02/16/13

Albert and the Lion


Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

01/5/13

Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?


Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.

~~~~~

* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.

02/14/12

What Shall We Do With the Mountain View?


Globe Hotel, 1913Here’s a new song for Collingwood, sung to the tune of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

Unbeknownst to council, the town wants to own the Mountain View Hotel for $1.9 million. This little-known fact appeared in the 600-plus page budget document without any fanfare. or even any other sort of notice. You’d have to dig through page after page of mind-numbing arrays of figures to find it.

Normally, when the municipality wants to buy property, we go in camera to hear a staff report that justifies the purchase and we discuss the legal ramifications of the offer. This is done behind closed doors to prevent the potential seller from raising the price, and to prevent competitive bidders from becoming aware, so the property can be bought, then flipped at a profit to the municipality. So I wouldn’t be able discuss it under those circumstances.

This time, however, it’s public, part of the proposed budget. Everyone is able to hear about it before we make any move. Page 364 of the budget reads,

This project is for the completion of the First Street (Hwy 26 Connecting Link) at the Hurontario Intersection. Purchase and removal of Mountainview Hotel, Brownfield restoration and construction of the five lane section as per the First Street design.
This project is subject to MTO funding and successful agreement to purchase the Mountainview Hotel. The project will not proceed without prior funding approval of MTO

I don’t see a lot of “restoration” in this proposal, however.

Globe Hotel, late 1800sOdd thing, that process. Not at all expected. Council never had the opportunity to have a say in the matter before this and it wasn’t identified in our recent strategic planning sessions. During the early budget debate I said the process was flawed: first council should decide if it wants to own the building, then what to do with it, and only after that discussion should we be discussing how much it will cost.

And, I added, it should involve the public in the process.

The Mountain View is the former Globe Hotel, one of Collingwood’s oldest hotels, built in the mid-1800s, just after the town was incorporated. It had one of the most beautiful interiors – stunning woodwork and banisters – in the region. I’m told some of that that woodwork was removed for use in a private home when the hotel was closed. The first pavement sidewalk was laid in front of the Globe. Quite a lot of history in that old building.

The Mountain View was purchased in 2004 from owner John Wheeler, and closed. However, neglect led to internal problems and for a while it looked like it would be demolished. The building was not included within the Heritage District boundaries, nor is it designated a heritage building. Why not? I have no idea. I have asked the heritage committee to comment on it.

The provincial Ministry of Transport, we’re told, wants to widen Highway 26 at the intersection with Hurontario Street, and add a fifth (turning) lane. That isn’t possible, apparently, without demolishing the building. The MOT has not conveyed that request to council, however. As I understand it, this is part of the long-term plan for Highway 26, presented and approved a couple of councils back. We have been told by staff that the MOT will pay for the purchase through “connecting link” payments to the town.

In my view, if the MOT wants the road widened, let the MOT buy it. I would not even consider such a purchase without a written request that not only confirms immediate repayment of any costs (including legal, engineering, etc.), but also acknowledges that it is the province that wants to demolish one of the oldest buildings in town, not the town. I certainly don’t want the town to be the agency that tears it down.

In fact, if the town DID buy it, I would move to have it restored and turned into a community arts and cultural centre. Not demolished. Based on the brouhaha over the Tremont and Livery buildings (and comments made at last Saturday’s open budget session), I would suggest the public would not look favourably on the town demolishing it.

Globe Hotel stampEven if the town gets the money back, the cost (almost $2 million) would probably be debentured – adding to our debt. Most debentures have to be paid out over the full term, and don’t have early closing clauses. Would the town be on the hook for demolition costs as well? Legal and other costs? I don’t know, but suspect so.

Once the road is widened, what will the town do with the oddly-shaped piece of land that remains? It will be too small for development, too small for a park. Wait, I know, a commemorative plaque showing a faded photo of the glory that used to be the Globe Hotel. Or sell it, no doubt at a loss.

