Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Village 1349 Synopsis

Following is a synopsis of my latest book project, VILLAGE1349 a 280 page adventure/mystery novel for middle readers 12+ coming soon to a Kobo or bookstore or scriptorium near you. 

            For the people of the isolated English village of Twitchmere, the clock stopped in 1349, the year the Black Death swept England, but miraculously spared them. Like Mennonites with time rewound too far, they enter the twenty-first century as a secret enclave, stubbornly keeping to the ways of the middle ages, fearing discovery and contamination by the outside world.
            For 15 year old Charlie Cooper, the strange disappearance of his war veteran grandfather, who left nothing but cryptic whispered last words, is a defining moment, and those words haunt his dreams. When he and his family move from suburban Toronto into the run-down medieval Blackhampton Hall, shadowy links between the rumoured  utopian village and the grandfather’s secret WWII past start to unfold. A cast of unlikely players circle as the parallel mysteries converge. Alfred, the outcast, has a private grief he cannot name and ancient skills to teach. Warriors itch for battle, a dog called Leonard has his fifteen seconds of fame, Latin-spouting vagabonds discover cel phones and Gameboys. Elders from the secret village make forays to the outside, some for gain, some for the sake of their community. And in the background, the ominous black cloud of biological warfare and a heartless corporation casts its shadow over all, threatening the village with a disease as deadly as the Plague: Greed.
            As secrets come to light, Charlie Cooper is reluctantly thrown into a lead role defending the village, as his grandfather had years earlier. The story culminates in the tournament, staged to draw the secret village into a bloody battle with a troupe of elite historical re-enactors. Characters show their true colours and roles reverse: ambitious executives more bloodthirsty than the knights they seek to exploit, vegan poets transform into carnivorous warriors, children expose the secrets of the past and the village is brought, once again, to the brink of exposure and ruin. 
Village1349    for more on this, email

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An architect falls from his Ivory Tower

(First published in The Globe & Mail)

In a suitably rustic frame, hanging in the hall of our old farmhouse, is a photograph of the raising of our barn, “July, 1904.”  It is a black-and-white shot of remarkable clarity, composed with beginner’s luck and peopled with farm neighbours from a distant past, men posing gleefully on narrow beams without safety harnesses or fear.  It is an artifact from another era, a glimpse of community spirit, collaboration and helpfulness.
                Things like that don’t often happen now.  We live in a world of specialists and professionals, of liability and regulation, of isolation.  And although some communities, notably the Mennonites, have kept the flame of community building alive, the days of such a neighbourly concept seem numbered.
                And just as well, I thought.  I looked at it all through my well-polished, one-way glass – leave the work to the specialists; let the pros do their job.  From my white-collar perch above the dust and noise of the work site, I was content to go by the book.
                And then my father had a stroke.
                He, a carpenter, had been building his retirement home, the crowning personal achievement of his career.  More out of a sense of good humour than necessity, he glanced every so often at a set of drawings with my name on them:  the plans.
                But he built with his heart and carpenter’s eye and his adjustments and variations on them were never wrong, often improving upon my initial vision.  Haphazard piles of yellow lumber went together like musical notes into a jigsaw orchestration.
                When his stroke came, work ground to a halt.  It was a discouraging and devastating time for everyone.
                The phone started ringing.  There were usually two questions:  How is he? and How can we help?
                Carpenters and builders, roofers and electricians called.  “Let’s put your dad’s house up,” they said, and their enthusiasm was genuine relentless and contagious.
                I wanted to react with flow charts, more drawings, specifications and detailed timetables.  I wanted to schedule the outpouring of generosity; tailor and enhance it, put some order to it.  But a farming neighbour shook his head.
                “What we’ve got here is a barn-raising,” he said matter-of-factly, sweeping my approach aside with his words.  “I think you’d best look at it that way.”
                And so, through my filter of construction protocol, I tried.  But I’d never been to a barn-raising before and I’d certainly never organized one.
                Work began at 15 minutes to 7 in the morning.  Within seconds, air hammers and power saws filled the silent morning with the ferocious music of productivity.  I left things in the hands of the skilled and took to the role of a labourer, pausing every once in a while to explain the plans.
                It proved to be a nerve-wracking business:  at one moment taking orders and the next, as designer, giving them.  Sometime around the 10 o’clock coffee break, it hit me between the eyes:   I was not the Renaissance man I had believed I was.
                I had become, like many of my colleagues in the design business, a specialist.  I could talk shop to the builders on site only to a point.  Invariably there would be a parting of ways on some detail:  they would pursue it to completion; I would look in the other direction on a tangent of theory.
                The ivory tower of the university had not prepared me for this.  There was nothing remotely resembling a hands-on course in building when I took my degree from one of the country’s pre-eminent architecture schools.  There was talk of nuts and bolts, but it was often of the esoteric variety:  the beautiful detail employed in some Miesian skyscraper, the earthy wonder of a tribal mud-on-mud technique or the high-tech, cutting edge intricacy of a micro-chip building system.
                Many of my fellow students graduated without ever having held a hammer.  They had certainly never been in the position of having to build from their own blueprints. 
                Contrasted with the medical profession for example, architects and related members of the design professions often dwell in a never-never land of white-collared detachment.  Surgeons at the top of their form still make incisions with a scalpel and deal intimately with the subject matter they have studied so long:  they may talk technicalities, postulate theories, and speak a scientific dialect but at the end of the day there will be real blood on their surgical gloves.  We designers, on the other hand, chisel out our constructions on paper miles from the job site, months from reality.
                We do so at our peril, and although we should not be jacks of all trades and masters of none, there are basic skills that we would do well to hang onto, relearn or acquire.
                “A HUMAN being,” wrote Robert A. Heilen, “should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.  Specialization is for insects.”
                Overspecialization in any profession can ultimately lead to a stifling of the creative spark.  There is great potential for intellectual cross-pollination and invention when architects and engineers roll their sleeves up and work on-site.  The designers of the physical spaces that shape our daily lives, give us shelter and add rich dimension to our existence, should, of all people, be able to at once both see the bigger picture and pick up a hammer with confidence.  Successful collaboration, which in some cases means dirt under the fingernails and sweat on the brow, can often separate great buildings from merely great ideas.  The ancient master builders knew it, and the people at my father’s house raising knew it.
                And by the time I’d carried my 15th bundle of shingles up the shaky ladder, the architect on the rooftop had begun to learn it, too.  In the process, I’d become a little less insect-like and a touch more human.  And it felt good to sweat again.

