Warm Thoughts

March 9, 2014

Paris Ontario Agricultural Fair (from The Paris Star)

Paris Ontario Agricultural Fair (from The Paris Star)

A short lyric that I wrote a couple of years ago to accompany music composed by my brother.

(Thanks to Amelia for the encouragement!)

Midway Lullaby

When the moon seems out of tune

To the melody of June

We will know then that it’s lights out on the midway

[woman’s voice for the next two lines]

Sweet dreams, cool evenings

Sleep tight, sweet evenings

Please darling, hush—

 All that’s happened was foreseen

And I think I learned that somewhere in a daydream:

That all that I’ve cared for

Is you at the fair

Found Stories

February 20, 2014

Some postcards are little stories in themselves and suggest larger real-life dramas. They provide answers to four of the Five Ws—who, what, where, and when—but leave out the crucial “why”. I found this postcard at the Aberfoyle Antique Market in Aberfoyle, Ontario, and bought it because I like to imagine what was in that parcel.

postcard-blog_back

postcard-blog

Happy Accidents

October 2, 2013

Word poster made by my daughters

Word poster made by my daughters

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

T.S. Eliot

Anyone who has ever tried to write something in verse—a poem, song lyrics—has likely realized, with mounting despair, that words get in the way of what one wants to say. Unlike a painter’s brushstroke, words appear on the page naked and unpretty, loaded with meaning made stubborn and static through their regular use as tools for daily communication. Words are primarily functional, and in that respect they serve us well. They create at least the illusion of a shared reality, however mundane that reality might be (e.g., “Hot enough for ya?”). There is, of course, great comfort to be found in everyday speech. No one would remain sane for long if we were somehow compelled to speak in rhyming couplets.

As I see it, the poet’s task is to manipulate words in order to overcome the limitations of words. Or, to say what words cannot express. This seemingly insurmountable oxymoron has led countless would-be bards to throw up their hands, develop a fondness for liquor, and (if the urge cannot be stilled) scrawl free-verse tantrums on soggy cocktail napkins.

But it is worth keeping in mind that words are man-made constructs—signs and symbols that have no intrinsic meaning. A tree is not a tree because we call it a tree. That is, words come after the fact. They are abstractions.

It is this approximate nature of words that makes possible the ambiguity necessary to communicate poetically, which is to say, emotionally. If prose is the language of the material world—everything that we apprehend with our senses—then verse is the orderly expression of our scattershot inner lives. The best poetry offers us a reflected glimpse of both our own felt experience and the experience of others.  There can be wisdom in those words.

Heavy

But how does one go about selecting and arranging words in such a way that the desired effect—or any effect—is achieved? Here I will speak only of my own lengthy but largely fruitless experience. With very few exceptions, I have not purposefully sat down with a blank page and attempted to compose something in verse. It seems unnatural to consciously will or demand something of my unconscious. I accomplish much more when writing poetry is the last thing on my mind. These occasions include, but are not limited to, walking, heavy lifting, and cleaning out the litter box. Certain lines or phrases sometimes burble to the surface and I immediately write them down. Even if I’m aware that the words are awkward, I save them. I have a notebook full of these fragments. Later, while reading through my lists of other blurted half-thoughts and impressions, I sometimes discover that a flimsy line fits well with an earlier, unrelated phrase to create a new and unexpected meaning. It’s like a mad experiment, with no hypothesis and nothing to prove. Most of my successful poems and lyrics have been, in short, happy accidents; a matter of finding significance in coincidence. To a certain extent, it’s as though the poem and I have met halfway, and what follows is a feeling of recognition, of reuniting.

And I will end this here. That litter box ain’t gonna clean itself.

Thanks for reading! Comments and criticisms are always welcome!

Calvin

From the Darkroom

January 26, 2013

While writing up my next official blog entry, I thought I’d post some photos that I shot, developed, and printed back in the days of the darkroom. All were shot with a Pentax K-1000 camera and a normal 50mm lens. Thanks for visiting!

