Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Peacekeeping and War

What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Noah Richler has a new book out called What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane).

Check out the review of it at the literary blog Pickle Me This (here). I particularly liked her line: 'Peacekeeping was invented by men who’d learned too much about war, and forgotten by men who’d never known it at all.'

Enough said.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A little late

Who needs anniversaries anyway? Why did we talk about the Charter's 30th anniversary the other week, but now it's disappeared from our computer monitors and television screens?

Those questions are my own defence for being far too busy over the past week or so to blog about anything, even something as interesting as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For what it's worth - and very late - here's my eighty two cents.

The Charter matters in modern Canadian history. It's that simple.

Just compare Canada and the United States in the early 1960s and then again today. In the early 60s, Canada was a fairly illiberal country in which a few intelligent thoughtful people were putting forward the idea that governments should protect rights, and many other Canadians (and Canadian governments) were ignoring the idea altogether. It was the United Statess with its Bill of Rights, with its civil rights movement, and with the Kennedys that was the symbol of the progressive, liberal society of the future (despite, or perhaps because of, all the blemishes).

Frank Scott
The lawyer and poet Frank Scott might have won a few key rights cases in the Supreme Court at the end of the 50s (against Quebec's Padlock Law, and against Maurice Duplessis himself in the Roncarelli case - for more see here and here). But in order to win, he had to work around the arcane technicalities of the British North America act and its eccentric federal/provincial divisions. In other words, civil rights victories often came about because lawyers could make other kinds of arguments and make them work for civil rights. Scott believed in the rights that could be read into the history of English Common Law, but the case was often difficult  to make.

Diefenbaker did give Canada a Bill of Rights, but it was a mere scrap of legislation - symbolically interesting, almost meaningless in practice. (This despite what Harper said the other week. Once again, Harper proves to be a very bad student of Canadian democratic history.)

As in the United States there were many Canadians - individuals and organizations - who fought for a more democratic society in these years, one that respected the rights of individuals and groups, and one that protected the rights of minorities and not (as had usually been the case in Canada) the rights of majorities to discriminate against minorities. (This is what really lies behind the conscience rights trumpeted by the Wildrose party in Alberta - a return to the freedom to discriminate. What's next? Are we going to go back to the time when there were restricted covenants on property sales? Shall we say gay people can't buy downtown Calgary condos because selling to gay people goes against the conscience of someone? Such was the thinking of an earlier Canada.)

But despite all the successes of various rights movements in these years, if it hadn't been for the Charter, many of the successes could have just as easily been dismantled over the past decades. This is what has often happened in the United States. Why didn't it happen in Canada? The Charter.

And, of course, it was all something of an accident. It might never have happened. If Joe Clark hadn't bungled his minority government budget in 1980, and if the Liberals hadn't agreed to let Trudeau have one more shot at the can, and if, and if, and if.... it goes on, then we wouldn't have the Charter.

But we do. And it matters. Before Harper took over, and with George junior in power down south, the situation had been reversed from the early 60s. It was Canada that was the beacon of a liberal, progressive society.

You can tell the Charter matters, if for no other reason, than because the Harper Conservatives don't want us to remember it.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Respect the Past?

I'm going to very unfairly pick up on a single word used in an interesting blog over on Active History about the need for remembering the past.  In the post (see it here) about the currently popular themes of rememberance (Titanic, Vimy Ridge) Laura Piticco comments several times on the need to 'respect' the past, and of showing 'respect' for the past.

[Sorry for what follows Laura. You don't deserve to have me riffing on your wording, but here goes...]

What a common, and what an odd idea: this perceived need to respect the past. Why does the past deserve our respect?  And why respect and not indignation, or anger, or fascination?

When people start talking about respecting the past, it makes me start to yawn, to think of official moments of silence, of history as it is meant to be - no discussion, sit down and finish your dinner, eat your vegetables, this is good for you, you'll thank me for this one day, etc, etc, etc, kind of history.

Some things in the past deserve respect. Others deserve indifference or irreverence. And deciding which is which is ultimately both about finding out what happened and then attaching meaning to it. In other words, it's about politics. And we're going to disagree. That's as it should be.

The only thing we really owe the past - and we owe it this in spades - is our curiosity.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

'Horrible Histories': Not in School Please

Amusing thread in the UK where Terry Deary, the man who brought us the Horrible Histories series for kids is claiming that when he hears schools use the books to teach kids, he wants to sue the schools. It's something about schools putting kids off reading - not liking what you're forced to do, etc. (See a link to it on the Guardian books blog here.)

Reminds me of the English poet Philip Larkin claiming that his own nightmare was that after he died he would be celebrated in some kind of ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall. The place would be filled to the rafters with school kids all earnestly reciting his poem that starts, 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.'

Here's Larkin himself with his 'cheery' English words of wisdom

Monday, 9 April 2012

Extraordinary Canadians, part 2

Thanks to everyone who responded to my post that was ultimately about Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series (though it started out being about Christopher Moore's post on a Hitler biography - funny how that happens).

