Month: January 2017

When “we” should replace “I”

He does his best to look like one of the few men he admires as much as himself. Chin stuck forward, bottom lip pouted, a look of what he hopes signifies toughness on his otherwise carefully coiffed head.

Taken all round it is a reasonable imitation by United States President Donald Trump of Sir Winston Churchill, the great orator and WW2 Prime Minister of Great Britain. But any likeness of what he appears convinced is his Churchillian “bulldog look” disappears the moment President Trump opens his mouth.

President Trump speaks often of his ambition to “make America great again.” He talks a lot in the first person, “I” being the most important word in whatever message he delivers, whether it is building a wall to match the historic one in China, halting immigration to the USA until he can be sure no bad people are sneaking in, or blustering about the military power he now commands and is prepared to use if he feels any other nation even appears to threaten.

He has openly boasted about being a Churchill admirer. In his White House Oval Office, newly decorated with Trump-gold curtains and other royal touches, a bust of Sir Winston stands in clear view from the President’s desk. It has so far failed to remind President Trump that Churchill rarely if ever used “I” in public speeches. One of those rare moments was during the darkest moments of the Second World War when the fate of Britain hung by the most slender threads and all seemed lost.

It was in May 1940, with the people of Great Britain confused, frightened, and wondering if their government was about to be conquered by Hitler’s Germany, that Churchill became Prime Minister. That day he said to one of his military leaders: “Poor people, poor people. They trust me and I can give them nothing but disaster for a long time.” It was a statement he later refined and used in a speech to Parliament and later the same evening in a broadcast to his people and the world.

No “trust me I’m going to make Britain great again,” but words which inspired a nation and can still stir the soul of those of us who heard them spoken via radio for the first time so long ago: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” but that was it for “I’s”. “We” replaced “I” and became the norm for Churchill, as it should be for any national leader desiring to rally an unsure nation to a worthy cause: “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of sufferings.”

A matter of weeks later the German army swept through France and stood poised to invade England. Churchill, as the figurehead, knew only the nation, not he himself, could bring salvation: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Readers will find most of Churchill’s speeches on YouTube with photographs President Trump’s make-up people and acting coaches must have studied while creating his bulldog look – a look unfortunately not supported by intelligence or understanding of his role as leader of a great but troubled nation in uncertain times.

President Trump says he has great admiration for Churchill. Based on so many of his recent dubious pronouncements it is impossible to say how truthful or sincere that claim may be. But I think it can be safely said that his Churchillian ambition is but a chimera – a thing hoped or wished for but which in fact is illusory and impossible for a man with narcissistic tendencies to achieve.

An interesting word – narcissism – with its simple definition “too much interest in and admiration for your own physical appearance and/or your own abilities….a person who is overly self-involved and often vain and selfish.”

An imitation bulldog look won’t change it.

Lift a glass to the “Belle of Mauchline”

The morning of July 25, 1796 was showery in Dumfries, a small town in Scotland. It cleared for “a pleasant afternoon,” but clouded over late in the day for “a wet evening and night.”

The “pleasant afternoon” giving way to a wet and gloomy night provided an appropriate setting in which say goodbye to the man who would later be declared Scotland’s most revered poet – Robert “Rabbie” Burns. The weather on the day of his funeral was to be like his 37-year and seven-month-old life: showers, sunshine and dark clouds with heavy rain.

True blue Scots will be upset that I recall his death when they, and millions around the world who claim to be Burns fans, get set to celebrate on January 25 (or a conveniently close date) “the Scottish bard’s birthday.” They will celebrate with copious drams of Scotch, a feast including Haggis (that tastes much better than its contents suggest) and the reading of selected poems by the great man.

Only a few “men’s only” celebrations will include lines from many of Burns’ early poems, the lines which brought him his first notoriety – and which he desperately tried to track down, recover and destroy before he died. His “bawdy verse” flickers in the background of his classic writing – intriguing memories, secretly savoured, but never to be spoken in the presence of ladies although women inspired his rough-love rhymes as much as they inspired his true love verses.

His first poem, written when he was 15, was rich with teenage awe, but demonstrated an early eye for good looking females and what words might win their favours: “Once I lov’d a bonie lass,/ay, and I love her still;/And whilst that virtue warms my breast,/ I’ll love my handsome Nel.” He went on to say: “She dresses aye sae clean and neat./Both decent and genteel; And then there’s something in her gait/ Gars any dress look Weel.” For non-Scots “bonie” is obviously “bonny” and “something in her gait” in English is “something in her walk makes any dress look good.”

