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Life as we know it

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My post of yesterday concerning the poignant death of Gord Downie was necessarily brief – because:

– the occasion was just too sad and I could not find words to adequately express the sense of loss…

– because in many ways there is little more to be said…

– because there is much more to be said but there are many considerably more qualified (and way more eloquent) than I to say it…

Canadians doubtless need read no further but for others – particularly those across the ocean in Europe – I sense that it may be important to add something more for the benefit of those wondering what on earth all the fuss is about.

I posted this missive on the occasion of the Tragically Hip’s farewell concert last summer, which might give the puzzled reader some insight into why it is that the premature but expected death of a rock singer has so traumatised a nation. That it has indeed done so may be confirmed by watching Canada’s premier – Justin Trudeau – failing to hold back the tears as he pays tribute on national television. “It hurts”, he says. “We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it”.

Given the almost total lack of interest in the Tragically Hip outside Canada this may seem somewhat over the top. All I can suggest is that the gentle reader spends ten or fifteen minutes reading some of the many tributes to Downie, in order to gain just some insight into why he was so loved and respected. For example,

‘The place of honor that Mr. Downie occupies in Canada’s national imagination has no parallel in the United States. Imagine Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe combined into one sensitive, oblique poet-philosopher, and you’re getting close. The Tragically Hip’s music “helped us understand each other, while capturing the complexity and vastness of the place we call home,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was always raw and honest — like Gord himself.”’

As Vozick-Levison suggests, Downie was much more than just a singer. He was a writer – a poet – an occasional actor – a philanthropist – an activist on behalf of indigenous peoples and much, much more…

Above all, perhaps, he was a Canadian.

 

 

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Gord Downie

 

1964 – 2017

 

 

Photo by Andy Dawson Reid

 

“First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk,
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life”

 

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There is something completely magical about the way that fungi live patiently in one’s lawn – in the shape of millions of spores just waiting for the perfect conditions in which to thrive – before suddenly bursting forth for the purposes of reproduction. They have a relatively narrow window in which to do so once the air turns cooler and the moisture levels rise, before the first frosts persuade them once again to keep their heads well down for the duration.

Persistent little buggers, aren’t they!

Photo by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson ReidPhoto by Andy Dawson Reid

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“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas of which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals.”

George Orwell

I found myself quite taken aback the other night whilst watching the season opener for the new series of ‘Saturday Night Live’ on the TV. The item concerned was actually pretty funny; a skit featuring actor Ryan Gosling delivering a rant about the designer of the credits on James Cameron’s film ‘Avatar‘ having chosen the font ‘Papyrus’ for the main titles.

I was surprised because I had not heard that this was ‘a thing’ – (or what would now probably be referred to a ‘meme’). The InterWebNet rapidly set me right – informing me that Papyrus is one of the most hated fonts ever and offering me a panoply of websites dedicated to pejorative references to its usage. The level of loathing was well up to usual InterWebNet standards, comparing the antipathy toward the typeface to that of ‘Comic Sans’ (though I did find it amusing that some wag had apparently merged the two to create what was briefly called ‘Comic Papyrus’ before being renamed for legal reasons to ‘Comic Parchment’. Blimey!).

Now – let’s sort out issues of self-interest right away. I use Papyrus in the banner for this site and have also used it in other places for titles. I like the font and I think that – in the right place – it works pretty well. So there!

Clearly at least some of the antipathy is simply down to popularity. Microsoft inadvertently created a monster by including the relatively obscure font with their Office suite, thus giving access to those who had no right to such things. Popularity seems to bring out the worst in some people and when Microsoft is involved it is clearly open season.

Certainly a case could be made concerning over (or inappropriate) use, but I suspect that something else is going on here. On one design website an article going by the title ‘10 Iconic Fonts and Why You Should Never Use Them’ includes the following:

“Unlike other reviled typefaces, though, Papyrus isn’t bad because it is overused: it’s bad because it just doesn’t look good. Kitschy, cheap and vile, Papyrus has no place in your designs.”

Ok – so those judgements are subjective in the extreme and the designer who wrote the article is an eighteen year-old entrepreneur, but do I detect a slight whiff of professional snobbery here?

