That is the first reason for my silence, but there is a second: I have been working for the last few months over the text of a proposed book I am engaged in writing, and that has occupied most of my creative energy. The book is to be about a remarkable Canadian couple who, at the age of 25, arrived in England in the early fifties with $1,000 and the vague intention of opening a coffee house. They were not particularly qualified for that job, and had relatively little work experience of any kind. They had neither of them got through high school, but they shared a spirit, a sort of wacky optimism, and a remarkable flair which enabled them, within ten years, to have created in their Troubadour coffee house a place that attracted the enthusiastic loyalty of a wide range of all classes of people from lonely old people living in one room to the most creative artists of the realm, to the dropouts, eccentrics and dissidents who, now in their twilight years, are still insisting there never was a place like the Troubadour they knew and loved, and there never will be another place like it.
I am collaborating with the survivor of this couple, Sheila Van Bloemen, whose husband Michael died two years ago. I used to hang around the Troubadour a lot in the 1960s, when I was a correspondent for The Montreal Star in London. But I left London in 1968, and was out of touch with its owners until after I read an account of Michael’s life on the obituary pages of the Globe and Mail.
Some of my old-time readers may remember I wrote a piece at that time on my former Web site about the coffee shop and its remarkable owners, and that led to my finding Sheila and her family of children and grandchildren, still living in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to which beautiful little town she and Michael had retreated when the very success of the coffee shop --- there were lineups every night to get into the place --- began to choke them. The story of their café is a story of how a place that was never run as a commercial enterprise could succeed in business (I am tempted to add the line from the American musical….without really trying.) At any rate, I talked to a 70-year-old man last week who told me: “I worked there for four pounds a week for years, and it never once occurred to me it was a job. It was just my way of life. There will never be another place like the Troubadour, believe me.”
So that has been occupying my energies for a few months, but progress is relatively slow, partly because both Sheila and I are in our eighties, but also because it takes time to re-connect with people who are still alive (many are not) who remember a place that was cherished by them half a century ago.
So, okay, that is my apology for having neglected what I believe I must now call my blog. I began this as a personal Web site 15 years ago, before the word blog was ever heard on earth. I regarded it as a sounding off board, a place where I could exercise my somewhat compulsive need to write, to write about anything and everything that fell to hand. I never thought about the audience, or even if there was much of an audience. Some wise person once said that a writer needs only an audience of one: I always knew I had at least that many readers, and was content with it. When blogs arose I did try to join them (although I was somewhat put off by a guy who wrote me “welcoming me to the blogosphere”, something I had never heard of and had no wish to join) but I found the technology too hard to master.
A year or so ago I decided that maybe I could attract more readers by joining the blog, and my remote adviser, Doug Perry, of Vancouver, who has been a long-time, faithful reader, helped set me up in the simplified blogging system that now exists. So I switched from a free-standing Web site to Blogger.com (an outfit owned by Google, apparently, as like so much else on the Net), and I made the switch. Although so far I see no evidence at all that I am read by more people than before. Never mind, one will do….
Okay, while I have been disporting myself in these personal adventures, all around me the world is going to ratshit. I spent this morning looking at the videos on the BBC Web site of the tsunami as it hit Japan. What a terrifying spectacle, what a terrifying event. As one of my sons remarked, it turned the world into junk. As it swept through the works of human kind, it reduced everything to one common denominator: junk. Everything we have created was reduced by this wall of water just to meaningless stuff. Flotsam, as someone said on the BBC a few minutes ago, and jetsam, I could have added (always quick with a cliche). Great buses, cars, lorries, houses, telegraph poles, buildings --- everything that stood before it was simply destroyed and carried off until the wave of water itself --- black by the time it had passed through the cities ---- was scarcely discernable under the load of junk it was carrying.
I have to admit, when I was in Costa Rica for a month, living along the beach, the possibility of a tsunami was never far from my mind. It seems a tsunami is the most devastating natural event that could confront any human life --- simply the power of nature, sweeping us all before it. I recommend anyone who has not done so to view these videos on the BBC’s Web site. They are awe-inspiring. The latest news, given a few moments ago is that the death toll has reached 12,000, with many more still missing. And more than 400,000 people have been forced by the earthquake and the tsunami out of their homes into temporary shelters,. Quite evidently, it will take Japan years to recover from this drastic event.
At the same time I have been fascinated during these last few months by the events in the Middle East. Of course, these must have aroused different feelings in each of us. For me, the Egyptian revolution --- at the moment far from achieved --- and the extraordinary discipline with which it was carried out, put an end to any residual reservations I might have carried from my childhood about the capacity of Egyptians. I am sure many, especially older people, must know what I mean. When I was a small child, our brothers and friends were called from New Zealand to go to Egypt to fight the invading Germans. Of course, we were told, the Egyptians themselves were incapable of defending themselves, or doing anything else much that was of any value. In the common parlance of so many Western countries, the Egyptians were Wogs --- Wily Oriental Gentlemen, was what I was told as a child was the derivation of the name --- they were ruled over by a corrupt, fat King Farouk, and they were a useless bunch that had to be rescued by our muscular, upright New Zealand boys from their own incapacity.
The recent events in Egypt gave the lie to that calumny for ever. I was never able to believe the idea that the revolution they conducted was leaderless. It was too well disciplined, its spokespersons were too eloquent and organized, its amateur soldiers and adherents were too determined and focused. That their overthrow of the corrupt president should have led to similar uprisings around the Arab world is hardly surprising. One of its peripheral effects has been to reveal the hypocrisy of Western pretensions to be democratic (while supporting to the hilt the oppressive dictators who have ruthlessly enriched themselves and stolen from the people they have ruled), and this revelation comes on top of the meltdown of capitalism that has so affected the lives of people everywhere, that the very foundations of our society appear to have been shaken if not undermined.
Although not quite. On this subject, readers would do well to consult an article by the estimable Matt Taibbi in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, called Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail? The answer, briefly, is that the same people who ruined the global economy are still running things, and have mounted a ferocious effort to destroy public sector unions throughout the world, a classic case of blaming the victims for their own crimes.