Friday, March 30, 2018

My Log 615 March 30 2018-03-30: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 52; How ironical it would be if we still had the weapons needed to destroy the world! And if our universities were still producing the people who designed and built those weapons

 I have to admit it: there seems to be a gap between my generation and that of the hundreds of students among whom I walk every day as I make my way across the McGill university campus on my way to my favorite coffee house. These students are all hustle and bustle, especially the young women, while I drag myself along among them at a pace that two or three decades ago I would hardly have dignified with the word locomotion.
The reason for the difference is that these students obviously have a purpose in life, which seems to be to gather the accepted and accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humankind, the very purpose for which these universities are established. It strikes me as a purpose which poses more questions than it answers.
For example, are they entirely sure that what they are getting is in fact the accumulated knowledge that the human race has gathered up to now? And can they be sure that the interpretation given to that body of knowledge by their tutors is such as to set them forward towards the best of possible worlds?
Their eagerness and bustle seems to indicate that few of them can have any doubts that their lives are going along the right track, to which certainty I would have to attribute their relative lack of experience ( I first wrote ”gormlessness”, but that seemed a trifle harsh, and I do not wish to judge any of these eager young people harshly), an inevitable consequence of their youth. I am reminded of a world-renowned scientist in the field of the study of aging who told me that if he were one day to emerge from his laboratory holding up a file that he could announce held the magic potion that could enable us all to live to 125, “ any reasonable person would dash the file from my hand and smash its contents on the floor.”
If that is so, why are so many of our best brains working on this very problem? I asked him that question and he replied, “Because it is so fascinating, trying to solve this particular  problem.” None of the larger societal questions that would arise from his success appeared to matter a jot to him. Multiply that big brain by the millions of big brains who are working on all these precise intellectual questions, and you end up with the best of them producing a bomb that, if human beings were ever mad enough, or cruel enough, to drop it on a city, would immediately kill hundreds of thousands of people and utterly destroy every building in the city. Fortunately it is hard to imagine any group of human beings whose innate decency could be so overcome as to permit such a disaster to be willfully administered to any other group. So maybe these reservations I am expressing about all this accumulated knowledge we never cease handing on from one generation to the next are just a nightmare that accompanies the aging process.
Hang on there a minute. My God!  I know I have a tendency to forget things, but is it possible I could have forgotten that such a thing has already happened, not once, but twice? And that the group that administered the devastation was a nation that always prides itself on having formed the most advanced civilization on the planet, animated only by the noble cause of democratic free will and consent. I wonder if that really did happen, or if it is just something I read about in a book of fiction? It’s so hard to be clear about anything when you reach the advanced age at which things seemed sort of clouded over, rather indistinct.
Anyway, one thing we can be sure about: if such an event did take place, the wisdom of humankind, that very same wisdom that is being transferred every year, almost every day of every year, in our universities, will have decided that such an event never can take place again, and will have taken the measures needed to abolish those weapons from the face of the Earth.
Thank heaven we can rely on that wisdom that is the subject of all the study being performed at our universities. What an irony it would be if we were pouring so much of our resources into this knowledge-transfer, only to find that the entrenched attitudes of human beings, including that madness and cruelty referred to above, were to be allowed to run riot across the Earth just as it always has been in the past.
I cannot deny the energy of these young people, bustling back and forth between their classrooms. There are dozens of coffee houses  in this part of town, and at almost any time of the day or night one can see that they are crowded with young people sitting over their machines, ostensibly studying.  I make a point of asking what they are studying. Everything, it seems. Electrical engineering, said one young man from China. Chemistry, said a young woman, taking the plugs out of her ears so as to answer me. Feminist philosophy, said another. International development, another. Political science, but I think I am going to change to law, another. Psychology, economics, accounting, African studies…..
The accumulated knowledge of human kind whose study has drawn unimaginable numbers to these universities. Montreal has two English-language universities, two major French-language universities, and three minor institutions of university level. It is hard to come to an exact figure, but my most recent one is that the student population of the city is approaching 200,000. McGill alone has more than 40,000, of whom 58 per cent are women, and they have 12,000 foreign students from 150 different countries (the biggest enrolments are from the US 2435, China 2394, and France 1875).
So no one could deny that the youth of the world are flocking to universities in huge numbers. But I have to make a confession here: I am by no means convinced university education is essential to the development of responsible, sensitive citizens. I have always tended to regard the university as a brainwashing institution, designed to get people who will later have responsible positions in running the country to think within a particular framework designed to prevent major change from overwhelming our society.
Years ago, I was occasionally invited to speak to university classes, and I always began by saying how pleased I was to be back in one of those institutions which is “turning out the people who are making such a mess of running the world.”
