Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Log 375: Woody Allen’s new film suggests it might be time for him to have a break

English: Woody Allen in concert in New York City.
English: Woody Allen in concert in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I went to the new Woody Allen film last night, expecting something equally delightful as some of his more recent films in praise of Rome, Paris and particularly Barcelona. Unfortunately this one turns out to be Woody at his most portentous, commenting, I suppose you could say, on the corrupt world of the extreme rich.
The film, in its English vesion, is called Blue Jasmine, and in its French version, according to ads in today’s French-language newspapers here, Jasmine French (which is an odd use of the French language, as any Montrealer could tell you.
Frankly, this is not a social class that particularly interests me, and the way it is portrayed by Allen never really engaged my belief. Cate Blanchett, it is true, gives a bravura performance in the leading role of a wife of one of those “masters of the universe”, as the kings of Wall street like to describe themselves. But she seems to be a thoroughly stupid woman, shallow to the nth degree, and with a system of values that leaves her devastated as soon as she finds out what all her friends have known for years, that her husband is a philandering scumbag.  He is played smoothly by Alec Baldwin, but we don’t get much chance to find out what makes him tick. Like all the other characters he is a cardboard character whom one simply cannot get close to, even as a detached observer to a film.
Their  whole value system, completely dominated by the enormous amounts of money her husband has fraudulently accumulated, is such as to cancel any sympathy one might have had for this couple.
And it is not assuaged  even from the moment we pick her up, gabbing away, endlessly, about her personal problems, to the stranger who happens to be sitting next to her in the aircraft. She arrives in San Francisco, is admitted to the rather working-class home of her adopted sister (both girls have been adopted, Allen’s way, presumably of justifying their totally different types, although why that device would be needed is beyond me, since siblings can be just as diverse as adopted children), and after describing how she has lost everything, she begins to complain about the service in her first-class seat on the plane. “First-class?” asks her sister, “and you are totally broke?”
Jasmine (who used to be called Jeannette, but changed it because she thought it sounded more glamorous) doesn’t really get her sister’s point, which warns us, I guess, that her intelligence is somewhat limited.  Her sister is a hard-working mother of two, herself divorced, and we are treated to a number of flashbacks to fill in the domestic history of these two poor souls. Jasmine dreams of finding a rich man who will restore all her lost security, but when someone suggests she could become an interior designer, she sets out to become that, although first having to attend a course in how to use a computer, which comes hard for her. Her sister, for her part, has a new boyfriend who was ready to move in with her until the arrival of big sister from New York, and eventually Jasmine herself does meet Mr Right, a young diplomat who has just bought a fabulous new home that he wants her to decorate, and who seems to be just as shallow and simple as this sophisticated New York woman he regards as a perfect match. Of course she tells him a lot of lies, which, inevitably, are discovered,. And at the same time her sister discovers a man who seems perfect, until she discovers he is already married, a small detail he forgot to mention to her. Under the impact of losing her diplomat, poor Jasmine sinks deeper than ever into pill-taking --- I am unable to describe the denouement to all this nonsense because it seemed so trivial, so lacking in interest, that I lost the drift long before the end.
If Allen’s purpose was to illustrate the sickness of this particular class of masters of the universe, I suppose one could say he succeeded. But he might just as well have been illustrating the rise and fall of the American empire
However, I fear these were not his purposes. Rather, one has the impression that this is all presented as a meaningful human drama. But personally I couldn’t take these slobbering simpletons seriously. Maybe the time has come for Woody to ease up, relax and smell the daisies, let at least a year go by that he doesn’t produce something or other on film.  It happens to everybody, Woody, growing old. Just have to accept it as well as we can manage.
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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Log 374: Beautiful Al Jazeera documentary reveals the longing of many immigrants for their home countries

