Young Adults Will Prevail

If you think land and house prices are at runaway record levels, you should have been around for the gold rush in 1858.

Recent percentage increases in property values have brought understandable laments from young wage earners that property values are now so high only young couples with rich and kindly parents can afford to buy even a modest starter house. That’s more or less what young couples were saying in Victoria in 1862 when property values skyrocketed an average 75 per cent in nine months – with even higher peaks to follow.

It all started in April 1858 when the good ship Commodore unloaded the first wave of Fraser River gold seekers at the docks on Wharf Street. In March, you could have bought an acre of raw land for one English pound (around five dollars). By the end of May, the same acre was selling for about 100 pounds – if you closed the deal quickly. A year later, “a lot 20 to 30 feet in breadth and 60 feet in length could be rented for one hundred pounds a month” and “a half lot bought pre-boom for five pounds sold for 600 pounds” a few weeks later.

The dollar and the decimal replaced the pound in 1862 – but the change did nothing to relieve depressed newlyweds or soon-to-be-weds aspiring to home ownership.

The gold seekers were transients, content to pitch tents wherever they could while waiting for the next ship to leave for the Fraser gold fields.

Victoria, the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island, was, at the time, the only Canadian port of entry. To get to the Fraser gold fields you disembarked in Victoria then waited for a boat to get to the mainland and the Fraser goldfields, and later, the Cariboo, Barkerville, and the big one – the Yukon.

Victoria was their lone base supplier – their service industry centre – and that pushed development and land costs ever higher.

In 1858-59, the “the harbour shoreline was a sea of tents” and shanties erected on property rented for exorbitant prices – often by here-today-gone-tomorrow squatters. Three years later, in 1861-62, streets once knee-deep in mud on rainy days were paved, and sidewalks were in place. The “city” was boasting 56 brick buildings, warehouses to hold supplies, a hospital, a theatre – and a reading room.

And the young people fretted home ownership was forever beyond their grasp.

Before the gold seekers, Fort Victoria had been a busy but bucolic administrative centre for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the company that built the original fort and stockade to keep its servants and settlers safe from “the savages.” Ironically, it was these “savages,” the local Songhees, who led the fort builders to “the hill of cedars” – today’s Mount Douglas and Cedar Hill district. It was the Songhees who “harvested lengthy cedar planks from its forests to construct (the) palisades around Fort Victoria.”

Early descriptions tell us the fort was “a square enclosure, stockaded with poles about 20 feet high and eight to 10 inches in diameter, placed close together and secured with a cross-piece of nearly equal size. At the traverse corner of the square, there are strong octagonal towers mounted with four nine-pounder guns flanking each side so that an attack by savages would be out of the question …”

Ah, yes, the “savage” Songhees who helped build the fort to protect the white invaders from their “savagery.” One record states: “… Only one brush has the Company had with the Indians, but it ended in a day or two; the gates of the fort having been closed, a nine pounder fired several times to show what could be done – and judicious and conciliatory advances made to the chief. The peaceable intercourse – from which sprang blankets, hatchets, knives, fishhooks and harpoons – was speedily re-established.”

But even when cooperative, the Songhees remained a problem for white settlers anxious to save the natives from their ancient culture, their traditional language, their laws and their religion.

Not a major problem the white leaders reported; just “a great inconvenience rising from the existence of the Songhees Indian reservation in such close proximity to Victoria.” An inconvenience exacerbated by “northern Indians … in the habit of visiting Victoria and remaining for months at a time on this reserve, bartering for their furs, obtaining liquor, and seeing the sights of the capital. The ill effects of these conditions and their latent danger could not be concealed.”

Not at all considerate, those early Songhees, inconveniently hanging around what they had called home for a thousand years or more. And on top of that, they made welcome their cousins from the north (anywhere beyond the Saanich Peninsula was north) when they came to trade and spend at the fort, and gawk like country cousins at the high palisades built to protect the white folk.

They didn’t get any bargains from “the company” which, the press reported, offered “all the multifarious products of Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds … at exorbitant prices … there being no competition, (the Hudson Bay) company has it all its own way.” And not just with the natives.

Its employees were also held in thrall, “receiving little pay” and forced to buy all life’s needs from the company store. They were “usually in debt to the company and therefore in its power.” But, as one observer cheerfully noted: “The work is hard, but with health and strength this is a blessing rather than otherwise.”

