Thursday, 11 December 2014

Newfoundland Returned

A First Visit - August / September 2014

Every place has it’s history, but Newfoundland has had more than most. 

The Twentieth Century has been a constant stream of dramatic, often tragic events for the Island.

Independence in 1907, the two sealing disasters of 1914, the 1916 slaughter in one day of most of the young men making up the volunteer Newfoundland Regiment in France, the collapse of self-government and establishment of the Commission in 1934, the contentious Referendums of 1948 and Confederation with Canada in 1949, the Resettlements of outports in the Sixties which are still continuing today, the devastating Moratoriums for salmon and cod fishing in the early Nineties.

It is remarkable the little sense outsiders such as ourselves have of Newfoundland. We were not sure what we would find. Would we be welcome dropping in on any little harbour? Would we be able to walk along the coast? What would the inhabitants be like. As per those fantastic television ads, would we find the quaint harbours surrounded by box houses, the dramatic coastlines (but wait, no helicopter!), the old men building wooden dories, the smiling locals with their strange speak? How could we check our email?

I went to Newfoundland having read books set on the island, and with some idea of what I thought Newfoundland was. The typical tourist hodgepodge of romantic images, which tourists then seek out with disregard for what’s really there. In a way, it felt as if I just missed the place I most wanted to find. As if it had just ended yesterday. The sea, the coast, the islands, the inland is of course still as stark and beautiful as it ever was. The people were unique, even if they were mostly seeing us as tourists. A few boats still chug out of harbours, although the only dories we saw looked like someone’s hobby. 

I must say the business of tourism is well developed, without seeming over developed. We had no lack of activities in any location. Coastal trails were well mapped out and maintained. There were historic homes, museums, churches and lighthouses to visit as well as more advanced interpretation centres. There were boat excursions for sightseeing, whale watching, or iceberg viewing (although the icebergs and whales stayed out of our sight without fail). Even puffin colonies were accessible. All of this was offered without undue hype and by people who were genuinely friendly and interested in helping us experience their home world.

Indeed the people we encountered we liked immensely. Our hosts in the five bed and breakfasts we stayed at invariably made us welcome, and in two cases, there was no doubt that we were literally in their home, passing through the kitchen as they ate their supper, or invited to watch TV in their living room. That these homes were not typical, for obvious reasons, did not detract.

The one issue we faced was food, having some strong dietary preferences. I suspect this has knowingly or unknowingly been an issue for Newfoundlanders as well. The poor soil, low standard of living and limited exposure to other cuisines meant the ubiquitous restaurant sign “Specializing in Fresh Seafood” usually referred to seafood any way you wanted it, as long as it was cod, fried. We noticed immediately the tendency for Islanders to be of a generous weight.

In the old world, you lived by the sea, you travelled by the sea, and almost everything came from the sea. One look at the interior and it's obvious why roads took so long to develop. But this year we drove from end to end on the Trans Canada Highway in only about nine hours. Everyone seems to have a car (or usually an SUV, reminding us that we were seeing the Island in the most favourable season).

Newfoundland is today part of the modern world, but the past and the uniqueness of the island can still be sensed. In the farthest corner of the farthest offshore island we visited, a woman asked us, “Where are ye from?”. I had the feeling that the Island was completely different just 50 years ago, that so much had changed just before I got there, and I had to be careful not to miss the present because it didn’t fit some romantic image.

Perhaps the most poignant images of Newfoundland I have seen online are photographs of houses being floated and towed, somewhat precariously, across the water from an outport as part of the government resettlement process. An older world almost literally moving unsteadily and perhaps reluctantly closer to the new.

And we found email access everywhere.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The White Man in the Cinema

Village Basket Weaver, Deccan Plateau
Maharashtra State, India, 1980

Her name was Pushpa and I first saw her at a seminar the development institute I worked for was holding in Nagpur.

