Homage to catatonia

By Benjamin Massey · January 28th, 2017 · 1 comment

The Americans had an election, meaning four more years of badly-microwaved Nineteen Eighty-Four metaphors. Colby Cosh just dealt with this (probably helping spur the Twitter reply that jogged this post), but the Donald can console himself knowing that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton got this treatment too. If you could persevere through enough Noam Chomsky, and I cannot, you could probably find examples going back to Lyndon Johnson. It’s an easy political trope because Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the only overtly political story whose plot every English-speaker broadly knows, in the same sense as Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. (Incidentally this is not because of its wisdom: plenty of anti-totalitarians had that. It’s because Nineteen Eighty-Four is, secretly, a very good novel.)

Orwell, who died seven sickly months after completing Nineteen Eighty-Four, never got to see it so mistreated. But he would have known how to deal with it if he had. His “Politics and the English Language” probably holds more insight per hundred words than any other work of English prose, and along with important political thoughts offers plenty of sound stylistic advice, the sort that takes conscious effort to apply and is therefore often ignored by people who should know better. One of his nemeses is the use of metaphors that are worthless for illustrating concepts but arise out of laziness. These are “dying metaphors;” he adds more under the heading of “pretentious diction” but his criticism of the former applies equally to the latter. How many of us actually know what makes a boot into a jackboot, and how few of us avoid the metaphor as a result?

This essay is more than seventy years old and most of those dying metaphors still hang on despite Orwell’s do-not-resuscitate order. Google any of them along with the word “Trump,” even Britishisms like “ring the changes,” and enjoy recent results from professional writers. Try it yourself. “Fishing in troubled waters,” which may actually be dead in most of the Anglosphere, appears only as a quote in a Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial but the writer likes it for the Trump campaign, so it counts. Perhaps it is a resurrected metaphor, breathing tubes shoved down its windpipe even as the doctors insist on its total brain death.

The entire essay could be aimed at modern political writing with a precision as far from Nostradamus as jackboots from tridents. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’;” bloody hell, that’s on the nose. “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Well, quite. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Apply that to whichever politician you hate most; it’s just as true for all of them.

Today, as in 1946, none of his critiques should offend your own politics. Orwell was a devout Socialist, with the capital “S,” for all his adult life, and his uninterest in the United States is infamous. It is impossible to imagine him having a millisecond for Donald Trump the celebrity/businessman, let alone Donald Trump the head of state1, but a Socialist who can be evenhanded with both Soviet Russia and Oswald Mosley would have been big enough to handle him. Orwell hated fascists enough to go to Spain and get shot through the throat by one, and by the way if you haven’t read Homage to Catalonia put your computer in the fridge and go do that. But he also had the maybe the most remarkable sense of perspective ever used in the service of literature, which is why he can survive, not only as a stylist but as a polemicist, decades after every man and every creed he inveigled against has turned to ash.

And so Nineteen Eighty-Four itself has become a dying metaphor. Big Brother in the novel is a specific kind of evil, but in your newspaper he’s anything vaguely authoritarian covering not only Trump and Obama but Google and Apple. Any metaphor that means so much really means very little. The fact that alt-rightists aren’t using Emmanuel Goldstein as a metaphor for controlled opposition must prove the book is no longer consciously mined for ideas but rather jabbed to out of reflex, the same as Orwell’s other bugbears. (What, incidentally, is a bugbear? Christ, sorry, George.) The number of people who use Nineteen Eighty-Four to make a contemporary political point and display fresh insight may actually be zero. There are writers who, perhaps, have the originality and the knowledge of Orwell to do it, but they also have the wisdom not to try.

If the rest of Orwell’s dying metaphors are any sign, this process will not get better in our lifetimes. Therefore Cosh is tilting at a windmill. Come to think of it, Don Quixote is 400 years old and that literary jousting metaphor is still dying. So Orwell isn’t special, but unlike Cervantes at least he left instructions on what to do with a metaphorical invalid.

The crooked setting things straight

By Benjamin Massey · November 16th, 2016 · No comments

Nearly every Western child must declare “when I’m grown up, I will have Cap’n Crunch in chocolate milk for every meal,” while our parents smile indulgently and force broccoli down our throats. Then we mature and discover that our parents were right: man cannot live on breakfast cereal alone (though in university he may, if he is me, give it a damned good try). But there is wide compensation, varying from single-malt or peach schnapps. Not convivial social drinking, loosening our tongues around friends and helping us hit on girls we’d normally have no shot with. I am referring to the oft-condemned, and just-as-oft-practiced, art of drinking alone.

Why do we drink alone? To get drunk. Hope this helps. But outside of the serious sodden-livers most soloists don’t get smashed off their faces and sing Abba songs on the balcony at 1 AM; at least, not often. We drink to relax, and to read or watch television or play video games or build Lego sets in an agreeably unusual state of consciousness. This is a habit as old as intoxicants; in these permissive days, your intoxicant doesn’t particularly have to be alcohol.

Done right you wake up fresh the next morning, get to work bang on time, and at the coffee counter you definitely say “I had a quiet night in” and not “I swallowed four flip throws, which are a little invention of my own that’s almost rummy egg nog but not quite, and plowed through a book that’s been half-finished for two weeks with fresh enthusiasm.” It is a private vice, and not entirely out of shame: there is nothing more horrible than the party where you have a case of liquor onboard but everyone else is as sober as the proverbial, and you rattle on about nothing much in the painful, ever-escalating, but inescapable realization that you have become The Bore. Nobody’s as much fun as company that’s about on your level booze-wise, and nobody’s worse than that which is way off either end.

At least, that’s how it once was. But today there is a deadly enemy which none of us can evade, and like a mole in the spy service it nestles in our pocket, our greatest ally until it betrays us horribly.

It is, of course, the humble smartphone. Almost all the world’s knowledge, and a majority of its population, is within the casual touch of our fingertips day or night, and once you’ve mastered the art of unlocking your phone in any state of being it doesn’t care whether you are of sound mind and body or you’re rolling around in the leaves with one shoe on.

In the old days you’d send painfully-predictively-typed messages to friends or exes from your Nokia soapbar and they’d politely pretend never to have seen them. This was an easy extension of the gentle forgiveness civilization has always extended to boozehounds. Then we got e-mails on our phone, and our peril grew, but typing an e-mail is something that takes a little thought, particularly when you only had ten buttons to do it with. It takes but a moment to realize “wait a minute, this isn’t the time for me to tell that co-worker what I think of him.” A failure in that regard was, quite rightly, taken as a sign you’d gone too far.

We didn’t know how good we had it. Now you have a couple hundred Facebook friends, maybe twice that number of Twitter followers who appreciate your remarks about hockey but don’t know you from Adam, however many Reddit users frequent your usual hangouts, and you’re watching that great Netflix documentary about Apollo 17, and they’re all right there, day or night, so close that you can reach out to them automatically, like a baby seeing its mother.

There are people with the self-control to stay off social media on evenings like this. At least, I know there must be, because there are people I’ve never noticed tweeting with a few well-chosen sheets to the wind and they definitely aren’t teetotal. But I am not one of those people, not every time, and come on, entre nous, neither are you.

How easy it is to check your Twitter. You’re only going to read, tap the notifications, maybe DM that person who knows you well enough not to be offended. But that documentary provoked an extremely profound thought and since you won’t remember it in the morning you’d best send it now. While you’re here, though, that really is a grossly ignorant political opinion. Leaving it uncorrected would be an offense against truth, and right now you’re seeing the truth more clearly than ever.

