John Meisel’s Life of Learning

Reviewed in this essay:
John Meisel, A Life of Learning and Other Pleasures: John Meisel’s Tale.
Yarker ON: Wintergreen Studios Press, 2012, 403 pp. Illus.  Forward by Janice Gross Stein.

Born in Vienna in 1923, Czech, Jewish, and afflicted with chronic osteomyelitis, John Meisel managed to escape the horrors of Nazi Europe because his father worked for Bat’a Shoe Company. The family was relocated from the company town of Zlín to Casablanca and, later, Haiti. To his repertoire of communicative skills that included German, Czech and English, the boy soon added fluent French and “fiddling.” In 1942, when the war loomed closer, they settled on Canada and another company town, Batawa.

For seven decades, Meisel has been an astute witness and generous contributor to the intellectual and cultural life of Canada. Now in his 89th year, he has published his memoirs. Though he worries about fallibility of recollection and the possible pretention of name-dropping, he remembers his life of learning through an astonishing array of famous and ordinary folk with convincing clarity.

Strengths and frailties of teachers and fellow students come to life in vivid detail tracking the course of his eclectic schooling, from beginnings on the continent, through British “public school,” French Catholic tutors, Pickering College, and Victoria College in the University of Toronto. He knew Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, and Harold Innis. His interests lay in politics. At a time when both the discipline of Sociology and the methods of polling and surveying were in their infancy, he investigated the workings of democracy, the behavior of voters, and political parties.

Landing a “temporary” job at Queen’s University in 1948 with his Master’s degree barely complete, Meisel evolved into a beloved, gnome-like guru. Originally planning to eschew the cumbersome doctorate, he was goaded into pursuing the credential at the London School of Economics. This decision immersed him and his artistic spouse, Murie Kelly, in the lively cultural scene and consolidated their commitment to Canada. They returned to Kingston and never left.

Nothing deterred by a “backwater” location, Meisel edited several journals and participated actively in national and international scholarly endeavour, contributing research to the Bilingualism and Bicultural Commission, founding the International Political Science Association, and serving as President of the Canadian Political Science Association and of the Royal Society of Canada. The longest chapter describes his four years at the helm of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the public body that regulates broadcasting and oversees policies concerned with Canadian content. Attacked in print (and caricature) for being a stuffy academic entangled in the thickets of bureaucratic control, the prof “truthfully but idiotically” replied to a query about his TV favorites that he “did not watch television.”

Written in a laconic style that faithfully renders Meisel’s charming conversation, these are memories of a man whose glass is more than half full. Many stories amuse; some are tales told on himself as a male in a chauvinist age. Only occasionally does he indulge in testiness—for example, over enforced political correctness, or the decline of the CBC, or the crude vindictiveness of some colleagues—especially one characterized only as BM (“Bad Man”). Steeped in gratitude for the happy circumstances that brought him to Canada and with affection for his adopted land, Meisel’s recollections throw new light on our national past and the nature of citizenship. In a “moment of lunacy,” he writes, a second volume is planned to pick up “scraps on the cutting room floor.”

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