Month: October 2018

Return to the Dark Ages?

It is 15 years now since I revived a story written in the 1970s by the then-great San Francisco columnist Art Hoppe. I’m repeating it today because I think it even more pertinent, its conclusion more imminent than when Hoppe first wrote in the ‘70s and I rode on his pen in 2003.

I am aware the ancient Greek poet Homer once warned —  “And what so tedious as a twice-told tale”, but I also believe exceptions sometimes prove the rule.

Hoppe’s story was about a new country of a few thousand people united in a desire for freedom, justice, and equality. The people, he wrote, were “proud, independent, self-reliant and generally very prosperous.” And, above all else, “… they had faith. They had faith in their religion, their leaders, their country, themselves.”

The people of Hoppe’s new nation were also ambitious and determined to expand. To do that they had to subjugate what they regarded as heathen tribal peoples occupying the land the new nation needed to safeguard its extending borders. “First, they conquered the savage tribes that hemmed them in,” Hoppe wrote. “Then they fought wars on land and sea with foreign powers to the east and west and south. They won almost all the battles they fought, and triumphed in almost all of their wars.”

Eventually, the young nation took its place on the world stage, and not just any place. It became the “richest, mightiest nation in the whole world – admired, respected, envied and feared by one and all.”

The leaders of the nation and the people themselves were sometimes generous to a fault. And, together they seemed to have the earnest desire to share their wealth and their way of life with the rest of the world. They wanted, wrote Hoppe, to guarantee universal peace “and make everyone as prosperous and decent and civilized” as they themselves were.

The example set by this still growing nation was inspiring. It showed the world how to build good roads and super-highways; it taught the necessity of basic hygiene, of the need for cleanliness and sanitation. It led the world in transportation and “free speech.”

“And for a while”, wrote Hoppe “it even kept the peace.”

But power brought its own problems. “Being the mightiest nation meant that its leader was the mightiest man in the world. And, naturally, he acted like it. He surrounded himself with a palace guard of men chosen solely for their personal loyalty. He usurped the power of the Senate, signing treaties, waging wars and spending public funds as he saw fit.”

These problems were, suggested Hoppe 50 years ago, the first signs of decay. There were others.

“When little countries far away rebelled, (the leader) sent troops without so much as a by-your-leave. And the mightiest nation became engaged in a series of long, costly, inconclusive campaigns in faraway lands. Many young men refused to fight for their country, and in some places the mightiest nation employed mercenaries to do battle for its causes.”

On the home front, wrote Hoppe, “because it was the mightiest nation it worshipped wealth and the things wealth bought … the rich got richer, the poor grew poorer … many were idle and on welfare and lacked appropriate medical care.” To keep grumbles at a minimum the masses were offered entertainment by highly paid athletes, and at certain times of the year were urged to forget their day-to-day problems with festivals and circuses.

But the “entertainments” and the eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy of a totally materialistic society brought its own problems. “Many citizens lost faith in their old religion and turned to mysticism,” wrote Hoppe. Dress and good grooming standards changed. Young people rejected clean clothes for the ragged look, long hair and sandals; and the most intimate of sexual relations became acceptable in public display. “Bare-breasted dancers, lewd shows and sex orgies (became) increasingly common. And the (national) currency was debased again and again to meet mounting debts.”

With its armies spread around the world, there were the beginnings of troubles at home as lack of respect for their leaders and their neighbours infiltrated daily life. “Citizens came to learn their leaders were corrupt – that the respected palace guard was selling favours to the rich … among the people … (there was) fear and distrust … So it was that the people lost faith. They lost faith in their leaders, their currency, … their postal system, their armies, their religion, their country and, eventually, themselves.

“And thus, in 476 A.D., Rome fell to the barbarians, and the Dark Ages settled over western civilization.

It was George Santayana who warned those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. We can only hope today’s great powers – all of them – remember that truth before they blunder today’s world back into the darkness of an age best confined to history books.

Don’t be Afraid to Listen to the Silence

It was in the 1860s that Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s great philosophers, wrote: “I have three chairs in my home; one for solitude, two for friendship and all three for society.”

Thoreau (1817-1862), writing about the simple life in the country, stressed the enjoyable times when one or two friends dropped in for a serious talk about weighty matters, and the more raucous times when his modest living quarters were jammed with neighbours for more boisterous and difficult-to-follow debate. He enjoyed them all but none so much as when “the solitude chair” sat empty and Thoreau had the luxury, and the wisdom, of being able to listen to its silence and learn.

It would be a hundred or so years after his death in 1862 that in the 1960s a couple of young folk singers would put a different spin on Thoreau’s praise for periods of solitude, where men and women could find the silence “companionable,” challenging and, if listened to, strengthening for society.

Paul Simon was 17 when he penned the lyrics of The Sounds of Silence, and with his partner, Art Garfunkel accused the world of living in a zone of silence and being too cowardly to respond to the ominous warnings it clearly conveyed. It was a timely call to conscience 50 years ago and is even more timely today.