Calvin

Drive-In, Windsor

Drive-In, Windsor

Big Buddha at ROM

Big Buddha at ROM

Anita

Anita

Chair1

Chair

Graveyard1

Graveyard refuse

Mausoleum

Driving by mausoleum at night

StatueNoHands2

Statue with no hands

GirlFinal

Girl in front of Capitol Theatre, Windsor

Trundle

Trundle

A photo I took of my brother’s opening at Common Ground in Windsor, shortly after the gallery opened (1986).

A photo I took of my brother’s opening at Common Ground in Windsor, shortly after the gallery opened (1986).

Angela

Angela

Yorkshire Dales, 1984

Yorkshire Dales, 1984

Painting by Jerry Campbell

Please feel free to provide comments and criticisms! (The ending is a work in progress…)

Calvin Campbell

Ideal Man

Mirela,” I said. “Mirela, Mirela, Mirela.” I must have told him a hundred times, no exaggeration.

What the hell kind of name is that?”

I ignored him, lit a smoke and watched a group of teenage girls as they laughed their way to the high school across the street. They wore identical uniforms with dark green blazers and tartan scarves. They even wore the same type of pea coat. One of them turned and gave me the finger. I couldn’t figure out why and gave up trying. Dale approached me, wiping his hands on a filthy, half-frozen rag.

So what’s she like?”

You mean is she hot? I don’t know. I only talked to her for about ten minutes on the phone, but she sounded nice. Intelligent. Easy laugh. Albanian.”

What?”

She’s from Albania.”

What’s that?”

 A country. It’s near Italy. I looked it up on a map.”

 She speak good English?”

 Good enough. Heavy accent.”

Dale spat. “As long as she’s not like that lazy limey we got stuck with last summer.”

I tried to laugh, but the cold had frozen my face. “Billy? There will never be another Billy.”

Did you know we’re still paying that jackass workman’s comp?”

I know. You keep telling me all the different ways you’re going to kill him.” I’d been working with Dale for nearly five years. I studied for a year at Nick Norris College, but I dropped out. Everything they say about that place is true.

I was just about to gag when Dale finally threw the damn rag into the back of the truck. Window cleaning is a disgusting job. All kinds of crap gets stuck in the creases of your hands and there’s no way to scrub it off. You’d need to get in there with a chisel. It’s like being branded. One time I had to clean big blotches of puke off some windows down at the Nick Norris dorm. They really know how to party over there.

I lit another cigarette without realizing that I hadn’t finished the first one. Dale and I were both on edge. We’d never hired a girl before, and there was no doubt that things would have to change. For instance, we’d probably have to cut down on our profanity. I looked down the street to see if Mirela was coming, but there wasn’t a soul in sight.

She’s late,” said Dale.

She probably just got lost.”

You sure know how to pick ’em.”

Dale started pacing irritably, which made me irritable, but instead of pacing I drove our sad old Dodge pickup out of the garage. It was about twenty years old, and looked like something you’d find abandoned in the middle of a Saskatchewan farmer’s wheat field. Rust had settled into its every pore, giving it a tubercular appearance. “Summit Window Cleaners – Look on the Bright Side” was barely legible on the door panels. You couldn’t ask for worse advertising. The garage itself was at least a hundred years old, and had been a horse stable once upon a time. Years after I quit window cleaning, I looked at a picture of the place and I swear I could still smell old horse manure. The walls inside had been plastered with Playboy centrefolds. Billy’s work. Once we knew that a girl would be working for us, Dale and I had spent most of one day tearing them all down. Now they were crumpled up in a big garbage bag in the back. I pulled one out at random. Her name was Tricia Lange. I guess she was good looking. She was naked, anyway. I flipped it over and read. Her turn-ons were eye contact, smiles, intelligent minds, warm water, rock ‘n’ roll music, and fast cars. Her turn-offs were cigarette smoke, traffic, smog, and insensitive and insecure people. For some reason, I folded it and stuffed it into my coat pocket, grabbed my coffee off the dash and went back to stand beside Dale. The wind was really ripping now.

