Wednesday, September 19, 2018

My Log 647 Sept 19 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 83 See what happens when you just sit down to write, confronted by a blank sheet of paper

I read, the other day, about some famous author who had made it a habit to get up and write for two hours every morning of his life, by which method he had accumulated an impressive list of masterworks.  It is typical of me in my present state and age, that I cannot remember the name of this author, but that really doesn’t matter. I have begun to ask myself what would it be like if, lacking any particular subject, I just sat down and began to write whatever came into my head, which I imagine must be somewhat analogous to the experience of the aforesaid great author.
So, be warned, this is the occasion.
Come to think of it, I have done this before. Years ago I dreamed up a strange sentence which I wrote down, imagining it to be the beginning of a novel. As a matter of fact, I did write a novel arising from that first, bizarre sentence. I stood up on a chair a few minutes ago to reach up to a high shelf on which the sole remaining copy of that unpublished novel now rests, along with dozens of other half-finished, unregarded, scrappy manuscripts of one kind or other. Unfortunately, because of my present state of both mind and body, I was unable to complete my search, for instead of being able to pick out the manuscript from my disorganized files, I suddenly realized that if I persisted I  might well  topple off the chair, so that, not for the first time in my life, I should recognize that discretion is the better part of valour.
I have forgotten the exact sentence with which I began that novel, but I went something like this, “If Collette Davidson had known what would happen when she visited her husband, Joe,  in the local jail, she would never have taken her son, David, aged nine, with her.”
What followed immediately was something to this effect: the wardens in the local jail took a fancy to son David, and agreed to undertake his care, provided she for her part would agree to go into a neighbouring room and undertake certain acts that they might demand of her.  I remember a subsequent scene had Collette sitting on a bus as she left the jail, complaining to the woman sitting beside her that she should never have left her son with those men, because they had raped her.
 I also remember that I carried this fantasy on through maybe 40,000 words, showed it to a man who was my agent at the time, who showed it to a publisher of his acquaintance, who reacted enthusiastically as to its quality, and urged me to carry on. At that point, finding myself trapped in a totally unlikely plot, I began to think I should rescue this off-the-top-of-my-head process, and impose some order on all this.  I did that, imposed on the plot some sequence that I recognized as more or less normal, and was told after submitting the completed novel that it just didn’t meet the standards of the same publisher who had previously been so enthusiastic. In other words, my attempt to impose order on the plot had ruined it.
Well, at least that novel did get to rest under the eye of a publisher, however briefly, which is more than can be said for most of the other half-dozen or more novels I have written in my eight or nine decades  of scribbling. Indeed I can think of only one other that even got to be circulated  among publishers: it was an effort I made to write a real pot-boiler; an agent I had at the time in New York loyally sent it around the publishers of cheap trash --- publishers of bestsellers, in other words --- and although it elicited some friendly comments, none of them wanted to stand behind it.
The rest of my novels have never seen the light of day even in the narrowest meaning of that expression.  Most I have just consigned willingly to the scrap heap. Of only one do I wish I had been rather more determined to try it out on publishers. It was a longish novel arising from my lifetime interest in the dramatic life of Captain James Cook who discovered for Europeans the country in which I was born, New Zealand. Since I was a scribbler by nature I had always harboured a secret desire to invent my own Captain Cook. Such a thing if it could be pulled off would have the peripheral advantage that Captain Cook is of importance in the history of almost all the English-speaking peoples and most of the countries they inhabit, including Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and even Canada, where in the years before he embarked on his great voyages, he had already made his name as a cartographer by having mapped the coasts of Newfoundland, and, in addition, having guided the Royal Navy up the St Lawrence river carrying General Wolfe’s army for the attack on Quebec. All this would be good for sales of any significant book on the subject of Captain Cook.
