Thursday, June 30, 2016

In memory of Beaumont-Hamel, July 1, 1916

I've written a few pieces about our visits to the great battle-grounds of the First World War in France and Belgium: here, here, here. I've covered Vimy Ridge, other areas of the Somme, Ypres.

One of the most moving stops on our tour was at Beaumont-Hamel. It was there, on July 1, 1916, that more than 800 members of the First Newfoundland Regiment — later the Royal Newfoundland Regiment — were sent over-the-top straight into a storm of German machine guns. Only 68 were able to answer roll call the next morning. It was one of the deadliest days in the history of modern warfare.

The day we visited the battle site, it had been raining off and on and the grass and path-ways were wet. Our tour guide is a historian and author and he makes a point of knowing where the people on his tour are from. He tailors his tour accordingly. Because we're Atlantic Canadians, he gave us a detailed tour of Beaumont-Hamel and spent a lot of time explaining the battle and the advantages that the Germans had arranged for themselves.

The land where the battle took place was bought by the Government of Newfoundland in 1921. It's had some restoration work done and it's now maintained by the Veterans' Affairs Department of the Government of Canada.

It wasn't an easy walk, through the wet ground, up and down trench slopes, into and out of shell holes — but it wasn't bad enough to even come close to what it must have been like then. It's hard to picture and it's hard to think about.

At the end of every war, it becomes a challenge to be able to justify it and explain why people gave their lives. It rarely changes much from some variation on, "They gave their lives to preserve our freedom/our values/our way of life." The further we get from the First World War, the easier it is for the historians to acknowledge that it was an ignoble war and there was nothing much to be gained by it.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 38 million: there were over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. The total number of deaths includes about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians.

Beaumont-Hamel affected much of the population in Newfoundland and it is still felt as a raw wound. The dead will be memorialized at the battle-site in France and also back home in Newfoundland and in Ottawa.

Brian McKenna's documentary, Newfoundland at Armageddon, aired on CBC-TV on the eve of the 100th anniversary. It's definitely worth seeing and in this day and age, it will be possible to find it sometime later and watch it. I recommend it.

July 1, as always, is a sad day for Newfoundland. The early part of the day is always spent remembering Beaumont-Hamel and mourning the dead. Later in the day, for those who are so inclined, there's Canada Day to be celebrated.

It's very much a day of mixed feelings, all round.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Help wanted: nice legs an asset but no guarantee

I saw the job advertised in the daily newspaper. It was in a field that I knew well, it required skills that I had a-plenty, it was part-time to be done out of my home. (It was called part-time which means it would be part-time pay but would quite likely demand full-time hours. Apart from that, it was perfect.) The person who got the position would report to a board of directors.

I needed that job really badly. I was on unemployment insurance which was going to run out. It was the middle of a recession and there were few jobs available.

I can't remember the building where the interview was held although I remember that when I went in, there was a pleasant waiting area, with couches and easy chairs and bookcases. I was the only one there.

Within a few minutes, another applicant arrived. He was a young man, pleasant-looking, nicely dressed. We chatted a bit and made a little joke about both being there for the same job. He had recently moved to town. This was his first job interview. His wife — they hadn't been married long — had just found out she was pregnant.

I was called in first. A few chairs had been set up around a low table. There were two women sitting waiting and they stood and invited me to join them. I sat down. The third interviewer — a man — was getting a cup of coffee over at a side table. When he came over to the circle of chairs, he made a point of stopping, looking directly at my legs, and choosing a chair across from me.

"I'm going to sit right here," he announced, "where I get the best view."

I was wearing a knee-length skirt and basic pumps. I was not dressed provocatively, in case you're wondering.

I was good at job interviews and this was no exception. I was well-prepared and although the man made me uncomfortable, the two women were really nice and I rose above him. They all thanked me warmly when I left and I felt good. I told the young man in the waiting area that I hoped everything went well with the pregnancy and I wished him all the best.

A few days later, I got a note in the mail thanking me for taking the time to meet with them and telling me that the job had been offered to another applicant. They wished me well.

I was terribly disappointed and I was even a little surprised. I couldn't believe that young man had done a better interview than I had.

The interview was in the early fall and I was back on the job-hunting trail.

In early December, I got a Christmas card in the mail. I didn't recognize the name but it included a note and the sender identified herself in the first sentence as one of the interviewers for the job a few months earlier. She said she felt very bad about what had happened and as she was no longer associated with the organization, she wanted to tell me what had happened. She said that all three of the interviewers believed that I should have been offered the job: I was better qualified, more knowledgeable, more articulate and much more familiar with the city and the people the organization dealt with. She said the young man was very nice but he was most definitely second to me in appropriateness for the position.

She said they had given him the job because they felt he needed it more than I did, what with being new in town and having a baby on the way.

She hoped that things were going well for me and that I'd found a job. She wished me a Merry Christmas.

It wasn't the first time I'd faced discrimination in the workplace and it wouldn't be the last. It wasn't the first time — nor the last — that I faced sexual harassment (as in the job interview) ranging from mildly annoying to menacing. It's something women who go to work deal with every day. The incident I've just described took place in the 1980s, not the 1950s. Variations on it could happen today although things have changed enough that most men know it's wrong and women don't take that kind of behaviour for granted.