First published:  The Globe and Mail    June 1, 1992

Back to the drawing board for Architecture

(First published in The Globe & Mail)

I almost bought Arthur Erickson’s drafting table once.  And had I foreseen the pre-eminent Canadian architect’s fall from financial grace, I likely would have tried a little harder to get it.  It could have become a collector’s item.
                But that was in 1989, when his firm first found itself in a publicized money squeeze and initiated the auction of the machinery of its Toronto office.  Now, in the wintry months of the Great Recession, as I read about the collapse of Erickson’s Los Angeles operation, used drafting tables (both blessed and commonplace), are a dime a dozen, and this time it has little to do with big money bungling or computer-aided drafting.
                These are hard times for architects and their allied professionals.  In our present economy, architects are rather like canaries in coal mines:  we are the first casualties of the deadly things coming down the dark tunnel of financial atrophy.
                Ours is a small profession; few people have ever hired an architect, and even fewer understand exactly what we do, yet a savvy analyst would do well to look at our fortunes – truly we are a bellwether indicator of the first magnitude.
                Architectural projects are often the first items slashed from a hurting corporation’s plans; this is no time for expansion, goes the boardroom logic, let alone for an expansion of the steel-and-glass, bricks-and-mortar kind.  Governments, ever wary of public opinion and looming deficits, slash new building projects left and right.  Unemployed two-by-fours don’t yet have a union or the vote.
                It’s little wonder that the Queen scratched London’s plans to build a $4-million monument marking her 40th year as monarch.  While a generation of British workers face the dismal prospect of lifelong unemployment, another showy building project would have been a public excess the royal conscience could not have abided.
                Canada’s own financial royalty find themselves in an even more frightful predicament:  the monuments to their reign have already been built.  Beacon-like, they stand four-square in the centres of our large cities, beached whales with skins of mirrored glass, half empty and losing tenants every day.
                Our suburbs are overmalled, our small towns bloated with new shopping plazas devoid of tenants.  Our commercial landscape is overbuilt and underused and the effects of the situation are starting to settle in. 
                Recently, a talented but newly unemployed colleague joined the job hunt.  “Every third or fourth firm I called on had either folded or was down-sizing,” he told me with resignation.  “The building commissions aren’t out there in the numbers they were just three years ago.”
                His lament is echoed by a large segment of the design profession, people who catered only too willingly to wealthy clients during the good times.  They left in the shadows many of the less glamourous but important areas of design, such as residential upgrading, affordable housing and environmental design.  Firms upgraded, computerized and expanded, hoping that the boom would go on forever.
                But this is what much modern architectural work has become:  an essentially capitalistic endeavour, driven by clients who often have the bottom line as the keystone of their design criteria.  Much of what is built in our cities today is viewed as little more than product; resale value, snob appeal and trendy pastiche often matter more than true architectural quality.  The play of light, the scale of detail and the grace of plan are nice ideas but hard to value.  Where, asks the client, is the glitter?
                Big-time architecture has become a profession understandably tied to the roller-coaster fluctuations of the financial world, where bigger is better and success is daily measured in sheer volume.
                Small firms have traditionally taken the bite-sized leftovers, and in the heady boom days of the mid-eighties, the left-overs were choice pickings indeed.  Now, however, I hear designers talking about surviving not on leftovers, but on crumbs.
                Interesting residential commissions are becoming few and far between, and design magazines are sprinkled with doom-sayers who lament the passing of the glory days of unlimited budgets and grand expansion.  “We’ve come to the point where we’ll even design additions, garages, back porches and little houses,” they say, and the implication is that these crumbs of structure are not really the stuff of design at all.
                And yet they are.  When I was a student, the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger once told my class that designing a good chair is more difficult than designing a good office building: that the distilled and particular pieces of structure that touch us in an everyday way are where the real skills of the designer shine.
                If more architects, designers and planners were to take this notion up as a challenge, then the lean times of this present recession could yet become a time to hone skills and focus on the rudiments of good design, not of monuments to the Queen’s reign perhaps, but of finely built two-car garages.  Perhaps we could start to look around us with eyes no longer blinkered by the shiny and new and see that much of our housing stock needs sensitive rejuvenation.  The careful recycling of the existing built environment will have to take precedence; a walk through the core of almost any urban centre will make this abundantly clear.  There is a role for the trained eye and sure hand of the designer in all this.
                Gaudy pastiche could give way to crafted practicality, and we could all re-learn once again just what a thing of beauty a truly elegant little house really can be.

