Monday, July 29, 2019

My Log 748 July 29 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 183; I meet a writer who has struggled mightily to find his place in the world; my impression from his book is that his real home is in his beautiful writing

This week I was invited to join a small dinner party, and found myself at a table of mostly strangers, seated next to a very amusing man who apparently lives both in Ireland and Montreal, turn about. He didn’t bother to tell me himself, but it turns out that this man, Denis Sampson, has written several books, one of which my host gave me as I left.
The book is called A Migrant Heart, was published in 2014 by Linda Leith Publishing of Westmount, and acknowledged support in its publication from the Emerging Publishers Programme of the Canadian Council for the Arts. This appears to be Sampson’s fourth published book, the earlier works having ended towards literary criticism of Irish writers, he later moving closer to the art of the memoirist, of which this book is an excellent example.
I was slightly put off when the memoir opens with the author still in his pram, and when I had reached page 20 and the story had taken the author only to the age of five, I was beginning to feel that he should get on with it. But I had already discovered that this man can write, I mean he can really write, and I was kept going by the sheer elegance of the prose, and the air I took from it that this was all that mattered to this writer, and I should really persist if I wanted to be rewarded.
I have finished reading the book, and I think it worth writing about not only because of its beautiful, calm and measured language, but for an entirely surprising reason, namely, that Denis Sampson and I have lived in some particulars very similar lives, migrant lives, and that my view of such a life stands at the far opposite pole from his.
The burden of his story is that he has never been able to decide where he lives, or even where he belongs. At one point (page 166), he writes: “I now knew that I had not settled in Montreal, though I had lived there for 18 years.”
A man who was having a problem making up his mind?  Much more than that: this is a memoir about a man who has never been able to detach himself from the little place in the West of Ireland where he was raised and nurtured. But it is even more than that: he speaks of dragging his wife and child to France so that he can fulfil the urge he had to assert himself as a European. By page 228, where he is acknowledging a new revelation, “that the opposite of attachment is not detachment, but betrayal,” I was wondering whether I could possibly be bothered finishing the book. He had been flagellating himself throughout, and it all seemed entirely unnecessary, to my way of thinking.
I should confess here my own experience: unlike Denis Sampson, I was not born in a forgotten hole of the Old World, mired in a feudal social and economic system, but in a flourishing part of the New World. His back-story almost matches mine in one particular. His grandfather was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1867. My grandfather arrived from Northern Ireland thirteen years later and settled even further south in a small farming village on the Southland Plain. He died when my Dad was ten. We moved to the nearest city, Invercargill, when I was seven, and our boast was we were “the southernmost city in the British Empire.” A foolish boast, but true.
Denis was caught up in a Catholic-dominated world, of which he became for some years an enthusiastic participant, such a world as had me thinking as I read it “the poor kid, how terrible, what a dreadful  legacy.” This is the boyhood he has never been able to leave. I  lived at home until I was 20, when I went north to Dunedin for a new job with improved prospects. I had a week or so of homesickness, put it behind me, and have never suffered a twinge of nostalgia for my early upbringing, not a suggestion of it, ever since.
I married when I was 22, and  thirteen days later we left New Zealand, with the intention of returning. We never made it back until 25 years later, but we couldn't settle to resume life there.  We deliberately brought up our four kids in a way so as not to impose anything on them, leaving them to make heir own choices as they grew to adulthood. This laissez-faire attitude is another aspect of our lives that stands at the far pole from Denis’s experience.
In fact my experience has convinced me that all this stuff about the need for roots is nonsense. You carry your own roots within you, you establish them with your life, day after day, your friendships, your achievements, no matter where they occur, no matter how far from where you were born and raised.  Denis comes close to admitting it:
 “I thought how ridiculous this is, searching for my roots like a third-generation Irish-American when I know perfectly well my family history for generations. Once antiquated considerations of pedigree are stripped away what is a family tree anyway? A fiction embroidered from some facts: a myth of coherence, of orderly succession, of belonging.”
 Denis comes close to admitting it under pressure from his eldest son, talking about the younger son and the problems he might have when arriving in Montreal.
“But Dad! It just takes a short time until you get to know your way around. One city is like any other city…..”
“I think it took me the most of twenty-five years,” I said in hope that the big numbers would have some shock value.
“Cm’on, Dad! You get to know some people. Maybe a few months.”
“There are many times I thought I was over it…..Maybe I never got over it.”
“What are you talking about? You have a house and plenty of friends….”
“Well, let’s put it this way. In twenty-five years I felt I lived through a century and a half. You can’t really know what I mean by culture shock.” The solemnity of my declaration is lost in the jokes from the other end of the table.
Much as I admire Denis’s prose, and sympathize with his evident wish just to keep on writing, to keep examining his life, endlessly, if necessary, just for the pleasure of writing, I find myself out of sympathy with this sort of nostalgia for things past. It is the more amazing to me because there is plenty of evidence in the book of how much he has involved himself in Montreal life, taking part in demonstrations for this or that, keeping in touch with changes in the political atmosphere, and so on. There seems like no good reason for him not to accept his Montreal life as his life, once and for all.
But then, he could respond: that’s easy for you to say. You haven’t lived my life.

