Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Log 438: Dear Jillian, anyone who catches me on my bike has to confront a torrent of words. What else? I'm a garrulous old devil...

Dear Jillian Glover

I am the cyclist whom you photographed and rather loftily described in a caption as “this guy” in your charming blog describing your admiration for and love of Montreal.
(Check this out at:

Like you, I  have a blog (that I started in 1996, long before the word blog was invented). And this gives me a good opportunity to endorse your enthusiasm for Montreal. I thought briefly of suing you for invasion of privacy, but I have resisted the temptation and instead have decided to ask your indulgence to allow me to explain to your readers how I fell for Montreal a year or two before you did. I arrived in here in 1957, at the age of 29, by way of New Zealand (where I was born and raised), Australia, India, England, Scotland, Ontario and Manitoba in all of which I had plied my trade of journalist. I began that trade in December, 1945 fresh out of high school and worked in it until 1971 with only occasional interruptions --- factory worker in Melbourne and London, social worker in the Punjab, student in Scotland --- before I quit to become a freelance writer, and later (a sheer accident this) a documentary film-maker. I have travelled and worked in many countries, but somehow Montreal has maintained a grip on my heart.
In 1957 we dusted off Winnipeg and drove our third-hand Austin A30 to Mexico (for the second time), but the car broke down in Monterrey, and we limped back to Montreal, where I hoped to land a job. I was lucky and began a 14-year stint with The Montreal Star.
 In Winnipeg we had heard a lot of colorful stories about the haphazard nature of English-language journalism in Montreal, and when I got here I found they were all true.
The first interesting thing that happened to me was on almost my first assignment, to cover the weekly luncheon speech at the Canadian Club. A bubbly, talkative and vivacious young woman sat down next to me at the press table, and we got into conversation. She worked for La Presse, and, the luncheon over, we decided to walk back to our offices together. She told me, “I knew you came from somewhere else.”  Why was that, I asked. “Because,” she said, “the English journalists never talk to us.”
I had found my first friend in Montreal, and she became the dearest friend of my wife and myself until she died young of cancer of he jaw. Before that  she invited us to her house many times to meet her friends,  a group of extremely progressive-minded young journalists, with whom I spent many an hour drinking brandy at Chez Son Pere, the sort of restaurant-bar I had never met elsewhere in Canada, which had been an indispensable home for hard-up journalists right through the depression and after.  These people were fed up with the Duplessis regime (supported unquestioningly by the English-language papers). My pals on the French paper were unionized (which I thought everybody should be), went on strike, overturned their administration, and were a sort of vanguard for the immense changes that overcame Quebec within just a few years.
I was present on the day that a foolish Chief of Police arrested Rene Levesque (at that time a well-known political commentator), and Jean Chartrand, (the union leader who later accompanied Pierre Trudeau and Gerard Pelletier into Ottawa politics), during a demo in front of the CBC building in support of a strike of French-language TV producers. This producers’ strike was front page news in all the French papers, in fact, for day after day it took up the whole of most front pages, but in the Star it merited only a single column on page 18 or thereabouts (although we managed to change that later).  That’s how out of touch the English community was with what was really happening in Quebec.