The Globe & Mail, February 24, 1992

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Curator of Kitsch

Originally published in Cottage Life magazine.

After making a nuptial agreement worthy of Faust, David Gillett was blessed
with matrimonial bliss.  But then his cottage began to shrink...

                I made a pact with the demons of bad taste at my first wedding shower:  In exchange for a happy marriage, I would offer up our tacky gifts to the cottage altar.
                I got the happy marriage.  And the cottage is getting crowded.
                Our friends and wedding guests, many of whom have a strong attraction to plastic wood-grain oddities from roadside stands in Tennessee, were not merely generous to us:  They were practically philanthropic.  Not one but three sets of Hawaiian hula mugs showed up under the matrimonial tree.  Four clocks of the “hide-it-until-they-visit” type graced our tiny apartment (including one with plastic Gothic numerals superimposed on a soft-focus waterfall-and-birch background).  A plaster dog, a plastic duck decoy, and a black-light portrait of Sting all came to live with us.
                We were caught between a rock and dumpster.  Although we were young and carefree, we realized we couldn’t just toss the stuff.  Instead, we trundled it off to the family cottage at Juniper Point on Clearwater Lake near Gravenhurst.
                Our cottage turned out to have an affinity for these aesthetically challenged oddities.  Every rotting board, curling shingle, and rusting faucet silently rejoiced at the arrival of each new piece of junque, friends in the world of the tasteless underdog.
                Sisters and brothers caught the vision.  Soon, trips to the cottage became adventures in gift discovery:  Who brought what, and just how ugly is it?  The obligatory pink flamingos took refuge in the bathroom.  A satirical Pierre Trudeau bust, cast in plaster, made its way onto our bookshelf, next to the outdated political tomes.
                And slowly, even the most hideous bits of the growing collection underwent little miracles of transformation.  We forgot that we had once considered the painting “Autumn Goose Pond” too gauche for words.  We forgot why we’d ever removed the Hawaiian cups from our home.  The ugly duckling became the graceful swan:  Juniper Point worked its magic, and in the shadow of the rickety old cottage, even the most inane curios seemed to glow with character.  We ceased to laugh; we began to adore; and this eclectic collection of wedding mementos has now become a matter of some family pride.
                That’s the upside.  The downside, however, makes me wonder why on earth I ever decided to go public:  What about the givers?  Do they read Cottage Life?  Do they visit our cottage?
                You bet they do.
                And do they know the whereabouts of their thoughtful tokens now that the wrapping paper and niceties are history?  Nope.
                To help us avoid embarrassment, my resourceful brother-in-law suggested a computerized inventory:  Punch in the name of the surprise guest spotted at the dock and the screen would display a warning such as, “Aunt Dahlia:  Green plastic frog trio on kitchen counter:  Stow in toilet tank.”  Or perhaps, “Nutty Gerald:  Spanish sword on crest above wood box:  Hide behind lime-green beanbag chair.”
                But the reality of the situation is this:  We like the green plastic frogs and the plaster sword.  And besides, the person who gave us the lime-green beanbag chair might show up at the same time.
                So I’m preparing for the day when the inevitable confrontation occurs.  I plan to say, straight-faced and without sarcasm:  “Your gift is here because this is where the most special gifts go.”  And if my detractors point out the ethical implications of such an approach, I’ll ask them what they did with their special wedding gifts: their velvet Elvis portraits, their macramé plant hangers.  At least we’ve given the pieces a new lease on their otherwise tentative live, adding some artistic depth to the recycling movement.  Plus, it’s therapy for people inundated with design magazines and the trendy hip-hype of the style makers.
                On quiet cottage evenings we scan our calendars for the next gift-giving occasion, hoping for that package from a special someone.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll receive another Trudeau bust.  Apparently it’s worth something now.

