It’s Now A Hundred Year War

It is just a small spat in a vast world of conflict, but it’s been a long one. It started shortly after Alberta joined Confederation in 1905 and continues today. One hundred years ago Alberta in 1918 met in Ottawa with members of the new Confederation to discuss mineral rights and to whom they belong – the province in which they are located or the wider Canada, the State.

Usually Alberta and British Columbia have been on the same side fighting Ottawa for better resource sharing deals.Who can forget the 1980’s when Alberta lead the fight against Ottawa’s newest oil tax policies with the late Premier Ralph Clyne shouting “let the Eastern Bastards freeze.” Alberta’s current Premier Rachel Notley and BC’s John Horgan, both leaders of provincial New Democrats, follow different drummers with Notley allied to Ottawa and Horgan the lone hold out against the plan to twin the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast at Vancouver.

The project has survived many scientific, environmental and engineering studies and has been approved by the National Energy Board, the federal government, Alberta and, in January 2017, by the then Liberal government of BC under the leadership of Christy Clark.

Clark won the election with one seat more than the NDP only to lose the right to govern when NDP leader John Horgan stepped forward with the signed assurance that Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, with two other newly elected Green MLAs, would give him a slim majority. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon accepted Horgan’s proposal and he became Premier John Horgan.

Until a few weeks ago, Horgan was in harness with Weaver and implacably opposed to two Liberal mega job creation projects – Kinder Morgan and the massive BC Hydro Site C project in northern BC. In late January of this year Horgan announced his call for one last final, final, definitely final review of Site C by the BC Utilities Commission and then,reluctantly, admitted construction had already progressed beyond a point of no return and could not now be justifiably abandoned. Site C would proceed.

Weaver, who was at one time in favour of Site C as a clean energy project, shifted to the opposition as environmental protests grew. He became an objector and remains an objector, unhappy with Horgan’s decision but not unhappy enough to withdraw the support that keeps the NDP in power.

Both leaders now face much tougher decisions on Kinder Morgan, encouraged by thousands of environmental voices chanting their opposition – some vowing to lie down in front of bulldozers if construction ever begins, others boasting they are ready to go to jail for their cause.

But the masses forming to protest and the leaders jockeying for position to lead them, have a major problem. The federal government through Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has approved the pipeline. Premier Notley has repeatedly reminded Horgan, and his Green echo finder, of this constitutional fact – on issues like this Canada’s national rights take precedence.

Readers with good memories may recall my August 19, 2017 blog in which I wrote on this same subject: “When Canada became a country 150 years ago, our First Prime Minister John A. Macdonald told new Dominion of Canada statesmen: ‘Let us be English or let us be French – and above all else – let us be Canadian’”.

Not too many years ago, the people of Quebec wooed by many of their leading politicians were asked to make a decision on whether they wanted to remain Canadians or leave Confederation. The Quebecers proved to be Canadians first; our Confederation rejoiced.

Premier Horgan has said his aim is to get the best pipeline deal he can for British Columbia. That is an objective to be praised and supported as long he remembers, as should we all, to ‘above all else’ be Canadians.

Prime Minister Trudeau has said the approval of the project was the best option for all Canadians. “This is a decision based on rigorous debate, on science and evidence. We have not been and will not be swayed by political argument, be they local, or regional or national,” he said. “We have made this decision because we are convinced it is safe for BC, and it is the right one for Canada.”

Last Saturday, February 17, Premier Horgan announced his government would seek leave to appeal a National Energy Board (NEB) made December 7,2017, to allow construction work to commence at the Burnaby pipeline terminal.

If the appeal is granted construction will be delayed. If it is denied Premier Horgan’s always shaky supportive alliance with the Greens will collapse and BC voters will be back to the polls for a first election with taxpayers picking up the tab.

What taxpayer happiness to be able to look on a forest of election signs and slogans and know we paid for them.

Our Thanks Are Not Enough

I never knew Dave Barrett well. Better than most by the nature of my work as a political columnist I suppose, but never in the trusted friends group where ideals and beliefs are shared.

Over the years our conversations were many, but often not on politics. Our relationship was friendly with the exception of one or two pyrotechnic spectaculars. As I mentioned, we were not friends in the deepest sense of the word, but we were friends enough for me to feel saddened at the news of his death and guilty that I had made no attempt to contact him in the past two years.

It is an old failing of mine, leaving it too late to make a phone call or write a note to let someone know they were well remembered. In the case of Dave Barrett, for whom I always had great respect, I genuinely missed our brief if sometimes brittle exchanges and said a hundred times “I’ll write tomorrow” but never did.

Many of our conversations began as questions asked a politician by a newspaper columnist, but quickly drifted sideways to more important things. That’s the way it was one April morning in 1973 when I visited his newly acquired Premier’s Office to ask him about his latest appointment of a stalwart member of the NDP to a well paid staff job.

