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.

Strait-laced Morality Or No Laces At All?

It was a few years ago that I first wrote about revered poet Lord Byron and wondered how he would make out reputation-wise in today’s world of confusion when moral and amoral standards are debated.
Byron was 36 when he died in Greece on April 19, 1824 – a day still fondly remembered by lovers of beautiful writing who gather to recite his tender “She walks in beauty like the night”, murmur the hinted bawdiness of “So we’ll go no more a roving” and shed a tear for “Fare thee well”. They react with dismay when reminded Byron was far from a loyal lover or friend and cared little for those whose lives were ruined by his amoral arrogance.
It is written that he contracted a fever and died while being treated by what was then the standard procedure of bloodletting. When the news reached England, the reaction was traumatic. A national hero in the UK – and revered in Greece where he had gone to join that nation in its war with the Ottoman Empire – his body was embalmed and returned to England. Some sources say his heart was removed before that final journey. The people of Greece wanted some part of their hero to remain with them.
In England his body lay in state for two days and news reports of the day record “huge crowds” lining the streets to pay their respects before he was to be interred in Westminster Abbey. But the Abbey balked at the request for an honoured resting place from supporters of a man they felt of “questionable morality” and denied the request. It was written that he had lived a life full of “aristocratic excesses, huge debts, (and) numerous love affairs with more than one gender.”
Undeterred, Byron’s friends – and they were many – launched a successful fund-raising drive to commission a statue. That work by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen was completed in 1834. However, it remained in storage for 10 years while the country debated where to place it. The British Museum declined to display it. So did St. Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery – and holding fast to its original refusal, Westminster Abbey.
Trinity College, Cambridge, finally found a quiet corner for the statue.
In 1907, a lively debate calling for some sort of recognition for Byron was supported by the New York Times. In a column signed “Galbraith” the NYT suggested England should be proud to honour Byron, not ashamed of him just because he had lived a flamboyant immoral life. The writer admitted “neither Byron’s writing nor his mode of life are such as to appeal to the straitlaced, this seems to be no excuse for refusing the great poet proper recognition.”
In 1969, 145 years after his death, a modest memorial was placed in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. It is a replica of one the King of Greece donated to mark Byron’s grave at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
It all leaves me wondering still how the play would end if re-enacted today. Would our easily frenzied media be in high “straitlaced” dudgeon concentrating only on Byron’s extravagant but contemptuously tawdry life style? Would the Twittering classes be breaking viral records regurgitating the latest Byronic sexual romps – both hetero and homo?
It leaves me wondering too, if in the 48-years since Byron was accorded his “modest” marker in Westminster Abbey, “amoral” has overwhelmed “immoral” and if the world is paying a high price for the switch from “straitlaced” morality to “no laces required at all?”

What Took Them So Long?

Contrary to popular belief, automobiles powered by electricity
are not new. They were silently rolling around workshop yards in Scotland, Holland, Hungary and the USA close to 70 years before the first gasoline powered car rattled down the streets of my hometown Victoria, British Columbia.

Tradition has it that first “horseless carriage” to thrill Victoria residents was part of a travelling circus making a city stop in 1899. In her fascinating book Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper-Class Victoria 1843-1918, Valerie Green tells us after the circus departed “the first automobile of note to be acknowledged as such was owned by Dr. Edward Charles Hart, one-time Victoria coroner. His was a 3.5 horsepower Oldsmobile that arrived in Victoria on May 23, 1902, to be driven down Johnson Street the following day by its proud owner. It set Dr. Hart back $900 and was capable of achieving speeds of 15 miles an hour.”

While the natives and immigrants to the British Colony on Vancouver Island were marveling at the noisy but wonderful new gasoline driven carriage, old world scientists were reaching beyond internal combustion. Between 1832 and 1839 Scotsman Robert Anderson, Holland’s Sibrandus Stratingh, Hungarian inventor Anyos Jedlik and one Christopher Becker claimed to have electric vehicles up and running.

