Friday, November 30, 2012

This year the poppy stayed on

News1130 has some suggestions for keeping the Remembrance Day poppy attached. It's meant to be worn on the left lapel, close to the heart.

Yesterday, I finally removed the poppies from the lapels of my winter coat and my raincoat. I cannot remember ever keeping one this long. On the contrary, I usually go through several of them before Remembrance Day.

Over the years, I've tried various tricks to keep them from falling from the lapel and getting lost in a moment of inattention, through some form of jostling. I tried using a tiny earring stud to anchor the poppy through the centre, but that changed its appearance.

This year, I allowed the poppy sellers to demonstrate their expertise. They pushed the pin through the poppy and then back through the end of the petal. My poppies stayed on both coats till the end of November; I didn't have the heart to remove them. 

Each Remembrance Day, I wear a poppy to honour my late father, a veteran of World War II. The end of November approached and the poppies still clung to my lapels. I had to remove them deliberately when I felt it was time to let them go.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Oh dear, the spelling is a bit off

Oh dear indeed. The person who took some letters off this John Deere cat had a sense of humour, but wasn't good at spelling.

Perhaps as the clown was about to remove the last 'e' from Deere, he was caught and had to scram.

And yes, I'm certain it was a he. What woman would stand on those big metal tractor treads to play around with the letters of the brand name?

All in fun, I'm sure. Plenty of farmers and other workmen would take off their hats (or their John Deere baseball caps) to the man who invented the steel plow, and the 175-year-old company that developed so much other heavy equipment.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cloud light

When clouds retain light after darkness falls, we remember that this world of ours is just one small planet, lit from far beyond.

My personal Rosetta Stone

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by the Rosetta stone, and the first chance I got, I made a point of seeing it. Now I look in on it every time I visit the British Museum.

Praising Pharaoh in Greek and Egyptian, the tablet is inscribed in three alphabets. Dating back to 196 BCE, the stone was found in 1799 in Rashid (Rosetta), a village on the Nile delta.

Deciphering the words on the stone was something language scholars puzzled over for a long time. The riddle was solved by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822. He used his knowledge of Greek and Coptic, related to the demotic Egyptian on the stone, and managed to decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Not surprisingly, the image of the Rosetta Stone was made use of for commerce, as the  name of a computerized language learning program. Years ago we put a Rosetta stone jigsaw puzzle together, and once I brought my daughter a silk scarf in the same pattern. When I visited the British Museum this past spring and saw a watch strap bearing the same symbols, I got that too. This time, the keepsake was mine.

I was wearing that watch when I attended a talk given by Professor Thomas Grieve through the Graduate Liberal Studies department at Simon Fraser Harbour Centre a few weeks ago. Tom Grieve's seminar concerned a trio of poems by Eliot,Yeats and Pound. Because I remembered the poems from my years as a young undergrad in English Literature, I was curious. Would the experience of the intervening years have improved my understanding of those poems? What more could I learn about them?

Strangely, in the course of discussing the poetry, Grieve made reference to the Rosetta Stone, and checked to confirm whether the people around the table were aware of its significance. My moment had come. I raised my arm, pulled back my sleeve to reveal the hieroglyphics on my wrist.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

King Edward Station lit by late light

When the rain let up in the afternoon, a band of brilliant sunlight briefly lit up King Edward Station.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Moon light

The crescent moon is an ancient symbol with special associations.

It speaks of love and magic and mystery.

This one hangs above the parking lot at King George Station in Surrey, just as dusk falls.

Faithful lantern, may you light our path to peace on earth.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Echo concert, echo pen

Yesterday I had coffee with an old friend at Metrotown. She and her husband were in town to see Sir Paul McCartney. It seemed right, she said, because she saw the Beatles in Vancouver in 1964, when we were all still in high school.

While we girls sat in a sunny window chatting over afternoon drinks, my friend's husband went off to look around the mall. I looked out the window at the crowds swirling off the train and into the shops.

"How can he stand it?" I asked. "It's so busy."

"He likes it," she replied. "Some stores. Today it's electronics."

After a couple of hours visiting, we too ventured into the mall, to meet Edward at the prearranged place. Jaunty in his plaid cap, he looked as if he'd been having fun.

"See anything exciting?"

He'd been looking at echo pens. I'd never heard of them. "They've been on the market for over a year," he reported, adding, "They'd be perfect for your ESL students."

While listening to a lecture, you use your echo pen to write notes on a special pad. At the same time, the pen makes a recording. Later, as you read your notes, you might see a word you can no longer remember how to pronounce. Touch it with the pen, and presto, you hear the word again.

Even better, the echo pen will play back the sentence for you, so that once again you can hear the word in context. Sounds like dream tool for a language learner.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sticky leaf

During its travels through the world of autumn, this car picked up a special souvenir: a rather unusual leaf stuck to it.

A careful look reveals the reflection of the photographer in the shiny clean fender of the car.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Leaf Light 4

November is winding down, but we still see patches of leaf light.