Al Jazeera building in Doha, Qatar.
Al Jazeera building in Doha, Qatar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lebanon Mosque
Lebanon Mosque (Photo credit: Côte d’Azur)
If  any reader of this blog does not yet have access to Al Jazeera television, I  would advise them to lay down the $2.50 a month that it costs so they can take advantage of some excellent programmes.
Not only does the station give a somewhat different perspective on the affairs of the world, but it also produces some wonderful documentary films on all sorts  of subjects. Most of their subjects are from non-European countries; many of them deal with problems suffered by people in poor countries; but the quality of the work is first-rate, and the freshness of perspective notable in almost every case.
Just today I saw a moving  programme called “Beirut Buenos Aires Beirut,” that was screened in a series called Al Jazeera World. The film was made by a man called Hernan Belen, about a handsome 37-year-old woman from Argentina, Graciela,  who started to ask questions about what happened to the great-grandfather, Mohammed Moussa Haithan, who, having emigrated to South America from Lebanon many years before and raised a family, suddenly after the death of his wife, left his children  all behind to return to his Lebanese home, seldom to be heard from again.
First she went to the archives to look for any immigrant who might have been recorded as an arriving ship passenger at around 1900, but was told that Arabs in those days were not regarded as favorable immigrants, and the curator was not surprised to find there was no record of his arrival, since so many documents had been trashed. She had been given some letters by her grandmother, family letters written to her great-grandfather in Arabic, and carefully guarded these many years, and now she took them to an Arabic-speaking scholar who translated them for her. One of them was from her grandfather’s sister, Carine, chiding him for never writing to his family in Lebanon with news of his fate in Argentina. From such an inconclusive search she was far from satisfied, and decided, to the astonishment of her family, to go to Lebanon to see if she could connect with members of their family still living there.  She was worried that she did not have a precise address for her grandfather, but her elders told her that in those Lebanese villages, “everybody knows everybody.”
I want to add to this narrative --- to interrupt it, if you like --- that I was caught up in this story because she was explaining a sequence of events that my own family had experienced, although long before I was conscious of it or even interested in it. My own grandfather, as a boy of 22, had arrived in the south of the South Island of New Zealand in 1878 from County Antrim in northern Ireland, and like the young Lebanese in Argentina had married and started a family. He was an early pioneer in that sparsely-populated part of the country, set up a business as a coach driver, and unfortunately died when my father was 10, leaving his Scottish-born wife alone to carry on his business, and even to set up a new one, as a funeral director. I knew none of the details of my grandfather’s life until many years later when my nephew, a successful businesssman, researched my grandfather's life for a book he was writing about his own experiences in business. In that indifference to family history I suppose I am typical of many descendants of the brave ancestors who have sallied out around the world in the last 200 years
I read somewhere that there are 500,000,000 of us, we people whose forebears left their homes in search of better opportunities in new countries, so we are quite a brotherhood and sisterhood, taken all in all.
Graciela, the Argentine woman heroine of this film, knew from her grandfather’s rare letters that he had settled in a southern Lebanese village called Kfar Kila. And once arrived in the country she was fortunate to find an Arabic-speaking friend from Buenos Aires who was visiting, like herself, and whose knowledge of the language eased her search considerably. He discovered that they would need a military permit to allow them to enter the region in which this village was situated, and later they found out they not only needed the general permit, but detailed permits, one  for every place they intended to visit.  
Arrived in the village, they inquired of two men standing in front of a house for directions to the mayor. When they elaborated on their mission, the man said he lived in the house her grandfather had occupied, so he took them there. When she saw the windows before which her grandfather used to sit and smoke shisha (whatever that is), she wanted to sit there and imagine the scene from years before.
The man said he knew the family of her grandfather’s widow, and he took them to meet Carine’s son, Habib. Carine had been killed in 1948 by the Israelis, even before the  grandfather had returned to Lebanon. Her son said he had never met his mother, and when  Graciela produced Carine’s letter to her brother, Carine’s son  seemed overwhelmingly moved, because this was the only memento he had of his mother. They gathered, this large Lebanese family, for a photo with this woman from Argentina, and Graciela remarked that here they were, many thousands of miles apart, speaking different languages, with different cultures, yet all members of the same family. It was a truly moving conclusion to the film.
I have to confess I really don’t have that overwhelming connection to family, that seems so  typical of Middle Easterners, and perhaps especially of Arabs. In fact, on a visit to New Zeaand some years ago some people I had never seen, never even heard of before, travelled quite a distance to come and see me, and I couldn’t help wondering why they bothered. But I guess in these two attitudes we discover a dichotomy that illustrates something about the immigrant diaspora. Most of us, I guess, eventually settle into our new country and culture, and more or less forget about the country of their origins.  My father was one of those who longed for the country of origin: although born in New Zealand, and living all of his life there, he nevertheless dreamed always of going on a visit to what he insisted on calling “the home country”. And eventually he went, back to Britain, back to Northern Ireland, and he found an aunt whose acquaintance he was delighted to make. We have found since, thanks to a distant relative who lives somewhere in Canada, that my grandfather had a brother who, like him, emigrated, but this one came to North America.  Apparently, neither brother bothered writing home. The descendant who discovered this connection has since visited New Zealand and introduced himself to many members of the rather large clan of Richardsons who have descended from my grandfather.
For myself, I have lived a different sort of life: I left New Zeaand with my wife at the age of 22, travelled the world, had a family, a truly nuclear family wholly dependent on each other, since we had no extended family within many thousands of miles. And I can’t say I have ever felt homesick for the old country, New Zealand, or for the family I left behind there.
As migration increases in these modern times, this question of the attitudes of immigrants to their newly-found societies is still a matter of intense controversy. In fact, it is to be read about in the newspapers every day right at this moment, as the Quebec government is in the process of introducing a so-called Charter of Quebec Values, which would forbid the wearing of any religious symbols, such as the hibab, the kirpan, the turban and so on.The French government has been going through the same process, arguing that conformity to the customs of the host nation must be respected by those who choose to come and live among them.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

