Archive for April, 2009

A case of swine flu fatigue

April 30, 2009 Leave a comment

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing and reading about the threatened swine flu pandemic.

This afternoon, CBC Newsworld’s Suhana Meharchand breathlessly reported that “just in the last few minutes Ontario has reported another case of swine flu.”  That brought to 34 the number of cases in Canada, all mild.

Not mentioned was that four thousand people die from influenza in Canada every year — eight thousand in a bad year.

Of course, we should all take sensible precuations. Wash our hands frequently. Stay home if we’re sick. Cough into our sleeve. I thought President Obama did a good job of laying out these simple precautions in his One Hundred Days news conference.

I heard a good discussion about this on the CBC’s The Current this morning.

The guests were two authors: Vincent Lam, the Toronto doctor who wrote Bloodletting and Miraculus Cures (Random House) and Priscilla Wald of Duke University, author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Duke).

The discussion was about the epidemic as narrative.


“Every story needs a bad guy,” Dr. Lam noted. “The notion that some sort of illness could be passed to us is threatening.”

Prof. Wald’s take was equally valid. “The narrative is a familiar one — a sudden outbreak of a dangerous new illness, it begins to spread, the struggle between the disease which is advancing, the scientists who are working to counteract  it, and the epidemiologists who are heroically working to identify and contain the spreading illness.”

To give both credit, both recognized that the failure of most countries to provide decent health care to their citizens should be a far bigger story than swine flu.

But if you think the media are on a feeding frenzy over swine flu (or Mexican flu, as Stephen Harper called it today), consider what they’ve to work with.


In the U.S., gaffe-prone VP Joe Biden told a TV audience that he’d advised his family not to go anwhere “in a confined place” — such as an airplane or a subway car. How about elevators? The White House had to apologize for such a foolish generalization.

Then you have the back stories — the pork industry protesting (and justifiably so), with the result that health officials are now pointing out that the disease is not spread either by pork or by pigs. Officially, it’s now H1N1 influenza.

Howard Kurtz, the media critic for the Washington Post, writes here that it is the sheer volume of media coverage, not the disease itself, that has “suggested a full-blown crisis.”

Maybe we all just needed a respite from the global financial crisis. After all, who cares if we’re bankrupt if we’re going to die?


The writer as artist

April 29, 2009 Leave a comment


A work by The Stonecarvers author Jane Urquhart was one of the most admired pieces of art at last night’s fund-raiser in Toronto for the Creative Works Studio. My friend Ron Kaplansky, co-host of the event at the storied Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, was gratified at the good turn-out and hectic bidding. Despite the recession.
















This work went for more than $600 at the silent auction. The Studio, sponsored by St. Michael’s Hospital, provides a place where people dealing with severe mental illness can find refuge and comfort in creating their own art work.

Looking at Jane’s work last night reminded me of her fine 1997 novel, The Underpainter. Perhaps foreshadowing The Stonecarvers, it central character Austin Fraser is an American painter whose memoirs take the reader back to the first year of World War I, 1914.


My favorite magazine, The Walrus, says its advertising revenues “are down significantly.” It is appealing to readers for financial help.


The Walrus has just received 28 National Magazine Award nominations. Its been sweeping these honors ever since its founding a few years ago.

Addressing  Canadian readers by email, editor John MacFarlane says Canada “needs The Walrus because we need a magazine about us, and about our place in the world.”  He’s asking for renewals and new subscriptions, as well as donations to the magazine’s parent Walrus Foundation.


It’s perhaps ironic that The National Post, whose future is none too secure, is running a five-part series this week on the problems and future of the newspaper industry.

In today’s installment, Randy Boswell takes readers to the basement of Library and Archives Canada “devoted to storing hundreds of thousands of ethnic publications and small town communtiy newspapers — from distant, yellow-hued yesteryear to crisp-white yesterday, from familiar French and English typefaces to exotic Arabic and Chinese scripts.”

