boulevard

Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Scan

We are dressed up, and the old kodak with the long bellows is brought along and pictures are taken out of doors. A stranger must have been stopped and asked to shoot us all together. We are visiting the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx Park, posed in front of the Museum Building, Carl Tefft’s sculpture The Fountain of Life visible just behind us.

The photo is one of many my father sent to his brother in Norway and which was passed on to me many years later by a cousin. My father wrote on the back of this one “Juni 1945—Her ser du hele familien paa Sondagstur i N.Y. Botaniske have.” The whole family, he says, you see here on a Sunday outing in June.

There is a problem with this. The Bronx is a long trip from Brooklyn on the subway; not by any means a typical Sunday excursion in our chapel-going household, considering Sunday School and Morning Worship and then dinner, with time only for a rest or a stroll before the Evening Service. Nor are the clothes we are wearing—my father’s three-piece suit, my mother’s hat and coat—suitable ones for any Sunday in June in New York City. No, this is clearly Easter Sunday, a day when people commonly went to a botanical garden for the Easter lily displays and the early flowering shrubs and to parade their finery. The corsage just barely visible on my mother’s coat is the clincher.

Was my father confused about the occasion and the date? It seems unlikely. I think rather it was important to him that his family in Norway regard his life in America as including such splendid and apparently routine expeditions. An ordinary Sunday outing.

And perhaps something else. A delicate bit of tact. In 1945, as it happens, Easter fell on April 1st. The German occupation of Norway will not end until the 8th of May. My father’s family have had a hard war, with personal tragedy. Now communication is open for the first time in years. It is June. Normal times will come again. Sunday outings.

I see I am dressed in an Eton collar. And knickerbockers. I ask my brother, here pictured in short pants, if he remembers ever wearing knickerbockers and he says no, but he remembers my wearing them to school. And indeed I do have a memory of frayed stockinette cuffs below the knee, baggy corduroy swishing and chafing the thighs, long stockings with clapped-out elastic slipping down schoolboy shanks. From all of which I conclude I must have been in the very last cohort of children ever to wear knickerbockers.

In the runup to the recent Ontario elections we happened to find ourselves addicted to watching House of Cards, both the original British series—an elegant black comedy—and the American one—Shakespearean in ambition and reach. Meditations on power and its corollaries, the idea seems to be that every human society has a quotient of monsters of self-aggrandisement, only a small number of whom come certified as mentally ill or criminal. The first political problem thus being to give these psychopaths a field of play—generally business or government—in which the rules constitute a certain restraint, but not so much as to encourage them to go elsewhere, to who knows what mischief.

This half-baked political sociology was lurking in the back of my mind as the election approached and I wondered, as I frequently do, whether to be bothered to vote. For if the point of any complicated constitutional order is merely to keep otherwise lethal people harmlessly occupied, then any legal outcome serves the purpose. It was difficult, however, to see in any of the earnest candidates and leaders who presented themselves for election—this being Canada, after all—the Macchiavellian monsters of the House of Cards. In the end, as always before, one bent to consider the least bad choices in a field of tarnished and uninspiring parties and programmes.

It came down to keeping out the Conservatives—a tribal matter, a visceral dislike—and so voting strategically. Not very high-minded, but anyway a thing easier said than done. You can’t write on your ballot paper you support candidate A only if there is a threat that candidate B will win, otherwise you would like the vote to go to candidate C. Or anything else of real interest. A vote while holding one’s nose has the same weight as the vote of a fanatical partisan, and pundits will write afterwards about how the voters “chose” such and such an outcome when no one person actually did anything of the kind.

The result of the election was, in the event, satisfying. The Conservatives were trounced, humiliated, driven back on their rural redoubts. The Liberals won a majority, returning the Ontario premier, Kathleen Wynne, who looks exactly like your grandmother would look if she were a lesbian, and I have a wholly new and more optimistic view of potential engagement in political life. This would be dependent on a reform towards proportional representation, many splinter parties, and coalition government as the norm. My party would be a tiny one, buried somewhere in the centre-left. The leader, if a woman, would look like Ms. Wynne. If a man, he would be a rumpled fellow in brown tweeds and a battered brief case and a perpetually worried look, rather more like one of those characters in Borgen than like anyone in either House of Cards. I would trust this leader to negotiate the best deal for ordinary decency he or she could under shifting and often unforeseeable circumstances, and I would never vote strategically again.