David Gillett is a designer and writer who likes his pink flamingos.  Honest.

( Originally published in Cottage Life magazine )

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fielding Questions About Life

Published in Facts and Arguments, an anthology edited by Moira Dann, published by Penguin Canada, 2002

There had been altogether too much talk about crisis and security and air strikes and danger.  We had just returned from a fall visit to England and even four-year-old Sam, innocence personified, had been part of a world that left no one untouched.  No dream unmolested, not even his.
            “I dreamed about plane crashes in my last sleep,” he told me.
            The world was too much with us.  It was time to get the boots on and head for The Back Field.
            A world apart, The Back Field rises from the windy northern quarter of our farm, cresting like a slow rolling wave over the ice-age hill, full and complete in its encircling palisade of oak, maple, white birch and spruce.  Early on a good crisp day in October, if I’m lucky, the geese will just skim the hilltop and I can feel and hear the wind vortices of their V-formation just above me as they head south.  Maybe a fox will pass; last spring there was a bear.
            But today there would be no geese.  Just Sam and I, surrounded by the ancient trees and saplings, wind-tossed cloud cover and distant rumblings of winter.
            Katy and I had always wanted to give shelter to the childhood realms of our kids.  If it was possible to build a storybook world and let them live in it, then good.  If free from the tarnishing influence of the 21st century’s darker aspects, then better.  And this field, at the centre of our old farm, hours away from the city, worlds away from the war zones, was where we directed the little hands and feet for the most quiet peace of all.
            So Sam and I walked and talked.  He could talk a lot, as four-year-olds often can, and, freed from the dumbfounding sensory overload of Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, he was able to air out his mind and go off on a rich variety of tangents:  Bob the builder.  When’s my birthday?  I am Robin Hood, watch me shoot my bow and arrow.  What am I getting for Christmas?  Daddy, are you a hero?
            I didn’t much like that last one.  To him, I hoped I was a hero, but he was getting around to something deeper and more troublesome.  He’d heard the television news in passing, seen the coloured photos in The Times, heard discussions on the Underground, seen the soldiers at the fenced-off entry to Downing Street.
            A walk in The Back Field had to be an antidote, however gradual.  Farmer Ron Hewitt had ploughed while we were away and the soil smelled rich and full of promise.  Next August, this field would be a sea of his special strain of sweet corn.
            “Raccoons love corn, Sam.  Let’s talk about raccoons.”
            I thought of my own Dad, working these fields during the Second World War, struggling to keep the John Deere together, picking a fresh crop of rocks every spring, looking at adolescent versions of the same trees that now towered along the western horizon.  If anybody had been in the safe central haven of peace in 1940, it had been him, broadcasting wheat seeds by hand, back here in The Back Field.
            But the de Havilland Aircraft Co., builder of the Mosquito bomber, got some of its parts from a local factory in Orillia, Ont., and from time to time would send a bomber for a fly-past, rattling farmhouse windows and bringing a deep rumbling of patriotic pride to the workers below.  It was a visceral tie to the war effort, a sudden deafening reminder that the world’s problems were a lot closer than you might think.  We’re all in it together, lads – that sort of thing.
            For my Dad, spreading seed in a quiet corner of Ontario in 1940, it was a jarring reality check.  A reminder that no man is an island.
            But that was a different time and a different war, and Sam and I enjoyed our peace, unruffled  by the throaty roar of a twin-engined bomber.  Somewhere off to the south we could hear a dump truck shift down for a hill, but that was it.  Snow clouds were massing out over Georgian Bay but, for now, peace reigned.
            Can we ever really give our children the nurturing isolation we think they need?  Can we hope to preserve their innocence?  We try, but are we kidding ourselves?  Do the words “terrorist” and “anthrax” and “cluster-bomb” need to be part of their vocabulary? 
            We change the subject when the uncomfortable gets too uncomfortably close.  “Let’s talk about raccoons, Sam,” I say, but I really want to say, “Sam, I wish your injured world was different, my little one.”
            He asks if I’m a hero, but I think he’s really saying:  “Daddy, will you keep me safe?”
            Safe?  How could he not be safe back here, in the quiet centre of solitude?
            And then, as if cued by God for maximum effect, a massive airliner, maybe a 747, thunders by overhead, climbing from Toronto, headed for Europe.  Full of people.  Full of fuel.  The mind’s projector wants to replay the horrible images again:  the planes swinging around and lining up the towers...
            Sam sees the plane too, and to him, it is right over us, its shadow ready to collide with ours.  What plays on the little screen in his mind?
            I want to stick out my chest like Rat in The Wind In the Willows and say, “Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide  World, and that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me....Don’t ever refer to it again, please.”
            But I can’t.  It’s as clear as the vapour trail that veers sharply off to the east above us.
            The Wide World is right here, Sam.  And yes, little one, we are all in this together.
            He takes my hand.  For now, that seems good enough for him.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oxford, London, Sam & me