My Log 373: First Nations revival: a long process that should be gaining momentum

First Nations University of Canada
First Nations University of Canada (Photo credit: daryl_mitchell)
First Nations Protest At Queen's Park
First Nations Protest At Queen's Park (Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network)

English: Monument to aboriginal war veterans i...
English: Monument to aboriginal war veterans in Confederation Park, Ottawa, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An aspect of contemporary First Nations life in this country we call Canada that was powerfuly and disturbingly described by Richard Wagamase in an article in the Gobe and Mail over the weekend was what he called ennui among his people, and what I might describe as indifference to their fate.

A believer in the healing qualities of story-telling, this renowned author of 11 books set up in a northern reserve a programme called Empowering Community through Story, and found to his dismay that not a single young person, to whom it was directed, had bothered to register. No one in authority in the reserve had felt it worth their while to publicize the programme in any way, and he described other efforts that were ignored by the young people at whom they were directed, and at classes that got children painting  but degenerated through lack of focus in half an hour into just a lot of noise and yelling, at even trying to reach adults who failed to show up unless they were being paid, and, in general, at 10 days of largely fruitless effort that Wagamase described as resulting from ennui which, he wrote, is “a thousand-pound word that means you simply just don’t care any more.”
Last month I wrote about how many young First Nations people I had met over the years who told me that they had been taught to despise their origins as a result of being processed by the governing and religious authorities in an effort to detach them from their parents, or, to be more precise, from the so-called “barbarous life” led by their parents, who, until these children were taken to white-run and European-dominated schools, were the only role-models they had ever had. I remember some research done among such teenagers showed that as many as three out of four of them showed clinically-observable signs of depression.
These conversations convinced me that more important things than simply their deplorable living conditions were in play among these people. Indeed, I remember Harold Cardinal, when leader of the Indians of Alberta Association as it was then called, talking about “the problem problem” --- that is, that the more outsiders wrote about the problems of First Nations people, the more they were reinforcing the prejudices held about them by the surrounding society.
This certainly was reinforced by what I saw and heard when meeting these people, and I began to ask the younger people in a reserve I might be visiting to take me to their old men and women, and act as my interpreter. There we talked about their lives, their hunting knowledge, their feeling for the land, their understanding of the purpose of life, and I suddenly found that these supposedly taciturn native people would talk so much it was difficult to get away from them.
This is why I came the conclusion that, important though it was to improve their conditions of life, the first thing was something that was already underway, that is, an effort to revive concern for, interest in, and belief in their own ancient traditions, their own ceremonies and beliefs, their own sense of why they had been placed where they were on this Earth.
As I read about Canadian history I began to realize that although they were in a depressed condition, generally speaking, certain among them had always kept the flag flying, had always tried to insist on their rights, had never given up hope. Indeed, Canadian history has been dotted with the story of movements started and finally suppressed when the authorities realized what they were up to --- simply insisting on their reality as the first people of this land, of stubbornly insisting that they actually did exist --- at times when they were treated as almost having vanished --- and that they would always be here insisting on their reality.
The struggle of these leaders was hard indeed. However wise and foresighted they may have been,  most of them did not have any modern education of the kind that could persuade the governing authorities to take them seriously. So they literally were voices crying in the wilderness as they watched their young generations being seized and press-ganged, very often, into schools where they were taught things inimical to their very central core.
I developed a belief that this was a terrible crime perpetrated by the Canadian nation and that Richard Wagamase should only recently have found himself confronted by such indifference when he tried to stimulate them to a recognition of their past and its glories, indicates what an endless struggle this is. 
It also gives the lie to the favourite prescription of the Conservative government and its supporters, that assimilation into Canadian life is the only answer to the so-called problem of the First Nations. This is as far from being a viable policy as it is possible to get.
Fortunately, in spite of everything, the leadership of the First Nations --- I am not talking only of their political leaders, but of their whole leadership, traditional and modern ---- is now in the hands of highly educated people who are capable of taking on the government, of recognizing their tricks and habits, and of mounting a stern defence. First Nations people are now to be found in all walks of life, in universities as professors and students, for example, as businessmen, artists, writers of the first rank,  doctors and other professionals, thinking persons with a lot to teach their non-indigenous contemporaries.
I think of the first First Nations person I got to know personally: he was a small, powerfully built man, chief of a small reserve at the south end of Lake Nipigon who had agreed to take me on a brief tour of Northern Ontario. I found Chief Willy John to be quite a surprise: a highly experienced man who had served in the war, married an Englishwoman, and returned to find his people in the same bind as before the war, a man who had successfully pursued half a dozen different crafts --- heavy equipment operator, tugboat captain, taxi-driver, agitator, and activist for the rights of returned native servicemen and women ---- and was a delightful person full of humour and strength, working, as we went around from community to community, to help personally many people who were bewildered by the requirements of modern society with its forms and demands. This was 45 years ago, and already the leadership of his people was in good hands, in my opinion.
Having observed all this for so long my tendency today is to support such activists as the Defenders of the Land, who stand on the rights inherited from before the arrival of Europeans, that are now included in the constitution of Canada, and that the present government is working assiduously to replace with money and certain guarantees that they hand down as if they were a gift from a benevolent authority which they offer in place of the inherited  rights now enshrined in our constitution.
Though their policy direction does not depend on outside support, the Defenders and the many people backing them are certainly not weakened by the wide measure of support they are receiving from non-indigenous people across the country, a coalition of interests recently expressed in the Idle No More movement, among others.
This coalition is important for this country, and it seems now to be getting a grasp on the general political situation, finally getting a handle on which people support them, and which can be depended on to oppose everything they stand for.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Log 372: An excellent thesis on Indigenous policy by a radical woman student, Shiri Pasternak