It is generally held that Anderson of Scotland was the first to invent what is described as “the first crude electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.” Some insist the leadership claim is still under debate. The life of Anderson’s first car – described as “a crude beast” was as brief as its non-renewable battery, but it launched the search which continues to this day for ever better long-life or easy to recharge batteries that can store power for longer periods.

It may be surprising to some that the electric cars now being re-introduced to our highways and byways as the new and best way to go drive-about are merely re-claiming a position they once held in the late 19th century and early 20th. Englishman Thomas Parker, electrical engineer, is credited as being the man who built the first practical electric car powered by his then revolutionary high-capacity rechargeable batteries.

That was in 1884. Four years later German inventor Andreas Flocken introduced the Flocken Elektrowagen and by the turn of the century, electric powered cars were the vehicle of choice. It is estimated that by the time 1900 rolled around 30,000 electric powered vehicles were offering a level of comfort and ease of operation far beyond gasoline driven vehicles.

In that same year, 192 cars were produced in the fledgling USA auto building industry. Twenty-eight per cent were powered by electricity. Of all the cars on the roads of New York, Boston and Chicago one third were electric. Close to 20 per cent of New York taxis were electric – and then came 1908 and Henry Ford’s Model T; gasoline powered, noisy, and polluting, but within financial reach of most working families.

Four years later Charles Kettering (cct) invented the electrical starter to eliminate the heavy hand cranking required to start an internal combustion engine. The push-button starter and mushrooming proliferation of gasoline and service stations made internal combustion king of the road with non-polluting electric cars pushed into hibernation.

Close to 100 years later, a stirring of environmental conscience and ever rising gas prices resurrected the desire for clean electric power. Major auto manufacturers are now switching entirely or partially back to electric or hybrid power, all claiming leadership in the race for cleaner air.

When we remember that the first hybrid car running on gasoline and electricity was built by Porsche in 1899, it seems justifiable to ask the entire auto industry – what took you so long?

The Price of Free Speech

There’s no such thing as completely “free” speech.

Not in the big wide world where carefully written laws wisely protect others from defamatory statements.Punishment can be dire for those who carelessly violate established rules.

Even in our democratic parliaments where elected politicians are protected by what they call “privilege” there are “rules of order” which forbid the use of certain words and phrases. Members may be protected from criminal charges for anything said in Parliamentary debate – but they can be evicted from the debating chamber if they use words deemed “unparliamentary” by the Speaker.

BC Legislature Speaker Darryl Plecas and Liberal Party House Leader Michael de Jong, QC, had a bit of a tiff over such words earlier this month.

Speaker Plecas had interrupted question period with a request that Liberals stop using phony titles when addressing questions to cabinet members. De Jong complained that as no unparliamentary language had been used in the mock title game Liberal questioners were not in violation of House rules.

Speaker Plecas ruled the fake titles were mocking or derogatory, disrespectful “and reflect poorly on this institution.” He also reminded de Jong to be careful with future challenges to his rulings.House rules are set by the members,enforced by the Speaker

A minor push and shove in the grand scheme of things, but surprising when we recall the BC Legislature has pages of words and phrases banned from the debating chamber. A quick glance down the list would have convinced de Jong he was on shaky ground defending fake titles as passing the parliamentary usage test.

A few, very few, banned words and phrases: “Art of the clown … cheap politics … chintzy … deliberate film-flam … flippant … fraudulent … less than honest … phony charades … snow job.” And that’s just a minor sampling of the words and phrases BC politicians from past eras have used, been ordered to withdraw and been evicted from the chamber if they refused to comply.

The BC list may be longer, but its banned words and phrases are mild when compared with New Zealand’s House of Representatives list. Maybe the Kiwis are better educated. They are certainly more colourful,robust, and pack a sharper punch before they are sanctioned.

In BC, an MLA will be rebuked and ordered to withdraw if he refers to a fellow member as “a fumbling old man.” In New Zealand, the Speaker has had occasion to discipline a member who accused another of having the “idle vaporing of a mind diseased.” In our Belleville Street palace of laughs, calling another member “thickheaded” would bring instant rebuke and an order to apologize. In New Zealand, a similar unacceptable accusation was recorded as “his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides.”

