Lately, the Town of Mississippi Mills has been beleaguered by comparatively high-stake controversies involving a modified hydro plant, the imposition of a heritage control by-law and the closing of a dedicated parkland. Tempers have at times soared. Even from my vantage in South Carolina I can feel the heat! Common to each of these disagreements is a reference to City Slickers, a doubtful distinction I have discovered is exceeded only by being a lawyer (or perhaps more egregiously, a drunken one).
The mention of City Slickers instantly inspires the connotation of conflict between urban and rural, metropolitan and parochial, business and trade, educated and uneducated, pretentious and earthy, secular and religious, unseemly and proper, left and right, right and wrong. It’s the long-standing clash of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse. Both generally imply a lack of knowledge of the one by the other or at least a failure of mutual appreciation; and condescension on both sides is normally ripe.
The City Mouse and the Country Mouse is one of Aesop’s Fables. Like several other elements in Aesop’s fables, ‘city mouse and country mouse’ has become an English idiom. In the original tale, a proud city mouse visits his cousin in the country. The country mouse offers the city mouse a meal of simple country cuisine, at which the visitor scoffs and invites the country mouse back to the city for a taste of the “fine life” and the two cousins dine like emperors. But their rich and delicious metropolitan feast is interrupted by a couple of dogs which force the rodent cousins to abandon their meal and scurry to safety. After this, the country mouse decides to return home, preferring security to opulence or, as the 13th-century preacher Odo of Cheriton phrased it, “I’d rather gnaw a bean than be gnawed by continual fear”.
What is unique about this recurring scenario – aside from its obvious slant of hackneyed prejudice on both sides – is that the confrontation only arises upon the visitation of the City Slicker to the countryside, not the other way around. At the outset this naturally taints the hostility with the elements of infiltration and foreign-ism, a creeping know-it-all, contaminating advance by the Uppity Heathen upon the properly-raised, down-home Salt of the Earth. The legendary differences between the Squire and the Socialite are instantly reinforced.
Years ago when I attended law school at Dalhousie University I became aware of the ostensible spread between people of differing backgrounds. In its most abstract vision I was the Upper Canadian from “Hog Town” (Toronto) who had besmirched the pristine visage of Nova Scotia. The only thing missing from my racoon coat was an equally preposterous beanie with a propeller! Among my first acquaintances was Bruce Tait MacIntosh whose distinguished family of judges, lawyers and prominent businessmen hailed from New Glasgow, Pictou County. It wasn’t long before I met with other proud descendants of Pictou County and I learned there were only two paths to Citizenship: either you were born in Pictou County or you lived there for 500 years! MacIntosh took great delight in teasing me and proving his superiority. In the late autumn of our first semester in Halifax he invited me to visit his family home in what he shamelessly styled hinterland New Glasgow. He apologetically prefaced his invitation by advising that they hadn’t in-door plumbing and that similar accommodation for bathing would be required. Not having any reason to mistrust his assertions I cheerfully acquiesced and assured him that neither a privy nor a cold shower were beneath me.
When we arrived in New Glasgow Bruce led me from the bus stop to his family home situated on a prominence in town. It was a grand three-storey house to which we ascended by a steep flagstone stairway. When I got inside, surrounded by mahogany and Persian rugs and met his very dignified mother (whom I recall being told had attended Branksome Hall, the sister school of my alma mater St. Andrew’s College) it wasn’t long before I realized the joke had been on me. I suspect such naivety is not uncommon among City Slickers; and it certainly wasn’t the first time an urbanite had been skilfully duped by a rustic. In the end the line between us happily became blurred beyond recognition. Nonetheless, the moderately embarrassing experience served to remind me forever that the alleged differences between the City Mouse and the Country Mouse are seldom sustainable.