She’s late,” said Dale. He suddenly turned and hurled his squeegee against the back wall of the garage. He threw tantrums like that pretty often, but they still made me jump. “Fuck this,” he said. “Let’s go to the 7-11.”

“I’ll leave her a note,” I said. Dale handed me a pen. He always carried pens in a pocket protector, just like a real boss. I found an old coffee-stained invoice and wrote on the back of it: “Mirela. We’re at the 7-11. Just go up Stayner. It’s on the right hand side. Morris.” I stuck the note under the wiper, secretly hoping that it would blow away. I was twenty-six, but I was wary of girls, and not just because I still had braces on my teeth and pretty bad acne scars on my face. It’s like they all carried some secret knowledge in their hearts that they could use against you. Even the dopey ones.

We trudged up Stayner to the 7-11, not talking to each other. Stayner Avenue was in the seediest section of town. Not big city seedy, but it had plenty of drunks, hookers, and cheap and dirty rooming houses. It curved up toward an area near the new expressway, making the whole street seem to frown. You could tell by the old building facades, though, that it had once been a pretty up-scale business district. You could still make out the faded sign, “Ellie’s Fashions for Women”, painted on the brick wall on the side of Dickey’s, a bar so seedy that it made me want to quit drinking every time I passed it.

The wind was cutting, and it started to snow. We burst through the doors of the 7-11 like whipped dogs. Larry, the guy who worked behind the counter, looked hungover. He exuded this fetid, yeasty odour. We got extra-large coffees and I cashed a ten for quarters. And then Dale said he was hungry. He examined an array of muffins under a plastic dome.

He pointed to one of them. “Are there carrots in that muffin?” he asked Larry.

Yes, Dale,” said Larry. “That’s why it’s called a carrot muffin.” He pointed at a label. “Can you read the little sign?”

Sure, but are there actual pieces of carrot in it?”

Probably. How the hell would I know?”

I don’t want a crunchy muffin,” said Dale. “It’s okay if it’s all blended and mashed in with the batter, but that carrot muffin looks different.”

Larry sighed. “Do you want the muffin, Dale?”

Order the fucking muffin,” I said.

Please don’t swear in the store, Morris,” said Larry. As a franchise owner, Larry wanted to keep the place respectable.

I shrugged. Dale passed on the muffin and bought a bag of chips instead. We took turns playing Galaxian. When I was just starting to feel nice and warmed up, Dale sent me back to the garage to look for Mirela. No Mirela. My message hadn’t blown away, but it was buried under an inch of snow. I wrote another note and stuck it to the inside of the windshield. Mirela. I liked her name. I liked that she was from another country—a country that most people couldn’t find on a map. And not just Dale, either. It’s a very small country in a strange location. You really have to look for it. And I liked that I had withheld some information from Dale, because at the end of our brief phone conversation, Mirela had said, “I’m really looking forward to meeting you.” I had a secret.

I clambered into the cab of the truck, pulled the centrefold out of my pocket, and read more about Tricia Lange:

AMBITIONS: To accomplish what I set out to do. To make the most out of life.

IDEAL MAN: Sensitive, sincere, intelligent, stimulating, creative, successful and fun.

SECRET FANTASY: The power to turn fantasies into reality.

I wasn’t interested in her ambitions, and everyone wants to turn their fantasies into reality, so I focused on the part about her IDEAL MAN. In my opinion, Tricia Lange was setting herself up for heartbreak. At least if she lived in Raymond. Just using rough figures based on observation and the people in my own social circle, there were maybe two who you might call intelligent. And if by “sensitive” Tricia meant “people who don’t kick their dogs”, then you might be looking at 65%. We had one creative guy in town – a painter – but he offed himself when I was just a kid. I could see myself objectively, and I can tell you that I was no great catch, but I looked pretty good in comparison to the rest of the population. I read books and things of that nature.

