No, Brian: Elvis isn’t in the CBSP

SaundersonAt the Nov. 28 Council meeting (seen here on Rogers TV), Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson blathered on in cliché-rich, lawerly manner (starting 1:14:05) about how much the Elvis Festival means to his “Community-Based Strategic Plan” (1:16:18) – that committee-based wishlist which was neither strategic nor a plan.

What does he mean when he claims that a report has “galvanized the question quite nicely”? Galvanized? Does he know what that word means? It’s not what he appears to think it does… it means to “shock or excite (someone), typically into taking action.” A staff report is seldom shocking or exciting, and even if it were, a question doesn’t get galvanized, nor the report, but rather the reader does.

When he claims he wants the festival to be a “self-sustaining entity unto itself…” I simply cannot grasp what that tautology means. Can you? It sounds like something from the Department of Redundancy Department.

And no, Brian, it doesn’t “beg a larger question” – begging the question doesn’t mean to raise one. It means to make “…a conclusion based on a premise that lacks support.” To beg the question would be to assume, for example, that because Elvis drank water, the festival should be hosted on the waterfront. The word you want to use here is “raise.”

Is he “hardened by the fact” or heartened? Sure sounds like he says the former… maybe some folks at the table find staff reports of a more prurient nature than I ever did.

But where does this fit in with his vaunted yet curiously flaccid CBSP? In fact it fits nowhere.

Number of times Elvis is mentioned in the CBSP: NONE.

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The subtle art of Mark Manson

Life, sometimes...I have a healthy skepticism towards anything labelled a “self-help” book – especially those that aim at making your life happier or more fulfilled through some fad, superstition or pseudoscience. I am, as you know from this blog, cynical towards the unending volume of New Age woo hoo, fads and pseudoscience that pollutes bookstore shelves and the internet.

I’m more of the “life’s a bitch and then you die” outlook kind-of-person than someone in search of a happy-platitude guru. I don’t post pictures of kittens, puppies or angels on my Facebook timeline. I’ve never been into that cosmic happiness-bucket list self-esteem-boosting selfie thing. Even in the Sixties when Timothy Leary was leading the charge for better living through chemistry, I was skeptical about claims of instant gratification available through the all-of all-the-answers-to-be-found-within-my-(book/religion/teaching/drug/politics) outlets for mass gratification.

Or mass gullibility. But people want answers to the meaning of life, and in our culture they want them quickly. Sometimes it’s easier to just take what you’re fed than work them out the hard way. Take the red pill and I’ll give you all the answers you need to know. Religion has been handing the red pills out for our entire history. Self-help or self-improvement books have been close behind, with us ever since the dawn of writing.

“Self help” books are really oxymorons: they’re someone else telling you what to do. They’re author help, not self help, like the old paper Arthur Murray dance steps on the floor which you carefully step across without the music. Life lessons on how to live, love, shop, drive, code, wash your dog, plant your garden. Often these books are little more than sales pitches for more of the same; for subscriptions, or additional products. Snake oil wrapped in cotton candy.

But some run deeper. Some are lessons in philosophy and politics drawn from personal experience and deep thought. Some aren’t as much step-by-step lessons as invitations to think about the options and consequences. True, not many today, because thinking is too hard for the selfie generation and interrupts their obsessed gazing at their smartphones, but now and then a book pops up in the self-help section that makes me look twice. Such is the case of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (HarperCollins, 2016).

After all, isn’t that just what you feel like sometimes? Not giving a f*ck. I know I sure do. Especially after an hour on Facebook or watching Collingwood Council drag us into municipal despair.*

I had to buy a copy with a title like that. But what really sold me was the chapter titled “You Are Not Special.” Yep, I need to read that one.

I’m tired of the ‘I’m special, you’re special, we’re all exceptional’ folderol, the awards for losing instead of winning, the deflection of constructive criticism in case it dents a bubble of precious self esteem and the claptrap about indigo children. No, you’re not special. Neither am I. Indigo children are just spoiled kids with loopy parents. We’re all just one out of seven billion. There weren’t angels attending your birth, the gods don’t favour you and unicorns don’t follow when you commute to work. Get over it.