Is that a fair comment? You need a university education, for sure, to design and build a fighter aircraft. You need a university education to build a battleship, a bomb, or indeed, all manner of “weapons of mass destruction”. You hardly need a university education to become a peacemaker, an advocate of conflict resolution,  a conciliator, or a man or woman devoted to radically changing the world.
There can be little doubt that it is the schools of business management that seem to be the centrepiece of our universities in this dasy and age. An interesting battle was fought recently at McGill university, when the School of Management Studies needed new premises.
They set their eyes on a large building on Mactavish street occupied by the McGill bookshop.  Suddenly, downstairs from where I live on Park avenue, many blocks from the campus, it was announced that the McGill bookshop would be moving into a recently-vacated ground floor  space. The bookshop  apparently had been displaced from the closer and more convenient building at the heart of the campus, to make way for the more important school at which the future managers of the wealth that is created in our society were to be given their marching orders.
I wonder which of these carefully trained managers will be put in charge of our national weapons of mass destruction?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

My Log 614 March 25 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 51; Finally reached the Tenth; time to reflect on how favoured, how lucky I have been in life, and how, at last, I am just oozing wisdom

As any keen-eyed reader will already have noticed, the time has finally arrived for the demolition of the (almost) in the headline to these Chronicles.
Rather to my surprise, the great day has arrived, and passed. I have moved into my Tenth Decade at last. In other words, I have had my 90th birthday. When I turned 80 I had this idea to write a regular chronicle from my ninth decade, and did so for 20 or so days, before allowing it to drift off.  Then  as my 90th began to approach, I had the same idea for my Tenth Decade, but sometime in December I began to feel I would never make it to the day, so I began to write the Chronicles on, I think it was Dec 22. 
For almost two months I wrote a 1500 word article every day of the week, taking time off for weekends. It became almost like a full-time job. And I didn’t have any trouble thinking up subjects to write about. Occasionally I cribbed from a book I had published about my working life, but since hardly anyone ever read the book, I figured my few readers would never have heard the stories before (except possibly my children, to whom I may have told every story by word-of-mouth.) Eventually it became a little more difficult to think of what to write about, but my son Thom kept urging me on, while saying I didn’t need to write one every day. When I began to say I felt that the effort was getting close to fizzling out, he said I would have to write one explaining why.
In addition, Thom said that every Chronicle seemed to have the material for half a dozen novels, if only I would allow myself to go in deeper. Still, what I learned to do during my life was to write a journalistic article, and these, by definition, were not even close relations to novels.
Well, anyway, here I am, 90 years of age, the very age at which elderly people are widely accepted as overflowing with wisdom, although in my experience, this wisdom has turned out to be extremely simplistic in nature, and  worth not much more than the burbling of a five-year-old child. In any case, as Robert Benchley, the American humourist, once wrote, (claiming it was a maxim from the Chinese, which, of course, it wasn’t), “too much wisdom gets on the wise man’s nerves.” I haven’t written these Chonicles to exhibit any wisdom, but merely to show that at 90 I can still remember a few things from the distant past, can still write a literate sentence, and am not to be pitied or condescended to just because of my age.
The fact is, like most journalists of my acquaintance, I have gathered a smidgen of information on a whole lot of subjects. What use this is apart from enabling one to write the occasional article, I have never been able to discover. On one occasion I  actually taught in a university for a few months: and when I was finished they offered me the chance to create a course on environmental journalism. (A neighbouring university wanted me to run heir extension programmes for a year while the regular inhabitant was on sabbatical).  It was when considering these offers that my inadequacies were laid bare to me with a startling clarity. I could no more have designed any course whose object was to transfer information to younger people, than I could fly to the moon. And as for organizing a programme of study, I ask you! Who could possibly ever want to do such as thing? So I thanked them profusely for their misplaced confidence in me, and headed off with my tail between my legs to carry on with what I hoped would be a viable life as a freelance journalist.
This could have been a disaster. I had four children to support, and was sort of expecting to make a living off the CBC.  That organization hired me for two jobs in the next 40 years, so that source of income was never open to me. And I was really fortunate that the National Film Board, by sheer accident, stepped into the breach with an offer of some research work for them that developed into some actual film-making (even though I had no experience in film-making, and, as they well knew, I didn’t  know one end of a camera from the other, and still don’t, 30 films later).
