Month: December 2015

Ring In The Kindlier Heart

That’s it then. Another year tucked away in the memory treasure chest and nothing we can now do to change what we have already done for better or for worse. I’m sure we have all had our triumphs and maybe an unfair share of failures or the bitter garnish of loss. But 2015 is over now, or, depending on where you live, soon will be over. So, time to step forward with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s New Year inspiration and challenge:

“Ring out wild bells, to the wild sky/The flying cloud, the frosty light, The year is dying in the night; / Ring out wild bell’s and let him die.

“Ring out the old, ring in the new, / Ring happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; / Ring out the false, ring in the true.

“Ring out the grief that saps the mind, / For those that here we see no more, / Ring out the feud of rich and poor, / Ring in redress to all mankind.

“Ring out a slowly dying cause, / And ancient forms of party strife; / Ring in the nobler modes of life, / With sweeter manners, purer laws.

“Ring out the want, the care the sin, / The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in.

“Ring out false pride in place and blood, / The civic slander and the spite; / Ring in the love of truth and right, / Ring in the common love of good.

“Ring out old shapes of foul disease, / Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; / Ring out the thousand wars of old. /Ring in the thousand years of peace.

“Ring in the valiant man and free, / The larger heart, the kindlier hand; / Ring out the darkness of the land, / Ring in the Christ that is to be.”

You think Tennyson set the bar too high for normal mortals? Come now, read the list thoughtfully and most of his targets are within reach of us all, young or old, strong or weak, rich or poor. We can all, every day, put more emphasis on truth and work to appreciate that some old causes can no longer be justified and should be abandoned.

It is not beyond our strength to strive to eliminate “the want, the care,…..the faithless coldness of the times.” Surely “truth and right with the common love of good” are more desirable and as easy to acquire and hold as “false pride in place and blood” and “civic slander and spite” so prevalent in todays politics and press.

Even if the name of Christ in the last line offends non-Christians, the aim of his teaching to narrow “the lust of gold” while striving to build communities of men and women with “larger hearts and kindlier hands”, shouldn’t.

It may be true that the end of “a thousand wars” to be replaced by “the thousand years of peace” will remain an impossible dream, but it would surely be comforting at the end of the brief time we are allowed on Planet Earth, to know we had tried. And maybe, just maybe, shone a little light “in the darkness of the land” and brought some warmth to “the coldness of our times” as we passed through.

 

 

A Sometimes Magical Journey

A strange feeling ticking past the 92-year-old mark and being reminded that when I was born electricity was a new and dangerous invention, radio broadcasting was in its fumbling infancy and not expected to survive and television was a ridiculous dream.

It’s a fact. I was close to 10-years old before the magical “electric light” found its way to my home in a small town on the edge of British Midlands “black country”. My first decade was illuminated by gas, burning bright in small “mantles” to provide just enough light to read – and available only in the town area. My grandparents, living just beyond the town boundaries, never had that comfort. For them the oil lamp was the after-dark comforter. As a child I watched with wonder as the “gasman” rode his bicycle down the street and via a long pole, carried like a jousting knight, reached up and flicked the spark to light the street lamps. His dusk routine was repeated as dawn broke and the street lights were flicked off.

My mother was afraid of electricity. It took her weeks to pluck up the courage to press the shining switch on the wall and flood the kitchen with light – and even longer to stop cautiously watching the elements in the clear bulbs flicker. She was convinced they were trying to get out and electrocute the family.

We didn’t get our first radio until late in the 1930’s – eight years after the Postmaster General of England issued the first permits for “vocal and gramophone selections and calibration signals for amateurs” to be broadcast via a transmitter at Writtle in the county of Essex. That was on Valentine’s Day 1922. In his book The Age of Illusion Ronald Blythe tells us the Writtle experiments led the newly formed British Broadcasting Company (later to become the Corporation –the BBC) to convince the public the new invention was more than just a new toy. In 1922 some 10,000 people paid for licenses to listen to far from reliable broadcasts. A year later in 1923 there were 500,000, in 1924 1,129,00 and by 1927, reports Blythe, “when the British Broadcasting Company became British Broadcasting Corporation and a moral force in the land it was estimated two and a half million had a wireless set.”

The Hume family was not among the license holders, nor were millions of other Britons still struggling to come to grips with the massive casualty lists of World War One. Few working class homes had been untouched by death or the return home of a shattered father, son or brother. It was time when the entire nation was suffering what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Compounding the distress was the world-wide Great Depression which saw the ranks of the unemployed in the United Kingdom swell to more than three million. My father was among them. My mother took in washing, cleaned houses for the well to do, lost three children to diseases which are curable today and somehow kept me and a sister from harm’s way.