Yes, indeed, hard work unless, as Royal Navy Lieut. Mayne wrote in a letter to a friend in 1857, you were an officer and a gentleman and found Victoria a “very pleasant and society, as it is generally in a young colony, frank and agreeable … the half-dozen houses (outside the fort) that made up the town were open to us.

“In fine weather, riding parties … were formed, and we returned generally to high tea or a tea-dinner at Mr. Douglas’ or Mr. Work’s, winding up a pleasant evening with dance and song. We thought nothing of starting off to Victoria in sea boots, carrying others in our pockets, just to enjoy a pleasant evening by a good log fire. And, we cared as little for the weary tramp home to Esquimalt in the dark, although it happened sometimes that men lost their way and had to sleep in the bush all night.”

The fort vanished, as did “the company’s” stranglehold on rates of pay and living standards. And the young people survived, triumphed, bought houses, raised families, built cities, a province and a nation.

Today’s young couples, tomorrow’s pioneers, will do the same – or better.

(Sources: Howay’s British Columbia; Macfie’s Vancouver Island and British Columbia; www.Vancouver

Ninety Five and Counting

Well, to repeat a phrase I’ve used so many times over the past half-century: “That’s it then, another year staggering to its close; another birthday – the 95th posted – and the 96th a distant shimmer somewhere out there in the mists of time.

It’s been a long haul since my first plaintive cries shattered the post-peace and goodwill of Christmas 1923 on a bleak December 27th morning. My mother would later recall the event when showing me off to relatives and friends as “a nice lad, even if he did ruin my Christmas.”

It was a bright tale, always told with the warmth and love she had and openly demonstrated for all her children; a warmth and love I never really appreciated until I became a parent myself. The example she set alongside my always strong, taciturn, badly wounded WW1 veteran and father, served me well. Still will I hope as I head down another unknown stretch of road marked 2019.

Other than a calendar-marked starting date, the future “road map” is, as always, blank when it comes to details and destinations. I know only one thing for sure; like the stretches already travelled, there will be rough spots, some hills that will be tough to climb, some valleys of despair – and as many and hopefully more – of widespread summer-lit meadows warmed and made pleasant by the shared love of family and friends.

I have no more idea of how long the next leg of my journey will be than I had when I made what, I’m told, was a noisy entrance 95 years ago. I just hope I can head over the last hills with a minimum of fuss – and that I don’t ruin anyone’s Christmas with my departure.

I am often asked these days how much longer I intend to keep writing blogs. The question is usually asked with eyebrows in questioning rise as though publishing weekly thoughts and opinions at age 95 is, well, just let’s say – not talked about in mixed company.

My answer is an honest “I have no idea.” Right now, I enjoy the challenge of the self-imposed weekly deadline of my blog. It’s a stimulating mental exercise, good for me with the abiding hope that it occasionally brings some joy or spark of a challenge from readers.

With a bit of luck, I can publish a re-run of this piece a year from now. That would be on Sunday, December 29, two days after my 96th. That marker looks a long way down the road yet to travel from where I am today, but then so has each new year I’ve walked since I was old enough to wonder where life was taking me. It has always been a far distant and often nervous, unknown journey since 1923.

To help me walk the next leg of my current hike, my son Stephen (72 on January 1st) and his wife Susan gave me for my birthday a copy of Herman Wouk’s latest book. “It might,” they wrote on a greeting card, “provide a little inspiration.” Wouk’s list of accomplished writings is long and star-studded. Among the many and well remembered – The Winds of War, War and Remembrance; and his classic as a book, movie and stage play, The Caine Mutiny.

I haven’t yet started to read my birthday present, but I did sneak a look at the Author’s Note on the opening page of what I’m sure will be another epic. He quotes a few lines from The Wreck of Old 97, the old dramatic narrative poem about a train crashing as it roared “down the grade doing 90 miles an hour” and the finding of the driver “in the wreck with his hand on the throttle … scalded to death by the steam.”

He continues: “Gentle reader, that railroad folk tune is sure haunting your durable storyteller, aged 97. When I passed my ninetieth birthday milestone going hell-for-leather down the nonagenarian grade, I figured I had better cobble up what was left to write while I could … next thing I knew, four years had whistled by … (and) I had in hand thirty-odd work journals and a slim book of 40,000 words ….”

And thus came to birth Sailor and Fiddler – Reflections of a 100-year-old Author. The final paragraph of the author’s introductory note: “On Old 97, the air brakes failed …. hence the unhappy wreck. Lord grant that my air brakes hold while I get done all I can, roll into Spencer (Old 97s destination) on time and hand in my orders.”

