Camp X and Northrop Frye: Why This Blog is Called “Where is Here?”

Camp X from the air. 1943.

Last spring D and I made the trip out to Whitby, Ontario, for an early Doors Open Toronto event at Intrepid Park.  It was May, one of those days that aren’t cold really or warm, but blustery and dull, with a flat, pale sky, and quite a bit of mud.

There are no doors to open at Intrepid Park, because there’s nothing there but a concrete memorial, a few shell holes, and a grassy mound. It’s a nice park, with viewpoints from which you can look along the coast of Lake Ontario toward the downtown skyline, which looks delicate and almost translucent at that distance.

Once, a long time ago, the land that is now Intrepid Park was known as Camp X, a training and communications centre for Allied intelligence during the Second World War.  Though there are few traces, our local “Spy School” as collected some attractive legends.  There’s William Stephenson, the Manitoban Spymaster who went by the code name “Intrepid.” Ian Fleming is supposed to have spent some time there (though he probably didn’t), as well as Roald Dahl (who really did). Igor Gouzenko was there, in the first hours of the Cold War.

Hydra. 1942.

So was Hydra, the radio transmitter through which Allied operatives communicated, collecting coded messages there before bouncing them across the Atlantic to Bletchley Park.  Before Pearl Harbour, Hydra also allowed the officially-neutral US to communicate, unofficially, with the UK.

The weird thing about Camp X is that, while it was on Canadian soil and conceived, purchased and managed by the Canadian William Stephenson, it could not be officially “known” by William Lyon Mackenzie King, our wartime Prime Minister.  Lynn Philip Hodgson, the gentleman who led our tour through Intrepid Park, told me it was because the operation could become a political football, batted back and forth between parties in the House of Commons, and that would have damaged its strategic work. Elsewhere I have heard that this secrecy was necessary was because the camp constituted a violation of Canadian sovereignty, which only makes it more interesting.

I am a literary scholar, not a military theorist nor an historian, and I think about Intrepid Park as a cultural text to be read, as a strangely elided site of memory, as well as a bit of Canada’s military geography.  Therefore, I find it most interesting for what it says about our strange relationship with space and communications:  at Camp X, Canada wasn’t a place, it was a medium, something through which people and information passed on their way somewhere else.

Which is something like what Northrop Frye says in his “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada,” origin of many popular aphorisms regarding the nature of Canadian literature (including both the “innocent as a mating loon” comment and “the garrison mentality”).  Frye tells me that in the early years of its colonial history,

Canada began as an obstacle, blocking the way to the treasures of the East, to be explored only in the hope of finding a passage through it.

Frye, being a scholar of literature rather than geography, makes a connection between Canada-as-obstacle to Canada-as-Medium. His argument begins with explorers finding their way through a lump of rock between Atlantic and Pacific, but it ends with contemporary theorists of communication—both Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan—suggesting that Canada’s peculiar role as obstacle to European imperialism has forced us to think more carefully, more consciously about how we speak and listen across distance, whether spatial, cultural or temporal.

And then it’s hard for me not to think further of Camp X, and of Canada as a medium, a neutral place for empires to meet and speak secretly, before they go somewhere else more important. What mattered about Camp X wasn’t the place, so much as what and who passed through it.

So what’s left behind, after Great Powers leave?  At Intrepid Park we have the shell-holes on the test range, and we have the enormous mound of concrete, the post-war bunker that was demolished and then buried when the site was decommissioned in 1969.  We have a gap in Canadian memory, something we couldn’t officially know because it would have been inconvenient, politically, to admit its existence.  We have events that occurred on our soil, but not within our control.  What we are left with, then, is a stretch of grass and trees on the shore of Lake Ontario, and the slabs of concrete that are now re-emerging, as the land around them settles.  We have stories, urban legends, even a possible appearance by Ian Fleming.

Explosion at Camp X. 1943.

The Frye essay I mention above includes this question regarding the nature of Canadian identity:

It seems to me that Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question “Who am I?” than by some such riddle as ‘Where is here?’

The question Where is here? recurs in all my attempts to understand Anglo-Canadian literature, and I think of all my writing as location work. Camp X seems like one of the places I could imagine an answer to that question, or at least explore what Canada meant as a fragment of empire, as a post-colony, as a temporary communications hut, as a link between British and American intelligence operations.

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: Sunburst | Where is Here?

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