When I got back to the store, I leaned against the game cabinet and watched Dale immersed in Galaxian. I studied his face. People in my town are uniformly homely. We have a muttish appearance. Dale was pretty representative. People in my town look half-baked. Like they’ve been taken out of the kiln too early.

Dale banged the side of the cabinet and something inside cracked.

Hey!” yelled Larry. “Don’t hit the fucking game!”

We stepped outside so I could have a smoke. “Maybe I should call her,” I said. I rifled through my pants and coat pockets and checked my wallet. “Except I don’t have her number with me.”

A fresh gust blew away Dale’s obscenity.

I guess I could go home and get it,” I said. I wanted to hear Mirela’s voice again. I missed her voice, you see.

Dale acknowledged my comment with brief eye contact and a raised eyebrow. “Forget it. We can’t work in this.”

The snow kept falling; pointlessly at this time, because everything had already been buried.

The school bell rang, and pretty soon a small mob of teenage girls, cursing the cold in colourful terms, started streaming into the 7-11. One of them tried to bum a smoke off me. “No chance,” I told her. “It’s for your own good.” That’s what my dad always told me when I first started smoking—before he started bumming smokes from me.

Thanks for the sermon, handsome.” That was really a low blow. And then she followed it up by giving me the finger, which only made matters worse. She rejoined her little group, and this group turned to me. The schoolgirl squadron in full battle dress. There might have been five or six of them, but the blowing snow was making things opaque.

I tried to laugh like I was blowing her off, but it sounded fake, and I think she sensed it. “Maybe you think you’re some kind of dream girl now,” I said. I was getting pretty heated up, so I took a few steps toward her. “Maybe you think—” Before I could tell her what else she might be thinking, she lunged at me and planted a wicked left right in my solar plexus. I kind of buckled and tipped over. Suddenly Larry was yelling something about calling the cops and that he wanted everybody off his property now.

But I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. Dale stood over me and offered me his hand, but I didn’t take it. He nudged me with his foot.

You just got floored by a girl,” he said.

It’s been a bad day all around,” I said, sort of gasping out the words.

It was a sucker punch,” said Dale, like this fact would allow me to keep my pride. He started to turn away, but took a step back. “Are you going to get up now?”

I shook my head.

He looked at me and bit his lip. “Well you can’t just lay here in the middle of the parking lot.”

Is that where I am?” I really wasn’t sure where I was. It didn’t seem to matter. I was already finding interesting shapes in the clouds.

Larry came trotting over and the two of them stood looking at me like I was some really complicated chess problem.

Larry nudged me with his foot. “Stop being a dick, Morris. Get up.”

I shook my head. “No can do.”

Larry looked at Dale, and Dale shrugged and acted like he didn’t know me. “Okay,” said Larry. “Grab his legs, Dale.” I didn’t resist. Larry had me under the arms and the two of them carried me to the side of the store and flung me into a snowdrift. Then Larry got a broom and swept some of the snow off my coat and pants.

I thanked him. He shrugged. “It’s the least I can do, Morris. You’re a good customer.” He glared at Dale as he spoke to me. “You don’t bust my machines.”

I lay there for a long time, listening to the mild bustle that surrounded me, such as honking cars and barking dogs and a crying baby and two drunks arguing about who stole the other’s empties. A couple of people tossed spare change at me, which was very kind of them. One old guy in a wheelchair asked if I needed help. I took him up on the offer, and the look of charity sort of drained from his face. I gave him the Tricia Lange centrefold, which had gotten very soggy by now, and told him that I wanted him to put it somewhere for safekeeping. He transferred it to his coat pocket very discreetly, handed me a religious tract, and then wheeled his way up Stayner toward Dickey’s. There followed a period of time in which nothing happened. It was like sleep, but I could only compare it to sleep because I became conscious again. For a few minutes I wondered if I had died. I felt very vague, like whoever made me forgot to add important details. I had a dream that somebody stole my wallet, but when I checked I discovered that someone actually had stolen my wallet.