I confess that those few paragraphs inspire me, as do two sons who have penned and had published award-winning articles and books, and four sons who think I have a life story worth telling and urge me to start writing.

I’m inspired but not enough. It takes time, energy and talent to write a book. At 95, time – never fully guaranteed – is measured with less certainty than ever; energy fades dramatically, and talent is impossible to quantify.

So, for now, I’ll puddle along with a weekly ramble in low gear, gently touching the brakes on the steep grades.

With Clean Knees For God

Saturday night was bath night – except at Christmas when, whatever the day, the late afternoon hours of Christmas Eve were organized for special ablutions based on Saturday night tradition. A battered galvanized tin tub was brought into the kitchen from the backyard plunked in front of the kitchen fire and half-filled with buckets of cold water plus a couple of kettles of boiling water. Just enough to take the chill off.

With sister Doris on enforced visit to the neighbours during the cleansing of her brothers, the ritual began, changed only from our regular Saturday night splash by more vigorous scrubbing. My brother Tom, four years my senior, was deemed old enough and responsible enough to bathe himself. I was not. For me, a strong-armed mother was needed to make sure every visible patch of my 10-year old body gleamed.

Hands, elbows, and behind the ears got special attention. Fingernails were trimmed and every speck of grime removed. Hair, shampooed and dried, was combed reasonably straight and I was eventually proclaimed clean enough to wear freshly laundered pyjamas and ready for bed.

Next morning, we would be up and about for a fairly early breakfast which, it being Christmas Day, would offer rare treats of eggs and bacon, huge slabs of bread and a cup of tea. We were allowed (ordered) to wear our pyjamas while opening recession-modest presents and while eating breakfast. The latter was not a concession to slovenliness but to make sure no egg yolk dripped on soon-to-be worn Christmas Day best suits and ties. With the donning of those ultra cleaned and pressed garments there were more examinations of fingernails, ears, and knees.

We didn’t get to wear long pants until we reached the magic age of 14 so clean knees were of prime importance for choir boys representing the house of Hume. Tom qualified for long pants; I didn’t. My protests that, as all choir boys wore ankle-length cassocks, no one in church ever saw my knees were swept aside with a motherly declaration that “God can see your knees.”

And with that, we would be ushered from the house for the short-block walk to St. Mary’s Abbey church, with Tom getting firm last-minute orders to “go straight to church and make sure he (that’s me) doesn’t get mucky before he gets there.”

After morning service, we would meander home, taking care not to get too mucky because we knew there would be another inspection before the big meal of the day to be served at midday. Before we boys could eat, we had to change our clothes because we had an evening service to sing, and gravy stains on nice white shirts could undoubtedly also be seen by God.

After the meal – usually an elderly chicken donated by Granddad Jimmy Startin, my mother’s father – loaded with vegetables and dumplings and followed by Christmas pudding and custard, it was nap time for adults, reading time or playing with newly opened Christmas present board games for the choir boys.

Then a sandwich and cup of tea, the final examination of the day with touch-ups where necessary, the short walk to church and ‘‘Evensong” around 5:30 or six. Mother always attended Evensong, beaming with pride. By seven o’clock we walked home together with only gas lamps lighting the winter-dark streets, not talking much.

Then it was hot cocoa and biscuits and bed. Christmas had never been happier. And I wish you all an equal season of happiness leavened with the simple joys and loving strength of family.

Potential But Far From Proven

“There will never, ever, be anything buried here,” said Speaker Darryl Plecas in his gasket-blowing speech to the management committee of the BC Legislature a few days ago. He was responding to – but avoiding meaningful answers to – blunt questions from committee members trying to find out the detailed reasoning behind the suspension of Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

Both had been escorted from the Legislature precinct, office keys and codes to confidential files surrendered, pending the results of a freshly launched police investigation and the findings of two special prosecutors, one for each of the suspended officials.

Plecas said he wanted the all-party committee to know that very early in his tenure as Speaker, “very serious concerns were brought to me about certain activities that were taking place within the Legislative Assembly. When I learned of this information, I felt a great duty to safeguard the integrity of this institution and be very mindful of why we’re all here.”

Heavy duty information and so serious that he felt it “imperative for me to act on the information before me.” And act he did, but not by passing the information received to the attorney general for action. He stated: “Given the information is very serious, and the very sensitive nature of the information that was before me, which could potentially be criminal, I believe that I acted appropriately to ensure that the information I had been provided was reliable.”