The fact that you’re suddenly having a wine-driven argument in the middle of the night with someone who, since he’s on the east coast and abnormally truculent, has probably got just as much fuel in him isn’t a saving grace. Because the “social” in “social media” is no lie, and all the other people reading are night owls, or working late, or reading in the middle of the day, or otherwise dead straight, and you just vivisected something with a clumsy passion you’d never feel if your head was on right. Worse, on this occasion you had the sensitivity not to go after anybody directly, you’re just outraged by the general mindset, and now everybody is reading, mumbling “oh god,” and discreetly turning that dreaded “Unfollow” button the other colour.

Okay, well, you’ve gotten the cocktail shaker back out and who gives a damn how many people want to read your 1,500-word essay in fifty 140-character increments anyway? But I mean, you do give a bit of a damn, don’t you? Everyone wants to be liked, and now you have statistical proof that you’re liked less than you were an hour ago. You are The Bore in the age of Big Data. Since you aren’t actually that drunk you’re not angry, just disappointed, like dad when he noticed his vodka had been replaced with water. Obnoxiously, however, disappointment is just as wordy an emotion as anger, and now you need to prove to the survivors that you’re all right really, and off you spiral, down the toilet.

It’s amazing how quickly this has become an old story.

What is to be done? There is, happily, an obvious solution: make your drink, carry it in one hand, your phone in the other, and bury that phone so deep in your sock drawer that even if you remember where you put it you won’t have the patience to get it. Alas, this is one of those things that everybody knows but is extraordinarily difficult to do. Some phones let you unlock them by swiping in fiddly geometric patterns that should theoretically be more difficult for the souse to crack, but frankly whoever thought that would work has never taken a drink in his life.

Perhaps the onus is on the sober, to see that person off his tether and think “ah, Stoli was on sale” with an indulgent smile. But it’s wholly unreasonable to go “just don’t get bored with me!” to the seven jillion Facebook users in the world. Shouting that to your boyfriend is bad enough; if you have to shout that to everyone you knew in high school you should probably sell the condo and take up permanent residence on the dépanneur steps.

When whisky came to Scotland they must have a problem like this. Ol’ Angus would return from a hard day delousing the laird’s sheep, start up a peat fire, distill some forty-rod, and without ever meaning to he’d be at the neighbouring peel tower, banging on the door and shouting “you’ll never guess what that bugger Cumberland’s done this time!” They adjusted, in time. Admittedly it took centuries of low-level warfare and a couple invasions, and led to a reputation as hard-drinking offense-taking fighting men that today’s pacifist, socialist SNP-voters haven’t lived down even a little bit, but they managed. So raise a glass, think with your hope of your wiser great-grandchildren, and call that newspaper editor a Nazi. As always, future generations will sort it out.

The passing of the poppy

By Benjamin Massey · November 9th, 2016 · 2 comments

For all that Canadians need to stretch their dollar just to pay rent these days, many of us each year still put a toonie in a box for a small, cheap disc of plastic and fabric. We do it to support those who fought, and remember those who died, for our and all future generations. It is a week of solemnity, when the airport-novel antics of professional controversialists and fear-mongers are put in perspective, when we reflect on our ancestors who looked true totalitarianism in the face and, with struggle and sacrifice, made the despots blink first. It is a time to honour the best of our civilization.

This is as close to solemnity as our secular society gets so, with irritating inevitability, poppy pressure can degrade from social to antisocial. As a symbol the poppy is often declared to be above politics, which is a sure sign that it is anything but. Particularly in Britain, where the Cookie Monster (yes, he) recently appeared on the BBC wearing a poppy. Most rightly considered this ridiculous, some didn’t, there was a fight. The Football Association has an annual battle with FIFA over whether its players may wear a poppy emblem on their uniforms during the Remembrance period. On the Irish island the poppy is a sectarian totem on account of the British Army’s role in the Troubles, though this is subsiding.

Canada’s irrationality is inconsequential by comparison. You can appear on television here without a poppy on your lapel, though a politician or a Peter Mansbridge would be ill-advised to. Tempests stay in teapots. This year’s controversy was Air Canada discouraging flight attendants from wearing poppies on duty for, literally, a few hours on Monday morning before cooler corporate heads had a coffee. This was a news story but not one you’d think people could get het up about: Air Canada reversed course before the ban even became public. Naturally some people got het up anyway, but they were mostly along the lines of “what can you expect from the bastards who lost my luggage fifteen years ago?” Not even The Rebel is revving up their boycott machine.

It takes more than a snub to get Canadians, if you will forgive an on-the-nose metaphor, up in arms. A couple years ago Vancouver saw a brief trend in white “peace poppies” among people who thought, or said they thought, the established Remembrance Day symbology glorified war. People got angry, for a while, until natural obscurity made the debate irrelevant. Some still wear them, and in the course of a Remembrance week you might just manage to see one. Even my alma mater‘s student newspaper, The Martlet, a pretty bolshie rag, has nothing but bad things to say about the white poppy. The installation of theft-proof poppy boxes in some towns, or the theft of Legion colours in others, are different tales but gain more attention than most thefts of flags or small change.

The ebbing of poppy sentiment is by comparison hardly news at all. The Royal Canadian Legion is, if not secretive, at least opaque about their receipts from the poppy drive, but branches who do release numbers tend to report decreases despite technology enabling donations by cell phone and an online Poppy Store. The Legion itself has struggled for years attracting (let alone integrating) the generation of new veterans who have an acknowledged claim to Legionary fellowship yet often prefer not to draw on it. In Ottawa and the big cities Remembrance Day ceremonies still go strong, but suburban and small-town parades are not what they once were.

It would be fun to blame those damned young people who hate our veterans and our history, but wrong. If anything, as respect for mental illness grows and literature becomes more accessible, the veteran’s near-unique traumas attract more sympathy today. One of the crowning infamies of the late Stephen Harper government, a government that successfully distributed a lot of contempt for a lot of people over a lot of years, was that they were reducing veterans’ services and betraying almost the only public trust you’d damned well expect the Conservatives to bear. They knew they’d blown it, too, and made a thousand promises to try and make up lost ground. They failed, but the Trudeau Liberals, despite intense youth popularity, are now feeling the heat for not redressing the balance quickly enough. On a rhetorical level, the shade of Nazi evil is still an easy go-to for every shoddy polemicist eager to rouse the people against his enemy. Then there’s the personal factor, the fact that we just had a war, and most of us know somebody who was in it, and in too many cases somebody who did not return.

The decline in Remembrance Day honours is no simple decline in remembrance, so what is it? Next to the Queen’s face on the money, the poppy and the Remembrance Day ceremony are the strongest cultural links Canada retains to the Old Commonwealth. Perhaps even stronger, for after all, when we pull out a $20 bill and accept our change, we are not taking a moment to acknowledge Her Majesty. Plenty of countries put the head of state on the money, but Remembrance Day is distinctly our own, in a large but antiquated sense of who “us” is.

The Americans do not wear the poppy. They escaped the bloodbaths of Ypres which brought it to prominence, and their memories linger more on the Second World War than the First. British emigres in that country have been known to run for the border and import a Canadian one. Yet even countries for whom there is one Great War and one Western Front have not joined us. The Germans, of course, lost, and that changes everything. French and Belgians know a thing or two about plants watered in sacrificial blood, and the poppy is a symbol they understand. But it is not worn. In France they wear the bleuet, a cornflower; in Belgium nothing at all.

They wear the poppy in Australia and New Zealand, though their most enduring Great War battlefield was not Belgium but Gallipoli, a name whose power in Anzac memory a Canadian can hardly comprehend, Dieppe to the power of Vimy Ridge. And local customs colour every aspect of this Commonwealth tradition, in exactly the way you’d expect: the British poppy is different from ours, the Australian and New Zealand poppies distinct from both and (less so) from each other. Even in lands like India and Hong Kong where the old Empire is long gone, it is by no means a forgotten symbol, though sometimes supplemented by, as an Indian example, the marigold.