The sun now was somewhere off to the right, tucked behind and nearly eclipsed by a very dark and monstrous cloud. The snow had stopped falling. A girl was looking down at me. Her hair was cut short and tousled. Her front teeth were prominent but well-aligned, and she smiled like you’d think Joan of Arc might have smiled.

Are you Morris?” She laughed.

Are you Mirela?”

She extended a red-mittened hand and brought me to my feet. “Sure.”

We both laughed. 

The Book of Love

June 9, 2012

“The spiritualization of sensuality is called love: it represents a great triumph over Christianity.” Nietzsche

“Thy naughty limericks are as a fire unto my loins!”


Imagine a world without speed dating, “The Bachelor”, or that heartbreak staple, the lovelorn teen. Looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Alas, we have all this and more due in no small part to a twelfth-century courtier named Andreas Capellanus. Sometime around the year 1190, Capellanus wrote and published a short treatise called De amore, or About Love (often inaccurately called The Art of Courtly Love). Capellanus was a chronicler, compiling and codifying sentiments and behaviours that comprise modern love in embryonic form. Though often couched in spiritual terms (e.g., “Love adorns the man with the virtue of chastity”), he defines love as something very much of this world:

Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.”

At a time when the spirit ruled, the body denigrated, and even feelings of passion for one’s own wife were considered sinful, De amore was revolutionary. By acknowledging the sensual, it presaged the humanism of the Renaissance. The body is no longer merely a container for the soul, but an essential extension of it.

“Thrice rebuked! Hast thou a less discriminating friend?”

Toward the end of the book, Capellanus lays out thirty-one “Rules of Love”. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

  1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
  2. He who is not jealous cannot love.
  3. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
  4. It is not proper to love any woman whom one would be ashamed to seek to marry.
  5. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
  6. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
  7. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
  8. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
  9. He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
  10. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

Chalk drawing courtesy of my daughter.

Writing comedy is difficult because it requires imposing structure on something that, by its nature, rejects the killjoy that is form. Although I’m an amateur in the field, I do know that caging the anarchic gag can crush the spontaneity and gambolling good humour that are the very essence of funniness. And before you know it, everyone hates you.

Shared laughter, or what I’ll call “organic humour”, develops its own tone and tempo as the hilarity mounts. It’s regulated by quips and cues that provide fodder for the next round of merriment. Cold glares and general discomfort also tell you when you’ve gone too far. Pre-meditated humour is deprived of any such social hand-holding, and often suffers for it. A lot of written comedy (especially the “fake news” piece; see below) simply tries too hard, straining the credulity of even the basest parody. Though I wouldn’t make it a general rule, it’s probably wisest to err on the side of subtlety. Meet the reader half-way. Let him believe that you’re sharing your joke. Which is what you’re doing. There’s nothing unethical about it.

I can offer no help when it comes to determining what is funny, but I do recommend that you attempt to write something that you yourself might find amusing. I say “might” because, really, who among us is fortunate enough to laugh at his own jokes?

I hope you enjoy the following, which you can also find posted at http://thewindsornaysayer.com/2012/05/14/reader-submission-scandal-erupts-at-university-of-windsor/.

As always, comments and criticism are welcome.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

Image

Scandal Erupts at University of Windsor

Shame-faced officials at the University of Windsor are scrambling to provide plausible cover stories in the wake of yesterday’s discovery that the school’s writer in residence does not exist. At a hastily convened meeting last night, representatives of the English department provided a muddled if eloquent defence, effectively deflecting all questions put to them by answering in fluent Middle English.

Meanwhile, a spirited offensive by the Cultural Studies department placed the blame for what they called “unforgivable neglecticism” squarely at the feet of “a phallocratic system whose goal is to otherize the marginalized, even if that means driving someone into a state of non-existence.” Asked to “unpack” this statement, professor David Brett sighed and insisted that “you find your own damned axis of oppression.”