He acted by calling on an old friend who he hired to check out the information. The old friend was Alan Mullen, and his assignment was “due diligence” on the information to hand and any more that might surface in the process. Plecas was indignant that the press had given Mullen the title of “investigator.”

“Nothing, nothing, nothing could be further from the truth – not even close … I’m sure the police and the special prosecutors will jump forward and tell you that he wasn’t investigating. They would probably also tell you that every single thing he did and I did leading up to giving the police the information was done not well – but perfectly.” I guess if you are awarding yourself the marks in any test, you may as well plump for perfect.

Mullen was so perfect that Plecas once suggested he could become the sergeant-at-arms to replace Lenz. It was an offer quickly rejected. Plecas ended his disjointed speech to the management committee with a prophecy on what will happen as the final curtain falls on British Columbia’s 2018 Christmas Carol with Mullen taking unlimited curtain calls: “I know what’s going to happen at the end of this. People are going to be cheering for Mullen, and they’re going to say ‘whatever you do here at the Legislature, don’t get rid of Mr. Mullen.”

Yes, well, as British novelist Samuel Butler wrote in The Way of All Flesh: “The advantage of doing one’s praising for oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places.”

As has become customary in modern times, it is incumbent that an audience advisory be posted. Plecas has already warned that when the truth of his and Mullen’s roles are finally made known, the public will physically vomit. If the findings “do not make them throw up, I will resign as Speaker and Mr. Mullen will resign as well.”

Be sure to be standing at the back of the crowd, just in case he’s right.

And to consider while we await the Speaker’s January dishonours list is the less than honourable reaction of the government and the RCMP which leaves two men dangling over Christmas and New Year still unaware of who exactly their accusers are, and what their “potentially criminal” acts have been.

Speaker Plecas has said we can rule out “fraud” so I guess that’s one charge we can bury. Maybe when he gets to check his post Christmas accusation list he’ll find a few more but that will be far too late to undo the damage of “potential” but not proven or even identified, acts of criminality.

Things Not Correctly Sequenced

Proponents of proportional representation ballots kept telling me they were the only kind to guarantee voters fair and truly democratic election result. They said I should not be confused by a change from the centuries-old first past the post system which with minor foibles has stood the test of time.

They said if I wanted proof of the fairness of PR voting I should take a look at Germany, Australia, New Zealand or other places where it has replaced FPTP.

So I did. I chose two of the three so often mentioned – Australia and New Zealand – not because we are members of the same Commonwealth family but because while my English language may be a little faulty from time to time it remains much better than my German. And as both had survived general elections in 2016 and 2017 they were current, ready to set a sparkling example.

Well, maybe “sparkling” isn’t a well-chosen word because the ‘‘proportional’s” varied for the different states and the Australia election was what they know down under as a “double dissolution election” one in which Australia elects a new national government and a new Senate.

I suggest readers who get lost under my guidance put Google to work. I do not have room – or desire – to present you with anything more than basics.Remember when checking Australia numbers ( wou will be looking at results for seats in parliament and completely separate results for Senate seats.

Wherever you lived in Australia your ballot paper would list your voting options. In New South Wales the (Senate)ballot ran the gamut of 41 Party’s ranging from the ultimate winning coalition of Liberal/Nationals and Nationals of 1,610,626 votes in NSW to the “also ran” Australian Progressives with 1,817.

If you vigilantly track down overview numbers you will find that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party won one Senate seat with 1.9 per cent of the vote but no seats in what Canadians would call the House of Commons.The Family First Party also won a Senate seat but came up empty at the MP level 1.4 per cent vote.

If you find this worrisome, imagine what it will be like in BC if you ever have to face such lists on a BC ballot designed to make sure dubious seats can be made safe for fragile incumbents.

One final thought from Down Under before nipping over to New Zealand for a Kiwi look at proportional representation in a 2017 general election which saw the Liberal/National Coalition re-elected but in a minority position: since 2013 Australia’s government, elected by their version of PR designed to bring fresh air, transparency and stability to government they have used up five Prime Ministers – Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd,who lost the 2013 election to a Liberal coalition which over the next five years replaced PM Tony Abbott with PM Malcolm Turnbull who was shuffled out recently to be replaced by PM Scott Morrison.

Not exactly a stable government.

Now to New Zealand and last year’s election under PR rules with not as many hopeful party participants as their cousin Cousin Aussies but enough to make life interesting for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who hit the 2017 campaign trail a single woman – and won but not with enough seats to govern.