Monday, July 22, 2019

My Log 747 July 22 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 182; A touch of the blindingly obvious, and the astonishingly surprising; one man’s terror-stricken journey to political and ecological commonsense

Some things are blindingly obvious, and others are astonishingly surprising. Here is an exhaustive  list of them:
Blindingly obvious thing No. 1: The Democratic party nominee for President of the United States should be Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
What? Too young, you say?  Don't be daft. That young man with the unpronounceable name who is one of the line-up of 20 prospective presidents, a young man who has never done anything except be mayor of some forgettable town in Indiana or one of those eminently forgettable mid-western states, and who seems to be doing very well in the preliminary skirmish towards the nomination, is only 37. So what’s the difference? 29 or 37, or 75 like Bernie or Joe?
One difference is that, if, as the pundits say, 60 million Trump-voters were so discontented that they looked to Trump as the best  guy to “shake things up”, then they made the wrong choice, not realizing that Trump represents the very forces that have consigned millions to a marginal existence among all the promised glories of the so-called American Dream. It should now be blindingly obvious to them, as it is to me,  that if they are still looking for someone to shake things up, AOC, as she is now known everywhere, should be their choice next time. This young woman has everything: she is not only gorgeous, but brighter than hell, mischievous, fearless, determined, and an organizer of the first class. Accused of undignified dancing, she threw it back in their faces by dancing into her Congressional office for the first time. Reason enough, right there, to elect her president. All those discontented people out there should remember that, although she had received a good education, she had been reduced to working as a waitress, in order to support her family that had fallen on hard times, a status in life that had reduced her to almost permanent depression until she decided to do something about it.
 In other words, she not only talks the talk --- and brilliantly, describing the state of the nation and the world with pitiless honesty ---  but has already walked the walk, and her vision for America’s future would place that great nation again at the forefront of progressive forces around the world, spearheading at last the struggle for global policies to confront the imminent dangers of global warming, brought on by our inability to reach past the interests of 240 individual nation states.
The woman is a socialist, they say, and socialism is a dreaded disease that threatens all our freedoms. You idiots: don’t you realize that socialism in one or other of its forms, is the essential ingredient of any shaken-up future for human kind? In other words our descendants appear to have little future worthy of the name so long as the established built-in conservatism prevails in human affairs.
Okay, that’s enough of what is blindingly obvious. It struck me a couple of days ago that in our information-jammed world, some information can be astonishingly surprising. Here is a list:
Astonishingly surprising information No. 1: I read in an article the other day that 350,000,000 eels are trafficked out of the European Union every year, worth more than $3 billion, making it the biggest wildlife crime in the world.
I am terribly sorry, but my mind cannot hold the idea of 350 million eels. It makes me think of one of those pits in southern Saskatchewan that every spring become full of thousands of squiggling, sliding baby snakes. I know the eel can be a delicious gourmet dish, but I cannot think of eels in the mass: I can think of only one eel, or perhaps it was a sea-snake, and that is the eel or snake that I suddenly realized was sitting right there within touching distance, gazing at me, 43 years ago,  as I was doing what an elderly acquaintance of mine called some ‘sea-swimmin’ in the delightfully-warm Caribbean sea.   Unacquainted with eels except on the dinner plate, I immediately panicked, lashed out in my pathetic effort to swim to safety, forgetting that beneath me was a nest of the dreaded sea urchin. All I had to do --- and I did it --- was to brush my left hand across a sea urchin with the result that the hapless animal injected me with dozens of tiny spikes which are its weapon of self-defence against lumbering monsters that might be lunging around in the waters above him. Or her, as the case might be.
This inglorious excursion into the wildlife kingdom resulted in my trying out numerous folk remedies, such as peeing on my hand, without effect, before appealing to modern science in the form of a doctor with a tweezle picking the spikes out one by one.
Talking about snakes: I have often explained to people, and I do so here to my small Chronicle  audience, that there are such differences between New Zealand and Australia as to make very doubtful their being bracketed together in the public mind as they usually are. For one thing, they are as close together as London is to Moscow. For another, New Zealand is completely free of snakes, and of all other dangerous, man-killing pests (except for the world’s biggest mosquitoes); whereas Australia, and especially that northern, tropical part where I went to live when I left New Zealand, has more crawly and sliding animals that could kill you at the slightest contact, than almost any other country on earth.
Having no experience of snakes, I was terrified by the very idea of them. The bravery of Aussies who, spotting a snake crossing the road, would calmly seize it by the tail and end its life with a sudden flick, was something beyond my imagination. I heard that they were in the habit of taking up residence in the rafters of houses, and occasionally settled over door-jambs, from which, when the door was opened, they could fall down upon you. (But whereas Aussies took all their snakes for granted, fearlessly, along with bats, crocodiles, sharks and other wonders of nature, they were very nervous about earthquakes, which, in New Zealand are almost always sending up tremors that we, in our innocence, took completely for granted.)
Another animal that does not rank among my favourites is the bat. In Australia they have a particularly gruesome variety that they call a flying fox, a very large bat with an average wingspan of three and a half feet, that can be spotted hanging upside down from a variety of trees. Despite its gruesome appearance, it is said to play a very important ecological roll because it dispenses the pollen and seeds of a wide range of Australian plants. In recent years, it has become more common within the major cities, and there are said to be 30,000 of them gathered in the trees around one golf course during the  Melbourne summer.
The fact is, although I have never been threatened by a bat, I have always been unreasonably afraid of them. During a holiday in Antigua in the West Indies one summer, it was our habit to observe what we called “bat hour”, when at dusk tens of thousands of them would emerge from the heights behind our beachside cottage, and we would settle, gin and tonic in hand, to watch them as they swooped high above us in their search for an insect-dinner.

