Friday, December 9, 2016

My Log 540 Dec 9 2016: Anthony Trollope, a master Victorian novelist, and the two enchanting English girls he created to prove that virtue will always win out in the end

In recent months I have devoted quite a bit of my time to an activity that will no doubt surprise any regular readers of this space, in view of my customary hostility towards religion. I have been reading a series of novels that deal in immense detail with the lives of Anglican clergymen in Victorian England.
Readers with  a modicum of knowledge of English literature will probably have immediately guessed that I have been reading the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope. I read some of them many years go, but recently came across a couple of others that have been sitting in my library unread for years, and was immediately hooked.
As portrayed in Trollope,  Anglican clergymen of that period could more closely be compared to a nest of vipers, bitterly embroiled in resentful behaviour towards those above and below them, than to the  cosy milk-and-water nice blokes that we are accustomed to think them.
 The two novels that are the subject of this article are Framley Parsonage, and The Last Chronicle of Barset, the latter of which brings the series of six books to a close. Trollope, as I have discovered from reading a biography of him written by James Pope Hennessy, was an amazingly prolific writer who produced  almost 40 novels, plus a plethora of short stories, travel books and other works in the 35 years that  he was an active writer, but who also, during most of that time held down a job in the Post Office which took him to various places in the British Isles and even to other countries.
He was a keen observer of social conditions, and of politics, of which his so-called Palliser novels take us into the centre of the politics of his time.  One distinguishing fact about him according to Pope Hennessy, was that he was incapable of recognizing his many bad works from his many good ones; he would no doubt have been amazed to discover that his two great series of novels are still being read 130 years after his death, and, also according to his biographer, many other of his novels besides the Palliser and Barchester series are among the finest novels ever written by an Englishman.
Trollope was a gruff, rowdy, unprepossessing  character, marked for life by an horrendous boyhood in which he was neglected, virtually ignored  by his family, who at one point emigrated to the United States with siblings in tow except that he was left behind alone at a school in England. When he decided to become a writer –-- very much in the family tradition, because his mother became a famous popular writer of travel books and novels --- he set himself a semi-industrial schedule which required him to get up at 4.30 almost every morning of his life and write until breakfast, producing in his almost illegible handwriting page after page of plots that he had carefully worked out in advance.
These two novels have cracking plots, but are even more impressive for the characters he draws with such deep understanding. One aspect of the life of that time that I found extremely fascinating from Trollope’s description of the country gentry and those dependent upon them, is that the inequality of incomes that is so notable a feature of our own times appears to have been even worse in those days than today, when we so often hear claims that it has reached “the worst levels ever.” Pope Hennessy claims that no other British writer has ever so clearly described the concern about money shown by the gentlemen of the shires. Within the Church the same thing was true: in Framley Parsonage  Bishop Proudie, was the top dog in theory, but in practice he was a much despised weakling who was totally under the thumb of  his aggressive, domineering, and, in the parishes,  bitterly resented, wife.
Bishop Proudie came to his office against the wishes of Lady Lufton, a proud relic of the landed family of the county, who had at her disposal a number of parishes and other clerical appointments, some of which were accompanied by a substantial income, but others that were fated to be among the very poorest in the land. Lady Lufton had been nursing along one of her favourites, Mark Robarts, a handsome, likeable young man who quite soon felt the need to assert some minimal independence from his benefactor. He had his own horses, of course, with which to ride to hounds, and he did not hesitate to have social intercourse with certain characters who came under the rule of the Duke of Omnium, a man despised by Lady Lufton.   This independent streak soon landed him in trouble, for he agreed to sign a bill for an influential man of business and politics, in the expectation that no call would be made on him to honour the debt.  Of course the man was unreliable, and so the Rev. Mark, who was a close personal friend of young Lord Lufton, eventually found himself in some pretty dark waters.
Lady Lufton was a woman of immense wealth, and her son could have paid off his friend’s debts if only he had turned to him with a request for help. The Rev. however, was too proud to do so.   Lady Lufton was hoping that her son might marry the eldest daughter of the Archdeacon, Griselda Grantly, a beautiful but rather empty-headed girl, thus assuring his future for all time, the Grantly’s being almost as wealthy as her ladyship. But Mark Robarts had a sister, Fanny, unregarded by Lady Lufton or anyone else, except that it was noticed that the young Lord was spending a lot of time in conversation with her. In the event Lord Lufton steadfastly refused to marry Griselda, and caused a tremendous kerfuffle by insisting that he would marry Miss Robarts.
