Skip to content

From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Debatable Material

A century after they gathered

Kyle Wyatt

Charles Dickens was addressing a small fictional child when he wrote, “It is a trite observation, and one which, young as you are, I have no doubt you have often heard repeated, that we have fallen upon strange times, and live in days of constant shiftings and changes.” Surely all of us — no matter our age — can relate to that sense of strangeness as we turn the last calendar page over once again.

On its own, the line seems somewhat serious, but it comes at the end of a collection of farcical stories known as The Mudfog Papers. Originally published in 1837 and 1838, when Dickens was editing Bentley’s Miscellany, the stories follow the proceedings of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything (which I imagine is how Elon Musk thinks of his clutch of companies today). Through such characters as Professors Snore, Doze, and Wheezy, as well as Mr. Woodensconce and Mr. Ledbrain, Dickens parodied an actual learned society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which had been founded a few years earlier.

It was this association that later took possession of King George III’s vacant astronomy building in Richmond — dubbing it the Kew Observatory — and established standards for electricity that we still use, including the ohm, the volt, and the ampere. Beginning with its first annual meeting in 1831, members gathered each year so they could share their findings and elect a new president. Most of these assemblies occurred in England, though on occasion they took place elsewhere in the British Isles.

Then, in 1884, a more intrepid cohort sailed to Montreal. A decade later, in 1897, they gathered in Toronto. For the seventy-ninth conference, in 1909, members descended upon Winnipeg. And a hundred years ago, in 1924, they travelled to Toronto once more, where Stephen Leacock joined C. W. Kimmins as that psychologist from London presented his paper on humour. “The funniest thing in the world,” the New York Times reported, “is the human hat.” Among other topics discussed over several days: vaccines, chemotherapy, the inevitable depletion of coal reserves, and, in one of several keynote speeches, the dangers of fossil fuels. “It is ourselves and our own generation that we must blame for the serious waste of oil and the destructive exploitation of oil fields that have been permitted,” said the geologist W. W. Watts.

In welcoming the 577 British delegates to town, Toronto’s mayor, Bill Hiltz, said he anticipated yet another “pronouncement marking an advance in our knowledge of nature.” Science tends to proceed incrementally, of course, but it’s revealing how much of what was debated back in 1924 is still being debated now, including the limits of free speech in the academy. “The professor is wise to be severely moderate and master of himself. It is true that he is a citizen, and has every right of an ordinary citizen,” the principal of King’s College London, Ernest Barker, told his colleagues. “On the other hand, it is a pity that a professor should become a publicist except in the gravest emergency.”

Confronting the emergencies of our own strange time — climate change, biodiversity loss, homelessness, opioid use, armed conflict and resulting humanitarian crisis — some scholars believe that Barker’s severe moderation is a privilege or luxury they can no longer afford. The temperatures are rising on our campuses just as they are in our oceans.

So, comparatively speaking, it seems those learned men who gathered in Toronto comported themselves rather well, though that’s not to say their meeting went off without a hitch or had no flaws. For one thing, a distinguished guest, the mathematician Sir George Greenhill, mysteriously disappeared en route, after a contingent stopped to marvel at the Quebec Bridge across the St. Lawrence. (The seventy-six-year-old reappeared days later, unharmed and nonplussed.) Several papers presented, especially those on race and evolution, haven’t exactly aged well. And nary a woman took to the podium.

Dickens concluded The Mudfog Papers with an engine: “not a Tory engine, nor a Whig engine, but a brisk and rapid locomotive.” Similarly, many members wrapped up their association’s final meeting in Canada aboard two chartered trains — making the 5,396-mile journey from Toronto to Vancouver and Victoria and back in sleeper cars provided by Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. Along the way, they toured mines in Cobalt and Kirkland Lake, dined with the premier of Manitoba, visited the Squamish Nation, and stopped near Banff, where part of Château Lake Louise had just burned down. Surely they got into all sorts of disagreements — large and small — but they continued breaking bread together. Trite or not, there’s nothing to parody in that.

Kyle Wyatt is the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada.

Related Letters and Responses

James Brooke-Smith Ottawa