Prince Edward Island has a number of heroes and heroines that appeal to different segments of the population. However, one heroine – Anne of Green Gables – appeals not only to Islanders but to untold thousands all over the world. She came into the world of print in 1908, and in no time at all, took over the countryside on the North Shore where the stories take place, and made it her own. She changed the Island topography and therefore its heritage.
Anne has her own anthem (or doxology?) that galvanises audiences and sends them into a trance of nostalgic joy.
The Acadians preceded the English-speaking Islanders in finding a heroine to which they could attach their sad memories, the joys of young love and the hopes of a new future. She was Evangéline, created by the American poet Longfellow in 1847. She too became world-famous, but not on the same scale as Anne because the Japanese did not seem to take to her. Perhaps she lacked red hair. Evangéline inspired Acadians everywhere and everywhere are to be found towns, streets, schools, cultural centres and even, as on PEI, whole regions.
Evangéline too has her own song, written by an Acadian writer/composer in 1910. Though not well known in English circles, it exceeds the Anne song in lyricism, melancholy and hope.
So, could there be another Island heroine who has caught the attention of at least some, has associated landscape with deeds and indeed, changed the topography of at least part of Charlottetown? Yes! There is one, and she is called Margaret Theodora, Grand Duchess of Neuterville.
Margaret Theodora, like Anne and Evangéline, also had her song. It was Marguerite’s “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust. Here Anna Netrebko gives it a whirl for you. Maggie loved to think of herself as la fille d’un roi…qu’on salut au passage…
THE GRAND DUCHY OF NEUTERVILLE
30 JULY 1992 – 3 DECEMBER 1995
Once upon a time there was a place called Neuterville. It was located at 162 Dorchester Street in Charlottetown in an old Italianate house called the Palazzo Publico. There, in several flats, lived various cat-lovers over a period of eighteen years. Behind the house was a garden constructed for Reg by his friend Trevor, where the cats of Neuterville, both human and feline, disported themselves throughout the warm and pleasant days. Cats from other political entities visited often and there was lively interaction between the neutered and the un-neutered. This garden still exists today, and has even been completely restored.
Over all this sat enthroned the supreme leader, the Grand Duchess Margaret Theodora. Of uncertain but obviously very noble origins, probably the Sicily of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, or was it the Ruritania of Anthony Hope? No matter. Margaret Theodora was a benign tyrant, permitting nothing and admitting all. Such an attitude is typical of noble cats. Like Anne and Evangéline, she eventually had a considerable body of literature associated with her.
The aristocratic feline spent her days in various intellectual pursuits, dominated by power naps. On her Favourite Lap she pondered Existence, Food, Music, Food, Politics, Books, Food, Human Foibles and Art. She even had a brief but utterly intense passion for 4×4 trucks, of which she owned several, and indeed, was the President of the P.E.I. 4×4 Association.
Her needs were served by well-trained human attendants who possessed every skill required to care for and communicate with felines.
One day Dr Ed MacDonald and his family came to live in Neuterville. Up until that time life had been quiet for the cats, if a little hysterical for their keeper, the Mayor of Neuterville. Soon the Palazzo was full of noble cats and their lives eventually became much more interesting than those of the humans. A newspaper, therefore, seemed to be the next thing, with the Mayor producing it one week and Dr Ed the next. It was named, for obvious reasons, The Neuterville News, and the banner font was in Times Roman. The name “Neuterville” was invented by Ed’s wife, Shiela Lund – a stroke of genius. The sub-title, “It covers the Island like the Cats” was Ed’s contribution to bring it down to earth, as it were.
This venture was so successful that it was published without a break for over three consecutive years, from 30 July 1992 to 3 December 1995. That’s 176 idea- and action-packed issues without a break and with an international circulation of 20 copies! The Best People were deeply interested, and Monday morning, when each new issue appeared, could not come fast enough. The world was at Margaret Theodora’s feet and that’s just as well as she had a powerful foot fetish, especially for the feet of jocks and truck drivers. Scott Davidson and the 4×4 Association come to mind.
