If you see an out-of-breath man standing still on the path between Trinity College and the Edward Johnson Building, staring skyward with a smile on his face, that will be me, on my way from the Hart House gym to the Museum subway stop.
And if you follow my glance, you will see a red-tailed hawk sitting meditatively in one of the tall trees. Two or three times a year, our paths cross – one of us lost in post-workout thought, the other contemplating dinner, but each taking advantage of the quiet diversion that is Philosopher’s Walk.
There once was a creek running through the narrow valley that still keeps to its old contours between Bloor Street and Hoskin Avenue, and maybe the pensive raptor has some ancestral memory of its ancient hunting grounds. Or perhaps, like the rest of us who slow down as we make our way through the most peaceful part of the St. George
Campus, it just appreciates this little patch of rus in urbe – especially during mulberry season, when the greedy pigeons and squirrels are at their most distracted.
It’s to Aristotle that we ultimately owe the name and, in my mind, the purpose of Philosopher’s Walk. He liked to stroll while he taught, and his followers became known as the Peripatetics – a grandiose term that translates as “people who walk around,” a philosophical task for which most of us are pretty well qualified. The university’s philosophical society used to meet in one of the stately houses that bordered the path, and it’s not hard to imagine some deep thinker deciding that it was much more stimulating to be a Peripatetic in the open air than to sit stoically in a stuffy salon.
It’s still a good place to get your thoughts going. You can be ambling along Bloor Street, stuck on the minutiae of shopping or lunch, and suddenly the walk’s deceptively narrow entranceway lures you in. The ceremonial gates might get you thinking about the fleeting nature of empires: they mark the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, later King George V and Queen Mary – 250,000 people turned out to greet them. The trills pealing from the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Edward Johnson Building further south can take your mind back to the politically liberating themes of Verdi’s operas or prompt a meditation on why Canada produces so many good singers. Then there are the exposed concrete vents and Trinity’s misfit garage and the rain-filled ruts from some stray off-road vehicle – it seems even university courses in esthetics can’t keep people from committing ugliness in a place of intellectual beauty.
And when you come upon excited French tourists taking snapshots of the same black squirrels the hawk is eyeing for dinner, you can’t help but ponder how one person’s commonplace is another person’s strange and amazing. Surely Aristotle had something to say about that.
Hart House Library
It was, is and forever will be the best place in the university to sleep. Not that you’re supposed to doze off in the Hart House Library: old wardens of the House made a point of waking sleepers on their daily rounds. But something about the place – the plush leather chesterfields, the rhythmic wheeze of the ancient radiators, the strong sense of being academically off-duty – makes the mind relax and the eyes feel heavy.
The library puts you at ease. It’s a welcoming, almost hedonistic space meant from the start to be an escape from the classroom’s busy discipline. Notice that there are no tabletops here to lay out textbooks, and notice also how the red carpet muffles the sound of footsteps so the more relaxed readers can carry on their closed-eye contemplation.
But for most students, free time in the library is too precious to be spent snoring – Morley Callaghan, a hard-boiled writer not usually given to states of ecstasy, wrote that the place evoked “a strange elation.” I remember my father telling me how he raced from his commerce classes to devour the powerful social realism of Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos back in the ’30s. A famous photograph taken in 1944 shows couches crammed with students in uniform, young men in training for battle reading literature as if their lives depended on it. No image better supports the original idea of Hart House’s designers, that this is a room meant to legitimize dreaming and elevate the pleasures of the imagination.
Of course it’s not all silent rapture. On many nights of the year, writers and readers get together to turn books into more active elements of the room. In my undergraduate days, we lit the massive, Brideshead Revisited-sized fireplace at the far end to create the kind of intimacy we vainly hoped would put Mordecai Richler on his best behaviour. Now, as evidence of the passionate bibliophilia this room has always inspired, its fireplaces go unlit and the antiquated heating system carries the polite warning, “Please do not leave books on the radiators. The heat is very bad for them.”
Of course, sometimes bibliophilia turned into bibliomania and books disappeared – tight security and the library’s spirit of relaxation not being a perfect match. According to the library committee records, someone with either an overwhelming zeal for ideas or a wicked sense of irony carried off R.H. Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society back in 1944. But even for long-term borrowers, there’s no escaping the library’s stylish ethos – the bookplate in each book, a bird’s-eye view of Hart House, was designed by J.E.H. MacDonald, a member of the Group of Seven.
In its heyday – its heydays, really – Varsity Stadium hosted 30 Grey Cups, filled its 27,000 seats for spectacular Blues football games, welcomed Pierre Trudeau and Mother Teresa, put Canada on the pop-festival map, earned a reputation as the country’s best soccer venue and gave John Lennon’s solo career a kick-start.
Varsity occupied such a central part of the sports and cultural milieu that even its low points – the 1950 “Mud Bowl,” Alice Cooper and his notorious chicken, Yoko Ono’s stage debut – contrived to become important historical references.
But lately the cosy concrete stadium, with its narrow cinder track and beautifully impractical grass field and state-of-the-art (for 1956) floodlights, has fallen on hard times. Anyone who knew Varsity in its glory days, who saw Bryce Taylor pass, or Chuck Berry duck-walk, or Pelé be Pelé, has spent the past few years feeling regret as the dilapidated bowl slowly deteriorated into a working archeological site.
Varsity is due to disappear this year. In its place will come four residence buildings and a new 5,000-seat stadium replete with a 400-metre all-weather track, if not real grass.
Those who see a landmark disappearing – those of us who like to insist it was Varsity Stadium that really broke up The Beatles – need to remember that the site has been in a constant state of evolution since the university rugby team, fleeing charges of excessive rowdiness, moved here from King’s College Circle in 1898. The first stadium wasn’t built until 1911, and the facility was variously augmented and reconstructed over the next 40 years. As recently as 1976, boosters of the stadium’s role as an Olympic soccer venue were bragging that the Games’ legacy would include a VIP lounge and drug-testing room. What if the drug-testing room had been around during the two pop festivals held on the field in 1969? Would Alice Cooper be an unknown?
Varsity Stadium, I’m surprised to realize, has been a constant fixture in my life. I went to one of those festivals, as far as I can recall, the one that featured The Band and Steppenwolf and – what were they thinking? – Tiny Tim. But then I was also one of the 15,000 who saw Pierre Trudeau during his 1974 election tour, and a decade before that I came here as a 12-year-old kid to watch the Blues dominate all comers. I went to track meets in the days when athletes ran on cinders, saw my first rugby game, cringed to the sounds of the Lady Godiva band, ran back a punt just like my idol, Blues’ halfback Gerry Sternberg, though not quite as far, and barely survived a 440-yard race along those same outmoded cinders.
This much of Varsity, the best part now, will stay with me.
John Allemang (BA 1974 Trinity) is a writer for the Globe and Mail.