No, the poppy is not above politics, not even here, where in addition to what it is designed for it cannot help but symbolize an order that’s dead or dying across the country. This symbolism did not come deliberately, and if any monarchist or pro-Commonwealth group tried to co-opt the poppy its members would be first in line with the tar and the feathers, but intent is never all that matters.

How old-fashioned, even to the friendly eye, it must all seem. A Remembrance Day service is probably the only occasion where an ordinary Canadian hears a public prayer, or sings “God Save the Queen,” or sees his local Canadian Forces unit on parade. In a Legion colour party the Red Ensign comes just behind the Maple Leaf, and it flies over our war memorials from Victoria to Vimy, but where else? Remembrance Day is about the past, the hint is in the name, but it is a past that, notwithstanding our universally-acknowledged, permanent duty to the honoured dead, many Canadians would sooner leave buried.

This is not a call for reform; oh God no. There are still those of us for whom the old flags and the old songs have power, and many are veterans, who have a veto. We will go on as we always have. But the act of memory does not rely on us. Even when the last poppy is laid on a cenotaph, and the last Legionnaires march past, and the last hymn is sung, that memory will remain. Very probably, in decades to come our new society will have a new way to honour it.

Think again on Britain, where the poppy has become such a public point of controversy: the British rage against the dying of the light, as they always have, and in Canada we let that good night come with, sometimes, a note of regret for parts of the day we miss. In each case it reflects a fundamental truth about each nation. This is the country we have chosen, and to rail against non-poppy wearers or to drum people up for ceremonies from the past is to treat a symptom, and ineffectively at that.


By Benjamin Massey · October 20th, 2016 · 1 comment

Gab ought to be right up my street. Think of it as Twitter without the censorship1. Those who were shocked when Twitter blocked an anti-Erdogan Turkish journalist within Turkey hadn’t been paying attention. In the name of combating “harassment” Twitter has been temporarily or permanently banning public figures, almost entirely of the anti-establishment right wing, for months. Not that this has done anything to win it friends among the sort of people who complain about that, since nothing ever does.

Unverifiable reports of “shadowbans,” where a user is not banned but has his tweets hidden or deprioritized on the streams of his followers, abound, most recently driving Dilbert cartoonist and magnificent eccentric Scott Adams to Gab. Unless some former Twitter developer goes public this borderline-conspiracy-theory will never be proven; this is the nature of shadowbanning, where ideally the user will never realize it’s happened. It is, however, undisputable that Twitter manipulates search results and trending topics, and they prioritize “important” tweets in your timeline already.

Judging by the multi-week wait for a Gab account2, there is a great cry for an alternative. Twitter’s last virtue is that everyone else uses it. Unless and until Gab becomes as universal as Twitter, those who cut the bird out entirely also cut themselves off from a huge number of friends and agreeable strangers. (Follow me on Gab!) That’s no reason not to join at all; I don’t know that I know anybody else with a Gab account, but the same applies to early Twitter adopters who created an account on a whim and now tweet twenty times a day.

Moreover, because Twitter censorship has primarily been directed at right-wing figures, those driven away will primarily be right-wing themselves. Twitter, by contrast, is especially on political occasions an enormous globalist echo chamber, to the point that thousands of young engaged social media gurus literally can’t believe it when the people disagree with them. This can be tiresome. It is more fun to argue politics with someone who doesn’t think you’re vaguely horrible or can’t really believe those things.

“Well done,” you may sneer. “You’ve traded a so-called left-wing echo chamber for a right-wing echo chamber.” To my alarm, yes, that is exactly what I’ve done.

It’s a problem of demographics. In the same way that condo boards primarily attract those who like board meetings and student councils those who want to make decisions for other people, Gab so far interests those who think Twitter is lefty paradise and are, probably unconsciously, making a righty paradise. It’s not so much that 90% of Gab would probably vote for Donald Trump, although they probably would, but it’s that that’s what they have in common. That’s what the “social” in “social media” consists of in this context.

Their version of “trending” lists its ten most “popular” posts for the past two days. As of this writing, all ten of today’s most popular posts are pro-Donald Trump. Only three of yesterday’s are, but six are either by or about the aforementioned Scott Adams and the last is a post about homeschooling that, while not specifically pro-Trump, would make you correctly guess that the user has “#MAGA” somewhere in her profile. This isn’t just bias from the recent American presidential debate; every day is the same. Trump, Trump, Trump, here and there a backpatting post about the openmindedness and courtesy of the #GabFam that won’t convince an outsider this is a vibrant, interesting community. In fact these posts are mostly courteous, though monotonous, and their authors must have other interests, but the community is set up to encourage a fixation on politics that is frankly diseased. I’ve had a Gab account for a week and haven’t written a thing on it.

What is there to say? Who wants to go on the Internet these days and argue about Donald Trump? Going “yeah right on he’s horrible!” or “yeah right on he’s going to make America great again!” to your political confrères is as high as that discourse can get in anything short of the pub. The great joy of social media is shooting the breeze with old friends, and making new friends as you discover common interests you never would have guessed at. It’s discussing the book you just read, shouting at the sports team that’s filled its britches again, learning something new you would otherwise have missed, swapping inside jokes, and connecting with individuals. Reciting personal pieties to fellow-travelers, though most of us do it, is really the least appetizing part of the experience. And that’s, quite literally, all Gab is.

As the episode of the Turkish journalists demonstrated, there is no reason why Twitter censorship should be a partisan issue. With anything of luck, Gab will someday reach critical mass and its interests will expand. In hope of that day, please do sign up. Until then, though, free speech isn’t much use without something to talk about.

Author in embryo

By Benjamin Massey · June 29th, 2016 · No comments

You don’t often open a book to an introduction like this:

A book such as Captain in Calico would probably be even less likely to find a publisher today than sixty years ago – not because it isn’t excellently written, but because ripping yarns are hardly fashionable now – and we do not want readers to be deceived into thinking it is vintage George MacDonald Fraser, and of the standard of the Flashman novels or the McAuslan short stories. Indeed, we thought long and hard before allowing it to be published, and are only doing so because we believe that, as an early work, Captain in Calico is a delightful curiosity, one which we hope will provide fans of GMF with a fascinating insight into the inspirations and creative impulses that turned him into such a fine novelist.

No danger of that being quoted in the promotional material. Still less because that tantalizing leader was written by George MacDonald Fraser’s own children, filial piety overcome by the demands of honesty and taste1. Just to rub salt into the wound, Caro Fraser concludes the book by reproducing two letters from a literary agent who rejected the novel at the time, with unstinting criticism of why the thing was frankly unpublishable.

Maybe the Fraser clan can afford to be forthright. As that paragraph should have told you, Captain in Calico was the first (or at least the first surviving) attempt by ex-soldier, ex-door-to-door-encyclopedia-salesman, and then-journalist George MacDonald Fraser to write and publish a historical novel. Written, rejected, heavily revised, and rejected again, the manuscript was sealed up in a safe until his children, cataloging his library for a sale in 2014, came across both work and letters. The reason the novel can be published today is that, between those rejections and his death in 2008, Fraser wrote the twelve-volume Flashman series and established himself forever as one of the twentieth century’s cultural gems, even before you count his screenplays, his other novels, his two volumes of autobiography, the rollicking McAuslan short stories based on his life in the post-war British Army, or God so much else2.

It was all built atop bedrock of solid research from a breadth of sources no professional scholar could sneer at, and one of the chief joys of the Flashman Papers is the sheaf of footnotes providing a cornucopia of historical context, clarification, and even “corrections” to the “errors” of the fictional chronicler. Fraser was a journalist but he did his research all the same. Captain in Calico doesn’t show the same knack for bringing the distant past to life as his later work. The setting is the Caribbean in generic ol’ 17-some-odd, and despite era-appropriate set pieces there is little in the atmosphere to convince us this is really another time and another place.