It drew a Speaker’s rebuke and was ruled “unbecoming, insulting, or otherwise unparliamentary.” I can’t disagree with the ruling, but confess I prefer the colourful Kiwi quote to a shout of “thickheaded.”

It’s more than 100 years ago that the great wordsmith Sir Winston Churchill showed politicians how to get around vigilant parliamentary language police. That was in 1906 when, as Under Secretary of the Colonial Office, he was asked if the government was condoning the slavery of Chinese labourers in South Africa’s Transvaal province.

He replied the word “slavery in its full sense could not be applied without a risk of terminological inexactitude.” It became an acceptable way of implying someone was lying without actually saying so.

I guess we haven’t really made much progress since Winston. Our BC politicians still shout carelessly worded insults across the floor with little thought to the use of words – or their own language rules. We hear occasional promises of reformed debate but never see it. As a New Zealand MP once said, we approach the problem of elevating debate language with “the energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral.”

And, yes, it’s on the Kiwi unparliamentary list. It is also true.

When The Play Becomes Reality

They sat quietly, voices muted in softly spoken conversation as they waited in the theatre lobby for the last line of the old hymn “Abide with me…” to come to a wavering close. Inside the small theatre an impromptu “choir” of maybe 120 voices, all over the age of 60, most in their 80’s and more than a few past 90, triumphantly chorused “I triumph still…” and took their seats. It was the final act in the traditional Remembrance Day service celebrated by the residents of Berwick Royal Oak retirement residence – and the cue for the 75 waiting students from the Canadian College of the Performing Arts to take the stage.

Orderly, with well rehearsed discipline, they formed a line to begin their walk down the theatre aisle to centre stage. The elderly audience watched in silence as the young actors took positions as directed by Heather Burns, Artistic and Education Director at CCPA since last summer. She was waiting with customary “nerves” for the first public performance of her Remembrance Day Tribute to open.Inspiration for her script had come from current musicals,personal correspondence and official documents from two World Wars her students’s families had made available.

In clear female voice early words from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen
ring out to open the performance: “Solemn the drums thrill … They went with song to the battle; they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.” And, then the best remembered lines: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn …”

The Tribute of Remembrance as told in rhyme and song, in personal letters and official reports was underway and it became quickly obvious this would not be a story of great battles won. It would be closer to a John Masefield’s “Consecration” piece, a story: “Not of the princes and prelates with periwigged charioteers riding triumphantly laurelled to lap the fat of the years – rather the scorned – the rejected – the men hemmed in with the spears”

So, it is personal stories these well-prepared students tell of rich and poor and middle class warriors and those who waited at home for the cruelest of telegrams: “We regret to inform you…” your husband or son, or both, are (hopefully just) “missing in action” or, with dreadful finality “have been killed in action.”

I recognized none of the names recited but as I listened memory buds were touched and brought to life and after a while I was no longer a member of the audience, but part of the play.

As the actors tell the story of a widow receiving news of her only son’s death, my mind flashes back to 1976 when I wrote in a newspaper column from St. Desir, Normandy: “The birds are singing whatever French birds sing. A soft wind from the coast touches the low trees and shrubs. There are rows and rows of red roses in full bloom. A simple white cross, one of 598 in this small war cemetery, reads: “Sapper J. Cook, 5127714 Royal Engineers, Aug. 16, 1944. Age 22.” Beneath those cold statistics there is a promise that ‘mam and dad and his wife’ would always “remember.”

Let it be noted “mam” is English Midlands, not a spelling error. Jack was my cousin, a year older and a best friend of childhood.

It was a friendship that went deeper than most. In those far off days, I had become a bit of an outcast in my extended family. While most of my numerous cousins had buckled on their armour and gone to war, I had chosen the path of pacifism. At the tender know-it-all age of 18, I was positively sure war was not the path to peace.

