Monday, September 30, 2019

My Log 763 Sept 30 2019; Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 198; I wake up to a beautiful sunrise over Montreal; some reflections on bitter conservative forces in society that have always gotten my goat; I hope we are not about to elect them here

I woke up at 4.20 this morning, read for an hour or so and then got up to check on what time today’s Rugby World Cup game was to be played. I had in mind to write something about my childhood, and memories thereof, but the first thing I saw on the day was the spectacle of the southern sky, blazing red as the dawn came up, backlighting the tall buildings of the Montreal skyline, a spectacular sight. With my childhood upbringing in mind I couldn't help but reflect on how different was this sight of the big North American city, from that small place where I grew up. In those days, New .Zealand was a country of small towns: I lived in the fifth biggest town in the country, whose population was only 26,000, and which did not boast a single  building taller than, say three stories. A far cry from the modern big city that always seems impelled to reach out both across the land, and up into the sky, vainly trying to touch the heavens.
But before I get on to my subject for the day, I simply have to mention what I read about at 4.20 am. It was an article in  the most recent issue of The Guardian Weekly, from London, about a campaign against so-called illegal immigrants to Britain initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in the government of David Cameron, that was so horrible as to be scarcely believable.  She had vans going around in six London boroughs with considerable immigrant populations, emblazoned with a message: “In the UK illegally?  Go home, or face arrest.” The notices were illustrated with a picture of handcuffs and the number of recent immigration arrests (“106 arrests last week in your area”) and a notice along the bottom: “We can help you to return home voluntarily without fear of arrest or detention.”
The article dealt with the inhumanity and injustice visited on what has become known as the Windrush generation, named for a shipload of West Indians who were imported into Britain with their families to fill jobs that could not be filled with British-born. These people were never offered any documents asserting their right to be in Britain, although they were all British subjects, and were therefore sitting ducks when, almost half a century later,  public sentiment turned against immigrants ---  especially, one might observe, coloured immigrants --- and whose children were targeted for deportation in the most heartless and brutal manner conceivable.  
The article tells one detailed story, among several others,  of a woman who was four when she arrived with her Grenadian  parents in 1968, and was 48 when, worn to a frazzle by her fruitless effort to get the government to accept the 75 proofs she had gathered of her lifetime of residence in the country,  she gave up and accepted “voluntary” repatriation to a country she had never known, where she arrived without money, had no contacts, and little prospect of getting work. Her life was completely ruined by the experience of being so chosen and persecuted, and even the eventual repatriation to Britain that she was granted, and some of which was paid for  by the British government, did not make things any easier for her: once again, she had to start to rebuild her life at an age where such a thing for a woman in her circumstances was almost impossible.
Okay, that’s the cheerful story with which I started my day.
The article was written by a journalist called Amelia Gentleman, who had spent several years uncovering this horror-story, a job that was made rather  touchy for her in that she was married to Jo Johnson,  celebrated brother of Boris Johnson, who was at the time a minister in the Conservative government. It was her articles that eventually forced the government to take notice of the injustice so callously visited on these Windrush survivors,
What I originally set out to write 671 words ago was stimulated by my having seen the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Late show. He was trying to get her to say something undiplomatic about Donald Trump, because she was present when he addressed the General Assembly the day before, at which time there was a whiff of laughter when he spoke. He remarked that he did nt expect that response. “Did you join in the laughter?” Colbert asked.
“Are you trying to create a diplomatic incident?” she asked. She said the audience had laughed at Trump a second time, and that time, as Trump claimed, they could be said to be laughing with him.
“And the first time?” persisted Colbert.
“The first time was like a gentle murmur among themselves,” she said, laughing.
“Did you join in?” asked Colbert. “I was observing,” she laughed..
What set me off to write something about Ardern was that I saw the exchange on a New Zealand newspaper outlet, and it was followed by a large number of reader responses. Many of them were of a grouchy, grumpy variety that I remembered vividly from my childhood,  “What’s she doing over there, gallivanting about,” was the tone. “She spends more time doing that than working hard to make life better for New Zealanders.”