Reg Porter had reached the time in his life when a new creative endeavour, way off the beaten track, became necessary for his sanity. All through his life he had been well-prepared for this moment, having read with total absorbtion the late Victorian novels of Anthony Hope – The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau – where aristocratic intrigues were created in a small state called Ruritania located somewhere along the eastern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where noblesse oblige reigned. Reg was also very influenced by the world of Frederick II Hohenstaufen set in Mediaeval Sicily and elegantly described by Georgina Masson in her book Stupor Mundi.
The works of Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) also provided lots of potential tricky encounters and sharp put-down words that cried out to be recycled, such as in the 1904 Hadrian VII. A contemporary of his, Ronald Firbank, also inspired wildly entertaining and improbable situations that could be adapted to the carrying-ons in Neuterville. E. F. Benson’s Lucia novels showed how a determined female, utterly confident of how the world should be, could make things happen. And we must not forget Nancy Mitford and her world, especially her 1940 Pigeon Pie where inspiration for Howlsalotti’s career would be found. Muriel Sparks novels, especially The Abbess of Crewe (1974) come also to mind – to provide inspiration for Margaret Theodora’s world negotiations with leaders of every sort. All these authors and their wildly-inspired moments helped build the composite that was the Neuterville News.
The very brilliant and intuitive Ed MacDonald slid into the pattern of things so effortlessly that today I find it difficult at times to distinguish his articles from mine.
To commemorate this Camelot flash-in-the-pan reign, we have decided to issue, a selection of articles from the NEUTERVILLE NEWS which once covered Prince Edward Island like the cats.
You will meet the various personalities, both feline and human, who populated this world and discover what life was like in the earthly paradise until fate decreed the end had come.
The main characters of the Neuterville news were Reg’s two cats, Maggie (The Grand Duchess Margaret Theodora) and Jack the Perfect Cat – always called Jack.
When I picked him up at the animal shelter the day before his scheduled euthanasia, a loud celestial voice was heard saying “JACK” and so it was. All his life he was perfect in every way, hence his only title. His favourite pastime would be as hagiographer, researching and recording the lives of the Early Christian feline martyrs.
Maggie appeared in Neuterville one day, battered, thin, hungry, but obviously a refugee of the bluest blood, and my soft-hearted fellow-tenants shamed me into adopting her as a companion for Jack. They bonded deeply at once. Maggie – a control freak with a face like vinegar – was named after Margaret Thatcher and the Empress Theodora. She never looked back.
For a while the two cats ruled supreme in the garden Trevor had built. Their favourite moment of the day was evening, just before the moment of “twillite” as they called it, when, in the twinkling of an eye, everything changed, dragon flies appeared and the table was deserted while we witnessed the most spectacular Nureyev leaps imaginable.
Neuterville soon became a political entity to be reckoned with. Before too long Margaret Theodora issued coinage of the realm, which would have been eagerly sought after for vast amounts of money had it ever been minted.
And as well, a license plate was designed for the Grand Duchy that had all the diplomatic immunity given to places like Vatican City.
By the beginning of its third year the Neuterville News had matured into the social organ it was destined to be. Nobody was spared in its oblique satirical narrative. Take for example, this issue brought out on 1 January 1995, at the levee for New Year’s Day. Although its now a long time ago, and these people are gone or forgotten, we all knew who was being referred to in the text and howled at our in-jokes.
Margaret Theodora, in the style of the Sun King Louis XIV, is on her lit de parade for her formal getting up, having already, attended by endless courtiers carrying cat litter boxes and fresh crunchies, had her petit levée.