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Politically correct pronoun madness

gender neutral pronounsZe, zim, zer, zher, zis, mer, hus, shkle, hum, herm, hann, ey, hu, je, xe, per, thon, yo, ghaH, co, e. Know what these words are? They are artificial constructs: neologisms cobbled together for abstruse political correctness to replace traditional pronouns that expose or define a gender in the subject or object of a sentence: the traditional he, him, she, her and so on.

They’re sometimes called Spivak pronouns after an American mathematician who coined some of them, but there are many more than he coined. Gender-neutral pronouns (GNP) are today’s newspeak. Wiktionary has a long list of them. A long list.

Gender-specific pronouns are, apparently, verboten in some circles particularly our educational system – where these strange, ugly new GNP words are de rigeur. Gawds forbid anyone’s assumed gender should not be recognized because it could lead to confusion and bruised egos.

You don’t hear these words much outside academia because, I suppose, in the real world these words just seem pretentious and silly.

Not to Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has been taken to task for not kowtowing to the speech police. His story has become an international one, spun along the polarized lines of debate that social media encourages. As the Sun noted:

Peterson has gone on to say that he will not address his students by the pronoun of their choice, sparking a backlash from social activists and the transgendered community.
His comments have sparked a rebuke from his employer, petitions in favour and against, two tense rallies, feverish online debate and media interest in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The university has said that while Peterson is free to express his views, students have complained they don’t feel safe, and faculty is expected to foster a learning environment free from discrimination and harassment.

A privileged few who can afford to attend university in Canada don’t feel safe in a classroom environment because a professor refuses to call them by a word not found in any English dictionary? Scary places, our universities. Forget guns, drugs, rape, or violence: here the knife-sharp edge of a misused pronoun can cut a student to the quick.

How far should this go? What if a student might feel offended and discriminated against if the professor refuses to call him/her/zhim/zong/(pick your word) a heffalump? And another wants to be called Lucky Ducky? What if one demands to be addressed using Klingon?* One wants ze, another pe, another xem – should the professor use them all, rhyming them off in a lengthy list in order to be fully inclusive and make sure no one is excluded? Can’t have anyone’s fragile self esteem tattered.

Every student should have to fill in a form at the start of every year to list the various words by which they must be addressed, and all the acceptable singular and plural pronouns by which they will permit others to be addressed or referred to. Good luck keeping them all straight (in the linear sense of the word). New York City, apparently, recognizes 31 genders. (list here). ** In The Sun, Antonella Artuso asks, “Are we supposed to have a pronoun for each of those genders? So, how the hell are we going to keep track of that? How is that going to work?”

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Does anyone still read books?

Reading statisticsI came across an early version of this infographic on Facebook and it shook me to my core. You can see it here. The updated and corrected infographic is shown to the right. It is only marginally less distressing than the earlier one.

Unfortunately, the early one, although inaccurate and misleading, is still being shared. That early graphic is based on some disputed statistics and unfounded claims, but it’s worth examining to understand my reaction.

Reading is so central to my life that the notion that anyone would stop reading books simply gobsmacks me. I can barely go eight hours without reading one or more books, let alone years or even decades. That would be like a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Worse, think about the dangers an un-reading public presents to any democracy. How will people understand issues, how will they pick their leaders, how will they make their life choices if they don’t read. Television cannot educate them, especially not with our politicized media and its reduction of content to a few seconds of video and soundbites, set free from the mooring of context. And the internet has fragmented it even more. As Ray Bradbury said in 1993:

The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. Ray Bradbury, 1993, interviewed by Misha Berson.