I have the impression from what I have read recently that she has had to confront that sort of criticism ever since she was chosen to be the Prime Minister. And it was the grouchy tone of these responses that seemed so familiar to me.  I was 17 when I became a newspaper reporter in my own small town. I was a supporter of the Labour Party and its government at the time, and I came to abhor the ultra-conservative National Party opposition whose policies had gotten New Zealand into the desperate position from which a Labour government was needed to pull the country back up by its bootlaces.  
I worked in journalism in New Zealand fore almost three years before leaving the country for good, and during that time, in fact during all of the years until I was 22, I never remember any New Zealand newspaper of the time expressing any favourable opinion of the Labour government.
I remember just after I first left home to move to a slightly bigger city, Dunedin, (80,000 population, the fourth city in the country) that I took a room in a boarding house kept by a dreadful woman who had a virulent hatred of the Labour Party, the Labour government, and anything that could be in any way associated with Labour and its works, however loosely.  She tended to greet my arrival in the house by holding up some headline or other from a newspaper, showing another proof of the imbecility of Labour and its ministers.
It was not lost on me that the government she was talking about was one that had been elected in 1935, and was re-elected every three years  until 1949, having during all those years presided over an extremely well-managed economy, maintained at full employment with a successful export programme for the nation’s wool, butter and cheese, and one that, with its generous social programmes kept New Zealanders healthy and strong, and well enough educated to have chosen to keep them in power in spite of the unrelenting media campaign against them.
The first Labour Party Prime Minister was an Australian  working class man, Michael Joseph Savage, an unremitting socialist, who had been a labourer, ditchdigger and held a variety of other jobs until getting involved in the union movement, after which he had drifted into, first, municipal, and later national, politics.  He was deeply revered among the ordinary people of New Zealand: for many years, pictures of him adorned the walls of thousands of the homes of ordinary New Zealanders, alongside,  often, pictures of Queen Victoria.  He was the Prime Minister when the British government declared war on Germany. He issued a statement virtually from his death bed, declaring unequivocal support for the war:
“…we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we march with a union of hearts and souls to a common destiny.”
My wife often told a story that encapsulates the feeling people had for Savage. In the middle of rhe great depression she was given a watch as an unimaginable birthday present by her Maori grandmother, “Don’t thank me, dear,” her grandmother said, “thank Michael Joseph Savage.”
That my distaste for these bitter conservatives who so much out my back up during my brief adulthood in New Zealand, was not displaced was confirmed for me when I returned to New Zealand to live after 25 years. It happened that the leader of the National Party was elected Prime Minister just after I arrived with my family in 1975.
Every speech Robert Muldoon made was full of what sounded to me like dreadful ideas, every one of which I abhorred. I leave it to Wikipedia to explain the results:
“(Muldoon)’s  tenure as Prime Minister was plagued by an economic pattern of stagnation, high inflation, growing unemployment, and high external debts and borrowing. Economic policies of the Muldoon Government included national superannuation, wage and price freezes, industrial incentives, and the Think Big industrial projects. In foreign policy, Muldoon adopted an anti-Soviet stance and re-emphasised New Zealand's defence commitments to the United States and Australia under the ANZUS pact. His refusal to stop a Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand divided the country and led to unprecedented civil disorder in 1981.”
That is why I so disliked the negative conservatism that, during my boyhood, I always felt was waiting to pounce on the country and ruin it. I had the impression during the 18 months I was able to stay in New Zealand, that every time Muldoon opened his mouth to utter some banal idiocy, the greater was the applause showered on him by the reactionary electors who voted him into power.
Ah well, wot the hell, wot the hell?

Saturday, September 28, 2019

My Log 762 Sept 27 2019; Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 197: The great protest march: a moving spectacle; but the presence of Trudeau in it was an anomaly: how much so is explained in a new book by Martin Lukacs

It was extremely moving this afternoon to stand and watch this vast crowd,  the biggest I have ever seen in my long life, young people for the most part, but young and old joined in a single cause, file by in an eloquent, peaceful act of civil protest against the inaction that has marked the political response to the gathering emergency of the human-induced warming of the climate.