 From time to time students approach me to discuss some project they are working on, usually to do with the indigenous people, because of my longish history of contact with them. Usually these are young women, always extremely polite, pleasant to talk to, and forgotten almost as soon as they disappear (like so much else in my life these days, my memory no longer being anything like it was when I was a young reporter). Occasionally one of them will send me the result of their studies, an article, film, video or written thesis, and occasionally these are very impressive.

I have a slightly ambivalent attitude towards these theses, which is nothing to boast about, but comes from my life experience, which took me from my fourth year at high school directly into the lowest rank of journalism, a reading room in a small-town local newspaper, and embarked me on a working life that has never ceased since I started it in 1945. During that time I have come to think --- perhaps it would be accurate to say I have developed a prejudice --- that inclines me to think that much  academic work obsfuscates rather than clarifies.

At first I had an exaggerated respect for universities and those who taught or studied in them: I remember when I was first asked to talk to a University class how I thought there must have been some mistake: how could I tell them anything they didn’t already know? Only after a few such experiences did it dawn on me that many students were bored with their studies, and were happy to have a lay person who spoke easily understandable English appear in their classrooms to bring them the occasional word from ordinary life.

Eventually, at a time of some economic need, I was invited to, and accepted, a job for one term teaching as a visiting professor at the University of Waterloo, which I found a remarkable experience, both because of the limitations it revealed to the university experience (frankly, I disliked it), and because of the remarkable talents and dedication I observed in a few teachers who were ushering their students towards elevated degrees, with astonishing dedication to the job and to the students in their care.

One student who has recently sent me her thesis is a young woman called Shiri Pasternak, who presented  her study “On Jurisdiction & Settler Colonialism: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake
Against the Federal Land Claims Policy”  in pursuit of her Ph.D at the University of Toronto.

One common factor that has struck me in relation to the theses I have read is that usually one has to plough through a veritable mountain of jargon, which may be important and meaningful for the author and his or her mentors, but that is virtually meaningless to anyone outside academia. Ms. Pasternak has such a chapter at the beginning of her book that she warned me perhaps I should skip. It deals with jurisdiction and its various meanings in terms of law and so on, and I confess it was loaded with language that, from my blunt layman’s view, seems slightly pretentious and frankly aimed at one small group, and thus, elitist. (However, this is just my personal view, and I don’t expect anyone else to react as I always do. This is, after all, how they earn their doctorates.)

Interestingly, she begins her story by telling the tale of how her  grandparents settled the arid Negev desert in Palestine, taking over land that had been occupied for centuries by the local people who, willy-nilly, had to be displaced. She makes hardly any excuses for this, except to say the land was not actually stolen, but was bought by the Jewish Agency, though she does ask what authority the sellers had to make the sale.

