Friday, 30 March 2012

Bill Bryson, Travel Writer and... historian?

Like many bibliophiles I'm a sucker for the discount table at book stores. So when I saw a deal in Chapters the other day I couldn't help but look a bit closer at what was on offer.

And what should I see but a book of history by Bill Bryson - a book that is about, well, everyday history. I missed it when it came out in 2010, called At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I've only read one of his travel books, but I did enjoy his A Short History of Nearly Everything, a popular science introduction to all kinds of basic science ideas that everyone ought to know. Now Bryson has turned his attention to our private lives, our home life. What kind of historian is he?

Well, at the risk of offending Australians everywhere (who are still smarting at the easy stereotypes in his In a Sunburned Country), I have to say that Bryson does quite well at making the past come to life. The premise of the book is that he takes his own English home, a country rectory built around 1850, and goes through it room by room, using each room to tell the history of the kinds of activities and people that would have been found within it. So we get food history in a chapter on the kitchen, and the history of servants life in a chapter on the scullery and larder, and so on.

Bryson is no original historian, doing extensive primary research. He is more anecdotal than comprehensive, as befits a travel writer, popping here and there through the distant land that is history. But he does have enough sense to treat the past as a truly foreign land, as something that is fascinating in its own right, and which deserves to be explained.

And, of course, he is very funny. He is great on the early cookbooks, especially the influential Mrs Beeton's The Book of Household Management. Mrs Beeton, he says, 'made clear that running a household was a grave and cheerless business.' Despite the fact that most of 900 pages in the book are devoted to giving recipes he suggest that she didn't 'go near her own kitchen if she could possibly help it.' A hint here comes 'when she suggests, for instance, boiling pasta for an hour and three quarters.' He quotes her on garlic ('offensive') on potatoes ('suspicious: a great many are narcotic') and on ice and cold beverages ('It is also necessary to abstain from them when persons are very warm, or immediately after taking violent exercise, as in some cases they have produced illnesses which have ended fatally.').

There is much more, all of it anecdotal and fascinating - plenty of old chestnuts but also some, to me, new information too. His bit on the export of Wenham Lake ice (near Boston) to Europe and around the world in the 1840s is fascinating. So too is the anecdote where he says that the Norwegians changed the name of a lake near Oslo to Wenham so as to 'tap into the lucrative market'.  

If he lingers in the houses of the well-to-do a little long, he doesn't neglect the reality of poverty and the homes of average folk. No academic historian would have the breezy confidence to attempt a book like this, full of holes and gaps and leaps of logic. But that makes it all the more interesting to read.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

John Ibbitson on the 'Laurentian Consensus'

I have just read John Ibbitson's long essay on the fall of what he calls the 'Laurentian Consensus' (published online at the Literary Review of Canada site here). It is, essentially, an argument that the 2011 election mattered in a historically significant way - that it represents a shift in the political nature of the way the country is governed.

He seems good on the last five years and the current mood of the country, but his ideas about the Laurentian elite seem to simply echo the Conservative Party rhetoric on why one ought to vote Conservative. In other words, they pick up on a few facts and then shape them in such a way as to make those who oppose them part of a cultural elite of snobby, CBC and arts loving folk who don't buy enough double-doubles at Timmies. I noticed that he was also taking an uncharacteristically sceptical line on robo-call. Is he trying to cosy up to the Conservatives? Trying to win some favour so that those in the know will start talking to him?

He does wonder about the origins of the term Laurentian consensus. If he's looking for an answer, my guess is that he (or someone else) picked it up from the idea of the Laurentian thesis of Canadian history associated with, amongst others, Donald Creighton. Take a look at Carl Berger's classic book on the writing of Canadian history for a deeper explanation.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Eminent Acronyms: P B Waite on R B Bennett

In Search of R.B. Bennett

Roderick Benns at Fireside Publishing tells us (here) that P B Waite has a new biography coming out of R B Bennett (with McGill-Queen's UP). I had somehow missed this entirely.

Waite is a superb historian and a subtle, elegant writer. He must be of a rather fine vintage himself. I still remember getting my first office as a Masters student at Dalhousie University in the mid 90s. There were boxes on the floor, shoved to the sides of the room, seemingly forgotten and abandoned - certainly not cared for by anybody who was in the history department at the time.

I couldn't help but peek to see what they were and I found that many seemed to be old manuscripts of Waite's who had long since retired from Dal. It seemed a shame then, and does even more so now, to think of the boxes as being left untended.

Little did I know that the man was still there and would, many years later, come out with a new book. There can be a long, long life after 'retirement.'

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Christopher Moore's History News: Hatchet award nominee: Evans on Wilson on Adolf Hi...

