In memoriam: Ian Charles Filewod, 1954-1993Time takes shape according to one’s pleasure, like a figured rug whose folds can be gathered in such a way that two designs will meet – and the rug is once again smoothed out, and you live on, or else superimpose the next image on the last, endlessly, endlessly.
- Vladimir Nabokov
I knew Ian for a little more than fifteen years. Ian and I both grew a good deal in this time, and in retrospect it seems that much of this growth was built of small changes, changes in one of us that were often interwoven with, changes in the other.
Looking back, I see two phases in our friendship. The first three or four years saw two young men travelling, venturing, and – as it now appears, retrospectively, for Speke, Park and Stanley, little more than a hundred years ago – we were exploring our own hearts as much as the world. We were making personal maps.
In West Africa, we were often inwardly turned. In dealing with cultures quite unlike our own, we were becoming acclimatized to our own souls. I think Ian and I were both marked in these early years by what Carl Jung calls the puer soul, the boyish spirit that is necessary, but not sufficient, for wisdom and fullness of being. The second phase saw the two of us married, each of us fathers of two children roughly the same age, settled (more or less) in careers, coming to terms with our selves-in-the-world, and, with the usual chafing and rebellion, starting to enjoy those terms.
As we got to know each other – we were in the same CUSO year, and had postings less than a day’s drive apart in the north of Nigeria – we discovered a number of common interests: politics and history (Ian had a far better grasp of African history than I), writing and reading, love and romance, beer (I introduced Ian to burukutu, the guinea corn beer of Northern Nigeria), and music, especially folk music. We also shared a distrust of cant, and both us, I think, were keenly aware of the limited amount of good either of us did as teachers. However, unlike some of our CUSO confreres, Ian and I believed strongly in the idea of volunteer teaching, and resisted the call, articulated by a few volunteers just finishing their contracts, for an end to the teaching component of CUSO.
More powerful a bond for me in this friendship was my growing understanding and appreciation of Ian's character, both his bred-in-the-bone character, that is, his family traits and soul, and his organic, coming-to-be character, the residue of his daily dealings with the world.
Somewhere along the way, our friendship took on the colouring of a relationship between what used to be called “confidants.” Less common, perhaps, in friendships among men than women, it’s an affection that builds on confidence and confidentiality (etymology: fiducia and fides, trust and faith). Rooted in trust and faith, our friendship allowed us to discuss personal hopes and fears, and thus to grow, building on words.
In Nigeria, Ian and I started many conversations that were to continue for many years, in that way that a trusting, long-term friendship – a friendship with blood in it – makes possible. We talked about culture, or more precisely, the meaning and relevance of local culture in a world with global communities; the meaning of life, or more exactly, what makes life worth living and how one might live well; idiocy and weakness in those who rule or would rule; and the need for principle and the limits of ideology.
Ian liked to laugh. “Liked” may be the wrong word: he was genetically programmed to tease, to joke, to mock convention and himself. Ian is the only man I knew who could not only sport a goatee, but actually seemed to require one; the goatee, it seemed to me, was a visual correspondence to his capric, playful nature.
For a CUSO gathering held at a teachers’ college in Kano, Ian had written and printed a leaflet that made fun of various CUSO staff people, as well as of the -isms and orthodoxies on development that ruled at the time. Ian had his Kano friend Abba slip the leaflet under our doors while we were sleeping. The leaflet shocked the delicate sensibilities of our more serious volunteers (then being re-labelled “co-operants” by the CUSO bureaucracy) and annoyed the CUSO staff, whose stuffiness and doctrinaire attitudes were mocked.
That is to say, the leaflet was wildly successful. It was talked about. It scandalized. It épatéd the booboisie. For Ian, the funniest aspect was the consensus that immediately gelled as to who to blame for the nocturnal attack. Me. (For whatever reasons, I had developed a reputation that made this possibility seem plausible.) Ian thought it comic that the CUSO crowd, who deemed themselves liberal and non-judgmental, would not only leap to the wrong conclusion, but do so en masse. He also thought the sight of me, sputtering innocence, to be acutely funny.