Second-wave feminism was still in its youth in the early '80s and women had not reached the point where much could be done in a case like this. Not that I would have anyway. I've never been good at confrontation.

When I watched the incomparable television show Mad Men, my initial reaction was like so many others: "Why would I watch this? I was there and I lived these experiences. I don't have to put myself through this."

But Mad Men had the clear advantage of knowing how things were going to turn out. It was not like looking in the mirror and that's why it was groundbreaking. It didn't just depict an era; it drew the lines and connected the dots from there and then to here and now.

I'll come back and tell you more specifically some of the things I liked about Mad Men.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Leaving our lives behind while the chaos continues

We had left the old house in Black River Bridge long before it was torched and burned to the ground. We had moved to town — Chatham — as our fates unfolded and eventually, moved away from the Miramichi. Life had become chaotic and if we ever thought of going back to clear the house out, I have no memory of that.

I'm pretty sure it had been thoroughly vandalized and stripped of anything interesting long before it burned so perhaps on some level, we were simply avoiding the pain of returning.

The house was anything but secure all the time we lived there. If anyone had been inclined, they could have walked in and taken whatever they fancied but as long as we were there, people respected the laws around private property and everything remained intact.

It was many years later that I began to remember some of the things that had been left behind and were now gone forever.

We had a radio very much like this one which had come from my parents' home. (I borrowed this photo from the Internet.) It's the radio I described here when I reminisced about many of the classic radio shows of my childhood and youth. I regret the loss of the radio although, to be honest, how can you drag something like that around with you through decades of moving? And if I had it today, what would I be doing with it except wondering what was going to become of it when we want to empty our house and downsize?

It's probably worth a lot of money to someone today though so I guess I could sell it.

One thing that I think of every now and then is a lovely little Japanese cruet set. I don't have a photo of it but it was exactly like this, slightly different colours:

It was for oil and vinegar, salt and pepper, and mustard. You may remember how much I like mustard so imagine how happy I was to have a little pot with a tiny china spoon whose only function was to hold the mustard.

I lost several things that were of sentimental value from my nursing days. All my textbooks were there in the house.

I can't imagine that I'd ever use them again and I don't know what I would have done with them but they meant a lot to me. They were, for textbooks, quite gorgeous books with hard covers, coloured photos, glossy pages. Maybe I could have sold them too!

The other mementos from the Montreal General Hospital that I lost were my pins:

The pins were in a little jewelry box along with my name-tag pin. I would have had them with me as they would have been easy to carry around as I moved from place to place but years later, I was the victim of an armed robbery in my home and all my jewelry — including Mum's engagement and wedding rings and other pieces that had great sentimental value — disappeared. My nursing pins would certainly have met the same fate.

(I wrote about the life-changing experience of that robbery in a five-part series: Part one; Part two; Part three; Part four; Part five.)

Another small thing that I think of are the little trophies I won for my acting performances at Chatham High School.

I had acted in the drama festival plays in both grade 11 and grade 12. The grade 11 play was directed by a teacher who was only there one or two years. Her name might have been Mrs. Watling although I'm not sure. My co-star was my dear late friend, Walter Brown. The play was Rise and Shine by Elda Cadogan.

Years later, when David Cadogan came to town and hired me to work at the Miramichi Press, it was a connection we didn't know we had. Elda was his Mom and her play was — and remains — the most-produced one-act-play in our country. I played Hephzibah Mercy Jones. It's a sweet play and one of my favourite parts was when Walter sang to me, If You Were the Only Girl in the World. It was quite romantic.

The following year, the play was much different. It was a tragedy — dramatic and shocking. Still Stands the House was written by Canadian Gwen Pharis Ringwood and it was directed by Mrs. Ernestine MacKnight.

This photo is from my high school yearbook. I'm standing, in the centre. Joan Crawford is seated on the left, Richard Brieze on the right. I wanted Joan's part — it seemed a much meatier role to me — but Mrs. MacKnight rightly told me that I wasn't right for the part. Hester was tall and dark and angular, not my physical type at all. Joan was wonderful in the part and the adjudicator liked both of us but I guess it was my year.

People are often asked, what would you grab and take with you if you had to evacuate your house suddenly in the event of a fire or a flood or some other catastrophe? I look around me today and I have no idea. It's a good thing I have no idea because there's nothing in my house that's easily grabbed and carried off. It's a very different time, isn't it? We live so differently. Most people don't have to worry about photos and letters — as long as you have your passwords, you'll find them.

Losing those things in the fire didn't make a difference to my life. I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about them. I have enjoyed remembering them today and telling you about them. Maybe that's the best we can expect from all the little possessions of our lives.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Playing to the stereotypes: comedy that pushes to the edge

We made it to three productions of Eastern Front Theatres Stages Festival. The first two were Unconscious at the Sistine Chapel and She said/He said.

The third was Yours Truly, Cape Breton starring Bette MacDonald and Maynard Morrison with Joe Waye Jr. and special guest Jordan Musycsyn.

This show was in the Schooner Room at Casino Nova Scotia — where I've never been! We did go downstairs after the show because we took a wrong turn and I said to Dan, “Stop here so I can look around.” And Dan said, “Here we are, in the belly of the beast.” We were definitely in Slot Machine City. I asked later if there were other forms of gambling – blackjack, baccarat, roulette – and Dan said there may be a little but there’s not much demand. There were a handful of people playing the slots but it wasn't crowded.

