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Sunday
Oct142018

Thomson & Hill

 

It should be the name of a big law firm: Thomson and Hill. Or a very special blend of scotch whisky.

Oh, and have you noticed this little watercolour painting has a real Tom Thomson feel?

Because it somewhat rather is.

I made it using as reference a postcard edition of Thomson's Northern River that was given me years ago by the writer Lawrence Hill. (Larry was in town for a writing conference and I was on the executive committee of the Manitoba Writers Guild, chauffeuring him around).

Coincidentally Larry & I walked into The Winnipeg Free Press Carlton St. newsroom together as eager young news reporters on the very same day (early 80s) ... around 70 years after Thomson made the original painting.

Thank-you TT. And to LH for the inspiration & for giving me something to do.

Oh, and here's another little thing - when Hill & Roberts worked at the Freep it was owned by the original corporate incarnation of FP Newspapers which also published The Globe and Mail and The Vancouver Sun and which was part of a larger newspaper empire owned by Kenneth Thomson the 2nd Baron Thomson of Fleet.

And while one famous Thomson was an art-maker and the other an art collector, as far as I know there is not any other connecton between the Canadian painter Tom Thomson and the Thomsons of Fleet other than, in the former, an ability for art-making and in the other, a great appreciation of, fine art.

Sunday
Sep022018

Storming the Barricades

 

Let me tell you about the time I got pinched by the cops at Portage and Main.

It was dark and there were two shiny black police vans strategically parked at Winnipeg's famous corner, in the city's iron heart. The sergeant had a nightstick and so I didn't feel like arguing. He had my arm in a firm grip and I went very smoothly, very professionally, up into the steel and wire confines of the paddy-wagon.

On the street two seconds earlier I had craned my neck around the van door with weapons drawn – pencil and notebook – and peeked inside. There were six or seven sorry miscreants huddled together in there. And that's when the cop saw me. "Oh, you want to go in too?" He didn't smile but his eyes did. He had a name-tag over the pocket of his parka, Krupke or something. There was a pause for a meta-second and we looked at each other, knowingly. I could tell that he knew that I knew that he knew that it was a show of farce - but an example needed to be made in the name of law and order. 

It was November 18th, 1984. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers had just won the Grey Cup, humiliating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 47-17. Major whoopee descended on downtown. Hundreds of revellers stormed the barricades and hopped over the concrete flower boxes at Portage and Main - they occupied the forbidden intersection in their celebration. Someone had drawn the short straw in the night newsroom at the Winnipeg Free Press and so I was sent over to get some colour for the morning newspaper.

I walked east from Carlton along Portage to Main. By this time maybe 400-500 were occupying the crossroads - for the Blue Bombers, for the people. Celebratory toilet rolls were flung through the air and festooned the traffic signals. Several dozen of those blue and yellow Pudgy Pedro Vuvuzelas pulsated and petered - blasting monotone B notes of varying duration. Wake Me Up Before You Go Go! was pumping from a boom-box. Despite minus -20C there were folks who were half-naked, jigging and jangling and feeling nothing of the usual pain that comes with the onset of winter in the Red River Valley. Buses could not budge for all the jolly gamboleers. Cars were halted and honking. It was a gay enough riot but no one broke any windows or pooped in the planters because they were too joyful to be trouble. Yes, it was frigid but these were Winnipeggers and as it says in scripture: Many are cold but few are frozen. 

Around midnight someone called the cops.

Soon there were 10 of us in the police wagon. There was a banker and a nice gal from the post office, a plumber, a hardware store owner, me and the local stringer for The Globe and Mail. He too had jumped in to the van since neither of us wanted to be scooped by a competitor on the story. And really, when you think about it, getting carted off to the hooskow with a pack of pie-eyed partiers is a much better story than the original assignment. Some follow the money, others follow felonious football fanatics. 