Originally published in The Globe & Mail Mar.22,2000
We knew not what to expect, my wife and I, when we set off for six long weeks of trekking around England. We'd been there before, but then it was just the two of us, a bit of loose change and a couple of BritRail passes. This time, it would be an autumn trip with three children in tow, all under 9, (which means 18 Beanie Babies, six extra backpacks, a baby seat, a stroller, and enough gummy bears to drive toothpaste shares through the roof.) And as with the English weather, we had no way of predicting if things would be fair or foul, stormy or calm.
Yet we were fairly certain of one thing at least: Samuel would make life difficult for us. Sam is 2.
Nothing wrong with 2, of course; some of our nicest friends had once been 2. But Sam, being 2 and proud of it, was out to undo what he could of our adventure. He was growing a few more teeth at the time (molars), was long overdue for some sort of life-threatening sickness (probably Ebola), had just learned to run (sideways) and was developing an alarming fondness for anything edible (and sugar-coated) or toylike (and plastic-coated).
Well-meaning but totally heartless friends had smiled weakly and suggested meekly that perhaps we should consider leaving Sam at home. Rumour had it that we were taking nannies in sufficient numbers to post a round-the-clock watch on Sam and his habits of mass destruction. Yet in the end, we went it alone, ready to take whatever he could throw at us.
What he did throw at us (apart from masticated gummy bears and half-empty bottles of HP sauce) was the chance for self-appraisal; the opportunity to take stock and ask some slow-motion questions of ourselves.
Did we really need to travel at that old hectic pace, cameras blazing? Did two cities in one day mean as much as one city in two weeks? Were massive monuments to long-dead heroes anywhere near as interesting as playgrounds with junior-sized teeter-totters, and real flesh-and-blood neighbours?
Afternoons came and with them, Sam's sleepy time. At first, as we and the other two children recovered from jet lag and adjusted to mushy peas and beans on toast, we all took it easy. But the Glories of the Empire awaited. There were Lakeland Fells to climb, architectural landmarks to visit, worthy pubs to frequent . . . and we grew restless.
But Sam was a bear without his afternoon nap, and it soon became painfully apparent that we'd either have to sit inside every afternoon, losing the best part of a days exploration, or he'd have to sleep while we explored. The choice was between Simmering Frustration (and British soap operas) or Travels With The Amazing Sleeping Baby. We opted for the latter.
We went on tour, baby Sam and I, during the afternoons. While Katy took Harry and Molly into cavernous museums, through market squares and on adventures in search of dragons and elves, I pushed Sam in a peaceful sleep-walk through the landscapes of my dreams.
I'd been to Bath before and marched through its crescents and squares like any duty-bound student of architecture, but this time it was different. My pace was slow and the rhythm of my walking was measured, thoughtful. Baby Sam slept in tranquil oblivion nestled beneath his horsey-blanket, Curious George next to his blushed cheek. At such a pace, the nuance of the honey-coloured stone wasn't lost on me, and hardly a doorway in John Wood's Royal Crescent escaped detailed analysis.
I studied the serene proportion and rigorous symmetry of the Georgian architecture in complete silence under the October sky, walked the leaf-strewn side streets, chatted in hushed tones with doormen, followed the movements of the clouds as they hurried towards winter.
It soon became a habit, these afternoon strolls; quiet, thoughtful, introspective. Strolls that would once have been frustrated aggravation became walks of discovery. I began to see just how much I'd been missing. The tour books had lied: a city a day? Walking tours that cover the centre of Oxford in just three hours? Sam and I spent as much time just crunching through the russet leaves of a deserted autumnal Botanical Garden, the shadows of Magdalen College growing long beside us. Nothing could give one the sense of quiet contemplation that can be achieved at the controls of a stroller filled with a sleeping two year old.
In the walled garden of Rhodes House, I thought of my little charge's future. Scholarship material? On the banks of the Cherwell, punters passed silently as under the blankets, Sam sailed on plush waves to the land of nod, sung to sleep by the ancient stones around him that "whispered" as Matthew Arnold put it, "the last enchantments of the Middle Ages."
Weeks of such afternoons passed, the stroller wheels showing their age, axles squeaking. We passed through villages and small towns, ruined abbeys and walled gardens and arrived finally in the hectic bulls-eye of action: London.
We studied the millennium construction site at the British Museum, circling the model of The Great Court for half an hour, reading captions, soaking in the freedom of a slowed pace. We walked the paths of Regent's Park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, avoiding the yells from impromptu football games by a safe margin, shielding sleeping ears from the laughter behind the next hedge, lightly crossing the cobbles, greatly enjoying the peace -- peace in the centre of the metropolis.
It would never have been like this without Sam and his annoying, confounded, frustratingly restrictive need for an afternoon nap. I would never have slowed to this pace without the pace of a slumbering child to slow me. I wouldn't have noticed the frozen angels in the cathedral close in Salisbury without him, or had time to solve the maze at Hampton Court (twice). Instead, I would have rushed on, camera blazing, striking names from the list I had mentally prepared back in architecture school. Shooting photos, marching through history, missing the minute details, the quiet lanes, the subtle shadings of beauty.
Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe said Heraclitus in 500 BC. Heraclitus knew his babies, I'd say.
My wife and I had given our family a six-week trek through the heart of an autumnal England. Sam, his little blonde head oblivious to it all, had given the subtle shading of the ancient stones back to me.

