Archive for May, 2010

An idea: $1billion for writers, zilch for the G20

The billion dollars that Canada is going to spend on security for the G8 and G20 meetings next month almost makes one think the war on terror has been won — by Osama bin Laden.

Why is it that governments never have money for arts, culture or enhanced social security, but the sky’s the limit when it comes to spending on what I call “hi tech welfare?”

We saw it all through the Cold War. Billions of dollars allocated to engineering new weapons and building elaborate (and often unworkable) missile schemes, all of which gave jobs to the most comfortable and best educated in society — people who didn’t or shouldn’t have needed government hand-outs.

Now, during the War on Terror, we’re seeing it in the incredible over-reaction to every possible security threat. Each incident an excuse to ramp up spending, whether or not any benefit can be demonstrated.

It’s a beautiful situation, because if nothing happens we are lulled into the false belief that all that money was spent to a good purpose.

If we oppose such profligate spending, we’re told — as Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said of the Liberals — that “they don’t believe in securing Canadians or the visitors here.”

We need a Canadian writer with investigative skills for a made-in-Canada version of the British shocker, The Bumper Book of Government Waste, by Matthew Elliott (Ingram). It recounts how British taxpayers are being ripped off to the tune of five billion pounds a year in useless government spending.

Security for the G8 and G20 meetings was tabbed at $179 million in the budget in March. Now it’s reached $930 million. Half of that’s for the RCMP, including overtime and accommodation costs.

Let me suggest that the near billion-dollar shocker is only half the real cost. What about the cost (and inconvenience) to the private sector in trying to cope with this level of security in the middle of Canada’s biggest city?

The University of Toronto is closing down completely during the G20. Many firms are telling their employees to stay home. Some are offering their workers two-for-one vacation days.

There’s a raft of issues involved in this fiasco:

  • The cost –  clearly an obscenity, and it’s encouraging to see  parliament’s budget watchdog Kevin Miller is going to quiz the government on its handling of the matter
  • The site – Why put a G20 meeting in the middle of Canada’s biggest city, which poses all kinds of security problems?
  • The need – Why have a G20 meeting – can’t they all videoconference? (The real work gets done by the “sherpas” — the aides who thrash out the agenda — before the meeting, anyway.)

The Harper government has this strange bent to spend recklessly on authoritarian measures — billions for new prisons that aren’t needed and now this huge security bill — while neglecting other urgent and pressing needs.

Why not a billion dollars for Canada’s writers to help tell our stories to ourselves and the world?

Not likely, but at least we’d get something of permanent value.


To stay or leave – a South African dilemma

Amid the breaking news of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the new British cabinet, the Globe and Mail has been featuring coverage of Africa and its problems. The paper brought in rock and rollers Bono andf Bob Geldorf, well-known for demanding more Western aid for the developing nations, as special editors.

It’s been  a clever public relations ploy and has resulted in many informative stories about the dilemma Canada and other countries face in trying to assist nations ruled by repressive and corrupt governments.

I found especially interesting the Globe’s report on the unavailability of abortion in Africa. At a time when rapid population growth is one of the continent’s main problems, only South Africa allows legal, safe abortion.

This sad fact adds yet another dimension to Canada’s insistence that the global  maternal health program proposed by the Harper government go forward without funding for abortion.

I’ve been reading a troubling book that reveals the depth of the social divide between whites and blacks that still grips South Africa.

In Ways of Staying (Portobello Books) journalist Kevin Bloom deals with the struggle of white South Africans over whether to stick with their homeland — despite its rampant crime and insecurity — or to choose to leave for a  safer place.

I heard Bloom speak at an author’s gathering a few weeks ago. I was struck by his intensity and commitment.

Reading his book, which he wrote after his cousin and a friend were murdered in an indiscriminate attack by two black men, reminded me that life in a gated ghetto can never be an acceptable alternative to the satisfactions of a peaceable community.

Bloom writes candidly of his Jewish family, seemingly safe in their oak-shaded Johannesburg suburb of Melrose, protected by garden walls, locked gates and padlocked doors. Their belief in their security is only an illusion.

Bloom begins the book by taking us to Fort Mistake at Isandlwana, scene of the horrendous battle between British troops and Zulu warriors in 1879, since commemorated in books and films. In an earlier battle in 1838, 470 Afrikaners had killed 3,000 Zulus at the battle of Blood River. The day was remembered by Afrikaners as the Day of the Covenant, since amended by Nelson Mandela to Day of Reconciliation.

Bloom takes us through the machinations of the African National Congress, Mandela’s liberation movement, and the seizure of power by the current president, Jacob Zuma. A survivor of court battles — having prevailed over charges of rape and corruption — Zuma asserted not long ago that he protected himself against AIDs by showering afer sexual intercourse with a womanwith HIV. A polygamist with several wives, he’s also fathered at least one child with a woman not his wife.

I would like to have seen more in the Globe and Mail about the peculiar problems of African culture.

Bloom sadly recounts how his aunt and uncle accepted a plea bargain to allow the killers of his cousin off with a 27-year jail term. That’s longer than most Canadian murderers will serve. But it underscores the legacy left by more than a century of white colonialism. 

In the end, Bloom seems steadfast in his determination to stay in his native land, whatever its problems. And despite the question he asks:

Are we not now uniformly afraid, for the  first time with uniformly good reason, that our blood-splattered history will overtake us and swallow us all whole?

Africa’s century? Hardly.


Are Elmore Leonard’s rules to die for?

There’s a delightful piece in the Globe and Mail in which Elmore Leonard, mystery novelist and author of 10 Rules of Writing, tosses off one of his favorite mantras:

The trick to storytelling, Leonard believes, “is leaving out the parts readers skip.”

Oh how every writer wishes she could do that!

Leonard was talking about the TV treatment of his western, Justified. Produced by Canadian Graham Yost, it’s on the Super Channel Monday nights. That’s a channel I don’t get, so I’ll have to go along with Leonard’s assessment of the only Western currently running on TV.

Leonard’s new edition of 10 Rules of Writing (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) is just out.  It’s a beautiful little book but honestly, I think it’s more a marketing ploy than a literary how-to-do-it.

This little pocket book size edition is filled with pretty cartoons, large type, and just a few words of copy on each page.

His “leave out the parts readers skip” is No. 10.

 First on his hit list is “Never open a book with the weather.”Well, hardl ever, he later avers. “Of it’s only to create atmosphere,” well that’s a different matter. And, “There are exceptions.” Of course.

That’s the problem with these rules of writing. There are always exceptions.

I like his dictum to avoid prologues. Providing you can find another way of telling an essential backstory. And I almost agree with his rule of “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Except when … I might add.

But overall, I don’t think his rules are ones to die for.

Lots of other successful writers have their own rules. Here’s a sampling:

Helen Dunmore – Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite.

Margaret Atwood – Prayer might help. Or reading somnething else.

Hilary Mantel – Write a book you’d like to read.

Guy Vanderhaeghe – Write the book you want to write and hope somebody wants to read it.

PD James – Increase your word power. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing.

David Hare – Write only when you have something to say.

And my own rule?

A good story’s like an iceberg. The reader sees only the tip of it. What makes the story float is all that stuff — research, knowledge, instinct — that’s under the surface.,