Captain in Calico is also not funny. We get a couple good jokes but as the plot thickens the tone darkens. The titular Jack Rackham, a famous pirate of the 18th century known as “Calico Jack” for his flamboyant dress, starts out well enough but gets himself deep into the soup with, and thanks to, the ravishing and dangerous but inconstant Anne Bonney. To anybody who knows the story of Rackham and Bonney their fall is preordained, and there’s no swashbuckling fun about it. The denouement tries to reverse things but it is explained to the reader like a child, lest it look like too much. Much of the plot is maritime, inevitably for a pirate thriller, and Fraser was never, ever, a Patrick O’Brian in his ability to turn shipboard routine into something both engrossing and enthralling.

So what we have here is a historically uninteresting, serious novel by a man who came to fame for his hilarious, and historically brilliant, work. It is also, as the 50-year-old editor’s notes at the end agree, overwritten for what plot it tries to carry. There are two major episodes of betrayal, one telegraphed a hundred miles off and the other disposable. Unusually for a “ripping yarn” there is far more darkness than light; Flashman would always have that moment where he would stand at the top of a bluff watching the remains of the British army get pounded into pulp, and the horror of it would be brought to bear on the reader, but his is ultimately a happy existence—for Flashy, anyway. Neither Calico Jack Rackham, nor any of his friends, get that much.

So the surprise is that it’s still so likable. It turns out the one constant of George MacDonald Fraser is that he can write. Rackham is a classic anti-hero, bad but not wicked, rash but not stupid, vengeful but not malicious, and well worth following. Bonney could have been drawn more sharply but in her we get an early glimpse of Fraser’s power to create compelling women. Most of the secondary characters were bought off the rack which, in context, is no problem. The plot may not be classic stuff but, with Fraser’s nascent but charismatic prose, it works.

It’s more fun than another “serious” Fraser novel, The Candlemass Road, written in 1993. Like Captain in Calico, The Candlemass Road drew upon a setting that consistently fascinated Fraser: the Scottish Borders in the Elizabethan age, when tribes of English and Scottish reivers ceaselessly pillaged across (and along) the frontier despite the gallant efforts of a few lawful men, and with the active connivance of many who should have been lawful. It was an age of peace indistinguishable at times from war, when even the good guys were villains yet savagery was inhibited by unwritten rules and a perverse code of honour. The Candlemass Road can be a drag, written with an awkward combination of modern grammar in an Elizabethan mode, its main character too-obviously there to record what other, more interesting people are doing. The characters win their battles and it hardly matters an inch. Calico‘s Rackham has an unexpected chance to preserve his life, if not his fortune; Candlemass‘s Waitabout Noble gets a break, rejects it, and may live to regret it. It was that sort of place. Those borderlands were too big for one novel to change, and Fraser was too scrupulous to deny it. The Candlemass Road sags under the weight of authenticity. Fraser’s straight history of the border reivers, The Steel Bonnets, twenty-two years earlier, turned out to be a much better read.

He made up for that gloom in the end, though. Fraser’s last publication was The Reavers, essentially an adaptation of The Candlemass Road with the fun dial cranked up to eleven. Some characters appear nearly unchanged, others are given a quick makeover. The plot echoes The Candlemass Road for the first act then lurches off into wizards, warlocks, Spanish schemes, and ravishing bombshells taunting each other about their wardrobes. The Reavers knows exactly what sort of novel it is and includes stage directions, music cues, and enough deliberate anachronism to fill St Mary’s Loch. You could never make it into a movie, because no movie would be sufficiently movie-like. It’s an uninhibited entertainment and it succeeds because Fraser was such a good entertainer.

Though we couldn’t have known at the time, it wasn’t his first such adaptation. 1983’s The Pyrates has less in common plotwise with Captain in Calico than The Reavers with The Candlemass Road, but the two piratical books share a zest for swashbuckling that veered towards pathos in Calico and towards farce in Pyrates. Calico Jack Rackham is not a primary character in The Pyrates, but the good captain appears as the astute, brave, undisputed leader of the novel’s preposterous pirate gang, a sober gallant that seems to have come out of a completely different story. Well, now we know why. Anne Bonney is also there, with the sex drive of a small city, and late in the story the two share a quietly poignant parting that doesn’t really belong between two such secondary characters in such a goofy story. After reading Captain in Calico that, too, makes a lot of sense. Trust George MacDonald Fraser to get sentimental in a satire, particularly sentiment for something that, until now, no more than a dozen people had ever read.

Lament for four nations

By Benjamin Massey · June 19th, 2016 · 2 comments

In 1965’s Lament for a Nation, Canadian philosopher George Grant asserted that Canada had functionally lost its independence. Though politically sovereign, it had been swallowed as a “branch-plant economy” of the United States. It was capable of dissent, like any other state of the union, but its domestic identity had been sunk not by malice or treason, but the small-l liberalism of Canada’s elite capitalist and intellectual classes focused on economic growth and individualism. Canada, perhaps unavoidably, became a dependency of its larger, dominant neighbour.

He explicitly did not judge anyone’s intentions. The point was not that William Lyon Mackenzie King or Lester Pearson were anti-Canadian or unnecessarily pro-American. He did not say the Americans were wicked, wasn’t sure the process could be stopped, didn’t even know if it was actually bad. He was sufficiently extreme in asserting that it had, already, happened. The government of John Diefenbaker had represented English Canada’s last chance to save itself, but it had been destroyed by the Conservatives’ own mistakes and the national Establishment in coalition, whose gains would be limited by the sort of old-time conservative nationalism that would have made independence possible1.

Grant wrote in anger, and the past fifty years have not proven him entirely right. Anti-Americanism remains Canada’s national vice, among Liberals as much as anybody. However, that anti-Americanism is often tinted in partisan colours; the NDP making “American-style” a slur while the Republicans are in office then campaigning for Bernie Sanders, that sort of thing. Being anti-American when the Americans don’t vote their way gives them something in common with a lot of American Republicans and Democrats. We stayed out of Iraq, American military adventure though it was, but under both Chrétien and Harper were at pains to “make up for it” in Afghanistan. In short, Grant’s thesis held up for the big stuff2.

Everybody shares the faith in technological (perhaps technocratic) progress which Grant considers automatically homogenizing. The pro-business consensus of the Conservatives and most Liberals has been good for our economy but makes us more culturally and economically dependent on the United States every day. Internationalism, the obsession with so-called progress, and the “emancipation of passions” remain guiding lights of left Liberals and New Democrats, opposing globalized business not with Canadian business but with pious proclamations from no fixed address. The no-hoper hardcore socialists of the Leap Manifesto aren’t the strict cultural and economic Castroist comptroller Grant suggests might have defended the nation, but a fully globalist philosophy exemplifying what Grant called “a doctrine [. . .] too flaccid to provide any basis for independence.”

Under the Grant thesis, Canada’s book has closed, and nothing in half a century has re-opened it. There is not much hope for us, but there may be some for the United Kingdom.

Next week the British vote on whether to remain in the European Union. Very nearly the full Establishment backs the EU. This includes the Prime Minister, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the leader of the third party in the House of Commons, the leader of the joint fourth party in the House of Commons, the vast majority of the Cabinet, the vast majority of the House, the President of the United States (ah!), the President of China (ah again!), every newspaper representing the British “smart set,” and a list of businesses and international organizations long enough to wrap around the German border. In favour of leaving is bloke Nigel Farage, coked Boris Johnson, joke Michael Gove, some tabloids, and, incidentally, approximately half the British public. There was less unanimity from the Establishment to fight Hitler and if “Leave” somehow wins it will be the upset of the century3.

