Category Archives: History & Biography

Mao: The Unknown Dictator

Mao, the Unknown StoryAlthough I have read many biographies of the European dictators, and many histories of Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, I hadn’t read much about modern China until recently. Mao: The Unknown Story (by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) was the first full-length biography I’ve read about Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and it is a remarkable work about a time and place in history that remains veiled to most of us even today.

Mao’s rise to power and his leadership that won the Communist Party its iron-fisted rule in China has often been portrayed as one of courage, sacrifice, determination and brilliance. Western journalists like Edgar Snow helped make Mao a sympathetic, even heroic character in Western eyes. But it was a sham. Snow was fooled into creating an image by being fed carefully doctored material. Mao’s image in the west was whitewashed in an effective propaganda campaign (one is reminded of the story of the Potemkin villages…).

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao’s life and political career has more in common with that of Josef Stalin than any other political leaders. He was, they write, a monster, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million Chinese,more than any other international leader (I have read claims for higher figures about Stalin, however), mostly during the catastrophic “Great Leap Forward.”

I have to admit I struggled a bit trying to keep track of a host of characters with whom I had no familiarity, especially those who appear at the start of Mao’s career and don’t last its length. Of the roster of Mao’s friends and foes who appear later, I only really knew from my previous reading about Chou En Lai,  Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao; and not really all that much about them.

I knew a little more about Jiang Qing, of course, because Madame Mao got Western media coverage when the Gang of Four fell from grace after Mao’s death. Most of my previous reading on China has been about its classical philosophers and poets. I knew more about Li Po, Tu Fu and Lao Tzi than about Mao and his minions. But I am trying to educate myself in China’s modern history.

Reading about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in this book, I thought about several Western novels: Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all of which have some resonance. I also thought about Jan Wong’s excellent biography, Red China Blues, in which she found her youthful idealism for Mao’s China dissolved in the hypocrisy she discovered when she went to live there.

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Thirty Seven Days

37 DaysBack in the mid-1970s, the BBC launched a dramatic, 13-part series called Fall of Eagles, about the last decades of the 19th century and the lead-up to World War One. It also chronicled the end of the royal dynasties in the aftermath of the war. It was a brilliant series, sweeping in its broad brush across the royalty and politics of Russia, Austria, Germany, and England. France got a mere cameo role because France was not ruled by any of the dynasties which form the central cast in the series.

Viewers got from the series an image of the complex network of connections and ties – often familial, as the royal houses were linked by blood and marriage – between these nations, of the rapidly changing political landscapes in each, and the inexorable end of an era, a time in which nations would erupt to alter radically and forever. The Titanic is the perfect metaphor for this time, as the royal houses, blind to the ferment of change happening under their feet, approached the iceberg, unwilling or unable to change course.

It remains one of my favourite historical dramas, albeit somewhat dated by today’s production standards. Patrick Stewart, by the way, was terrific as Lenin.

Last year, the BBC released 37 Days, a three-part mini-series about the final 37 days before WWI (June 28 to August 4). It is mostly about English and German politics, with a tip of the hat to France and a very minor role for Russia and Austria. It was part of the BBC’s several pieces produced last year to highlight the 100th anniversary of the war’s start.

Part one is the first month of that period, starting with the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Part two is about the week before war broke out, and part three is the final weekend. Despite the shortening time for each part, there is no real sense of urgency or tension as war approaches, especially among the English politicians. There’s more tension between members of the cabinet, some of whom resigned because of military agreements to support war. But we never get to see other political perspectives such as the growing socialist movement that opposed war in all of the European countries.

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The Grey Wolf Escapes

Grey WolfForget your chemtrails, your big pharma, your New World Order; forget UFO abductions, Bigfoot and GMOs. This is the granddaddy conspiracy theory of them all. This one makes all the rest look like grade school gossip. It makes the petty conspiracies of local bloggers look like the diaphanous piffle they really are.*

What is it? That Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun escaped from Berlin in 1945 and survived until the 1960s in exile in South America. And his dog, Blondi, got out with them, too. And, in their marital bliss Adolf and Eva had two children after the war, living in their idyllic home in the Andean foothills.

No suicide, no bodies burned outside the bunker. Alive in Patagonia for 17 years after the war ended… the wet dream of neo-Nazis, racists, ISIS militants and soccer hooligans everywhere.

Of course, it’s not new: this tale has been around in one form or another since 1945, causing despair and hope (depending on your political leanings) for the past 70 years. It resurfaced recently in the book Grey Wolf, by Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams (Sterling, New York, 2011). The great conspiracy of our times, it is, and they tell it well.