He gave me the Barrett stare across his desk: “Who were you expecting me to appoint – a Social Credit guy or a Liberal?” With the question answered we moved on to family matters. He asked how my sons were doing and I reported that one of them – Andrew, 17, – was languishing in Jubilee Hospital recovering from a serious knee injury acquired during an out-of-bounds rugby tackle a few days earlier.

A rugby player himself, Dave wanted all the details and asked me to convey best wishes. When a few hours later I dropped by Royal Jubilee to do just that, Andrew greeted me with a face-wide grin and “Guess what? I’ve just received a get well note from Premier Barrett!” With a proud flourish he produced a hand-written note expressing regret for the injury and wishing Andrew a full and speedy recovery. It also included a few cheeky references only another rugby player would appreciate. The note which immediately banished all teenage depression, had been delivered by hand within minutes of my leaving the Premier’s Office.

I mention this because it was typical Dave Barrett. He recognized a need and instinctively knew he could do something about it, and he did. He acted on his good intentions.

At times over the next three years, he sometimes acted too precipitately on larger issues and it cost him and his party dearly at the polls. In a little less than three years, the Barrett administration approved 357 bills and in the wave of sympathy following his death on February 2, a stranger to our shores could be forgiven for thinking Dave deserved recognition for them all. He would have been the first to point out that although he led the NDP to victory in August 1972, he had some highly talented foot soldiers in the ranks.

There are several versions of what happened when he called his first cabinet meeting – including one which has him sliding down the long, polished, conference table to its head. It is not the story Dave told me when, years ago, I asked him how that first meeting went.

“Í got everybody sitting down and said ‘okay, what the hell do we do now?’…and Ernie Hall (MLA for Surrey and newly sworn Provincial Secretary) boomed out ‘we prepare an agenda.’ And we did.”

There was an impressive array of political talent around the table despite being devoid of “governing” experience … Eileen Dailly, Bob Strachan, Leo Nimsick, Dave Stupich, Dennis Cocke, Colin Gabelmann, Bill King, Harold Steves, Rosemary Brown, Norm Levi, Gary Lauk, Alex Macdonald, Bob Williams, Phyllis Young to name a few of the better known.

Of that group, seven were (my choices) super star cabinet ministers – Dailly, education; Cocke, health; Stupich, agriculture; King, labour; Levi, social services; MacDonald, attorney general; and Bob Williams, lands and forests. They were the first string, the core of the Barrett team who moved with the highest ideals, but sometimes too far and too fast. King, Cocke and Williams would have stood tall in any cabinet.

They achieved much and Dave Barrett led them with courage and high ideal – if not always wisely. We still owe him, as we owe his widow Shirley for the years she and their children encouraged and supported his service to “the people.” They walked with him through the darkness of Alzheimer’s to his final rest in what Christina Rossetti describes as “the silence more musical than any song.”

Our thanks are not enough.

Hurry-Up Learning Curve For New Liberal Leader

Some neat juggling pending down Belleville Street way as members of our Legislative Assembly challenge our street entertainers with well-rehearsed appeals for the public’s attention.

A key performance is scheduled for Tuesday, February 13, when all but one member of the Assembly will gather for the Speech from the Throne. In the principal speaking role there will be a Lieutenant Governor, if we have one available, or an approved Supreme Court Justice to stand in and read a script prepared by Premier John Horgan and his cabinet … hopefully whipped into understandable English by a team of obedient scribes.

Sometimes “the Speech” is short, but more often it’s long with a multitude of platitudes plastering together a string of hopes and aspirations that may be realized in the coming months. Then, on February 20, Finance Minister Carole James will introduce the 2018-19 provincial budget and many of the undertakings in the Throne Speech will re-emerge as firm plans with the money available to make dreams reality.

Did I write a few lines back “all but one member” should be on hand for the Throne Speech? That would be the “empty chair and desk” being held in readiness for the winner of the Kelowna West byelection scheduled for Feb. 14 – which just happens to be Valentine’s Day.

Coming one day after the Throne Speech, the byelection date is potentially a good choice for a government with such an extremely slender hold on life as our New Democrats. In Kelowna West on Feb. 13, NDP candidate Shelley Cook will be able unload a full government basket of hope and promise just hours before the polls open the 14th. That said, she’s going to need a rocket-blast finale if she is to break long-held Liberal ownership of the riding. Kelowna West, which includes downtown Kelowna, has gone through several name changes over the years, but has never wavered provincially from solid right-wing politics.

The Liberal candidate on Valentine’s Day will be Ben Stewart. He won the seat for the Liberals in 2009 defeating his closest NDP rival by 5,000 votes. Stewart won the seat again in 2013 with an even larger majority, but resigned to allow then Premier Christy Clark, who had been defeated in her own riding of Vancouver Point Grey, to take a second crack in “safe” Kelowna West and retain her premiership.