No one was actually arrested. The cops just grabbed whoever loitered near their vans at P & M and we were taken away to be made examples of so that the civil power could show that Portage and Main would not be clogged with riffraff, the intersection would be returned to motorized traffic, and, as Neville Chamberlain once said, there would be peace in our time etc. I can tell you that between myself and the other newsman we interviewed the shit out of the eight quite lubricated and unsuspecting malfeasants as we rode down to the Public Safety Building whose bowels awaited us in all their brutalist architectural glory.  

I was surprised there was no fanfare when we arrived at the jail. Krupke and his associates merely unloaded us at the bottom of a vehicle ramp and ushered us into a sparsely decorated reception area that reeked of stale pee. Had I protested I’m sure I would not have been the first. The room was cinder-block claustrophobic and it needed some artwork, paintings or something colourful on the walls to lift the mood. Within about 15 minutes I started to pace and to wonder about jail rules, protocol and conjugal visits. But after about 20 minutes Krupke showed up and said we were free to go – as long as we all went directly home. 

To this day I don't know if our detention was proper or legitimate but I had no time to enquire since it was nearly 1 a.m., and the presses for the morning "Bulldog" Edition soon would be rolling. I'd taken a massive risk by climbing in the paddy-wagon in the first place. There were no smartphones carried by journalists in 1984 and so I needed a landline to file my story. "I'm allowed one call, right?" Krupke knew the look of a desperado when he saw one and directed me to a landline. I dialed the City Desk and Mike, the Assistant Night Editor, picked up at the other end. "Hi Mike," I said, and made it sound like jail happened every day: "So you’ll never guess where I am." There was a pause. And then, well, I really wish I could paint some of the colour that I next heard pouring from the other end of the phone. There was a real string of crimson words and some purple ones and at one point I thought maybe Mike had swallowed his cigarette and was choking. Let's just say it was a smoking hot string of invective that included some shorter snappy words and then some arching, longer, emphatic words and I am not sure that I could actually spell all those words for you even if I wanted to. But, eventually, we got things sorted out and I was able to dictate a few paragraphs to another reporter, Laura, and it all made its way onto the front page later that morning. 

So that was the time I got pinched at P & M, the Blue Bombers won the cup, everyone survived intact and not even one dog was frozen to a cold November hydrant. 

Thinking back on it all has got me feeling a bit nostalgic about that intersection and whether it should be re-opened to pedestrians again with this planned civic vote on October 24. Oh! The power of the crowd! Today it is the digital crowd of course that makes the biggest noise, though in the case of Portage and Main the first recorded riot there was in 1882 when popular Queen's Hotel bartenders Mike Shelley and Billy Gaetz retired from active duty. The street was gaily done up and hotel patrons partied well into the wee hours to toast them and probably a dog or two kept their tail between their legs just to stay warm, mind. 

You may have heard the P & M story that happened even earlier. The one about the lone and sturdy Winnipegger who, in 1869, crossed Portage and Main after an especially savage June rainstorm. Bible-black skies, thunderclaps and a half-hour cloudburst left P &M a giant soupy gumbo. As he got half way across, leaping from one sloppy spot to another, our friend saw a hat floating in a water-filled pothole. He bent low and lifted the hat and there, staring up at him, was a head. And a lonely hand reached up from the watery mess. "Brother," said the head. "Can you pull me out?" And of course being a helpful Winnipegger he pulled the stranger from the muck hole. "Bless you brother!" said the waterlogged victim. "Thank-you! Thank-you! Now, please," he said, "Would you help me pull out my horse and cart?"

I too can confirm, verify and foreswear that more than once I've been on the receiving end of an outstretched hand around here - because Winnipeggers are just like that.  Like gumbo, we stuck together for each other. And I’ve tried to do my bit too - helping poor lost American tourists who have wandered out of the Fairmont Hotel in January – looking perplexed at those Portage and Main barriers and wondering how to cross the bleeding road to get to the Jets game. The ones I encountered decided to bolt for it – right across Portage and Main - and reflecting on that foolhardiness I daresay they are lucky to be alive. Ponder if you will the exquisite irony if they had been shmucked: to have survived the whiplash of political dysfunction, the everyday gun violence, the rodeo of fake news and ripping of the social fabric in their own nation only to be pancaked while crossing Portage and Main. 