It was the era of afternoon bank robberies, and unfortunately, when the City Editor looked up to find someone to cover them, he usually found me sitting idly there and ordered me out on to a job I had little interest in. By a sort of legerdemain that I find it hard to recall now, I managed to go on 15 bank robberies without writing a word about any of them, before the penny finally dropped with the editors that I really  wasn’t the guy to send.
I was assigned to the hotel beat. This was a cushy job. I would set off up Bleury street at about 10 am, drop in at Archie Handel’s used bookstore for a quick hour-long chat most days, ask the hotels uptown if anyone notable was in residence, and when they inevitably said no, I would retire most days to the Pam-Pam on Stanley street, for a coffee and an hour or two over a well-thumbed book, while watching the mysteriously attractive European women who ran the place. It was a tough life, but it had its rewards:  I got invited to lots of riotous hotel parties, and even to a magnificent gourmet dinner staged by the Club Gastronomique Prosper Montagne, a club maintained by the haute bourgeoisie de Montreal, whose meal was prepared by Edouard Lelarge, the 400-pound chef and owner of the 400 club, whose motto was “je mange chez moi.”   One of my sons said to me, "Don't forget to tell the story about the five-course meal for $1.75," recalling a story I have told so many times the  family are sick of it. But in fact, it did exist at a beautiful little restaurant kept on Clark street by a skilled French chef called Abel Banquet, who taught his trade at the cooking school.         
Well, I could go on for a long time about Montreal. I used to love equally the Ritz cafe, with its wonderful American singers, and the Chez Paree, a night-club that attracted some of the finest bar bands and most raucous floor shows on the continent.  This was before Jean Drapeau got re-elected, and began to clean up the town.
After three years they asked me if I would like to go to London to represent them. Would I? I left on the first available boat, and found myself in the perfect job.  At a time when a Toronto correspondent there told me she got nervous if she didn’t get four telegrams a day from head office, I spent eight years in London and can remember receiving only two telegrams, one of which was an apology for underpaying my expenses by $5.45. In other words, the Star, not being an excitable paper, left me to do my own thing. Before landing in Montreal,  I would usually quit my job after three years and move on, but this London job was one I didn’t have the guts to quit.
Back in Montreal in 1968, eventually my discontent with the politics of the paper got too much to bear, and in 1971 I quit, expecting to make a living from the CBC. Lucky for me the NFB came to my rescue, for the CBC hired me only twice in the next 40 years. 
 I left Montreal in 1975 to return to my country of origin, but I returned to Canada the following year, and fate took me to, first, Kitchener, then Ottawa, from which I commuted for several years to work at the National Film Board on Cote de Liesse, making the two-hour drive two or three times a week for several years. So I continued to be in touch with Montreal, and after my four children left home and my wife died, I had to make changes in my personal lifestyle, and two years ago fate again landed me in Montreal, where I now live in a high-rise building in a small one-bedroomed apartment from which I have a great view of the city.
Nowadays I am content to trundle around on my old bike, taking in the superb coffee at Café Castel, the Lebanese café on Peel and Sherbrooke, or the relaxed French-Canadian atmosphere at Café Imagination on Parc and Sherbrooke.  Any one of them, even today, beats any such place I have encountered in other Canadian cities, and on the way home I drop in to Adrian King-Edwards's superb second-hand book store on Milton which, although small, seems to have almost any book one could want.
It’s amazing what you can come across through photogaphing a guy on a bike. But that’s Montreal! What a city!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Log 437 August 20 2014: Two beautiful French actresses of yesteryear: still as lovely in old age, and better actresses