In the 2013 byelection Clark outstripped the NDP challenger by an even larger majority with 62.66 per cent of the vote. She won handily again in the general election in 2017, but lost the right to form a new government. The final seat count in 2017 was Liberal 43; NDP 41; Green Party 3; with the three Greens voting to align themselves with the NDP to form the present government. Following that decision, Clark resigned from politics.

There are five candidates vying for the Kelowna West seat: Mark Thompson, Conservative; Robert Stupka, Green; Kyle Geronazzo, Libertarian; Shelley Cook, NDP and Ben Stewart, Liberal.

With three wins under his belt and still highly popular, Stewart remains the favourite, but this could be his toughest contest. Liberal leadership candidates seeking to replace Clark resorted to harsh personal criticisms in the recently concluded campaign. In public debates, they demonstrated more dissension in the ranks than eve of byelection unity. They haven’t left Stewart much to boast about.

NDP stalwart Cook had it rough last year facing veteran campaigner Christy Clark. Again this time, she has a veteran campaign winner to beat, albeit a Liberal without a leader until mere days before the vote. Not much time to end the leadership campaign disarray in Liberal ranks and present a polished, united front to Kelowna West voters.

Snipping at Ben Stewart’s heels for the right of centre vote will be Conservative Mark Thompson. He isn’t expected to win or even be close to the winner’s circle, but any votes he does scavenge will come from the Liberals, not the NDP’s Cook with her basketful of Valentine’s Day chocolate coated pledges.

We shall have to wait and see if newly elected Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson can find time to forget last Saturday’s leadership victory cheers and hurtle up to the Okanagan to keep Kelowna West a Liberal stronghold. He has nine days to solidify Ben Stewart’s bid to hold the seat, get ready for his first session as leader of the Opposition and start to prepare himself and his party for a general election call which could come at any time.

Relax – It’s Only $5 million A Year

A few desultory small-minded shots were fired when would-be BC Liberal Party leaders gathered recently to entertain the masses. It sounded like a bunch of teenagers with nothing else to do but strafe empty cans off the garden fence.

The shots did not sound threatening or enlightening, but their target was interesting and indicative of a possible uniting of old forces against new to preserve the continuity of true Liberal blood.

Six candidates graced the stage:
• Andrew Wilkinson QC, lawyer, former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Minister of Advanced Education, and Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services. He also served as deputy minister for Intergovernmental Relations in the Premier’s Office for two years from 2001-2003.
• Sam Sullivan, currently serving as the MLA for Vancouver-False Creek. Previously, he served as the Minister of Communities, Sport and Cultural Development, Minister Responsible for TransLink, and also as the 38th mayor of Vancouver. Sullivan has been invested with the Order of Canada for his work to improve the lives of people with severe disabilities. He has been quadriplegic since breaking his neck in a skiing accident at the age of 19.
• Mike de Jong, lawyer, who served for varying periods as Attorney General and Minister of Finance, as well as minister in the portfolios of Health, Labour and Citizen Services, Forests, Public Safety and Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. He has also been House Leader.
• Michael “Mike” Lee, lawyer, and a relative newcomer on the provincial political scene, but a political activist for many years.
• Todd Stone, former Minister of Transport, who regards himself as a “new look” Liberal.
• Dianne Watts, former mayor of Surrey and a Conservative MP who, for years, resisted requests to take a run for the Liberal leadership and now feels ready to reach for the brass ring.

Watt’s opponents during the sparse leadership debates have focused on her attempts to capitalize on her “Liberal newcomer” status. The very fact that old guard heavy hitters like de Jong, Stone and Wilkinson appear to be concentrating on Watts is a sure indicator that she is the one they fear most as the finish line of Feb. 3 looms. She was first choice of many to replace Gordon Campbell years ago, but she didn’t feel ready for the task.

Back in 2010, Watts was described in a Globe & Mail article as “unscripted, unguarded – and unlike any other politician in BC … (she) has transformed the City of Surrey from a butt of jokes to a thriving and increasingly sophisticated metropolitan centre …”

The final debate in the less than inspiring series is scheduled for Jan. 30 in Vancouver – the city where the Liberals took heavy losses last May.

To date, only one candidate – Andrew Wilkinson – has made meaningful reference to the latest gift handed the Liberals by the NDP government in early January as promised in last summer’s Election Amendment Act. He has suggested a taxpayers’ gift-wrapped million-dollar cheque to the Liberal Party be earmarked to finance the coming fight against proportional representation. Wilkinson is not being touted as a leadership winner.

Ms. Watts is and should pick up the challenge to the new system of public financing of political parties. The NDP, of course, also cashed a cheque for a million. Well, maybe not quite a million according to Les Leyne writing recently in the local newspaper.

The Liberals (remember they did get more popular votes than the NDP) got a cheque for $995,965, the NDP picked up $994,882.50 and the starveling Green Party trio a piddling $418,383.75.

Leyne reminded us that’s just half the annual cash transfer from your pockets to the bank accounts of three political parties. The second half is due July 1 – about a month after the day in June when, economists tell us, we should have cleared away our annual income tax indebtedness to governments and get to spend our paycheques on ourselves.