If anything even happened between him and Nel it isn’t recorded although his poetry began to flourish over the next decade and his first and last love Jean Armour was met when he was 24. His timeline tells us 1875 was the year he met Jean “The Belle of Mauchline” and the year he became a father for the first recorded time – but not with Jean. His first daughter – Elizabeth Paton Burns – was born to one Elizabeth Paton, a servant in his mother’s employ. She was the first of four women to bear a Burns child.

A few months later Jean Amour announced she was pregnant and in March 1886 gave birth to twins. Legend has it that her father fainted when he heard the news and denied her permission to marry the ne’er do well Burns. Robert and Jean continued to see each other although many believed Robert was about to marry Mary Campbell, another beauty destined to soon leave Scotland for Jamaica. Rumour had it that Robert would go with her but typhus intervened. Mary died and, some say, took an unborn child with her.

Robert said goodbye with his poem Highland Mary describing the country surrounding the Castle of Montgomery “where simmer (summer) first unfaulds her robes and there he langest (longest) tarry;/For there I took my last Farewell/O’ my sweet Highland Mary.” He finished the poem with a declaration of undying love “O pale, pale now those rosy lips I oft have kissed so fondly! And closed for aye the sparkling glance that dwelt on me so kindly! And mouldering now in silent dust the heart that loved me dearly, but still within my bosoms core shall live my Highland Mary.”

With that Robert wandered off to write more brilliant poetry and impregnate a servant girl named Mary Cameron who gave birth to a child in 1787. A year later, Burns finally married his first love Jean Armour, her father having removed his marriage ban after Burns became an acknowledged, noted and respected poet.

Shortly after the wedding Jean presented Robert with a second set of twins and in that same year of 1788 one Janet Clow, a domestic servant, named her first born son Robert Burns Clow after his father. It was also the year he wrote his famous Auld Lang Syne and it’s fair to wonder how he found the time.

In 1789, little more than a year after her second set of twins Jean produced another son and two years later in 1791 Robert fathered a daughter Elizabeth with Ann Park and another son, William Nicol Burns with Jean. A year later, Jean was again a mother with the birth of Elizabeth Riddell Burns and two years after that in 1794 with another son James Glencairn.

Two years later, 1796, Burns was dead. Sir Walter Scott tells us he knew he was dying but “his good humour was unruffled and his will never forsook him.” When he looked up and saw Dr. Maxwell at his bedside he said: “Alas, what has brought you here? I am but a poor crow and not worth plucking.”

Where was Jean, the mother of eight of his children? Sir Walter Scott said: “His household presented a melancholy spectacle: the poet dying; his wife in hourly expectation of being confined, four helpless children wandering from room to room gazing on their miserable parents and but too little food or cordial kin to pacify the whole or soothe the sick.”

Five days after his death there was an “uncommonly splendid” funeral procession from town to cemetery with the Cinque Ports Military Band playing the Dead March in slow solemn time. And an hour after the procession passed Jean Armour, the Belle of Mauchline, wife of Rabbie Burns, gave birth to their ninth child, Maxwell Burns. In other amours he had fathered at least four or five more.

And it seems to me that those of us who lift a glass to the poet on the 25th should henceforth lift it a little higher to honour Jean. She lived on a meager pension for another 28 years after Robert’s death. There are a couple of statues of her, one in Mauchline erected in 2002, another in Dumfries opposite St. Michael’s Church dedicated in 2004.

Better late than never, but not much for a lady who gave the poet the love and freedom he needed to develop the talent the world came to treasure. If you are “doing” Burns night remember the Bard as always – but remember too the women whose minds and bodies brought joy to his mind and words.

When Media Betrays Once Treasured Ethics

“Get it first, get it fast – but first get it right” was once an essential ethical standard in every responsible newsroom in every country in the world where the cherished privileged freedom of the press was held as sacred trust.

It is, alas, a standard no longer held dear in a world swamped by the over-the-backyard-fence unsubstantiated gossip on that cursed blessing called the Internet. Freedom of speech is still spouted as a precious freedom, but “getting it right” is no longer a matter of ethical concern, even in newsrooms where it was once a rule of law.

It’s 50 years or more since Bob Considine, (1906-1975), once one of the great newspaper columnists of North America, wrote A Newspaperman’s Prayer. ” There is a piece I have quoted often during my half-century in the trenches of journalism and I do so again here in the hope that his words may flicker a spark of interest in today’s professional messengers, reporters and editors – and those who think freedom of speech gives them the right to accuse without just cause.