Jack Cook, sapper, Royal Engineers, was the only member of my extended family to write to me in May 1944 to defend my right to make a choice. Not to agree with me. Just to say I should not be intimidated by family disapproval. It was a “this above all to thine own self be true” letter written when he already knew a June D-day was getting close. Less than a month later he was killed near Caen. And, it all came flooding back – especially when I realized 32 years later as I read his grave marker that I had never known Jack was married.

I remember feeling betrayed because I had never been informed or invited to the wedding. But I knew the answer – and now all I could do in response for his loyal support when my world had become a lonely place was put a few fresh flowers on his grave.

I didn’t hear the final minutes of Ms.Burns Remembrance Tribute. I was back in my room,tears unchecked, unashamed, even happy that a group of talented young actors and their script writer had the ability to revive 73-year-old memories I should never have forgotten.

I may not have recognized any of the names the actors mentioned, but I knew them all through cousin Jack,the young wife I never met and his “mam and dad” my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Fletcher.

And I’m thankfully reminded by the young actors of CCPA I still owe them all.

Remembering Civilian Death Toll

When we remember the fallen we sometimes forget events like November 14, 1940, an ear-nipping cold and crisply clear evening and a perfect setting for the rise of an orange-tinted, full Hunter’s Moon. It was 7 p.m. and I was just off a 12-hour shift at Alfred Herbert’s machine tool factory waiting for a bus to take me nine miles home.

At 7:10 p.m. air raid sirens began their ululating wail to warn “hostile aircraft” were in the vicinity. And, just a few minutes later incendiary bombs – small cylinders containing either gasoline or phosphorous – came clattering over roof tops to challenge the moon for the right to light the streets. Like most 16-year-olds I knew the incendiary drill. Crash a bag of sand to block the bright mini-fire or lacking sand bags use a garbage can lid. Or anything else to deprive heavy duty bombers from following a clear-lit path to whatever was their target for the night. Incendiaries were not large, but they burned bright.

At around 7:30 the first high explosives began to fall. It would be 11 more hours before the last tumbled from the skies. Thankfully, we didn’t know that, we just thought the German Luftwaffe was starting a little earlier than usual so would be finished and back home in Europe after a four-hour nuisance raid leaving us to catch a few hours’ sleep.

My bus arrived about the same time, I scrambled on and with a bus load of other workers headed for home. As we reached the outskirts of the city the driver shouted we should look out the back window and see what we had just left. It was only eight o’clock and a great fire was already burning, pulsating like a heartbeat each time another high explosive bomb struck home. The entire centre of the city looked to be on fire and in the middle of the flames was the centuries old St. Michaels Coventry Cathedral. But, we didn’t know that until morning came.

Actually, it wasn’t until the afternoon of the 15th that I got to see the results of the raid – code named Operation Mondscheinsonate (named afte Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata). All night I had watched Coventry burn from nine miles away, forbidden to return by old soldier parents until the bombing stopped. It would be 6:30 a.m. before the all clear sounded and half a dozen of us, all 15 or 16 years old, climbed on our bikes and rode back into the still burning city to help where we could.

The city had been without power or water since the first wave of 500 bombers began unloading 500 tonnes of high explosives and 36,000 incendiaries killing 568 and seriously injuring more than 1,000 more. The dead were buried five days after the raid in a mass grave in London Road Cemetery. A small, white curved wall records their names.

With our factory without power and water we ran errands, delivered messages and tried to look brave when a bundle of rags that was once human beings was pulled from wreckage. It was late afternoon getting dusk, low cloud, no visible moon when I saw the shattered Cathedral, walls still standing around a pile of rubble and fire blackened roof timbers. Someone had bound two charred beams together in a cross and placed it where the altar had once stood. On the shattered wall behind someone had chalked “Father forgive.” The original cross is now stored safe from the elements, but a replica still stands where it was originally placed. The chalked message faded with the years but now remains unchanged on a more permanent bronze plaque.

Coventry would suffer 18 more air raids, but none as massive as Moonlight Sonata, although two came close. On the night of April 8/9 in 1941 some 289 civilians were killed, 470 seriously injured. The following night, 170 died, 150 badly wounded.

