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Ben McNally owns the podium

February 28, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s the final day of the Olympics and I’m looking for a respite in the run-up to the Gold Medal hockey match. If you’re in Toronto, there’s no better place to be than Ben McNally’s Author Brunch at the old lady of King Street, the King Edward Hotel.

I admire Ben for a bunch of reasons, not the least being the bold statement made by his pony tail, worn by a guy who hasn’t fortgotten the joys of his youth but has obviously found new joys in the world of books. He opened Ben McNally Books on Bay Street at a time when independent booksellers had become an endangered species.

By virtue of a lot of sweat and clever ideas, one of which was the Author Brunch which he brought over from his prior employment at Nichollas Hoar, Ben has succeeded in keeping his doors open.

The Author Bunch is an astonishing tribute to one man’s entrepreneurial skill. It’s also a credit to the two hundred or so book lovers who turn up on winter Sunday mornings — some from pretty distant points — to listen to a quartet of writers talk up their books. This morning, I had school teacher Nancy Gilbert from Tottingham on one side and Dawn, a lady from Rockwood, on the other. Both had gotten up early to drive toToronto, as do dozens of others for each of these affairs.

Ben’s a funny guy at the podium but it was from Nicholas Ruddock, author of The Parabolist (Doubleday Canada) who drew the most chuckles. His best line was about how Ben sang in a rock and roll band, one critic likening his voice to that of a “sick crow.”

We also learned what a parabolist is — one who speaks in parables.

The author who interested me most was Lynne Olson, the English historian who has written Citizens of London: How Britain Was Rescued in its Darkest Hour (Bond Street Books).

I learned a lot from an earlier Olson book, Troublesome Young Men, an account of the men around Winston Churchil during his rise to power.

Olson’s new work focuses on three men she credits with shaping the Anglo-American alliance that saved Britain in World War II. Incidentally, it also saved the world from a new dark age of Nazis despotism.

  • Edward R. Murrow, the CBS radio commentator, broadcast night after night from “the rooftops of London” and built immense empathy for Britiain among his American listening audience.
  • Averill Harriman, whose long and distinguished career ended sadly when he was caught up in a Middle East banking fiasco in the 1990s, engineered the details of the Lend Lease deal that enabled President Roosevelt to beef up Britain’s armed forces in the days before the Americans were in the war.
  • John Wynant, the American ambassador to Britain, roamed the streets of London during the worst nights of the blitz. He left everyone he encountered knowing that America really cared about what happened to England.

 But Olson tells the human, personal story of these and others who figure in her book. She reveals Wynant had a love affair with Pamela Churchill, the PM’s daughter-in-law (married to the drunken Randolph). When Wynant was moved to Moscow, his place was taken by Ed Murrow.

“London,” she says, ” was the most exciting and vibrant city in the world during the darkest days of the war.” She adds that her book is a tribute to the people who really saved London — the ordinary Londoner who struggled amid death, destruction and rationing, but never gave up.

Thanks Ben McNally for bringing us authors like Ms. Olson and Nick Ruddock, as well as today’s two other authors, Elizabeth Abbott (A History of Marriage) and S.M. Plokhy (Yalta: The Price of Peace). You’ve won Gold.

Lucien Bouchard – “closet fedaralist”

February 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Lucien Bouchard, the former Premier of Quebec and founder of the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the federal Parliament, is beginning to sound like the “closest federalist” I’ve always thought he was destined to become.

Bouchard’s image in English Canada has ricocheted from something not much above a snake in the grass to a guy for whom we all felt deep sympathy when he lost a leg to flesh eating disease.

But like Pierre Trudeau in his lifetime, Bouchard keeps coming back. Now he’s given the boot to sovereignty as a likely prospect for the current generation. Most Quebecers agree — a new poll has 56 per cent believing sovereignty is “not achievable.”

He’s also come out swinging against his old party for its “radical” resistance to cultural tolerance.

It’s been a dozen years since Lawrence Martin published his magisterial biography of Bouchard, The Antagonist: Lucien Bouchard and the Politics of Delusion (Penguin, 1998).