My son Thom, who had embarked years before like a laser beam on achieving a career as a screenwriter, worked with me in tandem writing the first drafts. He is exceptionally strong on plot, which I am weak on. I thought I could hold my own on the production of the actual prose, so we made a good team. The actual plot was quite complex. It revolved around the assumption that Captain Cook had never been assassinated by the Hawaiians, but had, in league with a few trusted senior members of his crew, staged a phony death to enable him to settle for life with a Polynesian maiden of his choice.  Immediately on the crew’s return to the United Kingdom,  the Royal Navy invested the huge emotional capital of Cook’s selfless and heroic death into creating the myth of the world-straddling adventurer and explorer. Ten years later, when letters began arriving in London from Cook, begging to be rescued from his self-imposed  incarceration among the savages, the Admiralty were not prepared to disturb their hugely successful myth-making.  Instead, they hired a man, Molesworth Phillips, who had been an officer in Cook’s crew, and was now drinking himself to death in Ireland, to embark on a similar small ship with the instruction to seek out Cook and solve the problem in the generally understood fashion. This action had become over the generations the most closely guarded secret of the British Admiralty, known to only one man at a time, handed on from the director of Intelligence to his successor.
There were a lot of intriguing sidebars to this overall plot, many of them involving actual personalities from Cook’s crew who in our novel undertook purely fictionalized events, enabling us to draw in many interesting historical figures. For example, Phillips was married to a sister of Fanny Burney, the woman novelist and member of the Blue Stocking Society, famous for its close relationship with Samuel  Johnson (Fanny also being a sister of James Burney, a lieutenant on Cook’s crew and later a rear-admiral).  Also, a young man called Trevanan was a midshipman on the crew, and a friend of James King, who commanded the return to London after Cook’s death, and collaborated with King on producing the hugely successful account of the voyages. Trevanan later went to join the Russian navy,  under the guidance of an Admiral Greig whom the Russians employed to whip their Navy into shape. In Moscow, before dying in action for the Russians,  he married the widow of Thomas Bowdler, whose versions of Shakespeare texts gave the word “bowdlerize”, to the English language. We used these historical figures shamelessly to build a plot that began with an investigative journalist in Boston travelling to Baie St Paul on the St Lawrence river to interview a retired British rear-admiral, a descendant of Admiral Greig, as to whether Trevanan had ever left any journal that might confirm or deny  something the journalist’s drunken father had been told by a story-telling Polynesian vagrant who hung around Boston Common, leading to…..I think you must have an idea of what our historical whodunit was about, by this time.
We never got it into shape to send to a publisher. I was fussing over plot details, and Thom had to pursue his screenwriting obsession, and somehow, our masterly mystery fell between our two stools.  Or should I say, fell into a file so high on my shelves that I will never be able to get it down again.

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Log 646 Sept 17 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 82 Humans gather in the oddest, most esoteric groups to pursue individual interests that may make no sense all out outside the group

As I sit mulling over some things I have learned during my long life, I began to think about  how strange it is --- bizarre, even --- that human beings should be divided into so many different groups. I was pulled on to this subject by a long two-page article in last weekend’s Globe and Mail  about endangered species and the best way to save them, which made mention of an area in south-western Saskatchewan that has never fallen to the plough, and that still harbours a large number of original inhabitants.  It happens that when directing a National Film Board film about the history of our National Parks some years ago  --- 1984, in fact, could that really be 34 years ago?---- I spent some time in that area, met some of the local inhabitants, and was mightily impressed by the knowledge of nature that one couple, simple ranchers, exhibited.  I remember the woman remarking as a largish bird flew overhead, almost out of sight,   that “that’s a ferruginous…”  meaning a ferruginous hawk, while her husband was scrabbling around in a snake pit with a hooked stick by which he was able to extract, one by one, a whole bunch of rattlesnakes, of which he showed no fear at all.
As an urban kind of guy with no knowledge of any animals, I was impressed by how this couple belonged  to a group with such an intimate knowledge of these birds and animals, and showed such an instinctive desire to ensure they should survive.  This group of well-informed passionate enthusiasts for the natural world were a formidable force that had to be taken into account by the National Parks service as they were trying to create a new park to protect the last remaining area of the original, pre-contact grasslands of Canada.
Someone else sprang into my mind this morning, some scientist,  probably the first man of this type I had ever heard of,  who impressed me as  teenager when I had to write as a journalist about his exploits in the rocky islands off the coast of my native New Zealand. Richmond was it?  Richdale, maybe?  Yes, I think it was L.E. Richdale….I looked him up on Google, and sure enough, a full description is given of this man’s genius. He began as an amateur ornithologist, and later developed through his detailed studies of  seabirds into a scientist of international renown.  Most seabirds live on remote islands, and on a tiny rocky outpost near Stewart Island, “in fierce weather and primitive conditions (he initially lived in a tent), Richdale studied a variety of small burrowing petrels including the titi (muttonbird). Between 1940 and 1950 he endured some 50 weeks of self-imposed isolation, with normal days of 15–20 hours’ work.”  I remember how amazed I was at hearing of these exploits. He was the first person I had ever encountered who belonged to that group, remote enough in all conscience, determined to gather everything he could about these birds. I was not surprised to read that  when he returned to New Zealand from a three-year rip to England, ready to take up his work with the petrels, he had to declare himself “exhausted, suffering from a damaged back and the onset of Parkinson’s disease,”   all no doubt brought on by his endless hours crouched on the rocky islands watching the birds. He had to announce his withdrawal from the scientific community, and died 20 years later, covered in international honours.