Boswell’s piece argues that nothing on the computer screen can ever touch the reality of words in ink that come to us every day via newspapers.

I agree, but the collapse of print advertising since the start of the recession  (see The Walrus, above) is sucking the lifeblood out of daily newspapers. The havoc is even greater in the U.S. than in Canada. There, the three chief sources of newspaper advertising — car dealers, financial services. and real estate — have virtually disappeared. Want ads have gone to Craigslist and other web sites.


The new Ottawa tell-all by former MP Garth Turner, Sheeple: Caucus Confidential in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa, is having a “clarification” sticker put on its inside front cover, thanks to a threatened law suit.

The book recounts the outspoken, blogger-loving Turner’s days as a Conservative MP before he defected to the Liberals. He was defeated in the 2007 election.

News agency Canadian Press threatened to sue over an allegation by Turner that it filed news of a standing ovation supposedly given Harper at a secret caucus meeting without bothering to verify the information.

Publisher Key Porter has agreed to paste a sticker in the book that offers a “clarification” of the comment. Booksellers have been told not to put the book on their shelves without the sticker.

Trade paper Quill and Quire says some bookstores have been selling the Turner opus without the sticker.

100 Days – the real test is yet to come

April 28, 2009 Leave a comment

The symbolic 100th day of the Obama Administration brings to a close the first chapter in the remaking of America — a story that ranks historically with Japan’s abandonment of emperor worship after World War II, or the collapse of communism in Russia.

In both those cases, nations and societies were irretrievably changed.

In the United States, Barack Obama came to office after twenty years of a voracious free market feeding frenzy that enriched a small minority but came close to bankrupting the country both financially and morally.

At the 100th day, Obama is being measured by how well he’s dealing with the problems he’s inherited. Public opinion polls show he has the approval of nearly two-thirds of voters. Support for the Republic party has shrunk to a historic low of 24 per cent.

From Day 1 in office, when Obama confirmed he would close Guantanamo, he has worked hard at turning around a country that clearly had lost its way in respect both to its global obligations and its treatment of its own citizens.

The obstacles Obama faced on January 20 were — and remain — enormous:

  • Putting to rights a corrupt financial system that brought on the worst economic crisis in seventy years
  • Overcoming almost universal distrust for America’s intransigent approach to its international treaty obligations and the rule of law
  • Extracting U.S. forces from Iraq after having inflicted on the people of that country a toll vastly greater than the losses of 9/11 — for which they had no responsibility
  • Stemming the growth of Taliban and other Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan — issues ignorted by the Bush gang (there was no profit in it)
  • And dealing with a myriad of urgent social and political reforms, from health care to education, poverty and illegal immigration.

Today, the champion of free enterprise and rugged individualism depends on government intervention to save its battered automotive sector. Business and labor are pleading for socialism. Nothing like this has ever been seen before in the United States.

In President Obama’s rush to deal with all these problems, there’s been fear that he’s trying to do too much, too soon.

One hundred days is too short a time to measure the effectiveness of his measures, or to judge whether they’ll turn out to be a palliative, or a cure. But there are signs of incremental success in everything the White House has tried to do. No failures, no disasters yet.

The economic stimulus will eventually work. American troops will leave Iraq. The health system will be changed, if not reformed. Side issues, like Somali pirates and swine flu, will come and go.

But it is Afghanistan, the one place where Barack Obama has signalled an unqualified commitment to exercise American military power, that could prove this President’s undoing.

Until a trustworthy domestic alternative to the Taliban emerges — and there seems to be none at present — it is hard to envision how sending more troops there will have any effect.

Containment, not capture, may be the best that the world can expect. How President Obama will comes to terms with this realitywill go a long way to determining how history will judge his administration.

One hundred days have passed. The real test is yet to come.

We’ll always need newspapers

April 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Two items that point up the indispensable role of newspapers caught my attention yesterday.