Maybe you have forgotten some of the words: “Hello darkness, my old friend I’ve come to talk with you again/Because a vision softly creeping/Left its seeds when I was sleeping/And the vision that was planted in my brain/Still remains/Within the sound of silence.”

He sang of his restless dream as he walked the cobbled streets of any town and every town until his eyes “were stabbed by the flash of neon light that split the night and touched the sound of silence.”

And then the great truth we witness every day; true when first spoken but more chilling now than ever they were: “And in the naked light I saw/Ten thousand people, maybe more/People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening/People writing songs that voices never share/And no one dare/Disturb the sounds of silence.”

And no one dare! Can that be true down south where a President appears to be running amok and beyond the control of the powerful men who are supposed leaders of the Republican Party?

“Fools said I, you do not know/Silence like a cancer grows/ Hear my words that I may teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you …“But my words, like silent raindrops fell/And echoed in the wells of silence.”

But I don’t despair. There must always be hope. Hope that someday, the corrupt silence that now binds so many world leaders to the pursuit of riches and power will end. Hope that the silence coveted by Thoreau can become the norm for our political leaders and ourselves.

It is 600 years or so since Blaise Pascal, a physics, math and geometry genius, said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He argued that we fear the silence, preferring entertaining distractions to thoughtful considerations and the stirring of conscience a session with “the solitude chair” could bring.

His challenge; Thoreau’s challenge; Paul Simon’s challenge; Our challenge: To listen to and in the silence – and not be afraid.




The Rough Road of Mental Health Care

Dates to remember:

1872 – British Columbia opened its first Asylum for the Insane in Victoria. Built on the Songhees reserve, it held 16 patients admitted for “disorders, nervous trouble, masturbation, injury to the head, intemperance, fright, (or) ‘unknown.’”

1878 – With the Victoria facility overcrowded and shadowed by scandal, the BC Provincial Lunatic Asylum was built on 100 acres of Crown land in New Westminster at a cost of $24,000. It eventually became known as Woodlands Hospital for the Insane and later, the BC Public Hospital for the Insane.

1892 – Woodlands Asylum connected to city water mains. Resident population – 135.

1896 – Clean bathing water available for each patient. Resident population – 171.

1930 – Patient per capita costs estimated at 72 cents per day. Resident population – 500+.

1940 – BC’s Mental Hospital Act amended to delete all mention of “lunatic” and “insane.”

1961 -Resident population  1,436 the highest recorded.

1982 – Government announces Woodlands to be closed. Resident population – approximately 900.

1999 – Government relinquishes any interest in the property for major health purposes, and the site reverts to surplus status

2003 – Government apologizes to former residents of Woodlands for any mental, physical or sexual abuse. Many hearings, inquiries, and a class action lawsuit follow over the rates and times of compensation until:

October 8, 2018 – British Columbia’s Minister of Health, Adrian Dix, announced: “This year, the BC government moved to finally do the right thing to extend compensation to Woodlands’ survivors denied redress for the abuse they suffered.”

Jane Dyson, former executive director of Disability Allowance BC, said she was thrilled that “after all these years of being told no, our Province is saying yes to the survivors of Woodlands.”

Time for rejoicing indeed – but with a great wave of sadness for the early victims of what our ancestors thought appropriate treatment for those who were mentally frail, and who died before public conscience could demand humanity and reform.

An example from Ken Scott’s research on the BC Public Hospital for the Insane: “In nineteenth-century British Columbia, both the medical community and the local public believed strongly in the importance of separating insane patients by gender. In 1869, two middle-class sisters, both school teachers, had been deemed insane. These ‘insane ladies’ were noisy and physically violent, and one refused to wear any clothing. They were kept locked in a bare brick cell in the Victoria city jail with only male staff supervision.

This challenge to Victorian respectability drew public attention to the severe lack of local psychiatric facilities. Eventually, a third sister, who was of sound mind, was permitted full-time access to the jail to care for her siblings. She wrote to the newspaper appealing to public respectability and arguing for gender-segregated facilities for the insane: ‘Men should be appointed to look after men – women to look after women. The cells for men and women should be in separate parts of the building … Men and women of Victoria, let us not rest until the evil is remedied.”

It took a while but “the evil was remedied” as were many others with the passage of time and flutters of conscience. But the road for mental health patients was rough as the records of “hitting, kicking, grabbing by the hair and dragging, very cold showers and very hot baths resulting in burns to the skin, extended isolation, wearing shackles and belt leash” demonstrate.

More disturbing than Scott’s grim picture of humanity at its worst are the comments from former Ombudsperson Dulcie McCallum who conducted an independent review of Woodlands’ care. She was careful to stress that while many Woodlands workers were honourable and dedicated, “there was a code of silence among many employees including those who were not engaged in abusive behaviour.”

The good guys disapproved of what some colleagues were doing, but balked at being a whistleblower and branded as “a snitch.”

We have come a long way since 1872 but it seems to me we all have a bit of that reluctance in our make-up which suggests that, while we can rejoice at the forward progress made as a society, we still have some old and nasty shibboleths to shake off before we get it right.