Light takes on a near magical quality at this dark season of the year.

Beneath a grey sky, these leaves illuminate the winter morning with a glow of light that seems to come from within them.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Leaf light 3

In the parking lot at VCC King Edward Campus, bright leaves stand in for sunshine on a dark autumn day of low cloud.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Leaf light 2

Beyond the wall of Holy Rosary Cathedral on Dunsmuir Street, a torch-like tree shines like a beacon, brightening a wet autumn day with its golden leaves.

The bright orange maple leaves in front of the church wall also illuminate a grey day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Leaf light 1

From the shelter of the car with the wipers running, I took this picture of autumn rain lit by the luminous light cast by leaves.

November is dark, but until they fall, the colours of autumn leaves light the drab grey skies.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

(Allison and Busby, 2008), picture Historical Tapestry

I read this historic romance after meeting its author at the Surrey International Writers' Conference. Meeting the charming Susanna Kearsley inspired me to check out this interesting woman's work.

A history buff, Kearsley worked in a museum before she became a novelist. Her bent for truth telling through the use of real historical characters added a layer of intrigue, as did and the interesting but obscure facts and characters.

The research for the work has been done with great care, and the author's manner of rendering an antique style of speech for her historic characters was also intriguing. This rhythmic change serves as a subtle signal that helps readers shift between historic and contemporary characters. 

One more layer that gave the story added frisson of intrigue was her premise that her contemporary protagonist, a novelist, is inexplicably able to enter so powerfully into the writer's trance that she seems to "remember" rather than make up what her long-dead historical characters do and say.

Mysterious it may be, but the writer's trance is real. The sense of remembering a past not one's own is not hard for a reader to imagine. After all, reading fiction means suspending our disbelief and trusting the story and its teller, and Kearsley easily persuades us to do that. 

The handling of the contemporary romance was nicely done too, with subtlety and a touch of humour. I found this book an enjoyable read.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Isaac Brock

Painting of Isaac Brock from Library and Archives Canada

Isaac Brock was born in 1769 to a well-off family in the Channel Island of Guernsey. He shared his birth year with Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington. Brock entered the military at age fifteen, and became a lieutenant-colonel at twenty-eight.

Brock's regiment was shipped to Canada in 1802 and he served in Montreal, York (now called Toronto), Quebec and other postings.

After the Revolutionary War made the U.S. independent of Britain, relations between the two nations were strained. The press ganging of American sailors to serve on British warships led to fears that hostilities would break out between the U.S. and Canada.

When war did come, Brock was under no illusions about the fitness of his forces to fight for Upper Canada. Many of them were "loyalist" Americans who had arrived in Canada after the American Revolution. Yet with the support of a strong ally in Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, he charged into battle filled with determination.

Against the express advice of his superiors, he went on the offensive at Detroit and secured a victory there. Later, at Queenston, he was killed by a sharpshooter while re-taking the heights even after the local defenses had already captured by Americans.

The historic Battle of Queenston Heights was re-enacted in October 2012, to commemorate its 200th anniversary. For the same anniversary, The Library and Archives of Canada has created a special exhibition on Isaac Brock under Faces of 1812.

Sir Isaac Brock was clearly an inspiring leader, and his success in repulsing the only invasion ever attempted by the U.S. of Canada is undoubtedly one reason for his legendary status here.

Brock University in St. Catherine's and the town of Brockville, Ontario are among the institutions and places named for him. Even UBC, here on the west coast, has Brock Hall. When I was a student there many years ago, it was a favourite place to study. At the time, however, I hadn't a clue about the man whose name it bore.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tecumseh

Picture: Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Education and Research, Brock University

Canada and the US hold many reminders of this legendary Shawnee chief. Vancouver and Burlington have schools named after him. Ontario has a town of Tecumseh. Toronto, Sarnia and Clawson, Michigan, all have streets that bear this name, and Fort Wayne, Indiana is the site of the historic Tecumseh Street Bridge.

Obviously, Chief Tecumseh left a strong impression. He was born in 1768 in Ohio and died in Ontario at the age of 45.

Tecumseh lived during the height of colonial expansion. The Quebec Act of 1774, passed in Great Britain, had given native tribes some hope of retaining their lands, but when the American Revolution ended, the changed borders eroded the hope that land west of the Appalachians would remain in Indian hands.

During the late eighteenth century, more and more settlers were arriving, and suspicion ran high between Americans and British as well as between governments and native tribes. Tecumseh was a leader who saw the need to unite different tribes to defend their lands. To this end, he worked to create a confederacy. In this effort, he had the support of  the Prophet, Tenskwatawa, who believed he was directly in touch with the Great Spirit.

But the forces of history were against the original inhabitants. During the 1790s the Ohio country was the site of three major battles. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Indians were forced to cede millions of acres of  land. While Tecumseh was away from his home at Tippecanoe, it was the site of a battle with American forces, and was looted and burned.

After this, Tecumseh and his men fought against the Americans side. With Isaac Brock, he attacked Detroit. He was fighting alongside the British when he was killed in the Battle of Moraviantown.

