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Memories of Jack Layton, and more

August 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Travelling about Europe this past week, I followed the sad news of the death of Jack Layton, and his funeral today (Saturday, August 27) in Toronto. I write this in the Toronto International Airport, awaiting ground transportation to take me home.

So much has been said and written about Jack Layton that anything I could add would probably be redundant. I last spoke to Jack one Saturday morning when Deborah and I encountered him in a bookstore on Danforth Avenue. He was filling the role of the “constituency man.” getting about his riding and keeping in touch with people and things.

Margaret Wente has a lovely account of Jack’s funeral at Globe and Mail Online.

Jack Layton’s death was the subject of a long account I read in the International Herald Tribune while in Paris. I was there doing some research on a book idea.

Interestingly, there’s been quite a bit of Canada in the European press this week. The Sino Forest scandal on Bay Street made the Financial Times of London, and I ran across a review of Maureen Jennings’ new book, Season of Darkness. She’s the author of the books behind that great TV series, Murdoch Mysteries, featuring an 1890s’ Toronto detective with a flair for solving cases through clever use of newly emerging scientific criminology.

In Paris, we watched with several thousands others the ceremonies in front of l’Hotel de Ville commemorating the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944.  This year tribute was paid to the resistants who rose against the Germans in the final days of the Occupation. It was a moving ceremony and while the crowd was not large by Parisian standards, it included many young people, presumably all mindful of the importance of that historic day.

Back in Canada, the prevailing sentiment in wake of the death of Jack Layton seems to be a yearning for politicians to learn from the positive and optimistic view he expressed so eloquently, especially in his final campaign. I have always felt that the first priority of a national leader should be to provide people with reason to feel positive about their country and themselves. Not blind patriotism of the flag waving type so endemic to the United States, but a genuine sense of delight about a country’s prospects and the promise it holds for its people and their place in the world.

It is probably unrealistic to expect the aura around Jack Layton’s passing to persist for more than a brief moment. But one can hope that the flame he set alight will burn in the hearts of men and women in our public life for a very long time to come.

Ready, aye ready! We’re a colony again

August 16, 2011 1 comment

Stephen Harper once vowed that by the time he was finished with Canada, we wouldn’t know the place. Now ruling with a majority government, he’s well on his way to fulfilling that promise.

The decision to restore “Royal” title to the Canadian Armed Forces, giving the Air Force and the Navy these regal appellations, speaks to Harper’s monarchial and traditionalist views, all to be expected from a conventionally conservative politician of his brand.

According to Defence Minister Peter McKay, designating the branches of the forces as the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army is a matter of restoring military pride. The titles were abandoned when the Canadian forces were merged under Prime Minister Pearson back in the 1960s.

If you have a romantic view of the courage of British heroes, such as Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, then I guess you might like to see Canada reverting to such colonial nomenclature.

But it smacks of the kind of mentality expressed by Arthur Meighan, the Conservative leader of the Opposition back in 1922, when Winston Churchill, as First lord of the Admiralty, said the Dominions might be called on to support Britain in its tiff with Turkey over a place called Chanak.

Canada’s Parliament was not in session at the time. Prime Minister Mackenzie King balked, saying he wouldn’t give aid without Parliament’s approval, but the issue wasn’t important enough to justify its  recall.

Arthur Meighan thought differently.

  “When Britain’s message came, then Canada should have said, ‘Ready, aye ready, we stand by you,'” Meighan declared. In fact, he was echoing a slogan of a former Liberal PM, Wilfrid Laurier. But Meighan  got stuck with the colonialist tag and never lived it down.

The man who engineered the merger of the Forces, Paul Hellyer, Defence minister under Pearson, says Harper’s decision shows a colonial attitude. And he points out it’s going to cost millions even to do the “cosmetic changes” required by the re-naming.

Stephen Harper’s enthusiasm for royalty was highly visible during the recent tour of Prince William and his new bride, so none of this should be very surprising. And bored as Canadians are with the whole royal thing, it’s unlikely there’s going to be much public reaction, one way or the other.

A quick survey of online reader comments on the Toronto Star website bears this out.

Of course, there are those who served proudly in the Canadian military and welcome the re-astablishment of the historic tie. Others are not so sure.