Within months those numbers became minor in the killing game as Allied air forces responded with mass destructions of property and civilians in Dresden, Cologne, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Berlin and other German cities. The estimated civilian dead totalled 600,000 including 76,000 children.

In 1945, single bomber raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and two nuclear bombs eclipsed them all in terror, death and destruction.

In 1958, Canon Joseph Pool wrote The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation. It is still prayed at noon each weekday in the new Cathedral which remains firmly linked to the shell of the old. And every Friday at noon the brief ceremony moves to ancient St. Michaels to pray in front of the charred cross for an end to “the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class” and from “the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own’’ and “the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth” and “our envy of the welfare and happiness of others” and “our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless and the refugee.”

“Father forgive,” is the response to each reminder of human failings. But, it is not made on behalf of others, but for ourselves. It’s not a bad litany for Remembrance Day – the day we remember our dead but sometimes forget who they were.

On Celebrating Terrorism

From the pleasant company of children and the elderly sharing life Camelot style (last week’s blog) to the dark side of celebrating the life and actions of a religious terrorist organization.

I’m thinking of November 5, 1605; the day Guy Fawkes – a Roman Catholic zealot – was arrested as he prepared to light a fuse leading to 36 barrels of gunpowder placed to destroy the English Parliament and kill the Protestant king who was scheduled to visit parliament that day.

Fawkes was arrested in the early morning hours and refused to answer any questions until King James, the first King of a united England and Scotland, authorized interrogators to use persuasive torture “gradually proceeding to the worst.” In the 1600s that would have been “the rack,” a feared machine designed to stretch arms and legs to dislocation and beyond. Fawkes resisted for two days before naming 12 Roman Catholic co-conspirators.

With the 13 zealots jailed, King James, with enthusiastic support from politicians who had just escaped ugly assassination, called for a celebration. The population was asked to light bonfires and set off a few minor fireworks but to make sure “that this testimony of joy be carefully done without any danger or disorder.” Before the first anniversary rolled, around November 5 was declared an annual national holiday by a formal Act of Parliament, a day on which the people should give thanks for such a “joyful day of deliverance.” It became compulsory to celebrate – or become a suspected terrorist.

Guy Fawkes Day remains a holiday in the UK and “bonfire night” has become a major tourist attraction in London and other high tourist centres. One of the bonfires is expecting a crowd of 30,000 this year. Traditionally, an effigy of Fawkes is tossed on the fire, although some Protestant-organized burns have torched a replica pope or two.

Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night is also still celebrated in New Zealand, Canada (Newfoundland, Ontario and British Columbia). However, it would seem that the celebration is diminishing in interest as Halloween, celebrated three days earlier and, once a children’s trick or treat event, has been taken over by adults and expanded. On Vancouver Island, Nanaimo maintains old and newer traditions with backyard bonfires on Oct. 31 – Halloween and November 5.

Nanaimo Fire Department posted its annual warning for bonfire lovers a few days ago: “Two fires means two fire permits – and be careful with the fireworks.” In Australia, Guy Fawkes Day stayed a big event until the 1970s when a spate of firework injuries and dangerous fires saw the government ban all sales and public use of fireworks. Without the blaze and bang, Guy Fawkes is now unknown Down Under.

It remains a wonderment to me that Fawkes is still kept “alive” by annual bonfires, mini-explosions and joyful celebration. He and his companions were found guilty of everything we profess to deplore: treachery and killing in the name of God. The gunpowder plot was organized to kill a Protestant king and many other innocents within range of the explosion. The would-be killers were religious fanatics who regarded any and all Protestants as mortal enemies to be converted or killed; and they brought unbelievable suffering to their law-abiding brother and sister Roman Catholics who found themselves suddenly banned by revenge-driven Protestants from practicing law, holding officer rank in the military or voting in local or national elections. It would be more than 200 years before the right to vote was restored.

Robert Catesby was the mastermind of the terrorist group. Fawkes just drew the job of igniting the fuse leading to 36 barrels of gun powder. When arrested, he was carrying a slow fuse and a rare pocket watch to time the main fuse lighting.