Now – I spent forty years as an IT professional and it was certainly annoying when someone who had bought a computer from a store and read a couple of magazines believed that they knew better than I how to run an IT service – but the world has changed and the gap between the professional and the ‘amateur’ is no longer as wide as it used to be. Yes – I studied Computer Science and built a career in IT; I also spent more than four decades learning without formal training how to be a musician, a composer, a writer, a theatre practitioner… and in each of these I was aided by the rapid development of tools that placed in the hands of those who cared to put in the time and effort the means to reach a pretty decent standard.

The point surely is that – counter to some recent views to the contrary – ‘experts’ are a good thing… but that their expertise should be based on wisdom and such wisdom is usually acquired through (extensive) experience. Once achieved such doyens will doubtless be wise enough to recognise when some spotty youth armed with an iThing has actually produced something that they themselves could only dream of.

Flame off!

 

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Image from Pixabay…to those who receive the latest utterances from this source by email.

I was as surprised as you may have been that yesterday’s episode came bundled with the last nine postings also in tow. Sorry about that.

I don’t know for sure why that happened. There was a change to the blog during the week – in that I followed Google’s exhortation (never a good idea!) to make the site more secure by forcing the use of https instead of http. Now – that’s all techie stuff which I will reluctantly explain – if you really want me to…

Thought not!

Anyway – that change may have encouraged the mail plugin that I use to re-send the last batch of messages (thinking that the postings had changed). I guess we will find out when we see what happens to this one.

Apologies in advance should you get another unwanted batch of ten!

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Detail from a portrait by Jenny C HallI find myself moved to an unexpected degree by the recent death of that giant of the British theatre – Sir Peter Hall – at the age of 86.

It is a fact of life I suppose that, once one enters one’s autumnal years, the deaths of those with whom one is familiar – whether actually close or not – will have a cumulative and increasing impact. There have been losses over the past few years amongst that small group whom I personally hold to be ‘heroes’ which have been hard to take. Inevitably that number is only going to increase.

Peter Hall was not – for me – directly among that coterie. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I saw few of his many productions and – with rare exceptions – they do not feature in my personal canon of influential experiences. This is not in any way to denigrate the value of his vision, talent or achievement; in such matters opportunity and circumstance set us all on our own particular paths.

It is impossible, however, not to be overwhelmed by his impact and influence on British and international theatre during the post-war years. Consider:

  • he introduced London audiences to the work of Samuel Beckett in 1955 with the UK premiere of ‘Waiting for Godot’ when he was only 24.
  • in 1960, at the age of 29, he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, which he ran triumphantly until 1968.
  • he became the director of the National Theatre in 1973 and oversaw its protracted, painful but ultimately successful transfer from the Old Vic into its permanent complex on the South Bank in London.
  • he built an international reputation in theatre, opera, on TV and in film.
  • he was the founding director of the Rose Theatre in Kingston in 2003.
  • he was – throughout his career – a vociferous champion of public funding for the arts.

The news of Sir Peter’s death stirs a couple of thoughts and memories.

The National Theatre’s new home was opened in 1976 with a production of Howard Brenton’s ‘Weapons of Happiness‘ in the only one of the three theatre spaces then operational. I see from the InterWebNet that it ran for 41 performances – at one of which I was present. I marveled at the still unfinished building and at the wonderful standard of the production. The National was to become a most important venue for me – I have seen many productions there over the years; done the backstage tour more than once; participated in youth theatre workshops in its rehearsal rooms… and met the Girl for our first proper date in the bar outside the Lyttelton Theatre.

I am also a fan of the Rose in Kingston. Having been at school in Kingston and subsequently involved with youth theatre in the surrounding area, I was only to keenly aware of the lack of a theatre of any sort in what is an important centre to the south of London. I am delighted that the Rose now so splendidly fills that gap.

One sadness regarding Sir Peter’s last years was his diagnosis with dementia in 2011. Having observed my mother’s decline over her final years it must have been particularly poignant to witness such an intellect brought so low for so long.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons“We have wasted History like a bunch of drunks shooting dice back in the men’s crapper of the local bar.”

Charles Bukowski

I watched again the other night Cambridge University Professor David Reynolds’ fascinating documentary for the BBC on Winston Churchill’s long struggle during 1942 and 1943 to promote his preferred campaign in North Africa – and thence up through Italy and the Mediterranean islands to attack what he called ‘Hitler’s soft under-belly’ – in the face of constant and increasing pressure from the Americans and the Russians to open a second front on the European mainland by effecting a landing in France.

