First-time Toronto novelist Jonathan Martin Dixit was formerly known as Jon Dixit, proprietor and ringmaster of the diamond in the rough and tough pub The Duke of Gloucester (649 Yonge St.).
‘The Duke’ was, and remains, a hidden Alice in Wonderland kind of place. Unlike Alice’s rabbit hole or looking glass, entry required a climb up a steep flight of stairs. During the hike, first-timers would catch their breath and say, “I’ve walked past this place a million times….” Predictably delighted by their find, all first-timers became second-timers and soon after entered the sacred realm of ‘regular’.
Here, Jon truly held court. He set the mood and pace, and orchestrated the ever-fluctuating atmosphere. During the first book talk I ever had with him, Jonathan made passing references to: Queequeg, from Melville’s Moby Dick, Archy, from Don Marquis’ indescribable 1927 poetry series Archy And Mehitabel (who competes with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, as the most famous cockroach in the history of literature). Less surprising was mention of Jay Gatsby. Dixit also pointed out the obvious: The Duke of Gloucester is, in fact, Richard the Third! I was engaged and impressed.
Sometime later I learned that one of his favorite films was Casablanca and damn if he didn’t embody a contemporary ghost-of-Rick-Blaine vibe. But unlike the Bogart character, Jon frequently sat with the regulars and was not above blessing the table of, and providing instant warmth to, a new recruit. His profound niceness and openness could be disarming since he was perpetually dressed in black on black. The ensemble could include a calf-length slicker, sunglasses and boots. There was even a period when the boots were decked out with audible spurs. (A story has it than en route to Los Angeles, post 9/11, he was able to woo airport security and get through customs, boots and spurs intact.) And, harkening to Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, Jon lived upstairs in a palatial pad directly above The Duke. There was always a kind of literary, if not mythic, aura about that.
As torn, frayed and riotous as The Duke appeared, one glaring and refreshing hallmark of the joint was the visual fact that all of the staff and many of the regulars valued reading. Paperbacks popped out at every break. Regulars, huddled somewhere behind the pool table or conspiratorially in a corner, formed impromptu and scheduled book clubs. If you listened carefully, names like Huck Finn and Houellebecq danced around the room.
Celebrity literati included friends of the owner such as Hugh Cornwell (the leader and lynch-pin of seminal punk band The Stranglers) and the late great actor Pete Postlethwaite (nominated for an Oscar for his performance in In The Name of the Father). One year, Hugh flew over from the U.K. just to attend a TIFF party hosted by Jon at the Duke. The rock icon held a very informal court where, after pointing out that one of The Stranglers’ tunes on the Duke jukebox was never legally released and explaining the chords to his wonderful tune Golden Brown, Hugh spent the remainder of the evening full of fire as he discussed the writing of his first novel Window on the World, which was released and well-reviewed later that year.
Postlethwaite, as well, found a welcome oasis at the Duke when shooting, or flogging a film in Toronto. He became a friend and huge fan of Jon after an incident during the TIFF when Pete was forced to flee the Duke in the middle of watching a soccer match. Duty called and Pete had to head over to the Sutton Place to participate in a press conference for a film launch. Shortly after the forced departure, Pete’s team grabbed the lead and turned the game around. Dixit promptly engineered the delivery (via cab no less) of a pint of Guinness and a note with the updated score to the Sutton Place. In the midst of the photo and interview chaos the dutiful cabbie managed to place it before Pete. This stopped the show. Pete approached the note with curiosity and caution, then broke the silence with a roaring laugh and a toast to the Duke. The double beauty of the incident was the fact that the conference was being broadcast live via one of our local cable stations and those who were able to tear themselves from the game could watch this historic moment on the Duke’s auxiliary televisions. This is an excellent example how one can author life.
Postlethwaite became even more of a regular, and for weeks after could be seen there as he sat in isolation and poured through Ann Marie MacDonald’s hefty tome Fall On Your Knees. The only time his concentration broke was to order another pint, rave about the book to a surprised stranger or speak in hushed whispers to Jon.