  The moving aspect of this experience was somehow heightened when one considered that it was all stimulated by this tiny slip of a girl, Greta Thunberg, who emerged as a 15-year-old from  her shaky status as a sufferer from a combination of Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism, to stand each day with a sign before the Swedish Riksdag or Parliament, carrying a sign  saying School Strike for Climate.
Organizers estimated today’s crowd in Montreal at 500,000 --- far outstripping the 60,000 people I remember gathering in Trafalgar Square, London,  in the 1960s in favour of another great cause, their Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Although that campaign had gathered huge public support, had even won to its side  the British Labour Party after an intense and astonishing debate, all that meant nothing to the politicians, who blissfully ignored the democratic decision, with the result that the major powers still are brandishing nuclear weapons at each other, and one could not help but wonder today if a similar fate may not befall this impressive display of public uneasiness about climate warming.
Ms. Thunberg, perhaps because her physical disabilities require that she speak only when she has something to say, is an extremely impressive speaker, riveting as she delivers her forceful message with her blunt, powerful delivery, a message that is simple in the extreme: listen to the science, she tells the politicians, act on the science.
She seems to be too serious a young woman to peddle in ironies, but if she were, she might have jibbed at  the presence in this great protest march against the inactivity of political leaders,  of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who she had, politely, in a brief interview before the march, told in her blunt fashion, that he was not doing enough. Trudeau, being a man whose brand is to be always on both sides at once, told her that he agreed with her.
  It happens that I have just read a new book on Trudeau, which, if it gets to be read by enough people, might well finish him off as our Prime Minister. It is called The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent, by Martin Lukacs, published by Black Rose Books of Montreal, 295 pps, $24.50.
Lukacs is a capable writer and researcher who approaches his subject from a frankly socialist perspective, from which viewpoint --- this is nothing new!--- all political parties fall far short of what one might hope.  For those of us --- I number myself among this coterie of malcontents --- who have always remained resistant to the siren song of the Liberal party of Canada, Lukacs’ recital of its strengths and weaknesses will come as well-trodden ground. He establishes Trudeau as the not altogether gifted son of a Liberal Prime Minister, good-looking, fairly eloquent on his feet, with an almost pathetic wish to please, infinitely pliable about what to believe in, but underneath the glossy-exterior that has been so skilfully sold to the world, he is a tough operator who does not react well to opposition, especially from within his own party, and whose links with the makers and shakers of the Canadian economy --- in other words, as we call them nowadays, the one percenters---are well established, and virtually unshakeable. The author must have had in mind to write this book for several years, for he recounts many occasions on which he has sneaked into events that were essentially closed to all but adherents to the status quo that the Liberal party has always been so skilful at protecting. Events like weapons fairs, or private party shindigs bringing together the top men from the Party with the leaders of the corporations from which the Liberals essentially get their orders on how to run Canada.
The picture thus presented of the Liberal Party is fascinating, paying, as it does, obeisance to their skill at maintaining themselves on top of the Canadian political heap through the shrewd manipulation of their intense contacts with the lords of Big Business.
But the picture of Trudeau himself is nothing like so pleasing: he seems to be a man skilled at saying one thing, and doing another. The most obvious examples of this are in his climate and environmental policies in which he brazenly pretends to be following contradictory policies that have so far proven to be irreconcilable, to such an extent that among some of North America’s leading environmentalists Trudeau is regarded as the King of Hypocrites. 
 His management of his subordinates, as illustrated by his ruthless --- but fruitless ---  hounding of his former Justice Minister to vary a scheduled prosecution for bribery against the Quebec engineering giant SNC Lavalin, reveals  a different face from that of the smiling optimist. Some other stories I had not heard before indicate that  this willingness to accommodate Big Business was shared by those who became closest to him when he became the top gun.  For example,  there is a very revealing tale about his friend and mentor, Gerry Butts, when, as head of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, he presided over a determined effort to reveal the unsuitability of the Alberta Tar Sands as a source of future oil supplies. One of his subordinates realized that everything pertaining to this campaign had suddenly been expunged from their WWF web site, without explanation, except that eventually he discovered that  the future  mover and shaker in the future Prime Minister’s office had succumbed to determined lobbying  by the oil interests to stop their accursed campaigning, so that they could get busy developing the Tar Sands.  No sooner said than done, old boy.