Bette MacDonald is a well-known Nova Scotia/Cape Breton actress, comic, singer. Her character, Mary Morrison – "How are ya, dear?" – is as loved as anyone who ever came out of Cape Breton.

Mary, who talks about her husband Gordie and her sister-in-law Tookie, is not Bette's only character but I think of her as Bette's alter-ego.

Comedy is a funny thing. (Ha ha.) It goes without saying that we often use humour to express things that can't be easily expressed otherwise. And I'm – surprisingly enough – one of the people who believes that maybe we take offence at too many things a little too easily.

But I think it's fair to say that by any measurement, if someone other than Bette MacDonald were doing her material, she'd be seen to be, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.

Mary Morrison – and Bette's other characters – make fun of aging and of being old, of being fat, of being ignorant. They – the characters – do all this with the absolute joy of being Cape Bretoners, laughing about being unemployed, about being on welfare, about being in court for one thing or another.

I ask myself a few questions whenever I see her: does the fact that she comes from Cape Breton make her comedy acceptable to Cape Bretoners? Would she be able to get away with it if she were from away? And do the people in her audience identify with her characters or do they just have the vague feeling that they might know someone like that? The audience that we saw the show with was made up of lots of Cape Bretoners – she asked – and they cracked up and roared with laughter at her jokes many of which I suspect they'd heard before.

There are other comics in Atlantic Canada who play to the stereotypes in the same way Bette does: Mary Walsh, Andy Jones, Cathy Jones and other Codco and This Hour Has 22 Minutes veterans have pushed the stereotypes of Newfoundlanders right to the edge; The Trailer Park Boys have often pushed their stereotypes over. They're all capable of making us feel uncomfortable, cringe a bit. Is that an important function of comedy?

Back to Bette's show: Maynard Morrison – her husband and often producer/director – is also a performer and he's really funny too.

They play together very well on stage and it's fun to imagine what it's like at their home! They both sing and they were joined in this show with musical performances by Joe Waye Jr. and Jordan Musycsyn.

They're both really talented musicians and added a lot to our evening.

Besides being a funny Cape Bretoner, Bette MacDonald is a lovable character in her own right. That may be another reason she can get away with some material that a less lovable person might not manage.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Looking at love and conflict inside our relationships

I wonder if I can make some interesting connection between Father's Day and our trip to the theatre to see She said/He said. Probably not so I won't even try.

The play is our second in the Stages Festival of Eastern Front Theatre. Last week, I told you about Unconscious at the Sistine Chapel. They are two very different experiences.

She said/He said is the creation of Anne-Marie Woods, an award winning multi-disciplinary artist — an arts educator, producer, director and creative consultant. With roots in London, England and Trinidad, her life and career have had no regional boundaries. I think of her as a poet and a spoken word performer but I also remember her beautiful singing voice from when she was part of the a cappella group, Four the Moment.

SHE is a Black woman asking real questions about life. HE is a Black man searching for meaning and understanding. Together, they fight to make their relationship last in a world where “the rules” are always changing.

A fusion of personal experiences and fiction… playwright Anne-Marie Woods conveys in this new work the vulnerability felt in romantic relationships and the importance of communication.

Through compelling monologues, poetry and song, the female/male rapport is laid bare in this tragicomic battle of wits. She Said/He Said is a fresh and nuanced look at relationships through a script that cleverly meanders through the present and past experiences of its two main characters. Where time is subjective, the fourth wall is intermittently torn down… and location though specific is universal. Woods has taken a non-conventional approach to telling a modern day love story.

HE is played by Neville Coke.

Neville is a Toronto born actor and singer of Jamaican and Barbados heritage.

The play is a mixture of dialogue and individual reflection as each of the characters play out the conflicts they feel within the relationship. Some of the emotion they express is common to many relationships; some are related to family and culture that are specific to this couple. A lot about love is universal and it's very easy to get drawn into the lives of others with all their similarities and differences. It's just the kind of thing I enjoy.

Because we were going out, I had announced earlier in the day that we wouldn't have a fancy dinner for Father's Day. But after thinking it over, I changed my mind. We're Spaniards at heart and usually eat dinner around 9:00 p.m. but I thought it would be nice to eat early — a late lunch, let's say — around 4:00 p.m. And because it was a nice day, we had our first meal of the season on the deck.

Usually if we have steak, we have a rather modest piece of meat which we slice diagonally, put on a platter, and share. But every now and then, Dan likes a nice steak all his own. If not on Father's Day, when?

William may look relaxed but he's always on guard when he's outside, on the watch for flying creatures. He doesn't like bees. Or wasps. Or anything that could be a bee or a wasp.

It wasn't really a fancy dinner/lunch but I did make some molten brownies. I even whipped the cream to put on top.

Those brownies are so easy, I can't really take much credit.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A father's life: seeing where he came from and who he was

William Johnston — Willy in his youth, Bill when he got older — was my father. He was born on a farm in Barney's River, Nova Scotia, the youngest child and he helped the family on the farm and went to school until he was a young teen. Then he was off to work in the coal mines, across northern Nova Scotia and into Cape Breton.

