It has always fascinated me the way that the relationship between city and countryside speaks in many important ways to the nature of Canadian life itself.
I grew up in a suburban space on the very edge of Metropolitan Toronto, a space that was, to be sure, not urban. The house I grew up in was situated in an old apple orchard, almost every house in the neighbourhood had at least one apple tree in its yard, so you felt, to a degree, that you were living in an orchard. There stood a stately apple tree in our neighbour’s yard that was near my window and for which I felt a particular fondness. I felt as though this tree was my grand friend, my constant companion. I would greet it each afternoon after school, or in my high school days after work, immediately upon my arrival to my room. I spent many hours over the years trying to understand the world by first understanding the beauty and complexity and perseverance of this old apple tree at my window. It was one of the trees that got spared the developer’s spade, it was a left-over survivor of a once proud orchard. The real beauty of the tree branches could be found in their twisted encroachments, their dark twigs and black branches, especially once the leaves had fallen and the branches reached up, exposed, toward a November grey sky. They would become even more magical when they were partially hidden in the fog that would from time to time roll in off the waters of Lake Ontario. They would, at the end of the day, be completely taken from me in the darkness. The branches seemed to watch over me and the community of families and children, all of us growing up right there among them. I used to watch the tree from the window and felt that it was some kind of a magical doorway to a pastoral world, as though you might walk forever moving from one old apple tree to another, until you were completely free in a countryside beyond the confines of suburban mediocrity. In view of all the things that were taken or lost over the years, the tree offered some sense of relative permanence.
Living on the edge of the urban made me entirely enraptured with the city. It always seemed as though it was an intensely exciting space that existed beyond my reach, beyond the reach of my bicycle, beyond the reach of where I could travel, but where so many interesting things came to life. It was a world waiting to be discovered. It was where, for example, the excitement of Maple Leaf Gardens dwelt, at the corner of Church and Carleton Streets. The sign on the overhang informing as to which team was playing the Leafs on a Saturday night lit up overhead of the sidewalk crowded with fans dressed in dresses and fedoras. The grey, blue, green and red wooden seats on the inside. The smell of roasting chestnuts and popcorn outside.
Too, in primary school and even High School, when I was home on occasion, I would enjoy watching The Elwood Glover Show on CBC TV at lunchtime. What was fascinating about the show was that Elwood Glover and his guests would sit in front of a window that looked out onto a downtown Toronto street. You could watch the cars and pedestrians passing in the background. This all seems rather quaint now in view of the technology of the present day. At the time though, as a boy, it was though you were almost really downtown, as though you were peeking into a world that you should not have had access to because you were supposed to be in your classroom, but which, to be honest, could not compete with this kind of romance. I could not help but feel that the real world was somehow, and for some reason, purposefully hidden. You could almost feel the activity and excitement that coursed through the veins of the city through the camera, while listening to interesting people speak about why they were in town and what they were up to. It was somehow all the more romantic when the camera revealed the essence of the downtown street in the rain.
And it was a Downtown that held so very much to discover. Take for example when the Grey Cup was being played in Toronto .... My father came home one evening and told us that the Calgary Stampeder fans during the Grey Cup festivities had brought their horses with them and they were parading them in the Royal York Hotel! Imagine! Horses just casually making their way through one of the most luxurious hotels in Canada. What I have found out since then is that it was, and remains, in fact a tradition to bring a horse into the hotel when the Calgary Stampeders came to town for a Grey Cup match. It would have likely been my father’s deep familiarity with the role of horses in the everyday lives of farm and farmer, and his use of the horse to travel that made the story of the horses in the Royal York so eccentric and hence fascinating for him and consequently for me.
Yet, where I grew up was, at the same time, decidedly not rural either. It was an in-between space between the country and the city. Perhaps it was this in-betweenness with respect to city and country that engendered my desire to understand both sides.
Perhaps this is a clue as to why there is such an excitement that surrounds the Royal Winter Fair even now ... it is the placing of country things: animals, produce, horses, sheep, cows into the context of the urban space
So, with all this in mind you can imagine the kind of magic that a primary-school field trip to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair would hold. Here was an opportunity to explore both the city and the country at the same time! We got to explore the city, including the Coliseum building in the Exhibition Place. But at the same time, it was as though the country had come to us. We were taken to see all kinds of things brought from the countryside. It was a privilege I felt as a small boy to see the cows and horses, the sheep, to name just a few.
Perhaps this is a clue as to why there is such an excitement that surrounds the Royal Winter Fair even now ... it is the placing of country things: animals, produce, horses, sheep, cows into the context of the urban space, where they certainly do not usually abide, that stirs our imagination. It is as though the city person can study the country from the comfort of never having to leave the city. It is, perhaps, also a question of the city having to confront firsthand the basis of its own existence. Without agriculture as the foundation of our way of life, where are we?
Perhaps, too, what underlies the fascination of the Royal is that it is not only a way for the urban to explore the products and culture of the rural, but it is also the opportunity for the rural to explore the urban. And what is more, there is the “Royal-ness” of the entire enterprise. The grant to the Fair of the Royal label by King George V suggests a type of royal sanction which supports this project of the meeting of country lanes and fields and barns with city streets and buildings, and the peoples who inhabit them. It is at least to a degree suggestive of the unity of a Canadian culture which recognizes the importance of all contributions, be they urban or rural. In the absence of either one of these aspects Canadian life would be unimaginably the poorer.
[The Royal] speaks to the importance of the equestrian world ... but also to the importance of family, hard work, commitment, patience and sacrifice that are the foundational supports of that world.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair speaks, perhaps above all, to a nostalgia for a simpler life. it speaks to some core values that still undergird our predominately urban existence. It speaks to the importance of the equestrian world, to take but one example, but also to the importance of family, hard work, commitment, patience and sacrifice that are the foundational supports of that world. They may not be obvious as you walk into the building, but you neither have to look too far to notice them. The Fair is a showcase not only of the achievements in the various competitive categories, but also all of the character and hard work and dedication that are necessary to even make an appearance at the Fair, whether they resulted in a winning entry or not.
These are among the reasons why the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has such a special place not only in my heart, but in those of many Canadians. It celebrates the deep agricultural roots that abide in this country. It is a staple of Canadian culture and draws you in whether you are part of the agricultural community or not. It is a way that you can in the same afternoon or evening, discover and celebrate both city and country landscapes.
Photo Credits in order of appearance:
Big & Little by Matt MacGillivray - CC BY-ND 2.0
Final Crop by Stephen Pierzchala - CC BY-ND 2.0
Old Apple Tree by Stanze - CC BY-ND 2.0
Maple Leaf Gardens by JasonParis - CC BY 2.0
King Street Rain by Simon Carr - CC BY 2.0
Royal018 by DerekP - CC BY 2.0
Royal004 by DerekP - CC BY 2.0
WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas Allen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.