I have books stacked beside the bed, in our washrooms; I carry books with me in the car, in my shoulder bag, luggage, to conferences and conventions, large ones for the table, fat ones for the bed, small ones that can fit in my coat pocket…*

What a sad life non-readers live. I cannot imagine the intellectual poverty of someone who doesn’t read regularly and passionately. **

There are plenty of sites with statistics about reading online, few of which offer any uplifting news. But there are also far too many sites with dubious or unattributed figures. For example, on Statistics Brain I read that:

  • Total percent of U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school: 33%
  • Total percentage of college students who will never read another book after they graduate: 42%

Scary, yes, but not true. What is the source of this data? Without a reference to the research, without the methodology, sample size, or source, this is meaningless. It becomes just more internet codswallop, tossed into the same intellectual wastebin as chemtrails and homeopathy. But this is the stuff people seem to share.
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Tough Times for Print Media

NewspapersIt’s not like the halcyon days when I first started writing for newspapers, back in late 1969. Today, print media is struggling to survive in a world dominated by digital media and mega-corps owners (although not so hard it can’t pay its CEOs and executives several million dollars while they slash real jobs).*

Print media has long been losing its advertising share, a trend exacerbated by the internet. Newspapers now have about 11% share, compared to about 35% for the internet, according to a Globe and Mail story. A Pew Research study in 2015 showed newspaper advertising in the USA dropped 4% in 2014.

But for Postmedia the picture has been consistently bleaker: a drop of 17.6% in advertising in three months of 2015 alone – and advertising represents 57% of the company’s income. Plus it lost $3.2 million in circulation revenue (excluding the Sun papers). Even its digital revenue (excluding the Sun) dropped by $5.9 million in that quarter.

This year has been a particularly tough one for Canadian media: in January Postmedia announced 90 job cuts and the merger of several, previously competitive newsrooms. But no cuts were made to CEO Paul Godfrey’s $1.4 million salary plus bonus package, of course. No share-the-pain momentum in the upper echelons. As the CBC reported:

Postmedia’s finances have been sagging for several quarters under a large debt load, much of which was accrued when the company bought the entire Sun chain of newspapers from Quebecor in late 2014 for $316 million.
That move consolidated most of the English-language newspapers in Canada under the Postmedia banner, with the notable exception of the Toronto Star and the Globe And Mail.

And the pain wasn’t over yet. As the CBC story continued:

A big problem for the chain, Waddell noted, is that Postmedia paid for the Sun Media purchase with debt loaned by U.S. backers. Those debts must now be repaid at a time when the Canadian dollar is worth much less, which means it costs more money to repay at a time when the chain has less cash overall.
“This is an organization that is losing money and losing a lot of money,” Waddell said.

Even though I despise Postmedia’s misplaced affection for the uber-right and its kowtowing to its American hedge fund owners, it’s a sorry day for Canadian media when any paper closes, when any journalist gets laid off. And that’s been happening a lot of late.

In January, with as much fanfare as one can have at a funeral, the Guelph Mercury – a Metroland paper – closed its doors after 150 years. Or rather, had its doors closed by its parent company.

That same month, TorStar closed its printing plant in Vaughan where it had printed the paper for the past 25 years, cutting almost 300 jobs.

In June, Postmedia closed the printing presses at the London Free Press and outsourced the work to its competitor, Metroland, cutting 139 jobs in the process.

In August, TorStar announced it was cutting 50 jobs, mostly “…from its newsroom and tablet edition, amid increasing pressure from declining print advertising revenue” according to a CBC story. That was followed by an additional 26 employees. TorStar’s operating revenue has been falling for several years in a row, its annual report shows and its subsidiary, Metroland saw losses as well (revenues down $37.1 million, see p. 5 and 19, with an operating loss of more than $250 million in 2015, p. 20).

A popular Postmedia Vancouver paper, 24 Hours, laid off all its staff of eight, including its three reporters, in September. The paper was repurposed to merely regurgitate content from other Postmedia papers.

Also in September, the Globe & Mail asked that 40 of its 650 employees take voluntary severance packages, the third time in as many years that the newspaper has tried to slash its payroll. Sixty employees took the first offer in 2013, one site reported.