-March 2000 see original article in Globe travel archives, go to

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Barn at 100

       Originally published in The Globe & Mail, Spring 2004
            I hate those birthday parties – the ones to which you are obliged to attend ; the ones where you are never quite sure if the celebrant really wants to celebrate…or forget. I’m going to a party like that on June 10th. It’s a party for my family’s old timber barn.
A century worth of the scars of endurance. The old barn is a survivor, and that’s good; that’s worth celebrating. But it lives on into graceful old age in the dim twilight days of the Ontario barn. It is the cancer survivor whose friends have all succumbed. It is the old soldier the rest of whose regiment has long since departed. 
I don’t like it, this “death of the barn” thing that seems to be gaining momentum.
So I try not to look at the bigger picture, I reminisce, I retreat into the past.
            I had a toy farm when I was a child; a miniature homestead in enameled steel  -   barn, livestock  and little brick farmhouse. Emblazoned on the barn’s tiny gable was a title that for generations has evoked vivid recollections: “Grampa’s Farm.”
            To a central Ontario farm boy like myself, it all made perfect sense. This little play world was a microcosm of my own and not some nostalgic icon. It was as real as the scene outside the windows of my childhood.
            But that was generation ago and the days of the family farm’s presence in the landscape - and in the memory - have faded.
            When my father was a child, he would count 27 timber barns on the six mile drive to town. 27 barns meant 27 family farms. Today, not a single one stands along that old route and the pasture landscape of the 1940's has given way to a parade of big box stores, curb-appeal country homes and the steel insta-barns of weekend horse ranchers.
            The pink granite corner stone on the leeward, downhill side of our old timber barn, laid by my great-grandfather George,  reads  simply “June 10, 1904".  The central pivot of a whole community’s hard-won working life, it is a typical Ontario bank barn, snuggled hard into the hill, sited with uncanny  intuition , elegant in its rugged simplicity. Great Uncle Frank, who long ago moved off to California, left his mark in wet concrete while forming a water trough in 1918. There are carvings, now weathered into hieroglyphic gibberish  on select boards. We have  old photos of barn-raising day…women in billowy white laying out long trestle tables for the barn-raising bee…a sepia print of swaggering, timber-top bravado played out against the raw sky…
            The timber beams, posts and purlins are as sound as ever, seasoned for a century, wicked dry with the silica-sack effect of a rotating volume of tinder dry hay. But the hemlock and pine barn boards worry me: they start to loosen one afternoon in a January blast, vibrating like reeds. Then it’s a short downhill ride to a loose-tooth flapping, then a squeaking full yawn as they peel away and spin slowly to earth. Hard to put back, those old barn-boards…they never fit as well as they did in 1904.
            Yet we keep putting them back; keep re-nailing, fingers lightly touching the old holes once made by square nails. The gun-metal grey wood grain is deep and sinuous, ridged and rippled by sun and wind.   
            Those old walls could tell stories, if only we had the right ears to hear. Uncle Bob fainting in the pig-sty and almost eaten alive. Clandestine romantic meetings, tearful  prayers. But it takes patience and silence to hear these enchanting whispers, two things we are finding it harder and harder to come by.
            Instead, I turn to the glossy new shelter magazine that tells me that for 2004, old timber barns are the “super-sized folk art must-haves” for the wealthy weekend country squire.  I don’t know if our barn, or the dwindling numbers of its weathered colleagues, can survive as  folk-art must-haves , let alone as trophies for country squires.
            The barn survived tornadoes, Hurricane Hazel, grass fires and the vagaries of agricultural fashion. But will it survive the onward march of progress that even now is a distant dull rumble down the side road? Or will I one day have to fumble through my attic boxes for that tiny enameled steel barn, set it on the kitchen table and explain to my little Sam the ancient writing on the miniature gable wall: “Grampas’ Farm...”
            For now, though, there’s a birthday cake to bake and a cornerstone, soft pink in the June sunset, to be polished and  photographed. And honoured.