Following his death, he was mythologized as a great Canadian patriot, embodiment of the "noble savage" stereotype of the times. But as Herbert C. Goltz points out, this simple view of Tecumseh's place in history does not stand up from a contemporary perspective. Clearly, the chief wished to help his people retain their lands and carry on their own way of life.

Act of Valor, a recent movie about the Navy Seals, made use of a poem by Tecumseh, in which he advocates courage, gratitude and respect.

According to the War of 1812 website, the name Tecumseh may mean a shooting star. However, his name has also been translated as Crouching Panther.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Joseph Brant or Thyandenegea

From Archives of Ontario

Joseph Brant, a Mohawk interpreter, was a chief and statesman who left his mark on the history of North America. He was born about 1742 near Akron, Ohio and died in 1807 in Upper Canada.

During the Seven Years War, he was with the Americans who invaded at Fort Niagara, as well as the force that besieged Montreal in 1760.

Thyandenegea (his original name) converted to Anglicanism and became a missionary. In Connecticut, Brant attended Moor's Indian Charity School. It was here that he learned to be an interpreter, and taught his language, Mohawk, to Samuel Kirkland. Brant knew at least half the languages of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and did a great deal of translating and interpreting, for which he was paid by the US army.

At one time, plans were made to send him to Columbia University in New York (then called King's College). Due to a backlash of anti-Indian feeling following the Pontiac uprising, he didn't arrive.

Brant visited England in 1775-6, where he was interviewed by James Boswell, who published an article about him in London Magazine. During the American Revolution, he remained loyal to the king. He was elected war chief of the Six Nations, and led four of the Iroquois tribes (members of the League of Six Nations) against them, fighting on the British (Canadian) side.

Joseph Brant did a great deal to create a unified Six Nations that could oppose American expansion, and to achieve better treaty settlements by working in a large group. Though this effort was not a complete success, Brant did  manage to negotiate some cash. about fifteen thousand pounds, as compensation for the Mohawks.

His name is remembered in Brantford, Ontario and in Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington. Also located in Burlington is the Joseph Brant Museum, housed in a purpose-built replica of Joseph Brant's original home, which was built in 1800.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Joey Smallwood and Newfoundland

Photo: The Independent

If Confederation can be attributed to the "Fathers" who made it happen, and Louis Riel can be credited with the political creation of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, then Joey Smallwood definitely gets the credit for joining Newfoundland to the Canadian federation.

Joey Smallwood campaigned and cajoled to bring Newfoundland into Confederation, telling his fellow-Newfies they were "not a nation...but a medium-sized municipality...left behind by the march of time." (Canadian Encyclopedia)

Newfoundland joined Canada as a province in 1949, extracting certain concessions from the federal government in exchange, including the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway across the new province.

Joey Smallwood, ex-union organizer, journalist and pig farmer, became interim leader after the successful referedum, and later Liberal premier of the new province of Newfoundland. He led the government for the next 25 years. To bring Newfoundland into Confederation, Smallwood fought the businessmen with vested interests in keeping things as they were -- tipped greatly in their favour.

A sense of living conditions in the outports in the early days can be gleaned by reading authors including the well loved and controversy-loving Farley Mowat, and the brilliant CBC journalist Rex Murphy, or by soaking in the wonderfully lyrical works of novelist Michael Crummey, especially Galore, in which he reveals "the cultural DNA" of his home province.

Another legacy of the old times is a Newfoundland musical group called the Masterless Men. This term is a reference to the time when indentured labourers from Ireland who had been press ganged onto British ships ran away from the fishing company owners, settling in the outports to seek their own survival and become men without masters -- masterless men.

Their lyrical ballads songs have strong Irish roots. There were Roses evokes the pointlessness of the violent divisions beween Catholics and Protestants in Ireland.

I have personal ties to Newfoundland. When my mother married my father in Newfoundland in 1945, in order to join him in Alberta, she had to emigrate. For years she kept old Newfoundland stamps and a bit of money in her trunk. Throughout my childhood, Mom used to "get to her trunk" from time to time and show these artifacts to us kids, just to prove that Newfoundland really had been another country when she lived there.

In 2003, the last time we went back to visit "the old rock," we were taken to Trinity Bay to witness the pageant, a paean to the intrepid early fishermen and an expose of the brutality of the owners. The actors played out the scenes where they really took place, and of course there was plenty of music.

Many of these people had been retrained to perform after being put out of work by the drastic decline in fish stocks that all but closed the centuries-old Newfoundland fishery.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Photo from Amazon.com

Bring up the Bodies is a sequel to Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's celebrated portrait of English political machinations under the reign of King Henry VIII. It is told once again from the point of view of her extremely engaging narrator, Mantel's imagined version of the real historical character, Thomas Cromwell.

The son of a brutal ruffian called Walter Cromwell, Thomas has run from home, worked his way across Europe to Italy, and learned languages, art, culture, trade and diplomacy. Under King Henry, he has risen to become one of the most powerful men of the age.

