On listening to Q from Edmonton (finally)

On the evening of November 22, 2012, the Myer Horowitz theatre on the University of Alberta Campus in Edmonton was filled to the rafters with people who payed money to see the taping of a radio show.  For the first time in its decade of broadcasting, the show with the mysterious name “Q” was visiting Edmonton after multiple visits to every other major city in Canada.  For those of you who live outside of Canada and the many parts of the United States which receive Q, Q is two hour morning radio show which is broadcast on CBC Radio One every weekday.  Oddly, it is also a TV show once a week.  And a YouTube channel.

The host of Q is one Jian Ghomeshi, a UK born Iranian-Canadian former drummer in a rock band, former TV host, best-selling author — in other words, a fairly representative Canadian, if there ever were such a thing.

Q, like its host, is a fairly unclassifiable thing:  in-depth interviews with writers, musicians, film makers, actors, politicians and panel discussions about politics, national and international and live music — Q is a cultural omnibus and, in fact, a national treasure.  The show generally is produced in Toronto, but regularly has journeyed around the country to various cities for live-to-tape episodes.  But in the six years or so of the shows run, as I mentioned, Q had never come to Edmonton.

On the morning of November 23, Q from Edmonton was broadcast and I sat listening carefully and happilly.  Jian had as his guests (or perhaps was the guest of) singer/songwriter Colleen Brown, band Shout Out Out Out Out, sketch comedy troop The Irrelevant Show, Novelist Todd Babiak, filmmaker Trevor Anderson and an all-Edmonton media panel.  It was, of course, exciting to hear these locals on National/International radio, but I couldn’t help feeling some of the same chippiness the guests seemed to be feeling as Jian kept trying to probe into Edmonton’s “identity”, which really seemed to be about finding an Edmonton “Brand”.

There was talk of Calgary vs. Edmonton.  I can’t help think of the tired old Canadian Identity question and the stupid insulting facile answer “not American”.  Sure, there’s a rivalry with Calgary on various issues from sports, which was touched on, to politics, which was touched on more lightly, but I don’t have any sort of impression that Edmontonians define themselves as “not Calgarians”.  Todd Babiak’s term “Magpie City” was mentioned, as was the well known “Dirt City” nickname, but those names by no means indicate that we are a city of dirt or dirty birds.  Variations on “Do it” came up a few times, and I think that suggestion may reflect a little of Edmonton.

But for me, Edmonton was all summed up in the winning entry of the “Win a Trip to Edmonton” contest, and the audience’s response to that entry.  Listeners from outside Edmonton were invited to submit a six word reason they should win a trip to Magpie City.  Many submissions praised Edmonton either highly or faintly, but the winner was an entry from Sudbury, Ontario: “Poor student. Sad Life. Need Adventure.”

The audience responded to this submission with huge, roaring, friendly and unanimous applause, in effect repeating inarticulately and earsplittingly warmly the words on the old plaque on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor . . .”  But we’re not an American-style melting pot — we’re a fermentation vessel. As Babiak mentioned, Edmontonians (when they’re not politicians) kind of sneer at phrases like “world class”.  We are more interested in getting together, working, playing, building, creating, writing, singing, painting, sculpting, acting, talking, helping — living, than we are in self-promotion.  Edmontonians are the people who are born here, who come here, who stay here, who leave here and who come back.  We’re uncomfortable telling people we’re the best because we’re absolutely certain that Edmonton isn’t perfect.   But we are equally dedicated to the crazy thought that we can and will help each other to make it better.

Sort of like Canadians.

Many years ago I coined a phrase in a very different context, but I think it applies here:  When you own the street, you don’t have to piss on the fire hydrants.  We own a pretty damn fine street full of fascinating and varied people.  We know what we have, what we want and we’re going to make it.  We’re not wasting our time bragging about it being world class.  That’d just be pissing on fire hydrants.

Decades ago I came here from Sudbury (by way of Windsor) and I have never imagined  leaving to live anywhere else.  To the winner from Sudbury, who’s name I won’t try to transcribe from what I heard on the radio, Enjoy your adventure in Edmonton. I bet you’ll be back.