In September, Rogers Media stopped printing four of its magazines and moving them to digital-only platforms. The company also reduced the number of editions of others, noting that print advertising revenue had dropped 30 per cent in the past year. Number of jobs last was not reported.

And then earlier this month, PostMedia announced it was cutting its salaries by 20%, and layoffs loomed if enough employees didn’t voluntarily resign. Postmedia had 4,733 employees at the end of August, 2015, according to CTV News, but was down to around 4,000 about a year later.

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Back to black

Grey scalesI had noticed of late that several websites are more difficult to read, that they opted to use a lighter grey text instead of a more robust black. But it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t my aging eyes: this was a trend. That is, until I read an article on Backchannel called “How the Web Became Unreadable.”

It’s a good read for anyone interested in typography, design and layout – and not just the Web, but print as well. It makes several good points about contrast including providing some important technical details about how contrast is measured.

I’ve written in the past about how contrast is important in design (here, and here for example). But apparently there’s a design trend of late away from contrast towards murkiness. In his article, author Kevin Marks notes:

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Others have noticed this too, even before Marks. In 2015, Katie Sherman wrote on Neilsen Norman Group’s site:

A low-contrast design aesthetic is haunting the web, taking legibility and discoverability with it. It’s straining our eyes, making us all feel older, and a little less capable. Lured by the trend of minimalism, sites are abandoning their high-contrast traditions and switching to the Dark Side (or should I say, the Medium-Gray Side). For sites willing to sacrifice readability for design prowess, low-contrast text has become a predictable choice, with predictable, persistent usability flaws.

This trend surprises and distresses me because it seems a singularly user-hostile trend; anti-ergonomic against the whole point of the internet. Apparently it’s part of a minimalist design trend. Now I don’t mind clean, uncluttered web pages, but I balk at making them unreadable. Pale grey reduces accessibility and legibility.

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Horace and him. And maybe me, too.

Horace and MeHorace and Me, subtitled Life lessons from an Ancient Poet, is a recent book by Harry Eyres (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013) about his efforts to connect the dots of his modern life to meaning via the ancient circuitry of a classical Latin poet. It attracted me because these past few years I have been reading such classics – albeit without the classical education or Latin learning of Eyres and other writers who have recently returned to the Latin and Greek authors. Any help I can get along the way is welcome.

Horace – more properly Quintus Horatius Flaccus – was a Roman poet (among other things) who lived 65-8 BCE – during Rome’s turbulent transition from republic to imperium when Julius Caesar rose to power, was assassinated, and the civil war that saw Octavius emerge victorious and become the emperor Augustus. Horace wrote several books including the more famous Odes and Epodes, and two books of satires. His reputation has fluctuated through the millennia, from adoration to dismissal (Byron wrote “…farewell, Horace, whom I hated so….”)

He seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival of appreciation these days.

Horace as a guide to modern life? Why not? We can find meaning in anything if we look hard enough. Robert Pirsig offered something similar, more than 40 years ago, when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The notion that within the microcosm lie all the answers to the questions of the macrocosm. A tea ceremony. A chalice and wafer. Our lives are filled with such symbolism.

My own journey involves weaving my yet rather thin strand of appreciation of classical philosophy – in particular the Stoics to whom I seem to gravitate more – into my tattered cloth of understanding life and What Really Matters. Most of my reading has not been terribly focused all of the time. In time, I trust, that meagre thread will be stronger, tougher.

Before Eyres, I had only modest, glancing association with Horace and other Latin poets. Looking through my bookshelves, I found only one collection of his works, a 1960 translation by Clancy I have only ever browsed in a desultory fashion. A few individual poems of his are found in anthologies I occasionally still read. But I’d not given him serious consideration (I have remedied my collection somewhat by ordering some additional books of his poetry, but they are not yet arrived).