A good deal of space is given to the close relationship of the Liberal government with the Business Council of Canada, or whatever it is now called --- they keep changing its name, but its function remains the same  ---the lobbying arm for all the country’s top CEOs. For years this was headed by a man called Thomas d’Aquino; now it is headed by former Liberal minister John Manley. It is one of the most influential groups in the country, regularly consulted by government  about all matters of interest to business, and usually given the task of re-writing, whenever necessary, the rules for competition in Canada. Labour interests, who could be said to have at least an equal, if not perhaps a greater interest, in the rules of business, are never consulted. ( I remember an occasion when a film I made about the aluminum multinational, Alcan, was screened on TVO, the Ontario government's outlet, that in a panel discussion following the film D’Aquino, one of the guests, was almost frothing at the mouth in rage when I said we had not asked for the company’s permission to make the film: how disgusting to spend public money from the NFB budget, on such an enterprise!)
I remember years ago  on my blog I would drop in a paragraph occasionally to the effect that neither the minister of natural resources, Anne McLellan, nor John Manley was fit to be a minister, because they were, respectively in the pockets of the oil industry and the business interests, and were both tame ministers.  Both of these turn up in Lukacs book as prominent advisers to the current government.
Lukacs recounts  occasionally heart-rending stories, as for instance when our Foreign Minister, Christia Freeland -- another I classify as not fit to be a minister ---  had to fight back tears when the Prime Minister of Walloon in Belgium refused to endorse Canada’s trade treaty with the European Union. This was one of the many treaties the Liberals had signed, including the infamous NAFTA,  that extended to all multinational corporations the right to sue Canada if any legislation --- for example an environmental regulation --- might be considered likely to affect the bottom line profits of the company.  This rank betrayal of the national interest is the sort of management of the economy that for years has made Canadians with a slightly nationalist bent tear out their hair. But to ministers like Freeland, such betrayals  are regarded as triumphs of diplomacy.
The book is made up of many such horror-stories. It ends with Mr. Lukacs expressing his disappointment that the NDP, his favored party, should have proven such a pushover for the values of neoliberalism, that when they eventually get into power, or close to it, their policies are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Liberals.
It strikes me that this is likely to be a more or less permanent condition, since Canadians, although more progressive in their politics than our neighbours to the south, are still, at their centre, a relatively conservative people, unwilling, it seems, to embark on any course that might be described as too radical.
The Trudeau Formula, from this perspective, is an essential, but not a comforting, read.  It convinces me that I don’t like Trudeau, but leaves me confronted with the dilemma: his likely replacement as Prime Minister, should he lose the current election, seems to be fifty times worse.
Woe is me! Woe is us! And my mantra --- wot the hell, wot the hell? --- is no comfort.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

My Log 761 Sept 17 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 196; Tomorrow the ninth tournament for the Rugby World Cup will keep your interlocutor occupied for a month or more; while hoping for an All Blacks win, he remembers that it is, after all, just a game

Four or five months ago I was looking forward to the Rugby World Cup that opens in three days, but without much hope that I would make it. With now only three sleeps to be survived, I am beginning to think I may make it after all. And that has brought me to an understanding of the puzzling fact that most of the people who are reading this Chronicle have minimal interest in Rugby, and will not really welcome any attempt by me to explain it. One thing I will say in favour of this ignorance: it is not as profound as the North American ignorance of that other British-invented game, cricket, a game that I consider to be the greatest game on earth.
Whenever cricket rubs its way into the North American consciousness, I realize I am about to be assailed by one of those feeble attempts at humour essayed by the popular press about this game whose fundamentals appear  to be too complex for their understanding.
Never mind: the least I can do is try to give you poor souls some minimal understanding of what all the fuss is about. I know it is going to be tough for you, because your own favourite Canadian game is wrought with expressions about fighting, hitting, body checks, sticks over the heads, and lifetime concussions in spite of the extravagant body shields worn. I freely admit that this wonderful Canadian game is the fastest played by anyone, and is a game to be immensely enjoyed for its superb skills on those rare occasions on which they do not  start punching each other out with the intention of wounding and hurting, objectives that I have long ago taken to be the antithesis of sport and games. 