Think how the political landscape will look if we listen to election system reform proponents and vote for a proportional representation system that could spawn more three or four-seat-parties all with their Oliver Twist hands out asking for more than the $5 million in public subsidies already guaranteed.

A vote on change to the voting system is still months away, but it will come with a success threshold of 50 per cent plus one which is easier to achieve than the 60 per cent thresholds when system change was rejected in 2005 and 2009.

We can only hope the electorate keeps its head and, with or without the help of a new Liberal leader, again deep-sixes the threat of minority governments spawned by proportional representation – and demands a return to strictly controlled political party funding.

If we can’t afford massive financially achievable housing projects and other urgently-needed social programs, we certainly can’t afford $5 millions a year to provide political parties with public funds to play their often vain-glory games.

In Praise of Premier Bill Smithe

In its wisdom or folly the electorate in British Columbia has on three occasions selected newspaper reporters to the high office of Premier. Two were named William; both were named Smith and were distinguished in their early years by the letter “e”. One was William Smith, the other William Smithe –with an “e”. Both were immigrants to BC. The third newsman was Premier John Robson August 1889-June 1892 but that’s a story for another day.

As soon as he was old enough Bill Smith without the “e” changed his name to Amor de Cosmos – “Lover of the Universe”. In the 1800’s he owned, published and wrote for what is today known as The Times-Colonist. He served as Premier for two years from December 1872 to February 1874. Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in August 1825 he died July 4,1887, in Victoria the only Premier in BC to ever be officially declared insane.

The second Smithe stayed with William or Bill to his friends, from the day he was born in the picture perfect village of Matfen, Northumberland, in 1842. He was first elected to the Legislature in 1871, served as Premier from January 29, 1883 until he died on March 27, 1987.

Overshadowed in the history books by the flamboyant headline creator de Cosmos, Premier Smithe had arrived on Vancouver Island in 1862 with farming his chosen career path – IF a gold claim he held in the Cariboo didn’t work out. He appears to have worked the claim intermittently for two years before giving up and returning to farming full time with a stint as road commissioner in the Cowichan District in 1865 to supplement his income.

In his book Portraits of the Premier’s S.W Jackman described Smithe as “extremely personable and lively, handsome and well mannered, in sum, a most agreeable and charming young man as well as being a hard working one.” Although he doesn’t name his sources Jackman suggests Smithe “liked society – dances, picnicking and other forms of junketing….He also had a penchant for writing…” With those traditional requirements for a good reporter he began contributing to local newspapers.

His early childhood and education may well have provided the adaptable side of Smiths’s character. In the 2001 census in the UK Matfen, his village of birth, listed a population or 495. Nearby Great Whittington where he went to school boasted 401. Both are located a few kilometers north of Hadrian’s Wall, the great barrier the Romans built to keep illegal Scots out of England.

That means the sparsely populated Cowichan-Duncan area in the 1800’s would not be unfamiliar to young Smithe although he did at one point take a look at big city life in San Francisco. He stayed 18 months, worked as reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle then returned to the Duncan area and in 1871 tossed his hat in that year’s provincial election race. He topped the Cowichan poll with what today seems a laughable 58 votes – which was 29.59 percent of the votes cast in the riding.

In six following elections Smithe continued to top polls – and was twice – in 1876 and in 1883 – re-elected by acclamation.

Although a four year term as Premier doesn’t sound like tenure it was unusual in the 1800’s. One year terms were fairly standard; two years, occasional – and four remarkable especially for a young man who was not part of “the establishment” and whose first and only campaign promise made in half-a-dozen elections was that he would not pledge his support to any man. It should be remembered that it wasn’t until the 1900’s that party politics played any role in provincial politics.

Bill Smithes 16-years in office, the last four as Premier, have been acknowledged as stable and prosperous. He is credited with persuading the federal government to take over the graving dock in Esquimalt although he died before the first ship HMS Cormorant used the facility.

He did live to welcome the first passenger train from Montreal to the west coast as it pulled in to Port Moody on July 4, 1886. A month earlier the designated terminal Vancouver – for which Premier Smithe had fought for years – had been destroyed by a disastrous fire on June 13. The city was just over two months old when the Daily News reported: “Probably never since the days of Pompei and Herculaneum was a town wiped out of existence so completely and suddenly as was Vancouver…The flames spread…with amazing rapidity. The whole city was in flames less than 40 minutes after the first house was afire.”

It wasn’t until May, 1887, that a rebuilding Vancouver was able to welcome a trans-continental train. Premier Smithe was dead before it arrived.

He was in his usual seat when the Legislature convened in January of ‘87 but was too ill to continue attending regularly. He died on March 28, and was honoured with “an official funeral” which included two days lying in state before “a great hearse with four horses, velvet and crepe” carried him away, first to church for the funeral service then “the coffin was put on a train and taken to Somenos where he was interred in the Methodist burial ground.”