Special New Year Edition
NEW YEAR LEVEE A STATELY AFFAIR
Sunday was reorganised: a conflict developed between the Grand Duchess Margaret Theodora’s annual New Year’s Levee and the morning service at Neuterville’s Basilica of SS Felix and Felicia. Archbishop Tigger Loudmouth and the Grand Duchess were overheard having a heated discussion about what should have precedence: the Grand Ducal Levee or the New Year’s Service at the newly-upgraded Basilica. Margaret Theodora, as always, imposed her own logic even in the face of the Primal Cause: “Nothing can happen before I get up. I get up twice: the Petit Levee, when I have breakfast, and the Grand Levee, when flawlessly groomed, I receive the world from my lit de parade. The sun rises and shines on me; the day has begun. The first is private and the second public. When that’s over its time for church. Any other questions Your Excellency?” and with that, a still-rumbling Loudmouth was ushered to tea, where, drooling at the delicacies set out for his particular delectation, he completely forgot about his business. The Levee was first; the church service followed.
Anyone who was anybody came to pay their respects to Neuterville’s reigning feline. The first to arrive was Elizabeth Battenberg’s (as HSF now refers to her) Vice-Regal representative, HH the Lieutenant-Governor. Margaret Theodora enquired after the health “of the Battenbergs” and was greeted by a confused “Who?” by HH. “The Queen of England and her family,” said HSF who by now wanted to talk to somebody else.
There was awful scuffling as both the Mayor and the Bishop of Charlottetown tried to be next in line. “Don’t give the Protestants an inch,” hissed the Bishop to an abstracted Fr. Jim Kelly who was completely absorbed in reading a Latin joke out of Macrobius about a sculptor who, when asked why his paintings were so beautiful and his sons so ugly, replied, “I paint by day and sculpt by night.” “Pingo, fingo, get it?” “Bingo!” said a triumphant Bishop, who had just used a particularly vicious redneck technique, learned while shooting innocent deer with his brothers in the wilds of Cape Breton, to temporarily lame the Mayor so that he reached Margaret Theodora’s lit first. “Your Serene Felinity,” he began unctuously, “I bring the Blessings of the Supreme Pontiff and a delicately expressed hope that the Feline Papacy will become reconciled to the practices of the Roman Papacy and deny Holy Orders to females and fags, I mean, that is, those practising alternative lifestyles.” The Grand Duchess blinked and, in the style of Le Roi Soleil, looked away. The Bishop of Charlottetown subsequently withered away.
When the Mayor of Charlottetown presented himself before the great canopied bed separated from the base canaille, the οἱ πολλοί and vulgar plebs by a railing of gold, he whispered to his Lady, “What does a man do, genuflect?” Margaret Theodora, who hears everything, still looking obliquely, said, “a man might try,” before turning a rapturous gaze on Elizabeth and Theodore Reagh who were next in line and bearing branches of nepata cataria which they kindly laid on the golden rail before the gilded lit. “Stay for brunch,” said the Grand Duchess, out of the corner of her mouth, to the departing and thoughtful Reaghs. Next to appear, in chaste silver and black academicals that could not detract from the precious OC snowflake on his heart, was the President of the University. “How are you?” she asked; “Veh’ good” he replied. And so it went until it was time for church.
So famous did Neuterville become that CBC sent a reporter to do a piece for the afternoon radio show. It still survives, and we hope to have it compressed for inclusion in this post. Ed MacDonald and I were hilarious, having nervously primed ourselves hastily with a bottle of white wine.
As the fame of Neuterville spread farther afield so did that of the garden, and in 1997 Canadian Gardening published an illustrated article on it, even, in a special inset photo (lower left), showing the discreet entrance to the catacombs under the veranda, and a cat contemplating its mysteries.
Another feature of the News that would eventually become permanent was the section called “Catscan” with a header showing three cats eyeing each other warily. In time it became a vehicle to satirise Willie Eliot and Catherine Hennessey though their cats, Gigi Eliot and Ruby Hennessey, who would gather at the Presidential Mansion on FitzRoy Street and there, give music lessons to the younger cats, the MacDonald’s Princess Beatrice and Reg’s Pietro il Moro, son of the august Arch Duchess Walburga (Wigga) a late arrival to the world of Neuterville.
Every opportunity was taken to highlight the frequent fractured communication that took place between Willie and Catherine. Here is a Catscan written by Ed that encapsulates the spirit of the piece. Like all of the Catscans, it is full of in-jokes, now forgotten.