Christopher Moore's History News: Hatchet award nominee: Evans on Wilson on Adolf Hi...: Richard Evans, the distinguished British historian of Germany, unloads on A.N. Wilson, the distinguished British man of letters, for his ne...

Reading Christopher Moore's take on Evans on Wilson on Hitler (bear with me...) makes me think of the Extraordinary Canadians series published by Penguin. The series is meant to get Canadians reading short, lively introductions to the lives of some, well, 'extraordinary' Canadians. If you've been in a bookstore in the last couple of years you can't have missed these things.

I can't quibble with the earnest wishes, but I do wonder about the execution.

Take M J Vassanji's brief bio of Mordecai Richler. Poor Vassanji. He publishes this dainty finger snack of a book just before Charlie Foran's massive and compulsively readable new biography of Richler comes out. Foran goes on - deservedly - to get nominated for and win a slew of awards. Even before I read Foran's book I knew there was something wrong with the Vassanji biogrpahy. There was just too much Vassanji, not enough Mordecai. And it was, to put it mildly, slight.

Sometimes the choice of biographers has been odd too. I haven't yet read Joseph Boyden's double (!!) biography of Louis Riel and Gabirel Dumont (all in barely more than 200 pages). I did hear him interviewed by Sheila Rogers and you can't not admire his earnest desire to give a more 'aboriginal' view of the two men - certainly in keeping with the times. But as for his knowledge of the history, that was something else altogether.

Of course I haven't read all of these books (including Foran's on Maurice Richard, which I did buy but haven't got to yet).

Are there good ones? Do our extraordinary Canadians have some extraordinary biographers to help them come to life?

Contextualizing Robo-Call: Look back, way back...

Where does ‘robo-call’ fit into the history of Canadian political scandal?

If it is true that Conservative party functionaries sought to alter election results in one or more ridings by discouraging some opposition supporters from voting, then this would make for a relatively new kind of historical scandal. Why do I say this?

Historically, political scandals in this country come in two flavours: flavour a) incompetence and flavour b) corruption

Questions of incompetence have usually dogged individuals as in the recent case of Maxime Bernier. When Bernier left official documents in the keeping of his girlfriend, who herself had links to the Hells Angels, critics complained that he couldn’t be trusted to do his job properly. This was a small scale version of what we have seen many times before: the tuna-gate scandal in 1985  when large quantities of tainted tuna were allowed to be put on sale with the Minister fully knowing of the dangers; the Munsinger affair of the early 1960s in which two Conservative cabinet ministers had relations with Gerda Munsinger, a German national who the RCMP believed might have had ties with the Communists. The issue was about the competent performance of one’s job – with a splash of sex to make it more titillating.

The second type of scandal involves corruption and these have usually been about money.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of this kind of scandal broke into the public eye in 1926 when it was revealed that the federal Customs Department, under the corrupt gaze of Liberal Minister, Jacques Bureau, had been colluding with smugglers to run liquor back and forth across the Canada. In other instances, the corruption has been tied to party financing. When John A Macdonald’s Conservatives accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hugh Allan in the 1873 election, many were sceptical that the contributions were not about buying his way into heading up the consortium to build the new railway across Canada.

The robo-call scandal doesn’t neatly fit into either of these kinds of categories. If true, it is evidence of corruption, but not in the usual kind of way. No one is getting rich off of this – not directly. It isn’t about incompetence either.

Certainly we’ve seen plenty of other examples of corruption that were just as egregious. But, and here is where conservative party commentators are wrong, we haven’t seen this kind of corruption before – at least as a scandal that has gained national attention.

The robo-call affair actually hearkens back to a much older style of politics that we thought we were well done with. In the 19th century, before the secret-ballot, political parties engaged in all sorts of dirty tricks to influence the results on election day. Casting a ballot could be a rowdy, rough affair and the ability of political parties to buy alcohol for their friends, and to have toughs on hand at polling stations mattered. (It was one of the arguments against granting women the franchise.)

I know the Conservatives are resurrecting a bit of our past in returning the Royal to the Royal Navy. But do they really want to go back this far in time – to these kinds of elections? It is hardly an ideal for democracy in the 21st century. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Mackenzie King did not smoke opium

William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1905
Mackenzie King, 1905
source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-027975

There's an interesting article in the online BC magazine The Tyee today by Ben Christopher (see it here)about the history of drug policy in Canada - and the emergence of what he calls Vancouver's war on drugs. Of course it starts with the famous Mackenzie King trip to Vancouver in the aftermath of the 1907 race riots. But it goes on to deal with some pretty interesting material. Well worth a look.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Paul Martin on History Education

I read in today's Globe that former prime minister Paul Martin is deriding the lack of attention to aboriginal peoples in history education in Canada today. (see story here)

The article notes how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (looking into the history of residential schooling) had made a similar point, arguing that the history of residential schools ought to be a part of the curriculum. I couldn't agree more.