The essential argument of the Leave movement should sound familiar to readers of Grant: that, having joined Europe for economic reasons, the United Kingdom has forfeited much of its sovereignty. The immediate consequences of this loss differ between 1960s Canada and 2010s Britain, but the principle is identical and the only surprise is that, despite the collapse of British conservative nationalism since the First World War, there is still enough fight left in the Union Jack for this to happen.

In the Grant tradition, the great homogenizers of Remain produce propaganda proving that the British economy would be hurt by leaving the European Union. Investors have grown more nervous with every pro-Leave polling twitch. Barack Obama threatened that the United States would not automatically be interested in free trade with an independent United Kingdom. These arguments aren’t without force, for the original reason for joining the European Common Market (as it was once called) was economic. For the most part, pro-Leave commentators have tried to dispute that conclusion but there aren’t many grounds to do so.

For if Grant was right then it is that economic interdependence which ultimately forfeited Britain’s nationhood. Surely you cannot call the City of London, among the world’s financial centres, part of a “branch-plant economy” like Canada. However, though the buildings may be in Britain, the world of international commerce amounts to foreign billionaires funding foreign projects, bringing Beemers to British accountants and lawyers but actually making as much in the country as any ’50s branch plant while tying the country’s elite all the more closely to the internationalist mega-economy. Of the Sunday Times Rich List’s top 20, thirteen are non-British4 and, as Grant said in the case of Quebec, English blood is irrelevant if it’s in their interest to obviate Englishness. Britain boasts a far richer culture in 2016 than Canada on its best day but it mirrors conditions more than it drives them. The BBC moved from a voice of authority to a bastion of knee-jerk internationalism and liberalism just as the rest of society’s elites did. Indeed, for Canada Grant’s book hardly treated such concerns in more than passing.

The alternatives Grant recognized were not beds of roses. He listed only two: a program of Castroist socialism, impossible in Canada and intolerable anywhere, and Charles de Gaulle’s “third way,” “to harness the nationalist spirit to technological planning and insist internationally that there are limits to the western ‘alliance.'” As Grant predicted, the Gaullist approach is passé even in France, now facing the same threat to its nationality as Britain. The French economy and quality of life fell behind its immense potential as de Gaulle and his heirs expended effort and treasure to preserve the nation as a real thing, while more straightforwardly global-capitalist regimes enjoyed relative prosperity. It was a trade-off for France, and they paid for it, and in the long run it may not have worked. But it was an attempt to preserve the country, and French national spirit remains a weakened but living force.

The United Kingdom Conservative Party is forever the party of the City and a sort of laissez-faire, not that this translates into any degree of financial responsibility, any independent policy beyond reflexive and meaningless brushbacks against Washington and Brussels, any sort of useful national defense, any moral principles at all, any meaning to the formerly prominent word “Unionist,” or basically anything that the word “conservative” once meant. New Labour was the same, more so in some categories and less so in others, and fond though I am of a party campaigning on what it wants to do Corbynite Labour is the NDP in one of its dilettantist phases.

The Grant equation fits the United Kingdom, right down to Remain forces insisting that the British have not lost their nation at all. Complaints about Europe are universal but actual opposition is portrayed as parochial at best and the work of evil old doctrine at worst. The Scottish independence movement bears a close relation to that of Quebec in the decades after Grant’s tract, and neither Diefenbaker’s Tories nor Farage’s UKIP could work productively with their nation-within-a-nation despite very similar homogenizing pressure.

The final question Grant asked of 1965 Canada was: is this good? The British economy remains competitive. The root cause of the immigration crisis that exercises many Brits is that the United Kingdom is a desirable place to live. And maybe any form of nationalism is, in the twenty-first century, obsolete when it did such great harm to Europe in the twentieth. Grant couldn’t answer the question, but he began the last paragraph of Lament for a Nation thus:

My lament is not based on philosophy but on tradition. If one cannot be sure about the answer to the most important questions, then tradition is the best basis for the practical life. Those who loved the older traditions of Canada may be allowed to lament what has been lost, even though they do not know whether or not that loss will lead to some greater political good. But lamentation falls easily into the vice of self-pity. To live with courage is a virtue, whatever one may think of the dominant assumptions of one’s age. Multitudes of human beings through the course of history have had to live when their only political allegiance was irretrievably lost.

That seems apt for Britain as well.

Money, money, money / Must be funny / In the rich man’s world.

By Benjamin Massey · January 20th, 2016 · 1 comment

Thanks to Laura Payton via Twitter I find myself on a website, womenonbanknotes.ca, doing exactly what it says on the label: finding nominees for Canadian women on our banknotes. This is an argument many years old, but with Justin Trudeau in office advocating gestures of tokenism because it’s $CURRENT_YEAR the time is ripe for a revival. (Yes, the Queen has been on the money for the life of everybody reading this, but merely being the much-loved Canadian head of state for decades and maybe the world’s most famous living woman doesn’t count1. That’s the rule, don’t ask me.)

It’s true, Canada has no women except the Queen on our money, which is exactly what you should expect when you think about it. In this country public life was a predominantly male preserve until well into living memory, and apart from Her Majesty our nearest contemporary on a Canadian note is William Lyon Mackenzie King (died 1950). If we expect the people on our currency to have survived the passing of their own era with a certain timelessness, a completely random drawing of notable Canadians from fifty years ago or earlier would create an almost entirely male lineup. In practice, since the Bank of Canada has only ever put deceased prime ministers or reigning monarchs on our money, no Canadian-born woman has been eligible. Kim Campbell, prime minister for a few months before being blown up by Brian Mulroney’s grenades, will get there eventually, but admitting Campbell to the pantheon is rather too overt an admission of “the only thing that matters is her genitals.”2 Our history, where the public sphere was so overwhelmingly masculine for so long, means that a male lineup on the currency should not be viewed as a sign that present-day Canadian women are second-class. Yesterday’s feminists worked hard to change that, and the process is still on-going, but it’s too much to expect even the greatest revolution to apply retroactively.

But of course that’s the way some people do view it, or at least pretend to view it while making it quite clear they manage to overcome the pernicious messages allegedly drilled into the heads of the dwindling few who still use cash regularly. Anyway, what’s the harm? There’s no reason why prime ministers should dominate the currency, even if you’re going to have a hard time picking one to get rid of. King and Borden helped win world wars and the latter extended the vote to women into the bargain. Macdonald founded the country, and as the first francophone prime minister Laurier is considered almost an honourary co-founder, not to mention the patron saint of the Liberal Party. I can pick a prime minister who I’d happily drop for a worthy, non-political woman3. Probably so can you. But I think most of us would pick different people for very different reasons. We could get rid of Elizabeth… you know, the woman. Or sit around waiting for King Charles III, though I sense a greater degree of impatience than that.

Such a problem could be resolved if we could unite around a worthy figure of Canadian history. Agnes Macphail, a pacifist kook who advocated compulsory sterilization of the mentally unfit, is often suggested because she was the first woman elected to Parliament and appeared in a Canadian Heritage Minute on penal reform. Right behind her come the Famous Five, who won the right for women to be considered full “persons” in the political and judicial sense. Two of them, Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy, went on to minor post-Persons Case political careers, although not the sort you’d want to brag about in hindsight. That’s not necessarily a problem. Macdonald took bribes, King was an amoral schemer who was probably literally insane, people are products of their time. But with such light public achievements the case for Macphail, or any of the Famous Five, rests disproportionately on being moral exemplars. Otherwise we’re back to picking people purely because of their gender, and at least Kim Campbell actually was head of the government.