The replies clarified in my mind what it is that has disturbed me about the series.

Clearly there are some good biographies that people like. From those who commented, Matt Hayday likes the accessible Ricci on Trudeau; for Roderick Benns it is the Beaverbrook and Big Bear bios; L S Fraser likes Big Bear too; and Christopher Moore votes for Saul on Baldwin and Lafontaine.

What made things clear for me was Fraser's comment that the batch of bios of former extraordinary Canadians was being written by a bunch of current Extraordinary Canadians (Joseph Boyden or Douglas Coupland, for example). So we ought to be happy that we are so fortunate in getting such great biographers.

And yet this is the rub. My problem, I now see, isn't necessarily with the series as such, but with the world of contemporary Canadian letters. The choices of biographers are all interesting - get people, mostly fiction writers, who have some interesting connection with the topic. The choices might or might not work.

But why is it that we can't get people to write these biographies who really know about the subject, the kind of person who could actually write the two volume, break your back when carrying it back from the bookstore kind of biography? It's not that I'm keen to always read the 400 page plus books. I like a good slim read as much as the next peson. What I want, though, is to have that little book written by someone who really knows what they're talking about - who isn't chosen just because they are themselves a kind of celebrity.

And here my concern isn't with the editor of the series, it's with academics. Why is it that, for the most part (warning: generalization alert), those who get paid to be experts in a subject (academics) can't and/or won't write genuinely accessible books that people will read?

There are exceptions. The biography of Leacock was written by the historian Margaret Macmillan. Not a Leacock expert of course, but certainly more than capable of the task.

It's nothing against the fiction writers, but where are the academics who want to write to the kind of popular audience that this series will attract? A complex question, with many different kinds of answers. But at least now I know that it was this that bothered me about the series - its context, not necessarily its content.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Notes from the Marking Underground

Searching for an essay actually written by a student - no plagiarism, no invented footnotes. And when it comes, ahhhh.... the simple pleasures in life.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Starowicz on Narrative History

Mark Starowicz has a nice letter in the March issue of the Literary Review of Canada in response to an earlier essay by Kenneth Dewar (alas the letter isn't online) He talks about the way so much academic history is written in such a way as 'to border on disdain for any reader.'

He then goes on to quote C Vann Woodward on narrative history: ' "Narrative history... is the end product of what historians do. The narrative is where they put it together and make sense of it for the reader. Other types of history - analytical, quantitative, comparative history - as important as they are, are mainly for other historians." '

This last point seems pretty fundamental because for so many academics, that is the audience: themselves.

In certain circles, these are fighting words. But then again (and not to sound too 19th centuryish) what is life without a bit of struggle?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The NFB and you

What a smart move it was a few years ago when the National Film Board of Canada decided to turn its website into a place to showcase the films it has created. It's hard to imagine a better showcase of the history of film in Canada.

Take a look at this blog post (here) on the site which showcases a short film, The Devil's Toy that was madein 1966 about skateboarding in Montreal. You can see the film there too. Then go on to explore the site.

The Devil's Toy: Skateboarding in Montreal in 1966

Now, if only someone at the CBC would smarten up and do something similar for that public institution. Instead of the amusing but light little clips from the archives that they give us, Canadians could decide for themselves what they want to look at. Now that would really be a television archive!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Douglas Gibson, genial man of letters

Genial: who knew the little world could mean so much?

This thought came to me last night listening to Douglas Gibson, the famed literary editor, speak about his new book of memoirs, Stories about Storytellers (ECW Press, 2011).

Stories Cover

The room was filled with more than a few greying and silver heads, comfortably dressed folk all, listening to this incredibly, well… genial man tell stories about the Canadian authors with whom he has worked. They range from Hugh MacLennan and Mavis Gallant to Alice Munro, Robertson Davies and Alistair MacLeod. They also include great writers of non-fiction including Barry Broadfoot (half million copies sold of his book on the depression, Ten Lost Years), Peter C Newman and Peter Gzowski. And then there are the former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin Jr. It’s hard to imagine an editor more blessed. It also says something about the historical era in which he worked, and the powerful support (tenaciously fought for) that was given to works that were Canadian.

Gibson essentially recounted anecdotes, telling details about the authors. Many of the bits, I suspect, have been told over and over again (certainly the Morley Callaghan v Ernest Hemingway boxing match is an oldy). Others were more personal (his 'home invasion' chez Alistair Mcleod to recover the long awaited novel, No Great Mischief). I can’t imagine that there will be a critical thing written in the book – he certainly uttered nary a dark phrase last night. It was like listening to an editorial version of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl CafĂ©.

But like McLean, he didn’t try to be anything other than what he was. And for that, the evening (and likely the book) was entirely pleasant and, in its own way, informative. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in Canada in the second half of the 20th century.