As we quickly approach the 70th anniversary of Der Fuhrer’s death (or alleged death if you believe in this stuff), I’m sure it will raise its ugly head again in May of this year.

I remember reading books about the escape of Nazi leaders to South America – not necessarily Hitler – back in the 70s. The butchers Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele both escaped to South America (the former was caught in Argentina, the latter escaped capture and died in Brazil in 1976). Other Nazis could have escaped and lived out the remainder of their lives there, too – an estimated 30,000 escaped Germany after the war, many ending up in South America.

But Hitler? Braun? Bormann, too? That’s a stretch. it would be difficult if not impossible for that to be kept so secret for so long.

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Rest In Peace, Mary Chadwick

Mary Chadwick and Hannah, 94th Birthday partyMary Mabel Bernice Chadwick passed away quietly in the morning of April 13, 2015 in her room in the Tony Stacey Veterans’ Care Centre. She had awakened that morning, and spoke briefly to staff, but nodded off shortly after. She never awoke.

She was 95 years old and lived a full, rich life, one of remarkable resilience and strength.

Mary was born shortly after WWI, and grew up in Canada during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and the years of recovery that followed. But then war came back.

Mary Chadwick, veteran, 89She was a young woman when WWII broke out. She soon followed the family tradition of service. In 1942, she volunteered, and served the rest of the war as a Wren (WRNS – Women’s Royal Navy Service, nicknamed Wrens) in Halifax; a nurse in the naval hospital. Her wartime experiences would build her character and help her survive her own life’s tragedies.

Mary was always proud of her veteran status. Her father was a naval veteran of WWI, and her two brothers, Billie and Doug, had joined the Canadian navy early in the war. Twenty-two-year-old Billie died at sea in 1943 when his ship, the destroyer St. Croix, was torpedoed while escorting a convoy in the North Atlantic.

Mary had a framed picture of them both, young men in their Navy uniforms, on her wall in her room, each adorned with a red poppy. She never forgot, and she attended Remembrance Day ceremonies every year.

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Pompeii: Swords-and-Sandals Flop

PompeiiAs a film setting, the town of Pompeii in the first century CE is a lot like the deck of the Titanic in 1912: no amount of special effects or clever script writing is going to save it from the disaster awaiting. As a film, Pompeii has a lot of the former, but precious little of the latter to rescue it. That’s probably why it’s in the $7 section at the DVD store.

Let’s start with the history. Pompeii was a Roman town on the west side of Italy close to the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The recipe for disaster starts with the question: why would anyone build on the slopes of an active volcano? You might ask that of the many towns and villages that currently encircle its slopes, including the city of Naples, a mere 9 km away.

Vesuvius has been active for most of recorded history. The biggest eruption took place about 1800 BCE and the last one in 1944, with many, many in-between. None of the post-Pompeii eruptions have been as violent as the one on August 20, 79 CE, however. None, however, were as great as the eruption of Thera in 1570 CE, which destroyed the Minoan civilization and radically changed the face of civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I digress.

The great drama happened in 79 CE when Vesuvius exploded spectacularly, and in doing so wiped out the town of Pompeii, killing an estimated 16,000 people. Good setting then for a disaster film, right? But it wasn’t quite like in the movie – well, nothing ever is.

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The Bully Pulpit

Theodore Roosevelt“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.

Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.

Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*

Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.

National Post reviewI came across the term recently in the title of Doris Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt , William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which I picked up last week, mostly for its references to the historical development of journalism.** But the politics also interest me and, since I am not as well-versed in American history and politics of that era as I am in other periods, I wanted to educate myself.

Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.

Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.

In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:

Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.

In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:

…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.

Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt

…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.

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Family, a Century Ago

Syndey and William Pudney
The gentleman in the uniform on the right is William Gordon Pudney, Chief Petty Officer and engineer on the cruiser, Niobe, one of the earliest ship’s in Canada’s fledgling navy. William (Bill) was born in Canada, in 1893. He is perhaps in his early 20s in this undated photograph, taken a century or more ago, maybe even younger.

William, my grandfather, served on the Niobe shortly after it was acquired from England, and later served on it in WWI, when it patrolled the Atlantic. He may have also served on another ship when the Niobe was put out to pasture as a depot ship in 1915, or continued to serve as engineer on her (I’m still looking for information about that time).

I don’t know when he joined the navy, but it must have been at the early age of 16 or 17, because he told me he was in the Canadian contingent sent to London, in 1911, for the coronation of George V. He had a tin of medals, I recall, one of which was for attending the coronation, as well as photographs of the event.