“Dear God, may I be fair. Circumstances and dumb luck have placed in my thumby paws a degree or authority which I may not fully comprehend. Let me not profane it. Give me the drive that will make me check and countercheck the facts. Guide me when, lost for want of a rudder or a lead (for my story) I stumble through a jungle of speculation……Such news as I find or comes my way, let me tell it quickly, and simply with an eye to my responsibilities. For news is precious. Few could live without it. When it is stopped or thwarted or twisted, something goes out of the hearts of (those) it might have nourished…”

These few lines from Considine came back to me a few evenings ago when I flicked my TV to the CBC news and was shocked to hear that once esteemed news agency informing Canadians on the latest scandals related to USA President-elect Donald Trump. The thrust of the unfolding scandal was in the announcer’s mantra style repeated warning that what the CBC was reporting “is not verified.” I lost count how many times the CBC warned viewers that what they were being force-fed was not supported by fact, that the CBC didn’t really know the original author of the report, just that it had been made public by an Internet outlet and was reported to originate with Russian intelligence sources who had been building a dossier on Trump with a view to blackmailing him.

And over and over there was this reminder that while there were no facts to substantiate the allegations, the venerable CBC felt it had a duty to give them widespread publicity.

Last Friday (Jan.13) the Globe and Mail reported on former British spy Christopher Steele, now rumoured to be the man who compiled the report for western distribution. While reviewing Steele’s career in some detail and offering titillating morsels on how the report got to where it is, the Globe’s London correspondent Paul Waldie wrote: “None of the allegations in the report have been verified and many have been contradicted. Security analysts, too, are skeptical of the information saying the work appears shoddy.”

Other news agencies are possibly guilty of the same betrayal of the basic rules of good reporting, but CBC and the Globe and Mail are the only two to come to my attention. These are two major actors in the news dissemination field who, after a few days earlier lamenting the number of false stories roaming the world in the guise of truth, broke the basic rule to be sure you’ve got it right.

As the late Jack Scott, one the Vancouver Sun’s brighter stars, used to teach young would-be reporters who found themselves stumbling through a jungle of speculation: “When in doubt, leave it out.” Even if it means, in this instance, protecting an ill-mannered, blustering, bully who has been known to lie when savaging opponents and who will soon be President of the Divided States. He will change radically in the next few months or he will eventually be “hoist on his own petard” without the aid of “unverified reports” broadcast by people who should know better.

Your Choice – Make it While You Can

In the modest flood of electronic mail wishing me well in my 94th year were one or two bright sparklers. Well, they were all bright sparklers really bringing joy to a nonagerian being remembered, but two or three were special because they came from old friends too long out of touch.

A brief one from Frank Rhodes, a deputy minister of considerable stature a few decades back when he was a frequent target in my daily columns: “Jim – I want you to keep a comprehensive daily log, such that those of us who are slowly folding into your slipstream can enjoy shortcuts and recorded solutions to all of life’s challenges at age 100. After that problems don’t matter.”

While it must be some kind of precedent for a former deputy minister to be soliciting advice from a long ago broken-crystal-ball reader, I shall try to answer; not with a “comprehensive daily log” but just a few brief, basic, advisories for older folk considering a downsize move from family home to retirement residence.

It’s a major decision demanding careful “due diligence” checks sooner rather than later. Visit either on-line or in the flesh a few of the “senior retirement residences” available in your city of residence. Ask a lot of questions, especially about “add ons” – piddly, seemingly inconsequential costs that can sneak up with surprising speed. Be sure you know the level of care you will be provided.Does the establishment you’re looking at offer increased care levels? To what level and at what extra cost?

Be sure, above all else, that YOU make the decision as to where you want to go while you can still make those decisions. If you wait too long others will be making the call for you – and it may not be a pleasing one.

The eventual transition can bring some anxious moments – not unlike your first day at a new school or on a new job decades earlier. But if you have chosen well trained staff will be on hand to soften the transition, long time residents will volunteer “guide” services at meal times and within a couple of weeks you will be feeling comfortably at home taking in lectures, concerts, joining discussion groups with amazing pools of career talents and meeting people whose lives have been much more adventurous than your own.

How much does it cost? Ah, yes, the always ugly money topic. The answer obviously lies in the quality of service provided by the residence chosen. Make sure you know exactly what it is. My costs at Berwick Royal Oak hover around $4,000 a month, including all meals, telephone, cable TV, the Internet, light, heat, underground parking, all the facilities a mini-kitchen needs, housekeeping once a week with change of bedding and towels, transportation to and from Life Labs and assorted “villages” such as Cook Street, James Bay, Broadmead. At extra cost there are “charter” trips to theatre in Chemainus or downtown Victoria.

Don’t be afraid to make comparisons and decisions while you can. And always YOUR choice as to where and how to travel the last, hopefully long, miles of life’s journey in reasonable comfort until it’s time to catch that last train to wherever.