The political environment has turned 180 degrees since the book came out. Bouchard resigned in frustration, equally fed up with the radical fringe of the PQ and his own failure — despite his charisma — to woo Quebec to separatism. Lawrence Martin’s book remains a timely read in light of Bouchard’s latest intervention.

He set off a grand kafuffle last week with his declaration that Quebec sovereignty is nothing more than a dream that won’t be achieved any time soon. A “hypothesis,” he called it.

More damning was the dart he aimed at his old party. He said the PQ, desperate for electoral relevancy, is becoming a breeding ground for radicalism, especially on cultural and religious issues.

Bouchard was speaking at a 100th anniversary event honoring Le Devoir, a newspaper long considered the conscience of French Canada.

Despite his headline-grabbing remarks about the failure of sovereignty, he’s clearly more concerned about the PQ stance on what’s become known as “reasonable accommodation.”

This is a complex, many-layered issue. Quebec Premier John Charest appointed Bouchard’s brother as one of two commissioners to look into how far Quebec should go in tolerating public expressions of other cultures and religions.

In essence, the commission looked at how to deal with Muslim immigrants on such matters as allowing the burka in the voting booth while Christian symbols are being removed from all public spaces.

Bouchard’s argument is that French culture and language are safe in Quebec and there’s no need to fear newly-arrived ethnic groups. As he put it:

There is a cultural majority in Quebec and that is us. But there are other people around us, about 10 or 11 per cent that have different religions and we need to make the necessary accommodations when it is needed.

Pauline Marois, the PQ leader, doesn’t see it that way. She thinks Jean Charest is “too busy defending Canadian multiculturalism … to stand up to defend the values of the Quebec identity.”

She points to the fact that polls show 75 per cent of Quebecers agree the Charest government has been “too accommodating” to the demands of religious groups. The latest evidence of this, she says, is the decision to allow core curriculum subjects to be taught on Sundays. Jewish schools need the concession to make up for time devoted to religious instruction during regular school hours.

Lucien Bouchard has always been acutely conscious of the fact that Quebec society harbours a strong streak of racism. Past generations have been fearful of Protestants, Jews, and the English. Now it’s Muslim immigrants who raise apprehensions about the future “purity” of Quebec.

The only threat that religious fundamentalism poses to Quebec, Bouchard wisely observes, is when it jeopardizes equal rights between men and women.

It’s tempting but foolish to declare separatism in Quebec dead. Pierre Trudeau did so after the 1980 referendum. It was a reckless statement and he never lived it down.

There’ll always be a good chunk of Quebecers — just as there is a good chunk of Newfoundlanders, and perhaps also Albertans — who think they’d be better off free of Ottawa’s grasp.

And the issue of “reasonable accommodation” is one that warrants debate. But it needs to be debated rationally, free of the kind of racist hysteria which Bouchard has spoken out against so forcefully. Good on him.

The last veteran – closing the book

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The death of John Babcock, the last surviving Canadian veteran of the First World War, has a special meaning for those who have family links to the men and women whose lives were tied up in that great struggle. The news report is here.

For me, it “closes the book” on my father’s era. He served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1919. Percy Argyle, #198747, joined the 94th “New Ontario” Battalion in Rainy River. He went overseas almost immediately and later was transferred to the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles.

Dad was there when the Canadian troops followed a “creeping barrage” of shelling to conquer Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday, 1917. He was seriously wounded a few days later and shipped out to a hospital in England. In a letter he wrote me in 1960, Dad had this to say about Vimy:

Age has a habit of dimming names and places and names of people but it can never dim the sights and sounds of what we experienced. The shelling, the mud, the apparent confusion out of which grew a single purpose, take the Ridge or else.

The courtship of my parents qualifies as a romantic tale. My father had met my mother in Canada. Both were immigrants from England – my mother was Irish and Dad descended (we believe) from a Scottish family.

“She must have loved me a lot,” he told me, recounting how she had followed him overseas. He applied for permission to marry in December 1916 and they were wed in Dad’s hometown of Ilkeston. Their first-born, Percy Edward, came into the world on November 22, 1918. I was a much delayed arrival.