Before owning the Duke, Dixit was enrolled in U of T’s Medieval Philosophy Program. Fueled by his delight in his field of study, he hit on a plan for ‘The Philosophy Store’. The basic concept was an empty, all-white, storefront with two chairs. Jon would occupy one seat and customers could drift in, sit across from him, and the pair would discuss philosophy, life, art, literature or just plain bullshit. So impassioned was he by this idea, he took the business plan to his father, a prominent Woodstock surgeon. His dad politely passed, but encouraged Jon to come back with a plan that had a little more upside potential. (Interesting that years later this stunt was kind of pulled off by contemporary philosopher Alain De Botton with his ‘philosopher in residence’ at Heathrow Airport).
Perhaps it was this defeat that sent Jon to cool his heels and gather his wits at the Duke of Gloucester, where he and many of his student comrades were, by now, regulars. Beneath this ephemera and esoterica, Jon hid a surprising and practical entrepreneurial streak. Ears and eyes always open, he caught wind of the fact that the pub was going up for sale, and may have thought “why spend all my money here when I could MAKE money by occupying the same space?” Who knows what tipped the scale but he got it together, made the pitch, secured the funds and crossed over to the other side. The literary twist here is that The Duke became ‘the philosophy store,’ with many more than two chairs and a steady flow of income from food, beer and jukebox kickbacks. Jon was a financial and cultural genius with a hint of ‘stability’.
He inhabited the place for thirteen years, endlessly crafting its ambiance and putting his mark on it while delighting in the movable feast created by the place and its patrons. All who passed through the near invisible door and trod its flypaper carpet felt the mark and mood of the proprietor. As John Huston said of Orson Welles, “…he played Mephistopheles to his own Faust.”
Years passed, change was needed. Jonathan made the decision to sell the place. Gray day indeed.
Jon, nobody’s fool and no slave to trends, never really participated in social media, and more or less disappeared. But, bar culture being what it is, the rumor mill flowed:
“Dixit proposed to a German psychiatrist in Montreal and they’re living in Sault St. Marie”
“Dixit’s writing a screenplay about Snooker legend Cliff Thorburn”
“Dixit’s working out a lot and has signed on to be a Big Brother to some kid up north”
“He’s back in Toronto and writing a BOOK”
“He never left the Duke and can be seen going out for newspapers every Sunday morning”
All myth, all somewhat true.
The rumor mill is not time sensitive, and I’m about a year late on this, but the fact is, that Jon Dixit has morphed into Jonathan Martin Dixit and his novel BabyWorld was published in September 2014.
He and his German wife are not only in Toronto, but living in the artist enclave in the greater St. Clair/Oakwood area and the Toronto public library has several copies of BabyWorld in their system.
When relaying this information to far-flung friends who remember Jon Dixit and his realm, they all light up in the hopes of some great gin-soaked barroom epic, full of characters and folly. Or maybe a ‘tell-all’ from someone who was always a very insightful and entertaining raconteur. Well, the fewer illusions shattered the better. But I’ve always known that there was more to JD than his image as owner of the Duke, and I’m eager to dig into BabyWorld. It appears to be a futuristic (if not sci-fi) take on the old adage ‘they grow up so fast’. A future world where the intellects of children are artificially advanced so that they can fill voids in the adult workplace. The main character, Sinika, struggles with being intellectually mature while still being emotionally a child. Sounds like the philosophy store is open for business. I anticipate a twisted, thoughtful and possibly prescient take on the future, and hopefully, a smattering of those crazy literary and cinematic references that cropped up in conversations past.
In addition to works previously mentioned, I remember Jonathan citing the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh as a personal favorite. Gilgamesh is many things, high among them a profound tale of friendship. Jon Dixit was truly a friend to many and it is my sincere hope that everyone he’s ever bought a drink for buys a copy of the book. That’s how best-sellers are made.
– Ambrose Roche
Further details on BabyWorld and its author can be found here.