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Leonard Cohen deserves the Nobel Prize, too

Bob DylanNews that songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature shook the literati worldwide. Here was a pop icon sitting in the august company of Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, V.S. Naipaul, Gabriel García Márquez, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yasunari Kawabata, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling and many others. Novelists, essayists and poets. No songwriters, and especially no commercially successful, popular songwriters until the 75-year-old Dylan.

And, we hope, that surely opens the door for similarly talented and poetic songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen; writers of great power, subtlety, depth and passion (both Canadians, I should note). But not everyone agrees: the appointment has brought out the finest snobbery among the literati.

Social and traditional media erupted. Is he really a poet, some asked. Incredulously wondering, did Dylan meet the criteria? Does pop culture deserve such accolades?

The New York Times approved, and said his appointment redefines the “boundaries of literature.” I’m with them. Leave the old and fusty nattering nabobs of negativity to their grumbles and celebrate the choice.

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The bucket list, kicked

Kick the bucketNowadays the “bucket list” concept has become a wildly popular cultural meme, thanks to the movie of the same name. Subsequent marketing of the idea to millennials has proven a successful means to derive them of their income, with which they seem eager to part.

I don’t like the concept. The list, I mean, not necessarily the plucking of the millennial chickens who willingly hand over their financial feathers. They get what they deserve.

Bucketlist.org has, at the time of this writing, more than 5.317 million “dreams” for you to pursue. Contributed by more than 450,000 people. And your individual dream? Part of the Borg’s list. Pretty hard to think of something original that the previous 450,000 folks didn’t already add to the list.

Just search “bucket list” on Google and you’ll turn up close to 52 million hits, and a huge number of them are selling something, from New Age codswallop to travel to high-tech gadgets and everything in-between. Nowadays, “your” bucket list is everyone’s bucket list and has become part of a slick campaign aimed at your wallet. At every corner there’s some entrepreneur eager to play Virgil to your hollow life’s Dante, for a price.

A bucket list is, we learned from the film, the wish list of things you want to accomplish before you kick the metaphorical bucket  – i.e. die – as a means to give your previously pathetic life some substance. That notion quickly morphed into a commercial selling point, and it seems I encounter it every day in some new form, usually on social media. It’s up there with posts about puppies, angels, magic crystals, and nasty troll posts about liberals.

The movie is about two seniors undergoing an end-of-life crisis trying to figure out the Meaning of It All. They resolve to avoid dwelling on their inevitable end by taking very expensive trips around the world (Jack Nicholson plays a billionaire…). It’s a cute, moving film. It’s fiction, but also a great marketing idea. We are all susceptible to Hollywood, after all. And, of course, we all have billionaire friends who will buy the tickets, right?

Okay, I get it: we all want life to make sense, and to have meaning that makes the 9-5 grind worthwhile. But even if our lives are meaningless, we don’t want to die, either. We want to be able to say something we did made the journey worth the effort. But is this the way? Is life simply a series of boxes we check off? A list that keeps growing with more and more items to check? Your self esteem will suffer if you don’t check this off. And this. And this. And this…

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Hypergraphia

HypergraphiaAn article in the September, 2016, issue of Doctor’s Review looks at the curious, compelling affliction called hypergraphia: the obsessive need to write. I never knew before this that there was an actual illness of this sort. As someone who is often driven by a deep compulsion to write, I am both curious and a little afraid to learn more. And of course, I turned to the internet.

Curious because I always want to learn, especially when it’s something that might touch me in some way. Afraid because I’ve always thought of my writing as a mere personality trait, a passion I’ve had as long as I can remember, and to discover it may be an actual illness is worrisome. But if I have it, mine is at least a mild form, in comparison with true sufferers.

Hypergraphia is incurable, too. Well, that might not be a big deal for some, since writing itself satisfies the afflicted. And in general writing doesn’t afflict life in a negative way that other ailments do. Hypergraphia is often associated with some of the latter: bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia.

I enjoy writing immensely and the act is pleasant, not painful. Not writing isn’t painful either, but I often awaken at night thinking of what to write and how to say it best. Not writing feels like mental constipation; a sense that something has to be released. I don’t often suffer from actual ‘writer’s block’ except when struggling to produce fiction.