Eight of the plotters, including Fawkes, were brought to trial in January 1606 and quickly found guilty of treason by Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham. Each of the condemned was to be placed “with his head near the ground” and dragged by a horse to the place of execution. There he would be forced to climb a high ladder from which he would be pushed to hang “halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both” until by court order genitals were cut off and “burned before their eyes” and “while still living” their bowels and heart removed.

Decapitation followed with the remains left “prey for the birds of the air.” The bodies were then “quartered” and sent for public display to all corners of the kingdom. Fawkes jumped or fell from the ladder breaking his neck in the fall thus avoiding the agony and despair of the final mutilations. He was still quartered his body parts distributed around the country, a warning for all would-be terrorist

Some 492 years later on Nov 5, millions in Great Britain and thousands of ex-Brits around the world will again celebrate “the joyful day of deliverance” with bonfires and bangs and maybe a mulled glass of wine or two. A few might wonder about the tragedy of it all and have another drink.

After all it was a long time ago and why spoil a good party.

One Brief Shining Moment

I never lived in Camelot where “rain may never fall till after sunset and by eight the morning fog must disappear,” but I have shared real “brief shining moments” of what life was like in that mythical land created by Lerner and Loewe.

My latest glimpse was a few days ago – on a Tuesday morning when the usual calm embrace of Berwick Royal Oak, my semi-rural retirement residence, was interrupted by a flow of children burbling like a pebbled creek.

They were students from Strawberry Vale K-5 elementary school located on Rosedale Avenue “surrounded by Garry Oak meadows” and sporting a stream and pond as an outdoor classroom. It is home school for 304 students with what looks like 25 or 30 of them in the subdued chattering group that was politely flowing through Berwick’s corridors.

They were bright of face, neat of dress as befits students from a school listing among its aims “caring, sharing, learning,” as they were shepherded past the in-house Interdenominational Chapel, seconded this day for flu shots. While seniors waited in line for their shot, the young flood swept on in search of a bloodline grandfather or grandmother – or lacking such, a designated volunteer granddad and grandmother.

The adults were waiting in what the natives call The Zoom Room, the well-equipped exercise room where oldies like I go once in a while to dream about the days when we didn’t need machines to help us run. Or walk.

Fully in charge were the four Berwick recreation program staffers – Debby Macmurchie, Wendy Thomas, Annalise Moller and Bonnie Kamsteeg. Within minutes, they had the youngsters sorted – two students to an adult and one pumpkin to prepare for the First Annual Berwick Royal Oak Great Pumpkin Parade scheduled for 6 p.m. that evening.The workers cut and carved until it was time for the young to return to school for an afternoon of study while senior carvers sought afternoon naps.

There were 50 pumpkins – pre-prepared by Strawberry Vale and returned hollowed out for the master-mistress carvers and their carefully supervised students. Not all the end-products were masterpieces, but a few came close – and a few looked fiercely hacked and hewed. But they all looked wonderful as dusk fell and 50 orange beacons guided mothers and fathers around a patio garden trail, over a sweeping bridge, a cascading waterfall and back to a pool patio where live music played and hot chocolate was served with mini-treats for young care giving “carvers.”

As stated earlier, I never lived in Camelot – but I’ve been there for short visits as I am sure everyone who has lived to adulthood has and “Each evening before you drift to sleep upon your cot/ Think back on all the tales that you remember … that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory/ Called Camelot.”

Wonderful memories but too often accompanied with regrets of “what might have been” had we worked harder to give shining moments longer life; to make Camelot more than a dream. There is always hope that our children will succeed where we, the departing generation have failed. That they will come to understand that the openness of their childhood love, their joy in giving and sharing with refreshing laughter, their faith and trust and the quality of innocence, make much sounder foundations to build on than the one we are leaving them.

A Bully’s Finger on the Trigger

Two major issues faced the world in 1951 when Winston Churchill was trying to win back the keys to No.10 Downing Street after his surprise ejection from the prime minister’s residence in 1945.