The entire way our colonial history is taught in elementary and high school needs to be rethought unless and until it focuses on the way in which the founding of Canada was a part of a larger project of colonial expropriation of land and cultural whitewashing. This isn't the only story to be told about Canada's founding, but not including it is like having  maccaroni and cheese without the cheese; you can eat it, but something rather essential is missing.

Alas, though, I'm a bit put off by the suggestion of Martin's group that schools ought to be teaching more about aboriginal culture. Perhaps it's just me but I can't help but be skeptical about how this would actually work in practice. It's hard not to imagine this as leading to the same kinds of over-simplifications usually used to teach about 'pioneer' history now, but this time applied to aboriginal history. So instead of - or along with - stories of pioneer hardship and perseverence we could have stories on the harmony and environmental responsibility of aboriginal peoples.

Is this really what we would want - more simplifications and myth-making but in a more inclusive fashion? 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Journalists are not historians

... and vice versa, I suppose.

Lawrence Martin attempts to put the Harper Conservatives into the context of the history of politcal scandal in his column this morning. According to Martin, the rot started about thirty years ago, at the end of the Trudeau era, with the patronage appointments that Trudeau's successor, John Turner, felt obliged to defend to his own detriment in his famous TV debate with Mulrony ('You had an option, sir!' - see it here).

The many scandals of the Mulroney and Chretien era followed, each prime minister ultimately paying the price (or the party paying the price at any rate). Martin implies that the Harper conservatives don't seem to have learned the lesson. You can let one go, even several, but ultimately these things catch up to you. On this he is probably right.
Harperland by Lawrence Martin
Now Martin is a great journalist. His book, Harperland, does a great job of gathering together the various bits of information on Harper that make the case for him as a control-freak who absolutely loathes the Liberal party. The account is unbalanced, but it's hard not to think that much of what Martin says in this book won't stick with Harper for many years to come.

But as a historian I think he's well off base in assuming that the scandals really started about 30 years ago and only got worse. He talks about Pearson having scandals but being basically a decent man, etc. He's not off base on this either. Pearson was no doubt a decent man; but that's not the point.

What is missing here is the sense that what counts as a scandal has changed. The culture of politics, and the culture into which poltical figures emerge and are ultimately interpreted, has fundamentally changed since the 1960s. It's not that politics have become dirtier. What has really happened is that our standards have changed. We expect more. And this, to me at least, is a good thing. But it's also the kind of change that gets missed by journalists. It especially gets missed when there aren't many historians who are themselves talking about it (think here of the large abandonment of telling big political history in this country by professional historians).

An example:

One of the reasons the Liberal party used to be so well financed in its glory days in the middle of the 20th century was because of the absolutely corrupt (to our modern standards) way in which it was financed. As Reg Whitaker shows in The Government Party, Liberal bagmen used to routinely go to those businesses that won government contracts and, after the contract was awarded, suggest that perhaps the company (or its owners) might like to make a donation to the party. How about something in the range of 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 per cent of what the contract was worth?

No doubt the businessmen felt pretty generous at this point, and they coughed up the donation. I'm certain it had nothing to do with wanting to get another contract in future...

This is one of the reasons why limits on donations were brought in on individuals and corporations.

So when the Conservatives break election spending laws in the 'in-and-out' scandal, is this evidence of a more corrupt kind of politics?

Absolutely not. It is certainly evidence of corruption. And it should certainly be punished by much more than the measly fine that they did receive. But this isn't because the current crop of Conservatives are worse than those who came before. It is rather because they are doing everything they can to bend the rules, and to return us, in whatever way will give them an advantage, to the bad old days of financing political parties.

Far be it from me to defend the Conservatives. But a little bit of historical context is sometimes useful.

More on the history of political scandal to come....

Monday, 12 March 2012

A little bit of Mad Men north of Lake Ontario…

This partly comes out of nowhere, but an email from a colleague asking me about which political figures in the 1950s were known to have mistresses reminded me of the Sordsman's Club. [yes, the spelling is right - not sportsmen's and no 'w' for swordsmen's either.]

I read about it in A B McKillop's great book, Pierre Berton: a Biography. Part of the book is on Google books, but do buy it here as it's well worth the money.

What was the Sordsman's Club?