Today, I'm old enough to remember when you could happily frolic and skip across all the puddles at Portage Avenue and Main Street on foot. You may find this hard to believe but I have actually performed that pre-1979 act - publicly - many times. When I’m there now I sometimes think of the millions who have crossed overland where once two humble prairie trails met. 

I don't want to brag about having crossed it on foot because I know that some of you haven’t. And I suspect that if you haven't, then, secretly, you would love to if you could. So here’s my suggestion for October 24 - why don’t you take your turn at creating the next chapter in the history of our famous intersection? Vote Yes to re-open the people’s corner.

 

 


Thursday
Jul192018

The Wild Fox Koan

Hyakujo was Abbot of the Mountain Monastery. On weekday afternoons he would give a short talk in the lecture hall to an assembly of monks and anyone else who wished to listen. For several days Hyakujo noticed an old man sitting quietly at the back of the hall. One day after the lecture the old man stayed behind. Bowing, he approached the front of the hall and asked to speak with Hyakujo.

The old man was summoned to the front. And leaning into Hyakujo's ear he whispered: “I am not really an old man," he said. "I am a fox. In a past world system I was the Abbot of this Mountain Monastery and someone asked me, ‘Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?’ I answered ‘No.’ For that answer I was condemned to live in the body of a fox for 500 lifetimes. Can you give me a turning word to release me?”

Hyakujo said: “Ask your question again.” The fox-man said, “Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?” Hyakujo replied: “An enlightened person does not ignore cause and effect.” On hearing this, the old man was released from his fox body.

"I am free," he announced, paying homage with a deep bow. "I am no longer a fox. But I have to leave my body in my home on the other side of the mountain. Would you give me a monk's funeral?" Hyakujo agreed and the old man disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare for the funeral of a monk. But no one had been sick in the infirmary and so the monks really wondered about this unusual development and what the Master was thinking. After dinner Hyakujo led the monks, 76 of them in a single line, out of the Mountain Monastery and around the mountain. He led them to a cave and with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox. And they then performed a ceremony of cremation, fit for a monk.

That evening, with all returned to the Mountain Monastery, Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told them this story about the old man, the fox, and the law of causation.

Obaku, on hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: "OK I understand that a long time ago because the former Abbot gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for 500 rebirths. But if I was to ask the current Abbot the same question - and we know that he always gives the right answer - what will become of him?"

Hyakujo said: "Come up here. Very close. And I will tell you."

Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher's face with this hand, since he knew this was the answer his teacher intended to give him.

Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed merrily at the discernment. "I'd heard that Persians have red beards," he said, "And now I've met a Persian with a red beard."

__________________________________________

Commentary: I love the Wild Fox Koan. My intuitive take is that the lesson is meant to help us focus on the intentions that underpin our actions. We can, as it were, act our way to right thinking, but we cannot think our way to right action. Everyone is bound by the laws of nature. And while the "enlightened" are not restricted by such laws, they, moreso than others, must be mindful of the source from which their actions arise - and act accordingly. This is well expressed by Cuu Chi, an 11th C Vietnamese monk of the Vo Ngon Thong sect. (We like to think his longform name is Cuu Chi Cuu.) He said: "True and false, merit and sin, are illusory images. So is the law of cause and effect. As long as your activity is based on conceptual discrimination it is not free. The free person sees all because he knows that there is nothing to be seen. He perceives all, not being deceived by concepts. When he looks at things, he sees their true nature. When he perceives things, he penetrates the nature of interbeing. So while living in the world he possesses the secret of the arising and manifestation of phenomena. This is the only way to arrive at awakening ..." So, we are masters of ourselves, even when living in the world of conditioned things. If, as Allan Marett says, realisation of the empty one world ('enlightenment' as it is sometimes called) means "seeing into the insubstantiality of all things and the boundlessness of Buddha nature" then we would wish to avoid being careless about the relative world - the world in which karma operates - as such carelessness invariably releases manifold suffering.