By contrast, Rugby Union, the game I am espousing in his piece, is composed of hard knocks, but never with the intention of hurting or wounding anyone. In fact, the prevailing ethos of the game is that when the final whistle has blown, the losing team will form a line of applauding players through which the winning team makes its way off the field. Thereafter, as is well-known, it is customary for the teams to gather in the pub, or even in one of the dressing rooms, to share a quick one. Or two. Or so. In an atmosphere of cameraderie.
When I started to read up about the history of these British-invented games, I was surprised by how ancient they are. Cricket began late in the 16th century, had become the national sport of England by the 18th century, played its first international match --- between the USA and Canada, no less! --- in 1844.  For generations the game was dominated by intense gambling, just as it is now in India and Pakistan, and the present system of professional county teams began to appear by 1709, with a regular scorecard employed since 1772, and the Lord’s Cricket Ground, which still lies at the heart of the game, was opened in 1787.
Although the Chinese have put in a claim to have originated the game now called soccer in many millennia ago, that is not really surprising, because as the British scientist Joseph Needham showed in his monumental 16-volume study of Chinese life, that long-lived civilization has a virtually unquestionable claim to having originated almost everything.
When I enquired of the Internet about origins, it came up with his concise description:
Records trace the history of soccer back more than 2,000 years to ancient China. Greece, Rome, and parts of Central America also claim to have started the sport; but it was England that transitioned soccer, or what the British and many other people around the world call “football,” into the game we know today.
Being so very cheap to play, requiring no more than a shirt and a pair of shorts, and a ball, or something resembling a ball, it was from the first the game of the people, who, in Britain over many centuries, had been great and persistent gamblers, who quickly took to gamble over the games of football (so called, apparently, not because it was played with the foot, as from the fact it was played  without the use of horses.)
The particular version of football that I grew up with is known as Rugby Union, and it came about because, so it is said (although rigorous researchers have taken pleasure in doubting the historical accuracy of this “fact”), during a game being played at Rugby school, in Warwickshire, when a boy called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it. The Cup awarded to the victor in the Rugby World Cup is named after Ellis.  I am indebted to the school’s Wikipedia entry:
The game of Rugby football owes its name to the school. The legend of William Webb Ellis and the origin of the game is commemorated by a plaque. The story has been known to be a myth since it was investigated by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1895. There were no standard rules for football in Webb Ellis's time at Rugby (1816–1825) and most varieties involved carrying the ball. The games played at Rugby were organised by the pupils and not the masters, the rules being a matter of custom and not written down. They were frequently changed and modified with each new intake of students. The sole source of the story is Matthew Bloxam, a former pupil but not a contemporary of Webb Ellis. In October 1876, four years after the death of Webb Ellis, in a letter to the school newspaper The Meteor he quotes an unknown friend relating the story to him. He elaborated on the story four years later in another letter to The Meteor, but shed no further light on its source. Richard Lindon, a boot and shoemaker who had premises across the street from the School's main entrance in Lawrence Sheriff Street, is credited with the invention of the "oval" rugby ball, the rubber inflatable bladder and the brass hand pump.
This occurred before professionalism in 1885 entered the older game known formally in the United Kingdom as Association football, and elsewhere as soccer, this being a shorthand version developed from the initials “assoc”, often used to delineate the game in its early years.
It is a matter of some interest, I suppose to Canadians as to why this articular colony should have been almost the only one in the British Empire that did not wholeheartedly adopt these two British sports, cricket and soccer.  Today, cricket  is said to draw the largest following world-wide, but there can be no denying that it is soccer that is the favoured game of the greatest number of people.
Rugby’s relatively genteel origin is still evident in the composition of the 20 nations competing for the World Cup about to get under way tomorrow, no fewer than 12 of the 20 owing their origins to British imperialism. It is said today that the game is played in some 62 nations, but that still today the British Isles have more players than the rest of the world combined.