The hunger and the shabbiness of the recession were replaced with the terror by night of WW2. But mother no longer needed to take in washing or clean the homes of other folk. Dad was working, sister was working, I was working, we had post office savings accounts – and food, clothes and anything that even hinted at luxury was either severely rationed or unobtainable.

That’s the way it still was in 1948 when I, newlywed, proud father of a first born son and encouraged by a brave wife made a break for British Columbia, Canada. There have been a few bumps in the road since that journey began, but a lot of triumphs, too. As a family we have walked through the valley of the shadow and emerged the stronger for the journey, as have so many friends and colleagues who helped me on my way.

I thank you all for your many kindnesses, your help along the way and your pleasantly surprising 92nd birthday greetings. It would have been a lonely journey without you.

 

Forget,Forgive,Touch Hands

It is a time for giving and a time for receiving whatever gifts we have to offer family, friends or people we have never known and never will. It’s a time for rejoicing, for reflection and the remembering of old friends who can no longer share our festive board.

It’s a time for happiness, remembering old times, old friends, not with tears of sadness but with thankful joy for lives once shared and never forgotten; a time for me to remind readers, as I have now for many years, of William Henry Harrison “Adirondack” Murray’s story John Norton’s Vagabond, the tale of the old man who used to invite wilderness friends and neighbours to his cabin for Christmas dinner and ask them at the end of a long evening of celebration:

“Ah, friend dear friends, as years go on and heads get gray, how fast the guests do go!

Touch hands, touch hands, with those that stay.

Strong hands to weak, old hands to young, around the Christmas board, touch hands.

The false forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go and every fire burn low and cabin empty stand.

Forget, forgive, for who may say that Christmas day my ever come to host or guest again.

Touch hands.”

“Adirondack” Murray died in 1904. More than 100 years later the message remains strong. Enjoy, rejoice, forget, forgive and, always being conscious of the uncertain future – touch hands.

It’s a not a gloomy message. Just a reminder of other words you could probably once recite from memory – but could never recall the name of the “attributed to” author Ettienne De Grellett (1773-1855).

They are not Christmas specific – but this most joyous of seasons is a good time for each one of us to remember and recite:

“I shall pass through this world but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, let me do it now; let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

And, all who have read this far, I wish you a Happy Christmas – with many more to come and lots of time for acts of kindness and good things to do. Starting now to be sure the thoughts become actions.

 

 

Power With Responsibility

Power is a wonderful thing to have if you know how to use it for the common good, for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately, many of the people who hold power handle it badly. They know the dangers but all too easily forget them. They forget that power must always be accompanied with commonsense, mixed well with tolerance and measured by the understanding that however great the power we hold – we could be wrong.

Here in the pleasant glades of bucolic Victoria on Canada’s’ Pacific coast we have seen a lot of would be power brokers vying for centre stage in recent months. Some defended the virtue of harshly spoken criticisms because they were spoken “sincerely” and because they were “right”. The possibility that they may not be right is not a consideration. And that is when power becomes a most destructive force; when it is indeed corrupting enough to eliminate reason and destroys the ability to approach problems with a desire to understand and resolve them.

Throughout the ages righteousness and power have been a volatile mix. On the international scene they remain today the main forces generating hate and death on battlefields and in back alleys – as they have since the First Crusades. On both sides of the battle-lines the cause is always right.

We are fortunate in my part of the world to have emerged from those ancient times and learned to find solutions to the problems that plague us by discussion and consensus. At least, apart from sporadic bloody execution outbursts by men and women made unstable by the “rightness” of their cause, we live in peace and relative harmony.

But not without the occasional flash of disturbing anger from a participant who can see only one point of view and believes any opposition to it evil; any challenger to be destroyed, not physically but by public reputation.

It was Lord Acton who said “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and the maxim holds good today whether the “power” is held by the dictatorial leader of a nation, an overly militant trade union leader, a public servant, a politician, or a newspaper owner, reporter or pundit. If they hold power they must hold it with a great sense of responsibility and most do, the exceptions being national dictators and newspaper owners – the latter being once described by a British Prime Minister as “seeking power without responsibility, the prerogative of harlots throughout the ages.”

In British Columbia our power battles may be minor, but like summer thunderstorms they rumble on our political horizon a warning alert that the misuse of power can only lead to bad endings. I hope the public servants engaged in seeking solutions to the multitude of problems threatening to overwhelm the Ministry of Children and Family Development will come quickly to understand the need for calm, rational debate and remember that even in the testiest time: “The gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the tongue of the fool spouts folly.”