Professor Reynolds provides an excellent summary of the reasons for Churchill’s resistance, long beyond the point at which it must have been clear to him that the Overlord landings were not only inevitable but – in the face of the Soviet advances in Eastern Europe – increasingly vital should the British hope for any say in the shaping of post-war Europe.

Under political pressure in the UK as a result of the military disasters of 1941 and 1942 – the which had led to two votes of confidence in parliament – Churchill (and the country) was greatly in need of a victory. With his understandable fear of another catastrophic stalemate in the fields of France and the low countries (or of an attempted landing ending in disaster) having its roots in his experiences of the first war, Churchill took the view that any such success was more likely to be found in Africa than on the European mainland.

Churchill’s thinking was further informed by considerations that were of little consequence to the Americans or the Russians – those of empire. He saw maintaining control of the Mediterranean and of Egypt as vital to the continuance of British interests in India and in the colonies to the east. Professor Reynold’s documentary (along with Max Hastings 2010 book on Churchill’s war, the which I also read of late) brought home to me anew Churchill’s growing realisation – during the closing years of the war – that Britain’s position in the world order had been diminished irrevocably by the need to rely on intervention by the American and Soviet superpowers to save Europe. Even so, his sentimental attachment to the notion of a ‘special relationship’ with the US prevented him from recognising that the price to be paid for this salvation would be the ultimate surrender of the British empire.

The Second World War and the half century (and more) of world-wide chaos that followed have been so widely documented and discussed that it is difficult to reconcile what we now know and understand of the period – and of the vast change in Britain’s place in the world – with some of the shrill voices that are to be heard from Britannia in these troubled times. It is difficult enough to observe the resurgence of nationalism across a continent that has good cause to fear exactly that, without also having to listen to those voices that seem almost to be calling for a return to the mythical days of yore.

As Churchill knew all too well in his twilight years – those days are long, long gone!

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidWishing a very happy one hundred and fiftieth birthday to (colonial) Canada – whilst recognising that the indigenous peoples of what is now the Canadian nation have a cultural history here of well in excess of three thousand years.

In any case – in the midst of the madness that seems to exemplify much of the modern world it is indisputable that the majority of Canadians offer a most welcome breath of sanity and that – whilst not perfect (nobody is!) – Canada is clearly doing something pretty right.

Hard to argue with Bono (later echoed by Barack Obama) that:

The world needs more Canada

Happy Birthday!

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“Hard times require furious dancing”

Poems by Alice Walker

Sometimes it is difficult to know quite what to write…

There was a relatively brief period – of which my recollections are still very clear – back towards the end of the last century during which it seemed that a corner had been turned and that the world was after all going to become a better place.

The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Iron Curtain had been rent asunder. Apartheid had been consigned to the trashcan of history and there was hope of a long-awaited resolution to the Irish question. Reaganism and Thatcherism had been kicked – if not actually into then certainly in the general direction of – the extremely long grass.

Things could only get better…

Then came the millennium… and we all know what happened next!

The further that recent history descends determinedly into farce the harder it becomes to conceive any rational view of it.

In the UK the tory party – clearly considering its brilliant strategy of holding (and losing) an entirely unnecessary referendum on leaving Europe to be an unqualified success – repeated the exercise by calling (and losing its majority at) an entirely unnecessary election. Seems that the tories – believing that they currently face no viable opposition from other parties – have determined to do the deed themselves and have emptied the barrels of the shotgun into both feet simultaneously.

One might take some pleasure from the unexpectedly reasonable performance (certainly with regard to its recent history) of the UK labour party, were it not for the fact that they seem to be enthusiastically celebrating losing the election by some fifty seats! Strange days indeed!

Then – of course – there is Trump! Trump!! How on earth did the world get from Obama to Trump?!

Of recent terrorist atrocities throughout the world it is also hard to know what more can be said – though it is clearly important to say something if only to reinforce that which we all know already – that this too shall pass. However painful for those directly involved, in retrospect it will become clear that in the grand sweep of world progress these small tragedies will be shown up for what they truly are – utterly meaningless and mindless.