Years later, when we used to go on road trips, he would always point to the signs of the towns where he'd lived over the years that he worked in the mines: River Hebert, Debert, Joggins (which he always called The Joggins), Springhill, Stellarton, Thorburn, Merigomish.

I think in those days, young men stayed in boarding houses. In some cases, he was fortunate enough to have relatives — close or distant — whom he could board with. I remember him pointing out a big house in Thorburn where a cousin lived and where he had stayed for awhile.

In those coal-mining days, he played baseball in a senior league in Nova Scotia. I believe he was very good. They called him Wee Willy — he was a short-stop. He was small but he was smart and fast. He was handsome too, as you can see in this team picture. He and his brother Fred are second and third from the right in the front row.

Dad used to speak of the African Nova Scotians (no, that isn't what he called them) on his ball teams. After all those years, he remained shocked and somewhat ashamed that his black team-mates could not go into the restaurants with the white team members. They had to go around back to the kitchen door where they would be handed a sandwich. Dad said he often went round with them — he said he'd just as soon have a sandwich anyway but I'd like to think he went round back to offer support and show solidarity.

I've often wondered if the reason there are no black team members in this photo is simply because of the segregated lives they led.

The coal mines in Nova Scotia are among the deepest mines in the world, some of them two to three miles deep. Dad hated coal mining. I don't know that any miners really liked it although, as with anything one does long enough, some people got to feel they belonged there. Dad never did. He once said he was afraid every single time he went down a mine shaft.

It must have been an easy decision for him then when his older brother, J.J. Johnston — my Uncle Jack — who held a management position at the Avon Coal Co. at Grand Lake, New Brunswick, offered him a job. The coal was not deep in New Brunswick and they did strip mining — a great eyesore but for Dad, a dream come true. Coal mining and you didn't have to go underground!

This isn't Grand Lake but it looked something like this. I actually remember the strip mines and the drag-lines.

Dad met my mother after he moved to New Brunswick. Mum's sister lived in Newcastle Creek on Grand Lake and Mum was a single girl, teaching school. I don't know too much about their courtship although I know she used to go to all his ballgames — yes, he still played ball — and they used to go fishing together. We have a photo of them, in their fishing gear, looking very flirtatious.

This was the depression-era and at some point during these years, Dad went to Pittsburgh to work in the factories. I think maybe they were engaged by then and maybe he wanted a nest-egg to prepare for marriage. When he came back, he began to work for the New Brunswick Power Commission at the big thermal generating plant in Newcastle Creek. That's where he worked when I was born in one of the plant houses, just a stone's throw from the plant. My sister was born four years earlier; she was more sophisticated than I was, having been born in the Saint John General Hospital.

Dad suffered a terrible electric shock at the plant when he somehow touched a live wire of some sort. He was knocked unconscious and I believe it was a very scary incident for everyone. He survived — he had three very large scars on his back where the electricity had exited his body. When he regained consciousness, his hands were in a clenched position and there was some worry that he'd never be able to use them in the same way. Apparently, people who watched him over the next several months were amazed at his bravery and his determination as he worked his hands to force them open and regain their former strength.

When I was five, our family moved to Chatham, NB. It didn't take very long for both Mum and Dad to begin to think of Chatham as their true home and they knew they would never leave. Dad worked at the power plant, Mum taught school. They were both active in the United Church, Dad was a Mason, they enjoyed friends and neighbours.

Dad was a funny guy. He really did always have a twinkle in his eye and he enjoyed being a bit of a tease. The women at the church all loved it — and loved him. He was one of the very dependable fellows — for driving people, for running errands, for coming through with solutions. The women at the church were all, "Isn't Marion lucky to have you?" and I'm sure he enjoyed that.

Mum didn't find him that funny. Marilyn and I always thought she was a little hard on him but in retrospect we can see that maybe his humour played better in places that weren't so close to home. This is probably not uncommon.

He was a good father. From the time we were little, he took us to games — mostly baseball which we love, to this day — and he tried as patiently as he could to help me learn to skate. Which I hated. He took us to hockey games and always made sure we understood the game. Every long May 24th weekend, he took us upriver to the Dungarvon — a beautiful tributary of the Miramichi — and taught us how to fish trout, including baiting the hook and removing the poor little fish. We all loved the delicious pan-fried trout and we'd have them for breakfast.

His gentle temperament did not extend to teaching me to drive. He had to turn that job over to Marilyn, my sister, who accomplished it patiently and kindly and never yelled at me once. He always let me drive his cars though, including that red one, a Mercury, I think.

He retired from NBEPC when he was 65 but he didn't stay retired long. He couldn't. He went to work at Burchill's Mill up in Nelson and enjoyed a few more years of gainful employment.

When he wasn't working, he was a putterer. He did have the legendary workbench in the basement with all the tools, and he always had a garden. He loved being a grandfather and his tiny grandchildren couldn't have had a sweeter Grampy — or Bampi, as Lisa (below) named him.

He wasn't a man of high culture — he probably had gone to the equivalent of grade seven or eight — but he knew a lot of things that mattered. He did like to read "western" paperbacks or Ellery Queen or Mickey Spillane. He was sentimental enough to enjoy listening to the record of The Mills Brothers singing Daddy's Little Girl. Possibly because it annoyed my mother, he liked to sing Little Brown Jug — "She loved gin and I loved rum. . ." This didn't amuse a teetotalling Methodist.