 

A Quality of Mercy

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice bless’d: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes….”

The old quote from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is one of the master poet’s best known – and least respected. And never more so than when we publicly discuss the quality of the care we provide for the neglected children among us; children so often dismissed these days with the demeaning word “kids”

On December 14 when Bob Plecas released the first chapter of his report on a child welfare case gone sadly wrong, he suggested the constant critical battering of front line social workers was seriously affecting morale. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the government appointed “watch dog” and protector of families and children in care, took exception.

Plecas recommended her “oversight” role be phased out and end once the Ministry Of Children and Family Development is capable of carrying out these functions and the representative’s role should become one focused on advocacy.” Turpel-Lafond, described by Time-Colonist columnist Les Leyne as “a sharp-tongued, fire breathing watchdog who regularly rains hell fire down on the ministry”, responded that Plecas was trying to make out she was “the villain because I make too many recommendations” and that, she is quoted as saying, “is borderline comical.”

Could it be that Turpel-Lafond believes her scathing criticisms over the past few years had no affect on the front line social workers? Could it be that she didn’t realize while appealing for justice for her children and families, she was unaware the incessant volume of her recommendations was creating what Plecas described as a “persistent tension which permeates everything……(and) despite everyone’s best intentions, the constant (flow) of recommendations have become part of the bigger management problem?”

Time I think to consider the possibility that the lady doth protest too much – or maybe just too harshly. Her sharp words may register at the political level, but surely the collateral damage caused among those who handle the “ministry of misery” caseloads should be a factor to consider.

As Shakespeare said: “Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy and that same prayer, does teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”

 

On the Best Laid Schemes

 

It was Alexander Pope who wrote the ninth beatitude – “Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” And Robbie Burns who a hundred or more years later penned the immortal words –“The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley; An’ lea’e us naught but grief and pain, for promised joy.”

I make no apologies for linking the two – or for using Burns un-modernized because I believe that however “gang aft agley” is pronounced it’s meaning is clear; even the best prepared plans can be derailed by fates unexpected fickle finger. At such times those expecting much launch into a spiral of  disappointment, feeling “naught but grief and pain for” anticipated joy” while those who followed Pope expecting nothing remained untouched in spirit by sudden fateful change.

So, there we were, experienced travel partners planning another trip to flee the rigors of Christmas, New Year and a venerable birthday celebration. Instead of an endless procession of family gatherings we would flee, as we have fled before, and celebrate quietly while cruising south sea waters while someone else plied us with gourmet food, did all the cooking and, far more important, all the cleanup operations home festivities demand.

On December 14 we had tickets booked for flights to Los Angeles where we would spend four days lolly-gagging in a five star hotel and finding shady spots on Long Beach sands. On December 18 we would board a cruise ship and head for Hawaii. Christmas, New Year and my 92nd birthday would be celebrated on board.

It would be the perfect holiday.

But, ah, yes, there’s always a “but” isn’t there? – My partner Anne had a routine eye-check appointment due to be kept about the time we were sailing around the Hawaiian Islands. She asked if it could be re-scheduled.

December 9 was agreed on and Ophthalmologist Dr. Malcolm Orr murmured as he checked the right eye “I don’t think you’ll be travelling for Christmas” as he diagnosed a serious bacterial infection and ordered a rugged anti-bacterial eye-drop solution – one drop every 60 minutes during waking hours “and come back tomorrow.”

On the 10th he reported modest progress with the antibiotic but strongly recommended cancelling travel arrangements until it could be declared the infection had been defeated. That afternoon – our plan “gang afta gley” –  I requested our travel agent to strike our colours. We shall be home for Christmas waiting with everyone else for the next gale to subside; New Years Eve we shall retire after watching Jeopardy which we refer to as “the late show.”

We shall continue subdued rejoicing because as Anne said when she got the travel ban news: “That was lucky break to ask for a change for my routine check. It would have been horrible to have discovered a serious eye infection half way across the Pacific – or worse in Los Angeles.”

So, even when things “gang aft gley” we should be able to find a bright spot

My 92nd on December 27? The less said about that the better. I just intend to keep reciting Pope’s Ninth beatitude for the next two weeks and thus avoid all disappointment.

 

 

 

 

A Good Man Remembered

Postage stamps. Nothing more. Just notes on brief items from the passage through life of William Richards Bennett, 83, born April 14, 1932, and left us for what the poet Christina Rossetti described as the “silence more musical than any song” on December 3 2015.

They are culled from tattered notebooks jammed with scribbles almost beyond cipher. None are of great importance, all are important in understanding what kind of man Premier Bill Bennett was really like.

The notes are not sequential, just blowing in the wind and settling where they may to hopefully add caring to his tough-guy exterior image.

Item: Thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean the First Class section of the old and trusty Canadian Pacific Airline Trans-Pacific flight is winging the Premier and his small entourage – an executive assistant, a deputy minister and a press secretary – home from an economic mission to Japan. They are grouped on the starboard side talking quietly among themselves through take-off and then through dinner, which even in first class is not a gourmet delight. On the port side I sit in lonely splendour relaxing in unexpected luxury while not quite sure whether I have been upgraded as an act of kindness or mistaken as part of the VIP group which I know has been upgraded as a courtesy gesture to a much travelled first minister. Whatever, I sit quietly sipping Scotland’s classic version of the sleeping pill when Premier Bill slides into the seat beside me and in the quiet of the cabin while others doze we start talking. Not about the mission, not with notebook at the ready. Just talking. Mostly about family, about the early months of marriage and its challenges; about the problems of raising children – and what disappointments we must have been to our own parents. We talked for hours, just a couple of middle age guys with old growing up problems – as children and adults – identical to millions of others. I have never written about the details of that mile-high conversation. And never will. It was just two guys talking, not a politician striving for a favorable headline or a journalist looking for a front page byline.

It wasn’t the first time we had long chats with notebook, pens and news probing questions put to one side. Only a few days before our airline marathon we had walked the streets of Nagasaki around midnight marveling at the multitudes still abroad at that time of night.

It’s fair to wonder what on earth we were doing at the witching hour in the second city in the world to experience the full terror of nuclear war. The answer is boringly simple. I had a ghastly 3 am Nagasaki time to do a live interview broadcast for CBC, Vancouver, and decided staying awake would be better than trying to wake up at three hoping to sound intelligent – a difficult task at any time of day. Premier Bennett was wandering around the hotel lobby because he couldn’t sleep. So we went walk-about talk-about in the crowded but orderly streets of Nagasaki and talked about how safe we felt as strangers in a city where we had no language.

We wondered if Vancouver could ever be like Nagaski at midnight on a Friday night. I was a heavy smoker in those days, addicted and craving. Premier Bennett followed me into a tiny store not much bigger than kiosk with an elderly Japanese gentleman in charge. His grasp of English was as useless as my grasp of Japanese and my charade like plea for cigarettes was a dismal failure. The Premier remained silent – and amused. The old chap raised his hands, palms out, obviously asking us to wait.

We did, wondering what we would do if he returned with cops and if it might be wiser to just quietly fade back to the sanctuary of our hotel. Before we could decide the old fellow returned accompanied with a young girl in school uniform and obviously aroused from sleep. The old man gave her a nod – and she asked in perfect English what it was we were looking for. It was embarrassing to ask for a packet of cigarettes. I proffered a fistful of Japanese yen. She made change, declined a tip, bowed as did her grandfather and the Premier and I wandered “home” all too aware of how far behind we were in international relationships.

Four or five years ago I phoned the then long retired Premier to say I would be Kelowna for a few days and how about lunch or dinner? He said he would prefer breakfast, would meet me at my hotel and treat me to “the biggest and best breakfast you’ve ever had.” We met in the hotel lobby in front of a room offering the continental breakfast offered free to paying guests.

“That looks good,” he said, ushering me through the door to the first two available seats. It wasn’t the biggest and best breakfast I ever had but it was a wonderful reminder that Bill Bennett was still a careful spender. And we talked of a favourite memory – the day in the Yukon when he took the pillows off his bed to keep my granddaughter safe.

I  had almost forgotten that 1978 story of a trip to Whitehorse and being invited along with other reporters and government officials to a mini-reception in the Premier’s modest motel suite of a sitting room with separate bedroom. I declined the invite because I was being visited by my Yukon based son Andrew, his wife Buni and their first child, Kate some 18 months old.

“Tell them they’re invited,” said the Premier. So they came.

Kate faded fast falling asleep on her mother’s lap. “That’s not very comfortable for you” said the Premier “bring the baby into the bedroom.” He led the way taking two pillows from the head of the bed, stationing one on either side of Kate “to make sure she can’t roll off the bed.”

I see by the news story that he is going down in history as a great Premier because of giant material projects. Fair enough. But he goes down in my book as great because while he fathered major projects he genuinely cared about the little things in life. And he did say as he ambled away after our Kelowna breakfast day “call me next time you’re in town. I owe you breakfast.” He was, as they say in Scotland, a careful spender.

In my book a good man – and in politics they’re hard to find.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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