Out on the quad, students appeared largely oblivious to the scandal. Alice James, a third-year Linguistics student, said, “I always dismissed the writer in residence as a kind of joke, like maybe the fraternities were behind it. No one really believed there was an actual writer on campus. We all just played along, like you would with Santa Claus, or the Queen.”

The matter was brought to the attention of campus police yesterday morning, when sophomore Michelle Summers, following numerous failed attempts to reach the writer in residence by e-mail and telephone, decided to drop in unannounced. At this point, she made a shocking discovery. “The student handbook lists the office of the Writer in Residence as room 448 Dillon Hall, but Dillon Hall is only a three-storey building.” According to Summers, the news “went viral”, and has already been re-tweeted twice. “This is totally going on my resume,” she said.

When contacted by the Naysayer, Sergeant Charlotte Green of the Windsor Police said, “I can’t really say if this is a criminal matter. I’d much prefer to chalk the whole thing up to stupidity, but we can’t be so dismissive when academia is involved. That university has a Law school, and it’s a breeding ground for hungry lawyers just waiting to sink their pro bono teeth into something close to home.”

Ruth Taylor, Director of the Writer in Residence program, expressed mock dismay at the news that her pet scribe did not exist. “I’m shocked,” she said, “but not appalled. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. And at least we have a Writer in Residence program. There are many schools which, in fact, do not.”

You Are Here

Recently, while browsing through my books, I asked myself (not for the first time), “What is the most interesting book that I own?” Maureen Duffy’s scholarly work, “The Erotic World of Faery” (1972) comes to mind, as does the infamous seventeenth-century witch-hunting manual, “The Compendium Maleficarum”. By and large, however, these books, while notable and deserving of more than a mere mention, are ultimately niche oddities that illuminate cultural phenomena with which we are already familiar.

I’ve decided to bring to your attention a book that I’m unable to read. Written in Japanese, it’s a slim volume comprised almost entirely of photographs. The title, which can be translated roughly as “Memories of a Housing Complex”, features images of 39 apartment complexes that were built—and since often abandoned or neglected—during the housing boom of the 70s and 80s.

Published only in Japan, the book is intended for an aging (and nostalgic) Japanese audience that yearns to reconnect with what most of us—regardless of nationality—perceive to be a simpler time. In the case of “Memories of a Housing Complex”, however, the Western viewer is unintentionally deprived of any of the identifiers that tell us, “This is Japan”. No geisha, no temples, no bustling high-tech hubs. When confronted with the mundane, as we are in this book, we search for clues that mirror the ordinariness of our own environments: playground swings, bicycles, stray dogs, laundry hung out to dry. It all sounds rather sad, but open skies and overgrown fields reawaken childhood memories, and viewers are encouraged to populate these tableaux with people and memories from their own childhoods. Perhaps that well-worn path was a shortcut to school; and isn’t that squeaky gate similar to the one I passed en route to visiting a friend? This active engagement with the pictures demythologizes Japan and invites the viewer into a shared space where tired memories find new life.

That’s enough from me. Enjoy a few sample pictures from the book itself!

Calvin Campbell

My desk

I’ve never considered myself to be one of those people who seemed destined to write. Nature did not endow me with extraordinary powers of psychological observation, and for the first twenty-odd years of my life I felt no impulse to express myself in words. Words are not picturesque. I was very big on going to the movies at the time, so I made Super-8 films instead.

As I entered my early 20s, my attitude toward art became more passive. I read widely and majored in English at university. I tried my hand at writing and discovered that, while I had some facility with language, I had very little to say. Drinking with friends, playing darts, and shooting pool provided an attractive distraction.