Maybe to make up for it, every now and then, he'd sit down at the piano and pick out with one finger the old hymn Shall We Gather At The River. It was a favourite of his mother's and he knew all the words.

I'm sure he'd enjoy Burl Ives' rendition.

Friday, June 17, 2016

James Joyce, Sigmund Freud: a Sistine Chapel encounter

It's interesting when you go to the theatre and when you're walking up the street on your way home, you talk about what you've read by James Joyce, you reminisce about your visit to the Sistine Chapel, you share what you know about the progress of the development of Artificial Intelligence, you tell a corny Freud joke — all subjects directly inspired by the play you've just seen.

The play was the world premiere of Unconscious at the Sistine Chapel, produced and performed by the 2b theatre, part of Eastern Front Theatre's Stages Festival.

The play was held in the theatre-like space in our brilliant library which gives me a chance to show it to you in case you haven't seen it:

The play is imaginative and original. It recreates the Sistine Chapel with the use of projectors and beams the unmistakable Michelangelo masterpieces on to the ceiling and walls of the stage area.

[It] tells a story about buried urges, artificial intelligence, and an unlikely encounter between Minna Bernays and Nora Barnacle, accompanied by their respective partners: Sigmund Freud and James Joyce. A parallel contemporary story features a young academic and a brilliant entrepreneur who clash over how to fill in gaps in the historical record, what makes history come alive, and who should be able to tell these stories.

Funny, smart, and sexy, the play imagines a collision between two of the great revolutionary thinkers of the modern period, and introduces us to the women who inspired them, challenged them, and were ultimately eclipsed by them.

You can see why our conversation on the way home took the turns it did.

When we visited the real Sistine Chapel, we did so in the company of several hundred other people. We all remember the stentorian tones of the security fellow who stood up on the altar and bellowed SILENZIO! every few minutes. It didn't work and the cacophony in there was not surprising, with all of us packed in like sardines. As well as calling for quiet, he was warning "No photos! No videos!" which we dutifully obeyed although we were the only ones. Most people around us were clicking and whirring as though the man was talking to everyone else but not to them. It's quite rude when you think about it.

I've been reading for years that the vast numbers who visit the chapel can't help but have a negative effect on the art. There are often more than 20,000 visitors in a single day and art experts say that the breath, sweat, dust and pollution brought in by such crowds are doing permanent damage. It seems hard to know what the solution is to this problem.

Everyone would like to see the chapel looking like this:

And this:

For most people though, it's like this:

Meanwhile, back in Halifax, Unconscious at the Sistine Chapel runs until June 26 and if you're anywhere near, I definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sure, I wish I'd practiced more . . .

I took music lessons – piano – for several years, beginning when I was quite young, probably seven or eight years old.

My music lessons were given in St. Andrew's Hall which was attached to the United Church at the back and which fronted on Henderson St. in Chatham, NB. You can see a bit of it on the far right in this picture:

Just inside the door were the minister's office and the choir room where the gowns were kept and where members of the choir gathered before each service.

The hall itself was used as a meeting place for youth groups and as a gym – non-regulation size – and kids played basketball, volleyball and badminton there.

On the right-hand side of the hall was an open stairway that led up to a balcony/mezzanine. I remember that whole area – which was in two sections – being used as a storage area for extra chairs and boxes of books.

Through another door at the back of this balcony was a long narrow room with two pianos. This is where the half-hour once-a-week music lessons happened.

In looking back, I can't imagine children today being sent up those stairs into a closed room to spend half an hour alone with the music teacher.

Each of the music teachers – besides doing the private lessons – was organist and choir director at the United Church and also taught music at Chatham Grammar School.

My teachers were, in this order: Pauline Whitman, Jack Armstrong, Vera Zwicker and Professor Moir (who was the younger brother of the legendary Irene Moir, award-winning choir director and voice teacher at St. Michael's Academy.) I think I may be missing a teacher, a less serious, more frivolous young woman who didn't meet with the approval of the ladies of the United Church choir. Or maybe I'm imagining her.

I liked the teachers. Miss Whitman was sweet and appealing. She was very much respected as a musician and the choir ladies loved her. It was hard to take Mr. Armstrong as seriously because he was relaxed and laid-back and didn't seem to take himself very seriously. I'm pretty sure he was also an accomplished musician.

Miss Zwicker was eccentric. She was not comfortable in her own skin and although I don't think anyone ever doubted her musical abilities, she was not as much appreciated as teacher/director because it was hard to feel comfortable with her.

Professor Moir, as far as I know, was taken seriously by everyone, himself included. I remember him as kind of a fussy fellow, almost a caricature of a music teacher. I may be wrong though. I was pretty young.

There was one more teacher. One year – I'm not sure why – I was sent up to St. Michael's Academy, then a Catholic school.

The door nearest to downtown led me into a front hall that passed the auditorium on the left and offices on the right. Straight ahead was another door that led into a long corridor with windows looking into the auditorium on one side and a series of small music rooms – furnished with pianos and other instruments – on the other side.