The amazing density of India's population means that a city of over three million, like Nagpur, can be virtually unknown outside the country. And were it not the centre for a region of exceptional orange production it would have little fame within the country. Sitting on the Deccan plateau in central India, the area is so far removed from the tourist track that a farmer told me one day I was the first white man he had ever seen.

She wore the black bead necklace that proclaims a Marathi woman married. Her husband was a top official in the district government. Although she wore the traditional sari, she didn't cover her head with the end of the garment and her hair was loose and shoulder length in the western style. Other than a few pleasantries nothing passed between us that day.

We met next at a similar function in Sevagram, a village near Nagpur and the site of the last ashram that Mahatma Gandhi called home before his death. The seminar was held on the grounds in a large open-sided hall surrounded by Neem trees. A Coppersmith Bird could be heard keeping up it's penetrating “tock tock” call in the afternoon heat. We ended up on a planning team together and our mutual attraction was soon mutually obvious. During a break we talked for a while and then I said softly, ”You're very beautiful”. She let out a little gasp and whispered, “I love you”.

At that moment I should have realized I was in trouble.

Before she left she offered me her telephone number, creating a tacit understanding between us. As soon as I could get a short leave I took the bus to Nagpur, got a room in the best lodge I could find, and went out to a Hindi movie to finish what was left of the evening. The next day I phoned Pushpa. She came over immediately. She told me one of her children had spoken of seeing a white man in the cinema the night before and she had been hoping it was me. We made love. Afterwards she put on my shirt, perhaps wanting to hide her baby-softened belly while still revealing her slim brown legs. We lay on the bed talking. She told me of her childhood and the Brahmin family she came from. The arranged marriage that left her living with a man she had no feelings for. Her children. Her trips to England. The guru she was following. I ordered tea up to the room and then sat and watched as she showed me how a sari is put on. When the pune came with the tray she sat stiffly in a chair until he was gone. In our parting the intensity of her language surprised me.

The next time I could get away we spent a day in a different lodge. She gave me a prayer medallion of Sai Baba, a popular local saint. We were very happy together but I began to wonder at her dramatic outpourings of love which seemed more theatre than honest emotion.

A month later I was resident in a rural project some distance from Nagpur. The village of Dabhad was the usual haphazard collection of mud houses closely packed together to save arable land. In India there are three-quarter million such places. Over my two years in Dabhad I would experience the festivals, feuds, weddings, tragic accidents, cremations, religious devotions, hard labour and summer drought that is the villager's world. I would eat their monotonous food, suffer some of their diseases and dance in their celebrations. No matter how completely I have since re-entered the modern Western world I know something in me will always remain connected to that one village and those particular people.

One afternoon as I was returning to Dabhad from another village across the fields of sorghum and cotton I was met by a youth who announced that “a lady” had arrived at the institute residence. I expected it to be an American associate but found Pushpa standing in the front room with my young Indian colleagues around her. The house was a simple village structure. Sparrows flew in and out of the ventilation gap between mud walls and tin roof. The floor was treated with a solution of water, mud and cow dung to keep down the dust. In this humble setting I was surprised to find beautiful Pushpa standing in a bright sari of the best cloth.

I was not happy to see her. In the village culture I was worried disclosure of our clandestine relationship might seriously jeopardize my credibility and our work. I could imagine all sorts of consequences stretching back to Nagpur or Bombay, and she must have known this even more than me. We provided her with a tour of the project and a room for the night.

The next day was a holiday. After breakfast one of the young Indians talked about everyone taking Mrs. Deshpande into town that afternoon for dinner, but he was quickly shut up by the others in a way that told me she and I were not fooling my colleagues. I had no choice but to make the offer myself.

In town she asked to make a brief return to a room she had taken in a lodge but once there I refused to accompany her further than the lobby. I was unsure of what eyes were watching us. After waiting a half hour I realized I had been out-manoeuvred and she wasn't coming down until I went up. The meeting in her room was unhappy – the bed beckoned us and although I refused her advances, it was impossible to do with tact. With nothing resolved we left for dinner and afterwards took a pedal rickshaw through the little town to the river. I remember the two of us up on the open seat, as if on parade for the crowded street.