After the war, my parents went to St. Louis, Missouri, to live with my mother’s sister.

Dad told me an interesting story of their border crossing at Niagara Falls. He was asked whether he had a job to go to. He had been tipped off that he should answer No. “If you said Yes, they wouldn’t let you across,” Dad recalled.

I always wondered about this. I finally discovered,  in a few sentences in Edward Rutherford’s new novel, New York, the reason for that seemingly unfathomable policy  He depicts an Italian family at Ellis Island being asked the same question.

“There were two reasons for this strange rule. The first was that the United States wanted men who were anxious to take any job they could find. The second was to discourage an illicit trade. For there were padroni who promised jobs, paid people’s passage … He’d be waiting for them in the park near the docks, and take them into lodgings. And before long the new arrivals were in his power, trapped like slaves, and fleeced of all they had.”

I wish I’d known about this anecdote when I met Rutherford when he was in Toronto recently. As it was, we were able to discuss the Ragtime era in the context of both our books — mine being Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime.

Like many war veterans, my father was a troubled man much of his life, although I never realized it while I lived under his roof. My sharpest memory is of the damage that shrapnel had done to one leg. His calf oozed fluid the rest of his life.

Dad died in 1978. He was 87, and had lived a pretty full life having raised four sons and survived three wives.

The Historica-Dominion Institute has set up a Facebook page urging a National Day of Commemoration in honor of Mr. Babcock and our other veterans. You can see it here.

The boy, the man and the Last Spike

February 17, 2010 3 comments

The novelist and creative writing teacher Barbara Kyle has reminded me of the theory of six degrees of separation. It holds that everyone on earth is linked to each of us by no more than six steps, through people we know, who know someone else, and so on. This is perhaps the basis for the old saying, “It’s a small world.”

The subject came up when I passed along the news that my new book The Boy in the Picture will come out in August 2010 from the Natural Heritage imprint of the leading Canadian book publisher, Dundurn Press.

It tells the story of young Edward Mallandaine, the “boy in the picture” of the driving of the Last Spike that marked completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway on November 7, 1885.

In this case, I’m only one degree of separation from that great historic event. When Edward was a very old man and I was a young boy, I knew him. He was the Reeve (Mayor) of my hometown of Creston, B.C.

It’s a little humbling when I think that the entire history of Canada since Confederation is wrapped up in the lives of just the two of us!

Edward was a lad in Victoria when the Northwest Rebellion broke out and he decided he wanted to “fight the Indians.” He headed to the prairies but the rebellion was put down before he got there.

Fate had a different destiny for him. He was hired to ride dispatches by horseback over the incomplete section of the railway in the Monashee mountain range. That put him in Craigellachie for the Last Spike ceremony. You can see him peering out from this picture.

I’ve written The Boy in the Picture as a Young Adult book. It includes about fifty historic pictures.

I see Edward as a great role model for today’s young people who live in a vastly different Canada, where we’re joined by the web and other technologies, instead of the railway. But Edward’s lust for adventure and his unflinching courage in tackling unknown dangers fit well with the challenges young people face today.

The Boy is based on historic records and stories I remember from Edward. It’s told through creative non-fiction and combines plot, setting and dialogue in a story-telling narrative of historic adventure. Maybe it’ll help to make Canadian history a little more exciting!

Edward went on to become a pioneer of British Columbia. He helped found the town of Creston where he was “the man” for many, many years.

I’ve been researching Edward’s life for the past three years, first for an article in The Beaver magazine, and now for this book. I’ve dug through files on Edward’s family in the B.C. Archives in Victoria, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

I’ve also had great help from two museums in Revelstoke, B.C., the Revelstoke Railway Museum and the Revelstoke Museum. I’m excited that the book launch will be at the Railway Museum on August 17 as part of their annual Railway Days Festival.

2010 will be a big year for the Railway Museum because it marks the 125th anniversary of the driving of the Last Spike. Maybe we’ll see you there!