Yet if I actually had hypergraphia, I would be in the august company of Vincent van Gogh*, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Burns, Danielle Steel, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Lewis Carroll. Their illustrious presence, however does not confer talent, much to my chagrin.

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Wrinkles: a review

WrinklesAbandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s the phrase that highlights the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno. It could just as easily by carved above the entrances to many nursing and retirement homes. I recalled that phrase as we watched the 2011 animated film, Wrinkles, last night.

Susan thought it the most depressing film she’d ever seen. I rather liked it: it was honest and artistically interesting. But not uplifting, I’ll agree. There is a sense of redemption at the end, but it is not the happily-ever-after sort of ending that most film redemption brings. It’s more of the shake-hands-with-reality sort of acceptance that things don’t change.

From Wikipedia:

The story is set in a retirement home and revolves around the friendship between two elderly men, one of them in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

There aren’t many happy endings in any film about dementia or Alzheimer’s. The 2006 Canadian movie, Away From Her, captured it beautifully and poignantly. The 1981 film On Golden Pond did too, from another angle. But no matter how artistically rendered, it’s an uncomfortable, sad story in any situation.

Then there’s the whole matter of people putting their aging parents into nursing homes. Even when done for the best of reasons – care, safety, oversight, concern, love and the inability of modern, working adults to cope effectively with the demands of an ill or aging parent- it still feels to many of the elderly that they have been abandoned. Shuffled off to wait out their inevitable death away from all the people they knew, the places they knew and the daily routines of their lives to a place devoid of romance, of passion, of familiarity.

Is this what we live our lives for? That question haunts the film.

You can’t feel the same depth of emotion with an animated film, so perhaps it’s the better vehicle for exploring the theme. It doesn’t wrench the tears from viewers the same way human actors can. Still, it has its moments.

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The News: A User’s Manual

The NewsAlain de Botton attempts in his small book to give us a guide, to provide some larger, meaningful context, to the news we get 24/7 these days. I don’t think he succeeds very well. In part it’s because he sees news as something grandiose, world-moving, world-shaking. I’m more familiar with the local aspect; a much smaller scale. It may not appear to have the majestic sweep of international news, but it isn’t any less relevant.

We are focused, collectively, on the US presidential campaigns and the interpersonal battles between Trump and Clinton. It’s a great drama of Homeric or Shakespearean proportion (albeit comical). But are they really any more important to us than, say, the confrontation between members of our own council – Deputy Mayor Saunderson, Councillors Doherty and Jeffrey in particular – and the local hospital board?

A local issue may seem small in comparison, but it certainly has more impact on our daily lives here. And the personalities and their comments are no less colourful.

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Wolf Hall reviewed

Thomas CromwellI have just finished watching the six-part BBC series, Wolf Hall, based on the two novels by Hilary Mantel. I am also about halfway through my reading of the first of the two, Wolf Hall (with Bring up the Bodies waiting in the bedside pile).

The series conflates the two novels into six one-hour episodes. Given the length of the novels (Wolf Hall is 650 pages itself), compacting them and retaining clarity, plot and drama is quite a feat.

Normally, I would argue for the written word over the adaptation. Any adaptation. As good as they may be, it is rare that a film or TV production can match the richness of any book. But in this instance, I find myself siding with the BBC’s version when recommending a choice to others. It is beautiful, well-crafted production, and visually stunning. But in truth, the two are synergistic.

(digression: the exacting approach of the BBC to history, to production, to costume and sets puts to shame the risible, American TV series, The Tudors).

For me, the period of the Tudors is the most intriguing, exciting, entertaining period of English history. In part it’s because the Renaissance bursts upon European consciousness and radically changes everything – politics, art, philosophy, literature, music, technology et al. And on its heels comes the Protestant Reformation, which rocks the very foundation of everything it touches. Everything was in flux.