It seems to have been a gentleman's club whose main organizers were the journalist Pierre Berton and the publisher Jack McClelland. According to McKillop (whose research seems pretty thorough here) the Club would meet regularly at hotel restaurants on a Friday afternoon in Toronto (a favourite haunt was the Franz Josef Room in the Walker House Hotel on
Front Street
). There were regular male members of the club but a variety of women would be invited, never the men's spouses. Much of the afternoon would be spent eating and drinking, toasting and roasting each other. Some of the guests would leave but for others, the meeting would be just the beginning of the fun.

At a certain point in the meeting, the men would go and stand behind a woman of their choosing and what happened next isn't hard to imagine. Some would head off upstairs.Sometimes it was even crazier, ranging far beyond the hotel.  Berton tells of one Friday afternoon trip off in a friend's fixed up B-52 bomber down to New York for the weekend.

At any rate, it is a fascinating 'entrée into life of the cultural and business elite in the early 1960s. No word on whether the women ever got to choose themselves, aside from saying 'no'. One assumes not, alas.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Michael Bliss, Eminent Historian?

It's always handy to have an eminent historian around. Who doesn't need one every once in a while?

Margaret Wente sure found it useful to have one handy the other day when she wrote her column 'Robo calls? Get a grip. We're Canadian.' The title says it all. Wente isn't very impressed by the robo call controversy. This isn't to say she's upset about corrupt attempts to illegally modify election results. No, she just doesn't think that it's much of a controversy.

And she apparently has the 'eminent historian' Michael Bliss to back her up. She quotes Bliss in the column as saying that this is a 'non-scandal'. The real problem, according to Bliss, is that “ [a] lot of people – especially Liberals – simply cannot accept the legitimacy of the Conservatives being in power".

Now, Michael Bliss has published a good number of books, and he has as much right as many others to be called 'eminent'. He has even recently published his own memoirs. But I can't help but think that his eminence in this case has a good deal to do with the fact that Wente agrees with him.

I can't find anything that Bliss has published on the scandal so I'm guessing that the quotes come from an interview. Assuming that Wente has quoted him correctly (not always a good assumption with journalists as I've found out myself a few times) Bliss is making what seem to me to be some pretty ludicrous claims. You might cautiously say that 'we don't yet know enough about the scandal to cast judgment'. That would be judicious, careful. But a 'non-scandal'? And solely related to disagreeing with the government's right to be in power? That is more than a little hasty.

Let's see how things turn out before we make up our mind.

Incidentally, I'm waiting for this story published in Le Devoir to get picked up in the English language media. For those who don't read French, the gist is that it appears that the Conservatives in the last election may have used the same tactics as they did in the 'in-and-out' scandal. It was a technique whereby the Conservatives essentially used local riding associations to launder money so that they could pretend that money used on the national campaign was actually being spent at the local level. This allowed them to overspend the limits on national election expenses. They have since agreed to plead guilty to this, although all the while still claiming it was just a case of difference of opinion.

Well it appears that the difference of opinion (ie illegal behaviour) continued again this time. Various Quebec local conservative ridings are claiming identical expenses of $15,000, paid to a Toronto company, and they don't actually know what they paid for.

Maybe if I become an eminent historian, I'll learn to dismiss this as a 'non-scandal' too.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Charles Taylor Prize

I see that the Charles Taylor prize has this year gone to Andrew Westoll for his book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. From the little bits of it I've seen, it seems like a fascinating book. Check it out here.

But it also makes me think of the relatively good run of winners that were, in some fashion, historical. In 2008 it went to Richard Gwyn for the first volume of his Sir John A Macdonald biography. Then in 2009, it went to Tim Cook for the second volume of his history of Canadians in the Great War, Shock Troops. And last year the award went to Charlie Foran's beautiful biography of Mordecai Richler. Admittedly, Foran's biography was literary but in telling the life of Richler he also made a period the past come to life, at least as Richler saw it.

I'm sure it will be history's turn again, and in another year a book that is in some measure 'historical' will win the prize. But the announcement makes me think again of how few professional historians publish books that could be considered 'literary non-fiction' - the main criteria for the Charles Taylor Prize.

Tim Cook is the only professional historian to have won the prize, and Cook's main job is as the Great War historian at the new War Museum. And he deliberately writes in a way that has 'cross-over' appeal. That is, the books are solidly researched, but he writes to a mainstream audience.

Why don't more Canadian historians do this? What's wrong with the 'literary' in 'literary non-fiction'? Questions worth asking, even if the answers take a while to produce...

Thursday, 1 March 2012

A Very Tough History Quiz

Check out this very tough history quiz (that I saw because Christopher Moore linked to it on his blog). You can link to it here

I scored a 7 out of 10 but that was almost entirely a fluke as I was mostly just eliminating answers I knew were wrong and then taking barely educated guesses based on the alternatives.