As with the first book of what she now says will be a trilogy, Hilary Mantel with apparent ease brings to life the events, characters and settings of Tudor England five hundred years ago. Even the reader who knows the history is enthralled by the way the historically accurate tale is developed. The Thomas Cromwell seen here is vastly different and altogether more fascinating than James Frain's portrayal of the same man, seen in the recent television series, The Tudors.

There is a great difference, of course, between the two media, arising to a large degree to the novelist's freedom to provide a steady supply of the character's internal thought processes and memories. Movie directors and film stars are of course limited to what can be shown visually and expressed in spoken lines.

The audio book, read by Simon Vance, is suspenseful and absorbing. The book was published by HarperCollins in 2012 and won the Man Booker, making its author the only woman to win this prize twice, and one of very few to win it for a book and its sequel. Wolf Hall won in 2009.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

D'Arcy Magee


Photo by D. Gordon E. Robinson, Wikimedia Commons

Thomas D'Arcy McGee has the dubious distinction of being the only Canadian politician to be assassinated. It happened in April of 1868, before the nation he'd helped to build was a year old.

McGee was a talented poet, a brilliant orator and a visionary politician. Irish born, he was a one-time Irish nationalist who became a strong federalist in Canada. He opposed the Fenians, a rebel Irish group formed in the US. They raided into Canada, hoping to further their goal of driving the English from Ireland.

After publishing an anti-violence article in the Montreal Gazette  and condemning secret societies like the Fenians, D'Arcy Magee was shot to death on his own doorstep in Ottawa after a late sitting in Parliament. He was buried on what should have been his 43rd birthday.

One of the Fathers of Confederation, McGee was elected by the Irish constituents of West Montreal, whom he had persuaded to enter Confederation. There is still a riding in Montreal named after him.

Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart has written his death into her novel Away, coming up with a fictitious explanation and assassin for his murder. In real life, the identity of the perpetrator was never satisfactorily proven.

Even though James Patrick Whelan was arrested, tried and publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 5000 for the murder of D'Arcy McGee, some doubts about his guilt remain.

After his death, there were no more public hangings in Canada.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Town Like Alice, by Neville Shute

Picture: Amazon

In high school, I read On the Beach by Neville Shute. That chilling tale presaged the end of the world through nuclear war and put me off reading any more of this author's work.

The fault was not in his writing; I still carry traces of the image from that story of people planting crops they knew they would never harvest. The courage of these people was impressive, but the story line was just too chilling. For this reason, I never gave Shute's work another chance. That is, until I discovered A Town Like Alice.

When I read On the Beach, the Cold War was in full swing and the Cuban Missile crisis was a recent memory. In school, we discussed the imminent possibility of nuclear war. We feared we would never even have the chance to grow up. And I more or less forgot about Neville Shute.

Last month at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, I was as always, inspired to read and write. In one workshop, both presenters recommended A Town Like Alice, by Neville Shute.

I'd heard the title, and knew it had been made into a movie. Surprised to learn it was a love story with a hopeful ending, I let curiosity get the best of me; I decided to give Neville Shute a chance to make a different kind of impression.

I was glad I did. Originally published in 1950, the novel stands not only as a well-told story, but as a historic document portraying the mentality of the post-war world, which now seems not only politically incorrect but positively antiquated.

The British Empire in Malaya, the rigid construction of class and the casual acceptance of the colour bar in Australia between the whites and "Abos" can cause a contemporary reader to cringe. Yet to fault the book for these reflections of a past that was all too real would be unfair.

Shute gives a sympathetic portrayal of the poor Malayan villagers who help the women prisoners of war. He shows the humanity of their Japanese captors as well. In the Australian scenes, he bestows a poignant loneliness the character of Grace, an aboriginal woman whose neighbours are convinced, even though they don't associate with her, that her husband married her only due to the severe shortage of women in the remote town where they live.

Noel, the old lawyer through whose eyes the story is told, is a kind and sympathetic man who not only smooths the path of the young lovers, but recognizes his all-too-human weakness -- falling in love with someone young enough to be his daughter. Yet with forbearance and humour, he recognizes the futility of this, and manages to preserve his friendship with that remarkable young woman, Jean Paget.

Neville Shute was also ahead of his time in portraying a marriage in which this visionary woman controls her own money and career, and whose marriage to a husband very different from herself is a truly equal partnership. I had no trouble relating to the main characters, and found the book an enjoyable read.

A Town Like Alice was made into a film in 1956 and a TV mini-series in 1981. An interesting detail is that the 2009 Vintage paperback edition contains an Author's Note at the end, in which Shute affirms the historic realism of his story of the women prisoners of war, adding that this is the first time he has "turned to real life for an incident" for one of his novels.

He also praises a real woman, Mrs. Geysel, a survivor of that notorious 1200-mile forced march with her own baby and other women and children prisoners. The march took place not in Malaya, but on the island of Sumatra, and the real Mrs. Geisel was Dutch, while Shute's character is English.