Waiting in the wings was one Winston Peters who had been defeated in the election but retained his seat in Parliament. Wikipedia tells us that despite being out-voted in his own riding his party, New Zealand First, “had secured 7.2 percent of the vote….since Peter’s ranked first on the New Zealand First Party list, he remained in Parliament as a list MP.”  A “list member” system is one of the options discussed in BC with details to be provided once approval to change the rules is given.

In October Peters announced his nine seat New Zealand First party would form a coalition with Ardern’s Labor to give her a working majority. The deal was confirmed and a year ago Peter’s, an election loser, became (Andrew Weaver is permitted to dream) the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister for State Owned Enterprises and Minister for Racing.

Last January PM Ardern became the first Prime Minister in the Commonwealth to take maternity leave and a few weeks after the event introduced her new born to her cabinet as she returned to work.

And no, Peter’s was not the father. That honour belongs to a long-term boyfriend and she has said openly of their relationship: “It sounds terrible because we are very committed to each other. Marriage is just not something we have really gotten around to. We haven’t correctly sequenced, perhaps….”

Which appeals as a suitable final comment on promoters of proportional representation.



“We Will Not Defer Justice Or Right…”

It was in the summer of 1215 that the Archbishop of Canterbury penned the first version of the Magna Carta which became an essential building block in common law wherever democracy is genuinely cherished.

Only four copies of the original are known to exist today – one preserved and held in Lincoln Cathedral; one in Salisbury Cathedral and two in the British Library. Reprints or extracts flourish, often disguised in trimmed and streamlined modern prose, but echoing what legendary UK Judge Lord Denning once described as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

The Magna Carta informed England’s King John that henceforth “no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or be disseised (have his property confiscated) of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his deed, or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man; we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.”

With minor language changes, it remains law today. To ensure justice was done, the authors of the new treaty made certain King John understood his “lawmakers and peacekeepers” were now out of the brutal dictatorial way of doing business; that the new administrators of the law “will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs only those who know the law of the realm and who wish to observe it well.”

Some 800 years later, the phraseology may have changed, but the foundational reforms of the Magna Carta remain the same bedrock on which our democratic freedoms stand.

The authors of the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) acknowledged they were building on and re-endorsing old and sometimes neglected laws: “It is hereby recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion or sex the following human rights and fundamental freedoms: The right of the individual to life, liberty, security of person and enjoyment of property, and the right to not be deprived thereof except by due process of law; the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law; freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly and association and freedom of the press.”

The Charter fleshes these freedoms out a little and urges Canadians to be alert and ready to oppose any new laws that could be construed to “impose or authorize the imposition of cruel and unusual treatment or and unusual punishment … or to deprive a person who has been arrested or detained of the right to be informed promptly of the reason for his arrest or detention.”

It may be argued that when legislative clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz were escorted from the Legislature by police and Alan Mullen, an investigator hired by Speaker Daryll Plecas, they were not placed under arrest. True, but,they were arbitrarily denied freedom of movement, banned from their offices and suspended with pay from their duties simply because as yet unnamed informers had suggested they be the subject of a criminal investigation.

The government reacted immediately. In a rare display of unanimity, opposition Liberal MLAs joined the NDP and its three Green camp followers to pass a government motion ordering that James and Lenz be suspended with full pay. Without debate, the bewildered pair were denied freedom of movement, marched to their respective offices – flanked by a policeman and a self-proclaimed private investigator – to collect personal belongings.

The proceedings were recorded on television news cameras for all the world to see the bewildered embarrassment of two highly respected public servants being removed from key positions in the Legislature pending investigation of unconfirmed suspicions. They have been informed they are being investigated, but for what remains a mystery at this writing.

The RCMP and the provincial government, including its three ragged Green standard bearers, piously whimper they are banned from commenting on the incident because it is under police investigation. And the Liberals fume that they were, betrayed, not given all the facts before they voted on the suspension motion.

Not the most inspirational look at a democratic parliament in action, and a far cry from the time in 1642 when King Charles I marched into parliament with an armed guard and demanded the whereabouts of five MPs critical of his policies. Speaker William Lenthall replied with one of the shortest but most powerful speeches ever heard in a British parliament: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am.”

I am left with them impression that today’s inhabitants of the BC Legislature lack the ability to clearly understand their role in the protection of the foundations of democracy so hard fought to obtain and to hold for centuries by clerks,  Speakers and members of legislative assemblies. They seem to forget they are where they are as servants of the people.