There was a war in Korea with North Korea attempting to conquer the South; and there was concern that the U.S., with General Douglas MacArthur in command of an American-dominated United Nations military force, might be tempted to use nuclear weapons to win a war it was patently losing. Britain had already assigned 100,000 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel to the United Nations force. (Canada sent 26,000.)

The Labour Party’s campaign raised the spectre of the Korean conflict escalating to a nuclear ending. Figuring the voters would still be anti-war and therefore anti-Churchill, one of Labour’s campaign slogan was: “Whose finger do you want on the trigger?” The voters apprehensively decided that if the nation was again going to war, they would rather have the old warhorse Churchill “on the trigger” than the Labour Party’s Clement Atlee – whom Churchill once described as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Winston and the Conservatives were re-elected with a narrow majority.

Earlier in April 1951, U.S. President Harry Truman had removed General MacArthur from his command of the Korean War force on the grounds of “insubordination and unwillingness to conduct a limited war.” It was believed the move would silence those who thought MacArthur might dip into the U.S. nuclear arsenal if push came to shove with North Korea’s great ally China.

President Truman, having authorized the use of atomic bombs in WW2 to end a war with Japan, obviously wanted no part of a repeat performance that could start a war with China. But concern remained.

The Korean War continued until 1953 when North and South agreed to an uneasy cease fire, but not to a war-ending truce. South and North Korea are still officially at war. And, the United Nations and the United States still promised the South protection from North Korean invasion.

The current President of the U.S., Donald Trump, openly advances the nuclear threat if North Korea doesn’t stop threatening the South, Japan, U.S. territories and the rest of the world with its newly-acquired nuclear weaponry. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the President has said, “will be met with fire, fury and frankly power which this world has never seen before.”

So here we are decades after my troubled “traditionalist” generation (1946-64) produced the “baby boomers” who grew up fighting for civil rights. The boomers vigorously opposed the North/South Viet Nam war which had replaced the North/South Korean stalemate of 1953, and daily read of, or listened to, cold war threats and counter threats as the great nuclear arms race between Russia and the U.S. chilled the world.

It was a time when duck and cover was not an earthquake drill. Movies like Threads and The Day After – depicting life after a nuclear war – played to somber, silent audiences and Dr. Strangelove left the world laughing – albeit nervously.

When Generation X took over (1965-1980) things hadn’t changed much. The United States was deeply involved in the embarrassing Watergate scandal which led to the pitiful resignation of President Richard Nixon. GenXers had stepped up the pursuit of prosperity and affluence and so-called sexual freedom was replacing morality. Fathers and mothers joined the work force to increase their earning power and a new generation of latch-key children was born. It has been said of GenX that “their perceptions were shaped by growing up having to take care of themselves early and watching their politicians lie and their parents get laid off. (They) came of age when the U.S. was losing its status as the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world.” And wars and rumours of wars continued.

Then came the Millennials, or the Boomer Echoes, or whatever the fancy phrase is for this generation of movers and shakers. They must be shaking their heads if they have read any history at all, and they must be wondering how civilization could have come so far in the past 80 years to have made such little progress running what should be a wonderful world.

The year is 2017, edging quickly to 2018. The once most powerful and richest nation in the world is being pushed off centre stage by homegrown follies. It is again being challenged by small, nuclear-wielding North Korea. A vaudevillian clown, but dangerous president, plays the lead role with unvarnished, arrogant, boastful, shameful, attitudes towards women, people of different races, the sick and less fortunate.His back-up chorus is a duly-elected government lacking the courage, or the conscience, to truly make their country great again; a government that stands silently by ineffectually wondering how best to remove a bully’s finger from the nuclear trigger.

Maybe the rapidly-emerging, next generation, the “robotic generation” can provide the answers that continue to elude their inventors. Hopefully, before the man who now holds the trigger pulls it.

“Undue Influence” – Who Used It, Who Bowed To It?

I listened carefully. Took copious notes as part of my effort to stay awake during the tedious, repetitious, NDP attempts to justify billing already harried taxpayers for their next election campaign expenses. I was comfortably ensconced watching and listening to TV at “home.”