The wording of his tribute to this "most gallant lady" tempts the reader to imagine there may be something of the author in the character of Noel, the aging widowed lawyer who helps Jean and her beloved lost and found Joe Harman so much.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

John McCrae and Remembrance Day

Photo of Lietenant Colonel John McCrae from Poemhunter

John McCrae was born in 1872 in Guelph and studied medicine at the University of Toronto. He interned with Sir William Osler at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and returned to Canada to undertake a fellowship at McGill University.

After fighting in the South African War, he returned to Montreal to work as a resident pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital and other Montreal Hospitals. By 1909, he was lecturing in medicine at McGill.

He volunteered for service in World War I, and was a brigade surgeon for the Canadian Forces Artillery. He was at Ypres in Belgium during the notorious cholorine gas attack. In that battle, he lost a close friend from home, and since there was no chaplain available, handled the burial ceremony himself.

It was between treating the wounded on the field, after the death of his friend, that McCrae scrawled the short immortal poem that so many have learned and recited since. "In Flanders Fields" is an apostrophe of the dead soldiers who address the living, passing the torch forward and asking their comrades not to break faith but to carry on. It gained wide recognition in Canada, Britain and elsewhere.

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place..."

Dr. John McCrae treated the wounded at the worst battles of World War I: not only Ypres, but the Somme, Passchendaele, Arras and Vimy Ridge. The unremitting work, lack of sleep and emotional drain of seeing so many wounded, dead and dying took a terrible toll on his health. An asthmatic since his youth, he died in a French field hospital of pneumonia complications and was buried in Wimereux near Boulougne. He was 46 years old.

A century later, his poem lives on in the memories of Canadians, a special element of the solemn Remembrance Day ceremony. The choice of the poppy as a symbol to remember the war dead is also associated with McCrae's poem.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Blackout, by Connie Willis

Cover photo (Ballantyne 2010) from Goodreads

Blackout, by Connie Willis is a brilliant work of futuristic science fiction and also a well-researched historical novel. In the future, circa 2060, three history students at Oxford are preparing to do research, not by reading, but by using a technology that allows them to spend time in the past.

The novel opens as Polly, Merope and Mike race around campus. Before returning to World War II London, they need papers, money and period clothing. They must also have necessary information implanted into their brains.

Even with that shortcut, they still need much preparation to plunge into the past. Unfortunately, between busy professors and campus bureaucracy, time runs out and they find themselves cutting corners.

Polly has a young admirer. As she makes the rounds of Oxford seeking necessary permits and equipment, young Colin, a precocious historian with a big crush on her, determines to help her with research and preparations. Though he is five years younger than Polly, he also promises that if she gets in trouble, he will come to her rescue. At the time, Polly has no idea how soon she'll find herself stuck in London in the middle of the Blitz, praying he can do just that.

Meanwhile, once the supervising professor has approved the assignments, each student is inserted at the proper time and place using the "drop." The lab is also expected to collect them back for their check-ins, to provide additional resources as needed, and to send in a "retrieval team" if something goes wrong. Mostly, the time machine works perfectly, but as the book opens, there have been a few incidences of "slippage," both in time and location.

Polly, Mike and Merope each have their own specific assignments, but all go to separate locations as they are researching different aspects of the war: Dunkirk, the child evacuees, and the behaviour of those who sheltered in the tube stations during the Blitz.

Back in the past, the students must be careful. They have to report in regularly, so the lab techs know they are all right and how to find them in case of emergency. While observing and interacting with the "contemps," in the past, Polly, Merope and Mike must live and work in their assigned areas, and be careful to fit in. They cannot know any history or technology the contemps do not.

 Above all, they must keep away from anything on the "forbidden list." It is critical not only to avoid situations that could endanger themselves, but to keep well away from "divergence points," situations where small actions on their part could change the future in unpredictable and catastrophic ways. The obvious danger is that they might affect the outcome of the war so that Britain does not win.

The system does have flaws. Even though in theory, the time continuum cancels out small changes, and disallows travel to the past that can change the future, the technology is imperfect. Drops get damaged and retrieval teams fail to show up. And as the young protagonists soon realize, nobody can function as a calm observer; nobody can go to the past without getting involved with the problems of the contemps who live and die there.

Their efforts are conscientious, but how can the three historians be sure to avoid altering the future as they try to survive in the past? Unintentionally entangled in the events of Dunkirk, has Mike rescued the wrong person? Or failed to rescue the right one? How serious is the injury he sustains at the chaotic scene? Enough to oblige the contemps to resort to that primitive treatment, amputation?

Will Merope (Eileen in the past) cause the death of her evacuee charges by returning them to their mother with tickets for the City of Benares? She knows it will sink in mid-Atlantic while attempting to carry British children to North America for safety?

Will Polly get her job at the wrong department store, or at the wrong time, and get herself blown up in the bombings of Oxford Street?