I think it is here that I have to repeat something that I never tire of repeating: from my birth in 1928 I have lived an almost magically favored existence. I was too young to really be affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which hung over the heads of my older brothers like the sword of Damocles, dominating their teen years; I was too young to go to the Second World War, into which three of my older brothers were conscripted, chasing the Germans and Japanese around the Pacific and the Egyptian desert and fighting up through Italy, while I was having a  cheerful life running, jumping and playing games throughout my four years of high school; and then, when I quit school at 17 in 1945, I embarked on my working life in a world that,  for the next twenty-five years, until 1970, was  living through possibly the most favoured years that humanity had ever known --- favoured in terms of full employment; favoured in terms of equable global climate conditions giving rise to wonderful growing seasons; favoured in terms of (compared with these days) relative freedom of movement around the world.
If you put all that together with the accident that I discovered I could write a decent sentence quickly, without too much trouble, and you will be able to see how fortunate I have been in my life.
And that’s about all I have to offer in the way of wisdom.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

My Log 613 March 18 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade:50; Some stories about the origin of my family, nineteenth-century immigrants to New Zealand from Northern Ireland, Scotland and England.

A year or so ago my son Thom, who is a writer, suggested I should be filling my days by writing an epic  novel based on my family. Though I am not a novelist --- the proof of which is the six novel manuscripts that I have completed but that remain hidden away in drawers and files, unwanted by any publisher --- I did begin to research my family, a subject which quickly took on an almost compulsive interest for me. I even began the novel, although, as usual, it did not advance very far.
This represented a rather abrupt change of direction for me, because, as Thom had asked me repeatedly, if I had such a cheerful, games-playing childhood as I have always claimed to have had, why did I decide to cut myself off almost completely from my family when I left New Zealand at the age of 22? I had never produced an adequate answer to his question. And the best answer I have come to since is that I grew up in a family whose father and the most powerful of my four brothers were  concentrated on a business in which I had no interest. I didn’t like their rough business methods, disagreed with their assumption that their business was the beginning and ending of life, and I decided to get as far away from them as I could.
That has had the unfortunate consequence of robbing my own family of four children of any close relatives, except very spasmodically, and especially to have never known grandparents, which are almost universally acknowledged to have a strong influence on their grandchildren.  
The earliest of my ancestors I have been able to trace were born in the Scottish highlands around the end of the eighteenth century.  On the male side, my ancestors were from Northern Ireland, and appear to have been part of the considerable Protestant \\\emigration from Scotland to Ulster, that subsequently fanned out to colonize many parts of the Commonwealth. My grandfather, Samual Richardson, was the fourth of seven children of a Robert Richardson of whom I could find only that he gave rise to a family of exceptionally courageous adventurers.  Of the seven,  born between 1847 and 1872, four died in the United States, Canada or New Zealand, and one other had been to New York and California and had returned home, where she died.  Samual was 22 when he arrived in New Zealand in 1878, having braved the terrible experience of the three-month journey from Britain, which was invariably accompanied by heavy seas, frequent storms, and, especially for immigrants overcrowded into tiny ships,  the most uncomfortable conditions of on-board life imaginable.  He went immediately south to the small village of Wyndham, where a friend had already settled, and took a job ploughing for a local farmer. 
I think I might have established a sort of connection with my grandfather from the fact that we both left home at the age of 22, never to return. Indeed, it is said of my grandfather that he never wrote home.  I had a letter many years ago from a man living in Canada who told me he was convinced that my grandfather and his were brothers, as turned out to be the case. This man confirmed that neither brother kept in touch with their parents, but he went so far as to visit my family in New Zealand to make the connection real.
Without too much delay young Samual was able to become a driver for the stables that ran coaching services to meet the trains in nearby Edendale, and to the small coastal village of Fortrose, where he had dealings with a  butcher and farmer, John Anderson, whose wife, Agnes, was a Scottish girl from a family, six of whose seven children, as well as their mother, ended up in New Zealand, having joined the huge Scottish emigration that populated the southern part of the South Island.  Samual met Sarah, Agnes’s sister, and married her when he was 26 and she was 20. Eventually Samual took over the coaching stable, and had established a successful business, and a sterling reputation for his business dealings throughout the district, when he died unexpectedly in 1897, at the age of 42, leaving Sarah with a family of five children.
My Dad was 10 when his father died. But Sarah took over his thriving business, added to it a funeral parlour, and did not die until 1935, at the age of 73. I was seven by that time, and must have met my grandmother, but have no memory of her.