The further complication of this plot came through the plight of Mr. Crawley, the impecunious holder of the parish of Hogglestock, a man of rigid virtue, immense learning, unbendable principle, and a pride so intense that he would refuse to allow his wife to accept gifts offered from better-off houses to ease the burden of poverty imposed by his rigidity on his wife and children. It has been written that Mr. Crawley is one of the greatest characters ever created in the English novel, a man so pious that even his wife recognized at times that his piety drove him to the brink of actual lunacy. So poor were they that Mrs. Crawley became stricken with typhoid, and to everyone’s amazement Miss Robarts insisted on moving into the Crawley hovel to tend to the invalid, and stayed here without ever leaving for many months until her patient had recovered.
With a girl of such sterling qualities, Lord Lufton’s infatuation with her could not be denied, especially since Griselda Grantly had begun to attract the attention of a stodgy Lord Dumbello, who stood to inherit an earldom, thus clearing the way for Lord Lufton to marry Miss Robarts,  elevating her into Her Ladyship, albeit at a lower level than the Archdeacon’s daughter.
The various incomes of these people are said to have ranged from Duke of Omnium’s  unmentionable fortune down through a graded system past the wealthy Dean Arabin and Archdeacon Grantly, with their two hundred thousand a year, to  Mark Robarts with his several hundred a year, and lower to Mr. Crawley’s thirty-nine pounds a year, a veritable famine wage.
The clergymen may have had the occasional duty but none of the monied people is ever described as actually working for a living. They lived on their estates, and presumably on the income derived from rents paid by their tenants, and of course, from their investments.  The sterling Lucy Robarts arranged for Mr. Crawley’s children to be housed with some of the more wealthy neighbours while their mother was ill, and one of these children Grace, was found already to have a sound classical education forced on her by her father,  and in other respects to be a girl deserving of high praise.
By the end of Volume I of the Last Chronicle, Mr. Crawley had been accused to having cashed a cheque for twenty pounds which belonged to someone else. Thus he was accused of stealing, an offence which could end his career as a clergyman, and plunge his family into a social status beyond the imagination of any proper person. But there had been a further superb development of the plot. Just as Trollope had succeeded in creating in Fanny Robarts a portrait of a wonderful, pure, English girl, so he had created in Grace Crawley an even more rigidly proper, even more engaging and delightful young woman, who was lusted after by Major Henry Grantly, brother of the Marchioness, and son of the wealthy Archdeacon, who was so outraged that his son could think of marrying a girl from the family of a man likely to be convicted of theft, that he threatened to strip him of the eight hundred pounds allowance that enabled his son to live in relative luxury. 
I simply had to find Volume II of this book, and instituted an immediate internet search for it. I was not surprised to find it was not available in second-hand bookstores in North America, but no fewer than 50 small second-hand bookstores in England had on offer exactly the Volume I was seeking. I bought one that was being sold for one dollar, plus four or five dollars for the postage. Although obviously no one could be making money on this transaction, the book arrived, printed in 1936, looking as if it had never been touched, in apple-pie order, and thus I was able to finish the story.
The Archdeacon was beside himself with fury that his son should have thought of marrying so far beneath him. He was adamant on the matter, but when he was finally persuaded to meet Grace Crawley, she so charmed him by her upright honesty and winsome manner that he began slowly to regret his stern admonition.  When told that his son had already proposed to Grace and been rejected, the Archdeacon was delighted, the more especially because her refusal arose from the most impeccable of reasons, namely,  the impossibility, in her eyes, that she should bring discredit on the Archdeacon’s family by allying it with a family headed by a likely thief.
This is the kind of dilemma that could occur probably only to the super-ethical  heroines portrayed by Trollope. Certainly I have never known such a woman in my life, and I am not sure I should have liked her had I known such a one. But it all came out in the end, propelled by Miss Crawley’s outstanding qualities: a family friend, John Eames, who himself had been denied the girl he loved because, after falling for a bounder she had decided she would be an old maid for the rest of her life,  undertook to go to Europe in search of the holidaying Dean Arabin, who, in his younger days had been a close personal friend of Mr Crawley.  This voyage was so successful that Mrs Arabin, who had been unaware of the charges against Mr Crawley, readily admitted that she had slipped the cheque into an envelope of notes that she had sent to Mr. Crawley. The man was therefore cleared of theft, the whole case dropped, along with the Archdeacon’s objections to Miss Grace Crawley. And Mr. Crawley was reluctantly persuaded to accept an appointment to a better parish that would pay him a living wage for the rest of his life.