This does lead her into the main focus of her thesis which is the struggle that has been waged over the last twenty or so years by the Algonquin people of Barriere Lake, a  small group of 400 or so indigenous, rooted in their experience as hunters and gatherers, who have found the forest of their traditional lands are being clear-cut around their ears, as it were. Since this is one of the poorest communities in Canada, and has been brought to that status by many decades of oppression by both state and religious orders, a study of their past and present struggle to survive provides, as Ms Pasternak says, a classic example of Canada in its role as colonial power dictating the daily lives of the indigenous peoples who were found living here already when the European invaders arrived.

At first the invaders pretended the land was unoccupied, calling it by the European legal name Terra Nullius, on the basis of which false assumption, and others, they immediately began to erect a series of legislative actions to control the people who so mysteriously claimed prior occupancy and ownership of the territory.

In other words, Ms Pasternak frankly admits (as indeed is incontrovertible) that the entire basis of what became the Canadian nation was erected from the first on questionable assumptions that cannot be called other than racist, ignorant and staggeringly arrogant. Others have told this story in much more detail than she needs to do, notably the late McGill University anthropologist and archaeologist, Bruce Trigger, whose remarkable book The Children of Aataentsic deals particularly with the history of the Algonquins, as well as with its ostensible subject, that of the Hurons. Suffice to say that the Algonquins, original inhabitants of the Ottawa river valley, were subsequently forced to give way before the encroachments of the logging companies that wanted the timber, leaving the Algonquins to make pathetic, unremitting and usually fruitless appeals during many decades, for recognition of their rights in their traditional lands. This is a tale that every Canadian should know, but that is never taught in high schools, so far as I know, and that is certainly not familiar to most Canadians I have met.

What is even more disturbing in Ms Pasternak’s account of this local form of colonialism is her detailed account of the recent negotiations through which the Barriere Lake people --- a group that resisted efforts to gather them into the big reserve at Maniwaki where most of the displaced Algonquins were gathered by the church and state in 1851 ---- have tried to establish what is in effect a new mechanism through which to solve their troubled relationship with the dominant society that has always paid them so little heed.

After a period of negotiation interrupted by acts of civil disobedience, blockade and so on, they managed to get the Quebec and federal government to sign with them a Tripartite Agreement which, if all the work were ever concluded on it, would have established the rights in their forest of each of the contending parties --- themselves, (the party that is customarily ignored) as well as that of miners, loggers, tourist operators, sports hunters and the like.  This agreement, negotiated under the leadership of their traditional governing council, has been hailed as a ground-breaking initiative in the always difficult question of relations between the indigenous and non-indigenous contestants for the same lands, hailed not only in Canada, but in United Nations documents, and in other countries.

Anyone who cares about this country should read this story: it is terrifying in its exposition of the bad faith of the governments with whom this impoverished community has had to deal. First the Quebec government began to renege on the deal; then later the federal government. And the measures taken against the people of the reserve have been breathtaking in their effrontery and in their lack of a concern for justice and decency.

One faction within the reserve, built around one of the more powerful traditional families, has opposed much of what the Chief and his followers have proposed, and the government has seized on this  to exercise the classic divide-and-rule tactics by which the federal government has normally befuddled its way through this area of  Indian policy over many decades. Behind their every action has been their reluctance to implement an agreement that  does not deal in land. Because, as Ms. Pasternak makes clear in one of her last chapters, land deals have been accompanied by government insistence that part of every land deal has been the requirement that the native signatories surrender all the rights guaranteed to them under the Canadian constitution. And such a surrender is not implicit in the Trilateral Agreement. The group Defenders of the Land (hailed only this month by Noam Chomsky for their stout defence of the planet Earth, in contrast to the governments that are sailing on hell-bent for destruction, with  the Canadian government in the lead) have analysed this policy as one of “emptying out” the guarantees given to Aboriginals in the Canadian constitution, and some of their members have characterized this policy as “Canada’s war against the First Nations.” The many land claims negotiations that are underway across Canada, are all being done at the eventual expense of the First Nations, who will thus be saddled with massive debts as they take off on their brave new course in life, but they have borne little  result so far, and Ms Pasternak’s narrative  leaves little doubt that the policy should be abandoned. This policy is described by Ms. Pasternak in as much detail as anyone has ever described it , and it will be a great service to the nation if her thesis, possibly edited to eliminate some of its academic language, is published as a book for the general reader.