Bill Smith – Amor de Cosmos, 17-years older than William Smithe, died four months later in July 1887 and was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery. Jackman notes “his funeral was pitifully attended – sic transit amor de mundi”. He was probably aiming for the better known “sic transit gloria mundi” which translates “thus passeth the glory of the world.”

Jackson also wrote: “The four years the Smithe government ruled in British Columbia were prosperous and happy ones. Later in the19th century they were often referred to as the best years the province had experienced up to that time.”

Which leave me wondering why it is we remember Bill Smith, the flamboyant, eccentric, mentally unstable “Lover of the Universe” far more fondly than well spoken, calm and confident Bill Smithe with an “e”. He gave the people of BC stability in government, steadily improving economic times and remains best remembered as Bill Who?

What’s To Fear,Trump Or His “Base?”

It’s some years now since I read modern versions of what hell must be like. They replaced burning coals and fiery furnaces with compulsory viewing of day time television. After only seven days confined to sick bay, I can now confirm that terrifying picture of being locked forever in room and forced to watch the daytime tube.

In fairness to other countries, I should add my judgment is based on American television in general and CNN “the most trusted name in news” in particular. I hastily note “most trusted” is their judgment, not mine.

There was a time when I could have believed the claim; a time when I looked to CNN to take me to the far corners of the world to tell me in a balanced voice what was going on. But then came Trump, bellicose Donald the clown, whom CNN believed might prove some light entertainment during a presidential election campaign and then vanish in flash of redneck rhetoric on voting day.

The loudmouthed Trump crisscrossed the United States shouting a never-ending litany of corruption charges against everyone not wearing a Trump button. His early rivals were long-time Republicans and the Party struggled to decide which member it would bless as its presidential standard bearer. They laughed at Trump’s wildness, shuddered over his coarse language and hints of racism – until they were overwhelmed by the rookie slogan slinger.

When the votes were counted in the presidential election Trump trailed in the popular vote by close to three million, but won the all-important Electoral College vote and the presidency. And the Republican establishment, which had tried to keep at arm’s length during the campaign, suddenly became Trump lovers and defenders.

The rest of the USA went into shock and CNN girded its loins to do battle to save democracy, with Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room front and centre. It was staffed with well-groomed male and female reporters or commentators whose sole duty appeared to be to praise the work of other journalists, especially those revealing another Trump unreality outburst.

It has not gone unnoticed that CNN rarely breaks hard news stories. Instead it brings viewers the latest revelations of miscues, false boasts or just plain blather as reported in The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or any other news outlet living up to old standards of journalism.

CNN assembled teams and then set out to prove what Trump had reportedly said was “offensive” or “insulting” to all Americans; would be “rejected” by all Americans; and would leave the collective nation bowing its head in shame. And, it would cause the Republican Party untold grief as its established Congressmen and Senators tried to explain away the latest Trump diatribe against third world nations.

As I watched “the most trusted name in news” try to assemble a “sky is falling” scenario, one calm voice drew attention. Jeffrey Toobin – writer for The New Yorker, lawyer, political analyst – was part of Blitzer’s panel but was being interviewed via remote connections. He quietly reminded Wolf that not all Americans will be appalled by Trumps latest scurrilous remarks on poorer world countries. He suggested they remember Trump’s base voters listened to similar or worse comments throughout the presidential campaign, supported him then and still support him now.

Blitzer seemed a little startled by Toobin’s reminder that there are millions of Americans who love Trump’s wild promises, his riches, his life style, his racist comments, his half-assed praise for the KKK, his thinly veiled contempt for non-whites. Toobin said he doesn’t think Trump’s latest derogatory remarks about less than rich nations “will cause him a lot of grief.”

Blitzer wondered out loud “are we blowing this out of proportion?” but only briefly. Being too fascinated to change channels, I continue to watch as Blitzer departs and Erin Burnett enters. Burnett is a beautiful virago with a great voice often ruined by staccato delivery, known to have a sharp mind and tongue and to not take challenge lightly.

She promises to bring me up to date on reaction to the Donald’s latest trumpeting. She doesn’t. Different panel of talking heads, different voices. Same theme, same phrases. Same ever wider publicity for the man who thrives on it and his 35-40 per cent “base” of voters who think the latest critical twist of their slogan from “Make America Great Again” to “make America white again” is a good idea.

And that is more scary than President Trump at his careless, unthinking worst.

Birthday Bust But Friendship Triumph

Well, I didn’t exactly finish the run for my 94th birthday finish line with a blazing burst of speed.I broke the tape stumbling forward with a headache from hell, a nose gushing to shame Niagara, rapid fire sneezing and a cough to rattle the walls of the Berwick Royal Oak Retirement Community.