David Gillett

Thursday, March 10, 2011

To The Manor Born

Originally published in the Globe & Mail, 2005

I am married to a woman from another age. She is practically Medieval, in fact.
Soon after we married, I made a pact with the demons of The History Textbook Club: I’d give up the twenty-first century in return for a happy marriage. I got the happy marriage, and the twenty-first century is looking very distant indeed.
Our nineteenth -century farmhouse has become decidedly fourteenth-century. My Latin is rusty but improves with each session of chanting. I have taken to singing motets in the shower (on those rare occasions when I take a shower. I’ve heard that being too clean exposes  one to the vagaries of noxious humors.) The kids are keen on hunting wild boar should one ever cross the back garden.
I’ve become an afficionado of chain mail and wheel pommels, illuminations and flying buttresses. I’m as likely to crack open a cold pint of mead and read my Book of Hours by beeswax candle as I am to brew a java and scan the Globe on a Saturday morning. I no longer haunt the aisles of Canadian Tire on weekends. Instead, I’m on the prowl for crenelations, cruck-frames and seige engines.
It wasn’t always thus. My wife, Lady Katherine DeBurgh, was once just Katy. She was once just my young wife, mom to our three kids, firmly planted in the present, a woman who listened to U2, coached soccer  and used a debit card like everyone else.
But now? Now she has gone all middle-ages on us and turned our farmhouse into Hillcrest Hall, Manor House of the Estate. Bolts of exotic fabric swamp the library floor. Barbettes, surcoats and various linen chemises  be-deck the dining room table. Stacks of texts with arcane titles such as “ St.Benedict’s Rule For Monasteries” and “The Book of Margery Kempe” crowd the kitchen counter, amidst stone crocks of anise seed, cinnamon and nutmeg. She has a brood of colourful ancient chickens who know her by name and has taken to carrying a jangling ring of keys on a thick rope round her middle. Well, almost.
It all started a few years ago, when, in a fit of historical hysteria, Katy blurted out a long-suppressed dream that she’d kept inside her decidedly well-coiffed, mid-nineties head: “Hang it all, David! I’ve always wanted to be a Medieval Noblewomen, and darn it, I’m going to be! It’s now or never!”
And so, with her nose to the grind-stone and a keen eye for historical authenticity fueling her passion, Katy set about creating her persona. She began Medieval studies at the University of Toronto, gradually built an impressive library of hundreds of books on medieval life, studied costumes, and traveled to England in pursuit of the authentic. Then she took her act on the road, making presentations to grade four kids in the character of Lady Katherine, disrupting moribund history lessons with jolly cooking demonstrations, readings, courtly dancing and feast preparations, her un-stated mission to counter what Umberto Eco calls “the avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp, wash and wear sorcery and Holy Grail frappe.”
We were all drawn into the vortex that swirled behind Lady Katherine’s rich robes. Little Sam, my gallant seven year old, became page to my not-so-gallant Sir Ranulph. I, in turn, would interrupt feasts in school gyms and regale children with tales of battle and inquire, perplexed, about their digital watches, Gameboys and televisions.
I’ve  learned to live with chain-mail helmet-hair. My broad-sword quickly became my ticket to respect amongst the soccer-ball and Spiderman set. Yet, I remain but an amusing side show to the one who has made the fourteenth century her own.

