28 October 2009

Politician Picks Playwright!

The Greatest Englishman of History
Arthur Meighen
Toronto: S.B. Gundy/Oxford University Press, 1936

It's been eighteen months since we traded our swanky Vancouver condo for a Victorian Italianate in St Marys, Ontario. Our first experience with small town living, I think we're taking to it. Besides, we're not all that far from Toronto, London is close by and Stratford, with its famous festival, is only fifteen minutes down the road. This is not to say that St Marys doesn't have its own attractions. The town has produced more than its fair share of professional hockey players and was home to poets James MacRae and David Donnell

Being a political beast, in my mind the one name that rises above all others is that of Arthur Meighen, our ninth prime minister. Meighen wasn't born in St Marys, but he spent much of his youth here, considered it home, and was buried in the cemetery on the edge of town.

I doubt I'd have voted for the man, but I certainly would've made an effort to see him speak. Meighen was known as a great orator; while he couldn't best rival Mackenzie King in political manoeuvring  he was most certainly the tubby bachelor's better on the floor of the House of Commons.

Meighen published three volumes of speeches. The first, Oversea Addresses (Musson, 1921), collected those made during his summer 1921 visit to Europe, while the second, Unrevised and Unrepented (Clarke, Irwin, 1949), relies almost entirely on hansard. Sandwiched in-between is this curious little book.

Meighen wrote The Greatest Englishman of History in 1934, while en route to Australia. His subject was Shakespeare, whom he'd read and reread since that St Marys childhood. "In literature I am only a layman", he acknowledges at the beginning, "and it is to laymen alone that I have a right to speak."

Meighen's problem, as he discovered upon arrival at Melbourne, was that laymen didn't much want to listen. True, there was interest at first. Just who was this "Greatest Englishman of History"? Nelson? Wellington? Pitt the Younger? But when Meighen revealed his subject, he met indifference and incredulity. Brass at the Millions Club of New South Wales, for example, passed up the chance to hear the Canadian's thoughts on the Immortal Bard, preferring a talk on the 1932 Ottawa Economic Conference and the international trade agreements it produced.

The Canberra Times, 16 November 1934

Meighen returned to Canada a wiser man. Aboard ship he accepted an invitation to speak to the Vancouver Canadian Club, wiring back that his subject would be the "Greatest Englishman of History". This time, Meighen chose not to disclose the identity beforehand. Biographer Roger Graham tells us that when it was revealed "the audience drooped visibly, slumping in their seats to endure an hour's boredom. What could be worse than a politician on Shakespeare? Before long, however, they were aroused, sitting up straight and listening intently. When he had finished they stood and gave him a resounding ovation, shouting, cheering and throwing their table napkins in the air."

Addresses in Ottawa, Montreal and – oddly – Pittsburgh followed. The delivery before the Toronto Canadian Club was recorded and found its way into college and university libraries. And, of course, we have this little book, which went through a number of printings.

Seven decades later, it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about. Meighen's is a work of admiration, appreciation and love – all of which are very much on display – but there's not anything particularly insightful or novel about his words. I suspect the reaction had much to do with the statesman's delivery, executed without speech in hand. This, and the fact that, as a subject, Shakespeare was a darn sight more interesting than the 1932 Ottawa Economic Conference; no matter what those in charge of the Millions Club might have thought.

Object: A slim hardcover with paper label, the entire first edition appears to suffer from an unsightly skin affliction.

Access: A few public libraries, including St Marys' own, have copies, but universities are the best bet. The news that Library and Archives doesn't have this book – by a former prime minister will come as small surprise to regular readers of this blog. There are plenty of Very Good copies of the first edition going for under C$20. That Vermont bookstore with the absurd prices shows up yet again, asking C$110 – over ninety dollars more than anyone else – for a copy described as being faded, soiled and yellowed, with a previous owner's signature on the front endpaper. Unless that previous owner was Mackenzie King, I advise all to pass.

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