We sat on some stone steps leading down to the Godavari, one of the five sacred rivers of India. The landscape was soft with haze from evening cooking fires. Summer had greatly diminished the river and small children drove herds of cows and buffalo home along the dry bed. We watched the sunset and talked. I felt more and more alienated from her. I realized she was using the relationship as something around which she could fabricate a romantic fantasy limited only by her imagination. I was the seed of reality she needed to maintain her illusion. We took a rickshaw back to the bus station and I waited there until she left on the Nagpur bus.

Watching it drive away into the night I wondered if she would see, that although I refused to be an actor in her cinema, there was a real alternative.

The last time I saw her was back at the Sevagram ashram. I was sitting on a stone step leading into a garden, enjoying the calm of the evening after the day's heat. She appeared on the path, stopped, and asked me coldly where Mary Da Costa was. She listened to my answer and then without another word walked away into the fading light.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Leaving for the Rock

A friend and I leave tomorrow for two weeks in Newfoundland. My interest has had me reading here and there, including one novel and two memoirs about Newfoundland (Proulx, Mcfarlane, Johnston) and talking with another friend and Newfoundlander Brian O'Dea (who, having been born in Newfoundland in 1948, was not born in Canada).

My initial impressions, soon to be given reality...

That Newfoundland was its own country from 1907 to 1949 with its own flag, currency and government ( and it drove on the left). That this country sent voluntarily a regiment to fight alongside the British, Canadians and French in World War One. These young men were almost totally wiped out on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 at a place called Beaumont Hamel. And the Newfoundlander patois, almost on its way to a language, is another example of its uniqueness.

That Newfoundland joining Canada in 1949 was not eagerly jumped at, and probably a mistake (many thought so at the time and later). Britain applied pressure for confederation, and one of the options was joining the United States. In the first referendum the Confederation side actually had fewer votes than the anti-confederates. In the second the Confederates squeaked through. Many Newfoundlanders had their hearts broken by the event.

That the country always looked to the sea, there were few roads until recently (why bother when everything was on the coast and you could sail there), the life was fishing and boatbuilding and sealing. It was the sea, the sea, the sea.

That Newfoundland has been a place of severe poverty, isolation, disease, tragedy and hardship resulting in problems like incest and alcoholism. Nevertheless a place of spirited people and vibrant culture and natural beauty. A place of stark simplicity and dramatic contrasts.

That it's pronounced New-fn-land, not New-found-ln.

“The Rock” that sat on the edge of the world, largely unnoticed, for centuries, becoming more and more what it was with a vengeance without anyone interfering or caring. Becoming popular now that the global culture craves romantic novelty.

That Newfoundland stands as a demonstration of a people, and its culture, grappling with huge and rapid change. That confederation and the almost total disappearance of the cod has so changed the place as to render our trip in someways perhaps thirty years too late.

That I can't wait to be there.

Monday, 4 August 2014

My Father: A Life in Uniform

Eric LaTrobe was born in Canada in 1898, during the reign of Queen Victoria, of parents born in Engand. He was no doubt raised to revere Britain.

In 1899, Sir Baden Powell, a popular English hero of the Boer War, published a military training manual, Aids to Scouting, which was soon rewritten as Scouting for Boys and helped Baden Powell create the Boy Scout movement. My Father put on his first uniform as a Boy Scout in what was initially an organization with military overtones, the “scouting” for instance being a synonym for reconnaissance.

In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, European nationalism ran high, and many countries were spoiling for a fight, a chance to engage in the glory of war. When Britain declared war on Germany, on July 4, 1914, there was cheering in the streets of Toronto. Shortly after, at the age of sixteen, and without telling his Father, Eric enlisted to fight in the Great War. You had to be seventeen, and his Father was angry when he found out, but refrained from informing the Army. Was he proud of his son for wanting to do his bit for the Empire? Everyone knew the war would be short. No one knew what awaited the young men.