A few days before Christmas 1979, Ian and I took a train from Kano, the ancient, mud-walled, Moslem city in north-central Nigeria, (and perhaps the largest city of the western Sahel, the geophysical belt of semi-desert in which Ian and I lived) to the tropical, predominantly Christian Atlantic coast in the south-east corner of Nigeria – Iboland, or Biafra, as it was called in the civil war.
The nominal, and laughably audacious (as we soon found out), purpose of the trip was to do some busking, to sing for our supper, so to speak, in a part of the country that we hadn’t seen, and which, we thought, might pay a kobo or two for an enthusiastic version of a song by Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. As it turned out we only played in a public venue two or three times. We learned that, much as in some countries all the kids seem adept with a soccer ball, in south-east Nigeria, there are many young men who play guitar very well. In retrospect, the idea of busking in a country as poor as Iboland was ludicrous. But Ian and I were ludic: ludic and manic and hungry for novelty.
The train crosses the Benue, the Niger’s largest tributary, and heads into a world that shocks eyes accustomed to the dry, austere beauty of the Sahel. One has the impression of dozens of shades of green darkening in the distance. Botany suddenly seems complex, in need of taxonomy. Oranges, plantains, okra, and unknown meats and sweets are sold from bowls atop the heads of vendors at various stops. Palm wine appears. As would be the case on a trip from northern to southern Europe, the drink changes from fermented cereal grain (burukutu) to fermented juice. As we approached Port Harcourt, the end of rail portion of the trip, we saw natural gas being burned off (wasted, some say, in typical Nigerian fashion) from the oil field stacks: eerie candles atop the jungle. I remember Ian standing between railcars, smoking, contemplating the rolling scene.
From a muddy riverside slope on the outskirts of Port Harcourt, we took a water taxi to the island village of Bonny. Why, who’d recommended it, I’m not sure. I remember sitting in the beached boat as the owner (captain might be too grand a term) filled the gas tank with a lit cigarette in his gas-tank-holding hand. He thought my concerned interest risible.
The trip to Bonny lasted perhaps an hour. Perhaps ten or twelve kilometres of winding river – channels really, among islands – and flat, mangrove shoreline. Now, as I write, Cameroon and Nigeria threaten war over an oil-rich peninsula just east of here.
Bonny was so quirky and different from anything Ian and I had seen, it appealed to us. The island was a kingdom (we came upon a statue to a certain King Pepple), with unpaved, relatively clean streets and a nondescript colonial architecture – nondescript, but architecture nonetheless, a shock after a year and a half in the cement block and mud buildings of the north.
Occasionally, as we walked around the town, we’d see one or more people dressed in scarlet, theatrical, almost clownish uniforms: members of the Mininimi Bluffing Society, a “Christmas society” we were told. At one point in one street we saw three young men putting on white facial makeup and donning the scarlet uniform. That day or the following one, events literally caught us up.
Somehow, in talking to someone, we were invited to a wedding. Perhaps because of the state of our clothes, we were offered the loan of appropriate local garb. We dressed at the house of someone in the wedding party and set off for the event.
En route, we saw more of the Bluffers. They were up to something. While allegedly a benevolent society, the demeanour and actions of some of the costumed and masked Bluffers seemed menacing. Some of the street intersections where they gathered had an air of Mardi Gras, with a suggestion of cruelty and danger.