I have no reason to doubt Mr. Pope Hennessy’s extremely high opinion of Trollope the novelist. Certainly, once involved in his unlikely tales of intrigue among the churchmen, I have proven unable to put them down. And I recommend them to anyone who loves a rattling good tale, and who has the time to read some very long books.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

My Log 539 Nov 26 2016: Death of Fidel, a man from a small island who had influence throughout the world, doing far more good than harm

It happens to few people in history to be known simply by their first name: but when the word went around the world that Fidel was dead, everyone must have known of whom the news spoke. And this Fidel was a man who led a revolution on a small Caribbean island 57 years ago. He was not everybody’s cup of tea: his revolution did not mess around. Within 80 days of taking office, they had summarily executed some hundreds of people who were judged by their revolutionary tribunals to be irreconcilable enemies. It was the signal for tens of thousands of other residents to decamp, with all their belongings and wealth, to the United States.
No one could have imagined that this tiny island led by its bearded guerrilla fighters could withstand the assembled power of their great neighbour for decade after decade. And yet, such was this man’s charisma, such his determination, his stubbornness, his idealism, often his wrong-headedness, and his caution in face of hundreds of assassination plots directed against him, that such has been the case. The Cuban revolutionaries are still in command, and the island is as far as it could be from the evil days when the dictator, supported and armed by the United States, made it into a safe playground for corrupt American gambling.
Not four months after marching into Havana, Fidel Castro visited Montreal to collect some 20,000 toys that had been collected for destitute Cuban children by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. I was a reporter in Montreal when Fidel visited in April 1959, and was assigned to follow him around all day. He was like no other politician the local security authorities ever had to deal with.  Immediately on emerging from the plane at the airport he broke away from his security and insisted on pressing the flesh with the people who had turned up to see him. He did the same thing throughout the day, giving headaches to his security men, and more especially to the local police who were assigned to protect him. He was taken to the hospital where he insisted on stopping off to meet sick children,  and spent so long with them that he immediately fell behind schedule, and when he arrived at the downtown hotel for a scheduled press conference, at which he arrived 40 minutes late, he gave of his time so generously that  he was still at it 90 minutes later, giving one-on-one interviews to television reporters (one of whom was Rene Levesque, who later became, just as Fidel has become in Cuba, one of the most memorable figures in the political history of Quebec.)
That press conference in Montreal was held in the months when Fidel was denying he had any interest in taking office in the new Cuban government. He also said he was anti-communist. But within months he took over the running of the government, and he never relinquished his hold on it for the next 47 years. I have a picture of that press conference, and I was surprised to see a little reproduction of it on the below mentioned web site, showing me scribbling away in the front row of journalists.
The day after the visit, when my story had been published in the newspaper, my boss came up to me and said, “I see you didn’t think too much of our visitor.”  And yet, other people who read my stuff and were used to my style, said to me, “How the hell did you ever get such a favorable impression of Castro into the newspaper?”  It was all done by smoke and mirrors. In those days I always considered myself part of the opposition within the newspaper, and had developed the useful skill of suggesting things that I would never have been allowed to say straight out.
The whole story of this visit is well told in a web site with the following link:
Of course, as the government began in the succeeding months to redistribute the agricultural land it had seized from the owners of the big estates, and finally to nationalize all American companies, the United States, smarting from this defiance, so much at odds with the previous history of Latin America, imposed an embargo on all trade, expecting to bring them to their knees overnight. That this embargo should have continued until the present day is a tribute to the irrationality of big power politics as well as to the stubborn resistance of the island’s people.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the new leader that is exhibited by the story of the locals who organized Fidel’s 1959 visit to Montreal, was the extreme difficulty they had in getting in touch with him, and the near-impossibility of pinning down anything like a meaningful schedule on which plans could be based. This was a caution that he carried through the rest of his life, and which accounted for the failure of so many well-organized efforts to assassinate him. One of my friends in later years was Robert Resha, a South African member of the African National Congress, who was assigned to London and whose job it was in the tough years of the 1960s (for the South African revolutionaries), to tour the world trying to raise money that would enable the AFN to carry out its proposed armed rebellion against the apartheid regime in their country. Robert visited Cuba in pursuit of this objective, and he told a remarkable story of waiting for days in a hotel room in the hope that his messages for Fidel had been delivered and he might be summoned to the presence. That never happened. But what did happen was that one night, when he was fast asleep, at something like 3 am, there was a knock on his hotel door, and the great man himself stood there, available at last.  He came in, sat down, and talked for several hours to his comrade-in-arms. It could have been that this meeting, and the rapport that Robert succeeded in creating with him, set the stage for the extremely significant interventions Cuba later made in the anti-colonial struggle in Africa.