Well trained by a paramedic son in what to do when contagious head colds strike overnight, I retired from the track, locked the stable door and settled in isolation to battle the unwelcome birthday burden with old world remedies – plus a few recommended by modern non-medics. It took six days and a diet of prescription drugs, endless bowls of chicken soup, cups of Bovril and a steady supply of hot meals to my door to bring the unwelcome bugs under control.

It was not a battle fought alone – although in typical male self-pity, on day one I was whimpering this would be the first personal sickness scrap I had ever fought alone. Over the past 9.4 decades there had always been a mother, wife, lover or close friend to supply the edible and mental nourishment required by the stricken.

My fears, for that is what they were – fears this was going to be a lonely fight – were quickly dispelled. On December 27 my mailbox was filled to overflowing with greetings from old friends and colleagues, many now scattered around the world and busy with their own lives but not too busy to remember me. It was quite a lift to the spirit.

Even greater were the phone calls from other residents in this “retirement community” who had noticed me missing from meals or my regular table in the Café where coffee and a read of morning newspapers has become a familiar routine. They wanted to know if I had everything required, and one most gracious lady politely listed half a dozen items missing from my modest medical kit. “I’ll leave them in bag on your room door,” she said, “with copies of the morning newspapers.” I asked for a bill. “No bill,” she said, “it’s just something we do for each other.”

Male “neighbours” were equally kind and focused on my needs. First words over the phone were “Hear you’re under the weather; how’s your supply of single malt?” Practical like-mind friends with ancient remedies to kill or cure.

And then, the never to be forgotten phone calls from treasured friends fighting their own health battles, but caring enough to make a daily call “just to see if you are okay.” Family and friends touching base to reassure me as I stumble into 2018 and my 95th year that:

“When you walk through a storm,
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.

“At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
“Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

“Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone, you’ll never walk alone.”

Saying THANK YOU MY FRIENDS is quite inadequate even in shouted capitals.

Opportunity Knocked But…..

It was mid-winter 1935 that I turned my back on the opportunity to become a great actor.I was just a few weeks away from being 12 when selected above all others to play John Peerybingle in The Cricket on the Hearth, the great Christmas story written by Charles Dickens – and for years far more popular and highly acclaimed than his Christmas Carol and the salvation of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Dickens, always prolific, wrote five Christmas stories: The Carol in 1843, The Chimes in ’44, The Cricket in ’45, The Battle of Life in ’46 and The Haunted Man in ’47. The Cricket was the best-selling of all five with early sales double those of the first two. Only the one appears to be remembered these days, and that courtesy of the brilliance of British film makers and actor Alastair Sim’s incredible Scrooge.

I was personally selected for my role by English teacher John Francis Bacon – better known to the student body as “Flitch” – a man of obvious perception and, as his Christian names suggest, from a literature loving family. He was not, as some irreverent friends suggest when noting my advanced years, the original John Francis Bacon of the 1500s.

It was years before I learned why Mr. Bacon selected me from a throng of other dirty faced would-be Thespians. The script called for someone who could portray “a carrier, a lumbering, slow, honest man.” Courtesy of my grandfather’s training, I could harness a horse to a cart and could handle a pony and trap, so I qualified as a “carrier”. And, my mother always said of me, usually with a sigh: “He’s a good lad, but clumsy” which I suppose is a mother’s way of saying I “lumbered.” As for “slow”, well, chores certainly had a braking effect on me although I was pretty fast when it came to games and pleasure. And I was honest – except for apples swiped from the Vicar’s orchard, which we called “scrumping” because we knew stealing was dishonest; and the occasional cigarette lifted from my Uncle George’s open pack for smoking in the dark of a Saturday afternoon movie. I can’t remember how I justified snitching an uncle’s “fags” but I’m sure my 11-year-old reasoning was sound.

Anyway, there I was; John Peerybingle type-cast perfectly and hoping that Marjorie Barnett would get the nod as Mary Peerybingle. She was a few months younger but that’s what the script called for – a “much younger woman” – for John’s wife. She, for reasons known only to Dickens, is referred to as “Dot” throughout the story and was suspected at one time of being over amorous with the lodger Edward Plummer.

I was rooting for Marjorie because she was extremely good looking – and her parents ran a pie and pastry shop on Abbey Street. What better dreams could an 11-year old have just before Christmas?

The plot of The Cricket was typical of Dickens. John and his young wife Mary (Dot) are supposed to be of modest means but have a live-in nursemaid for their baby. The nursemaid (a “great clumsy girl” is called for) has the gorgeous name of Tilly Slowboy. The nine-member cast is rounded out with an old toymaker, Caleb Plummer, who is bullied and treated with contempt by his employer (known only as Tackleton); Bertha Plummer, Caleb’s blind daughter; a friend of the family May Fielding and her irritating mother; and the lodger who at play’s end turns out to be Caleb’s son, long presumed lost or dead in South America.

Ah, and one other character, never seen but playing the title role – the Cricket. The Cricket chirps advice from the hearth and at one tearful point (there are many) assures John that Dot isn’t having it off with lodger Edward, who is really in love with May Fielding whom the evil Tackleton is determined to marry.