____________________________

Photo Credits: Wild Fox ~ Dylan Roberts | Happy Stone ~ David Roberts

Monday
Nov062017

Remembering John Pritchard

 

I don’t remember grandmother Maggie mentioning her brother John Pritchard.

But it seems fitting to remember him now since it is pretty much exactly 100 years ago that he was killed in the Battle of Bourlon Wood, near Cambrai in France.

Private J. O. Pritchard, DCM, No. 2361, served in the 1st Battalion The Welsh Guards. On the day he was killed, November 28, 1917, his unit was expecting an enemy counter attack near the village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame along the Hindenberg Line.

The previous day, November 27th, it snowed. And on the 28th the enemy rained down 16,000 rounds of high explosive shells and gas on British positions. “The Guards suffered enormous losses as they advanced against enfilading fire from La Folie wood and became embroiled in house to house fighting,” said one witness account. “The situation was intolerable and by 1300 hours it was over. Despite great courage and tenacity the Guardsmen had been overwhelmed by an entrenched enemy in superior numbers.”

John was born in Rhosgadfan Wales on September 19, 1896. He enlisted at Liverpool on 10th November 1915 and gave his occupation as a Carter. The Welsh Guards were newly formed that year, the fifth foot guard regiment following the Grenadiers, Coldstream, Scottish and Irish Guards.

Almost 4,000 Welsh Guards saw action in France and Flanders during the Great War and more than 850 died. Twenty two of them, including our Great-Uncle John, were awarded the DCM or Distinguished Conduct Medal. This award was established in 1854 by Queen Victoria as a decoration for gallantry in the field by other ranks of the British Army. It is the oldest British award for gallantry and was a second level military decoration after the Victoria Cross, until it was discontinued in 1993.

There must be a market for war memorabilia, which is why a bronze memorial plaque dedicated to John by our great-grandparents Lewis and Mary-Ann Pritchard, recently was auctioned in the UK by Laidlaw Auctioneers. The insert card was later again auctioned on eBay, but our family managed to repatriate it from the seller and the card is now held by my cousin Jill in Caernarfon. In Welsh, it says “In Loving Memory of Our Beloved Son …” And it goes on to say that John was wounded at The Somme but returned to action before being wounded again at Ypres where he was awarded the DCM. Following this second recovery from battle wounds he was once more returned to action when he was Killed in Action November 28, 1917 at Bourlon Wood.

'A nasty adventure'

The military hospital records show he was wounded the first time just prior to his 20th birthday on 10th September 1916 during the Battle of Ginchy (The Somme) with gunshot wounds to his left arm and buttocks. After recovering, John rejoined his unit to fight in Flanders at the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres). John was given the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions on the 19th July 1917 during this battle. In the History of the Welsh Guards by C. H. Dudley Ward there is a paragraph summarizing his actions that day in Flanders: “The battalion took over the front line by Boesinghe Chateau, the line they would attack from. The Prince of Wales and Gen. Gaythorne Hardy visited the battalion in this line. The shelling all the time was heavy.  Pte. 2,361 J. 0. Pritchard had a nasty adventure during the relief on the 19th. The enemy shelling had been continuous and severe, with frequent short, crashing barrages on all approaches to the line. Pritchard was to act as guide to one of the relieving platoons, and had to meet it at a point some two miles away. On his way to the rendezvous he was wounded in fifteen places, but he completed his task and fainted as he led the platoon into the front line. He had walked three miles from the time he was hit, and had to lead the platoon through one of the enemy crashing barrages while passing Boesinghe Chateau. A fine example of endurance. “

The citation for his DCM posted in the London Gazette on 17th September 1917 said: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in guiding a platoon of a relieving battalion to the front line, through a very heavy barrage, although wounded in 15 different places early during the operation.  He covered in all a distance of over three miles, and it was entirely due to his pluck and determination that a large section of the front line was relieved.  He refused to have his wounds attended until he had carried out his duty, after which he was carried back to the dressing station on a stretcher.”