It was in one of those small rooms where I met Sister Dionne, hands properly out of sight, tucked into the wide sleeves of the full habit of the school's founders, the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph. Looking a little like this:

I was a little afraid of Sister Dionne although she was very kind to me. She was a very accomplished musician – she played the piano for me a couple of times – and she could be five feet away with her back to me and "hear" that I was using the wrong fingering for my pieces. If she was near me and my fingering was wrong, she cracked her slender little hard-wood pointer across my knuckles which, I have to say, hurt like hell.

She held my face in her hands and called me her Rose of Sharon. I expect she prayed for me to become Catholic but that was still many years in the future.

I have fairly neutral memories about my music lessons. They didn't make me particularly happy – or unhappy. Like most children, I didn't enjoy practicing and I thought there was entirely too much emphasis placed on scales. I liked some of the work that was more like school-work. I remember a project which involved cutting out information and pictures and putting together little bound booklets on several of the great composers – the story of their lives and families, and how their lives in music developed: Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and others. It was a very enjoyable project.

I didn't enjoy the little pieces I had to play over and over. I envied those people who could play "by ear" and I entertained fantasies of playing sing-able songs and being the life of the party. I loved the Mammoth Book and I played some of the songs from it.

I remember playing Aura Lee -- which I was delighted to discover was the same tune as the Elvis Presley hit, Love Me TenderSilver Threads Among the Gold, Beautiful Dreamer, Down by the Old Mill Stream, When You and I Were Young, Maggie.

I loved music from olden times. I still do.

The focus of all those music lessons was preparing for the annual Miramichi Music Festival. It went on for several days with events held at different schools in both Chatham and Newcastle. Some years, depending on how my birthday related to the festival's dates, I played in more than one age category. For example, when I was nine, I played in both the 10-and-under and the 12-and-under. Most years, I played one or two solo numbers and a duet. I usually played duets with Betty Cameron and at least once, I played with Dawn Williston.

The pianists and vocalists always knew one thing: if we were in the same age category as Doreen Bryenton from Newcastle, we were pretty much aiming for second place, having conceded top spot to her. She was an excellent musician; fortunately, she was a little older than I so I wasn't always up against her in competition. I think maybe I did come out ahead of her one year although I can't remember the details now.

One thing I do remember is that if our competition was in Newcastle, we would be taken there early in the day and have to sit through several other categories, listening to innumerable singers, all singing the same song, of course. To this day, I can hear Who is Sylvia? being sung in my head in many different voices. This one is Dame Janet Baker and I must say, it's lovely.

If you won your category, you got to perform at the Final Concert. One year, when Betty and I won the duet category, the concert was recorded by the local radio station and someone there made each performance into a 78 rpm vinyl record. Yes, I still have it.

While I was growing up, our family had a big upright piano. When we moved to a smaller house, my mother got rid of it and bought a much smaller one – what she always called an "apartment-sized piano." It has one less octave than a regular piano – four keys missing on either end of the keyboard.

The little piano is mine now and many years later, I was living in Ottawa and had a piano tuner come in to take care of it. He was a taciturn fellow but he played it nicely when he was finished – it sounded lovely – and I said, "It's a nice little piano, isn't it?"

"This is not a piano," he muttered. "This is a spinnet."

Well, fancy that. A spinnet. (I borrowed this photo from the Internet but this is the exact model.)

You learn something new every day.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The more things change, the more they need to change

We do live in a time of rapidly changing attitudes — so rapid, in fact, that there are people who can't and won't keep up. Some of the changes that have crept into our daily lives over the past 20 years have only made life better but we know how far we still have to go.

One of the ways I gauge change is to go back and look at things I wrote in an earlier time. Because I was a columnist in a daily newspaper — The Daily News in Halifax — I have a fairly handy record of how things were in an earlier time.

This is a column I wrote in August of 1989. It shows a difference in attitude not only from then till now but going back even further. You'll see what I mean.

(I'll just point out that one of the difference would be the spelling of the word Micmac — now quite routinely spelled Mi'kmaq.)

It's no secret that the people in power are the ones who keep the official records and, thus, become the recorders of history, is it? I've been keeping this in mind all summer while I've been working on a project that demanded much historical research.

Here's a sample of something I've read about the lives of the native population before the arrival of the Europeans: “...They were divided into many tribes, having different languages and customs. They wasted their strength in frequent fighting.

They did not often make alliances with one another, but the five kindred 'nations' of the Iroquois wisely agreed to help each other and thus became so strong that they were a terror to all within their reach...”

And this, under the title Superstitions: “...The Indians had very strange ideas about God and religion. They believed in a great Good Spirit and a great Bad Spirit. They did not pay much attention to the Good Spirit but tried to frighten the Bad Spirit by wearing charms, and to put him in good humour by making strange sacrifices to him...”

Hmmm. Sound familiar?

About the Inuit, we read: “Near the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay live the Eskimos, who are of a different race from the Indians. Their habits have probably changed little since America was discovered. They are said to be honest and good-humoured but very dirty...”

This book is called A Canadian History for Boys and Girls.

It was written by Emily P. Weaver, published by Copp Clark, copyright 1919. (It has a little admonition on its title page which says: “This book is the property of the New Brunswick Government and should be returned to the teacher in good condition on or before June 30 each year.” I have no idea how I come to have it in my possession. I hope the New Brunswick government doesn't get wind of it.)

