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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM NATHAN BURGOINE!
There is a statue of Galahad in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa that has – to my mind – the best story of all the statues on the Hill. Except, of course, it’s not technically on the Hill at all. That’s part of the story.
Galahad likely needs no introduction – I daresay his story is one most people know to some extent. There is a quote on the statue, from Tennyson, “If I lose myself, I save myself.” Galahad was the pure knight, the most honourable, the most chivalrous. Ultimately, Galahad’s purity is such that he is the last great knight, the finder of the Grail, and is even given the choice to choose his own ending, and ascends to heaven after a moment of religious perfection.
So what’s he doing on Parliament Hill? Or, well, near it.
The answer is Henry Albert Harper. Called “Bert” by friends, Henry
Albert Harper will likely need an introduction, unlike Galahad. Henry Albert Harper was born in 1873, and came to Ottawa as a correspondent for the Montreal Herald, and was a good friend of future Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie-King. They met at the University of Toronto. They were said to be very close – and shared a love of Tennyson’s Arthurian poetry. At a skating party held on the frozen Ottawa River on December 6, 1901, the river proved not to be as frozen as it seemed. Two fell through the ice – one, Alex Creelman, pulled himself to safety. The other, a young woman named Bessie Blair, could not. With the last words “What else can I do?” as others tried to dissuade him Henry Albert Harper dove in to attempt a rescue of her, but both he and Bessie drowned.
Mackenzie King has a mixed legacy as a Canadian Prime Minister. On the one hand, he’s generally considered to be one of – if not the – best Prime Minister Canada has ever had. His focus on unity, the needs of those who couldn’t help themselves, and his academic strengths were perfect for the needs of the country at the time. But by all reports, he was cold, had all the charm of dry toast, a lack of charisma that bordered on not caring to connect with others at all, and never married. Henry Albert Harper’s death affected Mackenzie King very strongly, by all accounts, years before Mackenzie King would be Canada’s 10th Prime Minister. In his diary, Mackenzie King said, of Henry Albert Harper, that he was “the man I loved as I have loved no other man, my father and brother alone excepted.”
When Mackenzie King commissioned the statue of Galahad to memorialize his friend, it wasn’t allowed on Parliament Hill, since there are rules about what statuary can be present, and Henry Albert Harper was not a monarch or politician. So Mackenzie King – in a move about which I cannot help but grin – had the statue placed right in front of Parliament Hill, just outside the fence, in the most prominent and obvious position it could have.
There are limits to what we can learn of history – especially when we try to speak of queer history which by its nature is hidden – and that’s where speculation starts to step in. I adore this story – the selfless attempt of someone to try and save another, the love of a man finding a way to skirt the rules somewhat to built a monument to that gallant attempt – and there is a part of me that would like to believe that Mackenzie King and Henry Albert Harper weren’t just friends and roommates with a devotion to idealism. By most accounts, William Lyon Mackenzie King was such a loner, a devout spiritualist (he believed in mediums, and often tried to speak with his mother), and I wish that – for him – there was a time where he had loving companionship.
Maybe that was Bert. And if it was – what a loss to suffer in a time where you couldn’t verbalize or publicly mourn the loss as anything more than “a good friend.”
I’m a queer man – I can understand some of what it would have been like to be queer in times and places where such things were forbidden and dangerous. I live in our modern world, in a wonderful country – made in no small part so wonderful by men like William Lyon Mackenzie King – where my husband and I are exactly that: husbands. But even I can recall hiding myself, as recently as my last vacation, where in the middle of Louisiana, on our way to Texas, a waitress commented to my husband and I “Y’all are twins, right?” and we vehemently agreed. In a small town in Louisiana, you bet your cookies we were twin brothers. On this level, I can – to a small degree – try to imagine what it would have been like as recent as a hundred years ago.
I’ve never really tried to craft a historical fiction story of my own. An upcoming story – “Elsewhen” – comes close, in that it’s set somewhere in the past between World War II and 1966, and takes place in the same part of the city, just a block or two over from where Galahad stands. Even then, I used my usual trick of a little bit of magic to sidestep the real past. When I read gay historical fiction, I’m always torn by the ever-present reality that in those times, those gay men were in real danger for being who they were. I cannot imagine living that way, every hour, every day. That there are parts of the world where this is still a reality makes me cold to my soul.
When I bump into a book that side-steps this reality, I grow uneasy. While the last thing I’d like to read is a story of two men struggling to stay safe, page after page, in a world that will hate and condemn them for their love. The awareness that that would have been the reality makes it painful – not to mention the assumption that two such like-minded men ever managed to meet, form an attraction, and feel it worth the risk. A relentless pyrrhic victory seems to be where a slavishly realistic historical story would lay. It would be depressing. And no one would have nice teeth.
Sugar coated versions of the world, however, don’t seem to be the answer either – it seems a cheap way out, and – oddly – somehow disrespectful. I don’t want to gloss over the darker times, because people fought and clawed their way through the darker times to bring me this brighter present. A world where every person the gay couple meets seems to recognize that society is wrong and they should be allowed to be together just jangles off key. We don’t even have that today.
In science fiction, there’s the notion of “speculative fiction” – where the science involved is just a few steps shy of already here. A mass release of a deadly virus? This is not in the realm of impossibility. I find myself most drawn to gay historical fiction when a similar fine line is walked. And feeling completely incapable of walking that line myself.
I think of Patricia Nell Warren’s THE FRONT RUNNER. That was a piece of speculative fiction – it was written in 1974, set in 1976, and every moment felt as though it could have happened. And, if you’ve read it, you’ll know it could never be accused of sugar coating.
And that was 1976.
I am in awe of writers of historical fiction for their ability to draw out a sense of past. When someone rises to the challenges of writing a historical gay fiction and does so successfully, I’m even more in awe. That line – that finest line – between going too far beyond realism to remain authentic, or going too far into history reality to make the story anything but relentlessly depressing – is one I’m not sure I could walk.
But every time I pass Galahad, I understand why these stories are told. We all want our place in history. We all want to look back and say “that’s where I came from” as much as we want to look ahead and see our place in the future. I will never be able to know if my little wish for Makenzie King to have had a loving relationship with his friend – albeit a short one that ended in tragedy – was what happened. But it could have. I like to think it did.
Sometimes, I suppose, we save ourselves by refusing to lose ourselves, too.
(Photo credit – Galahad – ‘Nathan Burgoine)
(Photo credit – Henry Albert Harper – Lancefield Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-126941; Restrictions on use: Nil; Copyright: Expired)
(Photo credit – William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1899 – Library and Archives Canada / C-014191; Restrictions on use: Nil; Copyright: Expired)
Giveaway – A copy of RIDING THE RAILS (which includes the closest thing I’ve ever done to a historical story with “Elsewhen”), as well as a packet of something very traditionally Canadian.
‘Nathan Burgoine lives in Ottawa, Canada with his husband, Daniel. His short fiction appears in FOOL FOR LOVE, I DO TWO, TENTED, BLOOD SACRAMENTS, SAINTS + SINNERS 2011: NEW FICTION FROM THE FESTIVAL, AFTERNOON PLEASURES, MEN OF THE MEAN STREETS, WINGS, TALES FROM THE DEN, EROTICA EXOTICA, and RIDING THE RAILS. His nonfiction appears in I LIKE IT LIKE THAT and 5×5 Literary Magazine. You can find him online at http://redroom.com/member/nathan-burgoine.
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)