Within the social context the opposing forces of urban and rural alignments can be assumed to dissolve in time. But the same is not assured in the political forum. Politics by definition engenders competing and often intransigent ideologies. Nowhere, for example, is it more discernible than in Lanark County that there is a fast allegiance to the Conservative Party. By the same token, the tradition of expression within its municipal boundaries is manifested by its long-standing citizens whose habits and opinions occasionally collide with those of new-comers. Since my admission to the fold in 1976 I have been blessed to know many of Almonte’s personages, among them Raymond A. Jamieson, QC, Howard Sadler, Norman T. Sadler, William Bellamy, Albert T. Gale, Louis Peterson, Mr. Justice Charles J. Newton and Betty Newton, Maj. Jamie Leys, George Thompson, Johnny Erskine, Brian J. Gallagher, Robert France, John Macintosh Bell and Halcyone Bell, Stan Morton, Frank and Annie Honeyborne, J. C. Smithson and Rachel Smithson, Jim Collie, Arnold Craig, Isabelle Hogan, Laura Schultz, Stan Sonnenburg, Carla Morrison, Messrs. George and Terry Charos, Fred Larose, Dr. John King, Robert L. Irwin, Miss Elizabeth Schoular, George Gomme, Ernie Liddle, Alfred M. Hudson, Jack Toshack, Peggy Cameron, Marg Campbell, Desmond Houston, Russell Turner, Keith Brydges, John H. Kerry, Shirley Melvin, “Britt” Thurston, Art Smith, Ivan Duncan, Johnnie Waddell, John Dunn, Margaret Lockhart, Edward H. Winslow-Spragge, Russell Bain Thompson and Mary Thompson, Elizabeth Kelly, Jack and Florence Virgin, Robert and Joan Rivington, John L. Morton, Evelyn Barker, Dr. James G. Coupland, Marg and Percy Baker, Johnny Graham, Gladys Currie, Marjorie Naismith, Stewart Lee, Harry Gunn, Ken Timmins, Doreen and Howie Barr, Gertie (“Trudy”) Coborn, David Rintoul, Emile Callow, Merle Sonnenburg, Bert and Marion Timmins, Orval Tosh, Jimmy Illingworth, Jim Paul and Bessie Moses-Paul, Georgie Raycroft, Marion Graham, George Dunfield, Harry Walker, Maisie Whitten, Bev and Joe Madden, Harry Branje, Gordie Timmons, Allan Fulton, Shirley Watson, Mervyn Tosh, George Slade and others no longer whinnying among us or too distant to recall. About each their contributions one could easily write an epic account.
Likewise, I have been privileged to meet and interact with hundreds of new-comers to Almonte in the past forty years, among them people who have represented the drain of brains, artistry, capital and invention from urban centres throughout the Province, Quebec and the world. One particularly robust individual (whom I shall have the courtesy not to name) symbolizes for me the mesh of old and new, past and present, young and old. He is a self-deprecating fellow who yet unflinchingly harbours an irrepressible dedication to singular evenness of hand and astonishing insight and compromise. Gentlemen such as he will forge their own indelible imprint on our community by diluting the sometimes preposterous adversities while at the same time cultivating his trademark personality.
What I can say without qualification is that every one of those people – whether the Old Guard or the new arrivals – share the same profound fondness for our Town. It is one thing to have an historical appreciation of a town, or to value the architecture or its gardens, or to savour the opportunity for seasonal amusement, but the spirit which excites the residents of Almonte is not that of a visitor nor an interloper – it is a devotion which is uniquely personal and entwined with intense relationships – albeit at times volatile. The involvement of people in Almonte is interactive, not one-way or merely topical. You will rub shoulders with your confederates at the Town Hall. You will cross swords with them in the surprisingly intimate vernacular of a hometown e-newspaper. You may even nudge them in the shallows of the Mississippi River. The less effete seek to elevate the discussion over a beer. Certainly the tone of controversy between our denizens – whether City Slickers or Old Guard – is sometimes thermal and even over-extended but it is undeniable that our community – whatever its roots – is committed and involved. We sometimes suffer the same unhappy consequences of familiarity which characterizes family members (with whom we as often take similar liberties). But that can be a good thing. As my late father once observed, neutrality does nothing to promote attachment.
“Even if we do disagree, we don’t have to be disagreeable.”