The genesis of any creative endeavour is a tension that cannot be expressed by prosaic means. For example, I can swear at someone who has cut me off while driving, but that requires only that my vocabulary contains existing profanity. (And it does, believe me.) The source of tension might be one’s reaction to something external. Beatniks, hippies, and punks all created music (art) that was a response to their perceived sense of injustice and societal constraint. For others, the tension might be internal. An essential component of treatment for those with mental disorders is art therapy. The tension is eased when the internal becomes externalized, and one may feel reconnected with the larger world through the production of something concrete—something that can be shared. Seen in this light, art is not, as some claim, a frivolous luxury. There are, of course, scores of artists whose work is self-indulgent or derivative (enough with the Barbie doll installations already!), but that does not negate the necessity, the inevitability, of art.

It was not until I read Franz Kafka’s book, “Parables and Paradoxes”, that the true power of words became clear. The fragments and short stories that comprise the book are cloaked in ambiguity and spiritual mystery. Age-old problems of truth and meaning are approached tangentially, yet there is an undercurrent of wisdom that is beguiling, just out of reach. Kafka demonstrated to me that uncertainty could be met with still greater uncertainty, and that truth was not bound by the restrictions of logic.

Here is an example of a fragment from “Parables and Paradoxes”:

THE PIT OF BABEL

 What are you building?—I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.

We are digging the pit of Babel.

And so, between games of darts (priorities, here), I entered the world of metaphor, writing little meditations on loneliness and love without mentioning either by name. I wrote secrets to myself: impressions, half-thoughts, and contradictions—a kind of coded diary. I was pleased with the mystery of my own musings, taking comfort in the knowledge that any attempt to define myself to myself must remain vague. To use a darts analogy: I would never hit the bull’s eye, so why aim for the board at all?

But the charm of such introspection soon faded. After a while, it occurred to me that what I was doing was the literary equivalent of playing air guitar in front of a mirror. Wouldn’t I really rather be up onstage, playing to an audience? Well, yes. But that would require a separate blog entry.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin Campbell

The Haunted Brontë

January 12, 2012

A painting by Branwell Brontë that originally depicted he and his sisters. He later painted himself out.

Most people are familiar with the Brontës, if only through osmosis. Their novels—which include “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre”—have left an indelible mark on English literature. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were extraordinary women, writing at a time (the Victorian era) in which proper women did not indulge in such intellectual pursuits.

Lurking in the background of the sisters’ lives was their black sheep brother, Branwell. A painter and poet of some promise who never truly developed his skills, Branwell was a hedonist who paid dearly for his pleasures. He achieved some small measure of success when a number of his sonnets were published in prestigious papers of the day, but his literary ambitions were thwarted by his own fecklessness and failure to follow through. His business pursuits were marked by rash and reckless decisions, and he left a trail of debt that would never be repaid.

Branwell’s final shame occurred when he was dismissed from a tutoring position due to the discovery of an affair he was having with the married mother of one of his pupils. He returned to the Brontë home in disgrace. Here he lapsed into inconsolable despair and surrendered his tormented soul to alcohol and laudanum. His verse, when he attempted it, was invariably self-pitying. No one wanted to read poems called “When all our cheerful hours seem gone for ever”, especially in the rural Yorkshire village of Haworth, the Brontë family home. 

Haworth: Home of the Bronte family

Branwell Brontë died of tuberculosis in 1848 at the age of 31. We now know as much about the anguish that drove him to an early grave as we are ever likely to know. In history, as in life, Branwell was a minor character in a much larger drama. Branwell Bronte exists today as a result of his sisters’ success. Whether or not he consciously compared himself to them is not known, and is really not important. Having developed over a period of time a fascination with human folly, my own hypothesis is that Branwell was a victim of his own mediocrity in every endeavour that he pursued. And it was his awareness of that mediocrity that led to his demise. He could not live up to his own ideal.

Back in the early ’90s, a friend and I visited Haworth as part of a larger literary tour of England. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of Branwell’s old haunts, the Black Bull pub, was (and remains) a thriving business. There was nothing in the place to suggest that Branwell had ever stepped foot in it. My friend and I raised several glasses in his honour. We drank until closing time.

I do not recall leaving the Black Bull, and that missing time remains my tribute to the memory of Branwell Brontë.

Thanks for reading.

Calvin