So we go back to womenonbanknotes.ca, and see how far into the depths of Canadian history our people can plunge at need. Macphail and the Five are there, of course, God love ’em. So is Campbell. We have assorted aboriginal and black women whose popular knowledge and impact on history was nil but became convenient rallying points as identity politics two-fers. We have the joke entries, the accidental joke entries, current politicians, the randoms who no doubt led interesting and worthy lives but hardly qualify for what is, in practical terms, the highest honour a country can bestow unto one of its sons or daughters. Singers, actresses, ballerinas, “the first woman to” do something uninteresting. Les grandes dames of Canadian arts are well-represented: Margaret Laurence, Emily Carr, Alice Munro, my god even Atwood. Imagine that if you dare4.

Oh, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. If we must have a woman of Canadian history other than one of the Queens on the money, she would be my pick. Significant in her day while standing the test of time; remarkable, given how seldom juvenile fiction does. YTV thinks there are viewers to be wrung out of Anne of Green Gables even today. She even passes the formidable “has a single non-Canadian ever heard of her” test. Without a doubt Montgomery is the most recognition-worthy of any Canadian artist, living or dead, male or female. Yet I can’t totally sell myself on her importance, not more than William Lyon Mackenzie King’s, not even more than Pierre Trudeau’s. One of Montgomery’s online supporters asks “the UK will honour author Jane Austen on bank notes, shouldn’t we celebrate the author of the famous Anne of Green Gables series?” On a couple levels, that seems to answer itself.

It’s so easy to condescend, to say of a woman like (for example) Mona Louise Parsons, “oh, what an example she is!” with complete truth, but implicitly lowering our standards, judging the women by a lower bar than we do the men. We are not looking for good stories. We are looking for History with a capital H. It doesn’t have to be military or political history, but it has to register. If we play the game, if we divy up these honours according to whichever group of identity politicians thinks they need “recognition” in this specific form, it will cease to be an honour at all.

To be frank, if the nature of our society means that no qualifying Canadian woman exists yet, we should wait for her. Be in no doubt, she’ll come. She’s come elsewhere, in countries close to ours. Give it a few decades and Margaret Thatcher will be on the pound. History is in no rush, so don’t cheapen this honour for the woman who earns it.


By Benjamin Massey · November 25th, 2015 · No comments

As a younger man I thought I liked J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I met people who really liked him. I’d read books major and minor, had opinions on whether balrogs had wings1, and taken a remarkably large amount from a Oxford philologist’s fantasy, but I didn’t speak a lick of Quenya or Sindarin, couldn’t name Aragorn’s ancestors between Arvedui and Arathorn, and most damningly had been utterly defeated by The History of Middle-earth. This was a set of twelve large volumes forming a syllabus on the development of The Lord of the Rings; mythology, protomythology, drafts of the work, drafts of the mythology, you’d have to be an actual scholar or a crank to get through it all. It was beyond me but you’d be stunned how many people ate it up, or affected to. No scrap was worthless if it came from the pen of the master, not even juvenilia poems of the First Age which were, frankly, crap. This is a whole new level of fandom.

With every passing year I feel the same about Christopher Hitchens. I was not an early Hitchens adopter, getting in with the other atheists in the early part of the century. But once I was in I was in. I own and have re-read all of his books save the first two, on Cyprus and the Elgin Marbles. None of us know most of the output of Hitchens’s 40-year career but I’ve put a damned good dent in it. Many of his interviews and debates are on YouTube and I’ve enjoyed several. I’ve also found myself flipping through a Hitchens collection, noting a book he discussed that I otherwise would have missed, going out, and buying it; his latter reviews were rightly criticized for not being about the book at all, but the greatest compliment you can give a reviewer is doing that sort of thing more than once. In short, I would call myself a fan if I hadn’t heard from the real ones.

Today’s Hitchens fandom is something else. It was bad enough during his lifetime, when god Is Not Great was doing crazy business and auditoriums would be filled through the nave with undergraduates applauding every microwave-warmed witticism directed at whichever clergyman or pundit or ex-Prime Minister or younger brother had the nerve to face him that day. That was adulation of an undeniably great writer, mingled with a great deal of tribal loyalty. It was the atheist crowd who made Hitchens, by the standards of his trade, rich and famous, and they never ceased to cheer their most eloquent champion (and pay for the privilege) even when most of Hitchens’s time went to other topics.

His death saw this attitude expand beyond from the consumers of commentary to the producers. Countless eulogies, where writers he’d never mentioned in a trillion-word career chummily called him “Hitch” and noted his famous consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and literature like school chums while simultaneously garlanding themselves in self-effacement, were ghastly but inevitable and probably kindly-meant. (Far better were the too-few of his enemies with the guts to pick up a pen and rhetorically cremate the fucker. That sort of irreverent brio is, after all, what drew most of us to Hitchens in the first place.) Unfortunately, the initial wave of grief was not the high water mark.

Four years after Hitchens’s death the admiration of undergraduates, Twitterers, YouTube commentators, and the other ordinary people is still intensifying. The word “Hitchslap,” meaning Hitchens scoring against a political opponent, remains current among the disciples, and fresh examples are uploaded to this day. Hitchens’s brother Peter, an equally intelligent and scarcely-less witty columnist in England with a voice frighteningly like Christopher’s but quite opposite political and religious views, has made a stock routine out of people who tweet or e-mail him things like “the wrong brother died.” (Critic: “How could you and Christopher possibly be brothers?!” Peter: “Same parents.”)

Nor have writers calmed down. Many still can’t simply quote him, like they would anyone else, and even those who do give it the air of a name-drop. Rather creepy looks into his old books from one of his old outlets, Vanity Fair, are perhaps understandable but still unpleasantly voyeuristic, even idolatrous. Perfectly competent columnists, like the National Post‘s Robyn Urback, have felt the need to pay homage to the master while discussing people Hitchens probably had never heard of. American author Thomas Mallon uses Hitchens heavily in Finale, a 2015 novel set during the Reagan presidency which sees Hitchens turns vast swathes of Washington to rubble with the clusterbomb of his wit. At the time Hitchens was a comparatively obscure columnist on The Nation, hostile to Reagan but new to the United States; what matter? Even in fiction the Hitchslap is iconic.

For these partisans the latest collection of Hitchens’s essays, And Yet…, is God-sent. Hitchens released several collections of journalism in his lifetime and died months after Arguably, the last. A small book of essays about the terminal cancer which understandably preoccupied him in the end, Mortality, soon followed. You would think there was little enough left, and yet… the fine folks at Simon & Schuster have rustled up work that slipped through the gaps or that Hitchens himself didn’t want anthologized and filled a handsomely-priced cover with it. (And Yet… costs more than Arguably did in hardback, is less than half the length, and the editors needed to be inclusive to get that far. It’s still a better deal than Mortality, which charged primo rates for a collection you could read over lunch if you had the stomach.)

I have not yet read it, though I’ve read nearly all of what’s in it. This is not a book review, it is a review of reviewers.

In the New York Times Dwight Garner somehow slobbers all over Hitchens while reserving specific praise for a 2006 eulogy to the late Oriana Fallaci, an interviewer who never took it easy on even a decent subject2. He read the words but failed to read the lesson. In Maclean’s Brian Bethune at least acknowledges that Hitchens was a man of strengths and weaknesses, but his review, too is adulatory. Bethune has the excuse of space: he makes the commonplace but accurate note Hitchens tried to live up to the example of George Orwell while acknowledging Hitchens didn’t always succeed, but simply couldn’t go on any further. A National Review editor calls Hitchens “Often Wrong, Always Forthright;” the review was initially posted titled “Left-Wing but Honest” which is almost too bang-on Orwell to stand. And hey, look who it is in the first paragraph!