I do remember clearly, however, her sister, Agnes, Aunt Aggie, as she was known to everyone, whose husband John Anderson, twenty years older than she, had left her with a profitable butcher’s shop and  farm, and a family of  two boys and two girls to bring up. This woman, Aunt Aggie, is still alive in my memory ---- 68 years after I last saw her ---  as one of the most beautiful people I have ever met: unfortunately her eldest son had taken to drink, had a fondness for the horses,  and had managed to largely dissipate the family fortunes. But to visit her was always a joyous occasion, from which we returned to the city not only full of the authentic Scottish  scones she baked, but with plenty of farm produce that she always laid on us --- eggs, butter, cream and occasionally meat ---  although I always had the impression she could scarcely have afforded this generosity.  As long as I knew her she wore long, black frocks down to her ankles, and retained a lovely Scottish accent and beautiful, soft,  speaking voice. To me, she seemed the epitome of gentleness; and I always thought it a cruel irony that her life had been so misshapen by the misfortunes of her later years. She had a lifetime employee, an old man called Bill Thomas, like her, a gentle old person who stayed on living rent-free in her house long after he was capable of doing any work. Later, I was happy to learn that our frequent visits to Aunt Aggie were occasions on which my Dad was able to help her out financially, to the limit of his capacity.
The Southland plain on which I was brought up was originally shunned for settlement, because it appeared to the newcomers that most of it was swampy land difficult to penetrate. Today, it is regarded as some of the most fertile land in the country, home to highly productive farms.
Wyndham is still a distribution centre for the local farmers, never a village of more than 400 to 500 people, which is set between three small rivers that have been known to flood occasionally. My father, a carpenter by trade,  made farm gates and cow byres for the local farmers, until, under the influence of my second eldest brother, Harold, one of those people who could succeed at whatever he applied his mind to, he raised his sights and began to tender for bigger jobs. He built the dairy factory in Wyndham in the early 1930s leaving me with the memory, as a five-year-old, of falling off the back of his truck into a coal-black puddle on the building site,  and breaking my arm. My mother was at first reluctant to take it seriously, but I kept on howling my head off, and they then took me the 26 miles to the neighbouring city, Invercargill, to be admitted to hospital (a large extension to which was actually built by my dad and brothers a few years later). I was scared to death when left alone there overnight, I remember, but all was forgiven when my parents arrived the next day to pick me up and take me home.
I have vivid memories of Wyndham, because I returned there during my school holidays for several years, staying with my aunt whose husband kept one of those General Stores that stocked everything under the sun, and was a veritable marvel for any small boy who entered it. My uncle, the owner, was another of these gentle village people, known to have helped many of his customers with easy credit, probably much of it never repaid, during the years of the Depression. I spent a good part of each holiday in the back storeroom, perfecting the art of throwing up peanuts and catching them in my mouth, by which expedient I must have gotten rid of a good part of any profit they ever made on the peanut.
My father was a simple village carpenter who, rather mysteriously, in his early twenties went to the North Island, and stayed for a year or two in Cambridge, a more settled small town in the Waikato district, 83 miles south of Auckland, the major city. He played the cornet in the village band, and through this, presumably, came in contact with the Boyce family, whose father, quite a drinker if the stories about him are true, ran the village pharmacy. He had 11 children, five girls and six boys, and according to the tales handed down through the family, this was a family of English origin that rather prided itself on its cultural awareness. I believe it must have been through the band that my father met my mother.
I also doubt that this family --- which, as I discovered from my brief acquaintance with them, was full of snobs --- would have been overjoyed that one of their daughters was marrying a village carpenter from, gasp! --- wait for it --- the South Island! It was always a bit of a mystery to me why my Dad brought my mother south to live this village life, when she had been brought up to believe herself above such a backwater.  I know that her sisters-in-law, married to two of Dad’s brothers (and a right pair of harridans they were!) made life difficult for her, although I am prepared to admit that she may have been partly the cause of it, from having some superior airs.  It was only after a diligent search of the facts that I discovered the reason for my Dad’s strange decision: he married my mother on April 7, 1912, when she was 20, and the birth of my eldest brother Doug was in July 24 of the same year --- a mere three months later.
I have taken some satisfaction in learning this, because I had long ago decided that my mother’s excessive puritanism, rigidly imposed on us, had resulted in my entering manhood in a fairly screwed-up frame of mind about women, which dominated my life --- deleteriously, I must say --- for many years. And this gap between the fact that she had been a naughty girl, and the rigid puritanism she tried to impose on us --- drinking forbidden in the home, strict and stern watch over anything that might be construed as sexual experience --- supports what I have always believed, that such censorious people, usually motivated by religion,  are, at bottom, total hypocrites.
That may sound like a harsh judgment: but in fact, when I think of the life my mother was condemned to, in a house of rambunctious men none of whom --- including me --- showed her much affection, or gave her any help in her onerous duties, my final judgment is that she had was more to be pitied than criticized.