So Long For Now: Remembering Stuart McLean

Colin Slark | Editor in Chief

I pride myself on not being taken in by Canadiana. I get very tired of trite songs, CBC TV shows, trinkets, and books that distill the Canadian experience into a concentrated blend of hockey, maple leaves, and beavers; like we lack any sort of further complexity other than the stereotypes we complain that other countries foist upon us. As an example, the works of Stompin’ Tom Connors are anathema to me. Yes, The Hockey Song is fun to sing along with, but it merely describes the events of a hockey game, it makes no attempt to explain why we love hockey or what its significance to our country is. Perhaps then, it is confusing why I enjoyed the stories of Stuart McLean.

Stuart McLean, the recently deceased host of the long-running CBC Radio program The Vinyl Cafe, was one of our country’s most prolific manufacturers of Canadiana. For years McLean told Canada about a corner of Toronto where Dave and Morley lived, along with their kids, neighbours, and extended families. A lot of stories appear to at a surface glance check a lot of boxes on the standard Canadian story checklist. There are stories about hockey, ice skating, quirky small towns, multiculturalism, and the difference between English and French Canadians among others.

While the concepts are familiar, perhaps even stock, McLean managed to inject a serious dose of personality and thought into his stories. For example, the first time we meet Kenny Wong, owner of Wong’s Scottish Meat Pies, the purpose of the character is to serve as a joke based on the incongruity of his name with the product he serves. However, a later story about Kenny’s childhood illustrated the problems faced by his family being an immigrant family trying to run a small business in the face of racist treatment from members of his community. One story featuring Dave and Morley’s son Sam trying to get into youth hockey has some silly jokes about his mother needing to purchase a jock cup for her son, but also features talk of the expensive nature of the equipment and the fairly high barrier for entry for our country’s most popular game. Unlike a lot of stories about an idyllic Canada, there were a lot of characters of more varied backgrounds than white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. McLean didn’t present Canada as an unrealistic melting pot – people of foreign origin or identity were an accepted part of the society, but they didn’t give up their identity in service of joining a larger whole. I will admit that there is a significant chance that I am blinded by nostalgia when it comes to Stuart McLean’s works. I saw the Vinyl Cafe perform several times in Prince George, including his last performance here in 2015. One time when I saw him as a child I was lucky enough to for him to choose me as a helper during the segment of his live show where he gave out merchandise to audience members. I trudged onstage wearing my winter boots and was given a t-shirt. I was told that if I could take a gift out to a member of the audience at the back of Vanier Hall and get back before the violinist on stage stopped performing, I would be able to choose another item of merchandise. It did not occur to me at the time that it was unlikely that he would humiliate a child in front of an audience of hundreds, so I ran my heart out in heavy boots. I ran so hard that I nearly wiped out into the front of the stage on my way back, inciting gasps from the audience. It just so happened that I arrived right before the violinist stopped playing, and I won the prize.

Vinyl Cafe stories were a constant companion for me and my family. We made frequent trips down to Vancouver to visit family, and we would listen to a cassette or a CD when we hit a section with no radio coverage. When I went on a high school exchange to Germany, I would listen to the stories and it would help to temporarily alleviate my homesickness. It felt like I was able to take a piece of home with me. Now that Stuart McLean has passed away, the world feels a little less warm, but I am comforted knowing that he’s never too far away. McLean always signed off by saying “So long for now,” which felt like a promise that we’d meet again, and we will, whenever I listen to a Dave and Morley story.