And, Jian, great show.  Thanks for coming.

I bet you’ll be back.

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An Appreciation of Paddy Lamb’s “Memory of Absence”

Paddy Lamb’s art is about ‘place in time’.  Through an evolutionary abstraction, he both recapitulates and continues the natural process of change, of decomposition, of erosion and overgrowth – nature’s insistent and patient agenda of vibrant transformation in contrast to any perishable human desire for an unattainable static perfection.  Humanity builds hard-edged interruptions onto the landscape and, after a time, unsatisfied, abandons its buildings, walls, fences and gates.  Nature quietly moves in, indifferent to productivity, statistics, and the relentless pursuit of economic efficiency which leads only to downsizing, to roofless factories, schools and churches in empty villages .  Nature slowly dissolves the abandoned marks on the landscape.  These half-reclaimed monuments of humanity’s desires are the jumping off point for Lamb’s art.

The artist’s gaze falls on the loneliness, the emptiness of the west of Ireland (and, in other works, of the oddly similar landscape of Canada’s Prairie) and finds the signs, the fading tracks of human occupation constantly being taken back by nature.  He grasps these human discards and continues the work, stripping them down to basic monumental forms of light, dark and colour. And yet the finished image always retains a palpable connection to this landscape and the marks of human interruption.  As well, each image retains a far more obvious link to the one which preceded it in the development process.

For Lamb the art serves as a record of a potentially endless organic development and evolution.  Unlike the mouldering constructs which spur it, his work never assumes perfect completion.  Each work is the seed of another and has itself grown from a previous image, whether in paint, charcoal, sketchbook or in the landscape itself.  Lamb gives us story boards, frames from a film.  The fullest, most satisfying appreciation comes through viewing a series of these developing images, the tracks of the artist’s progress.

A surprising result of this process of gradual and preserved abstraction is that, when examined leisurely, the images of decayed human structures at times become anthropomorphic. There is an allusiveness to both human beauty and human violence.  Hooded figures converse with each other in whispers, faces peek from the darkness, the empty landscape is repopulated with shadows, ghosts, sometimes ominous revenants of memory.

And here perhaps is the heart of his work.  These pieces are explorations of the memory of a place and of the memory of absence.  Lamb now lives and works far from Ireland, far from the sea and its headlands, far from the stone bones of his native land.  But in his recent work away from Ireland, through the longing of separation, he returns to his memories of the signs made by others themselves now absent from Ireland.  The broken and overgrown structures in the empty Irish landscape are, in fact, the land’s memories of people who have passed.  And Lamb’s images are most simply his own memories of passing through that landscape, memories explored very deeply and made visible to us all.

The above was written for the catalogue accompanying Paddy Lamb’s upcoming exhibition, Memory of Absence, which will run from January 24 to February 17, 2013 at the Custom House Gallery in Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland.

Back in Canada,  Mr. Lamb will be doing an artist’s residency at the Gushul Centre in Blairmore, Alberta in May and then in November-December he will be part of an exhibition with Robert Dmytruk and Les Graff at Gallery @ 501 in Sherwood Park, Alberta.
More about Paddy Lamb and his art can be found at paddylamb.ca

Dulce et decorum est . . .

Itidem, dulce et decorum est pro patria vivere.

My maternal grandfather survived Passchendaele, thereby making my mother possible.

My father survived World War II by enlisting in the Royal Canadian Navy and, through no effort of his own, being absurdly stationed in Winnipeg until war’s end, thereby making me possible.

My friend Angus enlisted in the Loyal Eddies and survived the Invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Ortona, thereby making my time as a young Canadian student in Southern Italy a much more pleasant and meaningful memory.

With great respect to Horace, whose poetry I have read, admired and loved for three decades now, and with the utmost regard, gratitude and respect for those who have made the sacrifice, particularly my grandfather’s buddies in the trenches, my father’s school chums who got sent somewhere messier than Winnipeg, and Angus’s comrade, whose lifeless body Angus dug out of Ortona’s rubble . . .

it is very sweet and very honourable to live for your country.