He had just been released from naval service in late 1917, when the Niobe, sitting in harbour,  was damaged in the Halifax explosion.

William had just returned to civilian work, for Canadian Pacific Railway, the day before. He was in the engine of a train in the Halifax yard when the explosion blew the town apart. It was so fierce, it blew the engine he was in over onto its side. In the tumble, William severely damaged his knees, which would bother him through his life until his death at age 94. He continued to work for CP, however, until his retirement.

William married Jean Dunlop around that time. Jean traced her line back through the Dunlops and MacDonalds – Clan Donald – who left Scotland for Nova Scotia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Several members of the MacDonald clan – Jean’s ancestors, whose tale was passed along over the generations through the family – arrived in Canada (Cape Breton) on the Hector, in 1773, fleeing the harsh times and repression of the Highland Clearances that followed the Battle of Culloden (1746). The MacDonalds had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie, in the Jacobite Rebellion, but it was the losing side at Culloden and the Scots were to pay for it for the next two generations.

A William Dunlop shows up in Pictou on the 1817 census, although I’m not sure he was my ancestor. Other Dunlops arrived over the next 30-40 years. One day, I must travel to Cape Breton to examine the historical records and sort this out.

On William’s right is his dapper-looking father, Sydney Hale Pudney, born in Sittingbourne, Kent, England, in 1866. He emigrated to Canada with his family in 1890, a few years before William was born. He had married Mabel Pentecost, of Maidstone, Kent. Sydney and Mabel had four children.

My grandparents, William and Jean, had three children, of whom my mother, born in 1919 and a veteran of WWII as had been her brothers, is the last remaining one. I borrowed this photograph from her this past weekend, to scan and share.

I can only vaguely remember meeting my great grandfather, and only once. I was four years old, and he lived in a two-story wooden house in Toronto – the same house where my father met my mother (he was a lodger when it was a boarding house). My great grandfather was upstairs in his room, in bed – his deathbed, I later learned – when we visited. I can still remember climbing the stairs to the room with the shades drawn and the old man in the bed. I didn’t know who he was, then.

Looking at the photograph, his smile and his bearing make me wish I had known him, wish I had known to ask about him of my late grandfather.


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Conrad Black: Off the Rails

Conrad BlackI generally read Conrad Black‘s columns for their entertainment value, but I also read them for the language. Black is the best tosser of pithy epithets since Spiro Agnew*. And like the former US VP, he’s a pompous git who puffs up his intellectual feathers like a pigeon in heat – that puffery of sound and fury that signifies nothing more than an ego he has to bring along in its own carriage. He is very amusing that way.

Now to be clear, I have little respect for Black’s uber-right ideologies. We are at polar opposites of the political spectrum: as a self-appointed spokesperson for the entitled one percent he annoys my modest socialist and humanist values.

And because  I also value loyalty to my native Canada, I detest that he gave up his Canadian citizenship in such a cavalier fashion. (I suggest strongly that he be tossed out of the country for that and because he’s also a criminal: he was convicted of fraud in the USA and served jail time for it. Criminality is another similarity he shares with Spiro Agnew, although the circumstances differ.)

But being a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t write. Damn, but he often turns a mean phrase and, even if I disagree with his haughty self-absorbed and pretentious politics, I like to read him because he wordsmiths brilliantly. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, he’s just that pompous, self-righteous git we all loathe.

This past week, Black outdid himself in his NatPost column and took that pomposity and git-ness to a new level.

The piece was titled “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist,” and in it Black railed like a frothing Irenaeus against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps Black – who professes to having having his his prison sentence made endurable through his faith – is planning his new book; a 21st century version of Against the Heresies.

Black writes…

Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity  (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.

I love that phrase, “diaphanous piffle…” although it exposes his ignorance. I was disappointed, because if nothing else, I always thought Black was well-educated. Clearly his education in cosmological concepts and quantum mechanics is less than that of the average scifi reader. Why must there be anything beyond this universe? Why can’t this be everything?

And as for evolution: of course it started somewhere but there is no reason to believe it is the result of divine intervention. We’ve created organic molecules in the lab; we’ve found them on comets and other moons. Life just got its start through nothing more exotic than chemical reaction. And who claims evolution debunks Christianity? The creation myths are in Genesis, not the New Testament. Such claptrap.

Richard Dawkins tweeted in response to Black’s column:

Spot the factual errors, illogicalities and failures to understand.

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