Ruby Hennessy stretched languidly along a sofa as she and GiGi Eliot watched Beatrice Greymantle and Pietro il Moro practising a Hidin’ concerto for four paws on an antique clavichord.
“Permit me –” began Ruby.
“That issue is behind us,” interrupted GiGi. “Over, I say.”
“Permit me to say,” Ruby persisted, that they make a lovely couple. “When is Beatrice coming out, anyway?”
GiGi raised a quizzical whisker at her friend. “Not until Spring if she can help it. What do you mean, ‘lovely’? Where have you been, my dear? Angels they aren’t.”
GiGi’s tail was already lashing in a paroxysm of divulgence. “Just let me tell you. I hear Beatrice is incontinent.”
“Well, it’s about time she went on her Grand Tour,” Ruby replied. “What country is she starting with? France?”
“You are hopeless. I mean she has a problem with her stool.”
“Well, yes, but if she’d just pull it up a little closer to the keyboard she’d be all right.”
“Don’t be obtuse. It doesn’t become you. Anyway, what matter if Bea does come out. There’ll be no balls for Pietro.”
Now it was Ruby’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “What do you mean, old thing?”
“I mean he’s been, you know . . . neutered.”
“What matter. I never take sides myself. And balls aren’t really for dancing anyway. They’re for romance. – See how he’s grooming her! I declare, it’s positively a case of puppy love!”
“Not around here it isn’t!” GiGi hissed. “I hate dogs. Call it feline infatuation if you must. – Play the music, my dears. – Besides, I hear Pietro has his own problems.”
“Yesss? What’s the poop?”
“I’m not talking about Beatrice now. Keep to the topic! I hear Pietro’s turned into a proper kleptomaniac.”
“A what? I don’t follow.”
“Of course, you don’t. Only dogs follow. Pietro takes things, you furball! Sir Reg can’t leave anything out around the house.”
“Nor should he. I take things very seriously myself. I’m sure Pietro is just trying to reduce the clutter. – Look at that fingering! He should have his claws clipped. Pietro! From the beginning! I declare, if he had any more rhythm he’d be a Catlick. Beatrice! The way you inhale fish, you’d think your scales would be better. But then, you like your fish battered, don’t you.” Beatrice bowed her head meekly.
Dutifully, the two young cats returned to their music lesson, and GiGi and Ruby took up the thread of their gossip. “Let’s talk turkey. Just how long did Sir Reginald lecture last week anyway?”
“No, it was the President that talked about Turkey. Reg was speaking about Florence.”
“Oh. How long? I don’t really know. I mean he’s sometimes uncharitable about his neighbours, but I can’t see why anyone would pay to hear him talk about Mrs. Blanchard.”
“Ruby, you wear me out. . . .”
Fairly early on in the publishing history of the News a new character would appear that would be so powerful in his attitude and adventures that he threatened to shove Margaret Theodora aside. The late Boyde Beck and his wife Anna MacDonald had two cats, a shy white female called Casper and a very audible – constantly audible – male called Boots. In a stroke of genius typical of Boyde’s sense of humour he proposed a new character for the highly cultivated Neuterville News – Bootsiano Howlsalotti, a great opera singer! As his career progressed, Bootsiano completely forgot how to speak English and now only spoke in Italian. His favourite singing partners were Kathleen Battle and Cecelia Bartoli.
With my great love of opera I fell completely under the spell of Howlsalotti and his appearances in the News multiplied and multiplied, getting grander and grander. Take for example this recital given at the invitation of the Polish Pope at Saint Peter’s in Rome. There really had been an ancient castrato left over from the earlier days of the Vatican choir, who had made, before dying, a wax cylinder recording at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The opportunity to recreate this event in contemporary times was just too great, and inflamed by insane inspiration, I wrote this account of that great concert.
HISTORIC MUSICAL EVENT
AT THE VATICAN
On December 1, 1904, the last Vatican true castrato, Montepulciano Montalcino, sang Schubert’s Ave Maria (with the Catholic words) while one of the proto-founders of Pathé Europa skulked behind one of the great Bernini statues in the piers that support Michelangelo’s dome, with a primitive recording device that cut into a wax cylinder with a rose thorn.