The EPpy Awards, an international competition for media-related websites, announced its nominations for newspapers with the best Internet presentations.

And the annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced in New York in journalism, letters, drama and music.

Despite the fact so many people seem to get all their news from the Internet, the awards remind me that we still must rely on newspapers for incisive, in-depth coverage and investigating reporting.

For example, The Toronto Globe and Mail is a finalist in the EPpy Awards for the best newspaper website. The paper’s also been nominated for major feature articles that explored mental health issues and the question of negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

We’re lucky to have such fine coverage available on our computer screens, but remember  it wouldn’t be there without the money advertisers and subscribers invest in the printed version every day.

The New York Times got five Pulitzer Prizes. One was for its investigative reporting that led to the breaking of the call girl scandal that cost New York Governor Elliot Spitzer his job.


I wonder if the people who disdain the idea of reading newspapers and depend instead on  the web for their news, ever stop to think about the source of what they’re reading.

Ninety percent of the time, it’s been lifted from newspapers — either by the papers themselves who have posted their articles, or the so-called “aggregators” who lift stories from all the newspaper web sites.

If you’ve got the  Drudge Report or (in Canada) Bourque  Newswatch among your favorites, you know that they originate nothing themselves. Other sites, like Tina Brown’s Daily Beast or the liberal-minded Huffington Post, put up a certain amount of original material. But most of what they publish they “borrow” from their print sisters. The Beast even runs a page called “Cheat Sheet” where they highlight the best of what they’ve raided.

True, there are a few online magazines publishing entirely original material. The oldest and best known, Salon, offers a wide-ranging and eclectic assortment of think pieces. Canada’s Tyee, a B.C.-oriented site, accurately describes itself as “A Feisty One Online.”  

The point here is that none of these online news outfits have the resources to invest in the kind of meaningful journalism that we desperately need if we’re to get a better handle on the criticial issues of the day.

Not that the newspapers always do that great a job. The New York Times famously sat on knowledge that the U.S. was about to invade Cuba. We had the Bay of Pigs fiasco as the result.

During the “War on Terror” (a term now officially banished), the U.S. media acted largely as a silent stooge for the Bush gang. But now that Americans are getting their perspective back, we’re seeing some tough questions being asked by the newspapers on issues such as CIA torture tactics.

Then there’s TV – still the main source of news for most people. Did you know that all the words spoken on a typical evening newscast would fill no more than a couple of columns on the front page of the average paper?

So when we see the newspaper industry in crisis, it’s a troubling omen. The New York Times is said to be down to its last $34 million in cash – barely enough to carry the paper for another few months.

The greatest damage from the current recession could turn out to be the destruction of our most important media voices. When the papers go, so will the web news sites. They’ll have nowhere to scalp their news from.

So if you’re not getting a paper now, please subscribe today. And if you’re already a “faithful reader”, please keep it up.

My nights at Four Seasons

April 16, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading with interest the excerpts in The Globe and Mail from Israel Sharp’s fascinating book, Four Seasons: the Story of a Business Philosophy (Penguin Canada).

In it, Izzy Sharp describes his crusade to build the world’s finest hotel chain. The chain, which today consists of more than 50 properties around the world, was built literally from the ground up.

Sharp and a few partners put up the first Four Seasons as a downtown motel on a strip of rundown Jarvis Street in Toronto in 1961. Two years later, they built the posh Inn on the Park, and from there extended to cities across Canada and to every continent except Antarctica.


Sharp set out by focusing on four key differentials in his drive to ensure excellence in Four Seasons Hotels:

Four primary elements make the difference between other hotels or resorts and a Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts property: service, quality, culture, and brand. All four defining characteristics are on display and in practice daily in the ritual of the morning meeting.

As one who has stayed at many of Mr. Sharp’s hotels, I can vouch that he’s met his goals in all respects.

But it wasn’t always so.