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My Log 371:Cricket: not a deep dark mystery, but a game full of vibrancy, artistry, humour and pleasure

West Indies Cricket Annual 1970
West Indies Cricket Annual 1970 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sir Garfield Sobers statue Barbados-30
Sir Garfield Sobers statue Barbados-30 (Photo credit: Gouldy99)

I wrote this article in response to yet another of these idiotic articles printed by Canadian newspapers from time to time in which a reporter pretends cricket is a deep, dark mystery that is totally incomprehensible to any sensible person.  Before I wrote it, I looked up the Globe and Mail’s Web site to discover what length would be acceptable, and they said 800 words. So I wrote it at 798 words, submitted it, and received an automated response saying nothing over 700 words would be considered. What a great newspaper: can’t make up its mind, eh? So here it is in its full glory:

For someone like me who has loved cricket all his life --- and I am now in my ninth decade --- the repeated articles by North Americans, such at that (in the Globe and Mail) by Paul Waldie on Saturday, August 10,  treating the game as some deep dark mystery, totally beyond comprehension, long ago became insufferable. What’s wrong with these people? 

As a Canadian reporter in London for The Montreal Star in the 1960s, the heyday of the great West Indian teams, I did what I venture to suggest no Canadian correspondent had ever done before: on the opening day of a major Test match I would clear all my work away before 11 am, turn on BBC2 for the opening session of the day’s play until  lunch, then to BBC1 for the afternoon session until the tea interval, and finally the last session of the day, again on BBC2 until the drawing of stumps at 6 pm. I would do that, watching every ball intently,  every day for the five days of the game, and I still remember the game elevated to beautiful artistry by such as fast bowler Wes Hall (poetry in motion), beguiling slow bowler Lance Gibbs, and the superbly graceful batsman, the incomparable Gary Sobers, certainly one of the greatest of all time.  The West Indies won the five-match series in both 1963 and 1966, and I can say without hesitation that one of the best experiences of my life was to be  at Lord’s during  the Saturday of the Second Test, which eventually was drawn.
The West Indies were in deep trouble with six wickets down in their second innings, when Sobers came to the wicket to join his young cousin, Holford, playing in only his second Test match. They batted all day, Holford shepherded along by the skilful and inspirational Sobers, adding 264 runs in what is still remembered as one of the great Test partnerships in history. Sobers was 164 not out at the end of the day, made with magnificent strokes to all parts of the field, and Holford made 105. I have told many people about actually being there to watch this rivetting event, and I was quite thrilled recently, when Sobers, asked which of his many great innings  was the best, said it was his innings on that afternoon at Lord’s with his nephew that probably was the greatest he had ever played. And I was there!
Another cricket occasion  lodged irrevocably in my memory is of a day in Trinidad where I had been  covering a Black Power demonstration in 1970, when rocks were thrown through the windows of the Royal Bank. On my last day I went to Queen’s Park Oval, home to cricket in Trinidad since 1896, tucked in beautifully beneath the northern hills, for a game between Trinidad and Jamaica. I took my seat in the Learie Constantine Pavilion, where I seemed to be the only white man in a boisterous crowd of locals. Pretty soon the man sitting in front of me turned and asked if I was a stranger. He said he was from San Fernando, centre of the island’s oil industry, and wondered if I would like a drink (handing up a bottle of Scotch, and a glass). When the lunch interval arrived he was just laying out a sumptuous Indian meal when I was spotted by some of the revolutionaries I had interviewed earlier in the week in Woodford Square. They beckoned me down and invited me to sit with them. I had to defer, quoting my prior invitation.
By the middle of the afternoon, with our bottle of Scotch almost gone, I began to understand how occasionally they would have a riot in West Indies cricket: if a decision had gone against our team, our emotions might well have got the better  of us.
My third unforgettable cricket experience came on the day I interviewed the great West Indian historian C.L.R. James, whose book Beyond the Boundary is probaby the best book ever written about a game that has always attracted poets and writers (the great Neville Cardus was both cricket and music critic of The Mancheter Guardian during many of the paper’s greatest years.) James  suggested we might finish our interview at the Kennington Oval, where the Australians were playing Surrey, and as we sat there he pointed out to me the small gate through which, when the great Indian prince Ranjitsinji played for England in 1896, he had to enter alone because of his just barely accepted racial coloration, while the rest of England’s team entered through the regular gate.
The game has certainly proven bigger than the class interests of Britain tried to make it --- infinitely bigger --- and it seems to be only North Americans who cannot forget its stuffy, pompous English beginnings.
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Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Log 370: Time to listen to indigenous people, to stop hiding behind excuses and to accept the reality of the indigenous presence in the Canadian mosaic

John Ralston Saul has an interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail in which he says that for at least 100 years Canadians have been nasty towards their indigenous compatriots, that they have known what they were doing, and the indigenous people have, in spite of this, embarked on a comeback which is now irreversible, and it is time for Canadians to listen to them and to shop hiding behind all sorts of excuses when asked to make amends for their horrendous past.