“I Didn’t Know the Monarchy System of Absolute, Birthright Rule was still so popular in Canada. This is the 21st century. What exactly does this say about us as an independent country? It’s bad enough the Queen has the final say in our political system, now we’re back to waging war in her name, rather than our own?” wrote one reader.

Polls taken over the years show a pretty consistent disinterest among Canadians. According to Wikipedia, in an October 2009 poll by Angus Reid, only a minority 27% of Canadians preferred Canada to remain a monarchy. The plurality 35% of Canadians prefer Canada to have an elected head of state. When asked who they would prefer as a monarch after Queen Elizabeth II, the plurality 37% of Canadians responded by saying there should be no monarch after her.

Guess what? I predict the split will be about the same in 2029!

 

 

The Paris Wife and Hemingway at the Ritz

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the  2nd Armoured Division of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s  Fighting French. Every year since then, Parisians have gathered on this date to celebrate the restoration of their city’s freedom. Among the celebrated personalities who helped “liberate” Paris was Ernest Hemingway, at the head of his own rag-tag little army. He checked out the bar at the Ritz Hotel where he’d drank many a martini, visited his friend Sylvia Beach who’d had to give up her Shakespeare & Co. bookshop during the occupation, then returned to the Ritz to share a dinner with eight officers. They signed each other’s menus with the identical inscription: “We think we took Paris!”

So this is a good time to be reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Bond Street Books), a fictional rendering of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It is a story well-known to anyone who has read Hemingway biographies, yet it sympathetically explores the emotions and attitudes that Hadley and Ernest must have shared and felt, in a way that is possible only in a work of fiction.Nevertheless, The Paris Wife is faithful to the historical record.

Hadley Richardson was an earnest and adventurous midwestern girl when she met Hemingway in Chicago in 1920. He wooed her there and by love letters he sent her when she returned to her home in St. Louis. They married in September, 1921. Hemingway had made up his mind to go to Europe to pursue a writing life, intending to settle in Rome. Sherwood Anderson urged him to go to Paris instead, and gave him letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach.

The novelty of the bohemian life they found in Paris was entrancing to both Ernest and Hadley.The young wife adjusts slowly to the cafe life, the drinking and the trips that Ernest makes throughout Europe on assignments for the Toronto Star. When he is sent to cover a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, Hadley is sick in bed, and Ernest goes ahead. When she follows, a few nights later, she commits the sin of which Ernest will never really forgive her. She puts all his manuscripts in a valise and sets out for the train. Somehow, she loses the valise, either to a thief or to absent-mindedness. The reader shares her dismay when she discovers this, and the pain when she has to tell Ernest what has happened. He rushes back to Paris thinking Hadley could not possibly have done as she had said. The manuscripts are nowhere to be found.

When she became pregnant, Ernest decides the baby should be born in North America. The couple return to Toronto, but Ernest is soon distraught at the petty politics of the Star and the dullness of life in this proper Protestant city. “Toronto’s dead,” Paula McLain has Ernest telling Hadley. “We can’t stay here.”

The Paris Wife is a chronicle of adventure, love, and despair, an absorbing and illuminating story of two lives descending into an inevitable pit of defeat. One cannot read it without experiencing the taste and hearing the sounds of Paris life. Hemingway’s own memory of his Paris life, as in A Moveable Feast, is reflected unerringly in this novel, as incident on incident piles up, adding stress to the marriage.

One watches, fascinated, as Pauline Pfeiffer, who will become Ernest’s second wife, enters their lives. She is not merely tolerated but welcomed by Hadley, even after she realizes Hemingway has been sleeping with her. But it is the scenes in Spain, where Hemingway has gone to write his masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises, that McLain depicts to most painfully register the dismay Hadley feels over what is happening.

The book is at its strongest in its final chapters, where Hadley realizes she can no longer be a dull but loyal wife, and that he will soon leave her, ready to begin not just another marriage but another epic work of literature. Scott Fitzgerald, who with Zelda is seldom absent from this book, is said to have concluded that Ernest needed a new wife for every big new book.

The Paris Wife is about a great writer, his moral lapses, his intensity and his determination to “write well and true,” as well as about the woman who shared the early years of his success. But most of all, it is about an age, one that perhaps never really existed beyond the pages of the books that Hemingway and his contemporaries would write, but one that continues to fascinate, and will have everlasting appeal.

I will be in Paris for this year’s Liberation Day ceremony. A martini at the Ritz, and a salute to The Paris Wife will be in order.