Compare that description of native spirituality with this one about the early Micmac civilization: “They learned the habits of the animals and the relationship between plants and animals. Since most of the things they made and all the food they ate came from these living beings that they knew so well, the Micmac developed a respect for life. They thought of these plants and animals – and even some minerals – as persons with whom they could communicate...This belief about plant and animal persons prevented the Micmac from wasting the natural resources. They did not gather or hunt more than they needed to survive comfortably.”

This beautiful interpretation is from the book The Micmac, by Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Harold McGee. I'd hate to think what Emily P. Weaver would have done with the same subject.

Until I discovered the Whitehead/McGee book (I called Ruth herself), the old Weaver history was one of only two books I had that gave any information about native history at all. In most books, the history of Nova Scotia begins with the arrival of John Cabot. Although the Micmac had been living here for 10,000 or so years, they seem to have been invisible to Cabot – who immediately claimed the land for England – and to later historians, who seemed to believe that life began with the arrival of the Europeans.

The other exception is a gem of a book called Nova Scotia/All About Us by Ivan Cassidy published by Nelson Canada, a division of International Thomson Ltd.

Although the book covers a good deal of material, right up to the present day, it presents a concise and respectful history of the lives of the Micmac before the arrival of the Europeans under such appealing titles as Seasonal Activities, Preparing Food, Shelter, Clothing and Equipment, and Family Life. Just what young people would want to know, I think.

It's good to see the attitudes in the reference books changing somewhat; it's also saddening to consider how much influence those earlier books had on the way people think – not just the people of the dominant culture who identified with the writers of the books, but also the people who were diminished and made invisible by material that was seen to be true history.

History is a powerful tool and has so often been used to justify prejudice and discrimination. Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Likewise, those who are given false representations of the past are more easily manipulated and more easily managed by those in control.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Theatre, travel, art and history on the big screen

Nowadays, "going to the movie theatre to see a show" doesn't necessarily mean you're going to see a Hollywood blockbuster. The big screen is changing and I'm pretty sure it will continue to change. In five years, who knows what we'll be going to see at the movies?

We've recently seen The Shakespeare Show, The Winter's Tale, and Hamlet-the-character: regularly re-defined — all of which were live shows on film and all of which I've reported on in the designated links.

I've loved seeing them all: next best thing to being there.

The most recent show we've seen is called St Peter’s and the Papal Basilicas of Rome. It comes in a 3D version but we didn't go to that one and I'm glad. There was a lot of dipsy-doodling around Rome in a helicopter (and I thought maybe a drone but I didn’t find any info to that effect). I think 3-D might have made me a little nauseous. As it was, it was very gorgeous and very informative.

The film dealt first, as expected, with St. Peter's.

St. Peter's Basilica (Italian: San Pietro in Vaticano) is a major basilica in Vatican City, an enclave of Rome. St. Peter's was until recently the largest church ever built and it remains one of the holiest sites in Christendom. Contrary to what one might reasonably assume, St. Peter's is not a cathedral - that honor in Rome goes to St. John Lateran.

St. Peter's Basilica stands on the traditional site where Peter - the apostle who is considered the first pope - was crucified and buried. St. Peter's tomb is under the main altar and many other popes are buried in the basilica as well. Originally founded by Constantine in 324, St. Peter's Basilica was rebuilt in the 16th century by Renaissance masters including Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini.

If you've been there, you don't need me to tell you — and besides that, you've read it everywhere — it's vast and yet, it's all done to such perfect proportionate scale, that it's only by considering yourself and looking at other humans that you comprehend its immensity.

The cameras and narration covered art and sculpture, most notably Michelangelo's Pieta and the statue of St. Peter himself:

There's so much in St. Peter's Basilica, the film did its best but it knew it could have spent its whole duration in that one location. You can spend days there really.


Santa Maria Maggiore — St. Mary Major — is the church you often see on the news when Pope Francis is travelling. He stops to say a prayer to ask for safe travel on his way to the airport and when his trip is over, he drops in there to say thanks for getting him back safely before he heads home to the Vatican.

Santa Maria Maggiore: One of Rome's four patriarchal basilicas, this monumental 5th-century church stands on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, on the spot where snow is said to have miraculously fallen in the summer of AD 358.

It was August 5 when the snow fell. The liturgical feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major is celebrated each year on the 5th of August. It is now a custom to remember the miraculous snowfall. At the conclusion of the Solemn Mass of that day a shower of white rose petals falls from the dome of the Chapel of Our Lady.

St. Mary Major was not very far from our hotel when we visited Rome and we went to Sunday Mass here. The interior is spectacular and, as with so many of the ancient churches, worth spending many hours just taking in the art and the history.

The other two Papal Basilicas are St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The film did them justice also and so will I when I visit them in person. Next time.

If you're interested in some of the live shows on the big screen — for example, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in The Audience will be playing in theatres in July — I recommend a visit to National Theatre Live where you will find schedules, dates, titles etc.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A secret lake — and a walk in the woods

On the eastern outskirts of the town that used to be known as Chatham, NB, if you take a right turn and slog through thick woods, you will come to the lake. When I was a child, it was called the lake. I see by Google Maps it's now called Chatham Lake.