Apart from that, my acquaintance with bats has been limited to the odd one that would penetrate our house in Ottawa during our years of house ownership, now long past.  Having never been exposed to such an animal during my childhood in pest-free  New Zealand, I tended to shrink under the blankets when the bat appeared, and let it fly around the room, hoping it would never descend upon us, and calling for our ten-year-old daughter to come and do her fearless stuff. She would stand in the middle of the room holding up a tennis racket, which apparently did not give off the sound waves, or whatever it is that bats navigate by. Usually they would simply run into the racket strings, fall to the floor, momentarily stunned, and we had the chance to scoop them up and put them outside where they belonged.
It wasn’t until I heard a McGill University scientist giving evidence on behalf of the Crees in their monumental court case of 1972 against the promised James Bay hydro-electric project being built in their hunting territories, that I came across a man to whom the welfare of bats was everything in his life. I was pretty amazed to hear with what affection and concern he spoke of them, and he opened my eyes at least partially to the need to think more clearly about these fearsome animals of all kinds, and especially to those which, like bats, pose no danger to anyone, and are generally suffering from no more than their poor public relations.  
Nowadays, though I still have to admit to the terror struck in me by bats, and more especially snakes, I have to recognize that they, like us, are species that have as much right to their place in nature as any of us.
Well, that’s enough of astonishingly surprising information: I realize all these wild creatures have to be cherished and saved from extinction, although I am glad their defence  falls to someone else, not to me. All I can say is:
 Wot the hell, wot the hell?  Nature is wonderful, right?

Sunday, July 21, 2019

My Log 746 July 20 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 181:On another holiday in a different year, tragedy struck in France; and I had to face the things a little kid can do to you, in order to make it back home

 I had quite a lively reaction to my innocent last piece about taking a
holiday by cycling around France on a tandem in 1952. So I am
encouraged to tell one more story about a very different sort of
holiday in France, exactly 10 years after the first one.

My wife Shirley and I had emigrated to Canada in 1954, and in 1960 I
had been sent back to London to work as the correspondent in London
for a Canadian newspaper. In that first year back we established a
pattern of taking a summer month off and going over to France,
although now we had a car, and a bigger tent. Of course in our
non-unionized newspaper there was no such thing as a negotiated
holiday or  wage. You took what you were given,  but the accepted
thing was for most employees to be granted a couple of weeks off. I
never announced my departure for a month, but I took care that they
wouldn’t object by providing them in advance with a stream of op ed
page pieces, enough  keep them quiet during the dog-days of summer,
until I got back. They never made any complaint about my longer
holidays, perhaps realizing that if they did complain, I was the type
who might be quite likely to quit.

We’d been trying for some years to produce a family, by way of various
revealing tests of my frankly inadequate spermatozoa, requiring the
swallowing of oceans of some thick white gooey stuff,  and by 1961 we
were graced with the birth of a lovely, healthy blonde little  boy,
whom we called Ben.  When he was two months old my wife took him off
to New Zealand to show to her parents, and while she was away I awoke
one morning with a slight hangover, decided on the spot to go to
France, went out and bought a bicycle, and spent a month or so cycling
around the region of the Loire valley. I ended that trip in the
campground of a charming little village called Sillé-le-Guillaume,
midway between Alencon to the north and Le Mans to the south. I became
so well-known in the village shops that I felt I had made some
friends, and the next year when we took off for France with our  16-
month-old son, I headed straight for that beautiful village, which lay
in the Sarthe region, just on the edge of Normandy.