In 1971, I brought the former Chancellor of West Germany, Ludwig Erhard, to Canada to speak to the Toronto Stock Exchange. I sent people to the airport to meet him, and awaited his arrival at the Inn on the Park.

When Erhard’s limousine drew up, I expected a reasonable welcome from the hotel staff. Not atall. The doorman ignored the car and the bellhops stood around contemplating their navels.

When I was finally able to get Mr. Erhard into his suite (at 8 o’clock in the evening) a couple of maids were still making up the beds. It almost seemed like a “by the hour” sort of establishment.

I chewed out the night manager. The next morning, I was on the phone to Izzy, dragging him from his bathroom when he was shaving to take my call. He’s listened to me politely, and I’m sure took appropriate action. We had no more problems.

Some years later I was booked into the Four Seasons in Ottawa, awaiting a meeting with high-level people in the Mulroney government. I mentioned on arrival that I had an important package following me on the next plane from Toronto. Could I arrange a courier? A member of the staff went to the airport to pick up my package. Talk about service!

Then there was the time that I was hosting Peter Ustinov in Toronto. I called the Four Seasons to book him a suite. The reservation clerk told me the usual rate was $400 a night (this was 1991) but that for Mr. Ustinov, “The rate will be $300.”

Izzy Sharp is right on when he speaks of the importance of service and quality, no matter the business.

And he’s right in arguing that a recession is the ideal time to reinvest in your business. It’s a time when materials and labor are less costly.

And it’s just as important, he writes, for a business to keep up its advertising and promotion during a recession. He recounts how he boosted the ad spend for Four Seasons in the 80s and 90s recessions.

As I don’t travel as much as I used to, I don’t often get to the Four Seasons, except for dinners and such affairs.

But it’s first in my heart, and in the hearts of thousands of others, thanks to Mr. Sharp’s lifelong commitment to delivering value to his customers.

My new book – the Age of Ragtime

April 7, 2009 3 comments


A writer, in finishing a piece of work, is sometimes seized with an overpowering desire to never again look on the words that have consumed weeks, months or years of attention and emotion.


Paragraphs that once gleamed as pearls seem dull and uninteresting. Deductions arrived at after hours of research are no longer novel or inspiring. The whole subject has acquired a doubtful legitimacy.


The feeling diminishes when the manuscript proofs arrive. You set to work to correct minor errors, fix up disjointed sentences, and perhaps squeeze in a new thought here or there where space permits.


Then the day comes when the finished product is in your hands. The book has arrived from your publisher. You see the whole work in a new perspective.


In my case, a carton filled with copies of my new book, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime, stared up at me from the floor of my front porch when I happened to pass by the front door. The courier hadn’t bothered to ring. But I knew by the shipping label what the package contained.



 I suspect that no matter how many books a writer may publish, one always hesitates to open the first copy of a new work. Most writers are insecure, at best. Maybe it’s all a mess. Perhaps it should never have been published.


My new book had a fairly long gestation. I’d been interested in the early years of the 20th century, leading up to the First World War. They set a pattern for our lifetimes. I thought about how one could select a single year from that time and reflect on what it means for our generation. That’s what Margaret Macmillan did with Paris 1919


Here I have to give Garth Drabinsky some credit. I watched his stage version of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime from an almost front row seat in New York. It captivated me, and got me interested in Ragtime as a motif for that era. I had the peg, the angle I’d been looking for.


In the preface to my book, I say that I wrote it to bring together the colorful story of Ragtime and its preeminent composer, Scott Joplin, with an account of the remarkable burst of creativity that brought on modern music, culture, and technology at the start of the 20th century.


Holding the book in my hands, I realized what a wide range of material I’d been dealing with.


I managed to turn up new information on the tragic life of Scott Joplin. I also made a point of weaving in sketches of artists, writers, politicians, athletes and businessmen who made their contributions to the Ragtime era.