As for widening the street: why? As I understand it, narrowing is a commonly used method of traffic calming. It’s used throughout Europe to get drivers to reduce speeds. Isn’t that supposed to be important here,too? It’s mentioned in our active transportation plan. The current street design performs the important role of slowing down traffic at a critical intersection, rather than letting drivers race through town unimpeded. Let’s keep it like that.

The issue will return towards the end of the budget debate. I expect financial considerations will put the proposal on hold, and give council the opportunity to properly discuss it, with, of course, public input.

02/5/12

Why Admiral Collingwood should go ahead


Juxtaposition.

That’s the issue Collingwood Council has to wrestle with, Monday: what effect will the juxtaposition of the proposed development’s size and height have on the existing, smaller buildings? Some people are afraid our existing heritage buildings will be diminished by this project.

Last week I was in Toronto. At the corner of York and Wellington Streets, I saw the Toronto Club; a beautifully preserved, late 19th-century red-brick, three-storey building. It’s in the, heart of financial district, surrounded by tall, modern skyscrapers, some 30 or more storeys high. What made this building stand out was the contrast with, not the similarity to, the buildings around it.

Art Gallery of OntarioI later walked along Dundas Street to the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a big, modern building redesigned by architect Frank Gehry. At 21m, It is roughly the same height of the proposed Admiral building, but much longer. Across the street are typical three-storey, Toronto brick homes, many turned into galleries and businesses. Further west along Dundas Street, Chinatown is a mix of two to four-storey buildings.

The gallery dominates the visual landscape, but instead of diminishing the others, the contrast makes them stand out more.

JerusalemA few decades ago, I visited Jerusalem. The Old City has 2,500 years of history visible in its walls and narrow streets. What makes the Old City so spectacular is how it contrasts against the modern city just outside its walls. The beauty of the Old City shines in the juxtaposition.

Duke of York pubIn London, England, this fall, I walked through 13th century cathedrals, and 15th-century castles where Henry VIII lived. I had a beer in an 18th century pub in the heart of the city, a small building surrounded by much taller and more modern ones.

England has some very rigid laws about heritage buildings to make sure they are preserved and maintained. But when there is nothing to preserve, they allow builders and architects to be creative. There are some stunningly modern and exciting buildings in London within a stone’s throw of well-preserved 17th and 18th century heritage sites. The contrast between them makes London vibrant.

It is contrast and the mix that makes any city dynamic, not its homogeneity.

I love the old buildings, I love the preserved cultural heritage sites I’ve had the privilege to visit.

But heritage is a sentimental concept, a romanticizing of an ideal past; it is not a technical term. In fact, it’s difficult to get people to agree on what it means. The whole history of the architecture conservation movement is not much older than our own town.

Our heritage district is not a museum of empty buildings: it is a place where people live and work. We want our heritage buildings to look old from the outside, but not inside.

No one wants outdoor privies and gas lanterns, no one wants to get water from a well or keep groceries in a cold cellar. We want all the modern conveniences the original owners never had: electricity, refrigeration, insulation, modern plumbing and air conditioning. Our heritage is skin deep: it’s just the façade that matters.

The definition of what is heritage changes with every generation. Many of the buildings in Collingwood’s heritage district would have been new in my grandfather’s youth. Some would have been new when my father was a teenager, a generation later. Both men would have thought of these buildings as modern, not as heritage sites.

banks in the heritage districtA generation or two from now, our children and grandchildren may see the Admiral development as heritage, something they want to protect and preserve. They may also want to preserve the blocky modern buildings like several downtown banks, the former bingo hall and former drugstore, even the town hall annex – because they will be heritage sites in the future.

is this future heritage?Today many here would like nothing more than to have those buildings torn down and something that looks more 19th-century erected in their place. Even though these and other modern buildings are within the heritage district, does anyone care if this proposed development diminishes those modern buildings? Of course not.

Admiral Collingwood developmentProtecting our heritage doesn’t mean we can only erect fakes that externally conform to our current sentimental ideal. We can allow contrast, we can allow change without in any way diminishing the value or appearance of our existing heritage buildings or district.

We have a duty to the community as a whole, not just to one segment. The economic wellbeing of our downtown is at stake, not merely its look.

Let’s stop agonizing over this and let it go forward.