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From Someplace Else

by Ralph Osborne

Though ostensibly a memoir of the years he lived and worked at Rochdale College, the now legendary student residence and “free university” that was loosely affiliated with the University of Toronto, Ralph Osborne’s From Someplace Else is more about the questing spirit of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Osborne is, in many ways, the ideal chronicler of those times. Smart, bored, and disgusted with the materialism and spiritual apathy of his elders, he drifted across Canada in the early 1960s in search of a community of like-minded dropouts. Like so many other Canadian (and American) seekers, his travels ended at Rochdale, which was rapidly gaining notoriety as the Haight-Ashbury of the north. Through connections and circumstances, he found an apartment and a job in the maintenance department of the recently opened co-op highrise.

For nearly two years Osborne watched the parade of fabulous freaks, mystics, artists, and drug dealers pass through the building’s hallways and, occasionally, out onto the grim Protestant streets of Toronto. Steeped in hash, acid, and Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, Osborne wrote in his journal, attended the rowdy council meetings and parties, and eventually discovered his true life calling: the search for a more authentic identity.

Osborne destroyed all the writing he did at the time, so From Someplace Else is dependent on an admittedly faulty memory. (As the hippies say: “If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there.”) He also arrived after the college was up and running, so he has little to say about Rochdale’s founding coalition of educators and activists and the building’s precarious first year.

But in spite of all the drugs and a devotion to the inner life, Osborne was a shrewd observer of human behaviour. Serving on the college’s council gave him a crash course in the territorial habits and excesses of radical ideologues, and the ensuing years have afforded him the distance to admit that he occasionally got off on being one of the college’s bigshots. His descriptions of Rochdale’s rotating tenants are tough but loving and often funny, with a special tenderness for those who held onto their ideals or died too early to live them out.