A Note to a U.S. Voter

Dear neighbour:

I’ve been a little troubled  — a very little as it’s not my country — by some of the sounds I’ve been hearing from down there since your Election Night.  The gloating on one side and the wailing and gnashing of teeth and calls for impeachment on the other are unseemly, I think. And there are stories being told. I have a few questions to ask you about . . . The Truth.

1) Would you like the Truth to be that Mitt Romney is a cult-zombie, Mexican-born, corporate capitalist who hates dogs, women and poor people (when he can manage to make up his mind about anything) who tried to steal the election but even screwed that up?

2) Would you like the Truth to be that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim Black Panther America-hating apology-tour making diplomat-killer who stole the election?

3) Would you like the Truth to be that 9-11 was an inside job of some sort?

4) Would you like the Truth to be that aliens crash landed at Roswell?

5) Would you like the Truth to be that King Arthur really lived and had a Round Table and knights and so on?

If you answered “Yes!” to any of the above questions then I’d like to tell you gently that the Truth very, very likely lies somewhere else.  If you want something to be true, you need to examine all apparent evidence in favour of that hypothesis infinitely more carefully than evidence for something in which you have no interest.  It’s called “Confirmation Bias”.  Confirmation Bias is a Truth.  I wish it weren’t, but as much as I would like a different Truth . . . you see where I’m headed.

There’s been a lot of confirmation bias flying around down there.  It sometimes seems to be a national pass-time.  Do you want that whole Roswell thing to be about aliens and government coverups?  If you want that then, you should probably proceed on the assumption it was all a balloon-borne Mylar radar target.  That would certainly explain the reports of “tin-foil” that “unfolded itself”.  You want King Arthur and his Round Table to be historical? You should probably assume that the stories are all whimsical elaborations on those few brief mentions in Gildas and the Easter Annals.  You want Obama to be Kenyan? You should probably assume he’s Hawaiian.  You want Romney to be Mexican?  Assume he’s from Michigan.  And, as much as I’d like to think Dick Cheney took down the Twin Towers with his evil laser vision, I’m going to assume it was a dozen and a half young men, mostly from Saudi Arabia.

It’s a Mylar radar target until the little grey bodies are displayed. There have been a lot of calls for birth certificates to be produced, but it seems to me there haven’t been enough.  Where are the calls for the Birthers to produce a Kenyan birth certificate for your President?  Where is Mitt Romney’s Mexican birth certificate?

Again, if you want it to be true, it probably isn’t.  Calm down, for goodness sake!

P.S. For the record:

1) and 2) I don’t really care much about the truths of Obama and Romney, including their birth places.  Their birthplaces shouldn’t matter.  Everyone knows my country’s head of state was born in some foreign country.  Hell, Her Majesty still lives there!

3) see above about Dick Cheney’s laser vision

4) I think it would be kind of cool if aliens had landed at Roswell.  But wariness of Confirmation Bias makes me think they probably didn’t.

5) Yes, I would like it if the Arthurian tales in spite of their inconsistency, were historically accurate.  But liking the idea doesn’t make it true, and all the evidence suggests there isn’t much history in Camelot.

Lester del Rey’s “The Eleventh Commandment”: An Elder Handmaid’s Tale

It’s funny.
I’m not actually a fan of Lester del Rey, but here I am writing about him again.  As a youngster I read very little of his work.  I was all Clarke and Asimov and Larry Niven.  But when I was rereading Nerves a while back this ad on the back cover caught my eye:

The back cover of “Nerves”

and I thought, “The Eleventh Commandment looks interesting, in a schlocky sort of way.”  Through the magic of Abebooks, within a week or two I had a copy of the exact edition advertised in my silly little hands:

The front cover of “The Eleventh Commandment”

What a pleasant surprise this two dollar (ten dollars shipping) book has been!  No, the writing continues to be pedestrian, the plot is perhaps a little contrived at times, the characters are more stock and wooden then  the yard at Totem down on 51st (that’s local, Edmonton colour), but . . .