Their actions in recent days do not synchronize well with the guarantees of Magna Carta or today’s Bill of Rights. Unconfirmed rumours, investigations with challengeable authority, refusal to indentify real or imagined causes for concern, are closer to Star Chamber proceedings than they are to what we proudly call “full disclosure” even as our Legislature, to its shame, denies even modest transparency.


(Italics used in text are mine, for emphasis.Jimh)


Silenced By An Apple

As I wrote some years ago and now repeat – it’s that time of year. Memory buds clicking on and off, some bright and others just a flicker but strong enough to re-kindle flames of decades-old memories.

Every year since I was old enough to appreciate the regrets of lost opportunity, December has been a month to dream of what might have been – or what would have been, if I had turned down a challenge to go “scrumping” in the orchard adjoining the residence of the Vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in England’s industrial Midlands.

Scrumping involved scrambling over a six-foot wall anytime in late Fall, finding a tree with unpicked apples or a recent crop of windfalls and loading every available pocket before hoisting yourself back to safety to share the harvest with friends. Friends awaiting my return from a Vicar’s orchard forage in the late autumn of 1934 were fellow choristers, the boy soprano section of St. Mary’s choir practicing for a rare invitation to sing in Coventry Cathedral.

Early for choir practice, the devil was finding work for idle hands – and it was my turn to go over the wall.

At least that’s the way Reg Snape, organist, and choirmaster, saw things about an hour later when he found me unable to respond to his cry “Hume solo,” my mouth being full of apple. Practice that evening was one of many “specials” designed to prepare the choir for a Christmas festival in Coventry Cathedral. On discovering that his entire soprano section had been eating stolen goods supplied by one “scrumper,” he banished me from the choir – permanently.

Scrumping may have been regarded as a youthful autumn sport throughout England – but not by Mr. Snape. To him, it was outright stealing from the vicar and must be punished harshly. Fortunately, banishment to the Colonies was no longer an option, but the expulsion of one fallen choir soprano was a choice open to Mr. Snape that would discourage other potential scrumpers. He took it. I was expelled.

In the spring of 2002, I stood with my son Andrew in the shell of old Coventry Cathedral, built in 1373, destroyed by German bombers on November 14, 1940. I told him how I almost got to sing a solo there in 1934 as the organ (once played by Handel) lifted my less than angelic voice to the heavens.

I was able to tell him how the last time I had stood where we were then standing was on the morning of November 15, 1940, when I was amid still smouldering timbers wired in the shape of a cross – the ruins where the altar once stood. A simple message at its foot, placed there within hours of the air raid, read “Father forgive.”

The original charred-cross timbers are still preserved, but a replica replaces it above the Altar of Reconciliation. The original scrawled message, now carved on the altar wall remains unchanged: “Father forgive.”

At noon every Friday since November 1940, the old Coventry Cathedral has conducted a brief ceremony to remember the day of destruction. The congregation is asked to participate with the two-word response, “Father Forgive,” as the final clause of Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is recited as a statement of faith: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Non-Christians can find their own final words.

And, I can still dream about the day I almost got to sing there but was done in by an apple.


Readers Prefer a Dash Of Spice

We may like to think that we moderns brought the world its twittering classes and face to face gossip exchanges, but the fact is both classes were on the scene and active millenniums ago.

Their range wasn’t as great as it is today, but the format was identical and a few hundred kilometers north of its now capital city of Victoria native nations of Nootka Sound used it to keep up to date on events.

It was in Nuu-chah-nulth territory where long-distance travelers and traders were welcomed with a traditional feast at which they were expected to repay their hosts with news of other places. They were expected to be truthful when they reported to local chiefs stories of victory or defeat in battles witnessed in their travels; of famines survived or record harvests shared.

And when left to continue their travels or go home, they were loaded with gifts of food in the hope that the storytellers would twitter about them favourably.

In his classic book, A History of News” Mitchell Stephens tells us the Nootka chiefs were not above a little salacious storytelling every now and then. One such story involved  “a suitor who tumbled into a barrel of rainwater as he was sneaking out the window of his lover’s house.” Once twittered at a lodge campfire, the story took wings and “spread like wildfire up and down the coast.”

Today it would be proudly praised as a top story “going viral.” Readers still prefer news stories with a little sex and a dash of violence, reporters prefer writing them and publishers know what their readers prefer.

The age of twittering storytellers eventually faded as society recognized that a twice-told tale could become slightly different in its second telling and unrecognizable in its third and fourth. Some of today’s reader will remember the old campfire game where we sat in a circle our leader would whisper a sentence in an ear which would then be passed along to whispered completion. The final recipient would then stand and recite what he heard whispered and the leader would read out what had actually been said at the start of the game.