As the reader entertains these questions, each chapter ending drives forward to the next cliff-hanger with another young historian. The story strands are woven together to create a flawless coherence. Author Connie Willis slips in just enough snippets of scientific chaos theory and philosophical speculation to make her premise perfectly believable.

This book needs to be read with its sequel, All Clear. I can't wait to get my teeth into that one.This time, I'm trying the audio book.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sir Sandford Fleming, engineer and timekeeper

Picture from McCord Museum, Montreal

In 1885 with the driving of the last spike in the BC interior, the CPR, the Canadian Pacific Railway, was complete. A shining ribbon of steel stretched from Atlantic to Pacific, ready to carry passengers wherever they wanted to go, and deliver freight back and forth across a vast new nation.

Just one little problem. What time would the next train arrive? Nobody knew for sure, and somebody had to figure it out. That somebody was Sandford Fleming. He was instrumental in building Canada's railways, and he called them, with the telegraph lines that followed, "the twin agencies of civilization." (Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)

In the 19th Century, Fleming was Canada's top railway engineer, and he had an idea about how to ensure that people would know when to expect the trains. As different places still kept local time, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of schedules and trains.

During the railroad building era, the American Society of Civil Engineers was dominated by railwaymen. In 1881 it made Fleming chair of the Standing Committee on time. He carried out surveys, created proposals and achieved consensus. In 1883, North American railways adopted the one-hour time zones we still use, but there was still no international standard.

The Meteorological Society and the ASCE persuaded the US Congress to call an international meeting to decide the location of the Prime Meridian. As a member of the British delegation, Fleming alone arrived with a position paper, which was endorsed for the most part. By century's end, most major countries had accepted the standard time zones with Greenwich, England as the Prime Meridian.

After her retired from railway design, Fleming became Chancellor at Queen's University in Kingston, where he worked at scientific projects and wrote.

During his lifetime, Fleming was given many honours: Columbia University in New York, St. Andrews in Scotland, the University of Toronto and Queens and all awarded him honorary doctorates. Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario and Sir Sandford Fleming Elementary School in Vancouver are two schools that bear his name. He was also a Member of the Royal Society, and was knighted in 1897. Fleming died in 1915 in Halifax.

In 2010, Michael Enright of CBC blogged from the train as he retraced some of Fleming's 1872 journey on the Ocean, the train that runs from Halifax to Montreal. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

Audiobook cover: Blue Bookcase

The Postmistress is a novel of women and war. At the height of the London Blitz, fictional character Frankie Bard reports with the real journalist Edward G. Murrow from BBC Broadcast House, London. In a small town on Cape Cod, we also meet Emma Fitch, the new wife of her beloved doctor husband Will. We are also introduced to the town's middle-aged Postmistress, Iris James.

Though the U.S. is not yet at war, Harry, who is falling in love with Iris, warns her that the post office flag pole should be shortened, lest it act as a beacon to guide German U-boats in from the Atlantic. Iris wrongly brushes the idea off.

As yet, the town has barely been touched by the war, except for the Jewish refugee from Austria who arrives in their midst. Because of his German accent, the townspeople treat Otto with suspicion. Meanwhile the people of Franklin listen to the broadcasts from London, becoming familiar with the voice of Frankie Bard and her eye-witness accounts of the blitz. Still, for them life remains calm.

When Maggie, the wife of a local fisherman, goes into labour with her fourth child, Dr. Fitch attends the birth. Things go unexpectedly wrong, she dies in childbirth, and the doctor blames himself. Thus the young physician falls back on an old idea that his family is cursed. Emma is unable to talk her husband out of his self-recrimination.

Unaware that his wife is pregnant, Dr. Will Fitch goes off to London as a volunteer medic to help care for the civilian wounded. Before departing, he gives Miss James, the trusted postmistress, a letter to be delivered to his wife in the event of his death. Emma writes to her husband faithfully, and the doctor writes back each day. Though he had originally planned to stay away only a short time, he keeps delaying his journey home.

One night, Will meets Frankie in a bomb shelter and they talk. After the all clear is sounded, they leave together and Dr. Fitch looks the wrong way before crossing the street. Now Frankie too has a letter to post.

But this delivery will have to wait. Frankie's boss is sending her on assignment to Berlin. She is to report on the refugees who are fleeing from German-occupied territories, trying desperately to get to Lisbon or a Spanish port in order to escape from Europe on ships.

Frankie's weeks in occupied Europe take a terrible toll. Through personal encounters, she witnesses the desperation of the fleeing refugees and the random cruelty of the Nazis. She returns to London emotionally shattered. Taking passage on the first ship she finds, Frankie sails for Boston. For now, she has had enough of reporting news nobody wants to hear. She also has her letter to deliver.

The surprising denouement brings together the three women, Frankie, Iris and Emma, in a small rented cottage in Franklin. Here the traumatized journalist is trying to recover from her nightmares and come to terms with her moral dilemmas about her chosen profession of journalism.

Two women have letters for the third, but not all of them get delivered. This, decides the woman who holds her letter back, is because the story knows what's right, how things must end. And the story wants it this way. 