On December 1, 1994, to mark the progress of that period of Joyous Expectation, Advent, the Great Castrato Bootsiano Howlsalotti, with the Blessing of Papal Authorities, offered to recreate this event for the Glory of God and the Delight and Edification of the World. Il Papa Pollacco himself agreed to be present and a suitable throne was erected in front of Bernini’s great Cathedra Petri in the central apse so that the doddering old boy could sit comfortably and sip on a mug of Polish pabulum when his energy level declined.
The air was electric as the Great One, clad, as could only be expected of a member of the Vatican Choir, in a purple soutane and a voluminous white surplice laced with a gold border, consisting of a running spiral of intertwined grapevines and wheat sheaves, arrived carried high in a sedia gestatoria (the one last used by Pius XII of sacred memory), and, upon being put down, disappeared up the secret staircase of the pier containing the statue of Saint Veronica.
For the first part of the concert, Howlsalotti chose to duplicate the actual sound of the ancient wax recordings, replete with thumps and much surface noise, AND the studio orchestra, which, in 1904, consisted mostly of tubas and trombones in order that their frightful blaring and oomping might make some impression upon the wax, AND the weakening voice of the aged castrato.
Howlsalotti performed a series of devotional works, producing an amazingly faithful cacophony that exactly mimed the total sound emanating, as Clyde Gilmour would say, “out of those ancient grooves.” The Pope was in ecstasy and demonstrated this by only falling asleep six times and receiving only two injections of some useful substance, administered by a doctor, hidden under the lattice seat of the gilded throne through which, when a slump came on, he could jab his hypodermic syringe into the Chair of Peter.
The second half of the concert was dedicated to reproducing what the aged castrato would have sounded like when he was in his prime, say, when General Raffaele Cadorna entered Rome on 20 September 1870, so ending the temporal power of the popes.
Howlsalotti was not content with the miserable box of an organ, hiding behind the Northwest pier, that the Vatican must do with, but came accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Richard Bonynge.
High in the balcony of the great Veronica pier, Howlsalotti opened an ecumenical second half with a rousing version of “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry” in English which nobody recognised as that language. Bonynge felt at home leading the great orchestra accompanying a language nobody was quite able to identify. It was just like the good old days of conducting for his wife, the Divine Joan Sutherland, when concert goers would make bets on what the critics would think was the language of the evening.
From there Bootsiano went on to sing a few tame old chestnuts, mostly by the late Romantic composers, which nonetheless, provide opportunity for rousing high notes at the end. Thus the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria finale resulted in a few marble veneer slabs falling from the Stuart Monument with a frightful crash. Undeterred, Howlsalotti went on to do Cesar Franck’s Panis Angelicus and that caused the bullet-proof non-glare glass protecting Michelangelo’s Pietá to crack diagonally with an appalling sound, frightening the entire assembled Swiss Guards into thinking that another Child of the East was trying to shoot the Pope. When that uproar had died down Howlsalotti launched into Bizet’s Agnus Dei. This caused only minor damage as the entire marble facing of an aisle pier slid to the ground, burying a large delegation of Guatemalan nuns in a glorious rubble heap of Giallo Antico, Red Levanto, Verde Antico, Rosso di Verona and Giallo di Siena.
The climax of the concert came when the familiar strains of Adam’s Minuit Chrétien were struck by the orchestra. Nothing fell during the first verse, which Howlsalotti concluded with the C usually reserved for the second and final verse. But when Howlsalotti came to the last verse, everyone, including the Pope, was surreptitiously looking for cover when, as they all knew, the Great One would modulate upwards in a manner possible only to one with such vocal apparatus, and would end on a note that no one, not even the great Erna Sack, had ever achieved in the history of recorded music. The note came, a clarion call from Heaven itself which echoed and re-echoed from dome to apse, from apse down Maderno’s nave and back again to swirl around the great bronze baldachino that covers the main altar. The note was held so long that, all at once, the Veronica pier was weakened down to the very base of its catacomb-infested substrate and began a slow internal crumble.
