readers might not be able to give you a punchy one-liner in response to those questions, but they could sit you down for a while, make you Red Rose tea in their harvest-gold kitchen while the dog runs around the yard, and at least talk about it. They have something to talk about. There is a nucleus. They’d be hitting the same set of emotional landmarks the way designers put together a mood board before they start a project. They could tell you an emotional tale about the CBC.
What would be that tale today? I don’t know.