It was never the same story.

In Europe, coffee table twittering and chatter lasted for centuries before being replaced by more stable print and a vastly wider audience. Unfortunately, a wider audience has never automatically guaranteed a more honest product. Mitchell Stephens skillful autopsy of print-press, its triumphs, and its failures should be a must read for all who wish to ply the trade of journalism, snipe from the sidelines with a twittering load of misleading grapeshot – or just happily pay a weekly fee to read the inane posing as news.

“A History of News” was first published in 1988. It could be hard to find but will be worth the search if you are successful. But be warned it could be a painful journey as Stephens forces us to understand that while we lamented much of the “news content” presented in our newspapers even as they went into their continuing death spiral, it was “content” readers preferred.

In the last few lines of his book Stephens’ writes about the expanding power of huge companies building ever larger data banks. He writes : “….no matter how sophisticated news organs become, unless human beings are also re-wired, they are likely to continue to satisfy their desire to remain aware with a spicy, hastily prepared mix of the portentous and the anomolous similar to that with which they have satisfied that desire for the past few thousand years.”





The White Poppy of Remembrance

The park and the war memorial in London, England, are both postage stamp size. They stand –The Hermitage Wharf Memorial Garden and the People of London Memorial – on the south bank of the River Thames, a short walk from London’s classical Tower Bridge landmark.

The garden is just that, a small well-tended bed of flowers surrounding a circular block of stone with a dove in flight cut through the centre. There are two inscriptions. “In war resolution, in defeat defiance, in victory magnanimity, in peace goodwill” graces the circular stone on one side. On the other, there is a command: “Remember before God the people of London, 1939-1945.”

It is the lone memorial in London, the city of statues and bronze tablets marking historic happenings, to the 20,000 civilians who lost their lives in 57 nights of consecutive bombing raids – the London Blitz. On the last night of the blitz, May 10 – 11, 1941, more than 1,000 high explosive bombs smashed across the city with the heaviest concentrations in the East End and Thames dockside.

Over the course of the 57-night blitz mixed in with the heavy-duty bombs were 55 heavy oil canister firebombs and thousands of incendiary bombs. There were also 11 “blockbuster” parachute mines. A “blockbuster” would drift down and stand silently until the detonator-timer kicked in. It would destroy a full city block on explosion. The end results of firebomb explosions require no explanation.

While London was suffering its worst of the 57 nights, the historic town of Penryn, 435 kilometres west and close to the edge of Cornwall, was sleeping until one bomb from a lone aircraft fell on a row of modest houses. Today, flowers grow in Penryn’s Memorial Garden with a small tablet reading: “On this site stood homes which were destroyed during an early morning air raidwhen 18 lives were lost.” Each year the town remembers.

Details of the Penryn “raid” are hard to find but they still read out the names of the dead, including “four-year-old David Boxhall, and Percy and Ronald Pascoe, brothers four and two years old” who died with their mother and five other family members. John Rickard Rapson, 78, was a victim, as was Richard Ralph who, The Falmouth Packet newspaper reports, “had survived four years in WW1 trenches only to be killed in his own home.”

Penryn was a flea bite when compared with London or other major UK cities. And by 1945 the brutal devastation in UK cities paled when measured against the wreckage and loss of civilian lives in cities across Europe from the channel ports to Moscow.

Germany had lost as many as 500,000 civilians including 76,000 children – and their mothers.

Adding to the ranks of civilian dead were women who served as air raid wardens, in ambulance services, and as firefighters. There is a Memorial to Fire Fighters near St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is a bronze sculpture depicting a crew in action during an air raid when civilian firefighting casualties were high. Two members of the squad are female firefighters. There were many others

Last Thursday there was a letter in my local newspaper signed by a 90-year old woman who wanted people to know that on November 11 she would be attending a memorial service for the Spanish Civil War, the first democracy versus fascism war – 1936-39. She would, she wrote, be proudly wearing a white poppy.

I have never met or spoken to Alison Acker, the letter signer, but I salute her white poppy courage. The different poppy with its white petals and green centre has been around since the 1930s when a group of women, many of whom had lost husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in WW1 decided to become advocates for peace. They would remember fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen with a white poppy symbol of peace that would reach beyond the military and include the civilian dead.

It was not a popular movement and showed little growth over the years, but it never faded away. Many ex-service groups denounced it as unpatriotic and a betrayal of the men and women who served in the armed forces and helped keep the world and our nation safe.