According to Robert, Fidel never slept in the same bed for two nights in a row. And his experience is reflected in the later stages of the account of the Montreal visit given on the above-mentioned web site.  A Montreal businessman who had offered a gift of tractors to Cuba,  managed to get his gift delivered, but he wanted, if possible, to have it formally accepted by Fidel.  He travelled to Cuba with that expectation, and contacted the people who knew about his gift, and the circumstances of the Montreal visit. But he waited for one night, only to be told Fidel was at the other end of the island, then a second night, a third, a fourth, and finally he announced he would have to return to Montreal. He never did get the picture he so wanted for his company’s publicity.
 On the same subject, the National Film Board made a very amusing film called Waiting for Fidel, which recorded the experience of the Newfoundland premier, Joey Smallwood, who once travelled to Cuba, in company with a newspaper proprietor of his acquaintance, with the expectation of meeting el jefe.  They travelled around, visiting hospitals and the like, waited and waited some more, and even had time for the newspaper proprietor to stand on his head on the beach at the Bay of Pigs, but they never did get to meet the boss.
 Fidel was definitely cheeky. He not only provided a signpost to better possibilities in Latin America (although Che Guevara’s ill-advised attempt to foment revolution in Bolivia was a miserable failure), but as his nation outstripped all others in Latin America in education and medical services, he also began to make an impact by exchanging thousands of doctors in exchange for oil and the like, much to the chagrin of he Americans. His intervention in Africa was probably the most significant of his foreign adventures. It began in the 1970s, when he sent 5,000 troops to help the leftist FNLA government of Angola to resist the American supported and armed right-wing group UNITA. This Cuban involvement in Africa had so enraged Henry Kissinger, that, according to the US National Security Archive, which released documents to this effect, he had urged President Gerald Ford to order a massive bombing of Cuba to be followed by an assault of ground troops based on the US base at Guantanamo Bay. But its most important effect came a decade later when South Africa sent its army into Angola in an effort to stem a government advance.  Cuba in 1987 sent a force of 15,000 troops (later, according to the Archive, increased to 55,000) who fought huge battles against the invading South Africans, and beat them. The UNITA rebellion was beaten off, and, although this is not widely known  --- but it is recognized by the AFN --- this defeat was one of the major influences in the later downfall of the apartheid regime.
So, Fidel is dead. And whatever may have been his weaknesses, he certainly was a figure of world-wide influence, who apparently knew when his time had come to quit (unlike so many others in the developing world), and who, to judge by the articles he contributed until almost his last year, certainly understood very well the affairs of the wider world, and kept his marbles intact right until the end. The world will miss him; I miss him already.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

My Log 538 Nov 18 2016: Surrounded every day by young people hurrying to get The Knowledge: but is it the sort of knowledge we really need to save the world?

Almost every day, as I walk at my old man’s pace through the campus of McGill University on my way to my morning coffee, I am almost overwhelmed by the sheer energy of the thousands of students who surround me. There they go, I think, whizzing past, crash, bang, half of them talking to themselves (or would that be talking into a hidden microphone? Wonders will never cease), their earnestness above all being what most impresses me.  I have worked out a small joke for myself: they are relentlessly in pursuit of The Knowledge, meaning, the accumulated Knowledge of humanity, the transmission of which, from one generation to the next, is conceived to be the business of modern universities.
To judge by the numbers, there can be little doubt of the success of these institutions, for we must at this moment have more educated and knowledgable people in the world than ever before. I spent some time this morning trying to discover how many university students we have in this one city, and it comes to something like (at a conservative estimate) 184,000, made up of   55,000 at the University of Montreal, 40,000 at McGill, 46,000 at Concordia, and  43,000 at the University of Quebec at Montreal (known to everyone as UQAM). These are amazing figures, and they probably pale beside those of Ontario, where the University of Toronto has 90,000 and York university 53,000, just to mention two of them. Then think, in each case, of the army of professors engaged in passing on The Knowledge to their charges. Thousands upon thousands of them.
