Copyright 2020 By Raymond Holmes
Book Review by Ken Puddicombe
One of the two epigraphs in A Barber’s Son is by Pascal Mercier in his book Night Train to Lisbon:
“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there, even though we go away and there are things in us we can find again only by going back.”
In our fast-changing world, with about twenty percent of the population in a state of flux at any one time, in neighborhoods swiftly giving way to the march of “progress” it is difficult to imagine that we can ever revisit the childhood place we once lived. We will find nothing but tenuous connections, at best, when we go back. “Going back” can only be fleeting and left to the imagination and memories that linger on and on.
Holmes’ Biography, however, attempts and succeeds in taking us back to such a place. It is Toronto, Ontario, and the period is the 50’s.
Raymond Holmes dedicates his book to his mother Mary Grace Holmes (September 28, 1902-January 9, 2005) and the reverence with which he held his mother comes through time and again in the book. Her home-spun philosophy is evident throughout and it’s clear that she had an indelible and lasting impression on him. Her acerbic wit comes across like a pin piercing a balloon at times. Like when a furniture salesman tries to sell her a vibrating recliner-chair which Raymond wanted but which she didn’t see the need of. Her response: “If you want to vibrate, stand outside in your underwear in January.” Or when she tells Raymond: “Make your money last the entire day,” when he’s heading for the C.N.E. in Toronto. Ever a practical woman, her approach to a newly married couple always arguing and fighting in the neighborhood, (the sound of smashing dishes reverberated off walls) she said: “They must spend a fortune replacing crockery. If she threw pots and pans at him, they wouldn’t break and she’d save money.”
About Raymond’s father (the barber in the book). In true fashion, and in keeping with the universal cliché about barbers: Dad knew everything about the neighbours’ lives. Children conceived out of wedlock, husbands or wives with cancer, domestic violence… and he was also someone with robust views about almost everything. Raymond’s invited his friend Rick Sakamoto to his home. Sakamoto was someone subjected to racism at school for being Asian, and the lad was summarily ejected by his father. Raymond couldn’t help thinking that his father’s behavior bordered on being senseless and it was left to his mother to explain the implications of Pearl Harbour and the Japan’s entry into the war. And yet his father had his own homespun philosophy, and was wise enough to know that his days as a barber would be impacted. “You can’t stop progress. People value convenience more than tradition, especially if it’s cheaper.”
The book is filled with many entertaining and clever asides by the author, some that might have come from a youngster during that era or perhaps from the more mature outlook of someone looking back over his years at his life and wondering about the inexplicability of events and interaction with people. Like when two brothers who always fought with each other in the neighbourhood, “the red-haired vet always got the worst of it, which puzzled me. Wasn’t he trained to kill people?” Or “Being high-class cost a lot of money.” Then: “I hadn’t thought much about God. Did he pay any attention to me?”
Racism raises its ugly head in the 1950’s Toronto and Raymond’s World Of Lower Riverdale (Chapter 3) and he does not shy away from coming to terms with it. His insular world “comprised people from European countries mixed with the majority Anglophone population.” Indeed, the only exceptions in his neighborhood were two Asian households and a black family, (“a rare situation in those days”). An encounter with someone outside his White world was rare. Like when he and friend Tony has a first sighting of an East Indian woman dressed in a sari and Tony says: “She looks like she’s wearing living room curtains.” It goes even further, for in Raymond’s “white person’s world with widespread racial, social and cultural bias simmering beneath the surface veneer…White Caucasian was considered the best race…and society viewed gay and lesbian people as degenerate or mentally ill…”
It was a question worth raising with Raymond in an interview. “Do you think Toronto is a much better place with its multicultural population today?” And he was unequivocal in his response: “No question about it.”
Some of Raymond Holmes’ short stories in his book Witnesses And Other Stories (published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2019) are clearly drawn from his Biography and the transition from Biography to Short Story is seamless and the world of Short Story telling is much better for it.
A Barber’s Son is filled with many colorful characters and juvenile memories that will transport you back to your own childhood, as it did for me. Indeed, A Barber’s Son is an homage to growing up in Toronto in the 50’s and should be on every library shelf in Canada, if only to invoke the memories of those who actually had the experience of growing up there during that era, and for newcomers who should familiarize themselves on the history of the city in which they live.