In Some Corner of a Foreign Field

It was on February 22, 1779, that Captain Charles Clerke of His Majesty’s Sloop Discovery committed the remains of fellow Captain James Cook of HMS Resolution “to the deep with all the attention and honour we could possibly pay in this part of the world.”

Ships Master Thomas Edgar tells us that, at five in the afternoon, Cook’s Resolution and the Discovery “hoisted ensigns and pendants half staff up and crossed over yards. At three quarters past the hour, Resolution tolled her bell and fired 10 four pounders, half minute guns, and committed the bones of Captain Cook to the deep.”

Fifteen minutes later, both ships “at 6 p.m. squared yards.” Most of the officers on board the two vessels presumed they would be setting course for home – that the third great voyage of Cook, the one that put the West and Northwest Coast of Canada and much of the Pacific Ocean on the maps of the world, was over after three years of discovering and charting new lands.

The officers were wrong. Captain Clerke, who had assumed command of the expedition and the Resolution after the assassination of Cook in Hawaii, said he understood the anxiety to get home after so long at sea, but felt it would be a betrayal of Cook’s plan to search northern waters once more for a dreamed-of northwest passage before heading home. He was determined, he said, to complete Cook’s plan even though he was seriously ill. His two ship fleet sailed north.

On August 17, 1779, while sailing the Bering Strait off the coast of Kamchatka just five days before his death, Clerke sat down to write a simple will and last testament. He was 38, ravaged by tuberculosis; reduced, according to his shipmates’ diaries, “to almost an absolute skeleton” of the man who had sailed them from the far side of the world.

He must have been feeling a million miles from home when he wrote: “In the name of God, Amen, I Charles Clerke (Captain) of His Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, having been long in a state of straighten (cct) and not knowing how soon it may please God to remove me from this life, I hereby make this my last will and testament that all my just and lawful debts be paid and which are as follows … ” The list was not long and basically contained the same beneficiaries as his first will, a will made by most early sailors before they launched on voyages of discovery expected to last for years, and from which there was always the danger of no return.

One bequest is a testimony to Captain Clerke’s character. “To my dear brother and friend Sir John Clerke, Captain in His Majesties (cct) Navy, 10 Guineas.” A generous gesture considering he’d once done hard time for brother John. Another brother didn’t fare nearly as well: “To my brother Joseph Clerke of Ipswich, Attorney at Law, one Guinea.”

No reasons were given for the difference, but, history tells us when Charles Clerke was posted to Captaincy of Resolution, he was in debtors’ prison serving time for brother John who had failed to pay back a loan. Charles had been his guarantor. Some historians suggest lawyer-brother Joseph, with only a guinea from his brother’s estate, had been lacking in family loyalty at the time and that it had taken intervention by friends who paid the bills to gain release for Charles in time for him to race to the coast and take command of HMS Discovery.

Unfortunately, he carried with him the early seeds of tuberculosis picked up during his grim incarceration in the notorious Fleet Prison. That wasn’t known when he finally sailed with Captain Cook who was in command of HMS Resolution and overall commander of the expedition.

It would be October 4, 1780, before the two ships returned to the Royal Navy yards in Deptford, England – four years, three months, and two days after they left. Both ships had lost their captain.

Cook’s remains had been “committed to the deep” off Hawaii; Clerke had sailed north to die and be buried – as requested – on land.

His grave was originally near the village of Paratunka on the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 1918, his remains were moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. A Royal Navy memorial stone and a Russian tribute remind the world that: “This officer made several trips to the opening of new lands.” In his short life span, Clerke had circumnavigated the globe twice and came close to completing a third.

The home of his birth, Brook Farm, Braintree Road, Wethersfield, Essex, England, still exists today as a bed and breakfast establishment of high repute. However, it makes only modest reference to its most famous resident who joined the Royal Navy at age 13, and 10 years later sailed on HMS Dolphin on his first circumnavigation – an unsuccessful search for Terra Australis Incognito – Australia.

In Wethersfield, there’s a wall plate in St Mary’s Church listing Clerke family accomplishments and, almost in passing, the contributions of Charles. In New Zealand’s Government House there hangs a portrait painting of Clerke with a Maori chief. But that’s about all we have as memorial tributes.

Captain Cook continues to command centre stage for Northwest and Pacific discoveries – and no one can deny the wonders of his perseverance, his discoveries, charts, diaries, maps, and descriptions of worlds once unknown. He is remembered each year and rightly praised for great achievements on the anniversary of his brutal death on a Hawaiian beach on the 14th of February, 1779.

I try to remember Captain Clerke from time to time. He’s not as high as Cook on the honour and memorial charts, although he did two circumnavigations of the globe and was second in command of the third when he died so far from home. I remember him and his lonely grave in a remote corner of Siberia with its bleak Royal Navy reminder that Captain Clerke also made “several trips” to open up new lands.

Rupert Brook penned better and longer lasting words than I for those who, worthy of higher honours, die and lie in far away and oft-forgotten places.

“If I should die, think only this of me;

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam.

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”


I think Captain Clerke, a quiet hero, would be happy to be so remembered in a small patch of Russian soil  “for  ever England.”