Thursday, July 31, 2014

History of Ideas: Bernie Lucht

Bernie Lucht, longtime executive producer and moving spirit at CBC Radio's Ideas for many years, retires today:
Most of my CBC life, as you know, has been at Ideas, a program I was privileged to be associated with for forty-one of my forty-seven years. It is a program I love deeply. Only a public broadcaster could have provided the fertile ground for Ideas to grow in; only a public broadcaster can nurture and sustain everything else we do.   

Bernie must have been pretty new to Ideas when I first pitched an idea there. His predecessor as executive producer said, "We did a survey of Canadian history a few years ago. Is there something new to say?" But they produced it and several others later, and yes, there were new things.

I tell myself that helped lead to a lot more history-driven docs at Ideas, most of them by other people and much better than mine, as people realized what I had: that in long form radio you could interview contending scholars, get Canada's best actors to enact dialogue drawn from original sources, use the amazing sound resources in the CBC archives, layer in period music, and do subjects that were probably unfilmable and in ways print alone could not reach. 

Ideas has a vast archive of historical material, most of it readily available online, including recently Margaret MacMillan on World War One, and Jung Cheng and Kristie Miller on the Empress Cixi and other women "behind the throne." Also, Lucht's own ideas on "Where ideas come from."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Maclean's: What if they did the First World War over, and nobody came?

Wouldn't that be the best possible outcome?

Maclean's doesn't think so.  In the current issue but not online, Peter Shawn Taylor offers "Could We Do It Again?", a paranoid screed about the heroic way that hundreds of thousands of Canadians loyally volunteered to be sent off to the slaughter -- and about how Canadians today lack the discipline and moral fibre to do the same thing again.
Any attempt to put Canada's effort in the Great War in modern perspective runs headlong into the uncomfortable question of whether we still retain that apparently boundless capacity for suffering and commitment we displayed from 1914 to 1918.  Would Canadians today answer a call to duty for a national project the size, scope, and duration of the Great War?
Kids today!

Taylor interviewed several leading historians  -- Tim Cook, Jonathan Vance, Don Drummond, John English, Jack Granatstein -- and while interviewees don't get to control what an interviewer makes of their comments, it is discouraging that none of them moved Taylor to any consideration of the notion that for Canadians to have refused to provide unlimited amounts of cannon fodder to a self-defeating participation in Europe's dynastic struggles would have been A GOOD THING.

The best he can get is John Manley, "rare eminence grise of Canadian politics," confidently predicting that kids aren't so bad and really could be roused to serve in a great national cause. But surely "Could we refuse to do it this time?" would be a better question to be asking .

Is a salute to Ready, Aye, Ready really going to be the theme of Canada's WW1 centenary? Maclean's believes it should be. Andrew Cohen seems to buy in.

Image: The Independent

Update, July 31:  Russ Chamberlayne comments:
Judging by what appeared in the Calgary Herald in August 1914, the opening of World War I elicited horror in a substantial part of the population. The Herald published poetry (a literary form long missing from opinion pages) with the most evocative titles and texts. The poem "The Wail of the Mothers" repeated the line, "Oh, give me back my son!" Elsewhere in the Herald's August pages, another poem — titled "Peace!" — began with these lines:
Great God of Peace and Love, how long shall man
Shed blood of man for paltry pomp of power,
And earth be rife with warfare, and the land
Filled with the tears of widowed hearts, that cry
To Thee in bitter agony for aid?
The paper also printed the brooding "War From Its Inglorious Side." It contained lines such as: "I was conceived in passion, hatred, envy and greed, born in the morning of antiquity, and have a genealogy whose every page drips with the red blood of murdered innocence. I lay waste the green fields and still the hand of industry."...
Remember that these clear-sighted cris de coeur were published before the reality of
slaughter became apparent. How many of us would be that perceptive and passionate

History of Golf: Cochrane on George Lyon

"A coal-heaver's swing," they said
Lawyers:  literate, curious, verbal, confident, and often with disposable income. And as a result, self-publishers in a big way, it increasingly seems. Sometimes on historical topics.

Michael Cochrane, a Toronto lawyer widely published in infobooks on family law and other legal topics, has taken up the story of George Lyon, winner of the 1904 Olympic gold medal in golf (an Olympic medal in golf?), and makes him the focus of a new book on early Canadian golf and the pre-war Canada that produced him.  See the website and preview here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is pop medievalism taking over?