Français : Catherine Deneuve à la cérémonie de...
Français : Catherine Deneuve à la cérémonie des César du cinéma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Fanny Ardant, French actress, at the ...
English: Fanny Ardant, French actress, at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Belle de Jour (film)
Belle de Jour (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
French actress Catherine Deneuve arriving at t...
French actress Catherine Deneuve arriving at the Hotel Adlon, Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"
Cover of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Fanny Ardant
Cover of Fanny Ardant
Among  the great pleasures that stick in my mind from the 1960s and 1970s are some great French films which happened to star  wonderfully beautiful young actresses. These memories were recalled to me yesterday when I successively watched two fairly recent films starring Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve, now women in their sixties and seventies, still beautiful, even more accomplished as actresses from their extraordinary careers in the making of hundreds of films, and still able to carry the theme of any script against all-comers.
Fanny Ardant I remembered as the remarkably seductive Woman Next Door, a sensation when it was released in 1981, when she was 36.  Her new film, one of more than 70 to her credit, is called in English Bright Day Ahead.  It was made in 2011 when she was 65. She plays a retired dentist who, to fill in her time, has undertaken to join a ginger group for the aged, something that does not put her at ease, but that she persists in mainly as a way of getting out of the house. There she meets a good-looking, virile, young man who is in the habit of sort of collecting female conquests, and  this retired dentist, so reserved and self-contained, and yet so lovely,  gradually becomes one of those. Rather to his surprise, and to hers, she responds voraciously to his embraces, but at first withdraws, surprised at herself, and rather dismayed. But having tasted a little of that forbidden fruit, she develops a yen for it, becomes somewhat reckless in her attachment, meeting the younger man in places where they can be seen, and so the affaire comes to the knowledge of her husband, with whom she has fallen into an ordinary, loving, but unexciting partnership.
The film among other virtues, is a lesson in how aging these days need not be accompanied by physical degeneration. This retired dentist is  instantly credible as the lover of a younger man, and credible, too are her occasional withdrawals, her dismay at what she is doing as much as her delight in it, and, of course, it leads to a denouement for her husband and herself that is more or less inevitable for two people who are not children, even though they might both have acted rather like teenagers for a few weeks or months of their many years together.
Ardant in her first films was regarded more as an ornament than as a great actress, but with experience, acceptance of her skills grew as well, and in more recent years she has even gotten into the direction and writing of films, as well as providing beautiful performances in many varying roles.
Ardant had a long relationship with Francois Truffaut, one of three men with each of whom she bore a daughter,  although she apparently never married. Not yet anyway.
Catherine Deneuve is another whose earlier years were marked by her as an ornament: a woman of lustrous beauty, she became the face of (was it?) Chanel No. 5, the French perfume, and was associated in the public mind with some of the handsome young men of  her day, such as Roger Vadim and Marcello Mastroianni, by both of whom she produced children, although she married just once, to British photographer, David Bailey. In addition she has a long history of doing good works, for, among others, UNESCO and Amnesty International.
In the wonderful film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy, with music by Michel Legrand (who later became familiar in Montreal, on many visits), Deneuve, a 20-year-old, played the part of a sixteen year old girl who had a love affair with a young man who went off to war. Subsequently they each got married to other partners, and at the end of the film they met some years later in a brief encounter in a gas station.
This film was made in 1963, six years after Deneuve appeared in her first film, but it was certainly not the last remarkable film in her career, for she followed it with an appearance in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the following year, and in the superb drama Belle de Jour made by Louis Bunuel in 1967. This acquaintance with these master film-makers certainly did not dim the young star’s stature.
By this time the actress, now 7l, has appeared in more than 100 films. The prolific output of these two actresses no doubt has something to do with their proficiency in languages, for in addition to their native French, both are said to be fluent in English and Italian, and Deneuve in addition almost fluent in German.
In the new film I saw yesterday, made last year, Deneuve, although still an attractive woman, is no longer the great beauty of her younger days. She has filled out considerably, but her skills as an actress, as with Ardant, seem to have  improved, if anything, and in Elle s’en Va (in English On My Way) she plays the proprietor of a failing restaurant in the Sarthe district of France, who one night, for relief goes for a drive, and just keeps driving. Somehow or other --- this really lacks credibility --- she runs into a reunion of contestants for a Miss France contest from the 1960s where she reluctantly exchanges  reminiscences with other contestants, who seem to remember her more clearly than she remembers them. Thereafter she receives a panic-stricken call from her hyper- active daughter to come and take care of her grandson, while the daughter goes to Brussels in search of a job. After long sequences in which the film proves that not only North American teens and pre-teens are impossible in their behaviour, it ends up with a bizarre family scene where she finds a new man of her own age, reconciles with a daughter who earlier had been able to communicate only in a rage, and finds herself the object of her grandson’s affection, in replacement for his anger.