As in the Carol, Dickens uses dreams and disembodied voices to enhance his plot. I could hardly wait to see how John Francis let me handle Peerybingle “as he soberly and thoughtfully puffed at his old pipe, and as the Dutch clock ticked, and as the red fire gleamed, and as the Cricket chirped; that Genius of his Hearth and home (for such the Cricket was) came out, in fairy shape, into the room, and shaped many forms of Home about him….”

As in all Dicken’s stories, whatever the tragedy in the body of the tale, truth and justice eventually prevail. In The Cricket, Tackleton is turned from darkness to light by the Christmas spirit and graciously allows May to marry Edward; there’s a strong hint that Caleb’s blind daughter gets her sight back; and John and Dot, all suspicions allayed, rejoice in each other’s arms.

I was looking forward to that – but it never happened. At third rehearsal I was cut. Couldn’t remember my lines. John Francis said he was sorry and told me why I’d been hand-picked for the role. “I had hoped,” he said “you would be as good in the role as your brother Tom who was so wonderful as Peerybingle three years ago.” Upstaged by my big and talented brother.

And that’s how stage and screen lost a star extinguished before his first strut on Manor Park School stage. But there it was. Opportunity knocked and I didn’t – couldn’t – open the door. But as another Christmas season slides into the past and another New Year pops up on the calendar, I can still gaze into a glowing fire and listen for a Cricket on the Hearth to tell me what might have been – and maybe what happened to Marjorie Barnett whom I coveted almost, but not quite as much as, her parents’ jam tarts and mince pies.

(And thank you to the many friends and readers who remembered my 94th birthday and wished me well. May you all have a Peerybingle future.)

An Old Fowl Makes Great Chicken Stew

There were a few white Christmases when I was growing up in England’s industrial Midlands, but not many. For the most part Christmas weather was chimney-smoke dreary, wet, and cold.

But that was just the weather, not the spirit of the times.

By today’s standards we didn’t have much to be happy about, but happy we were. Even with a father out of work in the great depression of the 1920s, and a mother trying to raise four children while taking in other people’s laundry, or scrubbing other people’s kitchen floors to keep bread – and some joyous days, butter – on the table.

They were hard times for my parents, but I don’t remember them being hard, for we children. We were sometimes hungry, but never desperately so. There always seemed to be a slice of bread and “dripping” or, in rare moments of luxury, butter and jam. And on Christmas Day a wonderful feast of chicken stew with dumplings the fowl being supplied my grandfather who had a small holding three miles in the country. Astute cooks will know the difference between a chicken for roasting and a fowl past egg bearing age for stewing.Hungry children ask for seconds.

I have been trying to figure out what made Christmas on the edge of poverty so happy for our small family of five, before deaths and time scattered us to dust or faraway places. I have no desire to return to the sometimes-lean days of childhood, but I wouldn’t mind seeing restored some still well remembered things.

Like the Salvation Army Band playing Christmas carols on grimy, rain-wet, streets with crowds huddled under gas-lit street lamps to listen and sometimes join in. Only readers old enough to remember childhood before new-fangled electric radios piped Christmas music into every home will understand. Those were the days when the first carols were heard only a few days before Christmas; when a boy soprano could send O Holy Night echoing through the shadows of an old church’s vaulted ceiling like an angel singing; when most of us could sing along with the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah. And some of us still can.

Radio, and later television, relieved us of the thirst for street corner brass band Christmas music, or the walk to church on Christmas Eve for a feast of carols. Sure, we can still find carol services in local churches and cathedrals but they have, alas, had their beauty – and their inspiration – diluted by the tidal wave of Christmas musak pumped out by radio, television and the ubiquitous piped music of the mall. Christmas carols swamp us from early November, and long before Christmas week we become overwhelmed, senses deadened, to any message from old hymns composed to lift the human spirit. They have become homogenized background sounds, ignored and unheeded, by stressed shoppers trying to buy the Christmas spirit.

It would be wonderful to see a voluntary ban on Christmas music until, at the earliest, December 15. Merchants could keep their marketing strategies and push for ever-higher Christmas sales, but have the good grace to leave what remains of the spiritual side of Christmas to the churches. It would bring me joy to see more downtown, week-before-Christmas, Salvation Army Band street concerts.

One other thing merchants could contribute to recapture lost Christmas values would be restoration of the old “lay away” plan – the pay before you take delivery scheme – that saw even the poorest of families able to buy Christmas gifts and wake up on Boxing Day debt free.

When I was the youngest lad in the family I had to accompany my mother and sister to the street market every Saturday morning, dreading at every step that I would meet a derisive schoolmate. The most important stop was at “The Co-operative”, a department store where Co-op members were encouraged to start in January to “lay away” for next Christmas. Every Saturday mother would buy a stamp for her most carefully protected possession “the Co-op stamp book.” The money for her stamps came from the floors she scrubbed; and the sheets she washed, ironed, and folded immaculately.