This is a sort of mainstream, white bread work from 1962 somehow filled with drugged-out orgies in churches, socially sanctioned adultery, and empowered (in an odd way) women.

The Eleventh Commandment has a pretty standard old science fiction plot:  a colonial (from Mars in this case) finds himself exiled to Old Earth and must make a home for himself in this strange new old world.  The Martian, Boyd Jensen, seems like pretty much a typical mid-20th Century American fellow.  The reader is meant to find him familiar, I would think.  Post-nuclear-apocalyptic America, however, is quite different, it seems.  The land is full of fallout remnants, society is ruled by the American Catholic Eclectic Church and the Eleventh Commandment (Be Fruitful and Multiply!), and, we learn, the landscape is dotted with secret orphanages filled with the pitiful products of the mating of the Eleventh Commandment and  radioactivity-induced mutation.  Society is a completely Church-dominated pre-industrial cesspool in which women are indoctrinated to want nothing other than to produce babies until they die and men are similarly (but more easily, one would guess) brainwashed into a desire to father as many children as possible.  There is, however, a fairly clear emphasis in the Catholic Eclectic Church on trying to keep it all within the bounds of marriage, despite the orgies in the underground and Wiccan churches.  The Church wants to keep track of the genealogy of every birth.  As becomes clear at the end, all this breeding is the Catholic Eclectic Church’s eugenic system for purifying the genetically damaged human stock.

We are left with a sort of nausea.  Through the whole book the Church has seemed to be the horrid, psychotic institution bent on forcing women to be baby factories on the basis of ridiculous religious superstition.  Our conviction — cultivated by del Rey — that science needs to enlighten this superstitious world is suddenly overturned.  It isn’t superstition that drives the church — it is science after all!  We end the novel firmly impaled on the horns of the dilemma.  Everything about the lying Church and its horribly logical eugenics is beyond objectionable, but, in the world del Rey has created, is it not the only way to preserve humanity?  We know that Mars, which has been presented as a positive society, deals with its own genetic sports through exile to Earth, most often ending in death soon after arrival.  It is unclear what is happening on Earth outside of North America, but it is safe to assume that the entire globe is contaminated and that maintaining genetic health would be a challenge to any society.  The Church’s plan, to keep the population at a sustainable, if barely, level of development while breeding and selecting out harmful mutations in as few generations as possible, is disturbingly convincing.  But we can’t help but feel that this evil is only slightly the lesser to the alternatives.

The Eleventh Commandment is certainly a product of its time blending Cold War fears with some of the Dangerous Visions — the book is dedicated to Harlan Ellison — about to burst onto the science fiction scene and American society at large in the sixties.  But somehow The Eleventh Commandment seems to me a tale for our time, at least as much as Margaret Atwood’s later and much more famous The Handmaids Tale.  Del Rey shows us a fundamentalist religious society with some noticeable similarities to the perversities of fundamentalists in our own day (Talib, I’m looking at you.) And Father Epstein’s recitation about nature speaks eloquently to our time:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help . . . But there is no help left to the race of man.  The mountains have been stripped of their cover and their substance runs down with the unchecked rains to bury the valleys below.  The buffalo and the wolf are gone from the plains, along with the tough grass that evolved there, and dry dust sweeps like a cutting scythe before the pleasure of the wind.  The puma is missing from his den and the eagle from his lair.  The predators are vanished, and without them the game herds have suckled the weak among their young to bring forth more weak, until their gene pools have failed and even they are dead or dying. . .

Father Epstein continues to describe the accidental nuclear catastrophe as being the only thing that could have saved humanity from its own relentless, unthinking growth.  If not for the nuclear holocaust, there would have been a population and environmental apocalypse.  No alternative in del Rey’s imagined future is a pleasant one.

All in all, Lester del Rey’s The Eleventh Commandment must be termed a hidden gem of mid-20th century science fiction, well worth seeking out by students of feminism, religion, environmentalism and the rights of the disabled.