I have decided to write about the year I lived in residence in Massey College at the University of Toronto because I have a bad feeling about post-war “baby boomers”. Having had some experience with human nature, and aging parents, I know the boomer generation is likely to become quite nostalgic as the years plod on.
I would rather remember things with a clear eye. The old days were not always the best. Also, not everyone has the same impressions. A mystique can accumulate around a historical setting that needs more than one telling to sort out the underlying reality.
I often hear that so-and-so once attended some exclusive school in his or her teens or younger years, or went to some Ivy League college in the United States or overseas. That’s fine and it’s all very interesting, but in the academic year 1971-72, I attended what was probably the most exclusive school in Canada. Massey College, at the time, was reserved only for male doctoral students. You only got accepted on a scholarship.
Massey is a beautiful low-rise Ron Thom-designed building in downtown Toronto abutted by religious institutions and residences. Imagine Frank Lloyd Wright open spaces, combined with gothic interiors and you won’t be far off the mark. It was presided over by that great man of letters, the Master, Robertson Davies. More on his overriding presence later.
The college was established to replicate the experience of attending Oxford or Cambridge in England. The wearing of flowing black gowns, Hogwarts-style, was required during dinner and on special occasions. The living expenses of junior fellows were subsidized from an endowment fund set up by the Massey family, whose most famous members were Vincent, a former Governor General, and Raymond, the Canadian actor who played Young Abe Lincoln in the Hollywood film of the same name.
The personal valet of Vincent during the war was the porter at the front gate. He had an enormous waxed-and-polished handlebar mustache and he was a formidable presence guarding the castle. His chief role, as he interpreted it, was to keep women away from his wards. I was told he once prohibited female members of the National Ballet from entering the building when they came as part of a troupe to perform a dance for the alumni. By the way, women were allowed in as “fellows” the year after I left.
The intent behind the college was, and undoubtedly still is, that proximity of scholastic achievers would foster intellectual dialogue and other academic pursuits. What it overlooked was the awkwardness in most things social that was pervasive amongst the younger fellows, me included. The year I lived in Massey certainly did little to advance my understanding of the opposite sex. There were a couple of dances to which girls from elsewhere on U. of T.’s campus were invited and those were among the highlights of the year. I still remember a Christine and a Lola with abiding fondness.
For all its vaunted intellectualism, my impression was mainly one of unnaturalness. Because of the endowment money, meals in the Great Hall started the year with a flourish – cordon bleu chicken for dinner, for example. But fairly quickly into the year, dinners deteriorated into more standard-residence fare. I’d often go to Harvey’s up on Bloor Street and indulge in a couple of foot-long hot dogs smothered in condiments.
There was a lovely little library on site. That’s where I first developed my interest in science fiction. I read all the books of John Wyndham. Some interesting guests were brought in to meet the student body. Lester Pearson spent an evening with us and we chatted with him while sharing coffee in the lounge. The lounge was also where most of us gathered to watch that greatest of all sporting events, the Canada-Russia hockey series. I’ll never forget the shock we all felt when our side lost the first game.
A favourite activity was the ongoing croquet tournament held every night in the outdoor courtyard. That grassed and flower-bordered area flowed upward on a slight rise from the goldfish pond at its base. There was another fellow in my year who thought he was the best croquet player around. One night I accepted his challenge to a mano-a-mano contest for the ultimate championship and I took him down in a way that left little doubt as to who was number one. It was both humiliating (for him) and exhilarating (for me).
But the painful moments were too plentiful. There was one to-my-way-of-thinking abomination known as Gaudy Night. It was held on a monthly basis with a rotating cast of characters. It required a limited number of junior fellows to attend a dinner hosted by Robertson Davies along with guests invited from the faculty on campus and some special personages from outside university life. Cigars were passed around with dessert and there were rumours that one could partake of snuff if one so desired, but I saw no evidence of that.
The seating order was by alternate level of experience and worldly achievement, with lowly plebes shoe-horned in between the wise and the witty. What I remember is that, after cursory greetings were exchanged, the learned gentleman on my left and the learned gentleman on my right talked through me for the rest of the evening, which stretched on to eternity. It was agony of the most self-conscious and full-of-self-doubt variety.
Spending time with the Master himself was quite the experience. He would pontificate on subject matter in a ponderous and plodding manner that made it clear somebody should be writing it all down. As a matter of fact, there always seemed to be somebody – an acolyte from a tutorial perhaps – standing just behind him or to his side prepared to take on that assignment, at least mentally if not in literal stenographic form.
It was tradition that once a year, the Master would compose a ghost story and read it before an assembly of all the fellows. These annual renderings were subsequently compiled into a book. The year that I was there, the story was instantly forgettable and the rest of the evening was given over to a performance of madrigals by a choral society that really should have developed other interests. It was a precious and special moment.
All of this is not to say there weren’t some outstanding memories from that year. While living in such cloistered surroundings, I went to see the original Godfather movie with four or five other Massey fellows. Afterwards, there was some argument about why the film was so appealing. I knew instinctively that Michael Corleone was not a poor victim who was dragged down by his family into a life of crime. He wanted the power.
By control of nervous system, excess of intelligence, birthright and timing, he was presented with an opportunity and he took it. Yes, he also desired Kay and a family, but most of the social niceties be damned. Money and control could be used to acquire respectability. That’s why this movie has always resonated so strongly with testosterone-overbalanced males. I had trouble convincing some of my friends of this truth.
Towards the end of the year, I was sitting in the dining hall with some people I knew only casually. Somewhere in mid-conversation, it was decided we should introduce ourselves. One colleague said, “Hi, I’m John” and another, “I’m Rashid.” When it came to my turn, the surprising words that popped out of my mouth were, “Hi, I’m pissed off.” It wasn’t long afterwards I firmed up a full-time job and arranged for my departure.
I don’t go to reunions. I feel no need to relive glory days, nor do I want to dredge up less joyous times. I don’t take any pleasure in watching the rate at which my contemporaries, and by extension myself, are deteriorating. Keep in touch with the handful you want to and move on, is my motto. But my days at Massey College were an almost-unique experience. As a moment in time, and from one person’s perspective, they are worthy of preserving.