Author Sarah Blake has written a profound and haunting book (Penguin 2010). When I listened to the unabridged audiobook, published by Blackstone Audio, and read by Orlagh Cassidy, it made me cry.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Nellie McClung

Photo: BC Archives

Perhaps the best-known of the Famous Five who lobbied for women's personhood under the law, Nellie McClung was born in 1883 in Ontario and grew up in a religious family on a Manitoba homestead.

She published her first novel in 1908, and wrote books in praise of the rural lifestyle.

McClung trained as a teacher in Winnipeg. Her first assignment was to teach 8 grades in a country school, a typical situation for the times.

After Nellie met and married Wes McClung, they had five children. She campaigned for the vote in Manitoba, and was one of the organizers of the Winnipeg Women's Political Equality League.

Nellie McClung was a champion of women's rights and a clever orator. In her Mock Parliament, organized for the Women's Press Club, she cleverly used humour to demonstrate the absurdity of the arguments that were being used to keep women in their place. Turning the tables on Premier Roblin, she assured the laughing crowd that "nice men don't vote."

The main causes she supported women's suffrage, temperance, factory safety laws, old age pensions and public health nursing. Six years after she moved to Edmonton in 1915, McClung was elected a Liberal member to the Alberta Legislature, where she served for five years. in 1929, she took part in the Persons Case.

In 1936, she became the first woman member of the CBC Board of Governors, and in 1936 she was the only woman to be part of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva.

Nellie McClung died in 1951. She is remembered through many scholarships, libraries, schools, and parks that have been named in her honour.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Louise McKinney

Picture: Status of Women Canada

Louise McKinney, born in 1868 to a farming family, was a wife, mother and school teacher who spent much of her life in Clareholm, Alberta.

She was a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, an organization that sought to protect women and their children from what they considered to be the destructive influence of drinking alcohol. She organized several chapters of the WCTU and lobbied for Prohibition, which was passed in 1916 and remained in effect till 1923.

McKinney also helped Alberta women to get the vote in 1916 and championed the Dower Act. Before this law, it was possible for a man to sell or mortgage his property without the knowledge or consent of his wife.

In 1917, after running for office as an independent in the first election that included women candidates, she became the first elected official in the British Empire. 

In 1925, she was involved in the formation of the United Church, and in 1929, she took part in the Persons Case.

The University of Alberta has a scholarship named in her honour, and the city of Edmonton has dedicated the Louise McKinney Riverside Park to her memory.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Irene Parlby

Photo: University of Toronto

Born in England in 1868 when Canada was just a year old, Irene Parlby immigrated to Alberta with her husband and lived on a homestead near Lacombe.

Parlby's involvement in politics was inspired by her wish to improve the lives of rural women and children in her home province. She became president of the United Farm Women of Alberta, and was later elected to the Alberta Legislature, where she became the first female cabinet minister in Canada and the second in the British Empire.

In 1925, she supported the Minimum Wage Act for women. She was also one of the Famous Five women who initiated the Person's Case of 1929 to persuaded the government of England, (then the highest legal authority) that Canadian women were "persons" under the law. In 1930, she represented Canada at the League of Nations meeting in Geneva.

An early supporter of distance education, Irene Parlby was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University of Alberta.

Parlby lived till the age of 97. By the time she died in 1965, she must have felt immense satisfaction at the social improvements women had achieved in her lifetime.

Along with her sister reformers, she has an Edmonton park named for her.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Henrietta Muir Edwards

Photo: Women Heroes

Henrietta Muir Edwards was born in Montreal in 1849. After an excellent education and European travel, she established the Working Girls' Association in downtown Montreal in a house purchased by Muir's father for the purpose. A forerunner of the YWCA, the WGA provided accommodation, advice and job training.

Edwards married a doctor, studied law, edited a journal and cared for their three children. She followed her husband to the Northwest Territories and wherever else his work took him. 

In 1890 Edwards found herself in Ottawa, where she joined with Lady Aberdeen to establish the National Council of Women. In 1893 she convened the Standing Committee on Laws, and in 1897 she helped Lady Aberdeen establish the Victorian Order of Nurses to provide health care in frontier areas. She did masses of research and committee work, and wrote handbooks on the legal status of women in Canada and in Alberta. This remarkable woman was 78 years old when she joined the other four in the Persons Case.

Recently, a mural of the Famous Five was unveiled in Edmonton. Like her sister feminists, Henrietta Muir Edwards has had one of the Famous Five parks parks in Edmonton named in her honour.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Emily Murphy

Photo: History of Canada Online

Emily Murphy was born in 1868. As social activist who worked for women's and children's causes, she was also a magistrate, a politician and a best-selling author. Her books were published under the nom de plume of Janey Canuck.

Through her efforts, the Dower Act and the Married Women's Protection act were passed. Before this, women were not allowed to own property. Thus, if a woman was widowed, she did not inherit her husband's home or farm. Instead, a male relative would be given the property left by her husband she, along with her children, would be left to the mercy of the male heir.