The wedding site was a festooned tent in an open space on a dusty street. As we arrived, a number of Bluffers advanced on the bystanders. A coffin-shaped box was suspended on ropes held by men at either end. Again and again, a tall, masked Bluffer with a whip charged the crowd, which would retreat, leaving women and children laughing and screaming. Those caught by the Bluffers put donations (the word may need quotation marks) into the coffin. Meanwhile, half a block away, our wedding had started. Music was provided by a small choir-cum-band. The bride was hidden away in a telephone-booth-sized box until she was allowed, at the appropriate moment, to exit and reveal herself. I have a memory of Ian shuffling around a wedding dance circle, and fellow celebrants occasionally sticking a piece of money on Ian’s brow, a common Nigerian gesture of friendship and generosity.
On our second-last day in Bonny, we went to the beach on the Atlantic-facing shores. No tropical paradise, this. A huge flat hard-sand area, with puddles left from the ebb tide; behind us were rows of huge oil storage tanks; in front the water was slicked in places from the tanker traffic. A Canadian Pacific ship was anchored offshore. Ian and I swam the 200 metres to the anchor chain and back.
Bonny wasn’t paradise, but it was watery, lively, and interesting enough to two lads who had grown used to the austere, desiccated land of the semi-desert.
A few days later, we were back on the mainland, inland a little, in the heart of Biafra. Ian and I had both read Frederick Forsythe's The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend, and had, despite our Hausaland postings, a good deal of sympathy for the Ibo side in the civil war, which had ended not long before. On Christmas morning, in this Christian area, we awoke to the sound of kids singing carols (at least I reckon they were carols) outside our house. I have a photo of seven or eight kids dressed in grass skirts, ragged trousers, traditional masks on some of the kids, and on one or two, sweatshirts worn askew over the head, with holes cut out for eyes. We were invited to go on a Christmas morning walk to see the King. Another King? Nigeria’s south-east is dotted with Kings. We walked a couple of kilometres through forest to a village where music – including lively percussion on hollow logs – and dancing were in progress. A small corral for dancing had been erected.
We met the King, had a smoke with him in his modest house, and discussed village life. We returned to our borrowed house, and celebrated Christmas and travel and life by playing some music.
Ian’s reading, starting with his knowledge of the Victorian era of European explorers, deepened his understanding of the early African empires and was leavened by his growing knowledge of Islam and Arabism. Africa – both African Africa and the Africas invented by Europeans – fascinated Ian, as it did me. Africa seems to provide a language that speaks of soul, myth and community.
Once when I visited Ian in Potiskum, the students had been rioting. I don’t remember the cause. It might have been poor food, or poor housing, or lack of off-campus privileges. Stones were thrown, cars were damaged, a house may have been sacked. I think one of the Asian ex-patriot teachers had to hide from students who were seeking some kind of revenge. I think Ian, who was respected by the students, had a role in restoring calm.
Ian was intermittently sick in Nigeria. That is to say, more sick, more often, than the rest of us. The reputation of his weak constitution preceded him. He was always being saved from death, it seemed to many of us, by some kindly soul.
Ian left Nigeria with me. We flew first to Milan where we visited my cousin, Mary Lynn Rossi (née Reid), her husband Lorenzo and their daughter, Elizabetta. We did a little busking in Milan, warming up, as we thought, for Germany. We flew to Hamburg, where we stayed with a friend-of-a-friend, Ottomar. Actually, we stayed in an apartment, then empty, of someone Ottomar knew. Ian and I busked on the streets, and we soon learned to prefer the acoustics of Hamburg’s subway stations, from which we were once or twice evicted.
Ian liked busking. He liked the medium of exchange, the irregular and asymmetric social roles of the busker and the busked. We both saw busking as begging-dressed-up, a form of social intercourse with a thin veneer of artistic dignity that didn’t quite hide the nature of the game. Initially Ian wanted to want to play the songs we liked best. I persuaded him that busking, in which the singers need to “project,” which really means regularizing and rounding off the songs, tended to destroy over time any appreciation one might have had for the songs one liked. Eventually we limited our repertoire to twenty-odd songs that might be maimed, so to speak, at least in our repertoire, without regret: Neil Young’s I Don't Want to Talk about It, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, Leonard Cohen’s Tonight Will be Fine, Hank William’s Jambalaya, etc. Folk songs with strong melodies that lend themselves to harmony.