Of course George Orwell couldn’t always live up to the example of George Orwell either. (In his book on the man Hitchens does not miss this.) Comparing Hitchens and Orwell is fair play, and I’d bet my life Hitchens did it himself3. Yet the comparison often tries to elevate Hitchens to Orwell’s level of seriousness. Orwell could be as droll as anyone4, and he was certainly a polemicist, but while Orwell sought to give his views and change minds while viewing provocation as a not-unwelcome bonus, to Hitchens provocation was not only pleasure but part of the point. This is how Hitchens is still emotionally loved by readers in a way Orwell never was: Orwell argued, as clearly and as honestly as he knew how, while Hitchens took a poke at the bad guy. To put it simply, much of Hitchens’s fame came from the fact that he was such a good troll.

The best example is Hitchens’s witty, outspoken, and affirmative brand of atheism. god Is not Great asserted not only that atheism is moral but that religion is immoral. It was more than a troll, but it took Hitchens’s beliefs and torqued them as tight as the material would stand, and the outrage directed at it almost formed part of the reading experience. Great fun, and great reading, and it made the end of Hitchens’s career as lucrative, successful, and admired as any essayist can hope for. The smart modern undergraduate left, disdaining religion and chafing under restrictions left over from its days of power, loved it and loved him for it. Yet did anyone learn anything from god Is Not Great, apart maybe from a few specific examples picked from Hitchens’s vast reading to wave in the face of your Christian aunt? Did even one waverer emerge persuaded? It was an address to the flock, and a glorious one.

Hitchens was also, to put it unkindly, a warmonger, but in a more straight-argumentative mode. He enthusiastically advocated the second Iraq war, attacking Islamist terror on its home turf, “regime change,” and the export of democracy as a good in itself. He promoted the cause of the Kurds and, long before 9/11, wanted the West to intervene in their favour. He did not shy from the consequences, either in person or in print. Unlike many, he traveled seldom-taken paths to dangerous places of the world and got to know as best a flabby self-described coward could the level of the shit he wanted the flower of America’s youth wading in. He was probably one of the few anti-Islamofascist commentators in the United States to be beaten up by an Islamofascist gang. In addition, to pick an issue that’s gained in recent importance, Hitchens was a free speech absolutist, a to-the-knife defender of his friend Salman Rushdie against the fatwa, and an enemy of totalitarian thinking and “speech codes” anywhere he went.

Hitchens could speak against religion at a California university and be applauded off the stage by students who would immediately protest a cause Hitchens spent far more time on: the violent liberation of the Middle East. There’s no inherent problem there: everyone alive agrees with everyone else on some points and disagrees on others. It takes something special, though, to make such a fetish of a man for such slivers of his ideology. The Times review I quoted above approves each of Hitchens’s shots at Christmas and religious sanctimony without once mentioning the Middle East. National Review praises Hitchens as worthwhile reading for conservatives without noticing his opinions on God and Church. We all have authors we like and agree with but only conditionally; we even have heroes. We don’t, however, share videos of these authors like samizdat, or make faux-motivational posters with a quote from a stranger about thinking for yourself, or fawn over them in print in a way that requires you to pooh-pooh or ignore any deeply-held and oft-advocated beliefs which conflict with your worldview.

Now and again the provocateur would show his teeth. The reaction to his 2007 essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” was almost as good as the article itself. Right-on modernists who roared to the heavens when Hitchens devoured Christians, not because he was fair but because he was entertaining, utterly failed to handle Hitchens turning on one of their cherished princples: the absolute equivalence of male and female ability. Hitchens’s mode of attack should have been familiar to anyone who knew his work, and yet huge numbers of “fans” failed to pick up on it. Everything about it was terrific. Months into the controversy, Hitchens was still having fun:

Now [female comedians] are prettier and sexier and they wear less and care less about the proprieties, so what has been the achievement of my essay? It’s been to make sexier women try harder to amuse me. Well, that was my whole plan to start off with.

A self-described Hitchens fan, long marinading in his mockery in print and on video, missing what was going on there is inexplicable. Yet they did, and do, and when Hitchens comes up among his cultists that sort of thing is defended on unsuitable grounds, or more often ignored. Force it on their attention and brace for an explanation along the lines of “that’s the way he was,” which is true, but the rest of his œuvre benefits so little from this analysis that it looks like an excuse for behaviour the commentator doesn’t quite understand. Really big fans can overlook parts that don’t quite fit.

There’s no danger of any reader being confronted with awkward shots at lady comics in And Yet…. (Since it was already in Arguably.) The selection appears very safe. Then again, this makes sense, because Hitchens had exploded the dynamite back in 2011. What we are left with are the squibs and firecrackers, pretty and not valueless, but not the same. Just the thing to appeal to the reader more interested in cheering on boisterous Hitchslaps than looking too deeply at what they mean. I see Amazon.ca is already out of stock.

Looking for the bear necessities

By Benjamin Massey · October 28th, 2015 · No comments

On Sunday my very occasional soccer co-blogger suggested I discuss Marian Engel’s seminal novel Bear, about an archivist who gets into bestiality on an otherwise-uninhabited island.

I won’t bother trying to shock you with the book’s content, or its winning the 1976 Governor-General’s Award for English-Language Fiction. Last year Bear became a meme, was reprinted by McClelland and Stewart, and was discussed in our newspapers. Your amazement is doubtless exhausted. While the CanLit shelves of my local used bookstores groan under unsaleable Engel doorstops, I had to buy Bear new. Dodgy though the story looks, there were reasons to take the trouble.

For one, the problems with Bear may reflect the Canadian literary establishment rather than the work. A smutty novella won the country’s highest literary honour and is still talked up by the bastards who got Margaret Atwood a career. Insulting to be sure, but a reflection of its environment. We can’t get so caught up hating the CanLit circlejerk that we miss who’s doing the jerking.

The cardinal sin of the Munros, the Margarets, the Couplands, the prize-winners in this country more-or-less generally, is tedium. Chapters of drivel, lapsing into simple illiteracy that relieves the horrified mind like acid rain in Hell. Tortured symbolism, banal internal conflicts for characters you want to die, the pathetic fallacy turning an afternoon steel-grey. The phrase “coming-of-age” becomes the torturer’s jackboot outside your cell door. Say what you like about a graphic account of bear sex but it’s unlikely to be boring.

For two, the book is quite short.


So is it good? No, of course it isn’t. Structurally it feels under-revised and tossed together, giving the impression Engel made it up as she went along. Actual bear sex comes only two-thirds of the way in, and (unforgivably) there’s some human sex in the middle, not the sort of thing I was after at all. The main character, Lou, is an archivist representing an institute which has inherited an out-of-place Victorian house, boasting a potentially magnificent library and a bear, on an island in Ontario cottage country. The house comes from a family of colonels, and we learn mid-way through that the most recent was a woman. This twist is not foreshadowed and does not become important. It also introduces minor plot holes, worth only a footnote1. We also learn late that Lou’s only recent sexual experiences were joyless sessions with her boss. The boss appears in the first pages and there is nothing of lovers between them; after this revelation his letters abruptly have a lonely, even jealous tone.

Then the sentences. Sometimes short, punchy. A barrage of full stops. Denoting breathless intensity. Meaningless. Professionals should catch this in editing, but Bear is not thought through.

Apart from the bear sex the plot could be standard computer-generated CanLit horribleness. Lou is a Frustrated City Girl in a Life Crisis resolved by Introspection in the Wild. It is a Coming-of-Age Story (screams, thrashes against restraints). There are long descriptions of scenery and flora. We traipse through the protagonist’s preposterous mind, and Engel shows off her knowledge of books. It is a frank, revealing reflection of the ennui of modern living, quintessentially Canadian because it has some lakes in it, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum ad nauseum forever.