Speaker after NDP speaker emphasized their new government had only goodwill in its heart when it proposed taxpayers pay $30 million plus to listen to a brand new manifesto of yet-to-be-fulfilled election doctrine.

Well-rehearsed, as party discipline dictates, they stolidly repeated the main reason for the decision to ban or severely curb the use of “big money” to fund future election campaigns. The $30 million plus from taxpayers described by Premier John Horgan as “modest in the grand scheme of things,” would end “undue influence” by large donors on future government decisions.

I noted the repeated theme that banning big money donations, especially from large corporations, would “end” undue influence. I waited for names, times, places, proof of wronging doing by the companies so engaged. I waited for the names of government officials – elected or in the public service – on whom “undue influence” had been exerted and in what form. I listened carefully, but without reward.

There were assumptions: A corporation donating heavily to a governing political party before or after winning a multi-million dollar contract must, ergo, be guilty of exerting undue influence; and someone in the former Liberal government must have been equally guilty of being influenced. The assumption is easy to believe, but assumptions – based on what we like to think happened not what actually did happen – are examples of malice at its worst.

So, if the government that sat in opposition for a decade or more insists on peddling its “undue influence” theme to support its planned raid on taxpayer’s savings, could it please provide substantiating facts in “who, what, where, when and why” format. In fairness, it could at the same time provide us with similar answers as to which New Democrats responded to the “unfair influence” of heavy donors to the NDP. Then we’ll know where the weak spots are on both sides of aisle.

For an entertaining read of miscellaneous truths, half-truths and unlimited vanities from the Legislature, do a search of “political scandals in BC.” It’s a fairly long list compared with other provinces but that’s because we have provincial media that loves to hype the inconsequential. There are “conflict of interest” items ranging from heavy duty to, in retrospect, laughably clumsy efforts to make a quick dollar by ignoring rules – and two or three involving bad decisions. Some covered up cost overruns on major projects but only one was a major scandal with proven “undue influence.”

There was the fast ferry fiasco of the 1990s NDP era that saw a fleet of fast ferries built at enormous cost and sold at fire sale prices before they ever went into operation in BC; the Coquihalla Highway Social Credit cover-up of $200 million-plus in cost overruns – making the final cost more than double the original estimates and all racked up in the haste to get the highway opened in time for Expo 86 in Vancouver. Bitter criticism of the project didn’t fade until 2008 when Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government lifted the toll on the highway. It had generated $845 million in revenues.

And the big one, the only one, with a clear exposure of “undue influence,” abuse of privilege, bribes, accusations leading first to judicial inquiry, then a trial and the jailing for five years of W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit Minister of Forests Robert Sommers. He was the first ever cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth to be jailed for accepting a bribe.

It all started in February 1955 when “Bull of the Woods” Liberal MLA Gordon Gibson sent the Legislature into frenzied disarray with his booming accusation that “money talks” in the forest industry. In the chaos, Speaker Thomas Irwin ordered the House adjourned. The following day Gibson was ordered to withdraw his charges. He refused. Mr. Justice Arthur Lord was assigned to investigate and reported he found no basis for Gibson’s charges.

Sommers launched libel suits, but the unwavering Gibson continued his attacks in the House until, in 1956, after 300 days of stonewalling by Attorney General Robert Bonner, Sommers was finally dropped from cabinet. Gibson kept prodding. The RCMP investigated and in November 1957, reported it had discovered “definite indications of wrongdoing.” Sommers was arrested and after an 80-day trial found guilty of accepting bribes. He served 28 months of his five-year sentence, then spent his final years in Qualicum where he died aged 89 in 2000, still claiming he was innocent.

There are lessons here for Premier Horgan. He needs to remember while being premier can feed your vanity it can also starve your self-respect and the respect of others. And it’s the latter that will win the next election not assumptions without factual foundations and taxpayer funding without just cause.

(The “feed your vanity starve your self-respect” thought was originally expressed by Matthew Parris writing about politicians in general in The Times in 1994.)