He could have been even more direct, in my opinion: not only did Canadians know what they were doing during all those years, but they actually did it all on purpose, enshrining their purposes in a series of legislative actions that, when considered in total, leave no doubt as to their meaning: they were designed to abolish the so-called “Indians” by turning them all into compliant, non-troublesome ordinary Canadians --- in other words, not to put too fine a point on it, they were engaged in an act of legislative genocide. (And please don’t let’s hear any quibbling against use of the word because it is supposed to diminish the suffering of other genocide victims: the fact is, Canada’s actions towards its native people fits the definition of genocide to a tee.)

I’ve been impressed in recent months by the amount of commentary on indigenous affairs that has begun to appear in the nation’s newspapers, more impressed by the amount of it than by its quality.  Since most commentators in the press these days are instinctively conservative --- they would hardly be allowed to comment if they weren’t, since the owners these days are usually major corporations with interests in other fields that they are likely to be using their newsapers to defend ---- it is no surprise to find that many of them appear to have discovered a magic bullet by which the so-called Indian problem could be dealt with. That magic bullet is the policy of assimilation, in which they are following the lead of the Conservative government.

The government’s policies, designed to undermine the rights guaranteed to the indigenous in the constitution, to undermine their control of even the minimal lands the indigenous have been confined to, and to undercut provisions of treaties made many years ago, have been accurately described by Russell Diabo, author of the  online First Nations Strategic Bulletin, as “the Canadian government’s war against the native people of canada.”

The enthusiasm of so many commentators for the assimilation  policy ignores the fact that this has always been government policy, ever since a policy existed in Canada, which is more than 200 years, and it is precisely this policy that has resulted in the sorry conditions that apply in so many Aboriginal reserves today.

Ralston Saul, in his piece acknowledges that there are contradictions that arise in any consideration of policy towards the indigenous people.  This is one of the first things that struck me when I began to write abut indigenous policies in the late 1960s. I made many visits to native communities and fairly quickly understood that there was more to write about than their often appalling conditions of life. What confronted anyone trying to meet as many Aboriginal people as possible was how many of them had been persuaded to be ashamed of being native people. I can recall many youngsters in their mid-teens who told me how they had been schooled to be ashamed, and it wasn’t until they were 14 or so, and able to do some thinking for themselves, that they realized how false all this was.

The contradiction that struck me was this: 
First, only by  re-asserting their traditional values, re-discovering their ancient ceremonies, and basing their actions and demands on what is, after all the fundamental view of life of indigenous people wherever they may be in the world, that is, a holistic view that sees themselves (and us) as just one of the participants in the cycle of life, and the one with probably the greatest responsibiity for the health of the world, could they hope to recover and take a responsible place in the mosaic of whatever nation they might find themselves in, which in this case was Canada;
Second, it seemed almost contradictory that, faced with having to defend themselves against governments, corporations, intellectuals and others armed with the formidable knowledge and sophistication inherited from the modern world, the secret to their success in this confrontation quite evidently lay in their being equipped by a modern education to deal on equal terms with the moloch that they faced.

Ralston Saul makes this point in his article: some 30,000 native people are in universities and colleges. And a people who wefe forbidden in 1927 from hiring lawyers to pursue their claims, now have 1,000 lawyers among their own people. Time, he says, and one must welcome and heartily endorse his call, time to listen to what they have to say. Otherwise, Canada can nevefr be the country it purports to be, an inclusive democracy with room for everyone to express themselves.

For sure, the native people stand first among those who deserve that chance. But even if there were no question of their deserving it, they are, regardless, seizing it as they comeback from those many decades when they were treated by something not far from contempt by the mainstream society.

On the question of this treatment  I always think of the  short shrift given given in 1928 to Chief Syllaboy of the Mikmaqs, when he pleaded that his hunting rights had been guaranteed in a treaty of 1752. This argument was scarcely even considered; the province argued that Mikmaq rights had been  extinguished.  Sixty years later in 1985 the Grand Council of the Mikmaqs chose one of their men to hunt outside the boundaries of his reserve, to test the continuing validity of the law.  He was convicted, and the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia upheld that conviction, but it was overturned by the Supreme court of .canada, thus confirming a gradual change in the interpretation of Aboriginal rights.

The Supreme Court ruled that the 1752 treaty was still a binding and enforceable agrement between the Crown and the Mikmaqs, and that the protection of their hunting right overrode provincial legislation.

If it proved nothing else, this decision showed that the indigenous memory is long. And it is certain, as Ralston Saul has argued in his piece, that we ignore it at our peril.

