Month: November 2017

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.