I remember going there in the dead of winter with my older sister and her friends to skate. It was cold and I didn't like skating and I was little. I suspect my mother had told my sister to take me along. I can't imagine what I was doing there otherwise.

Even though the snow on the trail that led to the lake was tracked down, I remember it being a hard old hike. Once we reached the lake, if it hadn't been so cold and if I'd enjoyed skating, it probably would have been a nice outing. I do remember that there were lots of kids and families skating. At least once, someone lit a bonfire and people were clustered around it, probably roasting marshmallows.

I have no idea how many times I was taken to the lake to skate.

It was many years later that I first heard about the legends. The lake was inland from the Miramichi by about a mile. As it happens, there's an island in the river — Middle Island — which is almost the exact size and shape of the lake.

This is, of course, the satellite image and you can plainly see both island and lake. The straight road nearest the lake is the one we walked from our house before we took the rough trail into the woods.

When I was growing up, there was no causeway to Middle Island. I was over there a few times but we rowed over if someone had a small boat. I think at low tide, it wasn't a difficult swim.

The similarities between the lake and Middle Island were spoken of as early as 1832.

In a History of the Northern Part of New Brunswick, Robert Cooney wrote:

“On the south side of a river is a lake so exactly corresponding with it, in length, breadth and general configuration, that an enthusiast in geology would be disposed to ascribe its present locality to some of nature’s freaks.”

One legend with an Irish connection, told how leprechauns moved the soil around to create Middle Island and The Lake. Another told of the devil, in a fit of anger, taking a piece of ground and throwing it into the river. This piece of ground formed Middle Island and The Lake at the same time. A similar tale told of a giant who stepped on soft ground causing it to reappear in the river to form Middle Island, while The Lake was formed from his footprint.

I don't know which of these legends is true although I'm pretty sure leprechauns had nothing to do with it. I'd vote for the devil although I don't know what would make him so angry that he'd scoop up an island-sized piece of ground and throw it into the river.

This photo by Edward O'Reilly was taken from the air and shows another angle of the lake and the island.

Middle Island was a quarantine station for many Irish refugees who were fleeing the famine. Many hundreds of people died there and the island is now a memorial park.

When I was in Grade Six at the Chatham Grammar School, my best friend was Judy Walters. Her father was manager of the Bank of Montreal and her grandfather, in Lunenburg, NS, was Captain Angus Walters, the legendary Captain of the Bluenose.

It was kind of exciting that my best friend's Grampy was captain of the ship that was on our dime.

In Chatham, the Bank of Montreal managers lived — until the Bank built them a new place — in the house called Blink Bonnie.

A beautiful example of Gothic architecture, it was built by Alexander Cormack for George H. Russell, a Chatham merchant. Although it was altered considerably in later years, it ranks as one of Chatham's most striking houses.

It was the closest thing to a mansion I've ever hung out in, with its stained glass windows, sweeping staircase, butler's pantry — and on the top floor, a ball-room. A real ball-room with a small stage at one end where, I suppose the musicians would be discreetly situated during the ball. Judy and I used to go up there a lot and made many plans about shows we were going to put on — shows we would write and act in, enlisting friends, planning publicity and poster-making. We never did do a show but not for lack of planning.

One summer day as we sat wondering what to do with ourselves, we began to talk about the lake in the woods. I told Judy about my skating trips there when I was little and how, even though it was awful, there was something a little magical about this secret lake in the woods. (I'm saying "secret" because I never heard of anyone going there in the summer.)

We decided right there and then that we'd make an excursion. We went to the kitchen in the mansion and made some sandwiches and I hope we took something to drink although water bottles weren't a dime a dozen around people's houses as they are now.

Our sense of direction and geography must have been pretty good. In this picture, the street that starts just near the bottom of that "A" is King St. Blink Bonnie is on King St. and we figured if we just walked straight out through the woods, we'd end up at the lake!

It's more built up today than it was then. I honestly have little memory of much of our walk but I'll tell you this: it was not a pleasant walk in the woods. I do remember that we reached a point — I think it always happens on a hard journey — where we knew there was no turning back. Those woods were dense. We were little girls dressed in shorts and blouses, maybe sandals although I can't remember the footwear. A machete might have been helpful but we had no tools. We got all scratched up.

When I look back on it, I'm quite aware that it could have ended badly. As far as I know, we didn't tell anyone where we were going.

I'm doing that thing where I'm trying to dredge memories that have long been buried. I think there's a possibility that we might have found our way out to the road and gone into the lake by way of the track. I can't be sure. I do remember being at the lake though and I remember that it wasn't very nice. It was boggy and surrounded by scrubby vegetation. The undergrowth was thick and barely passable.

I never thought I'd hear myself say this but I think the lake was nicer in the winter, mounded with pristine white snow, shovelled into usefullness by enthusiastic skaters, people enjoying themselves as if they were on a Currier and Ives Christmas card.

I expect Judy and I learned some kind of lesson. As far as I know, we never told anyone about our lake adventure. I'm pretty sure we knew we'd catch hell, even though we came out of it in one piece.

If the Walters had stayed in Blink Bonnie, maybe we'd have written a play about our ordeal in the woods and performed it in the beautiful ball-room. Didn't happen. Their family moved to a brand new house which wasn't nearly as conducive to creativity. I believe it was much easier to heat though.