The white poppy supporters denied the charges, insisted they respected and appreciated the sacrifices made but also believed that war should not be glamourized and that civilian dead deserved respect equal to that accorded the military. In the years since WW2 white poppy wearers have insisted they honour all war victims, especially the elderly and women and children who, since that conflict have been unarmed but in harm’s way once the fighting starts.

The white poppy received an unexpected boost a week ago when the 141-year-old St. John Ambulance organization changed its uniform dress code to allow its volunteers to wear the white poppy.

The Peace Pledge Union which handles white poppy distribution says it hopes to have 100,000 sold before November 11 – 10,000 more than a year ago. It sounds encouraging until measured against the war-like rhetoric hurled back and forth at the international level, and especially by our southern neighbour.

Our world leaders threaten but say what they really want is peace; and we, the people – or most of us – echo that we, too, want peace.

But not enough to wear a white poppy.

President Trump’s Final Solution?


The weather on January 6, 1864 was not unusual, but maybe just a little unexpected. Deep snow covered the hills surrounding Canyon de Chelly, and a cold wind was making things difficult for renowned Indian fighter Kit Carson. He and his 400-strong “army” had been charged with the task of clearing the canyon and the surrounding country of Navajo tribal natives.

Carson launched what would become a 16-day relentless assault on the Navajo. Every “Hogan” was burned, corrals were torn down, food supplies stored for winter were destroyed, and wells and water holes were filled with rocks and soil and rendered useless.

Then, Carson sat and waited for survivors to surrender – which most did rather than face death by starvation. Tribal histories say they realized they could not survive the winter. “They had no livestock, their homes were in ashes, and crops destroyed, children clad in rags and afraid to light fires because they would attract Carson’s attention.”

When they surrendered at Fort Defiance and Fort Wingate, they were, to their surprise, welcomed with gifts of food and blankets and roofs to sleep under. And, they were told that more food and blankets and permanent homes awaited them at a place called Bosque Redondo near the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. The military had an outpost there called Fort Sumner.

There was what Kit Carson and the army regarded as a minor problem: how to get them from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner. Some tribal stories handed down verbally estimate the final number of Navajo assembled by Carson in what is now Southeast Arizona in March 1864 was “around 8,500 men, women and children.” Whatever the total, on the day they moved, they had no idea their new home was close to 500 kilometers away – and they had to walk every kilometer. At least, those who survived what the Navajo still call “the Long Walk” – would have walked every kilometer.

Tribal histories say: “Soon the Navajo’s moccasins fell apart and their blankets turned to rags…… (many) became sick from different foods the soldiers gave them. They didn’t know how to use flour or coffee beans. They mixed the flour with water and drank it and the coffee beans they boiled in stews … Old people and young people fell along the trail. If they did not get up the soldiers either shot them or left them to freeze to death.”

Before reaching the Pecos River, they had to cross the Rio Grande and many drowned there before the military guard allowed the walkers to make a few primitive rafts. The number of deaths on The Long Walk varies between 3,000 and 5,000 – depending on who is telling the story.

The Navajo remained incarcerated in Fort Sumner for close to four years when a new treaty was negotiated, and the survivors rejoined a small band of Navajo warriors who had avoided capture and refused to surrender. The Navajo had survived.

The Fort Sumner concentration camp site is, by all accounts, better visited today than it was 25 years ago when I took my youngest son to see this rare historic site and learn a little harsh American history. He listened to my Navajo story, but couldn’t visualize a concentration camp on what looked like an empty field with a fence around it. He drifted off to Fort Sumner’s small cemetery for another look at a gravestone claiming to mark the last resting place of Henry McCarty or William Bonney – better known as “Billy the Kid.”

Billy the Kid was a 21-year-old murderer with eight victims to his name when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed him at Fort Sumner in 1881 – and remains in the American psyche (and that of 10-year-old boys) a far more interesting historical happening at the old outpost than The Long Walk of the Navajos.

I think I owe readers a reason for reviving The Long Walk story. It was just curiosity. I got to wondering: How would Commander in Chief USA President Trump resolve his current troublesome problem of refugee “invaders” seeking food and a place to call home?

Late last Thursday afternoon via television he told me. At the first sign of trouble if/when the refugees reach the Mexico – USA border he would “use the rifle” to halt the cavalcade. And that brutal promised order from the Commander in Chief of the US Armed forces should be all his most ardent supporters need to trigger an already overdue farewell.