Anyway, Lou falls in love with the bear. She tries to have sex with the bear. She finds this difficult, because he is a bear, but he’s enthusiastic enough about cunnilingus and doesn’t object to lips around his genitals. She catalogues the library, and oddly-relevant notes about bears written by the previous owner contrive to fall out of books at convenient moments.

Engel was a second-wave feminist. Lou works at length to arouse the bear sexually, and when she finally succeeds the bear quite literally tears a strip off her. I would love to take this as symbolism for how if a woman looks to her own pleasure she will be happy and safe, but turning a man on is how you get the claws. Unfortunately she also has sex with an actual man who fails to satisfy but doesn’t kill her even a little bit, so I’m not sure that works. The clawing seems like another improvised development, an excuse to get Lou off the island with a new appreciation for life and her belatedly blossoming womanhood. No, if this is sincerely about anything it is a woman who, blaming her unsatisfying life on unsatisfying surroundings, loses her mind in self-imposed isolation and is brought back to reality months later by pain slashing through her delusion.

It’s not sincerely about anything, though, is it? The nature scenes. The banal plot. The characters who are cardboard cutouts of human beings2. The dreary internal drama. The preposterous details of the premise, from those serendipitous slips full of bear lore to the very idea, acknowledged in the text, that there’s a tame grizzly on an island in northern Ontario at all. The digressions – you’d be stunned how many irrelevancies you can pack into a short book about sex with animals. Even the sloppy writing. This is satire, surely. Mockery of the nature-obsessed emptily-introspective call-of-the-wild empty-life literary nightmare that made celebrities out of Engel’s peers. “You think you love the wilderness…” I can hear her muttering behind the typewriter.

This is not an original theory. John Semley hit the mark in The Globe and Mail last August (and got badly blurbed on the back of the new edition for his trouble). I read his review only after reading the novel, and our conclusions were independent. Maybe the satirical effect is unintentional; it’s very dry, apart from when Lou wants the bear to rip her head off obviously, and forty years after publication we must be missing something of the Zeitgeist. But start thinking of the book in that way and the slim chance of taking it seriously evaporates. Even as a satire Bear‘s not great, but suddenly it has a point besides proving how broad-minded you are.

One passage, as Lou reads the autobiography of Victorian mountebank and hanger-on of poets Edward Trelawny, amounts almost to a declaration:

She began to read, enthralled. She had never read this book before, though the subject interested her. Why? Someone, some scholar, had told her it was a pile of rubbish. Most autobiography is rubbish, she thought. People remember things all wrong. But what amusing rubbish this is! What a man! Big. Abusive. A giant. A real descendant of the real Trelawny, the one about the twenty thousand Cornishmen. Oh, I’ll believe he’s a liar.

Look at the bear, dozing and drowsing there, thinking his own thoughts. Like a dog, like a groundhog, like a man: big.

Trelawny’s good. He speaks in his own voice. He is unfair, but he speaks in his own voice.

The small caps are in the original. Perhaps Engel, bless her, genuinely thought that writing a ludicrous, contrived book then adding especially weird sex was a unique contribution to literature. Or maybe she knew exactly what she was doing. In these death-of-the-author days, it doesn’t really matter.

If Bear is satire, what else is? Margaret Atwood on the cover calls it “plausible as kitchens,” which is the kind of phrase a hostile critic would make up to mock her. The late Margaret Laurence provided praise so generic it could apply to anything3. Atwood, Laurence, and Engel were contemporaries in Toronto; if anyone was in on a joke, it was them. Laurence, by the way, was on the Governor-General’s Award panel that year with Mordecai Richler, who knew a troll when he saw one. The joke would have been somewhat at Laurence’s expense4, as well as fellow-panelist Alice Munro’s, but this disproves nothing.

After all, who is the joke really on? The National Post‘s Emily Keeler, who’s never written about a Canadian author she didn’t adore, called Bearthe best Canadian novel of all time” and “funny and sweet.” Did we read different books? At PEN Canada Andrew Pyper mostly praises Bear for being “inappropriate” but does mention that it’s “convincing.” Is… is he okay? CBC called it one of “100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian;” there’s a thought to keep you up at night. Other readers take this story of a dull woman on a dull island reading dull books and intermittently trying to suck off a grizzly as farce, which if anything is worse. It’s that horrible CanLit circlejerk again. This is the major work of an Official Canadian Writer, a Torontonian academic who won prizes and had prizes named after her. Moreover, it is daring, and bold, and what with all the bestiality is unappealing to ordinary readers and other uncultured squares. Therefore it must be great, somehow.

Now that’s funny.

Come see the no-content fade blazing, into firey sprays of the hottest takes of dawn.

By Benjamin Massey · October 14th, 2015 · No comments

In these troubled times, a man must be unafraid to express himself heedless of popularity. If you cannot face scorn for your beliefs then you don’t deserve the honourable title of “pundit,” not even on a half-assed, unread blog. Any thinking writer owes both himself and his few readers such honesty, as the most basic duty. It is in the name of upholding this sacred trust that I present this controversial, but inarguable, hot take.

I have a recording of the legendary Al Kooper playing Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn” which, as a young man with his first band, Kooper covered. In the preamble, Kooper says:

This was the first single by the Blues Project, and we kinda really like playing it. Except for where it says “whirling, twirling, puppy warm, before the flashing cloaks of darkness fall.” Otherwise I really like it.

Anderson’s original recording is also on YouTube for comparison (trigger warning: dirty long-hair music). Let us examine that line in context:

Your eyes are like swift fingers reaching out,
Into the pockets of my night.
Whirling, twirling, puppy warm,
Before the flashing cloaks of darkness gone.
Come see the no colors fade blazing,
Into petal sprays of violets of dawn.

Kooper apparently hated the “flashing cloaks” line so much that he changed it: Andersen sang “…darkness gone,” which fits the rhyme scheme. Kooper sang “…darkness fall,” which almost means something1. That line is hopeless; the sort that may sound deep and interesting when out of your mind on the mary jane but which, when straight, looks like the over-dramatised try-too-hard junior-high-school poetry that it is. ’60s Greenwich Village music is full of this2 and it’s always best to not listen too hard and groove along with the good vibrations. Sadly, this time Al Kooper has drawn our attention to it, and the illusion is broken.

However, here’s the controversy, here’s where I put my foot down and refuse to pushed around any longer regardless of the results, like a dissident in juntaist Argentina being shoved out an airplane into the South Atlantic. “Whirling, twirling, puppy warm” is a decent line.

Obviously the stanza is typical Andersen; romantic metaphor taped together into poetry. The surprise is that most of it works; if somebody I cared for wrote that about me my heart would bleed. “Whirling, twirling, puppy warm” fits honourably into the image being built. One cannot be exactly sure what that’s meant to signify, and yet there’s a very definite feeling going along with it. Such images are probably unique to each listener, which is a positive: I intuit joyous, innocent, comfortable contentment. The smile that lights even the hardest face when a cute puppy curls up on the carpet, but in the first-person rather than the third.

Obviously the second half of the stanza falls apart, but a canine metaphor is the least of lyrical problems. This won’t go on the shelf with your Tennyson, but it’s a better image than anything I could conjure up, and indeed well above the average for even good pop music.

Take Kooper’s own “Jolie,” which I pick because it’s the best of his many good songs that I can find on YouTube3.

You may be young but you got so much more than any girl I know.
And I see your face most every place, don’t make no difference where I go, girl.
So lets not fall so fast that we get crazy.
Oh, Jolie, will ya think of me?
And when your picture of me gets a little hazy,
You know Jolie, its only you I see, Jolie!

No metaphor there: just creepiness. I know which approach I prefer, and it’s long past time to stand up and be counted.