A Letter from Robertson

by littlefoible

To deviate completely from what I normally post here, I present you with a little story of something I found today.

If you are familiar with Halifax, Nova Scotia, you might know of the little Salvation Army down at the corner of Queen and Green streets. I happened to be in there this afternoon, not looking for anything in particular, just grabbing some clothes and such things. Now, I usually tend to stay away from the book section of thrift stores unless I’m looking for something in particular — my bookshelves are already too full for me to justify loading them down with more volumes, so for the most part I just head to the library. However, today I wandered over to the back corner where the books are kept and aimlessly looked through the shelves.

I found a few nice hardcover copies of older books, which are always quite pleasing aesthetically, but again I’ve been trying to avoid buying books just because they’re old and look neat — it saddens me when they then sit on my shelf and are never read. However, one never knows what one might find, and so I picked out one that caught my eye — A Jig For the Gypsy.

Upon opening the book, I discovered that the Davies mentioned on the spine was Robertson Davies, whom I remembered well from assigned readings of Fifth Business in high school, but who also (I now know thanks to Wikipedia) was heavily involved in theatre and helped found the Stratford Festival. He was best known for his novels, but he has written many plays, including the one I had just found. Debating whether or not to purchase the book, I started flipping through it and found a few typed pages folded within: a letter, it seemed. That cemented it — I love finding little bits of people’s lives tucked away in forgotten places. The book was $1.99. I was buying it.

Standing in line with the book and the few items of clothing I had found as well, I opened the book again and took out the letter. It was dated December 12, 1956, and was on two small numbered sheets of paper upon which the marks of the typewriter were still indented after 50-odd years. Skimming it, I flipped to the second page, where my eyes were immediately drawn to the signature: Robertson Davies.

Because I am a pretty nerdy person, I was perhaps disproportionately excited about this finding. Upon returning home, I looked up the recipient as well — Malcolm Ross, who at the time was on the Faculty of English at Queen’s University. An Officer of the Order of Canada, he worked with the NFB during WWII, and received a special Oscar for the work that the studio did during that time. Later in life it seems he did a lot of teaching, and received honorary degrees from 8 different universities. Ross passed away in Halifax in 2002, and I suppose that somehow his copy of this book made it down to the Salvation Army, and now onto my bookshelf.

The letter itself, though short, is quite hilarious – on the second page, Davies vehemently gives his opinion about certain operas. My favourite excerpt:

“The broadcasting of ludicrous Nineteenth Century melodrama, accompanied by music which is emotionally powerful but frequently of staggering vulgarity, and projected by means of acting which often falls below the level of a high school literary society’s play, is cultural only on a very special level.”

In any case, I was excited enough to share this experience with you, and I’ve scanned the letter itself, which you can read below (click to enlarge).