“Oopsa!” shrieked a wild-eyed and thoroughly frightened Bootsiano as he flew through the air in a magnificent jump that took him from the pier’s balcony, across to the Baldacchino, down one of the great spiral columns encrusted with Barberini bees and out the door under the Tomb of Alexander VII. There, in the cool December night air of Rome, fluffed-out tail gradually flattening down, he made his way to a little taverna near the church of S. Antonio dei Portoghesi and there, amidst old friends, ate four plates of Tonno as an antipasto, one plate each of Penne all’ arrabbiata, Tagliatelle, Cannelloni, Agnolotti, Gnocchi and three plates of Risi e bisi. This was washed down by two litres of vino di tavola and unnumbered glasses of Sambucco with the dolci.
Meanwhile at Saint Peter’s the work crews began cleaning the mess. There were no coloured marble fragments left from the fallen pilaster as the Guatemalan nuns had hidden all the bits in their habits to sell at home as souvenirs. The Stuart monument damage revealed a cache of 18th Century French pornographic works which were quickly snapped up by a visiting delegation of New York computer salespersons. The Pope, with two punctured eardrums, retired to the care of his Polish nuns who applied bread and onion poultices to the injured organs. The London Symphony Orchestra packed its instruments and hurried to Fiumicino Airport to catch a charter flight to Baghdad to begin rehearsing for Howlsalotti’s next concert, a performance of the modern secular oratorio by Sackville composer Alasdair MacLean, “La Construzione della Prima Bomba Atomica in Mesopotamia.”
Howlsalotti had many musical adventures. I will save for another time perhaps, the story of how, using the peculiar acoustical qualities particular to the Baptistery at Pisa, he blew the dome off…
There were many social events in the Neuterville Public Gardens over the years of publication. One of the most significant was the conferring the Order of Neuterville on UPEI’s President, the late and Great Willie Eliot, often referred to as “Everybody’s Boss.” Willie had a passion for orders and lobbied constantly for them. A photographer was present to record the presentation of the medal, the engraved certificate, and the heroic speech by Dr. Edward MacDonald to Dr. Willie Eliot.
Afterwards, the crowd of the Best and the Bravest enjoyed aristocratic nibbles and swigs and contemplated Dr. Eliot meditating on the substance of his congratulatory document.
There were other such gatherings where the featured guests were Elizabeth and Theodore Reagh who brought great bunches of fresh catnip from the Jurisprudence Gardens on West Street. Alas, at the moment I cannot find the photos that commemorated this stimulating event. It is my hope to find and include them.
The stories in the Neuterville News grew more varied and often more outrageous. One remembers the performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Confederation Centre of the Arts where Howlsalotti pulled a great technical coup before an astonished audience. Catscan continued to amuse and outrage and it seemed as if another 176 weekly issues without-a-break were a sure thing. But Ed and Sheila had a life to live and careers to nurture and by December 1995 they had begun their series of domestic peregrinations that would take them to many places and many adventures.
The close collaboration that had made the News possible between neighbours now became a tactical nightmare, and it was decided to close the Press.
Not long after that Reg had health difficulties and he found himself living in Belle River, engaged in the restoration of a Victorian farmhouse. It was Neuterville in Exile.
Maggie and Jack, now both elderly, moved to Belle River, as did Pietro, son of the late Walburga, and Chickie (Cecilia Catarina – another refugee) all came along. In the year ahead, one after another, Jack and Maggie died in Reg’s arms. Pietro died on the highway and Chickie, a wild thing, disappeared into the forest where she probably had a wild end.
Maggie, Jack and Pietro were all buried in the Neuterville-in-Exile Memorial Cemetery in Belle River. Once in a while pilgrims come to remember. Wild animals guard its perimeter. It is a story of long ago, and sad, and still with us in the pages of the Neuterville News.
[It is hoped that, before too long, the complete 176 issues of the Neuterville News will be available as a pdf file on this site.]