People like Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, Andrew Carnegie, Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Conrad, W.C. Handy, Jack Johnson, Jack London, Evelyn Nesbit, Mary Pickford, Frederic Remington, Teddy Roosevelt.


They all helped shape an era that’s left a legacy which has influenced art, culture and science ever since.


And I found a surprisngly large amount of Canadian material. As my book was taken by an American publisher, McFarland, I’m pleased to have this Canadian content in a work that is international in scope.


“The journey,” I wrote, “that began in the twilight past will go on and our dreams will endure into the future. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all still playing Ragtime.”


If you’re interested in ordering a copy, you can do so here and here.

When a citizen has no rights

April 5, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s an amazing spectacle — a country that prevents a citizen, accused of no offence and convicted of no crime, from returning home.

Not from leaving, as the Soviet Union used to do. Not from entering, has every country has the right. But from coming back to the country of which you’re a citizen.

Last week, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, denied Abousfian Abdelrazik the emergency passport he had been promised that would have allowed him to fly back to Canada. Several hundred Canadian sympathizers had chipped in to buy his ticket.

Cannon’s refusal reverses a written promise that Mr. Abdelrazik would be given a passport if he could produce a plane ticket. It’s the latest episode of a truly Kafkaesque series of events that has trapped this man since his arrest six years ago in Sudan.

the-trialFranz Kafka, as you know, gave his name through his literature to any nightmarishly bureaucratic situation in which an individual finds himself endlessly trapped. No matter which way he turns, as exemplified in Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial, the citizen becomes yet more deeply enmeshed in a maze of contradictions from which he can never escape.

Mr. Abdelrazik was arrested in Sudan in 2003, apparently on information from Canadian security agencies. He says he was beaten and tortured before being released 11 months ago to the Canadian embassy. He’s since been living in the Embassy, despite Cannnon’s claim that he now represents a security threat.

While Mr. Abdelkrazik was in jail, the Bush administration put his name on the United Nations “no fly” list. Canada appealed to the UN Security Council to have him taken off. Both CSIS and the RCMP agreed in writing that there was no reason for him to be on it.

It was just four months ago that the government promised to give Abdelrazik emergency travel documents. Then they said they would do so only if he got off the UN list on his own. This despite the fact the UN specifically permits those on the list to return home.

The next obstacle Foreign Affairs put in the way of Mr. Abdelrazik returning to his wife and children in Montreal was a ruling that he’d have to produce an airline ticket. When people started raised money, they were warned they might be charged with violating Canada’s anti-terrorism laws. Of course, no such charges have — or likely ever will — be laid.

Then, when money was raised and a ticket bought, came the final contradiction from the Minister. Suddenly, Mr. Abdelrazik was a threat to national security, a clear contradiction of what CSIS and the RCMP have said.

The Liberal justice critic, Irwin Cotler,  says the government is in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which enshrines a citizen’s right to return home.

The Harper government has some explaining to do, says the NDP’s Paul Dewar. “They can’t say he is a threat to national security and still harbour him in the Embassy.”

For his part, Mr. Abdelrazik says “For six years I haver tried to go back home but the Canadian government took my passport and will not give me another one.” He denies he is an Islamic extremist. “I am a Muslim and I pray to God but this does not make me a terrorist or a criminal.”

Clearly, something is going on here. If the government can grab this man’s passport, clear him of any suspicion, then refuse to issue him a new one,  they could to it to anyone. You or me.

“First they came for the Jews,” said Pastor Martin Niemoeller in his famous lament for the failure of people to protect their rights in Nazi Germany. ” … then they came for me.”

Mr. Cannon must explain himself. If there’s a reason to deny Mr. Abdelrazik his rights, we deserve to know it. We detest the actions of fundamentalist regimes that oppress their citizens without lawful cause. Now we seem to be doing just that.

If Mr. Abdelrazik has committed a crime, bring him to Canada for trial. If not, he has the right to return unmolested.