In 1916, Emily Murphy became the first female magistrate not only in Alberta, but in the British Empire. Her brother lawyers challenged her, citing the BNA Act that defined her as a non-person, and claiming that she must therefore be unqualified for the job, but Murphy continued to carry out her duties.

When in 1919 women's organizations from across the nation recommended that she become a Senator, the issue of her non-person status came up again, and this time, she decided to strike at the root of it. She selected her four co-appellants and they approached the Supreme Court of Canada, which confirmed that women were not persons under the law. It took another ten years of lobbying before the British Privy Council made the landmark decision that women were indeed persons, and the five celebrated their victory as "persons" in Calgary's posh Palliser Hotel.

Emily Murphy never did become a senator; Prime Minister Mackenzie King feared she would make trouble for him. Following the trail blazed by Emily Murphy and her colleagues, in 1930 Cairine Wilson became Canada's first woman senator, and a distinguished one too.

After a long and productive life, Murphy died in 1933. In her home city of Edmonton, Emily Murphy Park is named after this pioneering woman; she is commmorated with a statue there.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Famous Five and the Persons Case

Author has tea with a pioneer of women's rights, Ottawa. Photo by Yasemin Tulpar

It is less than a hundred years since women were granted the status of persons under Canadian law. After years of lobbying by a dedicated group of women, it finally happened on October 18, 1929. Oddly enough, this decision was made only a few days before a major stock market crash launched the ten-year depression that Canadians call the Dirty Thirties.

Interestingly, the five pioneering women who pushed for the landmark legal decision that redefined women as persons were all from the province of Alberta. Their names were Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung.

In the mid-nineties, a group of Calgary women established the Famous Five Foundation, and began to lobby and fund-raise in an effort to have these five intrepid women commemorated on Parliament Hill. In 2000, a bronze monument to the five, the creation of Alberta sculptor Barbara Paterson, was unveiled in front of the Senate Block entrance.

The hard work of these pioneering women was essential for the future of Canadian democracy. At the time, Canada had no written constitution but the British North America Act, and that was an act of the British Parliament, not the Canadian one. Astonishingly, the terms of that act actually said that women were persons -- "in matters of pain and penalties" but "not persons in matters of rights and privileges."

Rebuffed first by the Supreme Court of Canada, the women approached Canada's highest appeal court, then the Privy Council in England. The Lord Chancellor gave a favourable reply; women were declared persons under the law and made eligible to become members of the Senate.

Ironically, these five historic women held views that human rights activists today would find questionable and in some cases, repugnant. Values that favoured prohibition, eugenics and racism were commonly accepted at the time. For those of us living a hundred years later, to suddenly find ourselves in the social milieu of a hundred years ago would be a shock to say the least.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Photo: Oliver Sacks website

A music fan himself, noted neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has written in this book about the effects that music has on the brain, and vice versa.

As well as being informative, this work has a great bedside manner. Oliver Sacks has a wonderful flair for relating the vicissitudes of human neurological quirks, his own as well as those of his patients.

Sacks catalogues a rich variety of neurological irregularities, both congenital and acquired. Ever had a song stuck in your head? It's very common. Apparently humans share a neurological propensity for this to happen.

Che Guevara was rhythm deaf, and would dance a mamba while the orchestra played a fandango. 

Perfect pitch is an extremely rare gift. Composer Rachel Y was born with it, but after suffering a blow to her head in a car accident, she lost it in an instant and had to learn to live without it.

A mentally retarded patient, Martin, had a phonographic memory. He retained all the music he read. By the age of sixty, he knew two thousand operas, the Messiah, all of Bach's Cantatas and more.

Left-hemisphere dominance is usual, but sometimes the left side of the brain may be damaged in utero or in infancy. When a patient suffers from intractable epilepsy, the drastic surgical measure of left hemispherectomy may be carried out, leaving the patient with only one hemisphere. This can cause the brain to shift to right-hemisphere dominance. Such situations may be related to savant conditions, which can emerge not only in childhood, but later in life.

Absolute pitch, shared by many musicians, has a strange connection to blindness. About half of children born blind or blinded in babyhood have absolute pitch.

Yet language learning demands the loss of absolute pitch.The exception is with tonal languages: those learning tonal languages retain and heighten their sense of absolute pitch.

The organ of Corti, though it lies deep within the head for protection, is still vulnerable to loud noises, as are the hair cells that form part of this delicate inner "instrument."

Musicians, especially as they age, may be afflicted by a variety of kinds of hearing loss which affect them in quite different ways.

Older piano tuners tend to tune the highest octaves too sharp, perhaps due to some encroaching "atrophy of the basilar membrane."

While learning about fascinating brain irregularities, the reader senses behind these tales the curiosity, compassion and intelligence of the great neurologist -- music lover and friend as well as doctor.

As a companion on a journey of discovery of the astonishing connections between music and brain function, this reader couldn't have asked for a better guide.  

Musicophilia was published in 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf.