Month: September 2016

A Blues Bridge of Sighs

Let’s call this a tale of three bridges.

First on my list, in time of construction, is Tower Bridge crossing the River Thames in London, England. Often mistaken by tourists and many native Brits as London Bridge, its twin towers were designed to harmonize with the ramparts of nearby historic London Tower hence its official name.

It took close to eight years to build starting in 1887 and officially opened June 30, 1894. Total cost of construction 1,184,000 English pounds, around $200 million in today’s Canadian currency. Some 432 construction workers were employed on the project. Wikipedia tells me “70,000 tons of concrete were sunk into the riverbed to support the construction. Over 11,000 tons of steel provided the framework for the towers and walkways. This was then clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone to protect the underlying steelwork and give the bridge a pleasing appearance.”

Tower Bridge remains fully operational, modernized with high tech machinery and computers replacing original machinery and parts. Good they say for another hundred years or more.

Bridge two in my tale is the Johnson Street Bridge, once an engineering wonder crouching across a minor gut providing shipping access from British Columbia’s City of Victoria main harbour to its Inner Harbour industrial zone. American bridge builder Joseph Straus is the man whose design and construction manual sent the bridge lurching across Victoria Inner Harbour at its narrowest point to also link the city’s downtown with its western suburb Victoria West and neighbouring municipality Esquimalt.

Johnson Street Bridge was never pretty, not even on gloomy January 11, 1924, the day the engineering marvel was officially opened for public use. It “loomed” across the harbour, a clutter of steel girders. It was an ugly duckling of a bridge but it was loved by city dwellers and never more so than in 1979 when city council decided a facelift was needed and painted it blue as a 55th birthday present.

The heavy paint job improved the image, gave the bridge its new Blue Bridge name and covered up some nuts and bolts and girder joints that might have been better attended after half a century of wear and tear in British Columbia’s west coast weather.

By the turn of the century city council, concerned about the rate of deterioration, decided a new bridge was needed. Alarmed by the immediate protest from Blue Bridge lovers, councillors decided they needed a touch of democracy to underpin their decision. In 2010, a referendum supported the new bridge decision with $50 million the estimated cost.

Protests continued as the old bridge steadily gave way to demolition crews. The original Blue Bridge steel was fabricated in Walkerville, Ontario. Steel for the new bridge was coming from China. Little more than 90 years ago the old bridge took around four years to build from first blueprints to finish. Its replacement, using 2010 year as the starting point, has already used up six.

Bridge three is California’s majestic Golden Gate with a central span of 1,280 meters (4,200 feet) soaring across Golden Bay to link San Francisco with its neighbours. Its designer was none other than Joseph Straus, the Chicago engineer of Johnson Street-Blue Bridge fame.

It took a decade of legal battles before construction started on Golden Gate in 1933. It was declared fully operational on May 1937, ahead of schedule and $1.3 million under its $35 million budget.

It is true that the cost of everything from building material to labour was vastly cheaper in the 1920s and through the depression years of the 1930s than it is today. But some constants, that should never change, have changed in disturbing fashion. Budget control and decisive action are two ingredients essential to any and all major public projects. In the Greater Victoria area both appear sadly lacking.

The replacement budget for Joe Strauss’ Johnson Street-Blue Bridge started between $50 and $60 million, quickly lurched to $90 million and at last count was sitting at $105 million according to a report dated September 13, 2016 and presented to Victoria City Council in committee of the whole nine days later.

Two paragraphs in the report require no embellishment to chill a city taxpayer. They read: “On May 5, 2016, Council approved $8.206 million in additional project funding from the Building and Infrastructure Reserve resulting in a current budget of $105.06 million …

 “As of August 31, 2016, actual costs of $76.628 million have been incurred, as detailed further in the report. There will be two more planned project budget increase requests…..Should additional unforeseen events occur before the completion of the project, Council will be advised.”

The new bridge, scheduled for completion in late 2017 with an official opening planned for 2018, does not yet have a name. In Venice they have a small bridge across which people sentenced to death used to pass on their way to execution. It’s called the Bridge of Sighs and I’m sure Victoria taxpayers would approve council paying a naming fee to use it.

Or would The Taxpayers’ Memorial Blues Bridge be more in keeping with the times?

White People Preferred – But Exceptions Can Be Made

The 10,000 ton British cruiser HMS Monmouth, “the largest ship ever seen” on Canada’s west coast, was welcomed with “great excitement” when she tied up in Esquimalt naval base on Vancouver Island on June 19, 1907. Two weeks earlier as she patrolled her China Sea “station” off Yokohama she had received a command from the British Admiralty to up anchor and make all speed to British Columbia.

What was going on in the pleasant backwaters of Vancouver Island to require the presence of one of Britain’s newest and most powerful warships and why the urgency? Ah, there, as the well-worn cliché says, hangs a tale, a weird tale at that.

In 1907 Victoria lived in fear of “the yellow peril” – the jingoistic term used to describe the ever-growing tide of Chinese immigrants. It was the year Premier Richard McBride made it clear in public speeches that while BC needed immigrants the “most desirable are white working people, preferably from the British Isles.”

The local newspaper supported McBride’s “whites preferred” policy proclaiming BC must keep out “those of a class that has no ambition or that has no prospect of bettering its condition. (They) are not desirable and the government (must) oppose the introduction of races who in the nature of things would compose such a class.”

In one edition a blazing headline across a double page feature read – THE ISLAND OF VANCOUVER – ITS MIGHTY FUTURE and boasted Vancouver Island was a “treasure house of natural resources occupying a commanding position on the seaboard of Western America and offering great attractions for the retired British gentleman.”

But not for “celestials” as the newspaper condescendingly termed the Chinese immigrants who came to Canada to do chores the hands of white gentlemen were too delicate to handle. Those same “celestials” paid a $50 head tax to get into a country where they were in great demand as cooks, servants, gardeners, laundry operators – or labourers. It was regretted that they came to BC to work, save their money and then have the audacity to want to stay in Canada.


So, was London expressing some concern that the celestials, so contemptuously treated for years, were in rebellious mood and threatening the life styles of nervous English gentlemen and other early white settlers? No indeed. The Monmouth was in port with just five days to re-stock her bunkers with 1,600 tons of coal and apply enough naval spit and polish to make her fit to give a select “celestial” a free ride home.


The “celestial” scheduled to sail on the Monmouth on June 25 was His Imperial Japanese Highness Prince Fushimi at the end of a tour on which he had crossed Canada by train to Vancouver and boat to Victoria. He was now ready to go home and the British government had promised him transportation for the last leg of his junket.At taxpayers expense.


After making that promise London was informed the largest ship on station at Esquimalt was HMS Shearwater – a mere “sloop of war” and far too small to impress a Japanese “Prince of the Blood.” That’s when the British Admiralty ordered HMS Monmouth to leave its “China station” off Yokohama, nip across the Pacific to Victoria and give Prince Fushimi a ride home courtesy of British Empire taxpayers. The Monmouth left as she arrived with bands playing, thousands cheering – but with 30 members of her crew incarcerated below decks facing charges of desertion.


Re-coaling Monmouth in a hurry had resulted in highly inflated wages for the labourers. White labourers were paid an extraordinary $10 a day, the Chinese $8. The Monmouth’s crewmen received standard navy pay of 60 cents.


Thirty sailors went “over the side” seeking fortunes in a city where a labourer could earn more in a day that a sailor could in a month. Two of them worked a full sawmill day-shift before the mill manager turned them in. The manager never paid them for their work and the daily newspaper praised him for doing his “patriotic duty.” All 30 sailors were eventually arrested, “manacled and returned to the ship…to be held secure until back on their China station where there is no such incentive to desert.”


What did the citizens of Victoria think of all this? The newspaper reports said thousands turned out to wish the Prince bon voyage and gushed in print the hope that when Prince Fushimi was “ushered into his cabin he would find it filled with fresh flowers.”


I wonder how many Chinese “celestials”, having paid a $50 head tax for the right to live, work and help build British Columbia, were in the “crowd of thousands” waving farewell to a royal blood Japanese Prince who was never, ever, termed a “celestial.”


And I wonder how many remembered the Monmouth and her crew seven years later when two hours before midnight on November 1, 1914, she capsized and sank after being savaged by shells and torpedoes from superior German forces in the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile. None of her 735 member crew survived Great Britain’s first naval battle defeat since the war of 1812.

Even The Mightiest Can Fall

Lunched last week with a group of friends up to date on world affairs and thoughtful in analysis. We eventually got around to the USA presidential election and the difficulty American voters face having to choose between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

We agreed both carry heavy baggage from past activities and lack the basic qualities of character an electorate likes to see in leadership candidates. We debated which of the two would be best in the White House as the United States continues to strive to be chief moderator in crises large and small around the globe.

A retired bureaucrat in the group and a retired diplomat agreed that while neither candidate promised immediate joy for the USA or the world, Clinton would be a safer bet for national economic growth and continued, if sometimes shaky, international peace.

I, always the contrarian, suggested a win by Clinton could touch off an explosion of the gun-culture violence which seems to be always simmering in the land where packing a gun is an essential right. A second civil war, I posited, was not beyond possibility as another great empire shudders on its foundations.

My knowledgeable friends kindly suggested my thinking might make a good plot for a novel but could never happen in the USA. The military, disciplined to obey the President, its commanding officer, would quickly respond to command and suppress any challenge to authority.

I hope they are right but a few days after our conversation Donald Trump published a list of former high ranking military men from army, navy and air force all openly supporting his cause. No longer in command, it is true, but an indication of the military mind-set. And one of the warning signs that even the greatest empires do not last for ever.

Greece was never an “empire” in the true sense of the word, but was once the greatest power in the known world. There were many reasons for its fall from domination but social reasons were prominent. Historian Annika Spafford wrote in The Decline of the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires: “There was increasing tension and conflict between the ruling aristocracy and the poorer classes … people became more interested in living the good life … there was a lack of discipline which led to the military interfering in politics….”

The Romans gave the final kick to topple Greece from power and a few hundred years later followed the same path from mighty force to 21st century tourist attraction.

Just ancient history? Yes, indeed, and we all know what happens to nations and people who don’t learn from it. It is not so long ago that Great Britain was just that, great until the arrogance of its so called upper classes and its often shameful treatment of the natives of its colonies created chasms of distrust that could never be repaired.

It can be justly claimed that in its years of greatness Britain changed much of the world and still sets admirable standards in democratic government. But the Empire, once the greatest, vanished.

Let’s not forget 1991, the year we watched unbelieving as Russia, the mighty Soviet Union, disintegrated in what seemed almost overnight into 15 independent countries. Once again the reasons for the collapse were many and complex – but among the causes were the old faults: The government had lost touch with the people, especially those in outposts of the empire; and, the gap between the rich and the poor was as wide in Russia as it had ever been in other empires before their collapse.

One other thread in the collapse of empires story: Excessive nationalism was always one of the fomenting ingredients stirring in the pot. At the height of power Greece, Rome, Russia, Great Britain and now the United States thought they were the greatest and would be forever. Today, in the States there is a restless, ever widening gap between government and the people who feel they are losing that greatness. Thousands, maybe millions, rejoice at Trump’s promise to “make America great again.”

It is a fear of mine that there are enough of them to provide a dreadful militant challenge to a vote democratically taken. And I hope those fears are as unfounded as my friends suggested.

How Qu

“Once More Speak Clearly”

I’m just back from a few days in the Okanagan having spent far too much of my travel time trying to understand what muffled public address voices were pronouncing in airports and in flight.

As a world traveler I have encountered only one public address voice I could hear clearly and understand. That was (and I hope it lives on) the voice intoning train arrivals and departures in the British Railway Station at York in northern England.

The voice, usually female, is crisp and clear as it announces where a train is arriving from or departing to and the all-important number of the platform at which those events will take place. As for the balance of my worldly travels, all the public address announcers I have struggled to comprehend have had muffled voices or have spoken at staccato high speed via equipment long past its best before date.

The worst electronic voices are those commanding our attention just before and after takeoff. They are attempting to tell us how to fasten our seats belts, where emergency doors are located and, should we be flying over water, how to wear a floatation jacket with whistle attached.

We get the message only because a flight attendant is providing a visual demonstration up front and we have been able, with great concentration, to catch the odd word in the recorded script accompanying the mime performance.

Amazing really. Brilliant engineers and visionary architects design wondrous machines to move us through the air, and bright comfortable airports in which we can wait and then they subject us to muffled voices announcing flight numbers that are lost in the noisy clutter. In 2016 airport acoustics are not the priority they should be.

But maybe it isn’t the acoustics; maybe it’s just that the people making this noise have never been taught the basic lessons of public speaking – with or without a microphone – the first of which should be: “Once more speak clearly if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”

It’s not a new subject for me. At least once a year I lament the fact that local radio and television announcers speak so rapidly that words merge, sentences become non-existent and any sense of what they may have been striving to convey is lost in the rapid fire jumble.

There was a time when CBC newscasts were models of diction and set high standards for other broadcasters to follow. But no longer. Since “rap” became an acceptable form of communication it seems to be infiltrating news broadcasts with even the venerable BBC teetering on the edge of ever-faster word delivery.

I know that in broadcasting time is money. I also know that broadcast words heard but spoken too quickly to be understood are a waste of both time and money – and a disservice to listeners or viewers.

For now, I have one final complaint about broadcast diction: Why do TV sports announcers, the play-by-play people, have to shout every other sentence and reach a screaming crescendo when a goal is scored or a good tackle is made?

Do they think we can’t appreciate what we see, that we need to be told to be excited by athletic skills and triumphs or disasters? Do they not understand that the microphone in front of them is designed to carry their voice from wherever it is to wherever I’m listening at an adequate volume?

On their massacred diction and delivery of the English language I have no comment.