We flew to London. I can’t remember how long Ian and I stayed there (I lose some of my past in losing Ian) before we left for Devon, where we linked up with Julie, and met my future in-laws, Owen and Audrey Bishop in Exbourne, a small village north-east of Okehampton.
A detail: Ian and I had both bought flat cans of Samson Special rolling tobacco in Germany, attracted as much by the can as by the price of roll-your-owns. The can shows a lion tamer in red tunic and gold braid blowing smoke rings, through the largest of which a lion jumps, pouch of tobacco in his mouth. We’d bought them partly to become doodad holders, inexpensive souvenirs, when they were empty. I still have mine. I remember smoking roll-your-owns with Ian in Devon, both on walks and in the Bishop house. This was the summer of 1980.
In the spring of 1982, Julie and I returned to Canada from Buenos Aires, where Julie had had a job teaching English as a second language. We thought Ottawa would be a good place for us to settle. In our first month, while we looked for work, we stayed with my cousin Don Reid in Vanier. It was at this time – I was sending out resumes and doing a bit of radio work and journalism focussing on the Falklands war that had just broken out – that Ian got me a one-day job working with his brother Garrick. I was to help Garrick shoot film in a Mohawk community near Montreal. I didn’t do much except keep out of Garrick’s way and hold a microphone as required. Later, when Ian’s brother Alan got his job at the University of Guelph, Ian and I had another common reference point. Guelph is my home town; five generations of MacKinnons have farmed and practised medicine in or near Guelph.
By May or June Julie and I had jobs, Julie as an evening shift secretary for Don Johnston, the Liberal cabinet minister, and me as an English-as-a-second-language teacher at the Bank of Canada, and we had our first rental house in Ottawa, a semi-detached semi-slum on Lees Avenue. We were married in June.
It was against this background of my settling into marriage and fatherhood in a new city that my friendship with Ian deepened. Ian and I talked about many things, almost any thing, but it seems to me now that two conversational threads recurred. We talked a lot about work: the dignity of work, the meaning and problems inherent in the notion of “career,” as well as the other co-ordinates of work: intellectual currents, money, power, the effect that a single person might have in building a better world, the psychological economy of work, the travails of collaboration, workplace politics, end-of-day fatigue. Ian’s intelligence, scepticism, and his reasoned idealism – that is to say his growing understanding of the world as it is and as it might better be – all these traits showed, it seemed to me, in the development work he did following his return from Nigeria.
Our other conversational touchstone was family – the psychological, corporeal, and spiritual ties that bind families. We talked about being fathers and having fathers about whose health we worried. Ian had met my father in Nigeria and others in my family elsewhere; I met his family in Ontario. Love, that is to say married love, tempers and conditions; it transforms the puer soul – now seen as a two-dimensional figure on a ground – into a rooted soul, a growing soul, nurtured by . . . what? Perhaps it’s a blend of ego and surrender, insouciance and worry, knowledge, wonder and hope . . . the mysterious sources of being, of consciousness rooted in time. Love’s sense of the Other deepens the mystery of one’s self, and allows one a different kind of ease (if not understanding) in the world. Ian’s marriage to Eleanor allowed the first R in armour to drop, so to speak.
“Work and love – these are the basics. Without them there is neurosis,” says Theodor Reik. I always saw Ian as a man charged with love and work, and who had his share of neurosis too. Ian had his own distinct brands of neurosis. He was neurotic in his own quirky and likeable ways, but in a way that also seemed very Christian, and somehow, very Canadian: a terrifically heightened sensitivity to the feelings of others and to the precariousness of love and life. He was always aware of the larger world, and of how this awareness cast an ironic light and a provincial hue on one’s own being, on one’s own efforts.