At first I was kinda taken with this argument that Tolkein and his heirs have appropriated medievalness so completely that actual medieval history is vanishing.
Ever since The Hobbit appeared in 1937, Tolkien’s oeuvre has become a cipher for the look and feel of “medievalness.” From Monty Python’s Holy Grail to Game of Thrones, most modern depictions of the 5th to the 15th centuries in European history bear Tolkien’s distinctive mark. Today, the phrase “Middle Earth” conjures hobbit-holes, not the beautiful Old English word middangeard—the middle space between heaven and hell, where humans live out their short lives. The Lord of the Rings has grown so monumental that medieval culture shivers in its shadow.
But isn't that what pop culture always does, elevate a few key images into the general understanding? Hemingway's First World War, or that of the war poets. Zhivago's Russian Revolution.  A choice between Ian Fleming's and John LeCarré's Cold War. Simply by being popular, these are always going to do well against specialist connoisseurship.

Trying to think of a Canadian version of a successful pop history, I heard Stewart McLean casually mention Samuel de Champlain, "that great humanist," on the radio. David Fischer's characterization of Champlain (which I found highlly unlikely) may be taking over. But we do have the contending versions of John A. Macdonald, the bicentennial hero or James Daschuk's.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Belshaw on Canada and Australia

This guy Belshaw is one of my blogpals, in the sense that he sometimes looks at mine, and I sometimes look at his (and we have absolutely no other connection). Lately he's thinking about Canada-Australia comparisons and soliciting suggestions.  Maybe you can help him out.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who's your Father?

This is where I'm blogging from.  Which is to say, blogging will be slim to none for the next ten days, unless we find ourselves in more ferry terminal departure lounges with time to kill and free wi-fi

Meanwhile, Take this quick quiz to determine which Father of Confederation you would have been. (Fair warning.  I came out as John Mercer Johnson, someone even I barely know.)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Leaders and Legacies on the Lazier murder reenactment

All the re-enactors except the two hanged men... which seems ominous
Roderick Benns, who attended, gives a full report on an unusual piece of local history re-enacting last Friday: the 1884 trial of two accused murderers, with lawyers and local historians playing the parts, a court-filling audience happily taking sides, and the whole thing taking place in the original courtroom in the original courthouse, in Picton, Ontario.

Photo: Leaders and Legacies

Friday, July 11, 2014

History of aboriginal title... the other shoe?

No forest? No animals, no hunting
I haven't had time to note the historic potential of the Supreme Court's recent Tsilqot'in decision, and now here's another one worth watching: the Grassy Narrows decision to be handed down later today.

Tsilqot'in covered lands never affected by treaty, and the SCC gave what you would think would be a "Well, Duh" decision: if it wasn't given up, it's still theirs.

Grassy Narrows represents the rest of the country: the vast territories where there are treaties in place. The First Nations plaintiffs (actually the appellants at the SCC, I think, but they began as plaintiffs) want the court to acknowledge that when a treaty confirms a permanent right to hunt and fish, well, they have a permanent right to hunt and fish, and so logging and other activities that make hunting and fishing impossible are not permitted without consent.

Consent can be negotiated. Consent can be priced. It has been impressive how much of the reaction to the Tsilqot'in decision has been on the lines of, "Well, if the law doesn't allow us to just steal Indian land anymore, okay, we'll just adjust our business plans a little and negotiate payment for it from now on." Like this one. Pretty reassuring.

It will take more cases, no doubt, but if Grassy Narrows goes the right way today, and it turns out that treaties really are treaties, binding on us as well as on the First Nations, the significance could be profound. I mean profoundly good.  Once the First Nations of Canada own and control and can draw benefit from all the land that is already theirs, it becomes possible to imagine aboriginal poverty on reserves going away. I try not to get too Pollyanna on this, but it's that big, I would guess.

Update:  Well, that was fast.  Barely posted that when the news came in.  7-0 against Grassy Narrows.

I don't like criticizing judges. They know stuff I don't and deal with issues I don't. Apparently much of this was particularly linked to division of powers questions between federal and provincial responsibility that have been pretty much settled law since the 1880s.  The larger issue will come up again.

Image: CBC News

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reading the Tour

Part of the Tour de France yesterday
I wasn't sure how to follow the Tour this year.