Deneuve in this film, like Ardant in hers, shows no sign of diminishing in vigour with the advancing years, and I expect, if writers can be found who are interested in the older generations, we can expect to continue to watch them for many years to come.

Monday, August 11, 2014

My Log 436 August 11 2014: Archbishop Tutu’s advice rings a bell: in Canada, the indigenous people are rediscovering the dignity of their past

English: Monument to aboriginal war veterans i...
English: Monument to aboriginal war veterans in Confederation Park, Ottawa, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Classification of indigenious peoples of North...
Classification of indigenious peoples of North America according to Alfred Kroeber, English Version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today I heard something from Desmond Tutu, speaking on a BBC programme called Tutu’s Children, that rang a bell with me. Someone asked him what advice he would give to anyone hoping to work in a leadership position in Africa, and he said, “You have to give them (the people) their dignity.”
Soon thereafter, a young woman who is now a business leader in Nigeria, recalled emotionally having heard Tutu speak in the 1990s, and added, “That was the first time in my life I ever felt pride in being a black woman,” and thanked him profusely for it.
I mention this because it reminds me of a decision I came to not long after beginning my travels among indigenous peoples in Canada in the late 1960s. It did not take long before I began to run into people who told me how, in their late teens, they were ashamed of being Indians in Canada, and slowly began to understand they had been taught to feel this way by the governing white power structure. What seemed obvious was that, as the Indians, then so-called, were beginning to get back on to their feet after generations of oppression, the first and most important thing for them was to rediscover pride in their indigenous customs, beliefs and way of life. This, it seemed, came before any imperative such as discovering how to make a viable living, how to raise themselves out of the poverty into which so many of them had been born, how to improve the condition of their lives.
I have never seen anything in the many decades since then to persuade me that this was an incorrect intuition, and it has only been confirmed by the number of Euro-Canadians who after making a peripheral examination of Indian lives, have quickly come to the conclusion that the best way forward is for Indians to assimilate into Canadian life.
These people have trumpeted this conclusion as if unaware of the fact that assimilation had been the policy implemented with such determination by the government of Canada for the last two hundred years or more, and was the very policy, the evil consequences of which, in its application to indigenous lives, had been responsible for the parlous condition into which the First Peoples had fallen.
Now, of course, we are living in a world in which many indigenous people have become successful in business, academia, sports, and many other aspects of Canadian life.
But it is because of my original conclusion that today I find my sympathies lie more with organizations like the Defenders of the Land  than with the overtly political organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations and provincial organizations pursuing political objectives, for these still depend on government funding, putting them into an ambiguous position from which they are forced to bite the hand that feeds them: the government can, and does, use its control of their funding to try to influence their decision-making.
The Defenders base their policies on Aboriginal Rights and Title, which, they say, do pre-date European arrival on the continent, but have nevertheless been recognized as guaranteed under the 1982 Canadian Constitution. Policies based on monetary solutions can be seen to have been ineffective as defenders of traditional indigenous values and lifestyles: in fact, modern government policies, it could be argued, are to isolate each band, and then buy them off with offers of money, for which the government still doggedly insists that the receiving groups must abandon their guaranteed constitutional rights (which, they argue, would be henceforth replaced by another given set of agreed rights.)
 Why indigenous peoples should be required to surrender their rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution is something that has never been adequately explained to the Canadian people, and a sceptic like myself can see only one rationale: that it is a method for weakening the protections given to indigenous people.  One can imagine how indignant Euro-Canadians would be if, say, in return for government funding of hospitals or schools, they were required to surrender fundamental rights outlined in the Constitution.
As long ago as the 1970s, David Crombie as Indian Affairs minister ordered an inquiry into the need for extinguishment of rights, and was advised it was not necessary, but unfortunately Crombie was undermined by his officials and dismissed from office before he could make the needed changes in policy.

I urge any readers of this blog who may have doubts about these policies to embark on some reading of the historical record (I gave it a good working over in my book People of Terra Nullius), or to read any number of excellent works  (such as Thomas King’s recent The Inconvenient Indian) which have driven a coach and horses through the government’s case, and that of its many supporters, most of whom have little interest and no faith in the indigenous people of this country.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Link of the day, August 7, 2014: Why are we interfering in Ukraine?”

William Pfaff, writing for truthdig.com, asks what the United States is doing trying to undermine Russia’s historical interest in elements of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and others. 
"A hot war is not Inconceivable,” he writes. “Why should the United States and the original states of the European Union—western, Roman Catholic or Protestant Christian, Atlantic-oriented states—decide to dismantle historical Russia by taking over nations that either were part of Russia’s own history and Christianization, or were colonies of the Czars, some of them Muslim.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

My Log 435 August 4 2014: TV drama about Charles Dickens and his mistress Ellen Ternan reaches the high standards we have come to expect of the English