Friday, August 2, 2013

My Log 369: Back In Montreal, catching up on the dreadful news around the world, and revelling in old Bogart movies

--> Well, I am back home in Montreal after three months in Dubrovnik, have settled into my new hours of waking and sleeping, and in the week I have been here have been mostly watching movies on TV. I notice we have a new mayor --- let’s see, how many is that since I moved here in September? Three, I think --- the interim mayor who took over in the wake of resignations caused by scandals about payoffs, having himself been felled by some similar problem.
It seems that the main excitements going on in the world at the moment are in Egypt, where a governmnt elected under a faulty constitution, weighted towards religious involvement in politics, was overthrown by the army after a week or two of immense public protests. In other words, the government headed by Morsi was monumentally inefficient, at one level, and at the other was riddled with favoritism,with right-wing, pro-religious bias, and was detested by the very people who thought they had created a revolution that brought it to power.

The idea when Morsi was thrown over wss that a serious effort would be made by a group of the best minds to create a better constitution, which, among other things, would probsbly forbid the mixture of religion and politics in the affairs of the state; after which a new election would be held. One prescient comment I read at the time suggested this even sounded the deathknell for religion in politics throughout the world.

But Morsi’s supporters --- a short-hand way of saying the people who rave for religion to dominate the state --- have been camping out, vowing not to stop until Morsi is reinstated.  Since it is quite clear Morsi is never going to be reinstated, these people can be accused of putting their religion above the welfare of their fellow-citizens.  But that’s only my view, and I am hostile to religion, and believe it should have no place in the affairs of any state.

Well, that’s the big thing, and it is beginning to look a bit nasty. Meanwhile, the Americans have persuaded the Palestinians and Israelis to have talks about the possibility that maybe they could have talks that might lead to the solution of their apparently irreconcilable differences.   Part of this deal is that Israel has agreed to release 104 (or is it 140?) political prisoners, among them some of the longest serving; and my question about this is, will they release Bargouti, the leader of the prisoners, and the putative leader of the Palestinians, who seems to be the only man who could lead them out of the mess into which the international community, allied to the Israelis, have led them.

Herewith ends my summary of the global situation, for the moment. Personally, among the movies I have watched have been four starring Humphrey Bogart, who, especially since his death many years ago, has emerged as almost the number one iconic  star in the history of Hollywood. I always enjoyed his movies, but was never really impressed by him until this week I saw four of them --- three I had seen before --- one after the other. He certainly had a particular quality that was practically irresistable: that flat, harsh voice, those scarcely moving lips, that shadow of the occasional smile. And that sense that he was always in control of what was happening around him, even when playing a character who was far from in control.  He was always himself, there was no confusion between him and a real actor like Daniel Day Lewis, or even like Lionel Barrymore, with whom he starred in Key Largo, but certainly he was the essence of the stardom we grew up to believe in.  I saw To Have and Have Not, (for the third time, I may say), his first film with Lauren Bacall, the young unknown star who became his devoted wife until his death, and they made a great team, wise-cracking away in jokes that, spoken by anyone else wouldn’t have been considered even amusing, yet jokes that brought a smile to my face, and a chuckle to my lips.. “If you need me,” said Bacall, in one of her more famous ines, “Just whistle.” Going out the door, she turned and added, “You know how to whistle don’t you? Just put your lips together, and blow.” Lovely.

I just finished my week by mistakenly ordering up from Netflix Woody Allen’s film To Rome With Love. I had forgotten I had seen it, and not so very long ago. Once again I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the scenes in which Allen, playing a washed up theatre director, persuaded  a man he met who was a funeral director that he had such a wonderful voice he should try out for the stage.  Since he was at his best when singing in his shower, Allen’s big idea was to bring the man on, even in the mddle of an opera, in his shower. Corny as hell, I must admit, but funny.  I loved the stuttering performance of Allen himself as an old man, wracked, as always, by nervous ticks and uncertainties; and also that of Canada’s delectable Ellen Page as a young actress who was full of shit, if you will pardon the expression, and who gave expression to her basic phoniness in the most winsome, winning way; and of Penelope Cruz, resplendent in a short, short dress that gave us a long look at her gforious legs, playing the role of a call girl who mistakenly turned up to seduce a young man just married but whose wife had, fortuitously, wandered off to look for a hairdresser. While the wife fell into the clutches of an ageing roué of an actor, and ended up making love to a gangster who invaded a bedroom she happened to be half-dressed in (her rationale was, “I’ve never made love to a criminal”),  Cruz set to work to teach her husband something about love-making. 

Altogether a hell of a lot of fun, this movie, and fun is something in short supply in this over-charged, manically violent, psychotic, impossible  world.