She is, I must admit, very, very good.
When she dons her headpiece and Christine de Pisane costume of richest brocade, she has the ability to free, from somewhere deep inside a nine year old, that little beating heart of imagination that TV has not yet killed. She brings non-readers out of themselves and into a world of story-telling and haunting, simple melodies. The jaded skater-boy becomes the chivalrous noble. The frustrated teacher sees her plastic classroom transformed into a realm of ancient arts and simple joys.
Its all a bit like magic, even though there’s a deliberate lack of fairy princess and Merlin stories. It says as much about the magnetic pull of all things medieval as it does about Lady Katherine.
Admittedly,  it’s just plain fun being along as armed accomplice. I’m learning to tell my villeins from my villains, my hammer-beams from hammer-dulcimers.
But even better, I get to build a Norman castle behind the barn without any twinge of guilt. Its just what I do. After all, my Lady Katherine will soon be 800 years old and her birthday gift had better be a big one.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Letters to a Young Poet"

In writing, sometimes the best advice is to ignore artstic advice. Rainer Maria Rilke writes:  "You ask whether your verses are good...You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself."

- from Letters to a Young Poet

I'm A Chicken Hipster

....originally pulished in The Globe & Mail

I hadn’t meant to become a chicken hipster. But there was the issue of the omelettes.
  The 19-year-old me, newly urbanized and studying architecture, was destined for greater things. Things like gallery crawling, bookstore haunting, riding the streetcar into the city’s gritty heart. Late nights deciphering Tolkien, debating Nietzsche and drinking bitter, hot coffee. Black.  
  Collecting brown eggs and lugging laying mash was off my radar. I was breaking the chain: The long family line of farmers ended with me. Thanks for the memories, mom and dad, nice farmboy childhood and all. But I’ll be off now.
The student me morphed into the small-time professional, chasing sophistication on junkets to world centres known for their design cred and pronounced lack of chicken coops. I walked Central Park, monographs of obscure European architects under my arm. I sipped café au lait on the Left Bank, hoping the artsy flavour of the passing Parisians would infuse my freckled Ontario skin. London made the most sense and my English blood gave me an emotional connection.
  But something wasn’t right. I felt a tug from behind, a pull toward my rustic roots, like a salmon called back to its own stretch of river.
  And then it got worse: I fell in love with a city girl who loved the country – and the idea of chickens.
  We married in 1988 and moved back to my family farm in 1992. Despite fifth-generation status and all the baggage that came with it, we looked forward to gutting the old house and painting it in cool shades of white and grey. There would be stainless steel and concrete, blonde wood and artful compositions of urbane stuff.
“Chickens?” I asked in exasperation.
“You’ll love them,” Katy said, studying a retro edition of that old gem Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps.
Five dozen week-old chicks arrived in short order, tawny brown puffballs, chirping incessantly. The old coop was gutted and painted a cool shade of white. The chicks grew and became chickens: noisy, demanding and dim-witted. Their schedule inserted itself into our routine, their daily needs trumping trips to town for a civilized latte.
  Little by little, my pretence of sophistication gave way to the realization that chickens weren’t so bad after all. Our kitchen scraps took on new meaning as we went to a whole new level of recycling. We began to collect fresh eggs with more taste than anything we could buy.
  Katy named them all: Blanche and Moon-Chicken, Jane and Henrietta. I took to calling them the Ladies. Our carefully arranged back terrace was soon decorated with the colourful plumage of wandering poultry, scratching and pecking for worms and slugs. Things started to look suspiciously farm-like again.
  The rhythm of birth, life and death played out in front of us as it always had on this old farm, a lesson for our kids. On occasion the gun came out when the evil weasel came calling. Little grave markers sprouted in the quiet glade beneath the old pear tree to mark the final resting places of a few chickens, family cats and the odd mouse or mole.
  August arrived, and the chickens were ready for a final trip down the side road to Dan the Chicken Man, our local poultry processor. But how could we eat Blanche?
  John Berger once put it this way: “A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements are connected by an and not by a but.”
  So the freezer was filled. Never had chicken been tastier, or more honestly appreciated.
  Now, years later, the tenacious old Ladies are just a fact of life, part of the routine along with chicken manure, feed sacks, rodent attacks and wire cuts.
Those things hadn’t been part of the plan when I graduated from architecture school, yearning for that elusive aura of sophistication. But recently I read in the paper that the urban chicken is the new cause célèbre of the uber-hipsters in New York, London and Paris. The man in the photo wore Hunter wellies, a plaid jacket and two days of stubble on his ironic, self-aware chin. He had architect’s glasses on his face and a plump Rhode Island Red under his arm.
I sucked in my breath and looked at myself in the mirror of that photo: hipster status at last, after all these years. Then I looked out at the old barn, planks missing, roof needing paint, the ghosts of farming ancestors thick in the air. Hipster nothing. This is just what I was born to do, and the Ladies, pea-sized brains and all, appreciate it more than even I can understand.
  And you should taste our omelettes.

For original article, plus a variety of comments (including chicken haters, chicken lovers, vegans and free-range back-to-the-earthers) go to