And so my Father, in the uniform of the Canadian Overseas Expedition, went off to war at sixteen. I still possess the dogtag he wore for those four years, which gives his unit as the 42nd Brigade. It seems the 42nd saw action at Ypres, the Somme and Passchendale. It is certain that in those places my Father missed nothing of the stark horror of trench warfare. Years later he told us little, but we were shown a scar on his knee where a piece of shrapnel had passed through, and I believe he had a nasal condition caused by breathing traces of poison gas. If there were psychic scars, we never noticed them.

On returning in 1918, he took some education, then moved down to Detroit to work on a car assembly line. After that he spent some time living alone on a boat, drifting on the Mississippi or Missouri rivers, working odd jobs. I seem to remember a dog and a pirate bandana, but that may be my childhood embellishment. His family lost touch with him for a while. If ever there was a war to induce what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, World War One fit the bill, and I can only imagine that some of this activity was my Father dealing with his inner feelings.

Back in Toronto, he became involved with the Boy Scouts again, this time putting on the uniform of a leader. This probably included his war service ribbons. He met another leader, a young woman 12 years his junior, called Ivy Rose Lyon. 

They were friends, I have no idea if anything more than that was acknowledged between them. The depression ensued, my Father was mostly unemployed during this period, and this may have made him hesitate, with his Victorian outlook, from pursuing my Mother.

Then in September of 1939, Canada declared war, and my Father went off to fight the Germans again. How he felt putting on army wool khaki, experiencing the smell and feel of it again, I have no idea. He was assigned I believe to a desk job in England because of his age, but also manned a Bofors antiaircraft cannon at night when needed. 

With the Normandy invasion approaching in 1944, the Allies realized that few of the American or Canadian troops had ever been under fire, and so an attempt was made to go through records and find World War One vets to put in the first wave onto the beaches. They failed to find my Father in time, and so he was not there for the Canadian landing on Juno Beach, which with 50% casualties, was the second highest death trap that day.

After the war, my Father returned home, married Ivy Rose Lyon in short order, and I was born in early 1947, my Sister three years later.

I remember him as a quiet man, a gentleman, who always had a pipe in his mouth. He loved his family, the outdoors and the local church, and became a Scout Leader again, back in uniform and now wearing service ribbons from two world wars. He starting the First Whitby Sea Scouts, with my Mother as leader for the Cubs. I grew to be a member of each. He passed away in 1962 at the age of 64, his last two years being plagued with sickness, but the proceeding fifteen, I suspect, being the happiest of his life. His world, at least for a little while, was a sane place.

Monday, 21 July 2014

On Not Taking A Photo

It seems the photographer is sometimes thought of as a person not in the here and now, focusing only on her camera and getting her shot.

This is referred to humorously in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Walter has just found in the Himalayas the famous maverick Life photographer Sean O’Connell, who has the illusive Snow Leopard in his camera’s sights, but prefers to not be the photographer at that moment.

Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it (the picture)? 
Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.

When I spent three years in India, after the first year and a half I ran out of colour film, which in those days was not available inside the country. I found it a relief to put the camera away for several reasons, one being I was free from the vexing question of whether to take the camera out in a situation and try for a shot.

I know sometimes I am more in the moment without my camera, but would a real-world Sean O’Connell even be waiting patiently on a Snow Leopard without the photographic intent? Would my eye be as developed as it is if I were not in the habit of continually looking?

Yesterday on the subway a big man sat down across from me. Although he had a slight moustache, the rest of his head, including his eyebrows, was hairless. There was an instant when, with eyes closed, he tilted his head back and the overhead light perfectly modelled the curves of his black face. I wonder if I would have noticed the stunning beauty of that brief moment in the midst of all the mundanity were I not a photographer?