*                  *                *                         *                         *
Well, it may be quite a stretch from these heroic figures gathered in their small groups of determined citizens, to some of the more mundane of urban groups that float into our ken from time to time.  This last weekend, for example, I had similar thoughts about groups as I watched the fairly esoteric proceedings in Toronto in which the tennis community conferred membership of the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame on the 43-year-old  retiring player Daniel Nestor. The announced list of the members of his hall of fame were not such as to shake the welkins of the global tennis hierarchy --- indeed, most of them have barely made any impact on the larger tennis world.
But they were sufficient for the well-meaning, earnest people who have been slowly building the tennis community in Canada to take satisfaction from their determined efforts.  Daniel Nestor himself seemed to have a modest understanding of his achievement, without any vainglorious posturing. I remember him from when he was just a kid with a big game, a game evidently capable of taking him anywhere, if only he would take it seriously, as he seldom seemed to do.  He gained a modicum of fame early on by  beating the world’s number one player, Stefan Edberg,  in a Davis Cup match, a result that exposed the possibilities before him.
 If only he had not been so lackadaisical!  I remember noting how little seriousness he seemed to put into playing, as if it were more or less insignificant. I thought he was never going to go anywhere in tennis, and was surprised when he took to doubles and became one of the world’s leading experts in that more or less neglected field.
But there you go --- I don’t need to go even so far afield as Toronto to illustrate my thesis about the bizarre nature of these multilayered specialist groups that people gather themselves into.  I myself am an enthusiastic member  of one such group. I follow the world of Rugby Union, of which I have a detailed knowledge that would surely surprise most of my acquaintances if they knew about it. This arises from my boyhood in New Zealand.  This last weekend the team I follow was beaten in a thrilling game by South Africa by 36 to 34.  But let me ask you a question.  Would it have been better for New Zealand to have persisted with Ben Smith at fullback, instead of replacing him with  Jordie Barrett, with Ben replacing Waisake Naholo on the wing?  I have only to ask the question --- a deadly serious one  in the light of Jordie’s rookie mistake that cost us the game --- to prove my point about how esoteric and downright strange some of our human groups can be. I’ll bet there wouldn’t be one out of 1000 of my readers --- I am exaggerating my readership by several magnitudes to make the point --- not one in a l,000 who would have the slightest idea what I was talking about.
So, see if I care. I may pride myself on being a chronic non-joiner, who has joined and quit the NDP multiple times, but I acknowledge  membership of this other group, complete with my storehouse of entirely useless knowledge,  and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.
It’s my group and I’m still worried that Brodie Rettalick might not be available for the big game in Durban next week.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, youse guys.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

My Log 645 Sept 12 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 81 The joys of illness: a sensational new pill transports me to another world, full of dangers and possibilities

 I never expected this would happen to me, but I am taking a pill that is pulling me into a whole new world of possibilities and disasters. The purpose of this pill is, in the measured words of the medics, that “it may slow or stop the growth of lung cancer, and it may help shrink tumors.”
It’s only applicable to me, apparently, because I have a defect in either the gene called ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) or the gene called ROSI. I have to take their word for this of course, because I didn’t even know until yesterday that I had these genes, let alone that they are defective. This pill is variously called either XALKORI (in its capitals form) or Crizotinib (in lower-case form).  This is a new one on me, judging a pill by whether it is written in upper or lower case, but maybe I am misunderstanding something here: anyway, I certainly wouldn’t be taking it if I had what they call “congenital long QT, a heart disorder that exists before or at birth.” You can believe me when I say that if I had the old Long QT, I wouldn’t touch XALTORI with a barge-pole. How lucky can a guy get?  I seem to remember being told when I was 60 that I had the heart of a 30-year-old.