No wonder the students are hustling and bustling past me, on their way, no doubt, to beat out the tough competition which must face all of them if they are to get their degrees, without which, it is said, in these modern times no meaningful life is really possible any more. All around the University in the city streets, one peers amazed into neighbourhood coffee shops, to see that right into the late evenings, every table is occupied by students leaning over the computers that are propped up before them. Hot in pursuit of The Knowledge.
And yet…. Perhaps one may be forgiven for expressing a slight doubt. If these universities are doing such a great job, how is it that by our human actions, the health of the very elements on which all life depends --- that is, clean water, fresh air, richly productive soil, biological diversity ---- are all deteriorating at an exponential rate. For all our brainpower --- and it is brainpower that the professors are supposed to be working on, increasing its effectiveness by filling each brain with The Knowledge, better and improved with every generation --- for all our brainpower, we have not fully grasped so simple a truth as that our very lives depend on such apparently insignificant animals as bees, or those worms and slugs that live in the top three inches of earth and are constantly at work transforming the earth into productive topsoil. Without either of these insignificant  classes of animal, human life would go phufft!
It makes one wonder if the way they are teaching The Knowledge in these expensive universities is really doing the job. I remember I was myself in charge of a  university  class of undergraduates for one term. It was one of the most farcical jobs I ever had. There were 122 of them, sitting out there, waiting for The Knowledge. I depended on a computer to give me a list of their names, and I never got that until two weeks before the term was over. I know one thing: they never got any Knowledge from me.
When I was an active journalist, working in London, England for a Canadian newspaper, I spent a lot of time poring over a study of higher education, which exposed the totally class nature of the education system. As an enthusiastic socialist I deplored all of it, supported the idea of comprehensive high schools at which levels of education would be raised and harmonized for the mass of students, and excoriated the nakedly class method they had of separating children at the age of eight into those destined for higher education, and those destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.
I never had to suffer a university education myself, having left school after four years of high school, and gone straight into the work force at the lowest possible rung of journalism. That certainly had its advantages: I learned the craft by performing it, and have never really been a supporter of the idea that a university education should be compulsory, as it is now, for an upcoming journalist.
It is probably not the first time I have raised doubts about the university system in this space. But they have been on my mind since I read the autobiography of Peter Medawar (which I previously mentioned in My Log 534 on October 30.) He went to Oxford University in 1932 and gives an extraordinary account of the university’s system of teaching, which was by tutorials, with the ratio of students to tutors being 1:1. In this age of mass education that sounds completely unattainable. Yet I took the trouble to look up Oxford as it is today, and the tutorial system is still in effect, with the number of students to each tutor varying from one to four.
Impossible, one would think, in this day of mass education. I’m not so sure about that. In the richest nations in the world they keep telling us it is impossible to afford free university education to those who want it, or are qualified for it. In both Canada and the United States the burden of student loans has become immense. Students owe more than an estimated $22 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students calculation, and in the United States, student loans are said to amount to more than $3 trillion.
Unsurprisingly, in the capitalist world it is really only in the Nordic countries --- countries like Sweden, for example, have always boasted they have a capitalist economy and a socialist society ---- that free education at all levels has been offered. Communist countries like China and the USSR provided education free of charge, but as they have transferred to a capitalism economy, an essential element has been to put higher education on a fee-paying basis.  There are of course, exceptions, Cuba being one of them. One of the major questions that Canadian capitalists should have to answer is: if Cuba can afford free higher education why cannot the far more prosperous nation of Canada do the same?
The original purpose of university education was to produce a well-rounded individual. But that seems to have gone by the board with the arrival of mass education. Now the emphasis seems to be on producing the fodder, in the form of trained workers, needed to keep the economic system ticking over.
This system certainly seems to have caught the interest of the generations just coming into maturity, those young men and women scurrying past me as they hurry from class to class. One can only hope they are getting what they want. And even more profoundly, one would hope that great changes should be underway in the sort of Knowledge that is being transmitted to them in their classrooms. The essential knowledge needed now is: how do we keep our life-support systems from being irrevocably degraded? I hope to hell that is why these young people are in such as hurry to get to their destinations.  For finding the answer to that question has become a matter of urgency.