I found this quote by Dan Winters recently. “I now find peace in the realization that millions of potential masterpieces happen each moment the world over and go unphotographed.” 

I suspect that most of the people who do recognize those moments, in the here and now, are the photographers, regardless of whether they have their camera or not.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Bushel Basket, Folk Music, and an October Evening

The other day I took some audio equipment to a repair shop run by a guy named Ted Syperek. Of all the people I know, excepting my Sister, he’s my longest acquaintance. I met him at the Bushel Basket Coffee House.

In 1965 some friends and I decided to have a coffee house in our church basement in Whitby, Ontario. We named it the Bushel Basket, I designed a logo, and we put out the word. We arranged tables, stuck candles in Brio bottles, and on the first night, John McKibban and I got up and sang a Beatles song to my three guitar chords. At this level how long this might have gone on before boredom would have ended it, is anyone’s guess.

But just a few weeks later the door opened and in walked about a dozen strangers from nearby Oshawa, friends from a folk spot called the Green Door. Mostly musicians, these people proceeded to entertain us with some amazingly good music, and become regular additions to the basement event.

I soon knew...
Dennis Delorme (aka Reverend Orval Rutabaga), a multi-instrumentalist who later became pedal steel guitar player for the award-winning country-rock band Prairie Oyster. Paul Grady wrote songs that were recorded by three national acts and had his own career. Macbeth Swackhammer, a man as eccentric and wonderful as his name, proved to be a consummate blues harmonica player. Chris Cuddy (aka Jeremy Dormouse) is still active in the music scene. T.R. Gleecoff became a local radio DJ. Of the three Shaw siblings, Karen became my first serious girlfriend. Then there were the Aiken brothers, John Gurney, Ellen Hunter, Penny Sidor, Kathy Reid, Rick Gullison, Zeke Mazurek (aka Fiddlin Zeke Zilch) and many more. And Ted Syperek.

This was the era of tremendous interest in folk music, both the traditional music reaching into the past of America and Britain, and new offerings with personal or protest themes from astounding songwriters. This was the era of Bob Dylan, Eric Anderson, Richie Havens, Phil Ochs, Donovan, Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Hamilton Camp, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Buckley, and a Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, who much to our surprise came out with some music, singing his songs in a rough voice.

There are certain sweet qualities to folk music. When someone sings a personal song or a cover of something like Cohen's Suzanne, using an acoustic guitar played with a gentle finger-picking style, a pensive spell hangs in the air. On the other hand a number of people on stage with several guitars, a fiddle and mouth harp, performing some blues or jug band tune, creates awesome manic energy.

I was not the happiest teenager in those days, convinced that I was an academic, social and athletic failure at high school. The folk crowd was almost the only place outside of my family where I felt accepted and affirmed. This group helped fan the flames of my life-long love affair with music. And I'll never forget Dennis, who I idolized, surprising me one day by saying he thought I was cool.

In 2001 I got a call from Paul Grady, who wanted to do a Bushel Basket reunion. Using the new function of email, the two of us contacted almost all the people from thirty-five years before. The response showed me I was not the only one for whom the Bushel Basket had been important. 

The event took place in the original church basement on October 13th, with a crowd of original members, augmented with spouses and offspring. People flew in from the States and the West Coast. There was a meal, an impressive evening of performance, and great joy in reunion. It was a real pleasure to see my son playing guitar in an ensemble for one number. And Paul recorded the event on CD for us as “An October Evening”.

I am far from upset these days when an audio component needs attention; it’s an excuse to go and see Ted, another Bushel Basket alumnus. 

Saturday, 22 February 2014


Now reading Bruce Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia. 

Chatwin is great! He just had this talent for going to a place, and then really exploring it on all levels. 

The man noticed things. And he made the most of the things he noticed. Not that they were always the most significant details, or the truest ones (he had an imagination), or the most dramatic ones, but the sum total of all his observations amounted to the sort of fascinating story only he could tell.