In addition to this incredible luck it seems that I am not allergic to a list of  seventeen mysterious substances listed as the non-medicinal ingredients of the pill. This sounds quite straight forward until one reaches the slightly alarming  information that “Printing ink” is included among these seventeen substances. Is it some kind of miracle, arising from my lifetime’s work as an ink-stained wretch, that I am judged to be free to swallow all this printing ink?
But all this, as the literary people might say, is mere prologue. The list of serious warnings of side-effects goes on for three pages of closely-printed type (closely-printed, maybe, to take advantage of the printing ink in the pill that I keep swallowing, could that be possible?)
Enough of this levity, Boyce, time to take this seriously. Right off the top of the “serious warnings” comes  my old friend the QT, whose “interval prolongation” can slow the heart rate, and this is so likely that maybe I have to expect to submit myself to endless ECGs (electrocardiograms: I hasten to add this, with a slightly superior smile, for those who do not have my effortless familiarity with medical jargon.)
All this is good for my vocabulary, because these QT prolongations, he says, just tossing it off with total familiarity, are described as arrhythmias or dysrhythmias, a cunning way of warning that one might expect dizziness, palpitations, fainting,  even death (in which case, presumably, there would be no one left to read the rest of the many warnings.)
Moving on effortlessly  through lung inflammation, which needn’t delay us unduly, and to liver problems, I at last arrive at something that gives me serious pause. Under this heading I have to watch out for my skin turning yellow, surely a serious matter, severe tiredness (presumably even more severe than what I suffer habitually), dark or brown urine…..whoa there, old man…. This needs serious consideration and close examination.   Is that, you say, peering down anxiously, could that possibly be described as brown?  Dark, maybe? Satisfied one way or the other, one then moves on to nausea or vomiting, decreased appetite, pain in the stomach, bleeding or bruising anywhere, and itching, a veritable witch’s catalogue of horrible effects to watch out for.
All that’s on page one.
Page two takes us a step further, telling us to watch out for medicines that could have deleterious effects. Like medicines for heart rhythm problems, for psychoses, for infections fungal and otherwise, for asthmas, for high blood pressure, and on and on they go.
On page three we are treated to a list of extremely unpleasant- sounding conditions that affect more than 10 out of every 100 people --- numbness, pricking, freezing, tingling, weakness,  shortness of breath, and so on and on.  At a lesser level of commonality (or maybe it is a greater level, my maths has never been my strong point) between one and 10 people in every 100 are likely to have upset stomach, esophagus inflammation or low blood pressure (they are getting you both ways, apparently, upper and lower).  Unmentioned so far, but coming up, is the near certainty of experiencing flashing white lights during the night, the whites of one’s eyes turning yellow, etc, etc.
If this doesn’t strike you are transporting me into another world, perhaps the kicker information might do so: the cost of this medication is listed on the pharmacist’s sheet as $7,800, of which I am required to pay $62.47. This causes I me a rapturous feeling for our system of socialized medicine, and takes me back to my childhood and the slow development within me of my lifelong impulse for  egalitarianism. I think back to when I was a small child in elementary school, when a boy called Alex “pisspants” Critchfield, arrived stinking every day, to be cruelly harangued by his fellow students, and regularly thrashed with the strap by our brutal Scottish dominie, and I began to feel the first stirrings of “this isn’t right” within me. Later, when my father and elder brother, tough businessmen both, signed a young man called Bill McGrouther to a seven-year apprenticeship, then, as soon as they had signed him, decided they hated his guts, and spent more time swearing and cursing his name than actually teaching him what they had undertaken to do.  Instead of freeing him from his contract, they persisted in it,  giving him joe jobs like carrying a hod of bricks up and down ladders, trotting around with heavy wheelbarrow loads of mixed cement--- jobs that had nothing to do with his learning the skills of carpentry,  again for me to feel “this isn’t right” as the first stirrings of a socialist ethic began to develop, which have led me always to support such measures as socialized medicine and the like.
So far I have taken 10 of the pills, with 50 more to come, and then three repeats --- does that mean 170 more? --- but so far I have not had any of the described terrible side effects.
 Okay, fingers crossed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

My Log 644 Sept 11 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 80 A time when I turned things on their head: ignoring the names of white experts, and recognizing the names of the previously disregarded indigenous

I noticed in the public prints in the last couple of days an article about an exhibition of historical, archival photographs which stated that all the white people in the photos were named, but none of the indigenous people who had been photographed appeared to have a name.