It’s also in part because the Tudors themselves are larger-than-life characters in a giant, swirling drama that reaches into the nations and courts across Europe.

Unlike earlier periods, the Tudor era is remarkably well documented – the first period to benefit from the new printing technology that swept the continent. We know much more about the daily lives of the time than we do about previous eras. So it helps make the characters live in our imagination. Plus it is the era of Shakespeare, albeit a generation later than this series portrays.

And then there’s the story itself. Or rather, the many stories – plots and subplots, twists and turns – that arise. Henry VII’s rise from Bosworth to end the War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s unexpected ascension to the throne, and his marital adventures. Elizabeth I and her reign against all odds. Mary. Edward. Five monarchs in all. It’s just such rich stuff, compressed into a mere 120 years. You can’t fail to be drawn in.

Who among us doesn’t know at least the outline of the story of Henry VIII’s wives? Or the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Elizabeth? Mary Queen of Scots? The beheading of Anne?

Little wonder I continue to read and watch stories about them. They are endlessly entertaining.

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These Old Bones

Skeleton DanceThese old bones;
You wouldn’t think they’d cut a rug
jitterbug
dance between the rain drops but
once I could.
Once I did.
Danced to the music,
lover in hand,
that time in the park when we didn’t care
laughing in the face of the storm.
The rain, the wind, splashing in the grass.
The music was all in our heads, our breath, our hearts
beat with the tunes we sang inside.

I remember every line, every lyric.

These old bones
knew music.
These old bones knew
the hotcha rhythm of the dance.

You wouldn’t think them spry enough,
not today.
But once they raced the wind.
Lightning bugs in my pants.
Legs pumped like pistons, flailing bicycle pedals,
racing friends along the sidewalks
careening, chasing our imagination.
Look, no hands, circles round you, I’m a race car, I’m an airplane, jet propelled, look at me.
Fearless, made of rubber.
Down the tracks, by the creek, skidding into gravel driveways.
Friends laughing, falling, rising to challenge again,
scraped knees, elbows, didn’t care.

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Everything Flows

Everything FlowsTonight’s book-with-wine discussion is about Vasily Grossman‘s novel, Everything Flows (New York Review Book, USA, 2009). It was his final work, and left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1964.

It’s not a difficult read, only 250 pages, but it isn’t easy. Readers unfamiliar with Soviet history, particularly the Stalin era, will not understand much of it. And it’s hardly a cheerful work. Not that everything Russian is a slit-your-wrist work, but it’s certainly Dostoevsky-like in its darkness.

Grossman was a Soviet war correspondent during WWII and travelled with the Red Army through Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk then into Eastern Europe, and finally Germany, where he covered the Battle for Berlin. He was the top war correspondent of the USSR and his articles were collected and translated in a 2006 book, A Writer at War. His pieces offer a very personal look at a side of the war we usually know more from military and official sources.

His mother was murdered by the Nazis in 1941, as they blitzed across the Ukraine. As a Jew, Grossman suffered Soviet racism and prejudices, increasing in the late 1940s as Stalin grew more paranoid and anti-Semitic. His artistic views were also molded by his war experiences and his ability to see the people in the carnage. He was among the first to see Treblinka and was one of the earliest to chronicle the Holocaust.

He was a good reporter and became a good novelist. He wrote honestly about what few of his contemporaries have dared write: life in Soviet Russia; the life of individuals slogging through an unrelenting system they didn’t fully understand, about their core of human will to survive. Honest, moving stuff. And for that he would become persona non grata, one among many artists whose work displeased the State.

After the war, he wrote two novels, both about the war: For a Just Cause (1952) and Life and Fate. The former was a fairly standard work for its day and was published. The latter has been compared to a modern War and Peace – it is huge, sweeping and complex. But because it was also critical of the Soviet government, and exposed some of the army’s atrocities as it advanced into enemy territory, it was too explosive for the then-Soviet censors (and the party’s chief ideologue, Mikhail Suslov). The government had it banned. Life and Fate would not be published until 1980, after his death.

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