Sunday 25 Sep 2016

Fiddlin'
David Simmonds

It may seem a long way down from being a Canadian Fiddling Champion to manning the pierogie display at the local grocery store, but don't tell that to Hamish Smaglinski.

Smaglinski ("Smag," to all who know him) was raised by a Polish father and Scottish mother in the town of Wilno, near Ontario's Algonquin Park. "There wasn't much to do in winter" he recalls: "you either ate cabbage rolls, played the fiddle, or made snowmen to look like FBI agents on the front porches of all the draft dodgers living in Killaloe."

The choice was made easy for him by his almost obsessive parents, who bought him his first fiddle at age 2, By age 6, he had won his first Ottawa Valley Regional Junior Masters Championship - the first of five successive titles. By age 10, he had won adult events in Puddle Lake, Manitoba and Gore Bay, Ontario. By age 16, we was ready to enter the Canadian National Master Fiddling Contest, the granddaddy of all Canadian events.

And win it he did - three times in a row. "I think it was the trick fiddling section that always put me over the top," he recalls without a trace of irony. "There aren't too many people who can play Miss McLeod's Reel standing on their heads." And, we might add, maintaining their decorum in that posture while wearing a kilt.

So by the time he was 20, Smag had done it all. It was time to turn pro. His first concert, at the Port Hood arena in the fiddling mecca of Cape Breton, was an absolute disaster. "I was halfway through Ashokan farewell" he recalls, "and I realized I was bored silly. So I started holding the bow with my teeth." To his surprise, the audience began booing him. A similar thing happened at what was to be a triumphant homecoming in Renfrew. "I got halfway into Niel Gow's Lament for the death of his second wife" he recalls, "when the urge hit me to play it as fast as I could, just to show I could." His manager tried all sorts of tricks - such as packing the front row with associates holding up scorecards - but it was obvious that he missed the adrenalin rush of competing.

And so, by the time most people are just stating their careers, Smaglinski found himself washed up. "I turned to the traditional excesses of somebody with a Scots/Polish background" he recalls. "I would buy jarfuls and jarfuls of garlic pickles, and pay the regular price for them." "And that was only the tip of the iceberg." His worst moment came after he was pulled over by Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers just outside Almonte, Ontario for committing a public nuisance. He still refuses to provide details of the incident, but it has been reported that his lawyer managed to get the charges dropped after a copy of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to being a Complete Idiot," said to be written by Ashley McIsaac, was found in his car. (An associate was quoted at the time saying "he was just freebasing pickles all day long.")

He retreated to the hills of Wilno, where he was welcomed back uncritically by family and friends. He began attending social events, such as church suppers organized by Our Lady of the Crispy Fried Chicken and Cole Slaw in Cormac, and Our Lady of the Roast Beef and Three Vegetables in Foymount. He began to feel at ease with himself. And then one day, an old school friend mentioned that the Barry's Bay IGA was being renovated and transformed into a Loeb superstore and would be hiring new staff. Would he be interested?

He didn't have to think long or hard. "As soon as I saw what they had in mind for pierogies, I knew I could fit right in" he recalls. "They have every kind - bacon and cheese, cheese and potato, bacon and potato, plain cheese, plain bacon, plain potato, bacon and potato and cheese...." He pauses, as if to imply the list could go on for much longer. "I defy anyone to match our selection." And, we might add, he occasionally breaks out his fiddle if a customer requests politely enough. But just don't ask him to stand on his head, or play the Dill Pickle Rag: "those days are over," he says emphatically.

His new autobiography, "From champ to chump, from the dump to dumplings" is available for $10 with every purchase of 1 kilogram or more of pierogies at the store, located in the heart of downtown Barry's Bay.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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