Although with a mind like mine, one can watch a soccer match for 1000 hours without ever seeing anything much happening, I am willing to concede that the game, when played expertly, can be a thing of beauty, but I do not accept the designation as “the beautiful game,” given by its followers.   That rosy view of the sport has been dented by the hooliganism that has invaded the supporting group of citizens in most countries but so far as I can tell in Britain, and possibly Russia, above all others.  Such hooliganism has never appeared among followers of the Rugby persuasion, at least not to anything like the degree common among the Socceroos.
I admit that our Rugby World Cup, which began in 1987, is a straight steal from the  FIFA World Cup, which began with a victory by Uruguay, in 1930, and has since been won five times by Brazil, and otherwise shared between Germany, Italy, Spain, France and England, among European countries and Argentina among Latin Americans. (The acronym FIFA itself is proof of the widely spread origins of the game, because it stands for Fédération Internaionale de Football Association.)
The Rugby cup has been won three times by New Zealand, twice by Australia and South Africa and once by England. France have been the most unfortunate with three  runners-up performances.
One aspect of the game that might be confusing for North .American audiences is that to pass or throw the ball forward is not permitted; also, in a game of such avowed contact by its very nature, strict rules govern the type of tackle that can be essayed.  To tackle legally, the tackler much have his arms around the man being tackled; it is also forbidden to tackle around the head, and it is a violation to tackle a man who, while jumping to collect the ball from a high kick, is pulled  down while still in the air. The central rule is that one is allowed to tackle only the man with the ball: this is one of the major differences, in terms of physical contact, from the North American gridiron game, whose players apparently can be hit from any direction whether they have the ball or not. These are rules designed to ensure as far as possible that contact will not lead to injury, although it has to be admitted that with the game finally passing into professionalism in 1995, injuries seem to be more frequent and possibly more severe than when the game was amateur at all levels.
Still, the game has a huge public following, with crowds of 80,000 to 110,000 being attracted for major so-called Test matches in Australia, Britain and France.
The team I will be following, because I grew up as a child for some  years believing it my sincerest wish to become one of them, are known as the All Blacks, representing New Zealand. A team, mostly of Maoris,  toured Britain and Europe in 1888, one of the first international tours ever undertaken, and it became common to refer to them as All Blacks because of their all black uniform with a silver fern insignia. (An alternative explanation is that an admiring reporter once described their hard and fast running game by saying “they are all backs,” a reference to  the half of the team comprised of swift runners, smaller and lighter usually than the eight so-called forwards whose primary task is to obtain possession of the ball by way of a scrum, following an infraction, or from a lineout when the big men contest for the ball that is thrown in between their two lines.)
The place of the All Blacks as the iconic team of world Rugby was solidified by the team of 1905, which toured Britain and Europe, playing 35 games with only one loss, and scoring 976 points to only 59 against. A reporter of the time wrote: “These New Zealanders turn from defence to attack with such rapidity….there is nothing in the game at which they do not excel.”  They had never seen anything like it in Britain; and New Zealand at the time had a population of only 815,000. Ten years later, New Zealand provided nearly 17,000 of their young men and women to be led to the slaughter in the First World War, a war fought in Britain’s interests.
I am pleased to be able to report that even today it remains the objective of the All Blacks to produce a fast, exciting and beautiful version of the game whose fundamental purpose, after all, is to pass the ball, and run with it.
That they are, as so often before, entering this competition as the favourites to win,  is not something they take for granted: many have been the worries expressed among their followers that their game plan seems to have been disrupted by the recent improvement of the northern hemisphere sides, and the recent revival of South Africa, their long-time nemesis, who have emerged from a period of confusion following the downfall of apartheid, under which the springbok Rugby team was the favoured symbol of the racist rulers of the country. Now, following an imposed quota system designed to encourage black Africans to play the game, South Africa is emerging with a hefty proportion of swift-running, hard-tackling and ferociously-scrimmaging players of whom any team must beware.
Whatever happens, whoever wins, in the end it will still be possible for New Zealanders to say,
“Wot the hell, wot the hell, it’s only a game, chaps, only game.”