It seems to me that the house on Stevenson Avenue in Ottawa became a kind of “objective co-relative” to the spirit and love in Ian’s family. I watched this house change (and literally grow it seemed to me) over a number of years. The house became a home as a family grew in size and love.
Ian and I often spoke about our kids: about reading to them and the progress they made in reading themselves, about the role of church-going in a family and the value of prayer for children. Ian enjoyed working and playing with his sons Niall and Ben in the yard, and it seemed to my eyes that he understood the value of working side by side with the kids, and of explaining and helping only to the extent required. “It is a wise father that knows his own child” is truer than seems possible to the child; Ian knew his children, and was wise enough to learn from them.
In winter, much of our talk took place as we skated on the canal under the stars. I could always count on Ian to go for a skate. We both found these evening skates a wonderful balm. Ian skated instinctively, with an efficiency of movement that eludes me. I’ll miss those icy evenings – our gliding movements in what seemed a motionless world, our conversations in the silent snowy nights. In the winter month evenings after Ian died, I skated the canal many more times, but not as blithely; I found myself pausing, thinking, blinking back at blinking stars.
The last time I saw Ian was in the context of music and children. He was playing guitar and singing with a trio at the Celtic Cross pub on Bank Street. He had invited me to see the group, and on impulse, I asked my daughter Genevieve if she’d come with her violin. After the first set, Ian invited Genevieve and me on stage, where we played two Scottish tunes, Peerie Hoose Ahint the Burn and Corn Rigs are Bonny, as well as a few Don Messer tunes.
On Boxing Day, soon after I heard the news of Ian’s death, I found myself trying to think through grief, to find meaning in memory. I found myself thinking about Ian’s spiritual and phenomenal self; I remembered his voice, its timbre and its overtones; I had an image of Ian’s compressed energy signalled by a nervously circling foot; I found myself thinking about Ian’s hopes, his kindness, his anxieties, and his bias to optimism. I wondered whether the stars had dimmed on that bitterly cold Christmas evening. It seems to me the night sky does have a different quality now, but of course the sky is new each day, iteratively unique, charged with new meaning and new mystery.
Vladimir Nabokov, one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, never made clear statements on a possible afterlife, but he believed profoundly in the power and the grace of married love and family love, which, Nabokov believed, was the only way in which we can transcend the prison of self, of ego. Ian also deeply believed in the power of love, and his outward bearing and his kindly, other-oriented demeanour were manifestations that love can intimate the divine. Nabokov’s empirical studies in lepidoptera and natural science always suggested a metaphysical question: if physics can reveal a world of absolute beauty, of unfathomable mystery, and of eternal transformation, why not metaphysics?
On the drive to the funeral, the world was strikingly achromatic: the trees were solidly snow-covered on the north side, a mute white that edged hard against the unvariegated black where snow hadn’t blown. I hadn’t before seen such a stark effect, the result of wind working snow. Here and there, above the fields with corn stubble poking through the new snow, ravens or crows in the sky reminded me of the Hunters in the Snow painting by Bruegel. Somewhere near Kemptville, I saw a snow owl perched, sleeping, at the top of some deciduous tree . . . like (to use Nabokov’s metaphor) an asterisk leading to an undiscoverable footnote. Driving by Spencerville, I was reminded of a previous visit to the village’s fall fair with Ian, his family and mine – an additional site on the map of my friendship with Ian. As was the Maitland church, where the funeral service was held, and where Ian and Eleanor were married.
There was a curious stasis at the grave. A remote winter sky, like Bruegel’s, seemed to forestall movement, to preclude hope. Then suddenly, as if to leap the hiatus, as if to lead the adults, children tossed snow onto the suspended coffin.
These visual impressions – children, snow, coffin – had already started to commingle with my memories of Ian, and with my own worries and hopes, as I walked with my wife and children to the highway in the cold.
Jamie MacKinnon & Ian Filewod, Ottawa, circa 1992