Come Christmas week she would have enough stamp money laid away to provide every member of her family with a present – including a new clay pipe and a stick of evil smelling black tobacco for my dad. My first bike – a Raleigh three speed – when I was 14 must have cost her acres of scrubbed floors, and a multitude of crisp white sheets. But when I got it in 1937 with a “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday” message, it was already paid for.

It was important to her – and to the merchants who served her – that there should always be enough money to pay the Christmas bills – before Christmas. Debt, both banks and merchants taught us back then, was bad.

I have given up on banks with their greedy credit card inducements to create ever higher “charge it” burdens, but I think merchants, with genuine Christmas good will, could lead us back to “lay away” debt free days. It would be a great Christmas gift to offer their customers. And if they gift-wrapped it with a promise of “no pablum caroling before December 15”, I would wish them all a PROSPEROUS AND VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS – and thanks for at least trying to create a debt free society.

(First published in 2004. Public – and government – personal debt continues to expand. My hopes remain firm, but alas, still only as a dream.)

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

It was cold as they crossed the fields. Hoar frost was sparkling on the grass in the small circles of light created by the several oil lamps carried by a group of men well muffled against a winter-night.
They didn’t have far to walk. Maybe 20 minutes from their lodgings in a once historic vicarage across the fields to Bockleton Manor. Readers who call England their “old country” and hail from Worcestershire or Herefordshire may recognize the name. It has been on record in one form or another since the Domesday Book was published in 1086.
The group of men now huddling through the cold and dark of a 1942 pre-Christmas night have little knowledge of the history. All they know is that the manor, now looming massive in the fragile light of moonrise, is a temporary “home” for children in care of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind (BRIB). The children had been evacuated from bomb threatened Birmingham in the early months of WW2 with boys re-located in Kinlet Hall, Shropshire; the girls in Bockleton Manor or Court.
The motley group now knocking on the ancient front door is mixed bag of conscientious objectors, some religious, some political, agnostics and few atheists. Their bunkhouse at the old vicarage is operated by Quakers and they are on hand this evening to offer pre-Christmas entertainment for children and BRIB staff – and the Lord of the Manor and his family if they were in residence and cared to attend. Ushered into the entrance hall then led to the great hall where they were to perform, the nondescript group of a dozen or so was viewed with curiosity and a touch of quizzical amusement. The thoughts were unspoken but obvious: What on earth is this rag-tag-bob-tail crew going to do to pleasingly entertain a large group of blind children, their discerning teachers and a handful of upper-crust gentry?
They had no way of knowing that in what looked like a clean but disheveled gang of ditch diggers, crop-harvesters and general farm labourers were a concert pianist, two classical violinists, a former conductor of the Welsh Junior Symphony Orchestra, four magnificent voices from Welsh Chapel choirs – one bass, one baritone, two tenors, two cast members from the long running British vaudeville show The Fol-de-Rols, and a few writers
The ‘‘Fols” started as a seaside beach show in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1911, and grew to become one of the most famous and best loved year-round touring shows in Britain until the 1970’s when changing times and tastes rang down its final curtain. It was once written of the Fols that their shows always “had an air of class about them” – and that is what the two former Fols were determined to deliver to this audience of blind children and their mentors.
Together with the musicians they had scripted a close to two-hour show featuring favourite songs old and new, piano and violin solos, classical and popular duets, skits with emphasis on loud slaps, bangs and shouts and terrible puns which brought laughter and cheers from the children – and groans from the adults. There were touches of Christmas throughout the concert, it being that time of the year, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
When the final chorus was sung and the cast had taken its bow, one of the blind school teachers said the children would like to say “thank you” by performing a song they had learned by heart and could sing without accompaniment.
The Great Hall seemed to pause in time. The girls grouped around their teacher waiting for their cue as we wondered what an all-girl choir of blind children, bright faced and best dressed, might sing. “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” seemed an appropriate guess.
We waited. Teacher gave them a note and in joyous voice, the girls of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind sent the ancient walls of the manor echoing with the unexpected but then popular song “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas” with the triumphal three hand claps that followed each short verse.
Seventy-five years later I can still recall the magical sound of that sheer, unexpected burst of joy, the answer of 50 or so blind children to adversity.
On the walk home, the hoar frost had thickened on the grass, the sky was clear, the moon bright enough to light our way without lanterns. And the talk was on the girls, some very young, some in their teens, who had chosen for their “thank you” an upbeat, happy song about big bright stars they had never seen and never would see.
As if on cue our group stopped and looked beyond the moonlight to the stars, then walked the rest of the way home in thoughtful silence. I know all this because I was there, a minor but privileged player, in a joyful Christmas story with a moral to be treasured and remembered.
And I hope, for all of you who read this piece, the next few days will lead you to a Christmas as bright and lasting as the stars.