"Charles Dickens as he appears when readi...
"Charles Dickens as he appears when reading." Illustration in Harper's Weekly, 7 December 1867. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Copy of a Photograph of Charles Dickens
Copy of a Photograph of Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Ellen Ternan, the young actress who b...
 Ellen Ternan, the young actress who became Charles Dickens's mistress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ralph Fiennes
 Ralph Fiennes
I have always felt that one of the most difficult jobs for any actor must be to portray a great man. Most men with the extraordinary capacities they need to be considered “great” are indeed particular: they tend not to be like other men, to have more curious personal characteristics, to have more energy, more self-confidence, to just be more personally interesting.  I judge this on the handful of great men I have met briefly (or have run across in my career as a journalist): whether it was Pandit Nehru, Linus Pauling, the double winner of the Nobel Prize, Jacques Tati, the inimitable French comedian, Richard Neutra, the famous American architect, or Osip Zadkine, the Russian sculptor, each of them had whatever they needed to make my work in interviewing them more or less superfluous, the capacity to keep me interested while they just talked on and on, and I listened, as if enchanted.
These reflections are prompted by a remarkable TV movie I watched last night, a British production called The Invisible Woman about Charles  Dickens’ young mistress, Ellen Ternan.
Although made for TV, this had all the qualities of British theatre that I have always so much admired: magnificent acting, by Ralph Fiennes as Dickens, Felicity Jones as Nelly, Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother, and Joanna Scanlan in the difficult role of Dickens’ shamelessly put upon wife; superb writing, which manages both to capture the raw energy of the great man who was a powerhouse of invention, a repository of almost untameable creative energy;  and all of those touches of genius in direction and production that one has become accustomed to see when the British are really trying. Fiennes himself was the director, and in one scene after another the sure touch of a director who knew his subject backwards made the most of the exquisite sensitivity of the playing and writing.
Ellen Ternan was the youngest of three sisters, all actresses like their mother who, after the death of their father, had kept them together as they struggled to make a living in the provincial theatre in the mid-nineteenth century, taking whatever jobs came along, whether in farce, drama, comedy or schlocky romance.
Dickens was an obsessive performer of his own works, so it was natural that he ran across this family of young actresses. In addition he was a man who apparently could hardly resist a pretty face. Woman were easy for him to attract --- of course, he was known to everyone, lionized wherever he went, praised and adulated to an unreasonable degree --- and there was something about the quiet pure beauty of the young  Nelly which attracted his immediate attention. Her mother spotted his interest and worried that her daughter might suffer from too close a connection. But she was in no position to forbid her daughter from having anything to do with the great man, even though he was so much older.
Dickens was a close friend of  Wilkie Collins, who was living in a settled relationship with a woman to whom he was not married, and when first Nelly brushed up against this couple she bridled at the immorality of it.
She knew that Dickens was married and that his wife Catherine had borne him ten children, who were always around.  But eventually the great man made  gestures to help the young actress and her family, providing her with an apartment at his cost.  She was reluctant, telling him on one memorable occasion that she had not figured part of this bargain was that she was to be his whore.
The portrayal of Mrs Dickens --- a plump, resigned figure to whom Dickens appeared to pay scant respect --- by Joanna Scanlan, was one of the central qualities of this film, and when Dickens insisted that his wife should visit Miss Ternan to present her with a gift that had mistakenly been delivered to his wife, the resulting scene, so tense and yet so understated, laid out the profundity of the human drama between these three protagonists.  Here I have to mention the delicacy of Ms. Abi Morgan’s script. Mrs Dickens, who seemed to be used to her husband’s peccadillos, quietly told the young girl that her husband might say he loved her, but she would probably find that he loved his public more, a very prescient judgment of the great man’s behaviour.
Eventually Nelly succumbed to his entreaties and agreed to become his mistress, bearing him a still-born child, accompanying him on his ceaseless journeys to read from his works, and on one occasion – that has become famous in this now fairly well-known story  --- being abandoned by him when they were caught in a train wreck. The film shows Dickens as telling someone he was not with this injured young woman, while demanding that attention be paid to her injuries. He is said to have joined in the need for every hand to help with those who were injured in the crash: this may, indeed, be the way it happened. Claire Tomalin, on whose book this film was based, did a remarkable job of research into this liaison, so I will take her word for it, although it is a more sympathetic accounting of Dickens’ behaviour in this crisis  than I had always believed  took place.
Fiennes performance as Dickens is remarkable: there could be no doubt from the way he acts that he was a great man, an unusual man, a unique man, with exceptional qualities, good and bad, that had made him the most admired writer of that era (or any other), a performance that caught his obsessive vanity, his vulnerability while at the same time not ignoring that his behaviour to those closest to him tended to be abominable.
This is a warts and all portrayal of one of England’s most admired icons. One can believe that long after his death he continued to exert a hold over the young woman who had given herself to him, though she was now married and with a child of her own, restlessly walking the shore of Margate, just as she had done with him, while trying to exorcise his ghost. 

This TV production is a testament to one of the most admirable achievements of English life: the high quality, not only of its writers, past and present, but of the acting, direction and production of its dramas.