This took me back with a bump to the tragic-comic occasion on which I made my first film. This was in 1971, not long after the announcement of the James Bay hydro-electric project, and as I embarked on this unfamiliar job --- a complete novice who didn’t know one end of a camera from another ----  I had only one clear objective in mind. I was three years into my contacts with native people across the country and his was one striking thing I had noticed, that in every mixed group, it was the whites who would be in the centre doing all the talking, while the natives stood silently listening. It is perhaps hard to believe now, but at that time, in most photos, videos, TV or whatever exposed to public view, even when they were the subject of the piece, the indigenous people were usually standing  in a disconsolate-looking group on the edge of the picture while some white expert --- usually an anthropologist --- would be holding forth telling the audience what the native people would be thinking and feeling, and, presumably, saying, if only they had been given the chance to say anything.
Even more striking was the fact that of the 600 native communities in Canada, almost none were ever to be found on a Canadian map. It was almost as if the dominant society, in a colossal act of indifference, had virtually eliminated the original inhabitants by the simple act of pretending they didn’t exist.
So, when I set out to make my own film, I made a kind of foolish, but understandable, decision. I decided I would turn this tradition on its head. I would identify, and allow to speak, every native person in the film; but of the white men working around them, mostly already engaged on building the hydro-project, whether as pilots, cooks, labourers,  supervisors, engineers, I would hear them speak, record what they had to say, but never, ever identify them by name.
Thus in the next few days I ran across some doozers: a young helicopter pilot, an American, as it happened, fresh from shooting up people in Cambodia, who had been flying around the James Bay wilderness for Hydro-Quebec for two years, told me: “This area is one of the most barren in the world today. It was scraped clean by glaciers long ago, and virtually nothing has grown since.”  We heard him say it clearly in the movie, but as to who he was: zilch.
In contrast, an elderly Cree hunter who had never been anywhere in the world except up and down the La Grande river, year after year, of which he knew every rock and hidden danger, every swirling rapid, every becalmed  fishing place, every burial spot for his people, always placed in death facing the rising sun, just as they had awakened to each day in life, this man told me that the region “is just like a garden, where  everything, people, trees, birds, animals, the rivers, lakes and rocks, is born, lives out its  life, and then when all is done  returns to become part of the continuing life.”  This man was Job Bearskin, and we called the film, Job’s Garden. Later, when they built a stadium in his village, it was named Job’s Place. And I would bet that if you mention the name Job to any of his people, even today, 40 years later, the man who would spring to their minds immediately would be that same Job Bearskin, whose quiet, burning indignation at what was being done to the land he had always loved became the centrepiece of our film.
I made quite a number of films to do with the Cree people, but of all of them, I know why Job’s Garden, for all its ludicrous technical deficiencies, held a special place in the regard of the people in the villages: it was because of a scene in which Job, having been up-river to examine what was being done to the land by the developers, returned to gather some of his old friends around a fire in his teepee that stood beside his house in Fort George,  a scene in which each of them in turn --- Samson Nahacappo, David Cox, Johnny Bearskin, Thomas Pachano, William Rat --- remarkable-looking men with the experience of their lifetimes spent in the bush written in their faces --- expressed their bewilderment at what the white man was proposing to do, and how deeply they opposed it all.  In that tent, that day, sat this repository of the collected wisdom of the Cree people, wisdom that the invading whites with their giant machines at first completely disregarded, until very gradually, but oh so slowly!, they seem at last to have come to take it into account.
 Just twenty years later, a young Cree stopped me while I was walking through the village, and said to me, as if talking about something that had happened only yesterday,  “I think we are only beginning to understand what those old men were telling us.”
The old men are gone now, but the knowledge they had of the land and animals, at least the equal of any scientific knowledge, I hope still lives on in the hearts and minds of the younger people, the succeeding generations, who were always at the centre of the old people’s hopes.
Their names remain with me still:
Johnny Wapachee
Solomon Voyageur
Sam Blacksmith
Ronnie Jolly
Willie Rupert
Stephen Tapiatic
George Shem
Matthew Shanush
Philip Petawabano
Joseph Pepabano…..
And so it goes on…a catalogue of the admirable men I met on my trips to Cree country, the land call Eeyou Istchee.