To our intense surprise --- Shirley was older than me, approaching
what was thought of in those days as the upper years of child-bearing
--- she became pregnant again, and we spent our holiday driving around
the Sarthe region. Sarthe is one of the lesser-known regions of
France, not really a magnet for tourists. But we loved the countryside
and the ancient towns and villages. We were slightly worried that the
small country lanes we favoured tended to have bumpy surfaces, but we
were never in a hurry, and took it easy.

Nevertheless, one night, disaster struck. Shirley was having severe
pains, enough for me to rouse the camp guardian who ordered an
ambulance from Le Mans, 32 kilometres away, and off we went, Ben and I
racing along behind in our car, until she was safely installed in a
hospital. She had a miscarriage, but, although deeply upset,  had the
best of care in a spotlessly clean hospital run by nuns, who not only
provided her with typically excellent French food, but allowed her a
glass of red wine with each meal.

So, this is how the care, cleaning and feeding of my little boy fell
to me for almost a week, a bit of a challenge to a guy who had never
taken much part in that, partly because his mother, surprisingly
arrived at that status, was severely delighted at her various wifely
tasks.  I think I managed it as well as could be expected, considering
we were only camping, and did not have all mod cons at hand. and we
fell into a pattern over the four or five days they kept her in
hospital, of driving back and forth to Le Mans every day to visit, and
I became even better known to the female shop keepers as the man who
had that beautiful little boy in tow everywhere I went.

The doctor strongly advised against us driving back home, suggesting
we take the train instead. On the morning of her release from
hospital, therefore, I had a lot to do. First get the boy up and
dressed in his best clothes for the trip. Then, prepare and serve
breakfast. Then, dismantle the tent and everything in it, wrap and
pack every thing methodically (since method is essential to campers),
and store it in the trunk of our English-style sedan. That was a
time-consuming business, working alone, but I started it all early, as
I always do, giving myself plenty of time for the drive to Le Mans,
the finding of the railway station, and the despatching of my car to
London by train. Then we had to take a taxi to the hospital, collect
my wife and go to the station to take the train to, unless memory
betrays me, Calais, more than 420 kilometres to the north.

My way through this obstacle course was made more difficult by the
malfunctioning of the lock on the car’s trunk. However much I strained
at  shoving in all my gear into the trunk --- tent, sleeping bags,
cooking equipment, suitcases full of clothing, the non-perishable
items of food ---, the lock would not attach, so I had repack
everything in the back seat. It was quite hot at that time of year,
and by the time I finished all this I was bathed in sweat.

Finally it was all done. I turned my attention to my precious little
boy, who had been sitting quietly in his stroller all this time, and
there is only one way to describe what I found: he was covered in shit
almost from head to toe.

Woe is me. Lamentations! But nothing for it: I had to unpack new
clothing, take him to the washroom and clean him off  thoroughly, wash
the dirty clothes, and then, deciding to put at least some of my stuff
in the trunk,  struggle again to secure the locks as before.

Eventually we set off for Le Mans, world-famous for its 24-hour road
race. It was a bit of a race against the clock, but we managed it all,
and presented ourselves complete with wife and mother in time to catch
the train.

I have never been totally convinced it was necessary to take the
train. I believe that by driving  slowly and carefully on the
well-paved major roads I could have got us to Dieppe without mishap,
but who am I to argue against doctor’s advice?

We never expected Shirley, at the age now of 41, to have another
pregnancy. Before Ben was conceived, we had applied to adopt, which
resulted in her becoming pregnant within two weeks (a common enough
occurrence in these circumstances, I believe).  So we decided that
since there was a baby out there somewhere we could have adopted, we
should go ahead and adopt a brother for our little Ben. That is how we
got our son  Robert into the family. And lo and behold, not long after
the adoption my wife became pregnant again, and we found ourselves
looking after three small boys, Ben, Robert and Thom, separate from
each other in age by only about three years.

We had so little reason to regret having lumbered ourselves with these
three children that a few years later we adopted a small girl who was
so beautiful that we called her Belle. Thus did we make our itinerant
family into a quartet --- born in England and Canada, raised through
childhood in London, Montreal, and Auckland, New Zealand and in the
later stages for two of them in the United States, a family with
antecedents  from  four nation-states, and with a touch of blood
inherited from three separate races. They are all grown now: a rock
and roll musician, a criminal lawyer, a screenwriter, and a
businesswoman, angling to become the Kombucha Queen of Central

I will end with one of the biggest cliches in the book: you don’t know
the full scope and weight of being human  until you have had your own
children. Of course they can be pains in the ass from time to time, as
you can be to them, but I have only one response to that:

 Wot the hell? Wot the hell? What else is life all about?