Less than two months later John was back in action at Bourlon Wood in the Battle of Cambrai. This was a very costly battle. There were nearly 100,000 men on both sides who shed blood on this patch of northern France between November 20th and December 9th, 1917.

John Owen Pritchard’s sacrifice is commemorated, along with 7,000 others at the Cambrai Memorial, panel 3. He was just 21. And we remember him.

(Photo Credit: British troops near Ginchy, September 1916 - Imperial War Museum)

Thursday
Jan122017

Post-Truth News

 

 We stand in awe at the power of the crowd - the phenomenon of assembly and disassembly, of unification and fracture - the power of the crowd in the digital space and elsewhere, to come together and to unleash itself for better or worse, good or ill.

We've reached the point where a seemingly evolved western democratic culture has embraced a pathology of derangement so severe that politics no longer functions at the level of rational discourse.  There is a crisis of credibility and integrity. Contributing to this trouble is the fact that a previous emphasis on fact-finding and accuracy in the news media has been usurped by millions of content producers churning out free-floating opinion. The result is that truthfulness has been upended by puffed-up histrionics, fear-stoking, spin and pants-on-fire lies. You could say truth has been trumped.

It is amazing to me how ubiquitous is today's news and how everyone is a publisher.
 
The theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested decades ago that “we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning."

Our shortened attention span and addiction to the novelty of the next digital stimulus leaves us open to manipulators who exploit the fissures of division between groups. Such a millieu provides a more than sufficient opportunity for disinformation: "You are FAKE NEWS!"

It also opens the door for any opinion to hold sway over the crowd, no matter how dangerous or poorly formed. Everyone can find their personal truths reflected in the iridescent patina of the web. The internet is a filter bubble. It is an echo chamber. It's is a personalized algorithm that feeds on itself and we are seduced by the glitter of our own digitized universe.

This disruption and exploitation was articulated by the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci who said in his prison diaries: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

It's easy to be smug, here in Canada. We should not be. Bend low your ear to the rumblings: hear the long-simmering cri de coeur rise up from both right and left. Not just a few restless voices are emboldened as once-firm bedrock shifts.

Looking to our neighbours to the south, we hope it all ends OK. It's sometimes tempting to look away and try to not watch. But then, like that car crash in front of your house - you can't avert your gaze. It's a bit like the cavity in your tooth. It's painful to stick your tongue in there. But you can't stop sticking your tongue in there.

As Andrew Sullivan observes, this inability to look away from the crisis, to detach from the emergency, is one of the proofs that autocrac rule is gnawing at the very heart of western democratic institutions and values: "One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all ... because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times." How exquisitely ironic it is, then, that in a time of diminished confidence in news media that an anxious public turns to this very news media for information, a media which is, itself, also diminished, untrustworthy and unhinged.

This is particularly dangerous in the age of personality driven politics. And so what are we to make of this figure who occupies the centre of the cyclone to the south of us, from which we cannot look away? There are those who dispute it, but watching him, my own unqualified diagnosis would be narcissistic personality disorder triggered by low self-esteem. This can be measured by micrometer - you can gauge the thinness of the skin. That's because for the narcissist, like the Sultan of Delhi, there is no real communion with others. The same psychosis applies to the Jihadi narcissists who declare war in the name of God.

Elias Canetti describes the ascendancy of the manipulative power figure in his book Crowds and Power, as well as the psychosis itself. It is the seeker chasing glorification of his own Name: "Names collect their own crowds ... The crowd which the seeker after fame envisages consists of shadows, that is, of creatures who do not even have to be alive as long as they are capable of one thing, which is to repeat his name."

Friends, it all appears to be unfolding in the manner of a horses ass no matter which way you look at it. The wild ride is underway. So we are keeping the internet domain name Trump.Rodeo which has been put on a loop to here until a future utility for it unfolds.

(Published January 20, 2017)

(Image - After Amano - Digitized watercolour and ink on paper - David Roberts)