LAST WORD: Oppressed by History
(September 2009, Last Word, Lexpert) unedited full text
I’m in London, back for the first time in more than a decade. The city’s economic depression notwithstanding, it’s much improved. The food is excellent—the lamb tikka is to die for, the lamb vindaloo even better—and, although it may still be one of the world’s most expensive cities, between my personal upward financial mobility, the horrendously devalued pound, and the sales prompted by the financial crisis, I can afford to play there.
The best change is the food—have I mentioned I’m gorging on lamb?—the second best is in the people, and, like the food, it’s the consequence of British imperialism coming home to roost. It’s not a case of desperately looking for silver lining in an evil thing—it screams to be commented on. The efforts of the likes of Jamie Oliver (aka The Naked Chef) notwithstanding, traditional English food is, well—if you’ve had it, you know what I’m talking about. Mushed peas? Who does that to a vegetable that’s supposed to be round and bright green? And don’t get me started on English crimes against Brussel sprouts…
I’ve never heard this theory put forward, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable that the centuries-long conflict between the English and the French is at least partially routed in culinary envy. And we all know a key reason the British set forth to explore and colonize the rest of the world was in a desperate search for more and better spices. At least a few insightful souls knew there was something not quite right about mushed peas.
But back to London’s much improved people: the metro tingles with diversity, and the surface effect is most pleasing. Let’s face it, there are not so-positive consequences to being an island nation with a rigid class system, and one in which people don’t travel much to boot. Y’all start to look somewhat alike. The injection of immigrants from the former Empire’s farflung colonies is doing great things for the island’s gene pool.
I have this not precisely politically correct thought at the same time as I glimpse a “Britain First!” poster, the product of the anti-immigration National British Party, which has been making some electoral gains. What’s wrong with the NBP? I ask my partner. Have they no eyes? Have they no taste buds?
He shrugs. “They’re oppressed by history,” he says. “As is this whole country.”
A few metro stops onward, the diversity suddenly evaporates. It’s striking: all of a sudden, London is white, male and clad in the same suit. My Calgary, the butt of anti-diversity attacks by Torontonians, looks wildly diverse by comparison. Yes, we’re in the financial district, where nobody is smiling and the restaurants are empty (the pubs are full).
I’m suddenly wildly, madly glad I’m not a Londoner, not a Brit, not a European. (Okay, European by birth—the Government of Canada insists on highlighting this every time I renew my passport—but you know what I mean). This centuries-long legacy of imperialism, of class divisions—how do you move beyond that? How do you build a functioning multicultural society, with some semblance of egalitarianism and possibility of upward mobility and socio-economic status change when you’re as mired in history and tradition as are the British?
I’m wildly, madly glad my parents’ life path took them to Calgary, where “old money” means “my Daddy sold an oil company, then lost it in all in 1981, and now I’m building it up again” and “dynasty” means “Grandpa had a cattle ranch, Daddy was a speculator, and we’ve pretty much run through his money and have to build a pile up anew.” There are advantages, hard though it may be to see them in 2009, to living in an economy held hostage to the price of oil: nothing is permanent, especially not wealth and definitely not position. Calgary CEOs haven’t swelled the ranks of Canada’s unemployed yet, but even the most seasoned ones live with the awareness that they could, that in this city and this economy, anything is possible.
It doesn’t take much for the oppression of history to build up. Montreal and Toronto have just a few decades, maybe a century, up on Calgary, but the pressure exercised on those cities’ by history and tradition is much greater. Toronto in particular doesn’t like to admit it—it is, after all, so much more cosmopolitan, diverse and progressive than redneck Calgary, it votes Liberal and everything—but key among the cultural differences between Toronto and Calgary is Calgary’s comparative freedom from historical baggage. There is no “right” preschool in Calgary (thank God!) to which you send your three-year-old so that he gets into the “right” private high school, where he will hobnob with future prime ministers, premiers, cabinet members and hereditary CEOs. (I understand some Torontonians and Montrealers have tried, but we plebes keep on sabotaging their efforts by making enough money to send our unlegacied children there…) There is no particular advantage to having a degree from McGill or Queen’s versus the University of Saskatchewan or the University of Lethbridge.
Daddy will help you out if he can, sure, but if you’re deadwood, not even his closest nursery school friend will carry you come bust time.
Back in Calgary, my partisan patriotism is blunted somewhat by my inability to find really good curried lamb and the city’s persistent mishandling of infrastructure spending, boom or bust. Still, I’d rather be here, eating bison steak and roast potatoes, than on the other side of the pond, where the mushed peas refuse to accept the new world order.
Marzena Czarnecka is freelance writer still searching for the perfect lamb curry in Calgary. Send recommendations or recipes to firstname.lastname@example.org.