He had great powers of observation, but also such a sense of history and art and architecture and culture and natural science that he always dug out the most fascinating angles on a locale. He had a nose for ferreting out the bizarre. He could connect everyday details in with history, personal anecdotes with literature, things happening on the street with items in the museums, the sacred with the profane. His stories are told simply, by means of perfectly chosen details.  A wonderful example of a man of culture, learning and adventure.

I've heard it said he was a very physically beautiful man, maybe one of several reasons he seems to have had no trouble making connections wherever he went in Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia. 

And he was a maniac about hiking! Moving! A man intoxicated with places.

Like Hemingway, a writer he admired, Chatwin makes you want to leave it all behind and be somewhere new, with new landscapes, with new people, listening, watching, touching, smelling, feeling, and walking, walking, walking.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Crossing, by Cormic McCarthy

Well I've read a great book, The Crossing, by Cormic McCarthy, and I got off lightly this time.

One dealing with McCarthy has to deal with the violence of his books. I am not proud of the fact that I managed to finish my first McCarthy book, Blood Meridian. It is an endless stream of violence and atrocity. Of course I understand that it is based on an actual band of degenerates, but historical reality  does not justify a book's focus. The current tagline for the upcoming film is "Every man has a scalp" - I will not be watching this movie. Three of his books have made it to the screen before, All the Pretty Horses, the Road and the Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men. The last two rated R for violence, the first, All the Pretty Horses, not without a moment of horror.

I was thus strongly conditioned on starting The Crossing and was ill at ease through all of the book, because I felt for young Billy, and feared the worst. But McCarthy shows us some mercy this time. Should it be a spoiler to know that the protagonist is still above ground at the end of a book? I'm sure I will relax more into the next reading, perhaps to the detriment of the experience.

Two American teenage brothers wander into northern Mexico on horseback. Nineteenth century America, as I first imagined? No, 1938, but that's not a modern date in the West. And to cross into Mexico is truly to cross into a former century.

The story starts with a strong plot line which ends abruptly and completely on page 127. But there are still 298 pages left! The rest of the book never achieves quite the focused drama of the beginning, but I guess someone's mostly aimless wandering doesn't support plot. Never mind, its the crossing that matters not the destination.

McCarthy uses words in variant forms I've never heard of. Odd turns of phrase. "The night sky lies so sprint (sic) with stars that there is scarcely space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so that their numbers are not less."

McCarthy's storytelling is curious also for what he does and doesn't include. A doctor deals with a gunshot wound, the procedure is described with all the detail and attention of a zen tea ceremony. Reading up on saddlery and tacking a horse would be useful in following McCarthy's constant technical references regarding the chief means of transportation. A knowledge of Spanish, or at least a Spanish to English dictionary, would be helpful in understanding most of the direct dialogue. Far be it for him, in the midst of endless descriptions of the fauna and topography of the state of Chihuahua, the weather, the flight of birds and the movement of the trees, to give us any direct cues as to what the main character, Billy Parham, or any other human for that matter, is feeling. I mean most of the conversations are in a foreign language! All characters seem wrapped in a stoicism complete, although any person encountered is game to launch into a long and unlikely and inconclusive monologue (seemingly important as its in English) about God's nature, predestination, freewill, sin, how we come to know the world, and other such philosophical topics, while eating their last stale tortilla. The one time McCarthy finally drops his guard and someone actually bursts into tears comes as an explosion, and almost serves as the climax.

In the midst are the poor of Mexico in their rags. The endless acts of kindness as those who have almost nothing share with those who have nothing. But then that's my conclusion, McCarthy seems to have no opinions to clutter up his creation, the reader has lots of space to fill in.

So why is it a great book? McCarthy is a great writer. Read just the first two pages.

I'd like to try Moby Dick now, as it seems McCarthy is often compared to Melville.

But dare I read more McCarthy?