Fifty Tales of Toronto

by Donald Jones,
256 pages,
ISBN: 080202761X

Guy's Guide to the Flipside

by Guy Bennett,
ISBN: 0889782504

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City Life
by Cary Fagan

AS I READ these two books I couldn't help imagining their authors sitting together in a restaurant: Mr Jones well-groomed and wearing a conservatively cut suit with a fountain pen in his jacket pocket, and Guy (no Mr for him) in a leather jacket smelling of cigarettes and stale beer, his eyes red from another all-nighter. And yet, despite these radically different styles, both have rendered a service to their respective cities.

Donald Jones is a columnist for the Toronto Star, and Fifty Tales of Toronto is culled from more than a thousand columns he has written on that city's history. He's right to use the word 44 tales," as he has an oldfashioned sense that history is a stirring narrative, usually with a hero or heroine and sometimes a tragic ending. There are enough great stories here to provide the plots for a dozen historical novels.

The teachers in the crowd can take their pick of role models. Among my favourites are (using Jones's titles) "Canada's first black doctor: a hero of the American Civil War," "Kit Coleman: the world's first woman war correspondent," and "The mysterious visitor who truly founded the ROM's Chinese collection."

The tales fall into several other categories. Some feature people who were once famous but have been virtually forgotten, such as the actress Bea Lillie. Others concern those who are still famous but whose connection to Toronto is little known, from Ernest Jones, the biographer and friend of Freud, to Elizabeth Arden. And a number give Jones a chance to recount (if much too sketchily) the lives of such famous visitors as Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt.

Fifty Tales of Toronto is a pleasure because of Jones's genuine enthusiasm for the past and for all the good stuff he unearths while digging through Toronto's libraries and archives. These traits compensate for the monotony of his newspaper-column structure and his workaday prose style, and the infuriating absence of an introduction, dates when the columns were written, and attributions of quotations. And Jones's enthusiasm sometimes results in some startling naivete: in the chapter on Ernest Jones, for example, he calls the Nazi insistence that Freud sign a statement attesting to his good treatment before allowing him to leave Germany a "curious condition." But considering how few good histories have been written about Hogtown, popular or academic, this one ought to be welcomed through the Princes' Gates (see chapter 41) with a fanfare.

Guy Bennett, on the other hand, will be lucky if the Vancouver chamber of commerce doesn't run him out of town. But his guide to the greasiest of greasy spoons, the most depressing bars, to strip joints, barber shops, and cemeteries is no exercise in Vancouver-bashing. True, the clam chowder is lumpy, the washrooms smell of urine, the strippers leave him "horny and depressed," and the patrons are often drunk and broke. But Guy looks at these men, women, and businesses on the downward skid with a mixture of affection, fear, and tenderness.

Despite his hipness, Guy is a tourist on the wrong side of the tracks, and his responses are what really make the book. I like the American [bar] because everything I prize about myself is absolutely worthless here," he confesses happily. Sometimes he's merely flippant or coy or ingratiating, but then a conversation or a shoeshine will lead him to a moment of almost transcendental peacefulness. Elsewhere he stretches his material too thinly over the book's meagre framework. Instead of a guide that hop-skips through Vancouver's less desirable real estate, Guy should have bought three times as many notepads and braved a longer journey to the dark side. Still, the next time I go to Vancouver, I'll take Guy's Guide to the Flipside along with me.


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