When I started following it, it was just the show that hooked me -- the landscapes, the spectacle, the endurance, the unfolding beauty and sophistication of race strategy. When I first discovered ("columbused"?) a Canadian in the race, he was invisible, never on camera, never mentioned by the commentators, never covered in Canadian sports coverage.  Following Ryder Hesjedal required serious work down deep inside the classifications on the tour website.

Then Ryder became a star. He won a grand tour, contended for stages, climbed like a champion. grabbed the camera frequently, and earned a place in the verbal tics of the commentators, who could not say "Hesjedal" without saying "the big Canadian boy." So I fell back into my usual sports situation.  Like following hockey after Easter or baseball in September, I was becoming a Tour front-runner, gripped by how my team and my guy were doing.

Suddenly we have a Tour without Hesjedal.  He placed high in the Giro d'Italia this past May and announced he would skip this year's Tour de France in order to contend for the Vuelta d'Espana later this summer. It's plausible; few riders do all three. But his team, the US-based Garmin, has a slew of hot young riders coming up. Most of them are Americans, with more potential than Hesjedal the diffident Canadian as the new face of post-Armstrong cycling in the US. Garmin's 2014 Tour promotion is all around a young Yank called Andrew Talansky.  You have to wonder if this leadership sharing -- Talansky the Tour, Hesjedal the Giro and the Vuelta -- is a genuine partnership, or if Hesjedal may have to look for a new team soon.

Defanned, I found myself unsure how to watch the Tour this year. Not quite a week in, I'm learning again.

You can watch soccer in 90 minutes (actually, 120 minutes plus the penalties, too often)  The Tour is more like an enormous novel or a long-running series. You just have to sink into it and let the meaning emerge gradually. I'm still not rooting for anyone in particular (though there are two Canadians deep in the weeds of the tour).  But there are more than enough storylines.

  • Who knew Yorkshire was so beautiful? 
  • Who knew England would turn out such crowds, or that they would shut down London on a Monday for the Tour de France? 
  • Jeez, look at the role of injuries:  Mark Cavendish, the leading sprinter, out on the first day, and Chris Froome, the defending champion, out yesterday.
  • Moving to see them racing through a landscape of First World War cemeteries, with the Tour helicopter cameras circling round Canada's "Brooding Canadian" statue at Tyne Cot.
  • Ah, so that's how cobblestone sections can reshape the whole race. Yesterday's race was cold, wet, mud-soaked, and absolutely terrific. 
  • Hmm, Vincenzo Nibali, a rather uncharismatic Italian but almost Hesjedalian in his dogged competitiveness, "put time" into everybody, and is emerging as the most serious early contender. You have to have been watching all week to understand how a 2 minute advantage is huge in a race that spans three weeks and 3600 km.  
  • Das Boom
  • A Dutch racer called Lars Boom, and you have to be seriously into the Tour to be aware of him, is a proud dad with a very cute little kid.
  • Canadians Christian Meier and Svein Tuft are 140th and 144th.  And this is good. Tuft, particularly, is a key member of their Australian Orica-Greenedge team. (Maybe Hesjedal will join the Aussies next year!)
  • Aren't TV sports networks the biggest moneymakers in broadcasting? Tour coverage in Canada shifted from TSN 2 to one of the SportsNet channels this year, and while I thought TSN was unreliable, SportNet is seriously cheap and chintzy about their coverage. No pre- or post-race commentators, different commentators without explanation during the race --it's kinda disorienting. Not hard to imagine the jocks in head office just going through the motions until hockey returns.
  • Yeah, Andrew Talansky is doing well, the Garmin team seems strong around him, and he gets coverage as an American anyway.
Anyway, this novel ain't half written yet, but this may be it for TdF coverage here this year. Indeed, fair warning, this blog is soon about to go into summer hiatus for a while.

Update:  Tour of Alberta, September 2-7. Just saying.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Germani on WW 1

Canadian Journal of History offers temporary free online access to a review of five recent books (including Margaret MacMillan's) on the First World War by Ian Germani of U Regina.
(h/t H-Canada)

Friday, July 04, 2014

Tour de France 2014

Okay even if you don't watch the Tour, watch this teaser -- barely a minute.

What else do you need to know?

Historiography of the First World War

... nicely, it seems to me, summed up by Simon Heffer in the British magazine New Statesman.