One of the truest things I have read recently concerning these hideous events was penned by Guardian journalist Hugh Muir under the banner “This is a war on joy“:

“There is no obvious or significant ambition to destroy the pillars of the state: the men who use cars and vans as weapons and strike at random with foot-long knives aren’t obviously seeking to obliterate army barracks or police stations or the Bank of England. Theirs is a war not on the foundations of a free society or on our vital infrastructure, but on people enjoying the benefits of a free society. It is, in many ways, a war on joy, motivated by a warped sense of piety.

We go out and dance and drink and eat. To zealots, these things are decadent and trivial. Yet they are in themselves small acts of political symbolism: we go where we like, do what we like, wear what we want, we love whom we choose, because we have a social framework and a political system that largely allows us to do that. If the extremists cannot dismantle the system, or the foundations that underpin it – and they know they cannot – then they seek to strike and terrorise ordinary citizens who benefit from the gaiety it offers and the freedom it brings…

But there is a bigger danger, and it is that we now start to think twice about the things that bring joy – the night in a pub or a music-filled bar or club, the evening of shared experience in a public place, the mass sporting events, the standing-room-only concert halls, the shopping malls, the cinemas, the theatres – the many experiences that give life texture and richness. The risk in those places isn’t likely to disappear any time soon, for they seem to encapsulate everything the murderers hate. But the risk will always be minimal; we are going to have to price it in. How we work, how we play: they are two sides of the same coin. Even at a time as painful as this, the biggest risk is that we let the zealots rob us of what makes us who we are.”

You heard the man… Go out and spread joy!

 

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There are many across the globe – it would seem – who have over the last half decade or so (and certainly since the financial crisis of 2008) come to feel that the society of which they are a part has been of late seriously in ‘democratic deficit’. They may be right.

Certainly there have been in recent times a plethora of elections and referenda throughout the western world and in the melee that passes for electoral normality these days the body politic has done its best to destroy any possible vestige of complacency in those who govern us – by means of the delivery of a number of short (and not so short), sharp shocks to the system. Once upon a time we might have called this ‘sticking it to the man‘ – but we were all a great deal younger then!

In the UK the repercussions from the 2016 Brexit referendum will rumble on for years yet and may even lead at some point to a rerun of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Prime Minister Theresa May – in an effort to demonstrate irrefrangibly the strength and stability of her government – has decided that the UK has not suffered enough at the polls in recent years and has called another (apparently one-sided) election for June. She has presumably been seduced by the prospect of doing to the UK Labour party what the Progressive Conservative Party did to the Social Credit Party in the 1984 Canadian federal election (and in turn had done to them by the Liberals in the 1993 election!).

Trump’s administration in the US is the gift that keeps on giving… should you happen be a satirist (or indeed just a smug cynic who likes to be proved right!). The orange one has only held the reigns of power for a few (though seemingly endless) months, but has already provided enough material for a trilogy of (extremely weird) mordant film-scripts. You quite literally could not make this stuff up!

The outcome of the recent French election was met with divergent reactions throughout the western world. The heavy sighs of relief from well-meaning social democrats everywhere as the French (following the example recently set by the Dutch) chose to reject the far-right populism of Le Pen for the centrist Emmanuel Macron were, of course, to be expected – not to mention welcomed with open arms. The howls of rage of those on the right in countries having little connection with France took me momentarily aback. A little contemplation, however, shed further light on the matter.

In a manner somewhat akin to that of the Bolsheviks in the early years of the last century (who believed that their communist revolution must not be limited to Mother Russia and her colonies but must sweep across the civilised world) those on the far right require that all nations should bow to their brand of populism… that the European Union must be seen to fail, that all forms of collaboration must be suppressed and that the globe should revert to comprising a set of adversarial nation states.

As ever there are some areas in which the right and the left are practically bedfellows. Both strains reserve their greatest hatred, not for each other, but for those who occupy the centre ground. The recognition in the latter part of the last century that elections are primarily won and lost in the centre inspired such dogmatists to paroxysms of rage. What they required of the centre was a large pool of clear blue water, such that their class war might be kept alive indefinitely.

One thus finds oneself assaulted by those on both flanks (though particularly by those on the left in this case) braying about the failure of centrist, liberal politics, along with the demand that such be consigned to the dustbin of history – all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that their own brand of dogma has itself demonstrably failed repeatedly.

Such ironies…

In British Columbia – meanwhile – the recent provincial election resulted in the first minority government for many a long year, with the crucial balancing riding being won by a mere nine votes!

Now that’s how you send a message!

 

 

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