News and Interviews

David Johnson Shows Us the Desk Where He Wrote Battle Royal: Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada

David_Johnson

One easy way to get Canadians talking - and perhaps even arguing - is to bring up the British monarchy. What is the role of the monarchy in modern Canada? is a question that continues to be hotly debated, even as the world swoons for royal wedding news, royal-inspired fashion trends, and adorable baby photos of pint-sized princes and princesses. 

David Johnson's Battle Royal: Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada (Dundurn Press) seeks to explore the viewpoints of Canadian republicans and monarchists alike, from the belief that any involvement with the monarchy is anti-democratic to the assertion that the Queen is an essential link to our political past and, therefore, our identity.

From the role of the Governor General and the Queen's actual function in Canada to the constitutional implications of abolishing the monarchy in our country, Battle Royal discusses what a royal future might look like in a world that has changed dramatically since then-Princess Elizabeth's enthusiastically welcomed tour of Canada in 1951.

We're excited to welcome David to Open Book today to give us a glimpse of where Battle Royal was written. This is always one of our favourite occasions, when we get to see where the literary magic happens. Today David tells us about his two desks, the thematically appropriate road on which his office looks out, and the creative importance of clutter. 

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At the Desk with David Johnson:

I have two desks but I only love one of them. The first, and unloved one, is at my office at Cape Breton University. I never write at that desk because, maybe somewhat ironically, or maybe not, my university setting is not all that conducive to creative composition.

My work office is a place of, well, work – revising lectures, preparing PowerPoint presentations, meeting with students and faculty colleagues, attending to university committee work, answering phone calls, and doing a plethora of other little daily chores. In other words, a place to deal with the routine administrative life of a university professor.

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Now, I love my job, I love my work, I love to teach, and I know that I’m very privileged to work and live within a university environment. But, it’s not an environment where I can write.

To do that, I retreat to my home office, where I’m sitting now, at my favourite desk. I’ve always liked a confined writing space with a cluttered desk. This office, on the second floor of our house, is one of the smallest rooms in our home, and it is lined with bookshelves, with these over-stacked with books and magazines. The desk itself, one I’ve had since my Ph.D. years in the 1980s, is tiny and it too is lined with books, usually the ones I’m dealing with on any current project. Add in the laptop and a printer and I have my Mission Control, with everything within easy reach.

I like a restricted space and a small desk because, to me, it helps to focus my thoughts. Integral to my office and my desk, however, is my window. While the desk is purposively restrictive, the window is a portal onto worlds present and past. With respect to the present, my window looks out onto the Sydney River estuary as it widens out to form Sydney’s harbour. Sydney itself faces onto the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, when the winds are out of the north and east one can always feel the presence of the North Atlantic Ocean.

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As an estuary, the Sydney River that I look upon daily is tidal, with an ever changing ebb and flow, ever changing but always the same. I find gazing at the water soothing and calming, seemingly washing away the cares of the day, with Mother Nature reminding me that there are greater forces at work in this world than our little human concerns.

As I wrote Battle Royal: Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada I spent a huge amount of time at this desk immersed in Canadian, British, and Commonwealth history. Of course, all of my books and journals were close at hand, and my desk helped me to concentrate my thoughts and writing. But there was always the window and its imaginative portal into the past.

My window looks out immediately upon King’s Road, the first road built by the British when they established the town of Sydney in 1785. Before then this place was controlled by the French who had given the harbour and estuary the name “Port aux Espagnols” in reference to Spanish and Portuguese fishers who used these waters and shorelines as a summer base for the cod fishery in the 17th century. And, of course, before any of these Europeans showed up here this land was, and remains to this day, a part of Unama’ki, the historic lands of the Mi’kmaq people in this part of North America. I sense all of this history just looking out my window.

In connecting with this past it also helps that the geographical outline of the Sydney River estuary has not been changed all that much by the forces of modern economic development. The river is as it was and the shoreline and hillsides today would be easily recognizable to distant British, French, Spanish and Mi’kmaq ancestors.  

And as I would glance out at these waters I also recognized that some of the first British settlers to see this land and seascape following 1785 were both United Empire Loyalists and Scottish Highlanders dispossessed by the Clearances following the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The former were Crown loyalists, fleeing the American Revolution, and bringing to this part of North America a commitment to remain true to the British constitutional order. The latter, however, victims of English oppression back home, would have had little good to say about this British order, bringing some of the first signs of republicanism to this land.

So, there was much history and plenty of memories to reflect upon as I was working on Battle Royal. I felt that this little office, my cluttered desk, and my window onto the world, were, at once, a disciplined place to read and think and focus and write as well as being a place of imagination, heritage, and humility.

- David Johnson, January 2018 

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David Johnson, a professor of political science at Cape Breton University, has studied and taught Canadian politics, government, and the constitution for more than thirty years. His columns appear regularly in the Cape Breton Post. He lives in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Related reading

Battle Royal: Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada

What is the future of the monarchy in Canada?

A strong republican movement in Canada stresses that the monarchy is archaic and anti-democratic, an embarrassing vestige of our colonial past. An equally vibrant monarchist movement, however, defends its loyalty to royalty, asserting that the Queen is a living link to a political and constitutional tradition dating back over a thousand years. But is the monarchy worth keeping?

Battle Royal answers this question and many more: What does the Queen really do? What are the powers of the governor general? Has the Crown strengthened or weakened Canadian democracy? If we abolish the monarchy, what do we replace it with? And will we have to re-open the constitution?

Charles will soon become King of Canada, but a Canada highly ambivalent to his reign. This presents the representatives of the Crown with the opportunity to build a better monarchy in both Britain and Canada, one relevant to the twenty-first century.